Friday, December 31, 2010

A Parting Note on the Year of Movies that was, and the year of movies that will be.

2009 was the worst year for films by far. 2010, somehow, outdid it. I think there was maybe one or two great films this year. I spent the last month filling up my Netflix queue with nothing but films from the past year. To say I was disappointed with every single one of the two dozen I watched would be an understatement. I neglect to say that I cannot even come up with a top 10 list of films from 2010 simply because I did not see 10 films that deserve to be on a list of the best regarded movies of the year. Instead, I’ll leave with you with a list of my most anticipated films of the coming year.

Before I do that, however, I’d just like to say that the state of film has been in decline for some time now. The 90s ended off with style, and the following decade began with a few hits. But over the last 10 years, it has been a horrible state of affairs in the movie industry. The powers that be control the masses through media and one way to do it is to dumb us down with the movies that are produced. Anything out of the ordinary, anything that involves thought is almost exclusively prohibited. Those films that make it past the aforementioned powers, be it an independent film or a foreign film carries little to no weight. Sometimes the independent and foreign markets fail to succeed and turn out stinkers as well.

Here is a list of films that I am excited to see in 2011. The list is relatively brief, containing about a dozen or so titles that I think will make the year worthwhile. There might always be other surprises. And if there are, you can be sure I’ll be discussing them here on the site. I bid you well.

Movies to see in 2011:

Hanna (Joe Wright, April 8th)
The Tree of Life (Terence Malick, May 27th)
Machine Gun Preacher (Marc Forster, September)
Moneyball (Bennett Miller, September 23rd)
The Skin That I Inhabit (Pedro Almodóvar, November 18th)
Hugo Cabret (Martin Scorsese, December 9th)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, December 21st)
We Bought a Zoo (Cameron Crowe, December 23rd)
War Horse (Steven Spielberg, December 28th)
Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, TBA)
Bernie (Richard Linklater, TBA)
Twixt Now and Sunrise (Francis Ford Coppola, TBA)
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, TBA)

Thursday, December 23, 2010


Sometimes a great movie finds a successful formula because of its components. Because it’s done in a unique or stylish or funny way. Other times, a film makes an impression on you simply because it is a great reflection of life. Running on Empty happens to be all of those things.

One of the very first films I covered for this blog was a Sidney Lumet movie – the 1981 police thriller Prince of the City, a film that was unaccepted by critics and audiences 30 years ago, and still hasn’t received the attention it deserves. A few years after that film was released, Lumet directed another interesting movie, about a family on the run from the law, and it is the film that I have decided to discuss today.

Sidney Lumet was born in 1924. He directed television in the 1950s before making his big screen debut in 1957 with the smash hit, 12 Angry Men, which was up for Best Picture at the Academy Awards the following year. Lumet continued to direct throughout the 60s but failed to re-capture audiences the way he did with his big debut. It took almost two decades for Lumet to find success again, but the 1970s were very kind to Lumet. He produced several masterpieces including the 1973 Al Pacino drama Serpico. He followed it up with Murder on the Orient Express, based on the novel by Agatha Christie, starring a host of famed actors at the time. In 1975, he re-teamed with Pacino on Dog Day Afternoon, another critical and financial success. In 1976, he directed Network, perhaps his most famous work, which narrowly lost the Best Picture Oscar that year to the underdog film Rocky. His career took a detour the next several years, after releasing clunkers like The Wiz, an all black remake of The Wizard of Oz, and Deathtrap, a suspense thriller starring Christopher Reeve and Michael Caine. But Lumet kept making movies, and in 1988, he directed one of his best, Running on Empty.

Starring Judd Hirsch, Christine Lahti, and River Phoenix, Running on Empty centers on a family of four who have been fleeing the law all their lives. The parents, played by Hirsch and Lahti, are former liberation army members who are wanted by the FBI. Instead of turning themselves in, the duo run from the law, with their two kids in tow, to avoid them. The family settles into a small New Jersey town where Phoenix’s character is approaching high school graduation and decides he wants to utilize his musical talents and go to nearby Julliard for college. This of course would disrupt the family circle, which is further complicated by the fact that he falls in love with Martha Plimpton, who happened to be Phoenix’s girlfriend in real life (they met on the set of the Harrison Ford movie The Mosquito Coast two years prior).

This is River Phoenix’s career role. He participated in several high profile films such as 1986’s Stand By Me, as a young Indiana Jones in the third installment of the series, The Last Crusade, in 1989, and the Gus Van Sant coming of age drama My Own Private Idaho in 1991. He continued to act over the next several years and garnered a lot of attention for his acting prowess. On October 31st, 1993, Phoenix walked outside of the club The Viper Room, and died of a drug overdose. He had turned 23 years old two months earlier. His brother Joaquin Phoenix, several years younger than River, is a two-time Oscar nominated actor.

Sidney Lumet is now 86 years old. His last film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead was released in 2007. Given his age and poor health, it is probably the last film he will ever direct. Lumet’s most famous works are the gritty movies he made in the 70s and early 80s filmed on the streets of New York. The city was a playground for several groundbreaking filmmakers in the 70s and 80s, like Martin Scorsese, John Cassavetes, Woody Allen, and later on, Spike Lee and Abel Ferrara.

Running on Empty is not your typical family drama about domestic disputes. It is a sharply written film that stimulates the mind and touches the heart. The chemistry between Phoenix and Plimpton is extraordinary and gives no hint that what we are watching is a movie, a play, something planned and pre-ordained. Their exchanges are as real as life itself. The movie left me with a smile on my face, because I knew that Lumet had delivered another winner. I made myself discuss the film today because it would be a real shame not to. It’s that good.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


They say that David Lean's 1965 magnum opus was the last great epic in Hollywood history. Whether or not this statement is true is debatable. What is clear though however is that in the long career of David Lean, it might be Doctor Zhivago that is his most glorious accomplishment.

Lean's career began as an editor in the 1930s. He began directing during the early 1940s and by the end of the Second World War, he was regarded as one of the top filmmakers in all of Britain. 1945 saw the release of his first big success, Brief Encounter, which has now been adapted into a Broadway show earlier this year. Brief Encounter was a stark portrait of a romance between two star crossed individuals who meet at a train station over the course of several years. A year later, Lean began collaborating with actor Alec Guinness, a working relationship that lasted until Lean’s final film in 1984. Lean won his first Academy Award in 1957 for The Bridge on the River Kwai. A war epic about an American soldier forced into building a bridge while in a Japanese POW camp, it won 7 Oscars, including Best Picture. Five years later, history repeated itself, and Lean won his second Oscar for Best Director for the film Lawrence of Arabia. The film exceeded the Oscar tally of its predecessor, winning 8 Academy Awards, nabbing Best Picture as well. For his next project, lean tackled the famed Russian novel by Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago.

The 1960s turned out to be the most turbulent decade in cinema history. The decade saw the release of many French New Wave films which sent shock waves through the industry. New Hollywood films also changed the way movies were to be made for the next several decades. The old studio system was falling, and individual freedom for filmmakers was rising. The coming years would be unkind to aging film legends like John Huston, George Cukor and John Ford, and saw the arrival of younger, edgier talent like Martin Scorsese, Mike Nichols, and Francis Ford Coppola. This is what makes Doctor Zhivago so unique and impressive. Made exactly at the time of this important transition, it utilized the old school ideals of a generation of filmmakers that were now being abandoned--and succeeded with flying colors.

Doctor Zhivago stars Omar Sharif as a young doctor struggling to survive with his wife and family during the turbulent Russian Revolution. It also stars Julie Christie as a nurse who begins an affair with the young doctor, and Alec Guinness as the title character’s brother. Spanning several decades from the early 20th century until Stalin’s prime year in the 1930s, it is an epic story of love, suffering, and war. That is probably a logline that has been attached to many films over the course of cinema history. Doctor Zhivago excels in every department in order to stand out. The cinematography feels as if a classic painting has come to life. The acting was marvelous and it is shocking that not one of the principal actors received a Academy Award nomination for their performances.

This was Lean’s final masterpiece, and he only directed one other film before retiring in 1984 with A Passage to India. Despite the fact that Lean has gained attention and fame for his Best Picture winning films A Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia, it is Doctor Zhivago that remains the best piece of an epic career.

Monday, December 13, 2010


Rainer Werner Fassbinder is, among film students, historians, critics and aficionado’s, one of the most infamous cult figures in the history of cinema. The man who spearheaded the New German Cinema movement of the 1970s managed to direct over two dozen films from the time of his debut in the late 60s until his death in 1982 from a drug overdose. His most famous work, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul was released to critical acclaim in 1974, and invoked memories of classic 50s melodramas. Indeed, it was the work of American director Douglas Sirk, famous for directing melodramas, that Fassbinder was most influenced by. Shortly before his death, Fassbinder directed a set of films that formed what he called The BRD Trilogy (BRD stood for Bundesrepublik Deutschland, the official name of West Germany and of the united contemporary Germany). The trilogy consists of the films The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss (otherwise known as The Longing of Veronika Voss), and Lola, all completed between 1979 and 1982, the year of his death. To this day, the trilogy stands as a testament to his legacy as a filmmaker and artist.

The first film in the trilogy, The Marriage of Maria Braun is a typical melodrama. Set amidst the end of World War II, Maria Braun marries a handsome young man, who then disappears amongst the chaos of post-war turmoil. After months of looking for him, she gives up and has an affair with an black-skinned American soldier. She miscarries their child, and then is surprised to find that her husband is actually alive and well. Beneath the surface is a career performance from long time Fassbinder collaborator Hanna Schygulla (she starred in 23 of his films). It is not a film without flaws, but looking at it from the perspective of an artist, it is astonishingly well shot and put together with an enigmatic ending that even Fassbinder himself probably couldn't solve.

His follow up, Veronika Voss, which is an improvement over the first installment, is a bleak drama shot in black and white. Filled with beautiful, dreamy imagery, the film deals with a fading actress, the eponymous Veronika Voss, and a sports reporter who falls in love with her and desperately tries to save her from a mad doctor who treats her for depression. The story was based on Billy Wilder’s classic 50s Hollywood drama Sunset Blvd. It was also heavily influenced by the life and story of famed 1930s and 40s German actress Sybille Schmitz.

The final installment in the trilogy is Lola. An overly flamboyant portrait of a whorehouse and its inhabitants, the story is centered on the eponymous Lola, an aspiring singer falls for a wealthy businessman staying at her mother’s bed and breakfast. The film can be considered the exact opposite of the previous installment, Veronika Voss. A very colorful film, Lola is as glossy as a weekly gossip magazine, and perhaps the lesser film in the trilogy.

There are certain elements that bind these films together. The most important of which is the theme of torn women in Post-World War II Germany. The stories also all converge around the time of the 1954 World Cup, and all three films feature an African-American soldier, played by the same actor, but who meets different ends in each film, suggesting that the films don’t exist in a normal world, but in the hyper-dramatized world of Fassbinder’s creation.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder completed only one other film after the conclusion of this trilogy. On March 17, 1982, Fassbinder overdosed on sleeping pills and cocaine. He left behind a deep collection of complex work, and at the time of his death, he was working on a new film, Rosa L, based on the life of German Socialist, Rosa Luxemburg. The film would later be written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta starring Barbara Sukowa, who played the title character in Lola. Fassbinder was only 37 years old when he passed away.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Let me preface this by saying that in the year 2010, there was no other film that I anticipated more than Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. I eagerly awaited the latest efforts from both Martin Scorsese and David Fincher, and I eagerly await Sofia Coppola’s new film as well as the Javier Bardem-starring film, Buitiful. It is Black Swan, however, that I have awaited since word was released that it would be made. Aronofsky, the visceral and thoughtful director of Pi, Requiem for a Dream and 2008’s The Wrestler, directs Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis in a psychological thriller about a pair of ballerina’s who develop a strange relationship while performing together in a production of Swan Lake.

Natalie Portman is flawless in her role as Nina, a shy, repressed girl who still lives with her mother even though she is an adult. At first, it’s hard to buy her as such a repressed girl when she possesses so much natural beauty and charm. But Portman does a marvelous job with the character and I would not be surprised at all if, come awards season, she was the one female left standing among the best of the year. Vincent Cassel does a good job as her controlling, and fiery director, trying desperately to unleash the inner emotions that lie beneath Nina’s hard shell. That, essentially, is what the movie feeds on: Emotion. And lots of it. The film features so much emotion and feeling packed into a 108 minutes, that by the end, you feel exhausted, like you’ve just endured a 108 minute roller coaster ride. The musical score, composed by longtime Aronofsky collaborator Clint Mansell, is a feast for the ears and should receive high praise for illuminating the tragedy of the story.

It was a lot scarier than I thought it would be. It reminded me a lot of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, with Natalie Portman being a stand-in for the Jack Nicholson character. A person who is on the brink of genius, slowly losing her mind, and eventually seeing, feeling, and experiencing things that aren’t there. The one difference, is that in The Shining, we buy into it and for a moment begin to believe in the supernatural and that it is possible to speak to the dead. In Black Swan, however, I found it hard to believe that some of the bizarre occurrences were really possible.

Indeed, Black Swan feels like a film from another time and generation. The movie evokes memories of classic films such as The Red Shoes and Ingmar Bergman's 1960s mind-bender Persona. Another life-imitating-art tale, The Red Shoes centered on a young dancer who’s life begins to mimic the story of the production she is performing in. Released all the way back in 1948, this British film, in vivid Technicolor, certainly must have served as an inspiration to the filmmakers.

The supporting cast of Black Swan is another big factor in the success of the film. In addition to Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey also exhibits some of the form that made her a star in the 1980s. Mila Kunis does a fine job as well as a sexy and dark rival to Natalie Portman’s Nina. Even Winona Ryder makes a small but memorable appearance. Aronofsky’s direction is finely tuned, like that of a skilled and seasoned director. The story did take some odd twists and turns that ultimately did not satisfy. I left the film astounded, like I had just stepped out of an opera. But I also left wanting more. More from the story, more from the characters, more from the filmmakers. A unique, and brave film it is. But a true masterwork, which it tries so hard to be, it is not.