Monday, September 27, 2010

The Joneses

Director: Derrick Borte
Starring: Demi Moore, David Duchovny, Amber Heard, Ben Hollingsworth, Gary Cole, Lauren Hutton, Glenne Headly
Running Time: 96 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The Joneses is the most frustrating kind of good movie to review because it brushes so closely with greatness, only to fall short due to a couple of dumb, easily correctable problems. Calling its central premise inspired or original is an understatement. So much so that the execution could have been completely squandered and the finished product would have still probably turned out okay. It isn't squandered, but there's that feeling that all the potential wasn't realized and there was something really special in there struggling to break through. With a concept like this I question how any film could fully deliver on it without at least some degree of disappointment. For the first hour it looks like it will, but writer/director Derrick Borte sets the bar a little too high for himself and struggles at times to find the right tone before unloading a rushed ending completely inappropriate for the film.

Some movies can get away with a lackluster ending but this can't since all the themes and ideas seem to build toward the story's resolution.  But in all fairness to Borte, it's no easy task getting a high concept like this exactly where it needs to go and he does a serviceable job.  If nothing else, the film deserved more attention than it got during its brief, invisible run in theaters and should be wildly applauded for actually introducing an original idea we haven't seen on screen before. But as impressive as certain ideas can look on paper, following through with them all the way is a different matter altogether.

It helps to know as little as possible about the premise going in but the trailers and commercials give it away because they didn't really have a choice. Without coming clean with its concept, there's nothing to sell the movie on other than its stars, a cruel irony considering this is all about selling. But for the first fifteen minutes we are cleverly left in the dark when Steve Jones (David Duchovny) and his youthful looking wife, Kate (Demi Moore) move into an upper-middle class (i.e. rich) suburban neighborhood with their two high school aged kids, Jennifer (Amber Heard) and Mick (Ben Hollingsworth). They look like one of those impossibly perfect, great looking families that stepped out of a fancy home magazine, with a residence to match. And for good reason. That's basically what they are. The big secret is that they're a fake family being paid by a stealth marketing company to push new products in the neighborhood. Logically, if they're liked, everyone will want to to own what they have. They're selling themselves as much as they are the products with their manager, KC (Lauren Hutton) tracking the progress. On her sixth husband, the driven Kate is the veteran of the "unit" and on her first "head of household" assignment is supervising Steve, a green as grass rookie learning the ropes, but it gets complicated when their working arrangement evolves into something more and their "kids" begin to emotionally unravel from pretending to be what they're not. The Joneses also have to deal with the consequences of the bonds they've formed with those in the neighborhood, real or fake as they may be.

The expression "Keeping up with the Joneses" could seem dated to some, but the idea behind it definitely isn't. Hearing the title of the movie I couldn't help but laugh at the fact that one of my favorite sayings was being adapted into a feature film as I've been known to use it every time it seems applicable, which is a lot more often than you'd think.  Knowing the premise going in I was still impressed with how it was slowly and mysteriously introduced so that like the neighbors we're not initially sure what to make of these Joneses or what their deal is. When we do is when the movie really comes alive in its first sixty minutes, fully exploiting all the possibilities and implications of their deception. An important touch is that the Joneses are actually good salespeople because they don't overdo it and the film already has a built-in excuse for product placement, which Borte's script doesn't abuse by shoving it down our throats. In this sense the film, while completely original in conceit, does have definite thematic shadings of The Truman Show and Pleasantville in its critique of American materialism and consumerism.

The casting is so spot-on it's scary, with the choices in actors serving the themes exceptionally well. Who wouldn't buy a golf club David Duchovny recommended? Who could have possibly been a better choice to play Kate than Demi Moore, an actress who's basically sold to us as an anti-aging commodity? And is there a high school girl who wouldn't want look, dress like and BE Amber Heard? Moore gives her best performance in ages as the ambitious sales leader, in addition to looking as young as she has in years, which isn't an entirely irrelevant point when you consider the nature of her role. Duchovny brings the sly charm in what's kind of a watered down version of his Hank Moody character on Californication, making his best case so far for big screen leading man status.  In smaller but still suitably developed roles, the increasingly prolific Heard continues her streak of nailing (literally in this case) any supporting part she's given and newcomer Hollingsworth effectively sketches out the teen poser harboring a secret of his own. And since they're both supposed to be adults playing teenagers, we now finally have a movie with a suitable excuse for casting adults as teenagers.

The movie attempts to go to dark places the second act requires even if it feels a little out of step with the sitcom-style feel that's present throughout. The darkest center around married couple, Summer and Larry (Glenne Headly and Gary Cole), next-door neighbors struggling to keep up with Joneses. Headley and Cole are two of the more underrated character actors working today so it's no surprise they turn mere sketches into real people worth caring about and fill in the blanks of their slightly underwritten roles, alternating seamlessly between the comedy and drama. When the wheels start to fly off the Joneses perfect fake life Borte seems to want to turn this into a scathing commentary carrying an impact similar to more dramatic entries in suburban dysfunction like American Beauty or the more recent Revolutionary Road. That's when he starts losing his way and grasp on tone before wimping out with an abrupt, unsatisfying finish that damages the film's overall credibility. The worst thing he could have done with a premise this strong was attempt to spell everything out for us, which he does with an embarrassing soapbox-style speech that comes abruptly out of left field to wrap things up in a conventional Hollywood way. He also does the second worst thing in giving far too much emphasis to the romantic angle between the two leads. The idea that this sales team family are co-workers under the same roof is intriguing and Moore and Duchovny have chemistry, but her character is such a humorless ice queen it's difficult to grasp what Steve sees in her (well, at least from a personality standpoint). This sub-plot that should be downplayed in favor of the darker elements of the script instead takes center stage at the worst possible time, making the film feel almost like a fluffy romantic comedy.

I'll concede to some bias here since dark, suburban social commentaries are among my favorite types of pictures but Borte at least had the concept for a real winner in his hands, only to let it slip through his fingers. With a firm command over the look of sprawling, sunny suburbia he's a better director than writer, which isn't to say he's a bad writer because it takes a lot of talent to even come up with an idea like this, much less push it as far as he does. But the last thing that should be accompanying this film this ambitious at its conclusion is a forgettable feeling. With a final act that reeks of studio interference, I wouldn't mind seeing a hidden director's cut or even a full-blown remake that follows its dark path to the ending its premise promises. Despite an admirable effort to do something different, The Joneses tries to please everybody, and ironically becomes guilty of engaging in some of the same tactics it's sending up.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Solitary Man

Directors: Brian Koppelman and David Levien
Starring: Michael Douglas, Mary-Louise Parker, Jenna Fischer, Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, Olivia Thirlby
Running Time: 90 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

It's almost impossible to watch the dark comedy, Solitary Man without viewing it as a biographical account of star Michael Douglas' life, or at least what the public has been led to believe his life is, regardless of whether that assumption is true. You may as well as well title the movie, This is Your Life, Michael Douglas since the events that occur in it bear such an eerie resemblance to past and current headlines surrounding the actor. But focusing exclusively on that would be ignoring the fact that he's long been one of our most under-appreciated actors, only further proving it here with his best performance in years.

In kind of a cross between his slick tycoon Gordon Gekko in Wall Street and disheveled literary failure Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys, this might be his slimiest role yet, as a good portion of the movie is a creep fest featuring Douglas' character engaging in behavior that will be off-putting (to say the least) for viewers. The film's main asset is not shying away from that by presenting an unflinching story about a man with a serious problem that won't go away until he wants it to. While it's a small-scale, modest achievement that doesn't do anything special, it doesn't need to because the lead refuses to plead for sympathy with his portrayal and the filmmakers surround him with an all-star cast, while balancing some tricky material.

Douglas is formerly successful car dealer Ben Kalmen, whose life took a turn for the worse after finding out he could have a heart ailment, made questionable business decisions that lost him his fortune and romantic indiscretions led to the collapse of his marriage to wife Nancy (Susan Sarandon). Now, six years later, he's still feeling the repercussions, as his daughter Susan (Jenna Fischer) wants nothing to do with him until he starts acting his age and stops chasing younger women. Ben's rare shot at selflessness comes when he's roped into accompanying his girlfriend Jordan's (Mary Louise Parker) 18-year-old daughter Allyson (Imogen Poots) on a college interview at his alma mater where he was an important financial donor. Instead, his behavior escalates to even more embarrassing levels on the trip, resulting in a one-night stand with Allyson that might be the creepiest hook-up this side of Lolita. Even his misguided attempts to mentor shy, nerdy student Daniel (played by Jesse Eisenberg) go haywire and the campus visit somehow finds Ben in worse shape than when he left. At a crossroads, he has to decide which direction he'll go.

Playing an aging lothario is nothing new for Douglas but most of the big studio movies he stars in lack the self-awareness he has in playing it, which hurts him as an actor by falsely perpetuating the unfair myth that it's the only part he's capable of playing. Writer (and Co-Director) Brian Koppelman's script share that awareness, fully acknowledging a 60-year-old man scouring a college campus for some action is not okay and extremely creepy. And so does every character except Ben. It always seems that smaller, more character driven films like this are better suited to tap into Douglas' overlooked strengths as a performer, playing a man who's coasts on his charm until it completely runs its course. Faced with his own mortality, Ben chooses not to face it and act out in humiliating ways, yet the actor still manages to make Ben charming and likable enough to root for despite all his character faults.

The film returns Douglas to the academic setting that resulted in his greatest performance a decade ago, but this time under very different circumstances and as half of what should be a dream team pairing with Eisenberg. Just the idea of Douglas prowling dormitory halls with Eisenberg while giving him unsolicited advice on how to pick up girls is alone worth the price of a DVD rental. Had their scenes together comprised the entire movie I wouldn't have complained, but it's just a small part of a bigger picture. The ads and trailers practically imply a buddy comedy with the two but Eisenberg's role, while mildly important, is essentially a thinly drawn cameo variation on his sensitive, geeky characters from Adventureland and Zombieland, but in a lower key. The supporting star is British actress Imogen Poots (what a name), who in addition to flawlessly pulling off an American accent, navigates a tough, complex role in Allyson, the quasi-love interest of Ben who's conniving and damaged enough to meet him at his level even though she's young enough to be his granddaughter. The cast is loaded with familiar faces fighting for screen time but all are incorporated well and make big impressions with what they're given, especially Mary Louise Parker as Ben's scorned girlfriend and Olivia Thirlby who appears late in the film as Daniel's love interest. There's also a nice sub-plot with Danny DeVito, who plays an old college buddy of Ben's, which takes on an extra layer when you consider Douglas' real-life friendship with the actor.

As obvious as it is to point out, the movie's title couldn't be more appropriate for a story centering on a protagonist who's become an island unto himself, pushing away anyone willing to help. Thankfully, the script stays consistent to the end, avoiding any kind of force-fed redemption or easy resolution that would feel like an unearned cheat or betrayal of the film's themes. Outside of Douglas' performance, it doesn't stand out from other efforts in this genre, coming off as neither memorable nor completely forgettable, but it intelligently deals with a lot of issues that had to hit close to home for him, and us. Calling Solitary Man a small character piece may seem condescending, if that wasn't exactly what it is. It's a well written drama about real people struggling with real problems, and it never hurts to see more of those.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Ghost Writer

Director: Roman Polanski
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton, Jim Belushi, Eli Wallach, Robert Pugh
Running Time: 128 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

The Ghost Writer
is Roman Polanski's Shutter Island, minus the style and even much of the substance. That it was released in theaters at exactly the same time as Scorsese's film is just too ironic to ignore when you consider this really could pass as the poor man's version of it. Both are mystery/suspense thrillers that feature its protagonist trapped on island with untrustworthy and possibly dangerous people and attempt to shock with a surprise "twist ending." They're also both likely to enjoy an inflated reputation because of their directors, although this apparently more so. It just a sprinkling of thrills, mystery and suspense as it meanders for over two hours to a forgone conclusion that isn't worth the time invested from viewers. Maybe that wouldn't be so frustrating if portions of it weren't intelligently written and it contained a few strong performances, as well as some strange casting decisions.

The most surprising thing about the picture isn't the ending (one of the dumbest final scenes all year) but the fact that Polanski wrote and directed it, although he does do as good a job as humanly possible hiding just how ordinary it all is. When you have a film that's all build-up you have to be prepared to really deliver beyond the conventional. The constricting script prevents that, instead serving up another one of those reasonably entertaining government conspiracy cover-ups. There are aspects to admire, but unfortunately none have anything to do with the actual plot.

Ewan McGregor is the unnamed title character hired to ghost write the memoirs of Ex-British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), after the previous man hired for the job mysteriously washed up dead on the beach near Lang's Massachusetts estate. It was ruled a suicide but Ghost (as our protagonist refers to himself) has his suspicions and for good reason since Lang is embroiled in a bitter public feud with former political ally Richard Rycart (Robert Pugh), who's accusing him of war crimes. While that alone would make great material for an autobiography, Lange's personal life is also falling apart as he's been cheating on his cold but loyal wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams) with his assistant, Amelia (Kim Cattrall in an AWFUL performance). With the deadline quickly approaching, Ghost's goal moves from finishing the book to just simply surviving as he inches closer to the truth.

Leisurely paced but never boring, the film takes its time getting to where it needs to go by slowly dropping clues along the way as we discover along with Ghost key pieces of information that are clearly meant to lead to something big and revelatory about Lang. It's fun imagining just how much could have been done with the premise of a ghost writer getting in over his head and there are moments in the second hour when it seems the screenplay will take full advantage of that, but ultimately it just takes the easy way out. Lang is never really an interesting character and is given problems (both personal and political) that literally seem cribbed from the evening news and put to film. There's no effort to make his back story interesting in the slightest to the point where he's a walking political cliche, right down to his extra-marital affair. Brosnan, with his smooth and easygoing charm, is perfect as Lang (many probably imagine him as an ex-British Prime Minister anyway) so this isn't a big stretch for him, but he still brings as much as possible to a limited role. McGregor is a reliable, though not extraordinary actor, so he's in his comfort zone also as an ordinary guy thrust into dangerous circumstances.

The true standout is Olivia Williams who brings a lot to the table as Lang's wronged wife, Ruth than anyone could have reasonably expected from what's usually a thankless part. She suggests an entire history with her performance that's far more compelling than anything we're given, subtly conveying emotional pain and vulnerability that was above and beyond the call of duty for a story this pedestrian. It's a nomination-worthy turn, if only the movie containing it didn't seem so inconsequential. Making almost as much impact in a single scene is the always spot-on Tom Wilkinson whose, brief but memorable appearance as a mysterious college friend of Lang's teases a deeper, more interesting film that never arrives. A bald James Belushi, Timothy Hutton, the former "Mr. Freeze" Eli Wallach round up the curiously mainstream cast, dragged down only by Kim Cattrall, who besides struggling with a British accent, stops every scene she's in dead in its tracks with her capital A "Acting". Why cast a well-known American actress who has to attempt an accent when the role is a glorified cameo and contributes nothing to the story anyway?

With the exception of Alexandre Desplat's appropriately moody and suspenseful score, from a technical standpoint the movie is nothing special, with a generic look and feel that recalls the kind of cable thriller you might land on during a lazy Sunday afternoon. Say what you want about Shutter Island but it it had visual style and atmosphere to spare and Scorsese knew exactly what what he wanted that film to be. Polanski can't seem to decide whether he's making a cheesy B-level potboiler or an intelligent political commentary. As a result, it's neither and I don't even know what to make of him employing a plot point that involves Lang being unable to leave the country because of his crimes. The less said the better I suppose. That and a conclusion that plays as an all-out farce makes me wonder if he was even taking this seriously at all. It's not that the ending was at all predictable or saw it coming, just that I didn't care by the time we got there. The Ghost Writer is a well-meaning but generic thriller, regardless of who directed it, but admittedly a bit more disappointing when you consider who did. It works best for those who set their expectations low and have made it a point to avoid every other film of its type that's out there.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The American

Director: Anton Corbijn
Starring: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli, Irena Bjorklund, Johan Leysen
Running Time: 105 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

There's bound to be some exaggeration in terms of just how little happens plot-wise in the anti-thriller The American. But yes, not a lot happens and what does is mostly meant to be inferred by viewers, many of whom would say the "action" is limited to George Clooney drinking coffee, loading a gun, doing push-ups, sleeping with a hooker and staring solemnly. And they wouldn't be completely wrong. You could throw around words like "boring," "dull," and "slow" all day long but fairer, far more accurate descriptions would be "measured" "methodical" and "deliberate." The 1960's/70's Steve McQueen inspired retro-style poster hinted at this, but anyone expecting a Jason Bourne-style action adventure from the commercials will find themselves watching what more closely resembles a European art house film.

I couldn't help but laugh to myself in the darkened theater knowing that when the lights came up the complaining and cursing would begin from those who felt tricked by savvy mis-marketing into making this the number one movie in America. Had this been released thirty years ago it still would have been the number one movie in the country with the key difference being a far warmer audience reaction and probably a few Oscar nominations. But it wasn't. It's being released NOW, posing the very interesting question of just how much art we want in our entertainment and vice versa. That this effort legitimately feels like the genuine article and not just some self-indulgent tribute only adds more fire to that debate. While I can appreciate complaints of its painfully slow pace, I found it's lack of plot refreshing because this is exactly the kind of film Hollywood always manages to screw up with way too much of one. If this is a failure (which it isn't by the way) let's at least just admit it's the kind of intelligent failure all involved should be applauded for attempting, especially Clooney, who makes a brave choice in picking a project he had to know would alienate much of his fan base. It was a huge risk for him to tackle this but in doing so conclusively proves he's a talented actor fully committed to his craft.

Without much of a plot to speak of, what there is of one concerns hitman and weapons expert "Jack" or "Edward" (Clooney) depending on what alias he feels like going by that day. After narrowly surviving a messy sniper attack in Sweden, Jack/Edward is ordered by his boss Pavel (Johan Leysen) to inconspicuously settle in small Italian village and not make any friends while awaiting his next assignment. Said assignment is constructing a hire-powered silencer for a female assassin named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), but he's pestered by local priest Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) and begins to fall in love with Clara (Violante Placido), a beautiful but potentially untrustworthy prostitute in the village's run-down bordello. Yet the film is about none of those things, which comes as a relief because if it was this would be just another routine hitman thriller. Instead, it's a character study and mood piece more interested in letting us fill in the blanks. None of those details mentioned above are ever explicitly stated during the picture and there isn't much in the way of dialogue. There are exactly three action scenes, two of which occur in the film's first and final ten minutes. We're left to figure out everything by carefully observing Jack/Edward.

The entire film is projected on Clooney's face. From him it can be gauged that this is really a redemptive story of a man who was once very good at what he did but lost his touch and is having a subtle attack of conscience. Now he wants out. The question is whether it's too late and at what price. It's rare for a lead actor to be asked to do as much with body language and facial expressions as Clooney does here, but he's up for it, responding with one of his quietest, most absorbing performances yet. Becoming a pro at portraying weathered, middle-age characters at a crossroads, he lifts pensive brooding to an art form. I never thought much of Clooney's work over the years but in the past couple he's really turned the corner to the point where I'm just about ready to sign up as a card carrying member of his fan club. He's an example of what can happen when an actor dedicates themselves to making smart, challenging choices that play to (or in this case maybe against) their strengths as a performer. In his filmography this should fit somewhere between Syriana and Michael Clayton in terms of genre but it isn't needlessly complicated like the former, and while it does share some of the same throwback thriller qualities as the latter (and also has a sensational final scene), it's more cerebral than suspenseful.

Even if I'm unintentionally making it sound like I loved the movie, I didn't. It could have been tighter, although as slow as it is at 105 minutes I was strangely never bored or felt it dragged. That's probably because the scenery is so nice to look at and it's tonally on target, but at the same time it's important to not overpraise former music video director Anton Corbijn for basically using beautiful photography, an impressive score and topless women to distract us from the fact that the plot is irrelevant, if not worthless. Still at the same time it's an interesting change to to be freed from those conventional constraints, earning him points for delivering something so completely unlike what's usually out there. This experiment makes a strong case for how moviegoers can save themselves a lot of aggravation by spending five seconds checking the internet movie database for info to avoid being manipulated by false advertising, a justified tactic considering no one would have seen it otherwise. The picture itself is such a slow burn that it unsurprisingly takes a while to absorb and settle in the mind, so it's more than possible it experiences a resurgence down the road as the point where Clooney the actor officially surpassed Clooney the movie star. The more you consider it, the more depth it has, the more sense it makes and the harder it becomes to shake. It's not for everyone, but The American succeeds at leaving a haunting, indelible impression.

Monday, September 6, 2010


Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brie Larson, Juno Temple, Mark Duplass

Running Time: 107 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Right after watching Greenberg it occurred to me that Ben Stiller didn't smile the entire movie. Not once. That's impressive, especially considering this is supposed to be a comedy, though not necessarily surprising since Stiller has always come off as a depressed, contained type of actor, even when playing goofier roles. And that's why he's perfect for Roger Greenberg, a neurotic, mentally and emotionally fragile 40-year-old, who returns home to California from New York to stay at his brother's. When he's told by his friend and former band mate, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), who still resents him for blowing their record deal in their twenties, that "youth is wasted on the young," he responds by stating "life is wasted on PEOPLE." That sarcastic little nugget of wisdom should give you a good idea the type of character we're dealing with and for much of the first hour you might be wondering if this film is wasted on us. But it isn't. While not as substantial as I expected, it's still a modestly well-put together character piece.

Of writer/director Noah Baumbach's past few efforts, this is easily his weakest, understandably falling short of the high bar set by The Squid and the Whale and even lacking the satirical bite of 2007's inferior (but still pretty great) Margot at the Wedding. What they all have in common is a focus on detestable characters going through a life crisis of some sort. We're not supposed to like them, just want to at least attempt to understand their behavior and care what happens to them, but even that can be trying at times since Greenberg isn't merely unlikable but someone who treats everyone he comes in contact with such contempt it can become insufferable for the viewer to spend any time with him at all. Luckily, Baumbach knows this and doesn't make him our main entry point into the story. Instead it's his brother's assistant, Florence Marr, who's played by relative unknown Greta Gerwig in the non-performance of the year, and I mean that as a compliment. She's like that friendly girl you'd run into at the coffee shop or bookstore, but there just so happens to be a camera on her, even though it never seems as if she's acting at all.

It doesn't take but the first few minutes of the picture for Gerwig to get us on Florence's side, whether she's just walking the dog or stuck in traffic. And the more time we spend with her the more we like her and if she says we'll be tolerating Greenberg's behavior today, well then, we'll be tolerating Greenberg's behavior today, no matter how irritating it gets. To everyone else he's an angry weirdo, but to her he's "damaged." This is one of THOSE movies, in which a loserish character approaching middle age with regret over a big mistake (or a variety of them) from the past is rescued by a younger, impossibly perfect woman. But in playing her Gerwig instead projects imperfectness, as well as an uncertainty and lack of confidence that would make the scenario plausible. She puts up with his tirades and verbal abuse, yet also somehow makes us understand why.

As a character, Greenberg is sort of a drag, since he doesn't do anything but mope and insult others over the fact that he feels life passed him by. His interactions with his ex-girlfriend, Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are painfully embarrassing if only for his inability to take a hint and just move on. It makes sense no one would attempt to help him since he's such a jerk and one would assume he doesn't care, even if he really does. This creates a somewhat challenging viewing experience since it isn't exactly a blast seeing people's neuroses and insecurities splashed all over the screen, no matter how intelligently it's presented. Baumbach's a pro but at points it all becomes draining since this is supposed to be a comedy. The movie feels most alive and funniest during an extended party sequence in which a stoned Greenberg proves that he just might be the world's oldest 40-year-old, so hysterically out of touch with young people (or ANY people) that he could have dropped in from another planet to observe our species. Like Baumbach's best films, that situation's humor comes from a sad, cringe-worthy uncomfortableness that mirrors real-life.

Would it be cheaper for Baumbach to just hire himself a therapist instead of making these movies? At this budget, probably, but I still hope he doesn't and keeps going because you can't knock a guy for writing and directing personal movies he's passionate about, and especially since he's good at it. With a comfortably lazy, laid back story more interested in behavior than plot (and a retro-feeling soundtrack to match) it seems like a throwback in method and style to some of the more character-driven films of the 70's that audiences just don't seem to have as much patience for today, which is completely understandable. There is a limit to how much realism and inaction a film can sustain, and there's no doubt it's pushed to its limits here. Greenberg certainly won't be mistaken for being anything important or original, but it still slides nicely into Baumbach's filmography, continuing his streak of making smart observations about what makes people tick.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

My Top 10 Films of the Decade (Part Three: Runners-Up)

Check out parts One and Two

Now here's where things get interesting. After a well-thought out process I selected what I felt was the best film of the decade and Sean Penn's Into The Wild was left standing with 2000's Wonder Boys coming in a very close second. Most surprising to me was the beating they gave the rest of the films I considered, many of which had underwhelming viewings when I revisited them. I may have raised a few eyebrows in saying that compiling this was difficult not because there were so many incredible films to choose from, but so few. My top two were definitely bridesmaid picks, with neither placing high (or at all) on most decade lists, while I'm also guilty of not naming either the best film of their respective years. This happened a lot as films I was SURE would easily crack the top ten missed that short list by a wide margin, and in some cases, even missed the longer one below. Others, some of which didn't even put in a good showing for me when I first viewed them, really came through when it counted. It kind of makes me wonder the point of compiling an annual "best films" list when there's just no predicting how the movies will age years or even just months from their time of release. 2008 had a major shake-up to the point where I'm unsure whether I'd still consider The Dark Knight that year's best. But that's the test right there and a reminder of why watching and re-watching them can be so fun. While I disqualified movies released in 2009 from the top 10 on the basis that it's just too soon, I took them into consideration for this longer list. As a result, a few made it.

I'm using the term "RUNNERS-UP" very loosely because, in all honesty, very few of these came close to making it. Despite my backhanded compliments, I really do love the films below and this should answer a lot questions anyone may have had as to where I stand on certain popular (and unpopular) titles, based on their inclusion or exclusion here. Of course, I didn't see EVERYTHING but I didn't "accidentally" leave anything off either (I'm looking at you Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). There are some surprises, a few of which I feel needed a brief explanation, so I gave it. Others I just wanted to comment on for one reason or another and a few those comments aren't all positive. Rather than rank the remaining 40 films (it would probably change in a week anyway), I've opted to put them in alphabetical order, bolding the titles that at least came closest to cracking the top 10.

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001, dir. Steven Spielberg)

Spielberg's most ambitious effort in years and definitely not the poor man's Kubrick it's been accused of being. Don't let anyone try to tell you its ending isn't tragic. Starting to get some respect, but still criminally underrated.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, dir. Andrew Dominick)

Brick (2005, dir. Rian Johnson)

Cast Away (2000, dir. Robert Zemeckis)

Sure, the trailer and commercials gave the entire plot away before anyone saw it (which was just wrong) but at least there was something special to give up. How many films would have just ended without a resolution at all, much less going the extra mile this one did for the finale? Gaining then losing fifty pounds and acting opposite only a volleyball, Hanks' performance is a miraculous physical and emotional transformation he still gets too little credit for.

Crank (2006, dir. Mark Neveldine/Brian Taylor)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008, dir. David Fincher)

Despite script problems (I admit it), it STILL makes this list, which should not only give you an idea how little I think of this decade, but also how skilled a director Fincher is in being able to cover for it. Certainly holds up better than Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire from the same year.

The Dark Knight (2008, dir. Christopher Nolan)

Surprisingly, this didn't even come close to the top ten and had its messiest viewing yet. Maybe I've seen it too much because the more I watch, the more I think we (I) over-analyzed and overestimated it. But Ledger's performance hides most of the flaws and takes it over the top. A great superhero movie with more on its mind than most. We'll leave it at that.

The Door in the Floor (2004, dir. Tod Williams)

One of the strangest third acts I've seen, breaking every screenwriting rule in the book. And maybe the second or third best performance of Jeff Bridges' career. Also, an awesome closing scene.

Dogville (2003, dir. Lars Von Trier)

Elephant (2003, dir. Gus Van Sant)

(500) Days of Summer (2009, dir. Marc Webb)

The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005, dir. Judd Apatow)

Hard Candy (2005, dir. David Slade)

Deeply disturbing, but unforgettable, and it'll leave you thinking. Introduced the world to the talented Ellen Page, which IS a good thing, despite what you've heard.

I Heart Huckabees (2004, dir. David O. Russell)

I'm Not There (2007, dir. Todd Haynes)

The most inventive biopic of the decade, but I already have what I consider the definitive Bob Dylan film in the top ten with Wonder Boys. Yet more proof of how rich a year '07 was.

Inglourious Basterds (2009, dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 (2003/2004, dir. Quentin Tarantino)

I counted them as one entry, but I still say Tarantino made a BIG mistake splitting them up. A carefully cut single film could have resulted in a masterpiece.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007, dir. Seth Gordon)

The documentary of the decade. And I don't even feel the slightest bit guilty for being on the edge of my seat with suspense over the Donkey Kong world record. I'd put Mullet-sporting, hot sauce king Billy Mitchell up against Heath Ledger's Joker in terms of pure villainy any day of the week.

Little Children (2006, dir. Todd Field)

Lost in Translation (2003, dir. Sofia Coppola)

Michael Clayton (2007, dir. Tony Gilroy)

Now THAT'S how you end a movie. Why can't all movies have a final scene as satisfyingly as this? Chills every time. Gilroy actually knew what we wanted and gave it to us. I'm shocked how well this airtight, legal thriller holds up on repeated viewings. Easily the best work of Clooney's career.

Memento (2000, dir. Christopher Nolan)

Moon (2009, dir. Duncan Jones)

Mulholland Drive (2001, dir. David Lynch)

The New World (2005, dir. Terrence Malick)

The movie James Cameron wishes he could make. But with real people and actual scenery. And this coming from someone who actually liked Avatar. As far from a history lesson as is imaginable, this film engulfs you in history, allowing you to see and share the experiences of the characters, but more importantly, feel them. Didn't get what the big fuss was about at first, but now I do.

No Country For Old Men (2007, dir. Coen Brothers)

Phone Booth (2003, dir. Joel Schumacher)

Yes, Phone Booth. Not a misprint. No joke. One of the most underrated films of recent years and for me the thriller of the decade. The premise is ingenious and its execution by Schumacher and writer Larry Cohen comes dangerously close to living up to it. So many ways this could have gone wrong, but doesn't as we're held captive for 80 suspenseful minutes in a single location. Did you know this was originally Hitchcock's idea? Endlessly rewatchable.

Primer (2004, dir. Shane Carruth)

Requiem for a Dream (2000, dir. Darren Aronofsky)

Revolutionary Road (2008, dir. Sam Mendes)

Another movie James Cameron wishes he could make. Jack and Rose in Titanic actually didn't have it that bad compared to these two. The film, which at the time seemed more like a performance showcase for Kate and Leo than a project of lasting value, stayed with me a lot longer than I expected. Then again, I'm a sucker for depressing suburban dysfunction. Hit close to home (maybe TOO CLOSE) for many, bringing up the frightening possibility that much hasn't changed since the 50's and we've essentially become our parents. The period detail is scary. Still don't understand how anyone can complain that they "hated" the main characters. At the risk of being overly cynical, would that mean we hate ourselves?

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001, dir. Wes Anderson)

If I had to pick, this would be number 11 and came closest of all the films to making the top 10. So, why didn't it make it? No real faults to speak of and if you get me on the right day, I might even say it's better than either Adaptation or The Squid and the Whale, but it seeming almost interchangeable with those two couldn't have helped its chances. Often imitated (poorly), no film has had a greater aesthetic or storytelling influence this decade. With Anderson, you're either on board or not. If it's okay with you I'll just consider this, not Welcome to Mooseport, Gene Hackman's final movie before retiring.

The Rules of Attraction (2002, dir. Roger Avary)

Saw (2004, dir. James Wan)

Not as harmed by its many inferior sequels as I thought it would be. But yes, they should have stopped at three (or maybe one depending on who you ask). It's the 2004 original that's a carefully constructed mystery/suspense thriller of the highest order rather than "torture porn," and why I keep getting suckered into coming back for more. In the succeeding films, Tobin Bell is excellent as one of the few movie villains given actual motivation, as sick and twisted as it may be.

Synecdoche, New York (2008, dir. Charlie Kaufman)

Adaptation kind of took its spot as the premier Charlie Kaufman entry on my list and part of that may be that I'm STILL trying to make sense of this. But that I continuously want to is very good news and the latest viewing was a trip. Ironically, given its themes, I can see it aging really well. It's already starting to.

25th Hour (2002, dir. Spike Lee)

Can't stand Spike Lee's movies. At all. I never thought he made a good one, much less a great one. Except for this. It's held up exceptionally well, gaining traction by the year. And to think we thought it was a bad idea at the time to release a movie even referencing 9/11. Maybe it was then. Not now. There are no words that accurately convey the power of the film's final fifteen minutes, and nearly every minute before that.

Vanilla Sky (2001, dir. Cameron Crowe)

Alright, so the whole thing with Tom Cruise's facial disfigurement, lucid dreams, cryogenics and all that stuff is a bit (okay, a lot) more ridiculous than I remember, but it is still a great, crazy kind of ridiculous. You have to give it up to Crowe for the audacity of it all. Playing a psycho strangely suits Cameron Diaz. Must-own soundtrack of the decade.

The Virgin Suicides (2000, dir. Sofia Coppola)

Wall-E (2008, dir. Andrew Stanton)

Where The Wild Things Are (2009, dir. Spike Jonze)

The Wrestler (2008, dir. Darren Aronofsky)