Hollywood gave us a lot of great movies this year: so many, that my usual Top Ten will overflow into some Honorable Mentions!
There's no good without the bad, however. Thus, I regret to bring you the Worst of 2010. May God have mercy on our souls.
THE 4TH WORST MOVIE OF THE YEAR: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. In Money Never Sleeps, Oliver Stone resurrects the spirit of Wall Street, punches it in the nose, and hits on its girlfriend. Not only does he make a lousy movie about Hero Gekko, he tarnishes the memory of his earlier masterpiece. After this, I’m done with Oliver Stone.
THE 3RD WORST MOVIE OF THE YEAR: MacGruber. MacGruber is painfully, embarrassingly unfunny. I felt bad for everyone involved in this picture, including the kid who sold me popcorn. This film will put a bullet in the head of the career of what’s his name as surely as The Ladies’ Man killed Tim Meadows.
THE 2ND WORST MOVIE OF THE YEAR: The Expendables. Look, I enjoyed Rambo and flat-out loved Rocky Balboa, but the only thing that could have made this movie sadder would’ve been watch to these guys actually sit around and shoot their steroids. I don’t ask for much from my action films, but I do demand two simple things: people to root for and information to comprehend whom they’re killing and why.
THE WORST MOVIE OF THE YEAR: Dinner for Schmucks. The only reason I didn’t walk out of this mean, hateful, hypocritical, and unfunny comedy is because I saw it in the middle of the desert while on duty with the Navy and hey, what else was I gonna do? It was free, but I don’t care: I still want my money back.
Coming up: Honorable Mentions for the Best Movies of 2010.
Saturday, January 01, 2011
Friday, December 31, 2010
It’s so precious and fragile, civilization. Your city can reside at its heights, and you at the heights of your city. You can read the words of the ancients and build upon their knowledge and be a part of the growth of your species. Then it can all come down, and you with it. It’s what can happen when no one stands up to the crazy people.
In Agora, Hypatia teaches in the Great Library of Alexandria, the repository of Western Civilization’s knowledge and the center of its intellectual life. She teaches in an environment much like that of a St. John’s College seminar, leading her students in discussion of the great thinkers who have come before them and exploring the flaws in their reasoning. Alexandria’s a city in ferment, with the rising Christian sect challenging the established order of the Pagans and Jews, but that competition seems distant and unreal. Euclid and Aristotle and the problems with Ptolemaic astronomy seem much more present. Until, that is, the crazy people start killing each other. That’s when the burning starts.
To give us this story, the story of the burning of the library and the dawn of the Dark Ages, Agora begins by recreating ancient Alexandria. Blending inspired set and costume design with detailed CGI matte work, the film makes its Alexandria feel like a thriving, dynamic, restive city. I’ve read about Alexandria, sure, and I’ve seen photos of ruins in National Geographic. Heck, I flew over the site of the old city the other day. But now, after seeing this film, I can visualize what it may have looked and sounded like to the people who actually lived there. That’s a feat in itself.
A world is not enough, however. Every story needs its beating heart, and this one has Hypatia, daughter of the Library’s curator, tutor in its seminars, and perhaps the greatest mathematician and natural philosopher of her age. Rachel Weisz, as Hypatia, has given me cause to reconsider her as an actress. She’s always been a great beauty and perfectly fine performer, but here she captures the joy of thought. We see her reasoning through the great scientific questions her day (some of which wouldn’t be answered for a millennium – oh, how much we lost when the crazy people took charge), and Weisz walks us through her frustrations, her ideas, her breakthroughs – all without histrionics, but with subtle changes in her face and body that suggest the genius behind the beauty.
The film combines these elements to break our hearts. We know what’s coming, we know nothing can stop it, and we weep for the people of Alexandria and a civilization heading toward eclipse. Crazy people thrive on all sides, in all factions, and the sane people don’t realize the threat until it’s too late.
If you care about ideas and the history of ideas, you need to Agora. This film will break your heart. If not, well, you’re crazy.
Thursday, December 30, 2010
Let me tell you when Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit captured my imagination.
Early on, young heroine Mattie Ross has outfoxed a town businessman, talking him out of several hundred dollars. She’s in conversation with him again and she offers a new proposal. He stops and looks at her with fear in his eyes. With a slight tremble, he asks, “Are we trading again?”
The actor who plays the trader, Dakin Matthews, isn’t a top-billed guy. He’s just another character actor in a film that’s loaded with them. But he and creators Joel and Ethan Coen put so much life into his moments that they pop off the screen. They told me that nothing in this film is being taken for granted, and that every moment will have something to offer.
Now, let me tell you when True Grit earned my goodwill. In the 1975 film Rooster Cogburn, John Wayne’s Rooster tells Katherine Hepburn that he rode with Quantrill’s Raiders. The Raiders, a group of Rebel guerrillas, conducted the massacre in Lawrence, Kansas. “Over four hours, they pillaged and set fire to the town and murdered most of its male population. Quantrill's men burned to the ground one in four buildings in Lawrence, including all but two businesses. They looted most of the banks and stores, as well. Finally, they killed between 185 and 200 men and boys.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Massacre) That information killed that particular film for me, because I couldn’t root for one of Quantrill’s Raiders. In True Grit, Jeff Bridges’s Rooster tells Matt Damon that he rode with Quantrill, and Damon’s character immediately lays into him about the massacre, disparaging Quantrill as a murderer. Cogburn’s response: “That’s a damn lie!” I loved this touch because it let Rooster off the hook – he must not have been on the Lawrence raid, which gave him the ability to idolize a charismatic leader and stay true to his sense of personal justice. At last, I could root for this character!
True Grit is full of moments like these, inclusions like these. Joel and Ethan Coen crafted this film with great care, getting each detail right and absolutely nailing the beats of a tight, three-act, action/comedy/western. The film is beautifully photographed, perfectly paced, and finely performed. I loved everything about it.
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Darren Aronofsky does not make bad films. He makes brilliant, cinematic pictures, the kind that one should enjoy on the big screen with the big sound. Black Swan is one of these, an intense investigation of art and insanity that takes big chances and comes through.
Natalie Portman plays Nina, a dedicated ballerina of the New York stage who wins her first lead role: the Swan Queen in ‘Swan Lake.’ Nina’s a tightly controlled individual, emotionally stunted and constrained by a domineering mother and her own drive for perfection. When she lands the Swan Queen, she doesn’t know if she can do it. But she tries and tries and tries, drilling and drilling and forgoing sleep and dropping weight from her already elfin body until the combination of stress, malnutrition, and exhaustion renders her psychotic.
And here’s the thing that bothered me about the film, at least in the first two acts: why would anyone put themselves through that kind of torture for the amusement of rich people? For that’s what the ballet, as presented here, clearly is: an amusement for rich people, the kind who enjoy putting on tuxedoes, drinking champagne at fund raisers, and having a fine night out. I mean, I get it: ballet is Nina’s world, and achieving perfection in that world is her goal. But so what? How is that a noble or worthwhile goal, when perfection merely equates entertaining a few hundred people for a couple of hours?
Ah, but in that third act, when Nina dances the role of the Swan Queen, it clicked. Her dance is so transformative, so magnificent, that I saw that she wasn’t dancing for the amusement of the rich – she was dancing for art itself, for that quest to attain the summit of human achievement, for the glorious exultation of not technical perfection, but artistic perfection. What I had seen as a waste of time transformed into humanity personified.
Was it worth it? Was the psychosis, was the pain, was losing everything for an ideal worth the loss? I think that Nina would say yes. As for me, all I know is that I walked out of the theater challenged, elevated, and transformed. That’s what happens when I’m exposed to real art.
Sunday, December 26, 2010
Six years ago, Nimród Antal broke into the international film world with Kontroll, a moral allegory about Budapest subway cops. With Predators, Antal proves that he’s no niche director. Not only can he deliver food for thought with a film like Kontroll, he can serve up the popcorn with an action blockbuster that’s the best Predator movie since the original Predator, made back in 1987.
In Predators, a group of military and criminal toughs (including obvious choices like Danny Trejo and surprising ones like Alice Braga, Adrien Brody, and Topher Grace) awaken to find themselves trapped in an alien world. They’re in a Predator game preserve, and we in the audience strap ourselves in for another take on The Most Dangerous Prey. This one delivers its share of gunfights, ‘splosions, courage, and cowardice, and it does so with élan.
First, it gets all the action movie stuff right. The set pieces pop and the choreography makes sense. We understand who (or what) is chasing whom (or what) where, and why. You may not think this matters, but try sitting through The Expendables and trying to stay engaged while you have no idea what’s actually going on during the climactic battle.
Second, real actors play the action heroes. When a director tells Adrien Brody to look mean, or angry, or hurt, or haunted, or whatever, he can actually do it. The same goes for, oh, Lawrence Fishburne and the aforementioned Braga and Grace.
Third, it’s just plain fun. It begins with a guy falling through the air, his pulse racing and the wind howling in his ears as he curses at his parachute to open before he runs out of sky, and it doesn’t slow down. Sure, it takes moments to let us enjoy things like really enormous alien derelicts and the spectacle of a yakuza dueling a predator in a field of windblown grass. But it does so with its eye on the clock, its foot on the gas pedal, and a crazy gleam in its eye.
By the time the credits rolled, I had a gleam in mine. Predators is the best action film I’ve seen in some time. I can’t wait to see which genre Antal takes on next.