Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Forgotten Films --- Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton)

Here's what I've covered so far:

Intro: My Year at "Film School"
The (sorta)Forgettable Films
The Films That Just Don't Hold Up
When Bad Movies Happen to Good Directors

The Forgotten Gems of 1999:
The War Zone (Tim Roth)
Sunshine (István Szabó)
Beyond the Mat (Barry W. Blaustein)
Galaxy Quest (Dean Parisot)
Mumford (Lawrence Kasdan)
Bowfinger (Frank Oz)
Cookie's Fortune (Robert Altman)

I feel as though I have to come clean from the onset: I don’t much care for Tim Burton’s films. I know a lot of people love his work and praise his visual style, but honestly, his films do nothing for me. The guy is a visionary, I’ll give him that, but he can’t create characters worth a lick. I don’t think I have ever seen a Tim Burton movie where I really cared about what was going to happen to one of the characters, and I’ve always found the films where he completely abandons any semblance of story for more outrageous visuals to be his most tolerable. In 1999 he adapted Washington Irving’s popular short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and what he created was a work that was on par visually (read: it looked great and had bizarre set pieces) with his other films, but succeeded in making me laugh and have a good time while watching the story unfold – something that isn’t that common with Burton’s films.

Sleepy Hollow is a lot of fun, and it’s peculiar that I don’t hear it talked of very often when the director’s fans speak of his great movies. I always find it a chore to sit through Burton’s mopey excursions, but his take on Irving’s classic Gothic tale (which fits Burton like a glove…the establishing shots of the towns and the art direction are spot on, here) is an efficiently paced, sometimes scary, sometimes funny, always interesting to watch, horror movie.

Burton has a lot of fun with the Ichabod Crane character. He’s a scientific know-it-all who disregards the myth about The Headless Horseman from the minute he steps into Sleepy Hollow. He takes an analytical/scientific approach to the case, and what must be some of the earliest practices in forensics. Burton enjoys splattering blood onto Crane’s face whenever he can (making the viewer think of Sam Raimi), and as is normal with a Burton film, loves to don Depp with all kinds of bizarre “scientific” contraptions. It’s no wonder these two wanted to re-make Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, just look at the fun they’re having here.

The film is lit brilliantly, the sets beautifully constructed (the windmill at the end and the church, especially, make for great set pieces), the dream sequences stunning to look at (Burton has a thing for these ethereal dream sequences), and the music by Danny Elfman is haunting – so what else is new, right? Well, the delight is new. As I alluded to earlier I’ve always found it a chore to sit through Burton’s films. Only recently with Sweeney Todd did I find anything worthwhile after viewing one of his films, and after re-visiting Sleepy Hollow it’s even clearer now that the man should stick with stories of the macabre. The film is not really scary, that’s ruined by the first moment we see the martial arts fighting Headless Horseman, but it has a lot of fun with the spookiness that these kinds of myths evoke.

Irving’s story is more about Crane and the townsfolk, specifically the Van Tassel's, and especially Crane's relationship with Katrina Van Tassel (played by Christina Ricci who seems like she was born to be in a Burton film), and Burton for once does a decent job of establishing character and creating a likable, albeit exasperating, protagonist. And Depp plays that protagonist to perfection. He hits every offbeat note right. Many people point to his recent role as Jack Sparrow as proof the man can do comedy, but the real evidence is in Sleepy Hollow. Depp shows a lot of range in a one dimensional caricature, and he and Burton have a lot of fun with some of the more over-the-top moments (seriously: there’s a lot of blood in this movie…I’m talking Evil Dead 2 style.); there's even a moment at the end of the movie that reminded me of the Large Marge scene from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. You also get all kinds of Burton stalwarts playing bizarre roles: Michael Gough, Christopher Walken (who is appropriately cast as the pre-headless Headless Horseman), and Jeffery Jones. The screenplay was written Andrew Kevin Walker who wrote Seven, and even though this movie isn't nearly as serious about its horror tropes as that thriller was, he has a lot of fun playing up the lighter side of horror (Christopher Lee even has a cameo at the beginning, giving us the feeling of an old campy Hammer Horror picture).

What else can I say? This movie won’t set your world on fire, it has pretty much everything aesthetically that you expect from a Burton film – mix in some humor and creative set pieces and you have a movie that’s about a B- or B grade picture; but, despite what sounds like a lukewarm reaction to the movie I really did enjoy myself while re-watching it (I hadn’t seen it since it was out in the theater), and it’s a shame that it has been somewhat forgotten in Burton’s popular oeuvre. Among the forgotten gems of 1999 that I've covered Sleepy Hollow is probably the least impressive, but it’s a fun horror movie, and it is truly forgotten…I forgot how much I liked it until I watched a few days a go.

Extra Stills:

Monday, June 29, 2009

Counting Down the Zeroes 2003: Open Range

You know the drill. Ibetolis of Film for the Soul is onto 2003, and I submitted this piece for his continuous look at the films of the noughties.

Kevin Costner's western is the best modern entry into the genre since Unforgiven; I actually think it’s better than Unforgiven. It’s a call back to the kind of western that Raoul Walsh would have made; a film that is conventional in plot, but unconventional in its execution of the plots action. The acting is superb, especially by the veteran Robert Duvall who owns this movie from beginning to end. What's even more interesting about Open Range is the detail that Costner puts into the film. Every nuance seems true, every seemingly simple artistic touch hits the right note, and there’s something warm and comforting about the pacing of the film and the antiquity in its aesthetic.

Costner is most interested in the theme of displacement and men in power positions telling those “beneath” them what to do with their live. There’s a great speech by Boss (Duvall) at the beginning of the film that sets the plot in motion. He and Charley (Costner) are free grazers who are looking at some men who roughed up their buddies and scared their herd away. They’re looking out at the great expanse when Boos says: “It’s a beautiful country. A man can get lost out here. Man can forget that people and things aren’t as simple as all of this.” It’s a great moment that foreshadows their decision to get into a war with the evil Baxter (Michael Gambon in a great villainous performance), the owner of a nearby that doesn’t take kindly to free grazers.

In another great speech by Boss he informs the townsfolk that he and Charley have no intention of hurting them, and as Boss stares right at the towns corrupt Marshal, he gives another great speech: “Losing cattle is one thing, but a man telling another man where to go in this country…well that just aint right.” And so begins Boss and Charley’s time in the town. They meet some friendly people: a feed store owner (played by the late great Michael Jeter, in a great supporting role), a nice woman that Charley has a fondness for named Sue (Annette Bening in a throw away role, but she’s good when she’s on screen), Sue’s brother Doc Barlow (Dean McDermott), and the corrupt Marshal played by James Russo. But all of these characters take a back seat to the relationship between Boss and Charley.

What makes this film better than your average Western is the amount of time and attention that is paid to the relationship between Boss and Charley. Boss is obviously a father figure to Charley, and it’s interesting to watch the way he handles him, almost reining him in at times, during certain situations. Charley is an ex-hired gun, a man who saw a lot of bad things and did even worse things during the Civil War. There’s a great moment when Charley tell Boss not to stand behind him, which leads to a nice quiet moment at night as the two look up at the stars and Boss just listens as Charley calmly tells him about his history as a professional killer.

The final shootout is an amazingly constructed and masterful piece of mise-en-scene. However, before the shootout there’s a great moment with Boss and Charley as they load their guns and prepare for the battle that’s about to occur. Now watch as Boss cedes authority to Charley as he begins to lay out for them what will most likely occur. Charley can pretty much see how things are going to go, where people will be, and how people will react; and Boss is almost scared of this version of Charley. The shootout that follows begins abruptly with a loud bang, getting the message across that these shootouts from the old west weren’t always drawn out exercises. What follows is moment after moment of meticulous execution of the town’s logistics as the camera sweeps in and out of corridors and buildings. The camera looks through all kinds of perspectives: high angle, low angle, dutch angles, through windows, down low shots obstructed by onlookers (as if we ourselves have been dropped into the action). It’s an amazing piece of filmmaking, and Costner’s control and restraint of the moment, his ability to change perspectives and show a lot of the action through long shots, proves what a great director he can be (forget for a moment The Postman and Waterworld).

The big shootout aside this is just a fabulous western that raises some interesting themes of displacement, and how “lesser” civilians are being discriminated against by those “higher authorities”. It’s also an interesting look at the ugliness of gun violence. Like Clint Eastwood’s masterful Unforgiven, Costner’s film also is interested in how loud, brusque, and altogether unpleasant gun violence is – especially in the old west. Costner shows the town as people who are not just bystanders watching the violence unfold, but as people who retreat to the hills to get away from what they know will tear their town up. There's a great scene where Charley and Boss are riding into town as most of the town is retreating up the hill to the church and Charley calmly states "they know a fights commin'".

I have read interviews where he talks about how Costner was not just interested in the loudness and abruptness of the violence caused by guns, but also how the towns where these shootouts occurred had to deal with this fact and try to live a normal life. He mentions in the same interview that he saw pictures where there were bodies everywhere; obviously someone had to remove those bodies, and he was interested in not making a John Wayne type western where the bodies just seemed to disappear, and then the town rejoices with piano and whiskey. Costner was more interested in showing how a town has to deal with the aftermath of a shootout, and what kind of closure does it really bring anyway?

Open Range is a great reminder just how powerful and affective the western can be while simultaneously being a great entertainment. There is great scene after great scene of classic western tropes, but above everything is Robert Duvall's performance as Boss. The way he tries to rehabilitate Charley into a functioning member of society is one of the most interesting things about the movie, and the conversations they have with each other and with Sue are sometimes more interesting than the action scenes. Watch Duvall deliver that speech in the tavern the first night they go into the town, or the concern he has for a dog floating down the street due to a flash flood, or the disdain in his voice when he tells Sue that Baxter’s men killed his dog. He is just so fun to watch in this role, and it's a shame he was never properly recognized for it. Yes, it's true the ending may go on a tad too long, but I didn't mind the stay too much because to say it plainly (which seems apt for this film): Open Range is a great, great movie...easily one of the best of 2003.

Extra Stills (I went a little crazy capturing images):

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Miami Vice: Michael Mann's Misunderstood Masterpiece

This review was inspired by J.D. who is hosting the Michael Mann blog-a-thon over at his blog, the always brilliant and fun to read Radiator Heaven. It's going on all week, so head on over and take a look at all of the great entries as we head into the release of Mann's newest film Public Enemies.

There’s nothing more cliché than an action film about two cops who go undercover and infiltrate a drug cartel; and while undercover, one of the cops will no doubt get in too deep while the other cop can only question his partners commitment to the case. Such clichés are evident in almost all of Michael Mann’s films; however, he always sidesteps the banal inevitability of said clichés by taking a fresh look at the men who lead such lives through an introspective and microscopic lens. 2006 brought Miami Vice, a film popping with beautifully filmed colors, meticulously framed skylines, and, most importantly, the type of scrupulous itemization Mann loves to perform with his crimes films (just watch the way his characters create sing-songy dialogue with insider jargon). For Mann, it isn’t so much about the action, but about the “why” that these people are driven by and how they function in the world they live in. A lot of people find Mann’s brand of “action” films boring – too much exposition and long, lingering takes on unnecessary long shots – with not enough shoot ‘em up; I find them misunderstood, refreshing takes on tired genre tropes, and Miami Vice is one of the most misunderstood of all Mann’s films.

The film’s story seems like something off of the old TV show that the film shares its namesake with; however, that’s the only thing they share as Mann is doggedly determined to make this film a straight crime drama, not the campy TV-to-film adaptations that were all over the multiplexes in the mid-2000’s (Charlie’s Angels, Starsky and Hutch, Dukes of Hazard). I think that’s what fans wanted: a popcorn summer film, and Miami Vice, released in the heart of the summer blockbuster months (much like this years Public Enemies), was anything but what the fans were clamoring for (the film had a strong opening weekend, being the first film to unseat the sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean which has been atop the box office list for a month) wasn’t exactly what the masses were asking for: a talky, heavy-on-drama crime film with a middle 45 minutes that is trying.

The film was, however, a fine look at some of the boring old tropes found in these undercover cop thrillers. Collin Ferrell and Jaime Foxx do a great job of making these characters into fleshed out entities rather than 80’s pop caricatures, and Mann’s camera always finds something easy-on-the-eyes to settle on. Like most of Mann’s films it’s a test of one’s will power whether they can muster up the empathy for such morose, one-line spouting characters. Mann’s male characters are never that interesting when they’re speaking (exception: Al Pacino from Heat, but that’s because Pacino can’t play subtle the way Mann likes it), but what Mann does so well is let his camera linger on their weary eyes or he stays on two-shot just long enough for the audience to get a sense of what the characters are feeling; simply put: his characters are always interesting in the things they do. Think about James Caan’s thief (Thief), or Pacino’s television producer (The Insider), Cruise’s hitman (Collateral), or DeNiro’s criminal who falls in love and breaks his own rule about women mixing with “the job” (Heat) – they’re all interesting because they love what they do and they do it with an unremitting passion (Pacino’s cop from Heat is another example).

Mann’s men are also always conflicted. Often times they let themselves forget what they’re intent is, or they don’t realize how their passion to see something through will hurt those they love; and sometimes they’re so passionate about those they love, they don’t care about their job. That is the case with Foxx’s Rico, the more level-headed cop (Ferrell’s Sonny is more of the “act first” kind of guy) who is troubled by their latest covert operation. His girlfriend Trudy (another cop on the force played by Naomi Harris) is being watched by those they plan to do business with, and even though Rico convinces her that if they trace their names all they’re going to get is their fake histories, she doesn’t seem at ease. And this small scene, with Rico and Trudy talking in a diner, is one of the great moments of Miami Vice. It shows Mann’s interest in talking about the things that these people would talk about. Rico says to Trudy that “even if they find something, they’ll just find more layers of out fabricated lives.”

Mann broaches the idea that these men, who have real relationships, can never lead real lives, therefore ruining all of their very real relationships and hurting the ones they love. Rico and Sonny will never have a normal life – once you’re undercover and creating these fabrications it would seem impossible to be able to emerge “normal” out of a career being someone else – but they try during their brief run to take down a major Colombian drug czar. By the end of the film while Trudy sits in a hospital bed, Rico turns more sour on his vocation, proclaiming that he doesn’t care if Trudy dies for the “cause”, the cause is “bullshit” as Rico says, and even though Sonny tries to ease his mind by countering with “is that what Trudy would say?” Rico shoots him down: “No, that’s what I say.” Things have become all-too-real for Rico, and it has all happened while leading this fabricated life; playing pretend as it were.

Sonny is quite different from Rico – he always seems to be teetering between “knowing what he’s doing” and “getting in too deep”. His relationship with Isabel (Gong Li) is a perfect example of the high wire act these undercover agents play out on a daily basis. What I liked about their relationship is that you’re never quite sure who is playing whom and after a while you being to believe that they really love each other, and, in the ultimate bit of irony and pathos, you realize they would have been happy in another life. And that “other” life is always prevalent in Mann’s film – it’s always the carrot that dangles in front of the protagonist, and it’s one of the subjects Mann likes to explore in great depth, making his films always seem more interesting than the others that tackle the same material.

Like Mann’s previous film Collateral, Miami Vice was primarily shot using the Thompson Viper Filmstream camera which creates amazingly beautiful nightscapes that pop (especially on Blu-Ray) and the scenes’ beauty are captured in a way that film just can’t compare. The rest of the film was shot on 35mm, but it’s the digital moments that make this movie’s aesthetic something to behold. Digital gives you a sense of urgency -- something palpable. It's also just really damn nice to look at. Mann's films always have a sexy swagger about them, and Miami Vice is teeming with style; but, unlike the films of say Tony Scott (whose films also have a visual swagger about them), there's a lot of substance buried beneath a Mann film. He always knows where to frame the camera, and like the aforementioned Collateral and The Insider, he uses snap zooms and shaky-cam to great, emotional effect. This film is always jaw-droppingly beautiful, and even in the soggy middle, still just a joy and a feast for the eyes. There's also two great action scenes towards the end of the film. They're unconventional in their execution because Mann opts to go for the more realistic approach, the action is quick, over in an instant because that's they way it would be with professionals doing the job. There's also a shoot-out at the very end that rivals the one from Heat (in quality not in quantity), it's perfectly blocked and the sound is just fantastic throughout the scene, placing the viewer in the moment. It's really an inspired shoot-out scene, and it's what Mann does best: arty action.

I think Miami Vice is one of Mann’s most misunderstood and underappreciated films. It has a rich aesthetic with beautiful, bright colors that are always interesting to look at, but also serve a purpose in foreshadowing the narrative and speaking for the characters. Much like another American masters, visual poet Terrance Malick, Mann is a master at letting the visuals act as the poetics; he allows them to evoke the themes, emotions, and feelings, an onus that usually falls on the actors, but with Mann’s films he almost always wants his main characters to be enigmas, people who say little and speak with their actions. At the end of Miami Vice before the big bust Rico asks Sonny if he is prepared for what’s going to happen (the bust signifies the end of Sonny’s “playtime” with Isabel) and wonders if his partner’s head is in it. Sonny replies with brutal honesty: “I am most certainly not ready.” A line that means he is indeed going to go through with it all and that his partner can trust him to do the right thing.

Most action films don’t stop for these moments of dialogue, but this little exchange at the end of the film says a lot about the characters and they kinds of films Mann is interested in making. Mann reminds me a lot of French New Wave master Jean-Pierre Melville, another director who loved the crime genre, but rarely was interested in the crime itself. Like Melville, Mann loves to create action scenes that are more about the nuances instead of trumped up action clichés. Mann's films have an uncanny ability to be simultaneously grounded in realism (the action scenes in this film), scenes that are palpable in their intimacy (look at the scenes quieter scenes between Sonny and Isabel, especially their "courting" process and specifically their scenes in Havana), but are also poetically striking; ethereal moments that leave you in awe of their visual splendor all while watching something that seems so capital r Real.

Miami Vice may have just been released at the wrong time of the year. Mass audiences wanted something more along the lines of Lethal Weapon or Bad Boys mixed with the campy, faux-serious nature of the original television show. They wanted to see the neon blazers, 80’s hair, and flamingos; but instead, Mann delivers one of his best films, and had the film been entitled something different, the populace might agree. It’s not as taut or interesting as The Insider, or as crisp and exhilarating as Collateral, but it certainly ranks as one of his deepest, and most existential looks into the subject he loves to delve into, and it stands as my favorite crime film Mann has made (yes, better than Heat).

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What the bloody hell?

Me too Shauna...me too.

No...this isn't a rant against the Academy Awards expanding from five nominations for best picture to ten. No, I figured I'd take this opportunity to rant about something else that may be news to some, but came as a surprise to me. In my usual random web searching I decided to see when The Descent, one of the best horror films ever made, was released, and to my shock and horror I found that there is a sequel set to be released in September. The above still is one of a handful of images that has been released in promotion for the new film. Ugh, I feel like screaming, too. Complaints after the jump...

Okay...did the filmmakers think that fans of the movie didn't see the original British version of the movie on DVD? A version, although ambiguous, made a great case for the fact that Sarah didn't make it out alive (The U.S. version ends with her "escape" whereas the U.K. version cuts back to reality and Sarah in the cave with no exit in sight). Also, on the IMDB page they show that the character of Juno is once again in the film. In case you forgot she was left to be eaten by the "crawlers"...so does this suggest then that the whole thing was in her head, that the allusion to the idea that the caves can play tricks on you is actually what happened? But then how do they explain the fact that they are bringing the "crawlers" back in the sequel, and supposedly they have evolved further and can fly now. Double ugh.

Neil Marshall's name is nowhere near this film, and I'm wondering why Shauna MacDonald agreed to do the film again. This will be a disaster if they just do a straight horror. And based on the plot synopsis, and the early images that were released, the film looks like it's just going to be a rehash of the first film: Sarah is rescued, she goes to a hospital, goes back down in the cave to save her friends who are apparently still alive. Again, this all suggests that the "crawlers" were indeed figments of their imaginations (especially Sarah who is a grieving mother and widow, and hints at the fact, early on in the film, that she may not be ready to move on with her life), but if that is the case, and the sequel is primarily psychological horror, then why the need to bring back the "crawlers"? And why make them so visible? They were more or less shadow creatures in the first film, and they came into the plot at a point where the characters would most likely have started hallucinating. The best part of the original is the reading that they all killed each other and imagined the "crawlers". The idea of a sequel with the same characters and the same scenario makes no sense.

I guess one could chalk this up to flattery through imitation, but man this is going to be rough to sit through with an open mind...because yes, I will see it, just like I do with any horror film or any sequel to a film I love. However, this has "bad idea" written all over it. The logic seems all over the place here as they seem to be disregarding any kind of psychological aspect that was clearly at the forefront of Marshall's film; and the fact that they're asking the audience to disregard the darker, nihilistic ending of the original is already putting the sequel in a pretty big hole. The power and poignancy of that final image of Sarah looking at her daughter, then as the camera pulls back they show Sarah looking at nothing (suggesting everything was in her head), is neutered now because of this unnecessary sequel.

And it's not like I'm anti-sequel, I just don't understand the logic in making a sequel to a movie where they totally disregard the elements of narrative that made the original so creepy. Perhaps this will be like what Aliens was to Alien, a pedal-to-the-floor action/horror hybrid that was all kinds of entertaining goodness...who knows, but it'll have to be pretty damn intense and impressive to make me forget about the fact that they're pretty much disregarding the end of the original film.

I don't know...maybe I'm too much of a fan of the original to think anything good can come out of the sequel, but it just seems altogether superfluous. Oh well...I guess more thoughts on this in September. This makes me want to find an old essay I wrote in college (published no less!) about the state of horror films...I guess we horror fans, and fans of the original film, play the waiting game.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

My Top 10: 2002

Ibetolis of the brilliant Film for the Soul has added another fun feature to his massive "Counting Down the Zeroes" project. It's simple: just click the links above or go here to "My Top 10" on the man's blog and submit your top 10 list.

Late last month I pointed you all towards the above links in hopes that you would submit your top 10 lists on Ibetolis' blog. Well, he's wrapped-up another successful year in 2002, and as we head into 2003 he;s once again asking all of us to submit our top 10 lists. Click here and submit your list in the comments section and Ibetolis will archive it on the Top 10 blog. Onto the list...

Looking at my list of films 2002 was another American-heavy year on my list. It was also a year that had two great films by Spielberg (perhaps the most unfairly scrutinized filmmaker in a long while...being popular gets you hated I guess), and contributions to the list from great filmmakers like: Paul Schrader, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, Steven Soderbergh, and Martin Scorsese. Not too shabby.

The best film of the year for me was Paul Schrader's masterful biopic about the sex-obsessed life of Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane, Auto Focus. It reminded me of some of the best work the man has previously done in his career: American Gigolo, Taxi Driver (as a screenwriter), Affliction, and Bringing Out the Dead (again as a screenwriter). I have always been fascinated by Schrader's own obsession with themes about men who are so narrow minded and controlled by their desires that they spiral out of control. Their slavish duties to their personal yens create fantastically interesting cinema, and Schrader is among the best in the biz at showcasing these kinds of male-centric stories. Auto Focus is perhaps Schrader's greats film as a director.

Spielberg pops up twice on the list -- perhaps the first and only time a director has appeared twice on a best of list -- first is Minority Report, a brilliant neo-noir that has some of the most beautiful shots I've seen in any noir picture. It's a fantastic ride, and the story unfolds at a brisk clip, and actually makes a lot of sense. Adapted from the Philip K. Dick novel, it rivals another Dick adaptation, Blade Runner, as being one of the best noir/sci-fi hybrids ever made. The other Spielberg on the list is his super-fun, and super-glossy Catch Me if You Can. An infectiously fun film with some great performances by Leonardo DiCaprio (who like Spielberg had two great films released in 2002, the other being Scorsese's Gangs of New York) and Tom Hanks who enjoys playing the East Coast G-man out to get DiCaprio's con man. The chase is a lot of fun and reminded me of films like North by Northwest and Charade, other "thrillers" that were all about the relentlessness of a chase. Catch Me if You Can also has one of the most fantastic credit sequences I've seen in any film.

City of God and Russian Ark are the only foreign films to make the list this year. City of God reminded me of a Brazilian Goodfellas as it has every kind of post-production trick in the book brusquely pushing the viewer through relentless scene after relentless scene. It was definitely one of the more interesting films of the year, and showed an interesting, darker side of Rio. Russian Ark is famous of course for being one continuous shot. It finds its way on the list for the sheer audaciousness of such a feat...and the film isn't half bad, either.

Punch-Drunk Love at one time would have been tops on the list, but I find myself coming back to some of the other films more often than Paul Thomas Anderson's sweet and bizarre romantic comedy. Adam Sandler proves that there's something in there lurking...maybe not a great actor, but an interesting one; and Anderson always makes us interested in Sandler's Barry. He's an odd duck, but Sandler plays him as something more than just a misunderstood soul...there's nuances to the performance that just make you shake your head and think "what has Sandler been hiding from us all these years." It's about as dark, strange, and otherworldly a romantic comedy can get -- but those scenes in Hawaii -- let me tell ya: pure cinematic poetry.

Charlie Kaufman's best film Adaptation. was also, sadly, the last film Spike Jonze directed (until this years much anticipated Fall release of Where the Wild Things Are). This is also one of Nicolas Cage's best performance as twin Kaufman brothers who must write a screenplay for an adaptation of a popular book penned by Meryl Streep's character. The amazing thing about the film is not just about the astute commentary on all of the "how to" workshops offered in Hollywood (although, the scenes with Brian Cox are some of the funniest, and most pointed bits of satire I've seen), but as it progresses it evolves into a meta-film of monumental proportions. It's one of the best examples of Kaufman's obsession with postmodern cinema, and it's easily his finest work. Jonze has a lot of fun too turning the film into all of the cliches that Cage's character relies on to burst through his writers block.

Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven was a wonderfully constructed call back to the melodramas of Douglas Sirk. I cannot add anything that my friend Sam Juliano hasn't said better --- after all, he saw it 21 times in the theater! Click here to read his thoughts on the film. It's definitely one of the most beautiful looking films of the 2000's.

One of the biggest films of the year was also one of the most entertaining. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was the last time Harry and friends would be so innocent and squeaky clean. It has all of the fun elements of a film like The Wizard of Oz: meaning that it's both childish in delight and still contains a bit of bite with its darker elements. This is my favorite Potter picture as it was the last time any remnants of joy seeped through the darker elements of the story -- you know, before every Potter film became The Empire Strikes Back.

I always try to include one comedy on my list, and one of my favorite in all of the 2000's was Jake Kasdan's brilliantly funny Orange County. I am a lover of writing, and literature, so naturally the protagonist journey was one that was appealing to me. And when he finally gets to Stanford and meets his mentor, it's one of the warmest scenes of the year. Jack Black also proves with this film (and 2000's High Fidelity) that he's best used in small does. I'll never stop quoting the line: "I didn't go to college, and look at me, I'm kick ass."

Here's the list with the honorable mentions:

1.) Auto Focus (Paul Schrader)
2.) Minority Report (Steven Spielberg)
3.) City of God (Fernando Meirelles)
4.) Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson)
5.) Adaptation. (Spike Jonze)
6.) Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes)
7.) Catch Me if You Can (Steven Spielberg)
8.) Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov)
9.) Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Chris Columbus)
10.) Orange County (Jake Kasdan)

Honorable Mentions:

About a Boy, Changing Lanes, Femme Fatale, Gangs of New York, Solaris, Talk to Her, Whale Rider.

Goodbye Solo: A Beautiful Marriage of Minimalism and Melodrama

Two men look at each other. They stare, not needing to say a word. They both know what will happen, and so does the audience. Moments like this one are rare in films, but somehow Ramin Bahrani has created a film where there are multiple instances like it – where the viewer is allowed to have the scene wash over them, instead of being bludgeoned over the head with the themes the filmmaker wishes to convey. The film is Goodbye Solo, and it’s not just a masterpiece in minimalism, melodrama, and subdued filmmaking; it’s a masterpiece of cinema, a rare film that transcends its simplistic indie aesthetics (although simplistic, the seemingly non existent élan of this film is more impressive than most films that try to be indie and arty) and elates the viewer placing them in the most wonderful of contemplative reveries.

I’m new to Bahrani, so although I understand that his previous films Chop Shop and Man Push Cart are indebted to the neo-realist movement, I cannot say for sure what specific moments of those films may or may not be alluded to in Goodbye Solo. All I know is that I immediately bumped the aforementioned films to the top of the Netflix queue. Goodbye Solo doesn’t feel so much neo-realist (it’s not driven by the everyday occurrences of its characters; and it’s definitely driven by a melodramatic plot) as it just feels real and natural; a perfect (and masterful) marriage of minimalism and melodrama. Bahrani loves to let the camera linger on his subjects so that we may ponder the existential dilemmas they face. It’s rare to see a filmmaker in the 21st century with such patience.

The story is a simple one: We begin the film in medias res in Winston-Salem, NC as Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), a cab driver from Senegal, is laughing at something his passenger William (Red West) has told him. We come to find out that the specific bit of conversation that makes Solo guffaw is that William has propositioned Solo with a task that at first seems like William is just having a bad day, but as Solo begins to integrate himself in William’s life, sees that the man is deathly serious. The proposition is that William will pay Solo 1,000 dollars to drive him to Blowing Rock National Park where he will jump off the cliff and kill himself. If you think I just disclosed a valuable piece of the puzzle to this mystery I’m afraid you’re mistaken, and perhaps when you see the film (and you should see it) it will stretch you in ways no other film to this point. What I mean is that there is nothing conventional going on here. Bahrani is not interested in the mystery of whether William will kill himself, because William never speaks of needing a return cab ride from Solo, and once Solo attempts to befriend William and become his personal driver, he begins to see the William checking off the final entries on his itinerary: closing bank accounts, giving away personal items, etc.

Yes, Solo does befriend William, and yes they share some moments together that supply a brief reprise from the unavoidable tragic end Solo must usher William towards. However, that does not make the film depressing. One of my favorite adages Ebert created was: “no good film is depressing, only bad ones.” And indeed this film elevates you to another cinematic plane. I was reminded of Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas, another film about a man determined to kill himself only to be momentarily interrupted by a caring, refreshingly human soul. The two characters in that film, Ben and Sera, share a lot of behavioral similarities with William and Solo. The simplicity and subtlety of the film also reminded me of one of my favorite films from last year Wendy and Lucy. In that film there is also a refined, subdued aesthetic that draws attention to the long takes of peoples faces – moments where the audience can read the eyes of the characters, and long after a scene is over, the camera lingers just a little bit longer so that we may contemplate the events that have just unfolded.

During their friendship we’re let into Solo’s life as he is married with a child on the way and a brilliant step-daughter, Alex. She’s smart for her age, but she’s not one of those too-cute child actors who exists only as a plot contrivance, she brings a sweetness and innocence (even though she’s smart, the film is realistic in the sense that she doesn’t know everything) into Solo and William’s relationship that cuts through sadness. Her relationship with Solo, again, seems born out of reality. These scenes remind me of something out of a David Gordon Green film (who like Bahrani is a native of North Carolina): This all just seems right…this IS how these people would talk, react, and live their life. Solo is having some trouble, though. His wife doesn’t want him to interview for a flight attendants position because she doesn’t want him to be out of state with a baby on the way. He claims that she only wants him to try her plan, and that she doesn’t trust him with his plan. They decide to take a break, and throughout this process Solo becomes more and more interested in William.

The film is not about what Solo will do for William, and it’s not about William’s decision to kill himself. Sure, there are secrets revealed and epiphianic moments throughout their short friendship, but it’s more about how Solo changes, not how he tries to convince William to not go through with it all. Like Sera in Leaving Las Vegas, the film was always about what Ben did for her. As she looks into the camera at the end of that film and looks straight at the audience, you see a changed person, an individual who has done some soul searching, and – compared to who she was at the beginning of the film – is somewhat healed. So too does Solo change. As he looks at Red in those long takes Bahrani loves, we see a man who sees himself in Red. This is what he’ll become if he does not take seriously his family obligations. It’s not enough just to love them, and as he looks at William, knowing one of his big secrets, we see in Solo’s eyes that he will not allow himself to make the same mistakes.

Bahrani wisely metes out crucial pieces of information sparingly. Never once does he go for one big over-the-top melodramatic moment; rather, he lets the events unfold naturally. In a crucial scene towards the end of the film watch the way Savane as Solo plays the scene. Nothing is overdone, and we see a man who lives his life with a carefree attitude, who we see at the beginning of the film heartily, and genuinely, laughing with pleasure at life, evolve into someone who has a better understanding of life’s responsibilities.

The acting here is phenomenal, and not just by Savane, but by the old veteran Red West, too. Here’s a man who looks like something out of an old oater. I was reminded of the great actor Richard Farnsworth while watching him. He plays William as a man who isn’t necessarily opposed to Solo’s prodding, just as long as he doesn’t go too deep. “I don’t give a shit” is a favorite phrase of William’s, and I assume it would be the favorite saying for a man who plans to kill himself in 10 days. West plays Williams, though, as a man who has a deeper reasoning for the things he does and the places he frequents before his final cab ride, and he also seems to be a man who has a deeper reasoning for not wanting Solo, or his step-daughter Alexis, around too often.

The ending is about as perfect as an ending can be. Bahrani lets silence drive the end of his film, and when Solo and William just stare at each other, we thank Bahrani for not ruining the scene with unnecessary exposition. There’s a scene where Solo looks out over a viewpoint that is caked in fog, and as Solo looks out on the vast expanse of nothingness, I was reminded of the scene from Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise where the three characters, who are also on a journey of sorts, also come across a viewpoint of nothingness. It’s a powerful, contemplative moment, and like Jarmusch, Bahrani lets the gusts of wind be the only sound the audience hears during this pivotal moment.

Since I’m so late to the Bahrani bandwagon it shouldn’t shock anyone when I say he is clearly one of the leaders of the new wave of filmmaking; he’s someone who makes honest films in dishonest times, and even though they may be based in neo-realism, his films actually succeed where most neo-realist films fail: they place you in a specific place without having to feel the onus of reality; in other words I could see myself watching this film numerous times without it ever feeling stale (and let’s face it, some neo-realist work feels stale after awhile). There’s a subtle aesthetic at work in Bahrani’s film, an entity that deceives you into thinking that everything looks “easy”; but, everything Bahrani and his actors do in Goodbye Solo is extremely difficult and rarely found in modern films. You just don’t run across films like this very often. It’s easily one of the best films of 2009.