Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Oscar and Social Network are now friends

There will be plenty of time for in-depth discussion later. For now, these are just initial impressions. Here are this year's ten nominees for Best Picture.

127 Hours
Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

Ten contenders instead of five again yields nice results for movies that otherwise would have been denied this sort of recognition. Inception's inclusion is a nice continuing apology to Christopher Nolan for leaving out The Dark Knight back in 2008...after all, that whole incident is the reason the rules changed, so it's fitting. This is a pretty respectable group. The only one that kinda pisses me off is The Kids Are All Right. There's good acting in it, but also some really lame plot twists that turned a movie that seemed unpredictable into something extremely predictable. Hard to explain more without spoiling, but it's a stretch to even call it "all right," let alone worthy of the top Oscar.

Still, the real question is....can anything beat The Social Network? Facebook's origin story has been such a behemoth in the pre-Oscar playoffs that these other movies might as well be Friendster or Myspace. I'd say only two of its fellow nominees have any chance. First is The King's Speech, which has the most total nominations and that never hurts. It's a lot more of a crowdpleaser than it looks on first glance, and I could see a scenario where it pulls a Shakespeare in Love over the next month or so and manages an upset. The other major player is The Fighter, which is already poised to lay waste to the acting categories. Start your uninspired boxing puns now. It's a "contender!" It could "TKO" the competition! Etc etc so on and so forth.

Let's take a quick look at Animated Feature since I know a lot of people who read this are interested in that. Here are those nominees.

How to Train Your Dragon
The Illusionist
Toy Story 3

Hey, we got to find out the two movies who get to lose to Toy Story 3! In terms of quality, How to Train Your Dragon is a worthy opponent...but it's still going to get blown away. The Illusionist is a bit of a surprise...sorry, Rapunzel. I'm a big Sylvain Chomet fan, so I'd love to see it. It just has to open somewhere within 100 miles of me first. Hopefully soon.

You know the drill. More detailed predictions closer to the event.

All nominees here.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Top Ten Films of 2010

I thought about doing a "Best Films of the Decade" (2000-2010), but that seemed way too difficult. You might think "Oh, just take the No.1 film from each of your previous lists and put them together!" Well, not that simple. These lists are very much a moment in time...sometimes years and further viewings change how you feel about a movie. For example, Crash was my top film of 2005, but now it doesn't seem to hold the same power it had on that first viewing. Conversely, I had V For Vendetta at No. 7 on the list for 2006, but I've come to like that one more with each subsequent viewing and it's hard to imagine that I wound up going with The Queen for that year's top film instead - though I still like that one a lot.

Point is, the lists are a snapshot of how I feel about the year in film shortly after it has ended. But I can't see the future, so it's all I have to work with. This year didn't start out very well...and aside from two amazing movies that you'll see, the summer was shockingly weak. Still, mix in some satisfying offerings from Fall/Winter and a few "outside the box" picks that I always like to highlight, and I think the year was decent enough. Without further ado....

10. Machete
Yes, I'm serious. I have movies on here that are emotionally moving, amazingly written and superbly acted...but this movie deserves a spot because of the huge amount of pure fun I had watching it. Robert Rodriguez's salute to 1970s trash casts the one-of-a-kind Danny Trejo as the title character and the result is a non-stop barrage of laughs and excitement. Even more amusing is how Rodriguez takes the shrill, petulant nonsense that passes for America's national dialogue on immigration and goes hog wild with it. Perhaps funnier than the film itself was watching a few pundits blow their stacks at what they saw as a sincere call for the violent overthrow of the White Man. Oh, those poor white men. They're always in such danger. This is a movie where the title character uses someone's intestine as a rope. It's not serious. But it is great.

9. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
I could feel justified putting this whole trilogy on the list (the other two are The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest), but this first installment was the strongest. Adapted from the enormously successful books by the late Stieg Larsson, these Swedish films were shot simultaneously and released in that country in 2009, before crossing the Atlantic in 2010. They managed to find a far bigger audience than is typical for subtitled films, but it's not hard to see why. These are solid, satisfying old-fashioned mysteries, a vintage tradition despite the large role cutting-edge technology plays in the storyline. Fine performances all around, but towering above all is the amazing Noomi Rapace as volatile genius Lisbeth Salander. As with any foreign film that enjoys even a little success, a Hollywood remake is on the way. It will be quite hard to top the original.

8. The King's Speech
This movie exceeded my expectations, which I know is an odd thing to say about such a classic piece of Oscar bait. What really impressed me about The King's Speech was how it took a concept that seemed prohibitively highbrow and turned it into a universally appealing story that gets audiences applauding as the end credits roll. It's hard to imagine Colin Firth won't be walking out of the Kodak Theater with a gold statue for his work as the stuttering King George VI, who must overcome his handicap in order to comfort the people of England as the Nazi threat looms over them. Rounding out the cast are Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth (the current queen's mom) and Geoffrey Rush as the king's crafty speech therapist. The climactic speech could just as easily be a championship game in a sports movie. This is a nice, rousing little movie - true "feel good" entertainment.

7. Best Worst Movie
Some movies are so exquisitely bad, they cross the line twice to become brilliant entertainment. This documentary chronicles the production and unique reception of Troll 2, a film with a cult following of bad movie connoisseurs who can't get enough of its glorious ineptitude. The child star of the film has now grown up and is behind the camera, and he manages to reunite most of the cast and crew of the original "masterpiece." The movie has a surprising range of emotions, perhaps best symbolized by the difference between the affable dentist George Hardy, who played one of the lead roles and loves the attention, and the proud Italian director Claudio Fergasso, who truly thought the film was a challenging work of art and doesn't hide his bitterness about how it was ultimately received. The mix of humor and pathos makes the documentary more than just an advertisment for Troll 2; it's a well-rounded examination of the strange new kind of fame that has emerged with the advent of the internet. Suggested double feature - this and the similarly-themed Winnebago Man.

6. Kick-Ass
Opinions will vary, but I contend that Matthew Vaughn's adaptation of Mark Millar's comic book actually improved on the source material. The film takes the comic's great premise and adds some much-needed additional characterization and emotional resonance. The title character is a bored teen who decides to put on a costume and try to emulate his favorite comic book heroes, only to find that he isn't the only one. A solid acting ensemble anchors the story - Nicholas Cage proves he still can act while the young Chloe Grace-Moretz steals the show as "Hit Girl." All the while, Vaughn deconstructs superhero cliches to powerful effect, only to reconstruct them for an epic finale. Alternately hilarious and disturbing, Kick-Ass is a much needed dose of adrenaline into a genre that's getting tired.

5. Winter's Bone
An uncomfortably convincing tale of life in a barren community ravaged by poverty and meth addiction. Ree (Jennifer Lawrence, giving one hell of a performance), a teenager taking care of her two younger siblings, must navigate her harsh surroundings to try and save the family home. The result is a visceral, chilling look at a community deep in the Ozark Mountains, far removed from anything resembling civilized society. The bleak cinematography gives the whole film a haunting aura that's not easy to shake once the credits roll.

4. The Social Network
In the hands of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher, Facebook's origin story proves to be a uniquely gripping drama. In addition to tracking the website's evolution from innovative idea to billion-dollar global phenomenon, the movie also gives a profound look at the growing sense of alienation among young people, which has risen in contrast to our increasing ability to communicate with each other through social media. The mascot of this idea is the film's version of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg as an insufferably brilliant antihero. Like all movies about current events, it should be taken with a grain of salt, but as a film...it's a home run.

3. Black Swan
Darren Aronofsky's lurid melodrama is showing up on a lot of Top Ten lists this year, but my reasons are quite personal. The anime filmmaker Satoshi Kon, one of my all-time favorite directors, died suddenly this year and with this film, Aronofsky may have established himself as a live-action heir. The director once reproduced a scene from Kon's Perfect Blue shot-for-shot in Requiem for a Dream, and his latest film owes a great debt to that late 90s anime masterpiece. That familiar Kon theme of the melding of life and art is on full display in the story of perfectionist ballet dancer Nina (a revelatory perfromance from Natalie Portman...never knew she had this in her) and her deteriorating mental state as the pressure of an upcoming "Swan Lake" perfromance eats away at her. The movie is gruesome, suspenseful and sleazy...but under the circumstances I found it strangely comforting.

2. Inception
A huge summer blockbuster that isn't afraid to make you think a little bit. We need more of these. Inception has already become so omnipresent in pop culture that it's easy to forget the thrill brought on by the first viewing. Director Christopher Nolan turns in another knockout as a motley crew of scoundrels navigate the complex, rapidly changing landscape of dreams. Nolan puts together a bizarre logic and rules that doesn't always hold up to detailed examination, but it does make for a mind-blowing cinematic experience. As for that ending...I won't spoil it here, but focusing exhaustively on yes-or-no questions is irrelevant. It's about what the character is feeling. Besides, ambiguity doesn't bite.

1. Toy Story 3
Toy Story topped this list in 1995. In 1999, Toy Story 2 came in at No. 5. Eleven years later, the third film in this perfect trilogy lands at the top again...has to be a first for the third film in any series. I didn't expect this when I first started hearing about it, but it was futile to resist this hugely entertaining and emotionally overwhelming movie. The geniuses at Pixar have crafted a tale about the inevtiable end of childhood, a concept which touches primal feelings inside anyone who resents the assertion that we have to stop playing with toys someday (These days, my toys are just more expensive). Woody and Buzz are back, and by now the whole cast is so comfortable in their roles that the whole thing feels effortless despite the considerable work that has gone into this film. From the elaborate jailbreak scene to the shockingly grim encounter the toys have near the movie's end, this film is a high point for a studio that has made a career out of high points.

Honorable Mentions: Fair Game, The Town

Happy 2011, everyone!