Sunday, March 7, 2010

Through the Looking-Glass.

It's become apparent that I will not finish this before tonight. Though that isn't a problem. I've just been busy for the last few days with work, other small tasks, and I went into the city on Friday. I will have to just soldier on and post the last few later this week even though the Oscars will have already aired. So I should try and post one or two things today anyway and moving along I give you my seventh favorite movie from 2009:

7. Coraline (2009)

Coraline is adapted from the Neil Gaiman book of the same name and comes from the creative mind of the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) (no, that isn't Tim Burton) Henry Selick who has been a leading figure in stop animation for several years.

Coraline is the story of a girl trapped in the bored isolation of a recent move and the loneliness of workaholic parents and distance from old friends. She wants attention and adventure but what she gets is an empty old house and a number of strange neighbors. All this changes when she finds a doorway to another world not entirely unlike her own. In this world her parents are far more attentive and every character is a magical caricature of their real world counterpart. The paradise is soon revealed to be more sinister than she first perceived as the fantasy turns into a nightmare with Coraline and her family in dire danger.

The first thing I have to mention with Coraline is the art design and animation. Having spent years in production this is most likely the best looking stop-animation film I've ever seen. Its design comes in part from the work of illustrator Tadahiro Uesugi. His concept art for the film is unique and breathtaking. Though credit must be given to the many animators and designers on the movie. I feel that it must have taken a lot of time to come up with a way to turn Uesugi's designs, which are quite flat, into a rounded set design while still retaining their original style. The result is a gorgeous and immersive fantasy adventure and one of the best visual treats of the year.

Another thing I've noticed is that a handful of my favorite films from last year involve the expression of adolescent rebellion and the world seen through their eyes (Which is explored much more thoroughly in another film on this list, though I'm sure saying that gives away which film that will be). An interesting perspective the movie gives is just how finite and frightening the world of a child can be. The rewards and consequences feel immediate and conclusive until the picture allows Coraline to grow up and accept responsibility over indulgence and lasting care over immediate attention.

Unlike a lot of movies geared towards children it isn't a condescending pop culture reference filled mind numbing experience. Few things film related bother me more than movies that do nothing but dull the senses and exist purely to waste time and thoughts. Thankfully Coraline is expressive and emotional. It's a film that can be enjoyed by someone of any age and for the older folks can give a retrospective glimpse of that lost childhood imagination once exercised many years ago on a cold rainy day.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

How Much Does Your Life Weigh?

I decided on some last minute shuffling and the previous movie I intended to post as number eight moved up two spots so here is my former seventh favorite film from 2009 now dropping a spot to number eight:

8. Up in the Air (2009)

Along with Public Enemies, I found Up in the Air to be one of the most surprising films from last year (Everything else on this list I was anticipating and at times even impatient to see). The film comes from director Jason Reitman the director of Thank You for Smoking (2005) and the Oscar nominated Juno (2007). Also, if you were wondering and didn't already know, he is indeed the son of Ivan Reitman, the director of Ghost Busters (1984) and Stripes (1981). A few months ago I would have even guessed that Up in the Air had a big chance to take best picture this Oscar season. It had a number of magazine article campaigns, had great reviews, and it's principle cast were hitting their mark promoting the film but sadly the buzz has died down considerably. Plus the campaign for The Hurt Locker looks to be unstoppable.

The movie follows George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a career hatchetman hired out from a company to handle the dirty work of firing employees from businesses that are unwilling to do the job personally. Bingham is a man of finely tuned people skills, his success is driven by how well he understands the way in which people tick. His job is thrown on its head when an up-and-coming employee, Natalie Keener (Played by Anna Kendrick), proposes a new more efficient and economically sound way of laying people off, by computer interface. What follows is Natalie accompanying Bingham on a few of his rounds to fully get a grasp on the way he works and to compare and contrast the two techniques.

The film is mainly a commentary on the impersonal impression of the global information age. Luckily this focus is able to deter the movie from feeling like a dated piece on the current economic state of the country. Bingham himself is a product of the era in which he lives, always surrounded by people yet never truly connecting with them. They're his colleagues, business associates, fellow passengers, or service attendants but never his close personal loved ones. He has no connections grounding him, not even a place he can really call home, except for the sky. His business is also a product of the times. Like I mentioned before, the workers he lays off are from other businesses, ones that have to hire someone outside to do the uncomfortable job for them, starting the film's level of disconnection. The integration of Natalie's new business proposal is likely to further this divide. The difference between Bingham and his company is that Bingham is at heart a good guy, he just isn't able, or perhaps meant to connect with other human beings. It's just not in his nature.

Clooney is in top form. I remember reading an article I believe from roughly two years ago about the actor that stated he was one of the few actors today comparable to the likes of Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and so forth and Clooney holds up to the claim exceptionally well in Up in the Air. It's an admirable accomplishment to take a character responsible for delivering terrible news to other individuals on a daily basis and make the man extremely likable and few actors could pull that task off as well as he does.

Now while the movie is essentially a drama that doesn't mean it's an outright downer. Reitman's dramas have been pocketed with many great comedic moments and Up in the Air is no different. In fact I would claim this to be his best movie yet. While Thank You for Smoking is indeed very clever, it's a bit of a caricature, especially in comparison to the more realistically grounded (Intentional, forgive me) Up in the Air and while Juno has a lot of emotional weight behind it I find that somewhat deflated by its characters and dialogue which occasionally ring false. However, Up in the Air's shortcoming's are minor in comparison and is not something to be missed. It's powerful and effective in a way that isn't overbearing and it's able to put a silver lining of optimism in even the darkest of clouds.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Spirit of Adventure.

I just realized that the Oscars are less than a week away, I thought that they were on the 14th instead of the 7th for some reason so that means I'm going to have to hurry up if I want to post all ten of these before this Sunday. So moving on, I give you number nine:

9. Up (2009).

Pixar's 10th film and there seems to be no end in sight for the company's success. Up has also made a mark for itself in Oscar history being the second animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture, the first is Disney's Beauty and the Beast (1991), and the first animated feature to accomplish this since the creation of the best animated film category. Perhaps it wouldn't have been nominated without the new 10 best picture nominee format but it's still something to be proud of since Pixar no longer has to be regulated to hanging out at the kid's table of best animated feature each year.

Up is the story of Carl Fredricksen, an elderly man attempting to fill his wife's wishes years after her death. The first twenty-five minutes are clearly the strongest moments of the movie. We get a brief glimpse of the couple's life together, their struggles and their love, and the moments are sweet, tender, and heartbreaking. The way Pixar is able to take decades of the lives of its characters, sum them up wordlessly in a montage lasting only a few minutes, and turn its audience into a bunch of blubbering buffoons clearly shows talent. There really is no other American animation studio able to compete (Calm down Studio Ghibli fans, they're still on the level).

The second half of the film shows its more fantastical elements; houses lifted through the air on thousands of balloons, talking dogs (with fancy collars designed to speak about any language it seems), rare birds, and an antagonist seemingly lost in time and consumed by his own obsessions. One of my favorite aspects of the movie is the image of Carl traveling over the cliffs with his floating house tied to him. The surrealism of the image leaves its mark and impact as the house represents the memory of his wife and his obsession to fulfill her wishes. This is where Carl draws comparison with his childhood hero turned crazed villain, Charles Muntz. Muntz let his obsessed goal drive him mad with desire as he was blind to the lives of those around him and the destruction he caused and Carl may succumb to the same fate. Like the famous quote, "all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men do nothing." Carl is in danger of ignoring the troubles of those still in his live while still regretting the passing of his wife.

Also, not only is there no other American animation studio on par with Pixar with story telling, you'll be pressed to find a better studio able to produce CG animated films that look as good as the work from Pixar, which is not surprising considering they pioneered the technology. My favorite visual moment of the film is when Carl first lifts his house off the ground. Thousands of balloons pour out of the chimney, the quaint little building creaks and cracks, and tears off the ground and through the air, dazzling the residents of the city. The high point of this scene is the moment it passes by a little girl's window and all the colors of the balloons bounce off the floor, walls, and ceiling of her small room. It's not only a great visual treat but an invocation of that childhood wonder and sense of imagination that I felt as a kid while watching Disney's classic films and am able to revisit with the work of Pixar Studios.

I Rob Banks.

Since The Oscars are nearly upon us I think it's about time I put together a "Best of 2009" list and actually try and finish it before Oscar night. Granted, I still haven't been able to see a number of movies from last year that I was anticipating. The Informant!, Antichrist, Mother, The White Ribbon, and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans are just a few that have eluded me for some time. So I will have to carry on without them and post a top ten consisting of the other 40 or so movies I've seen from last year. So without further delay I'll kick things off with number ten:

10. Public Enemies (2009)

First off, I've never been a huge fan of Michael Mann. Though I do own and enjoy a number of his movies he's never been among my most beloved filmmakers. Much like Christopher Nolan, Mann is a director who's work I can admire but I have never been able to really connect with. I wouldn't deny that they're both talented craftsmen but I've always felt the cold shoulder from their pictures. With Mann it's been like that up until Public Enemies (well not entirely, The Insider (1999) is the main other movie from Mann that I found pretty moving but Public Enemies is perhaps my favorite of his I've seen so far).

Johnny Depp plays the legendary John Dillinger in probably one of the most overlooked performances of the year, or perhaps forgotten is a better way to describe it. Depp's charisma works wonders as Dillinger, a fascinating individual infatuated with his own criminal celebrity. Perhaps my favorite scene in the film is when Dillinger is being escorted in the back of a police cab and he cracks a smile as he sees bystanders on either side of the car snapping pictures and giving him their undivided attention. The way the movie follows Dillinger, scratching away at the surface to explore how he lives life in the moment, always on a razor's edge, while still leaving the man as mysterious as he was to begin with is something I find to be a thing of beauty and dare I say, almost poetic. This doesn't strike me as a standard biopic, it's a character piece for sure but it spends its time on the nature of the individual rather than historical accuracy of the time, which is why I can let it off the hook for its numerous inconsistencies with the occurrence of actual events.

Speaking of things of beauty I must go on to mention the digital filming. Perhaps it doesn't make it look as realistic of a depiction of the era as one might hope from most period films but like the way it handles Dillinger's character I felt this also added to the poetic feel of the picture. Sure it takes place in the 1930s but the look of the film gives it a timeless appeal and reinforces the romantic notions behind the attraction of Dillinger's life of crime which awarded him wealth, excitement, and fame.

In the end Dillinger lived his life at his own pace and was a man who lived by his own decisions, which is truly rare. It's not hard to realize that this would ultimately lead to fueling his life as an outlaw. It also isn't hard to realize how quickly this would burn out. I can't think of a better way to describe Dillinger's highly combustible way of living than one of the famous lines from the movie Blade Runner (1982), "The light that burns twice as bright burns for half as long."