Friday, January 08, 2010

First A-Team Trailer is BIG, but sort of underwhelming...

I'm not sure exactly what to think about this new A-Team movie. I have pleaseant, nostalgic memories of the show. I like a lot of the cast members. I really enjoyed Joe Carnahan's first big movie, "Narc." But I'm also aware that, as a big-screen adaptation of a classic action-oriented TV series, it doesn't have a very promising pedigree.

Is "The Fugitive" the ONLY time this concept has ever actually worked? I can't think of a single other example.

Posted via web from Lon Harris

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Honestly, it'd be surprising if Mariah Carey accepted an award NOT drunk...

Here's Mariah Carey, accepting an award for her role in the film "Precious" with all the seriousness and dignity that the art of the cinema demands. This is so amusing, I'd like to see more. Can we get Paula Abdul a major role in a hot indie film this year?

Posted via web from Lon Harris

Sunday, January 03, 2010

The 50 Best Films of the Decade, 30-21

We're getting to the point on this list where I personally love every movie on here, and distinguishing between which ones I prefer to others becomes more or less random.  These sorts of decisions are always in flux, and if you asked me to compile the same list 6 months or a year from now, at least some of the rankings would have changed, I'm certain.  So consider this a snapshot in time more than anything else, and a convenient way for me to spread the word on 50 great movies, some of which you may not have seen, more than a definitive list of anything.

Also I sort of cheat below and include 2 films as one item in the list.  I think it's fair, though, for reasons that should become clear.

30. Overnight (2003)

"Overnight" is like a morality play for our troubled times.  One of the decade's most compelling and hilarious documentaries came together as a happy accident.  Writer/director Troy Duffy got a shot at making his own Hollywood film after getting a script into the hands of Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein.  Naturally, he brought his friends along for the ride, some of whom decided to film the entire experience.  Little did they know when embarking on the indie crime thriller "The Boondock Saints" project that Duffy would proceed to burn every bridge in town, thus ruining lifelong friendships and decimating his chances of future success as a filmmaker.  (10 years later, he's still working on resurrecting his prospects following the "Boondock" debacle.)  The result is a brilliant, insightful and darkly comic showbiz tragedy, and also one of the most direct and essential statements about the importance of humility, and the dangers of, as Scarface might say, "getting high on your own supply," ever set to film.  (Is it a coincidence that one of the directors is also named "Tony Montana"?) 

29. Songs from the Second Floor (2000)

"Songs in the Second Floor" is comprised of a series of amusing, precise sketches about hopeless, adrift individuals, abandoned in an urban dystopia.  This visionary, harrowing collection of small, disconnected stories from Swedish director Roy Andersson, could be broken up into a series of short films and still prove enlightening, worthwhile and frequently hilarious.  But taken together, they ultimately develop into a devastating statement about the panic that runs beneath the surface of most human interactions, and the paranoia of metropolitan life at the change of the millennium.  The motif of feeling "stuck" by circumstances and a claustrophobic downtown environment comes up over and over again in Andersson's world, in this film and its almost equally-brilliant 2007 follow-up, "You the Living."  An endless, inexplicable traffic jab snakes through the unnamed setting, characters are seen entering the disorganized tangle of train stations and airports without ever actually getting anywhere and Andersson's motionless cinematography (almost every scene is depicted from a single, fixed perspective around which the characters move) remains permanently rooted in place, unable to effect any change or move out of the increasingly disturbing, surreal locations.

28. Match Point (2005)

Woody Allen revisits the themes of his 1989 masterpiece "Crimes and Misdemeanors" in this cerebral drama, his finest work of a very prolific decade.  A meditation on the nature of justice, and the sociological ramifications of a guilty person evading detection, it's above all a clever, calculating, unpredictable crime thriller.  Allen, who's of course best known for comedy, proves he knows how to time a sequence perfectly for maximum suspense (particularly a sequence in an armory where the anti-hero is trying to cover his misdeeds).  Caddish tennis pro Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) romances shy heiress Chloe (Emily Mortimer) while having it off with fiancee Nola (Scarlett Johansson) on the side.  When this situation becomes untenable, rather than risking the loss of his career prospects and meal ticket, Chris resorts to some pretty shocking, unthinkable maneuvers.  Allen's film looks at the role that luck plays in all of our lives - as Chris continually avoids punishment for his crimes purely by chance - but I think it makes the larger point that, regardless of how things work out, we live in a world where the moral codes exist only inside our heads.  Getting away with any breach of the social contract or taboo is simply a matter of good planning and hoping the situations outside of your control happen to turn in your favor.  In Allen's view, accepting this reality is both comforting and terrifying.

27. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

The historical character of Jesse James, probably the single most famous, iconic outlaw in the history of the American West, bears pretty much zero resemblance to the man himself.  Even in his own time, the public's notion of Jesse didn't really reflect the man's genuine character.  Andrew Dominik's haunting, eerie and, yes, fictional look at the last few months of James' life, examines the impact fame (infamy, really) may have had on the man and his ability to relate to the world.  It's that same notoriety that attracts the awkward, vaguely sinister Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) to James.  He wants nothing more than to insert himself into James' circle, to assume a small portion of the man's reputation and celebrity, and when dismissed and turned away, his desperation quickly turns to rage.  Andrew Dominik's Western becomes almost like a lamentation for an era we collectively dreamed about, but that never really existed. Even Roger Deakins' crisp but faded, ghostly pale cinematography drains all the color out of the Old West of popular myth, leaving only the faint, blurred outlines of gaunt, calloused pioneers we recognize from old-timey photographs.

26. Kill Bill 1 and 2 (2003-2004)

Yes, yes, it's actually 2 movies, but Tarantino's "Kill Bill" series builds and unfolds like a single film, and was originally conceived that way, so I figure it counts.  The logical endpoint of Tarantino's ongoing fascination with post-modernism and cult cinema, "Kill Bill" is that rare mash-up (either in film or music) that coheres into a single, unified whole.  The entire idiosyncratic, unpredictable saga is, at its core, a fairly straight-forward revenge story: A former assassin in the employ of her teacher and lover, Bill (David Carradine), The Bride (Uma Thurman) ran off to lead a normal live as a Texas record store clerk and wife, only to be hunted down and (almost) exterminated by her former comrades.  Now, awaking from a coma, having lost her husband and the baby she was carrying, she sets about tracking her fellow assassins down one by one, and so on and so forth.  What's staggering and exciting about Tarantino's work here is about how he can hack up the narrative into achronological, fast-paced segments, reference dozens of films from a variety of eras and genres, and still produce a finished film with its own unique attitude and style.  It's almost as if QT saps these old forgotten films and genres of all their energy, and infuses it all into his own work.  There's a massive amount of seemingly-impossible shots, hilarious or badass bits of dialogue, dazzling action sequences and little touches throughout, enough to keep even the most observant, attentive viewer bewildered for the first few viewings.

25. George Washington (2000)

David Gordon Green's lyrical, picturesque coming of age drama/thriller "George Washington" follows a group of 12-year-olds in the rural South as they face the harsh realities of life for the first time.  There is a conventional plot here - about a tragic mistake made by the kids and their half-hearted attempts to cover it up - but Green's film is as much about this specific, often-overlooked place in America and the daily rhythms of life there.  His North Carolina is a realistic but almost dreamlike vision, a land of sun-swept beauty but also encroaching decay.  Some of the settings are stunningly beautiful, but seem to be wasting away before our eyes.  Rather than a film made by an outsider attempting to explain the South and its understanding of race, Green speaks with experience, and also tremendous compassion, about the life of protagonist George (Donald Holden) and his friends, capturing their manner of speaking and adolescent impressions of the world beyond their town with patience and a practiced, archivist's ear.

24. Donnie Darko (2001)

Far more influential than it's given credit for, Richard Kelly's fusion of science-fiction, psychological horror and '80s teen comedy remains just as fresh, funny, convention-shattering and quietly terrifying today as it did 9 years ago.  The movie predicted the rush of '80s nostalgia that would come to dominate pop culture in the last decade, it toyed with the same metaphysical fascination with time travel that JJ Abrams has exploited in his "Star Trek" movie and on "Lost," and it reminded us of the magnetic, movie star quality of Patrick Swayze before we all remembered how great he was.  Ignore the "Director's Cut" that was eventually released for DVD; it robs the movie of its central mystery and ambiguity, trying to "explain away" the strange conundrums of the narrative, even though they are, when all is said and done, the entire purpose of the enterprise.  Strange things are happening to the bright, perceptive but troubled adolescent Donnie (Jake Gyllanhaal, in the performance that made him famous).  He's seeing things, like a 6-foot-tall evil-looking apocalypse-predicting rabbit named Frank and gelatinous blobs that come out of people's chests and point at where they will go next, and then he comes across a book written by the town's resident old crank that seem to explain it all via time travel.  All that remains (in the preferred, theatrical cut, at least) are intriguing questions.  Is Donnie just a schizophrenic and we're seeing the world from his perspective?  Is he a rebellious kid with nothing in his squeaky-clean suburb to rebel against, so he's turned on the universe and its natural laws?  Or is he the Christ-like figure, mandated to sacrifice himself for the well-being of others, that the book seems to imply he might be?

23. Grizzly Man (2005)

Documentarian Werner Herzog presents footage shot by a guy named Timothy Treadwell over the course of a few years while he camped near wild bears in Alaska and also uses this footage to tell a larger story about man's relationship to nature.  Treadwell, it's clear, was going to Alaska and spending his time watching bears to escape his own troubles, frustrations and, we start to sense, mental illness.  But in addition to escaping, it seems like Treadwell was trying to impose some kind of order to his surroundings.  He named the animals, concocted an entire conspiracy about threats to them and their habitat by the National Park Service (casting himself as the hero, of course), and narrated their lives into a camera, essentially creating a documentary of his own, without a need for an audience.  Herzog's film, on the other hand, is something of an anti-nature documentary.  Instead of mythologizing and romanticizing the natural world like such films so often do, and like Treadwell himself was prone to do, Herzog accepts nature for what it is: disinterested, cruel and violent.  His interest remains keenly on Timothy and the other human characters, how Timothy inspired or troubled them, and their feelings at his eventual demise at the hands of the creatures that so fascinated him.

22. Munich (2005)

In this era of endless conflicts fought without battlefields, Steven Spielberg's "Munich" is what a war movie looks like.  It contains all the intensity and spectacle of combat, all the sober, clear-eyed examination of the horrors of mass violence and all the pleas for rationality and diplomacy that you'd expect from a war film, but the action is brief and contained, the emotions repressed and bottled-up, and the wounds covered and hidden away, never examined and scrutinized.  In the aftermath of a terrorist attack on the Olympic Village in Munich in 1972, Israel unleashes a motley crew of various experts and Mossad agents to assassinate the 11 Palestinians they believe were involved.  As the team travels around carrying out their mission, and hopelessness about completing their task or moving on with their lives afterward begins to set in, their faith in the righteousness of their calling seems to waver a bit, without ever really giving way.  Spielberg has made a critique of serving patriotism and ideology without thinking, but it's a compassionate criticism, never harsh or biting.  He's working here at the height of his prowess as a storyteller, commanding our attention through a variety of expansive, note-perfect set pieces and filling his cast with expressive but restrained character actors, whose uniformly stoic turns reflect the morally impossible choices set before them.

21. The Wrestler (2008)

Sure, "The Wrestler" represents something of a creative peak for Mickey Rourke, and thus a return for a star of another era who has been lost in the woods for a few decades.  But there's a lot more going on here than a compelling, realistic and wrenching lead performance.  Darren Aronofsky's character study starts in a small-scale, low-key manner, giving us a feel for the quotidian details of aging pro wrestler Randy Robinson's life before piling on the crises and new experiences.  Rourke's terrific here as the broken down but still sanguine former superstar, struggling to get by on physically-punishing local gigs and the fading promises of a big-time comeback.  Aronofsky so slyly and gradually turns up the heat on his hero, pulling him back out into the world via a romance with a stripper (Marisa Tomei) and a renewed connection to his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), that we don't realize how high the stakes are and how invested we've become in Randy's health, well-being and relationships until the shattering conclusion.  "The Wrestler" ends on exactly the right note, and the effect is sort of mildly pulverizing.  It's one of a number of daring choices made by Aronofsky (such as showing us, in gruesome close-up, Robinson's wounds and scars) that really pay off, making this one of the most simple but effective dramas of the '00s.

The 50 Best Films of the Decade, 40-31

Now that I'm seeing a lot of other people's Top Films of the Decade lists, there's the inevitable second-guessing.  "Oooh, that was a good movie, should it have been on my list?"  "Roger Ebert said Hurt Locker was #2 of the decade?  Was #49 on my list too low?  I have only seen it once, after all."  And so forth.  But here is my promise to you...What you are seeing is my unchanged, unaltered original list, made over the course of the past month and a half, written without consulting any other "Best of" lists.  Here we go...

40. Battle Royale (2000)

The final completed film of Japanese "outlaw" master Kinji Fukasaku (who died while preparing to direct the sequel) takes the themes that dominated his entire career (ultraviolence, individuals stuck in cruel, authoritarian bureaucracies), and detonates them with a fistfull of C4.  In a dystopian future Japan, one entire middle-school class is selected each year to participate in a competition known as Battle Royale, in which they must all kill each other until only one student remains alive.  We follow one group of kids through the entire "BR" process, beginning with a chilling monologue from the game's organizer, played by actor Beat Takashi (also known as director Takashi Kitano).  The movie is gruesome, provocative and, yes, exciting, even though it feels SO wrong to watch children behaving in such a brutal fashion.  For a veteran like Fukasaku, who cut his teeth on yakuza and samurai pictures back in the '60s, pulling off a tense, thrilling action sequence is second nature.  What's so surprising about "Battle Royale," and what makes such an outlandish premise work as a dramatic feature, is the eerie, wrenching performances he gets from his young actors, whose reactions to the experiment range from dazed and horrified to fascinated.

39. Casino Royale (2006)

No Bond movie feels more like a Bond movie than "Goldfinger."  It represents the creative and stylistic pinnacle of the super-spy sub-genre.  But, speaking purely in terms of filmmaking and consistent entertainment value, I think "Casino Royale" may be the best Bond movie ever made.  Strong words, I know.  But "Goldfinger," though a thoroughly engaging and charming adventure film with a genuinely cutting, dry sense of humor, lags in some spots, and isn't exactly notable for Guy Hamilton's ace direction. (We remember the iconic concepts - a nude woman coated in gold, a derby hat with a blade in the brim, a timer stopping at exactly 007 - more than the specific images.)  "Casino Royale" offers a bevy of beautifully-orchestrated, memorable action set pieces, a rather brilliant reimagining of the character from the ground up by Daniel Craig and enough classic Bond-isms to put even the most old-school fan at ease.  Thoroughly recreating a character as iconic as Bond while still making the movie feel like it fits with the previous incarnations is no easy task; just look at Marc Forster's utter bungling of the same sort of high-wire act in this film's follow-up, "Quantum of Solace," as evidence of this fact.

38. Batman Begins (2005)

Another bold reinvention of a classic movie hero, Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins" touches on essentially EVERYTHING that makes the character cool over the course of 2 and a half intense, self-assured, relentless hours. We get Batman the detective, the wounded boy, the terrifying vigilante, the corporate schemer, the ninja, the victim of corruption, the billionaire playboy and as the city's last line of defense against organized crime.  Nolan transitions with ease from classic adventure film swashbuckling in the snow-capped mountains of the Far East to rooftop car chases to comic-book fistfights in a burning Wayne Manor.  The end result is provocative, thoughtful and exhilarating, and easily one of the best superhero films ever made.

37. Broken Flowers (2005)

There are a lot of movies about loneliness, but few of them ever really capture what it's like to actually feel isolated and alone.  Cheap, fraudulent films like "Up in the Air" (in theaters now!) depict loneliness using essentially stock footage to stand in for real observation - a person standing by themselves at an airport as happy couples embrace, say, or a person standing in a bare studio apartment with nothing on the walls and few furnishings.  Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers" really understands loneliness, because its hero, the aging cocksman Don Johnston (Bill Murray, as good as he's ever been in a film), really understands what he has lost.  Only a film with such a sharp ear for dialogue and such a warm understanding of friendship and love (witness the bond between Murray's character and that of Geoffrey Wright, who only share a few scenes together!) could so heartbreakingly express the sensation of helplessly watching other people drift out of your life forever.

36. American Splendor (2003)

As a guy, "American Splendor" creator Harvey Pekar is not really all that likable, and he knows it, which is the basic contradiction at the heart of his work and this film about him: He writes about himself, but it's mostly about how he's not all that interesting and his suspicion that no one really cares what he has to say.  This observation alone, though, IS sort of interesting, making us want to hear more.  And so on.  Writer/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have made the film using an odd, Pekar-inspired touch - in addition to documentary-style interviews with the man himself, we see re-enactments of major events in his life featuring Paul Giamatti (in one of his signature roles).  It's a testament to how well this gimmick works that we stop noticing it after a while.  Just like the cartoon Pekar hero in the "American Splendor" comics, Giamatti and the real Harvey Pekar sort of blend into one another, creating an amalgamation of the man and his heightened, fictional alter-ego.

35. Made (2001)

It's a testament to just how good Vince Vaughn is in this film as an irritating loudmouth that it turns most people off from even watching the movie.  Ricky is so horrible to be around, and creates such havoc wherever he goes, even the film's AUDIENCES try to get away from him.  Jon Favreau's hilarious un-buddy comedy works on a number of levels - the improvisational dialogue from great character actors, from Peter Falk to Vincent Pastore to Sam Rockwell, the sweetness and humanity that runs just beneath the more outrageous underworld antics, the lived-in realism and chemistry evident in Favreau and Vaughn's relationship.  But it's Vaughn's performance that elevates the material to "Best of the Decade" caliber.  It's one of the two or three best comic performances of the decade.  (I have a few other nominees in mind. Maybe a separate post?)

34. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

I'm sort of a sucker for historical realism in movies.  Not in a nitpicky, looking-out-for-any-anachronisms-in-the-background, nebbishy way.  I just appreciate real effort, when it's obvious a filmmaker poured himself into the world and the little details of the period.  Peter Weir's seafaring adventure, "Master and Commander," is one such film; it seems to know everything about life in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic era.  This lends the movie a tremendous amount of atmosphere and keeps it compelling on repeat viewings, but you also just feel like you learn a lot by watching it, and gain a greater understanding of the mechanics of fighting wars at sea.  (It helps that the sound design - which rightly won an Oscar - is among the best ever, lulling us into this world with every creak of the ship, gust of wind and clank of metal-on-metal.)  The film also boasts a surprisingly fleshed-out relationship between the legendary Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and naturalist Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) and some ripping, epic-scale battle sequences.

33. Unbreakable (2000)

M. Night Shyamalan's only GREAT movie (I like "Sixth Sense," but it's really only great the first time you see it), "Unbreakable" reinvented the "comic book movie" about 8 years before it was cinematically fashionable.  The film translates every aspect of comic storytelling into a precisely-observed real world setting, and the result is a thought-provoking, layered and beautifully directed film, bursting with small but meaningful detail.  This is one of those movies that would NEVER get nominated for something like Best Costumes or Best Cinematography, because the work is contemporary and reserved and subtle, but when you see Bruce Willis in a rain slicker closing in on his prey, there is no doubt as to who he is and what he represents.  And it's all done visually, with no dialogue and only a shot of him from behind, from the knee down.  Shyamalan, to me, demonstrates a real gift for universally-relatable, mainstream visual storytelling that's almost-Spielbergian in it imagination and simplicity.  What the hell HAPPENED?  How did he transform into the witless, egomaniacal turd behind "Lady in the Water" and "The Happening"? 

32. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Paul Thomas Anderson's peculiar, unexpected romantic comedy finds Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) embarking on a tentative romance with a co-worker of his sister's (Emily Watson) while fighting long-distance with a mattress store owner and scam artist in Provo, Utah (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). In order to force an audience to relate to Egan, an insecure, introverted guy suffering from intense anxiety, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson uses skewed angles, odd color combinations, strange interstitials, lens flare and a loud, chaotic musical score, that sometimes gets so loud it intrudes on the dialogue.  The effect is somewhat disconcerting at first, until Barry starts to calm down and the film relaxes around him, but by this time, we're already right there with him, determined to see things go his way.  This is the kind of quirky comedy I can get into...Barry's peculiarities aren't there to make him amusing or more interesting.  They define him and what his life has been about, and the process of letting some of them go comes to define this movie about him, too.

31. The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

"I don't talk much," says barber Ed Crane (a mesmerizing Billy Bob Thornton, doing a ton with very little), at the beginning of "Man Who Wasn't There." And he's our narrator and only window into the story!  That means we don't get a lot of direction from writer/directors The Coen Brothers as this neo-noir unfolds, not a lot of hints as to how we're meant to interpret Ed's eventful but emotionally distant journey from husband to blackmailer to convict.  The film centers, as do so many other Coen thrillers, on an amateurish crime gone horribly wrong, in this case Crane's attempt to extort money from the married department store owner (James Gandolfini) who's sleeping with his wife.  As the noose tightens around Crane and circumstances catch up to him, we see him taking a number of risks and making some odd personal decisions, but we never get any answers to the central question of what's really driving him, why he does the things he does.  And that ambiguity is what makes the film fascinating, even after multiple viewings, along with Roger Deakins's gorgeous, spot-on black-and-white cinematography.  It's also notable for the Coens' uncanny ability to disappear into the style of other artists, in this case the noir directors of the '40s and '50s, and novelist James M. Cain.