Thursday, December 31, 2009

Summer Hours (2009)

A remarkable film from director Olivier Assayas on a subject I've never seen dealt with before: What to do with the objects of a parent when that parent dies. I've seen many films that deal with the grief of a parent passing but so much of this film is specifically about the grown childrens' decisions regarding a house and the furniture and artwork in it. It's both sentimental and unsentimental, mysterious and straightforward. And though the film is short it has all these great tangents in it, including a backstage tour of the Musee D'Orsay. As soon as I finished watching this I began to look forward to watching it again. If Inglourious Basterds had not come out this year, this would have been my favorite of 2009.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Blue Hammer (1976)

This is the last Lew Archer detective novel by Ross MacDonald. It's solid but it was ultimately a book that didn't entirely enthrall me, yet it was good enough that I had to keep reading to find out what happened. But the whole time I was reading it I was thinking about what I was going to read next. This happens more often than I'd like to admit in the detective genre. A good mystery is my favorite read in the world, but most of them are strangely unengaging.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Revolutionary Road (2008)

I guess I liked this more than I've liked other Sam Mendes' films, which is not saying too much. It drags at first as it seems to explore territory that Mendes already dealt with in American Beauty. I kept watching for the painterly cinematography, another good score by Thomas Newman, and Kate Winslet's flawless acting, but at the very end there are a couple of scenes, neither involving Leo DiCaprio or Winslet, that really hit on something, how tragedies reverberate in tiny, non-tragic ways.

Ten Favorite Movies of the 1990s

10. Persuasion (1995)The middle nineties were a heyday for Austen adaptions, the best of which was probably the television version of Pride and Prejudice. But this version of Persuasion, released theatrically in the United States, is so pitch-perfect, funny and romantic that it slightly edges out Ang Lee's more Hollywood version of Sense and Sensibility.

9. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)Slightly marred by the subsequent hamminess of Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter in sequels and prequels, this is probably the greatest serial killer movie. Like all Demme films, it has glaring tone shifts as this goes from solid police procedural into Universal horror film excesses. I'll never forget the silence in the packed theater as Clarice waded through the pitch-black basement to find Buffalo Bill. Terrifying.

8. Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)It feels a little strange to include this on my list, since there are performances (Andie MacDowell's) and scenes (the final one) that make me cringe. Still, this is my list of favorite movies and not a list of the best ones, and this is a movie I will always love.

7. Goodfellas (1990)
The energy, the camera work, the music, the performances. I don't tend to love episodic films but this one is off the charts. My second favorite Scorsese film.

6. Rushmore (1998)Besides how funny I find this movie, and how creative and quirky, it's the fact that it works so well on an emotional level. And long live Max Fischer, my favorite of all of Wes Anderson's creations.

5. The Wings of the Dove (1997)There were so many great period-pieces coming out of England in the 1990s that this one got unfairly overlooked. Helena Bonham Carter delivers one of the great performances of all time as a woman who destroys her only chance at happiness. As far as I know, this is the best adaptation of Henry James on film.

4. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)Another astonishing performance, this time by Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer. David Lynch's movies seem to hover between innocence and experience. The TV show of Twin Peaks was weighted more toward innocence while this movie went the opposite direction, alienating many of the TV fans. Hard to sit through but this is a powerful vision of self-destruction.

3. Miller's Crossing (1990)Five years ago this would have been my number one. The best film by The Coens, a Shakespearean-level examination of the tough-guy genre, and their film that has the most heart, even though they occasionally give their audience the high hat.

2. Groundhog Day (1993)When I first saw this I thought it was very very funny. Now I think its very very funny and also profound. A great comedy and a philosophy of life. How did Andie MacDowell get on this list twice?

1. Jackie Brown (1997)The least showy of my favorite living director's films but one that sneaks up on you till you realize that he made something that was perfect.

runners up: Basic Instinct, Fargo, Galaxy Quest, Out of Sight, Pulp Fiction, Sense and Sensibility, Shakespeare in Love, The Sixth Sense

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Dead Girl (2006)

An interesting alternative to a police procedural. A young prostitute is killed by a serial killer, and in five standalone episodes, five woman affected by the death are shown. The first segment, in which Toni Collette plays the woman who finds the body, is by far the weakest, marred by typical indie-movie cliches. But then it gets better. Rose Byrne as a mortuary attendant who believes the murdered girl might be her sister is excellent, as is Mary Beth Hurt as the wife of the murderer.

It was a little hard to stomach watching Brittany Murphy play the corpse so soon after her own death. But in the final segment, a flashback reveals the dead girl's last few hours, and I was reminded of how good Brittany Murphy was as an actress. Unpredictable, fierce, and totally watchable.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

This has some flaws (is that a surprise?) but it is so much better than its trailers suggested. The pacing is too fast and it feels too modern and Holmes and Watson don't solve a mystery so much as punch and shoot their way through a mystery, but if you accept all that, this is good pulpy fun. Victorian London is full of putrefaction and dark alleyways and snaggleteeth. The art design is excellent, as is the score, maybe my favorite Hans Zimmer music ever. The actions set pieces, and there are several, are very good, especially the one involving an elaborate human trap in a slaughterhouse.

What about its felicity to the canon? It doesn't really matter, of course, because movies don't replace the books they represent. That said, except for the elaborate action scenes and the ridiculous plot of the villain (no idea what was going on there), it's not that far off for Conan Doyle's novels and stories. Holmes prided himself on fisticuffs, was often dirty and drug-dazed, and rarely wore the deerstalker cap. Robert Downey Jr. does a good job, not great. The best performance in the film was Jude Law as Dr. Watson, playing the most-famous sidekick as an almost-equal: intelligent, quiet, and compassionate.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

District 9 (2009)

This movie had lots of the same themes as Avatar, but was much more complex and interesting. I liked it but didn't love it. One of the problems it had was that it was split between a mockumentary-style and then a more forward narrative approach and they didn't really mesh. I would have preferred it if it was just straight-ahead narrative with the mockumentary stuff just in the beginning. I love what the director was able to do with the special effects--it looked great, and I think it cost only about 30 million.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Ten Favorite Movies of the 1980s

10. The Terminator (1984)Wow, back when James Cameron made short films. Well, he only made one, this one, and it's a doozy.

9. Witness (1985)One of those movies that has a little bit of everything: suspense, fish-out-of-water, romance, humor, star power. And it's all tied together by Peter Weir's exquisite visuals.

8. Trading Places (1983)One of the great social-commentary comedies. Everything I know about our financial system I know from this movie.

7. Blue Velvet (1986)A murder mystery as a bad dream. Seeing this in the theater was both horribly disturbing and one of the signature moments of my movie-going life.

6. Married to the Mob (1988)A movie that has grown on me over the years. Dean Stockwell turns in a truly astounding performance, and Michelle Pfeiffer is at her best.

5. Withnail and I (1987)Boozy theater students. That pretty much summarizes this movie. Oh, and they go on holiday by mistake.

4. Body Heat (1981)Lawrence Kasdan, fresh off of writing Raiders of the Lost Ark, directs this Double Indemnity remake/homage. It's brilliant neo-noir, both pastiche and something new altogether, as a bad man meets a much badder woman.

3. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)Woody Allen's best mix of drama and comedy. An entire family is fleshed out and every emotion, including existential angst, is explored.

2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)Yes, it's cheating to pair these up but let me explain. Spielberg and Lucas recreate the adventure serial with the perfection that is Raiders, then, as a sequel (sorry, prequel), they throw everything out the window and make a screwball action film mixed with the Kali cults from Gunga Din. I love them both individually, but the fact that they both exist side-by-side makes them even greater. And if someone were about to press a hot poker against my cheek, I'd have to tell the truth and say that I slightly prefer Temple these days.

1. Local Hero (1983)The reason this is number one is because it's at once the saddest and most comforting movie I know. An understated comic gem that manages to get more mysterious the more you watch it.

runners up: Aliens, An American Werewolf in London, Blood Simple, Die Hard, The Empire Strikes Back, Mona Lisa, A Room With a View, The Sure Thing

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Avatar (2009)

There are many good reasons to go see Avatar in the theater, especially if any part of you gets excited by visual effects. Despite the fact that it looked under-impressive in the trailers, on screen and in 3D the eye-candy is like nothing you've ever seen before. The world that James Cameron created with Pandora is totally unique and immersive. That said, the story didn't really work for me. It's pretty cheesy in places (not a huge problem) but there is absolutely nothing surprising that happens in the film. You can see every plot point coming from forty clicks away, and there are lots of plot points in two hours and forty minutes.

I see quite a few similarities with this to Titanic, and not just the music score that James Horner essentially ripped off from himself; the good guys are all good, and the bad guys are spectacularly bad. Stephen Lang in this makes Billy Zane from Titantic seem like a complicated character. And like Titanic, I think Avatar, despite how cussing amazing it looks, will age poorly.

Life on Mars (2006)

I just watched the first series (8 episodes) of this British crime/science fiction drama. It was not quite as good as I'd hoped, only because the police/crime storylines were fairly pedestrian. The time travel storyline, however, was well-done and the actors, in particular Philip Glenister as DCI Gene Hunt and John Simm as DCI Sam Tyler, could make an eight-hour staring contest must-see viewing.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Poetry Monday

The Snow Man
by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Ten Favorite Movies of the 1970s

10. Animal House (1978)The best raunchy college comedy. Full of great characters and hilarious sequences (the roadtrip is my personal favorite).

9. Walkabout (1971)A mesmerizing, borderline-surreal vision of two children who wander across Australia after their father kills himself.

8. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)Ordinary people faced with the extraordinary. This was Spielberg's bread-and-butter in the '70s and '80s, and this is one of his best. Great performances from Richard Dreyfuss and Terri Garr as the harried married couple.

7. The Last Picture Show (1971)Every character works in this small town, multi-character study by Peter Bogdanovich. Heartbreaking, funny (mostly thanks to Larry McMurtry's source novel) then brilliantly acted and beautiful filmed.

6.The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather 2 (1974)Greatness on every level. Two epic American movies better than their source material.

5. Annie Hall (1977)To me, this is Woody Allen's funniest film. And between the great one-liners is an amazing exploration not just of one particular relationship, but modern relationships in general.

4. Taxi Driver (1976)A razor-sharp character-study of an everyday psychotic. But Bernard Herrmann's score and Scorsese's dreamy direction turn this into something even more fascinating.

3. The Exorcist (1973)This film oozes evil and has not dated at all. Simply put, the greatest horror film, and some of the greatest in-camera special effects ever put on film.

2. Chinatown (1974)Never takes a misstep. Starts off almost jaunty and cocky like its main character, J. J. Gittes, then winds up in the muck of moral and institutional corruption.

1. Jaws (1975)Spielberg's first film, and my personal favorite of his. It's the best filmed version I've seen on the theme of man versus nature. And Roy Scheider's Chief Brody is the greatest reluctant hero ever.

runners up: Cabaret, A Clockwork Orange, Deliverance, Halloween, Manhattan, Star Wars

Friday, December 18, 2009

Sleep No More

I saw this play last night. It was a creation of Punchdrunk, an English theater group that creates walk-through plays in abandoned places, and it was put on here by the A.R.T. at The Lincoln School in Brookline. I won't say much about this except that you must go see it if you are able. It was a phenomenal theatrical experience, one I don't think I'll ever forget. If you need a description, I'll give you this: 40 rooms to walk through, 18 actors/dancers performing MacBeth, music by Bernard Herrman, and some of the creepiest, most beautiful set design I've ever seen.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Ten Favorite Movies of the 1960s

10. Where Eagles Dare (1968)A cold, calculated thriller. The perfect, escapist World War II film.

8. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)Seeing this for the first time in the student theater at Trinity College it felt like I was seeing the most subversive film ever. Shocking, weird, touching and timely.

7. Pscyho (1960)I love the first half so much more than I love the second half but I couldn't keep it off this list. Changed movies forever (maybe for the worse).

6. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)You could turn the sound off and this would be visual poetry. Turn the sound up and you get Ennio Morricone and Henry Fonda's all-American voice speaking some of the cruelest lines of all time.

5. Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)This is the 1960s that I want to live in, sans Mickey Rooney as the Japanese photographer.

4. The Sound of Music (1965)Still very watchable for me. My favorite batch of original songs from a musical.

4. The Apartment (1960)A romantic comedy in which the theme is that American cities are filled with millions of bleak little lives.

3. Rosemary's Baby (1968) The pure horror stuff is amazing but I am equally mesmerized by the everyday moments, including John Cassavette's great performance as a husband who makes a very bad decision.

2. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)Flawed at times but indisputably my favorite Bond film. The look of it, John Barry's greatest score, the winter sequences, and, of course, the sad ending. George Lazenby, while he doesn't have a tenth of Connery's charisma, comes closer to the James Bond of Fleming's novels.

1. Charade (1963)Saw this at age nine, and it made me say to myself: This is what I want to do with my life--watch movies. Not make them, watch them. Till then, I had no idea how entertaining an adult movie could be. I'm still watching movies, hoping to recreate that experience.

runners up: the first five Bond films, The Graduate, The Great Escape, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ten Favorite Movies of the 1950s

Even more Hitchcock on this list than from the 1940s. What can I say except that he's my favorite director of all time.

10. All That Heaven Allows (1955)Douglas Sirk's brilliant attack on American morals. Not a huge Jane Wyman fan, but Rock Hudson and Technicolor make up for it.

9. Rio Bravo (1959)I came to this movie late, seeing it for the first time only a couple of years ago, but since then I've seen it twice more. Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson singing My Rifle, My Pony, and Me could be my favorite movie moment from the 1950s.

8. Strangers on a Train (1951)Hard to go wrong considering the source material by Patricia Highsmith. Hitchcock delivers a beautifully structured masterpiece.

7. Dial M for Murder (1954)I like this more than most while admitting that it feels stagy and verbose. I could watch Ray Milland ooze false sentiment all day.

6. Sunset Boulevard (1950)The opening shot, the chimp, the cigarette holder, the bridge party. Then, of course, the great final shot.

5. North by Northwest (1959)If you throw away the wit, the thrills, the clothes, the set pieces, then you'd still have the greatest film about American mid-century design and architecture.

4. Seven Samurai (1954)As great as all the smart people say it is. Thrilling and sad, without a wasted shot.

3. Singin' in the Rain (1952)If you don't enjoy this movie then I wonder if you can enjoy any musical (really, any movie) at all.

2. Some Like It Hot (1959)Billy Wilder had a good decade. Probably my favorite all-out comedy. I catch something new every time I see it.

1. Rear Window (1954)I think this movie has more subtext than Vertigo and it's a lot more fun. A perfect genre film that includes a critique of the very nature of watching. It's probably more relevant now than it was then.

runners up: All About Eve, Brigadoon, Sabrina, Vertigo