Sunday, March 6, 2011

And the Oscar Goes To...

Last Sunday, February 27, 2011, the voters for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters chose “The King’s Speech” as the Best Picture of 2011. “The King’s Speech” won a total of four awards, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay as well. In the middle of January it looked like it was going to be a sure fire victory for “The Social Network”, but as February continued “The King’s Speech” started gaining momentum by winning awards at Producers, Directors, and Actors guild’s. When you look at the Academy’s track record, it was all too obvious that “The King’s Speech” was going to win. It’s an excellent period drama that is uplifting and shows one man’s struggle and triumph over a personal problem, in George the sixth’s case, his stutter. The Academy in the past has made the obvious choice of the more “uplifting” and “feel good” film, but have they always been right? Certainly I can’t argue with the Academy’s choice for “The King’s Speech” to win Best Picture (I can argue with Tom Hooper winning Best Director over David Fincher, but whatever) because I think it is one of the best historical films of all time and without a doubt one of the best films about a man overcoming his disorder since “My Left Foot.”

In the future when cinema lovers look back on the Best Picture winners, will they see then what we see in “The King’s Speech” now? When I look back on the crowd pleasing British films that have won best picture like “Chariots of Fire” and “Gandhi”, they come off quite dull and underwhelming, they may not be “bad” films by any means, but they just don’t seem to deserve the acclaim they received. There are also times where the Academy simply chose the wrong movie, like “Dances with Wolves” over “Goodfellas”, “Ordinary People” over “Raging Bull” and “Kramer vs. Kramer” over “Apocalypse Now.” Perhaps with the latter, it was taken into account that Frances Ford Coppola had two films take home the Best Picture statuette already in that same decade with “The Godfather” in 1972 and with “The Godfather Part 2” in 1974. All of the films I just mentioned that won Best Picture are excellent in their own way, but since time has passed, they’re not quite as memorable as their fellow nominees. That’s what I am afraid will happen with “The King’s Speech.” This is only because of the significance that “The Social Network” has to this time period. Though, I don’t think that “The King’s Speech” will become dated like a lot of naysayers believe. What “The King” has over all of the other films of its nature that have won Best Picture is a solid amount of humor and a superb screenplay that makes a story about a British king easy for everyone to relate to. 

I don’t think that the Academy should lose any sleep over making the obvious choice for the Best Picture Oscar, not this year anyway. But when I glance back at the list of films that have been crowned the top prize in the past I cocked my head sideways and said, “Whaaa’?!” So, here are some not so bright choices the Academy has made for Best Picture.

"Oliver!" 1968

After the ending of the production code era for Hollywood in 1967, the Academy was tired of all those “realistic” films that were excellent representations of the time period. In 1968, a very weak year for the Best Picture nominees (a list that completely neglected “2001: A Space Odyssey”) the Academy went with “Oliver!.” Compared to all of the films being released in 1968 that had an authentic appeal to real life, the Best Picture Oscar ended up in the lap of a film that played like it was already extremely out of date. Even though “Oliver!” was a weak choice, this film is still interesting to watch out of curiosity. It may be dated but, this musical adaptation of the classic Dickens tale still plays with some of the joy of the Hollywood films of yesteryear.  Grade: B-

 "Out of Africa" 1985
“Out of Africa” is a dull, bloated and overlong film with a completely forgettable storyline; it’s a wonder that the Academy even stayed awake to see the offensively predictable ending. The director, Sydney Pollack and his cinematographer frame every shot with care and respect for the beauty of Africa, but didn’t bother paying any attention to the un-involving affair that blossomed between an overacting Meryl Streep and an ultra bland performance by Robert Redford. “Out of Africa” is one of the most gorgeously photographed films of all time, too bad it’s a drag to sit through. Grade: C

 "Gladiator" 2000

Ridley Scott is a great director and Russell Crowe is a great actor, it’s too bad they both got awarded for the wrong movie. “Gladiator” is best described by Roger Ebert as “the story of ‘Rocky’ on downers.” Well, he is exactly right. I find “Gladiator” to be no more than a mindless Saturday afternoon film. It’s well made, but ultimately too grim and too similar to the overrated “Braveheart”, which took home the same award five years prior. Grade: B-… Check out Russell Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind” and Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” to see their artistic abilities done right.

"The English Patient" 1996
“The English Patient” is a dull, bloated and overlong film with a completely forgettable storyline; it’s a wonder that the Academy even stayed awake to see the offensively predictable ending… Wait, did I repeat myself? Once again, this film is gorgeously shot, but the central storyline about the Ralph Fiennes character that is burnt to a crisp from an airplane accident and is upset about some woman he lost is such a bore to watch that my eyelids became so heavy I couldn’t hold them up. The storytelling is quite lazy and unoriginal; the whole plot is revealed via clunky flashback style. I may revisit this film one day to see if it will grow on me, but I doubt it. Grade: C-

"Forrest Gump" 1994
I know I’m alone on this one, I’ve probably seen this film more times than any other movie in my life, but as I have become more and more infatuated with cinema, the more my childhood attachment to this film has worn off. What kind of a man is Forrest Gump? Many have said that Forrest Gump represents America. What the hell? So America is kind of retarded, but not really? No way would the Army let a man of minimal intelligence enlist, but oh well. I also don’t care for how this film uses melodramatic clichés in an attempt to relate to the people that pass away around us. Mama dies of cancer and Jenny dies of AIDS! Forrest Gump is a flat movie character who shows know real change after all the history he experiences; he doesn’t even understand what went on in his generation.
But hey, I’m not completely out of the loop. This film is well made by Bob Zemeckis and all of the scenes where they place Forrest in the archival footage are always fun to watch. I also enjoy Gary Sinise’s work in the film and the humor, even if it is uneven and overrated. Grade: C
 Did I mention that this film beat "Pulp Fiction", "Shawshank Redemption", and "Quiz Show" for Best Picture? That's almost repulsive to think about.

"Crash" 2005

I have had something nice to say about all of the films that I have wrote about so far, but when it comes to the disgustingly overrated “Crash”, I have trouble coming up with anything nice to say other than Matt Dillon is excellent in it. Just thinking about Paul Haggis’s film makes me sick. It offends all the senses, from its exploitation of melodramatic clichés, to its complete misrepresentation of the human race, “Crash” tries to teach us a lesson our school system’s tried to teach us; racism is bad. Every character just happens to be utterly racist, and every five seconds someone is shouting a racial slur and running or crying or shooting or almost blowing up in a car accident in slow motion. The film is trying to show that every human has subtle racist tendencies because of stereotypes, which is true. But every argument in the film boils completely out of control up to a ridiculously laughable conclusion where it literally starts snowing in Los Angeles. Then, in the last seconds of the film, a car wreck happens and one of the minor characters that we met earlier in the film, a black woman offensively named Shaniqua Johnson, gets out of her car and starts screaming a racist remarks to an Asian woman. That comes off to me that Haggis thinks there is no hope for the human race. The real message of “Crash”, “Every human is a back stabbing racist until someone gets killed out of stupidity or some sort of really bad thing happens to make you realize that it wasn’t about race at all because we’re all humans”, is delivered in a completely ham-fisted and eye rolling manner. WHAT WAS THE ACADEMY THINKING? To the worst Best Picture winner of all time: Grade: D-

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

My Top Ten Films of 2010

Every year published critics put out a list of their favorite films to come out in that year. Well, I’m not even close to a published critic but what is wrong with pretending? I have been infatuated with cinema since 2008 and this is my third “best of” list I have made. It has been an amazing year for modern cinema. I will also try to mention other films that are not exclusively on my best of list because there were countless films to love, like, and loathe in 2010. So here you go, along with Oscar predictions, here is my list of the best films of 2010.

  1. "Black Swan"


Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" is one of the most incredible blend of cinematic styles I have ever experienced. It is best described as a melodramatic psycho-erotic drama that succeeds on every possible level that a film can achieve. The direction, cinematography, the score, choreography, and lets not forget Natalie Portman's best performance to date as a severely mentally damaged ballerina are all ingredients that elevate this film to its masterful level. What truly sets "Black Swan" apart from the rest of the psycho-thriller genre is its reluctance to justify what exactly is going on on screen. In "Black Swan", the audience never knows for sure what we're actually witnessing, there is the basic melodrama storyline and our own perception of what is happening. With this film, I think it is safe to say that Aronofsky deserves the same credit as a master filmmaker on central character paranoia as Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese, and David Lynch. "Black Swan" backed me into a corner, shortened my breath, clinched my soul and stirred every bit of angst and emotion inside of me.

2. "The Social Network"

When I first saw the trailer for David Fincher’s “The Social Network” at the opening night of “Inception”, I thought to myself, “Wow, that Facebook movie actually looks pretty good.” When I sat down in my seat at a sold out theater to see “The Social Network”, I knew I was in for a movie that was going to more than great, it was going to be a social phenomenon. I laughed with the crowd the entire movie at every character’s smart and quick remarks. I felt more attached to the film than anyone else; I found myself in awe of David Fincher’s masterful direction that he had perfectly exhibited already in his dark investigative films, and Aaron Sorkin’s best screenplay he has ever written. This movie has a good chance to sweep the Oscars in the categories of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and probably a few others. 

“The Social Network” is so sensational because the screenplay never makes a judgment on a single character; we are left to make our own assumptions as to who actually founded Facebook. The film is done in a style that resembles Kurosawa’s “Rashomon,” where every character has their side of the story. It also shares the style of Welles’s “Citizen Kane” by being a fictional and involving version of the founding of a major American company, while remaining similar and as culturally relevant as “Network”, “Taxi Driver”, and “All the President’s Men” were in 1976. The fact that “The Social Network” completely invaded the social zeitgeist makes me ecstatic. This is the film of my generation.

3."Winter's Bone"
This Sundance film festival hit instantly hit a soft spot in my heart because it was filmed in Missouri. Directed by Debra Granik, the independent filmmaker responsible for bringing Vera Farmiga (“The Departed” and “Up in the Air”) to stardom in “Down To the Bone”, “Winter’s Bone” is a simple film full of teeth clenching intensity and never ending beauty.
The story revolves around a seventeen year old girl named Ree Dolly (in an amazing performance by Jennifer Lawrence) who has sacrificed going to school to take care of her two younger siblings. Her mother is in a state of mental stalemate and just sits in a chair all day long, while her father is a meth cook and dealer that is in and out of jail. When Ree’s father jumps bail and uses their home as collateral, it is up to Ree to search for her father.
The film follows stock story structure of an ordinary person put in an extraordinary situation, and it evolves into something truly special, you must experience for yourself. Ree’s odyssey into the Springfield, Missouri backwoods and mountains to search for her father to save her family’s home is utterly moving. The climactic scene in “Winter’s Bone” haunts me in my dreams every night. The film's use of the Missouri wilderness as another character in the story makes me proud to be from a state this elegantly beautiful. 

4. "The Secret in Their Eyes"

The 2009 Foreign Language Oscar award winning film, “The Secret in Their Eyes” is a classic film in every sense of the word. It is a crime investigative tale that is graciously and beautifully blended with a romance between two long lost lovers.
The film is told as a series of flashbacks through the eyes of a retired detective Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin). His life is haunted by a brutal murder case that he never solved and by never getting the chance to marry the love of his life, Irene, who was also his boss on the case. Ricardo pays her a visit in present time to tell that he is writing a novel about the case that they never solved, that’s where both stories unfold, and it is truly site to see.
Directed by Juan Jose Campanella (TV’s “House” and “Law and Order”), this is a wonderfully involving romantic mystery that uses old fashioned and straightforward storytelling, a technique that has been completely forgotten by today’s film makers. The standout scene in this film is shot in a soccer stadium when Benjamin and his men are chasing after a murder suspect. How on earth it was shot in one take, with or without CGI is completely beyond me. “The Secret in Their Eyes” was more than deserving of its Oscar.

5. "The Kids Are All Right"

"The Kids Are All Right" is one of the best films about dysfunctional family life that I have ever seen. Anchored by five perfect performances, a hilarious and poignant script, and a flashy piece of pop/indie directing by Lisa Cholodenko, this film is marvelous. Oh yeah, what’s it even about?

Two teenage kids, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and Joni’s (Mia Wasikowska) parents are a lesbian couple; each mom gave birth to one of the kids from the same sperm donor. Joni is about to go off to college, her and Laser decide to try and meet their donor father, a free spirit named Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Paul makes an odd fit for this family, and causes problems that can be given away by the film trailer.
"The Kids Are All Right" is a hilarious film with touching dramatic undertones. The performance by Annette Benning and Julianne Moore as “moms” will more than likely garner them some Oscar attention. Benning has a great chance at winning this year considering that she has been nominated several times before. Her performance as the stern parent, Nic even made me fear her character from my seat in the theater. When it’s all said and done, The Kids has great characters that everyone can relate to in some way. If you don’t walk away from this film satisfied and moved, then you’re not even human!

6."127 Hours"
Oscar winning director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) brings the world another great cinematic achievement. This time it is so wondrous because Boyle, with the help of his “Slumdog” screenwriter and cinematographers take the films instantly grim subject matter and miraculously make it one of the most entertaining films of the year.
Aaron Ralston (James Franco at his best!), poor guy, fell into a crevice in the earth while out in the wilderness. Not only did he fall into the crevice of the earth, he also has is arm pinned against a wall by a large bolder, bummer. NOT ONLY, did all of this occur, but he also neglected to tell anyone else that he knew where he was going and what he was doing. He is able to do video journals from his camcorder, and in running through the reasons why he was down there alone, and lucky to be alive he begins to reevaluate his entire of life. After all 127 hours is a long time to think about it. Yes, most of the film is told in flashbacks of Ralston’s life instead of just focusing on the static situation. These flashbacks add a much needed amount of depth to the film, just thought I’d tell you naysayers. If you know the story of Aaron Ralston, there is an inevitable gruesome scene that occurs. When I walked out of the theater, I was completely moved, and just glad to be alive.

7."A Prophet"
"A Prophet" is a French gangster film that is easily compared to last year’s Italian instant gangster classic, “Gomorrah” and Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” while having the same epic scope of “The Godfather” saga. Here’s the kicker, the story is told almost exclusively behind prison walls.
The plot consists of a 19 year old named Malik is sentenced to prison for six years, he is both naïve and illiterate. He thinks he can protect himself in a prison ran by the Corsican Mafia, he’s wrong. The prison mob leader, Cesar Luciani (one of the year’s best performances by Niels Arestrup) takes Malik under his wing and offers to protect him from the other inmate in trade for jobs that he needs done. From Malik’s first murder up until his final day behind bars we are involved in his life and grow with him. He overcomes diversity and learns to read and write French, Arabic, and Italian, using his intellect to his advantage and working his way to the top. Don’t get to ahead of yourself now, this isn’t just your generic rise and fall story this is story of the American dream, it just happens to be told in a French correctional system.

8."The King's Speech"
It seems that every December a stuffy period piece is released that is lusting for Oscar gold. That almost may be the case with “The King’s Speech” but who cares when it is a gem like this one? Director Tom Hooper (fresh off of last year’s over looked “The Damned United”) and his artistic team do an astounding job of taking the audience back in time in the British monarchy when King George the sixth reigned. "The King's Speech" is a very articulate and historically accurate period drama stylishly mixes in archive footage to give the film its authentic feel. David Seidler’s Oscar worthy script is extremely similar to the plot of “My Fair Lady”, except it actually happened.

Colin Firth steps into what will soon be known as the role of his career (he will definitely win Best Actor). He portrays George the sixth, a man that is crippled with a stammer and a life filled of feeling like a failure because of constant teasing from his family. He seeks aid for his problem from a speech coach named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush, also Oscar worthy) and their unlikely friendship blossoms throughout the film. The King’s Speech will more than likely have the masses standing up and cheering at the end, this makes it an obvious choice for the Oscars to choose it as the best picture of 2010. That would be fine with me. 

 9. "Mother"
Korean director John ho-Bong’s latest masterwork, “Mother” is about a mentally challenged boy that has been wrongly accused of murder in a small town. He has no alibi because he can’t remember what he did the night before when the murder took place. All of the evidence points to him as the culprit. His mother, played in a masterful performance by Hye-ja Kim does her own investigating of the matter and goes to great lengths to prove her child’s innocence. A film like this can seem so generic and boring if put in the wrong creative hands, but in the hands of Bong it is a superbly crafted investigative tale that is also darkly comic, scary and suspenseful. You may not realize until it is over, but this film carries a great amount of emotional weight that will deeply resonate with you. I strongly advise everyone to give this criminally overlooked film a chance, you won’t regret it.

10. "Last Train Home" 
"Last Train Home" is one of the most heart breaking and emotionally deep documentaries that I have ever seen. Directed by Lixin Fan and filmed on his 35mm camera, "Last Train Home" documents the real life struggle of a Chinese family whose parents are migrant workers (2 of 130 million in all of China) and whose kids live with their Grandmother on the other side of the country. The only time the parents come home during the course of the year is during the Chinese New Year, with all of that time apart, how are the parents and children ever going to have a real emotional bond?"Last Train Home" was also criminally overlooked this year in the Oscar documentary nominations, but it doesn't matter to me. This is an amazing documentary that lets the viewer learn for themselves how a culture works and all of the pain and struggle of working for a greater good. My advice to you, don't miss this film like the Oscars did.

Special Jury Prize:"Exit Through the Gift Shop"
To take words from a fellow critic, "Exit Through Gift Shop" is a very "engrossing" documentary. Directed by mysterious and legendary street artist named Banksy, this film is supposed to be telling the story about Thierry Guetta, a man who obsessively documents the world around him with a video camera who finds a passion in recording graffiti artists doing their work, but since it was directed by Banksy himself it leaves room for concern on whether or not he tweaked many of the facts, or if the whole film is just a stunt pulled by him in order to show off more of his work. I'm honestly not sure whether or not either one is true, because there are aspects of the story line that seem entirely too juicy to just be thought up, but who knows? Whether or not it is a hoax, Banksy has still performed his best work yet with this film.

Here are some other films that didn't make my list this year, but are not to be missed!

"The Ghost Writer"--Roman Polanski is back with this incredible neo-noir crossed with a political thriller masterpiece.Grade: A

"Inception"--Writer and Director Christopher Nolan's Kubrick-esque summer blockbuster got the world's brains working again during dumb movie season while still giving us an amazing amount of action and CGI effects, but also an incredible amount of substance. Marion Cotillard's performance as Leonardo DiCaprio's wife in this film is just as jaw-dropping as the effects and Hanz Zimmer's film score. Grade: A-

"True Grit"--The Coen brother's follow up to last year's understated "A Serious Man" is a remake of the 1969 John Wayne western. This film is filled with an amazing amount of the Coen's humor and an unusual amount of warmth and emotion and also tops the original by a long stretch. The cast is top notch as well, even if the film feels a little too typical by the end. Roger Deakin's cinematography makes this film worth seeing alone. Grade: A-

"The Fighter"-- The best sports movies are never actually about the sport itself, "Raging Bull" was about a man fighting his own demons and ego while "The Fighter" is actually about the strength and foundation of a family. That almost makes the title completely inappropriate but oh well. The cast of this film all around recreate a genuine Massachusetts feel and Christian Bale gives a performance that will win him an Oscar. Grade: A-

"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"-- This film is a classic suspense and mystery story told in the same vein and "Silence of the Lambs" and "Zodiac", and followed up with two sequels, one mediocre, and the third is merely good. David Fincher is directing an American remake, I bet he can top this one, even though this one is great. Grade: A-

"Carlos"--This is a 5 and a half hour miniseries that tells the story of a terrorist's rise to power. I sat through it all in one sitting and it didn't feel like time even passed. It is shot in the same style as some of my favorite films such as "Z" and "The Battle of Algiers", though it does tend to lose some steam in the part three, the film as a whole is quite extraordinary. Grade: A-

"Let Me In"-- This is the American remake of the Swedish horror masterpiece "Let the Right One In", though it is not as good as the original (the original is a perfect movie, see it now if you have not. It was my number in 2008) but it has the same amazing story of the true heart ache of being a vampire and two amazing juvenile performances from the leading characters. Grade: B+

"Toy Story 3"-- An emotionally ripe end to an amazing trilogy features a solid amount of thrills and an amazing use of tear jerking film elements that would give even the best of tear jerkers like "Terms of Endearment" a run for their money. Do you get it now? It made me cry, I'm still a man though. Did I mention it's freakin' hilarious? Grade: A-

"Restrepo"--This is a documentary covers a platoon during the current conflict in Iraq. It is impossible to describe the power and importance of this documentary, just go watch it. Grade: A

"Greenberg"--Writer and director Noah Baumbach brings the world another story that's borderline depressing, yet still remains darkly hilarious. Not to mention, this is Ben Stiller's career making performance. Grade: B+

Worst of the year! Stay the hell away from these films, unless you're just in the mood for a bad movie.

"The Last Airbender"-- Almost unwatchable on every level.Grade: F
"Sex and the City 2"-- This movie is downright disgusting and offensive. Grade: F
"The Back Up Plan"-- Jennifer Lopez better stop now, this is terrrrribbbbllleee. Grade: F
"Flipped"-- Rob Reiner has definitely lost his touch. He's lost his sense of decency with this one. Grade: D+
"Resident Evil:Afterlife"-- Why on Earth do they keep making these movies? They're the same thing over and over! Grade: D-
"Kick Ass"-- This film is the worst comic book adaptation of all time, not to mention the all time worst attempt at black comedy. Every bit of attempted humor falls extremely flat and offensive. Though, Chloe Moretz shows an amazing amount of charisma for a young actress (check her out in "Let Me In"), "Kick Ass" remains a disgrace to the genre. Grade: D

Check on Friday for my Oscar Predictions!