Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Know Thyself.

92. Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, 2008)

Though I enjoy many of Gus Van Sant's films I've become aware that I find his smaller budget pictures far more intriguing than his larger ones. Within the span of a year Van Sant released two films, the three million dollar budgeted Paranoid Park and the Oscar Nominated hit Milk (2008) starring Sean Penn. As good as Milk is, I find Paranoid Park, like Van Sant's other lower budget pictures Elephant (2003) and Last Days (2005), more impactful. If I made a list expanding to another hundred pictures Milk would surely be included. Paranoid Park is a film about a teenage skate boarder, Alex, who becomes a suspect in the manslaughter killing of a train station security guard. Like Van Sant's Elephant, Paranoid Park uses a collection of unknown teenage actors. I find it odd how one of the main complaints I've heard with both Elephant and Paranoid Park is the portrayal of teenagers in each film, but Van Sant has his amateur actors contribute on their own for authenticity and there are moments in both films that feel to be some of the most honest portrayals of teenagers on film that come to mind.

There are two primary aspects of the film I find extraordinary. One is the photography by the film's director of photography Christopher Doyle. Most notable working on some of the films from Wong Kar Wai like 2046 (2004) and In the Mood for Love (2000) Doyle may be the most visually talented man to stand behind a camera working today. With Paranoid Park he captures some of his best work to date. The skate boarding sequences are especially breathtaking. He uses his cameras to capture images of weightlessness and relaxation in a way that uses the hobby as a release from the struggles and stress plaguing the trouble youths. Rather than just a way to kill time, it shows the sport as a form of therapy.

The film's other primary strength lies with how it explores it's protagonist. Rather than spend time exploring the mystery behind the crime in question the picture focuses on Alex's suspected guilt and reaction to the haunting occurrence. Examining the distinct effect the responsibility of another person's death could have on someone's very soul. Paranoid Park gradually digs deeper into Alex's psyche and moral sensibilities as it investigates what it's like to not only to be a confused teenager not sure of their place, but one with a secret, a dark secret. One that would not only be difficult to reveal to others, but one that even takes fortitude in the first place to approach on your very own.

10 Films of 2008:

9. Paranoid Park
(Gus Van Sant)
10. Redbelt (David Mamet)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

That Wicked Bewitching Beauty, Scent.

93. Perfume: The Story of A Murderer (Tom Tykwer, 2006)

Tom Tykwer's adaptation of Perfume is a difficult film to classify into any specific genre. Parts of the final act play out like a horror film, and as a typical drama it lacks the kind of protagonist of which an audience could relate . It's the story of one Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born in a fish market, his mother attempts to discard her child, is discovered, and severely punished. I must first point out Grenouille's peculiar gift. The boy was born with such an acute sense of smell that he can not only identify individual and unique scents that regular people wouldn't even know existed, he can differentiate them from conflicting odors on a grand scale. Born into poverty and abandonment Grenouille is carted between owners, his only value equal to the money which could be made from his labor. It isn't until he has the chance to come into contact with a perfumer past their prime that he's able to explore and begin discovering the techniques to art of capturing and mastering the odors and aromas that have captivated him all his life, the very smells that bring him beauty in the world.

The film is a reasonably close adaptation of the novel by Patrick Süskind. The only large section missing from the movie is one where Grenouille plays guinea pig to an eccentric "scientist" who has strange ideas about the superior health rejuvenating attributes of air and objects from higher altitudes. Though this part of the novel is fairly entertaining and rewarding in its own way, it isn't difficult to see why it was cut for the film and I don't miss its presence all that much. It would have conflicted with the tone of the film and would have most likely derailed its progression and pacing.

Another important thing to explain about Grenouille is his general disregard for other people and life in general. His only passion, or rather obsession, is the wonder he is able to explore with his olfactory senses. What results is the absence of any emotion or guilt as he systematically stalks and murders several young women in the attempt to capture their scent, and to create a perfect perfume. Grenouille is surely a monster, though an intriguing one at that. His obsessions can't respectfully be classified as simple greed, it's a compulsion, a driving force he seemingly has no control over. This isn't a film about heroes or villains, though Grenouille could certainly be better described as the latter rather than the former. It is a film about the power of beauty, how it is both alluring and potentially threatening. It is also a type of beauty that I find so rarely explored in films, that of the beauty of scent.

Top films of 2006:

Perfume is actually the eighth film on my list of ten from 2006 so here is a quick section dedicated to the ninth and tenth.

9. A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater)

Another Richard Linklater film that barely misses my larger list. This time Linklater creates a fairly faithful adaptation of Phillip K. Dick's novel of the same name. Like much of Dick's work it is contemplative of hypothetical tyrannical control and altogether thoroughly distressing. His choice for the movie's animation design adds to the feel of surrealism and at times nightmarish disembodiment presented in the picture. An overlooked science fiction film and one of the better adaptations of Dick's work to date.

10. The Host (Joon-Ho Bong)

From Korean director Joon-Ho Bong comes one of the most exciting and rewarding monster films in decades. Bong's film is like an adventurous monster picture and could rest quite easily with the best from the likes of Guillermo del Toro, Steven Spielberg, or Peter Jackson in that regard. What is essentially most important about the film is the way the characters are held as a priority over the story concept of the film and this proves to enhance the drama and tension considerably. Rather than being primarily effects driven or concept driven, something like 2008's Cloverfield which does indeed boast an inviting film technique, even if it is at times a bit of a novelty utilized far better in The Blair Witch Project (1999), Cloverfield is lacking in a connection with the characters in the film, which is shallow and mediocre at best. The Host's strength lies in how it presents the story around its characters and the value gained by becoming emotionally involved with them, which is something to be admired and encouraged.

10 Films of 2006:

8. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
(Tom Tykwer)
9. A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater)

10. The Host (
Joon-Ho Bong)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Floyd the Barber, This is Not.

94. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton, 2007)

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is Tim Burton's film feature based on the popular stage musical. The film is a tragedy turned devilish story of vengeance as long time Burton collaborator Johnny Depp cuts through the picture as Sweeney Todd along with Burton's wife, and regular actress, Helena Bonham Carter as Todd's accomplice, Mrs. Lovett. Benjamin Barker, a talented barber, is unjustly sentenced to work in Australia by a deceitful and corrupt judge who does so to have his way with the barber's wife. The film opens with Barker's return to London a changed man, Benjamin Barker is no longer with us, he is now Sweeney Todd a demon desiring vengeance.

Sweeney Todd is Tim Burton's Liveliest film in years. It features a talented cast with the likes of Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, and a surprise turn by Sacha Baron Cohen joining Depp and Carter. The musical's story coincides nicely with Tim Burton's delight in stylistic thematic macabre and feels like the most fun Burton has had with one of his films since Sleepy Hollow (1999), and Burton's liking to Gothic design fits perfectly with the story's setting. One of my main problems with Burton's previous picture, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), was the way it felt mechanical. Scenes played out like a procedure. The group would go to a room, a child would be injured, they'd pack them off to some arbitrary location, and then they'd continue to the next room and repeat. Sweeney Todd however moves more natural and feels more organic. Perhaps the people are driven by simple themes and motivations but they are nonetheless genuine.

The music and design of the picture really drive it as well. London is a dark, dank, decrepit hole and Todd has no desire to restrain himself in his description of the city throughout the film. He uses his barber's chair to rid the city of the vermin he sees as its citizens. The splattering of blood with each killing is like a release for the character. His anger and rage, his tormented past pours out from each strike with his straight blade razor. Though some will be upset with the way the music from the stage was edited, it still drives the story considerably well. Rather than a musical to showcase its numbers, it's a film and story propelled by them. Above all, the movie is a devious good time. It highlights the passionate immediate release in the vengeance of its titled character though its theatrics allow us to simultaneously feel enjoyment and revulsion as we watch him exact his revenge.

10 Films of 2007:

9. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton)
10. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Ultimate Measure of a Man.

95. Redbelt (David Mamet, 2008)

Redbelt is David Mamet's morality tale about the unquestionable value of honor in comparison with the petty emptiness of excess and greed. Chiwetel Ejifor stars as Mike Terry, a Jiu-Jitsu instructor, who through a series of events is faced with tall obstacles and hard times. Mamet's script is a precise exercise in the use of accepted pure character traits such as honesty, integrity, and loyalty in conflict with their general counterparts: deceit, corruption, and betrayal. Terry's views are put to a test as the film knocks the wind out of its protagonist as if the picture itself is trying to find the man's breaking point. However, his true strength is not measured by his battles in the ring but by his own convictions, and by the end of the film we find that Mr. Terry, in that regard, has no breaking point.

Redbelt has two distinct stars, its deftly constructed script and its lesser known leading man, Chiwetel Ejifor. Ejifor must be one of the most under appreciated actors working today. Primarily recognizable in supporting roles in such films as Children of Men (2006), Talk to Me (2007), and Inside Man (2006) he's a versatile actor who appears to be able to do a rare thing in the film industry, leave his ego aside. In Redbelt he has the chance to show his worth as a leading man and he delivers a performance that makes him not only one of the more inspiring figures in the last ten years, his portrayal of Mike Terry turns the characters into a quintessential modern day hero in the tradition of the great Takashi Shimura in Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954).

A comparison to earlier samurai films is distinctly appropriate, especially with that of Seven Samurai, a film in which seven men defend a persecuted village for no more than a few meals each day. Mike Terry's competition does not reside in marketed bouts to earn money but rather he is in constant competition with himself. A desire to not only better himself in body, but in mind as well. It's a film about knowing one's self and one's own strengths and using that strength to uphold one's own integrity. Such is the importance of the words of the late Martin Luther King Jr., "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

10 Films of 2008:

10. Redbelt (David Mamet)

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Rules of the Game.

96. Gosford Park (Robert Altman, 2001)

Gosford Park is perhaps the late Robert Altman's last bona fide masterpiece. Like many of Altman's films it features an ensemble cast with subplots intertwined and overlapping dialogue. It's a complex and detailed period piece set in the early 1930s. On the surface the film is a rousing murder mystery wrapped in the pasts of the variety of individuals in the film. This murder mystery is used as a device to present the class structure of Great Britain in the early 1900s. The subplots of each individual and how these people are connected shows the broad gap between the wealthy and their servants.

Altman is in top form working his intricate plot off without a hitch. Not only is the film able to sustain it itself, it thrives. Reminiscent of Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939), of which can be seen to have a significant impact on Altman's career as a whole, Gosford Park is able to build its own microcosmic world within that large estate house. With the final breath of social hierarchy drawing near Altman develops his film into it's own organism, like a living cell, with characters and dialogue, plots and themes traversing through and around each other.

In Gosfard Park authenticity is key. Though the murder mystery elements are there to draw the audience into the picture the precise production is there to keep them involved. With such pinpoint representation Altman is able to recreate the time period in complete faithfulness. Displaying not only some of its hypocrisy and superficiality but also it's allure, charm, grace, and glamor. It's a time in which it's easy to loss yourself and for two hours and twenty minutes Robert Altman's film makes that possible.

Top ten of 2001:

Robert Altman's Gosford Park comes in at number 9 on my list of 10 films from 2001 so I'll just post a few words about the tenth film.

10. Waking Life (Richard Linklater)

My number ten film is Richard Linklater's surrealist philosophically jumbled animation piece Waking Life. The movie is a lot to take in on one sitting and even if you can't prescribe to each of the musings within every section it's a movie that not only requests you to think, it requires you to do so. With each encounter phasing into another we see our main character travel through what looks like a dream, discussing the nature of how and why we dream and essentially how we live and derive meaning from our lives, the world, and those around us.

10 Films of 2001:

9. Gosford Park
(Robert Altman)
10. Waking Life (Richard Linklater)

Sometimes When Things Are Closed, You Just Open Them Up.

97. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, 2007)

Like Chan-Wook Park, David Cronenberg is another filmmaker that often uses violence in his films as in A History of Violence (2005) and Videodrome (1983). Cronenberg does this in an attempt to understand the nature of human being's acts of violence as well as their enjoyment of it. Though Eastern Promises isn't as contemplative as something like Videodrome, it is still a far more interesting thriller than most and its production shows maturity and polish. If it was as strong as Croneberg's classics in thought it would be one hell of a thriller to best.

Like I said in one of my earlier posts collecting these hundred films, Eastern Promises follows Naomi Watts as Anna, a midwife, who discovers a journal that may uncover rape and abuse perpetrated by the Russian mob when a young girl dies while giving birth. Against advice she pursues translating the journal endangering herself in the process. Nikolai, played by Viggo Mortensen, at first begins intimidating Anna, seemingly trying to deter her from stumbling upon the mob's dark secrets, though partially through the film it becomes apparent that there is more to Nikolai than originally perceived.

One of the best things about the film is the way Nikolai and his motivations are portrayed. Even when his motives become apparent we're never completely sure and Mortensen, in his second collaboration with Cronenberg, displays the mystery behind the man strikingly well. This accompanies one of my favorite aspects about David Cronenberg's films. He never seems to give the audience complete closure at the end of his pictures. There is always something left to ponder, to keep this story and the characters within open to a great number of possibilities awaiting them, and Eastern Promises is no different. I am wary of the recent news I've heard for a sequel to the film for fear of that the mystery will be destroyed. I find Cronenberg's films most interesting with their doors left open.

10 Films of 2007:

10. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Where Vengeance Will Get No Sympathy.

98. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Chan-Wook Park, 2002)

In 2002 Korean director Chan-Wook Park kicked off his critically acclaimed Vengeance Trilogy with the first installment, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the first of three films to get him international recognition. Though this may be my least favorite of the trilogy I want to establish that it's still a hell of a film. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance begins with a young man, a mute young man, who's sister is in need of an organ transplant. After being swindled and drugged during a failed black market deal to get his sister a transplant illegally he attempts to raise money through a kidnapping which also ends in complications. Two stories of anger, revenge, and torment later conflict in one of the most intense thrillers of the last decade.

One of the most fascinating things about Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is the way the audience can react to the two main men in the film. Both of them are going through severely tragic losses and commit terrible acts in retaliation, fueled by rage and their own pain. It's a great example of how Park views violence, wants to examine it, and utilize it in his films as well as how fear, pain, and violence connect the perpetrators with their victims. His films don't glorify violence, but they do show that wanting to commit acts of violence, the desire for revenge from pain or anger due to loss is a very human trait, however the line is crossed when these desires are acted upon because his films display just all too harshly the hurt caused by such acts even if they may elicit momentary alleviation, in the end it can only lead to more destruction and suffering.

Park is one of my favorite emerging directors of the last decade. His films are as bold and full of enough raw emotion and energy to remind me of Martin Scorsese in his early days from the 1970s and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a film from a man showing great promise for things to come, which I would claim is fulfilled with the increasing quality of the second and third films in the Vengeance Trilogy. Another remarkable thing is Park is always able to keep his movies not only fresh with unexpected resolutions, especially when dealing with well known themes, he's able to keep them provocative rather than just shocking. Perhaps this is because he's against passivity in films. This mindset could very well be the reason he's able to go into such territory with his dramas that many filmmakers would be too timid to venture on their own or even dare follow.

10 Films of 2002:

8. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
(Chan-Wook Park)
9. Chicago (Rob Marshall)
10. Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Where Do You Go To (My Lovely).

99. The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, 2007)

For his fifth feature Wes Anderson sets his film about grief, personal understanding, and reconnection abroad in India. Adrien Brody joins Anderson film returning actors Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson as three estranged brothers who haven't spoken since their father's funeral. The reoccurring theme of desired acceptance appears throughout Anderson's body of work and it's no surprise that it's prevalent in this film as well. Also he returns to his examination of grief after the loss of a loved one which was evident in his films Rushmore (1998) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). And much like The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) Anderson has a selection of characters with deeply explored faults and insecurities, these are damaged individuals and part of the beauty of the film is how these imperfections are portrayed and dealt with if not always indefinitely cured.

I find Wes Anderson to be the closest filmmaker I can think of to be the successor to Hal Ashby. Much like Ashby's Being There (1979) and Harold and Maude (1971) there are touches of whimsy beneath the painful realities endured through life. Perhaps Anderson's films are a little more surreal than Ashby's at times with his identifiable visual style which includes his signature slow motion photography and striking colors but the scars are still there, overcome by laughter in the face of the hurt and longing of the characters involved. No matter how fantastic Anderson's films are visually, the heart of the film, his characters are still as complex and realistic as the many people walking the streets today.

With the look of The Darjeeling Limited, it's not surprising that Anderson's meticulous control seems to be evident in every small aspect of the film. From costumes to the smallest detail on the train on which the brothers ride across the country. The only draw back I can think of is that the train itself feels somewhat constricting to the camera work especially in comparison to his three previous films. Anderson overcame this problem on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou with his ingenious stage like design of Zissou's ship. Here it isn't a large drawback but it still doesn't allow the film to breath as much as the other sections, a few that take place on the open landscape. Though this is perhaps intentional, that while the brothers are having a difficult time reconnecting with each other and growing into the men they should be, dealing with their imperfections, it's only fitting that the film itself feels more closed, more suffocating. It isn't until they experience the foreign funeral and relieve themselves of their emotional baggage, which takes physical shape in the luggage of their late father, that they are able to open up and grow along with the film itself. This aligns the nature of the film with the nature of each brother within the picture, becoming an organic thing itself that grows and opens and gives the movie more of a life of its own.

Top 10 of 2007:

Unfortunately (or fortunately, however you want to look at it) The Darjeeling Limited just misses my list of ten films from 2007. Unfortunate because it's a fine movie but fortunate because I found 2007 to be such a great year that it was difficult to pick my top fifteen or twenty films let alone just ten.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

All That Jazz.

2After over a month I've returned here and I have some rearranging to do. Originally I wanted to put together a top ten list for each year of the 2000s as well as the top 100 list (which I was partially through). But since the decade list was taking so long it seemed I would never get back to the top ten lists so I've decided to restart the entire collection of 100 films in ascending order to combine both lists. While some movies won't make the top ten lists of each year it'll let me post both at the same time. It will also allow me to hopefully make more detailed posts about each individual film on the list rather than small blurbs in each post (though films that appear in a top ten list that do not appear on the 100 will have a short blurb about them much like the one at the end of this post). Some of the films off my favorite 100 films of 2000s have changed around a little so there are even a few new additions. Also, I hope to get around to doing large collections of posts on the feature films of animation director Hayao Miyazaki as well as a collection of posts on 40s low budget horror film producer Val Lewton.

100. Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002)

The 2002 Oscar winner is perhaps the most important Hollywood musical since the early 70s Cabaret (1972). Renée Zellweger is Roxie Hart, married to a dim but agreeable husband, she fools around on the side with a man who claims to have connections to get her into the glitz of showbiz. When things become apparent that he's only using her she turns a gun on him and ends up in a death row cell block in the Cook County Jail and that's when the real razzle dazzle begins. In the process she meets the film's array of scoundrels as the criminal justice world meets show business and the film takes a look at the susceptibility the media coverage has over the common man as murderesses become mini celebrities.

Adapted from the knockout stage musical of the same name the film is able to keep some of the stage familiarity of the musical numbers but parallel it with a more thematic telling of the story events and it all works. I don't think I appreciated the film as much as I did before I was lucky enough to catch Chicago on the stage. One thing I've never been too positive on was the cast outside of Zellweger and John C. Reilly but Catherine Zeta Jones and Richard Gere still give solid performances in their respective roles and Queen Latifah hits "When You're Good to Momma" just right.

And the musical numbers, let me tell you about the musical numbers. Not only is this a smart and brazen musical about crime, corruption, murder, sex, and scandal, it's a hell of a lot fun. With some top numbers like the seductive and blisteringly tense "Cell Block Tango" to the Gleeful and shameless "Press Conference Rag" Chicago is a real visual and musical treat, not only does this film have brains, it's got looks and the notes to match.





Favorite films of 2002.

While Chicago is the last spot on my list of 100 films of the 2000s it falls in at number 9 on my list of films from 2002. So since it didn't make the list of 100 films of the decade I want to mention the movie that rounds out the number ten spot on my list from movies from 2002.

10. Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay)

Samantha Morton stars as the title character of this understated and introspective film in perhaps her finest performance to date. After her boyfriend commits suicide Morvern finds his unpublished novel and sends it off as her own. This sparks an interesting and uncommon journey both geographical and emotional. With it's presentation of Callar's passions, grief, mourning, and guilt clashing with her newly blossoming sense of individuality and personal understanding and experiencing parts of life and the world she may not have been wholly familiar with Morvern Callar is a rare diversion from the hectic high concept films from big studios. It's a little seen oddity and a unique and rewarding film for those in the right mind who happen to be looking for something new and unique themselves.

10 Films of 2002:

9. Chicago (Rob Marshall)
10. Morvern Callar
(Lynne Ramsay)