Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Ordinary Life is Pretty Complex Stuff.

I know there are many of you out there who missed my pseudo egotistical movie countdown from the 2000s so I am going to try and get back into the habit of posting.

92. American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, 2003)

American Splendor
is based on the cult hit comic book series of the same name from Harvey Pekar. What Pekar has to say about his comic is that it's "an autobiography written as it's happening. The theme is about staying alive. Getting a job, finding a mate, having a place to live, finding a creative outlet. Life is a war of attrition. You have to stay active on all fronts. It's one thing after another. I've tried to control a chaotic universe. And it's a losing battle. But I can't let go. I've tried, but I can't." In a medium filled with spandex clad superheros Pekar's series put comic books to a different use, depicting the average struggles of an everyday life.

in 2003 documentarians Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini turned American Splendor into a hybrid comic adaptation of Pekar's book and a biographical film about Pekar himself. Starring as Pekar is Paul Giamatti in perhaps the first big role of his career, coming a year before the Oscar nominated Sideways (2004). Giamatti embodies everything one could wish for in his portrayal of Pekar. His performance comes off so naturally that it thoroughly feels as though he's the real Harvey Pekar, which is quite the feat considering Pekar himself appears in the film periodically in a few candid cameos.

Giamatti and the material itself are just two thirds of the film's main strengths. The last is Berman and Pulcini's combination of conventional narrative techniques and documentary style that not only makes American Splendor a unique film on its own but also fits the style of Pekar's comic splendidly. With the booming financial success of big superhero comic book film adaptations it's great to see their more grounded brethren reach the silver screen as well and some days just getting through a crummy job or finding someone to love could be just as daunting as saving the planet from super powered megalomaniacs.

Films from 2003 on List:

American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini)
Oldboy (Chan-wook Park)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

But With You By My Side I Can Do Anything.

93. Morvern Callar (2002)

Morvern Callar is Lynne Ramsay's second feature after the breakout Ratcatcher (1999). Samantha Morton stars as the movie's title character, Morvern Callar. The movie opens on Christmas day in her flat with her boyfriend. She finds him dead after committing suicide, having cut his own wrists. He has left her a music compilation and on his computer's flickering screen a completed novel. Callar, desperately desiring to break free of her dull dead-end life, working at a small supermarket in the Scottish town of Oban, publishes the novel as her own. This sparks an interesting and uncommon journey both geographical and emotional.

Morvern Callar is a movie driven by visual, auditory, and emotional aesthetic rather than plot or dialogue. As the film plays out Callar is swept up into a rapidly progressive hectic life with changing locales and a few of the usual attendees, including sex and drugs. With its 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, Morvern Callar is a sensual film of wild discovery.

Samantha Morton gives the best performance of her career as the enigmatic title character. How she deals with her boyfriend's suicide, is it self destructive grieving? Is it individualistic liberation? Just what boils beneath the surface of this character like the film is enticing, aided by the beautiful way it's filmed. The movie's soundtrack is another significant element. Played off the mix tape from her boyfriend the tape both works as a connection from the deceased character, still speaking to Callar, and a way of chronically her emotional journey, while pulling the viewer into her mind between those earphones.

Films from 2002 on List:

Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Remember, When in Doubt Never Do What You Really Want to Do.

94. Human Nature (Michel Gondry, 2001)

Human Nature is the first collaboration between screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry. The film's story involves a collection of oddball characters. Patricia Arquette is a young woman with a rare hormonal condition in which her hair grows rapidly all over her body, Tim Robbins is a scientist, Dr. Nathan Bronfman, teaching and observing manners in other animals, and Rhys Ifans is a man raised in the wilderness later affectionately named Puff, lacking any level of civilized sophistication. Finding Puff in the wild Nathan takes it upon himself to civilize the wild man, studying him in the process.

Of all Kaufman's films Human Nature appears to be his most overlooked and unappreciated. Perhaps the silliness of the movie either turns people away or masks the real wit in the picture, of which there is indeed plenty. Throughout the movie Puff progresses from a sex driven animal to a more sophisticated man, though it becomes clear that mankind's apparent civilized nature is only there to obscure and cover the reality of his baser instincts. It's as though in the process to obtain what we really want we have to appear as if we don't desire it at all.

Human Nature is not just silly, but the absurdity, like Kaufman's first feature screenplay Being John Malkovich (1999), is so strong it's nearly palpable. From the film's title its theme should be plain as day, poking fun at the true human nature of mankind. One of my favorite absurd running bits of comedy in the movie is the way it shows Puff's unrealistic rapid progression through learning art, literature, and so forth becoming a man of "culture". The movie continuously references the unnatural absurdity of his educational growth as it uses it to comment on man's lack of control on their own instinctive desires, to undermine the entire facade. Though Human Nature's satirization on human manners may be blunt and to the point it is nevertheless wholly amusing.

Films from 2001 on List:

Human Nature (Michel Gondry)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Don't Worry, Be Happy.

95. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, 2008)

Happy-Go-Lucky is one of the more recent films from popular British filmmaker Mike Leigh and serves as a good counter balance to a lot of the other movies I've posted so far. Especially compared to the thoroughly unsettling Dogtooth, Happy-Go-Lucky is charming and infectiously pleasant. Sally Hawkins plays the film's protagonist, Poppy, a school teacher who refuses to let the world get her down whether it's her embittered driving instructor, her fervently emotional dance teacher, or even the prospect of being single.

Decidedly character driven, the film is all about Poppy's determinedly sunny disposition and wraps itself around her warmth, cheerfulness, and general good nature. There are plenty of films that will tell their viewers to enjoy life while you can, look on the brighter side of situations, and to appreciate the little things in life, nearly to the point that they become confectionery cliches. What sets Happy-Go-Lucky apart from these films is the way it expresses its theme, it has a way of not telling us how to feel but instead bringing us into Poppy's world from her unique perception. It becomes an empathetic experience rather than an instructional life lecture.

Of course this infectious experience couldn't work without the performance of Sally Hawkins. This is as much Hawkins' film as it is Leigh's and through every little piece of Poppy which Hawkins and Leigh have created for this film, from her free spirited chuckle to her bouncy mannerisms, the rest of the movie is built around the foundation of her performance. Hawkins and her character command the film as exceptionally as any actress from this past decade and with her director have created an unforgettable character, from a performance that I could not envision with another actress in the business, no matter their versatility or talent. Poppy is as signature a performance for Hawkins as Happy-Go-Lucky is a film from Mike Leigh.

Films from 2008 on List:

Happy-G0-Lucky (Mike Leigh)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Oh, In the Name of God! Now I Know What It Feels Like to Be God!

96. Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2009)

Giorgos Lanthimos' bizarre film serves as a good follow-up to my last post, the biopic Control, because one of its primary themes is indeed control. This strange Greek film follows a family, mother and father with their three children, two girls and a boy. There are references to another son though we never see him on screen and due to the nature of the film we are never certain of the truth behind his existence. This makes more sense when the rest of the movie is explained. The family's father has isolated his children from the outside world and their days are spent mostly learning a twisted language from their father on recorded tapes where the meaning of each word is switched around or competing with each other through "lessons" given to them by their father. It's never certain whether they actually have another brother because their father isn't the most trustworthy source of information.

At first glance Dogtooth is an unsettling exercise in abuse, both psychological and physical yet at times dark patches of intended humor can even be seen sprouted throughout. There are many discussions that could arise from those who find it a commentary on politics, to the illusions of the ideals of the perfect nuclear family, to religious implications and the notion of an imperfect god. Maybe none of these are correct or maybe they all are and more, though I find a movie that raises many questions at the very least interesting even if it doesn't always give answers to those questions.

Perhaps at the least Dogtooth is an interesting conversation piece, personally I think it's a film about a man attempting to exert control over any part of the world he can, though ultimately struggling with it and in the end failing all together. The house and yard which inclose the family almost become its own world with its unique logical rules constructed by the family's father. Though in the end, like the outside world, a man's control is forever fleeting even in a world he has seemingly created.

Films from 2009 on List:

Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos)
Mother (Joon-ho Bong)
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Love will Tear Us Apart Again.

97. Control (Anton Corbijn, 2007)

Another Movie I posted last time I was going through this list is this biopic following Joy Division's Ian Curtis. To move things along quickly I'll just use much of what I said last time considering I'm still pretty satisfied with it. Control is a biographical film chronicling the rise of the hugely influential rock band Joy Division, primarily focusing on their lead singer Ian Curtis up until his untimely death. There are a number of things that need to be mentioned when talking about the film, primarily three things, the film's dedicated director and well known photographer Anton Corbijn, the irreplaceable Ian Curtis, and the band itself. Corbijn worked as a photographer and has also over the years directed many music videos for bands such as Nirvana, Echo & the Bunnymen, Depeche Mode, and of course, Joy Division. Corbijn himself claims to have a personal connection with the film, living in England at the time, working with the band for photo shoots, and experiencing the way Joy Division's music defined his time there. His talent as a photographer is evident in the construction of the look of the film, presented in black and white to "reflect the atmosphere of Joy Division and the mood of the era" (Control: The Ian Curtis film). Corbijn also financed a large percentage of the production of the film personally.

Next, the band itself, Joy Division began using energy and influence of the seventies punk revolution and developed it into a sound that became the definitive representation of the post-punk genre that naturally followed punk rock. Unfortunately their rise was short lived with the death of their front man Ian Curtis, and continuing without Curtis as the newly formed New Order. Curtis himself is one of the most interesting individuals in the history of Rock and Roll and his sudden death ranks up there as a tragedy comparable to the deaths of Buddy Holly and John Lennon, musicians who died far too young and too soon. A passionate performer and a complex and introspective lyricist Curtis defined Joy Division's image and sound with his unique stage presence and his deeply personal expression through his song writing.

Virtual unknown Sam Riley portrays the tragic Curtis near flawlessly. Like I said in an earlier post, it's a rare thing when an actor can inhabit a character such as Curtis, such an iconic character in rock history and come off not as a parody of the individual but a genuine believable recreation. Corbijn's film not only captures the turmoil and depression in the mind of Curtis, suffering from epilepsy, it also captures the time period and state of rock music. With music finding the beauty in Curtis' suffering, the film and music serve as remarkable capsules of the expression of an individual that left an impact on generations to follow.

Films from 2007 on List:

Control (Anton Corbijn)

A Mother's Love is Instinctual, Unconditional, and Forever.

98. Mother (Joon-ho Bong, 2009)

Since Bad Lieutenant was something from the previous version of this list I thought I should try and post this next, new addition, as soon as possible. Just three movies into the list and already two Korean movies (not to mention two from 2009), Mother being the fourth feature and most recent from Joon-ho Bong. Mother focuses on a widowed mother's determination to clear the name of her only son, a young mentally disabled man, who becomes the prime suspect in the case of a girl's brutal murder. Her blind conviction drives her to fight and climb over constant barriers to clear his name and find the real killer.

Though, like his other films, Mother is superb overall, the most notable factor is Hye-ja Kim's blistering performance. Her mad, obsessed, desperate determination is so forceful, so thick and developed, that it nearly seems to form its own texture. Easily one of the best performances of the decade, Kim is mesmerizing. The film plays out like the equivalent of a mother lifting a car off their new born baby with adrenaline filled power, there's a madness, a desperate strength that is at once extraordinary and even frightening.

As mysterious and suspenseful as Mother very much is the movie, like those in Park's vengeance trilogy, contains a thoughtfulness that takes it beyond a mere detective story to unravel the truth. Also like Park's vengeance films there is a moral ambiguity that grows out of revelations that unfold within the movie. Blinded by her adoration for her son the mother's actions become continuously more desperate as she attempts to uncover evidence for his acquittal. Mother is a modern mystery with many components that make up the recipe of such great films from the likes of the Alfred Hitchcock. Though there's a deep psychological edge to the film, it's thoroughly thrilling, and also often times can have a twisted comedic bite. It's suspenseful filmmaking at its best.

Films from 2009 on List:

Mother (Joon-ho Bong)
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog)

Friday, September 9, 2011

NOBPD: The New Orleans Bedlam Police Department.

99. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog, 2009)

Herzog's Bad Lieutenant is one of the handful of movies I posted last time I was making my way through this list and it's here again (though dropping slightly in position). Herzog's film is an oddity in that it's neither a sequel nor a remake of the 1992 film starring Harvey Keitel. It is instead a unique crazed madcap crooked cop collapse and an experience that could only come from Werner Herzog. Nicolas Cage plays Terrence McDonagh, a New Orleans cop during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Due to a back injury sustained freeing prisoners during flooding he eventually forms an addiction to pain medication which leads to other substances and snowballs into a bizarre life of depraved madness and corruptibility.

McDonagh is a prime example of one of Cage's madhouse performances, and even better yet it's one of the times that his unrestrained madness works wonders for the film. Like I said the last time I listed Bad Lieutenant it's like Herzog's control of the actor seems less like strict direction and more like he released a raving madman from an asylum and let him run rampant throughout the film. Though perhaps it's more so like Herzog pointed Cage in the general direction he wanted like a gun and fired him into battle. Even though Cage's lunacy is over the top and there are clearly parts where he attempts to develop an accent and other sections of the film where it's completely absent, he's all together fascinating, and it's impossible to look away.

Much like Herzog's collection of work there is of course other gears working beneath the surface and Herzog seems repeatedly interested in exploring the depths of a man's madness while also touching upon his other various philosophical ponderings. To finish this post I'll leave it off with much of the final paragraph of Bad Lieutenant's previous listing. A primary interesting aspect of the film is its time period and setting. The place and time are of course New Orleans following Katrina's devastation of the city. Crime has risen and authoritative justice has been tarnished and corrupted. The fact that McDonagh injures himself during the storm, which serves as the catalyst to his downfall into depravity is an important moment to note. McDonagh's only selfless act, saving a man from drowning, takes place before the after effects of the storm. The hurricane washes the filth from the cracks and rather than carrying them away brings them to the surface. We see the faults and imperfections of a part of the governing body, a section of the state designed to serve and protect doing the opposite, and these problems are naturally human imperfections with the men in a position of power, which could of course be present in any man.

Films from 2009 on List:

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog)

10 Years, 100 Movies: The 2000s Redux.

I've been gone missing for what seems like ages and I never did finish this list. It's now been revived, refurbished, and is relatively ready for a reliable readership. I don't know how frequent these posts will be but hopefully I can keep things steady (and intelligible). This is going to most likely be a pretty short post but as I move up through the list I'll try to expand on things more and more provided my free time isn't diminished by more immediate responsibilities. Now enough of my rambling and let's jump right back into the thick things and begin with some rough attempts at movie speak.

100. Oldboy (Chan-wook Park, 2003)

The second film in Chan-wook Park's vengeance trilogy is the one that brought the greatest attention to the Korean director even narrowly missing out on Cannes Film Festival's Palm d'Or award. An American remake is even in the works with Spike Lee recently announced as its director. Oldboy follows Oh Dae-su, a man locked in a hotel room for fifteen years without any knowledge of the reasons behind his imprisonment. Upon his release he learns that he has five days to find his captor and discover those reasons for his forced hibernation, but he soon discovers that his imprisonment was just the first portion of his mysterious tormentor's plan for vengeance.

Though Park's films are plenty provocative they are not merely exercises in shock and like the first installment in the vengeance trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy is structured as a compelling counter revenge thriller unraveling to a thoroughly shocking, taboo shaking conclusion. As the film unfolds there is a curious shifting balance between Oh Dae-su and his captor both becoming hardened yet tragic figures by the the movie's end.

Based on the handful of his film I have seen from the past decade, Park may be at the head of the pack of Korean talents that include the likes of Ki-duk Kim, Joon-ho Bong, and Jee-woon Kim (among others). Park's films from the 2000s, including his vengeance trilogy and others, pack the same kind of verve, energy, and dynamic visual presentation as some of the films from a young 1970s Martin Scorsese and are even becoming more sophisticated as time passes. Oldboy seems to be the first step towards that eventuality after the highly satisfying, yet inferior, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance as Park moves onwards to even greater things.

Films from 2003 on List:

Oldboy (Chan-wook Park)