Scott Picks Ten: My Favourite Films of the 00s

I have enormous difficulty ranking movies.  Partly because I love as many of them as I do, but partly because I just can’t compartmentalize them like I want to.  I also seldom see ten that I really love because I’m lucky if I see ten total in any given year.

That said, I’m pretty quick to be able to name a movie that sticks with me from any given year.  Here’s ten of those, plus some honorable mentions

2000 – Memento (Dir. Christopher Nolan)
Memento, in my opinion, will long be considered the strongest debut film of any filmmaker in the 21st century.  It’s a hyperbolic claim, sure, but it’s kind of hard to overstate how good Memento is.  It’s ambitious premise and plotting are more than just gimmicks; the power of the film is essentially embedded in them.  It speaks volumes about Nolan’s chosen form that nobody has really tried to replicate it; Charlie Kaufman even considered abandoning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind once he saw Memento because he felt it could never measure up.
But that aside, it’s still an incredibly strong film in nearly all regards; the performances are excellent, and there’s no significant missteps in pacing or tone.  It’s a very dark film to be sure, but the ending knocked me flat on my ass when I first saw it.  I’m not sure any twist ending since comes close, and neither does any movie released in 2000.
Honorable mentions? Almost Famous, Gladiator, Amelie

2001 – Monsters Inc. (dirs. Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich, David Silverman)
Monsters Inc. is a movie that will probably forever make me smile.  The voice cast is perfect, comic timing flawless, and it’s sense of imagination never falls back on taking the easy way out like too many animated movies do today.  Monsters Inc. sticks out because I’ll never miss a chance to watch it, which isn’t something I can really say for other movies released in 2001.  And thanks to Pixar’s refusal to rely on soon-to-be-dated pop-culture jokes, it’s still as fresh now as it was back then.  It’s not a big “prestige” movie by any means, but it’s entertaining from start to finish and it was my constant choice for Pixar’s best until recently.
Honorable mentions?
Moulin Rouge!, AI: Artificial Intelligence, The Royal Tennenbaums

2002 – Adaptation (dir. Spike Jonze)

Adaptation is something of a kindred spirit with Memento; both work against the traditional filmmaking formula, and both have their story strengthened by breaking with tradition.  But Adaptation has a lighter side and when one breaks through the meta-film elements, it has a lot of heart.  Nicolas Cage’s performance is especially noteworthy, as it defies his oft-mocked over-the-top hamming reputation by being simultaneously understated and ridiculous; he even manages to get a few heartbreaking scenes in there.  By being equal parts.. well, equal parts nearly everything, but never abandoning the idea that the characters make or break the story, it works.
Honorable mentions?
28 Days Later, Gangs of New York, Panic Room, Catch Me If You Can.

2003 – American Splendor (dirs. Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini)
Finding an entry from 2003 was a tricky one until I saw this one on my DVD shelf.  It’s actually not my copy, but it’s been there so long it may as well be.  A trend I’m noticing is that my favourites of this decade seem to play with traditional cinematic structure, or at least work against genre conventions.  American Splendor is part documentary, part biopic, and part comic book adaptation.  And it’s a hidden gem.  I originally planned on going with Kill Bill as my 2003 pick, but while Kill Bill celebrates genre films, American Splendor occupies a fairly unique place.  Paul Giamatti’s performance is terrific, and it balances the documentary and dramatic better than any film I’ve seen before by drawing attention to a character – and I mean that in every sense of the word – with stories worth telling.
Honorable mentions? Kill Bill, Finding Nemo

2004 – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry)
A lot has already been said about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and it’s a complex movie that can be examined from philosophical, aesthetic, and even scholarly perspectives, but what keeps it from just being an intellectual exercise is how grounded it is in it’s characters.  Yes, the screenplay goes into places that folks like Terry Gilliam or Philip K. Dick would be familiar in, and Michel Gondry offers some fairly bizarre images to match.  But then you also have an incredibly understated performance from Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in her best work to date.  It also has some pleasant surprises in Mark Ruffalo and Kirsten Dunst.  And like Memento, it’s never content to just be an exercise in non-traditional filmmaking; Gondry and the cast deliver when it really counts.
Honorable mentions? Collateral, The Aviator, Sideways, Shaun of the Dead

2005 – Match Point (dir. Woody Allen)
Match Point is one of those movies that has managed to stick with me despite only seeing it once.  It’s economical, tense, and relies a lot on mood and music.  And to my great surprise, it’s a Woody Allen movie.  I’m someone who hasn’t seen a great deal of Allen’s films or even feel compelled to, but probably wouldn’t want to be stuck in a world where Woody Allen never decided to make a movie.   Woody Allen’s best-loved films generally aren’t thrillers, and they’re also generally not about upper-class Brits and the terrible things they’ll do in the name of reputation, but Match Point is.  I still find that Scarlett Johannson is a fairly inconsistent actress, but she’s excellent in this one, and the film looks fantastic.  Is it one of Woody Allen’s best?  That’s a matter of debate to be sure, but it manages to be an incredibly involving film in it’s own right, even if it’s not a kindred spirit with Annie Hall or Hannah and her Sisters.
Honorable mentions? Brick, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The 40-Year-Old Virgin

2006 – Children of Men (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
2006 was a hard year to narrow down to just one.  Even just within my own tastes, I found that there was a great heist flick (Inside Man), one of Scorsese’s best mob movies (The Departed), and a terrific Christopher Nolan character study/thriller (The Prestige).  So why Children of Men?  A few reasons.  The first is the overarching story: the film drops you into a devastated world with no real explanation as far as how that happened; the hook (women are inexplicably infertile and mankind is at most 50 years from extinction) is strong enough alone to be intriguing, but by asking questions and giving no answers, it becomes captivating.  There’s an enormous problem facing the world, but they’re damned if they can solve it.  Second is how effectively it narrows a plot that’s on a global scale down to just one character.  And the third is how well it tells his story.  The film’s guerilla-style handheld shots and long takes make it hard to not get involved, and the performances keep the film grounded in human drama, ensuring the film’s plot never veers too far into science fiction to keep from being taken seriously.  It’s fundamentally rooted in it’s characters and performances rather than the sheer volume of despair in it’s world, and that makes it great rather than simply bleak and technically impressive.
Honorable mentions? Inside Man, The Departed, The Prestige

2007 – Zodiac (dir. David Fincher)
I feel as though all David Fincher’s award nominations and Oscar buzz for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button were essentially consolation prizes for how little buzz and recognition Zodiac received.  Because Zodiac is easily a better movie in nearly all regards.  It has help; the Zodiac killer story is among the most fascinating true crime stories in American history.  But even with some assistance from reality, it takes a special talent to make scenes about handwriting analysis interesting and engaging.  But the real treat is when the film shifts into thriller territory.  While the scenes of the murders are often tense, the most intense scenes are the ones where the tension and fear felt by Jake Gyllenhaal’s character are dictated not by onscreen violence, but by careful editing and well-chosen camera angles.  It sounds boring, but the results speak for themselves; the film is incredibly tense, even if you can’t figure out why until after the fact.  While Panic Room is the most purely entertaining film Fincher has made, Zodiac remains his best.
Honorable mentions? Once, Sunshine, No Country for Old Men, Juno

2008 – The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
Noticing another trend?  I like movies with strong characters and performances.  And why not?  Objectively complex special effects alone don’t make movies interesting beyond the initial viewing experience and the behind-the-scenes DVD features.  I love movies where the special effects are in the service of characters, but The Wrestler had no special effects to speak of.  Just a character.  It’s essentially the Mickey Rourke show, but his performance was justly rewarded.  Darren Aronofsky slips in some truly beautiful moments and some achingly broken ones.  It’s not the only performance-driven, low-fidelity movie of 2008 – it has a kindred spirit in Rachel Getting Married – but it resonates most.  It’s a movie that I can’t shake from memory and though it’s flawed, flawed movies are often the most memorable.
Honorable mentions? The Dark Knight, Slumdog Millionaire, Wall-E

2009 – Up (dir. Pete Docter)
It speaks great volumes about Pixar that their biggest screw-up was Cars.  While Wall-E accomplished the unenviable task of making a love story about robots warm and resonant, Up takes the ambition and heart of Wall-E and applies it to a deeply human story.  As firmly planted in fantasy and adventure serials as Up is, it’s an incredibly smart movie in how it handles that.  It never overplays it’s emotional hand, despite having a stacked deck.  It’s the strongest argument against the “animation can’t compete with the real thing” made to date.  When I saw the movie, the film’s most heart-wrenching scene (a montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together) was narrated by a loud woman sitting near me, and the scene still managed to be as powerful as every film critic had said.
Honorable Mentions? Adventureland, Coraline, Zombieland, District 9

Review: Zombieland

(note: this post is roughly a month overdue due to a misplaced password.  This has been rectified)

Can I really give an objective assessment of a movie that was targeted as clearly and pointedly to a demographic I so neatly fit into?  Zombieland is targeted very precisely towards the 20-something geek demographic, and rightly so: we’re the primary consumers of zombie-related media.  But for whatever reason, Zombieland‘s pandering to my particular tastes (if you can call it pandering) rise above just being just geek escapist fantasy.  I have a few theories, and they are as follows:

First, Zombieland has a strong sense of humour.  This may have been amplified by the trailers shown before Zombieland; I cannot fathom five consecutive trailers that took themselves more seriously than Saw VI, 2012, Michael Bay’s Nightmare on Elm Street remake, Legion, and Wolfman.  All presented ridiculous movies with straight faces.  Zombieland, on the other hand, opens with a giant smirk that never leaves.  It’s charming in how unabashedly it proclaims itself as escapist entertainment, not an exploration of the depth of human depravity or the power of the human spirit bla bla bla.. It’s about killin’ zombies with banjos.

And second, Zombieland is really, really well made.  Is it ambitious?  Definitely not.  It’s scope is narrow; only four characters appear for more than 5 minutes.  But the movie is tightly directed, well-acted, and boasts some great comic timing.  It’s occasional scenes of drama are well-executed and don’t feel out of place in a movie as funny as it is.

In short, I had a smile on my face the whole time.  In some ways, it’s a kindred spirit with Scream; lots of nods to classic zombie films, genre-savvy characters, a higher than average dose of self-awareness, but also being well-crafted genre films in their own right that never stray too far into pure parody at the expense of the film.  But Zombieland never devolves into a by-the-numbers zombie flick, whereas Scream (and especially it’s sequels) devolves into a fairly standard slasher flick as it winds down.  It never decides that it’s been clever enough and can just coast through the rest of the movie with zombie gore.  In a lot of ways, it’s a love letter to zombie fans; Columbus’ list consists largely of things we all shout at the screen during other zombie films.  The geek gets the girl.  The badass anti-hero is ridiculously over the top… It’s geek wish fulfillment on the big screen.

But maybe most impressively is how confidently it balances being entertaining for both the core zombie movie audience (said 20-something geeks) and the secondary zombie movie audiences (the girlfriends/boyfriends they drag along).  It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do well, and Zombieland winds up being on par with Shaun of the Dead as being both excellent comedies and worthy entries in the Zombie movie canon.

So is that objective?  Probably not.  Maybe when I’m 40 I’ll pull this little movie off my DVD shelf and hate it for this that and the other reason.  But for now?  I’m still smiling thinking about this movie.

A

Review: District 9

Sometimes great things can come from failure.  After the success of the Lord of the Rings films, Peter Jackson set his sights on adapting the Halo videogame series to the big screen with an unknown director by the name of Neill Blomkamp at the helm.  After a few years in development hell, the project officially fell apart.  Jackson, however, was determined to let the world see what this Blomkamp fellow was capable of.  Given a relatively minor budget of $30 million (compared to the intended $185 million for the Halo adaptation and the usual $150-200 million for your typical sci-fi flick these days), Blomkamp put together District 9 in his native South Africa.

By now, you know the story.  A private Military contracting company is tasked with relocating a slum full of aliens who were abandoned on earth when their mothership parked over metropolitan Johannesburg.  A low-level bureaucrat (played by first-timer Sharlto Copley) finds himself in the heat of the action.  Beyond that, it’s better for you to see it unfold for yourself.

District 9 plays out like a distillation of the best sci-fi elements into a complex and ambitious story.  The characters are painted in shades of gray, and it explores some heavy philosophical and political subtexts (inescapable when you set a film in South Africa, it seems), and boasts one of the best performances by a non-actor that I can remember.  And most importantly, it looks a lot like Blomkamp really genuinely wanted to tell this story and make this film.  Creativity flourishes under limitation, and having a modest budget seems to have paid off in a stronger focus on characters and story than gee-whiz special effects (though District 9 boasts some very impressive effects) and bombastic action scenes.  As a result, it’s incredibly difficult to not get emotionally invested in the (still pretty bombastic) action scenes that follow.  It just makes for more effective storytelling.  Using an inexperienced actor as a character who is wholly out of his depth aids in this immensely, and frankly couldn’t be faked.  It also helps that Copley is said to have improvised all of his dialogue, which if true, means that Copley is an impressive talent to keep an eye on over the next few years.

It’s still a flawed film.  There’s some old action/sci-fi movie tropes that stick out; the sadistic villain earns a particularly messy end (we’ve seen this countless times before), the final act plays out like the vast majority of action movies always do, and while some of the film’s gore is presented as squirm-inducingly realistic, other elements of it look fairly unrealistic and cartoonish in comparison.  To the credit of all involved, however, I couldn’t find any fault in the technical areas of the film; it was shot exclusively on digital video for a small sum, but it looks fantastic.  And any creative or conceptual flaws can be overlooked by the steady execution of probably the best sci-fi film to come along in far too long.

A-

Review: Funny People

Funny People is a movie I wanted to love, but just couldn’t.  Judd Apatow I have a lot of affection for as a filmmaker (Knocked Up is my least favourite of his, but Freaks and Geeks is easily one of my favourite TV shows), and I generally agree with the critics who laud his ability to balance juvenile comedy with legitimate drama, though I find myself much more drawn to the drama.  And his approach to Directing is one I take myself; maximum collaboration with an emphasis on improvisation.

Funny People is about Adam Sandler playing a darker version of himself, ostensibly.  He lives alone and has a fundamentally meaningless existence.  Anonymous sex, making mindless high-concept comedies (such as Mer-man and My Best Friend, The Robot), and famous “friends”.  When he’s diagnosed with a terminal illness, he returns to his stand-up roots.  When his alarmingly dark routine falls flat, up-and-coming comic Seth Rogen essentially follows his act by riffing on how dark Sandler’s routine was.  Then Sandler decides to take Rogen under his wing/employ as a writer and personal assistant as he tries to figure out what the end of his life is going to look like.  It’s a comedy, to be sure, but Apatow takes an intentional turn towards drama this time, and there’s some fairly dark scenes in an otherwise lighthearted look at death and fame.

There’s essentially three major plotlines that make up Funny People.  There’s Sandler’s dealing with his impending mortality and his relationship with Rogen, Rogen and his comedian roommates and friends, and Sandler trying to win back his long lost love (Leslie Mann, now married with children to Eric Bana).  And frankly, there’s close to enough material in all three for their own movie; I’d certainly say that Apatow could have done a full-length tale of Rogen balancing his life at home and with Sandler and a fairly economical, but separate, film about Sandler’s character at Leslie Mann and Eric Bana’s house.  And that’s really the problem with Funny People.

All three plotlines are well executed, and it’s to Judd Apatow’s credit is that the world he establishes is one that I wanted to keep watching.  But the movie is two and a half hours long, and as a result, it’s just… excessive.  The best parts of the movie are among Apatow’s best overall, and while there’s no fluff here, per se, the final product feels like it could use a less loving edit.  Maybe that’s the danger in writing such a personal project; you don’t want to leave anything out.

That’s really my only beef with the movie, but it goes without saying that a movie that’s too long is a big problem to have.  The movie, however, does have it’s share of praiseworthy elements.  Apatow’s shift towards a more mature tone, by and large, works.  There’s no serious gross-out moments, and while it has a lot of dirty jokes, the bulk of them are in stand-up footage.  Rogen and his roommates bear few resemblances to, say, Rogen and his roommates in Knocked Up (save Jonah Hill being in both).  Rogen’s performance shows a lot of growth as well.  As with most Apatow films, the heavy improvisation makes the performances feel more natural, and that definitely works in favour of the film this time; where the improvisations are and where scripted dialogue made the final cut only Apatow knows for sure, but the dialogue never sounds forced or “written”.

There’s a lot to like in Funny People.  Subtle “moments” pop up here and there, performances are solid, and Apatow has largely jettisoned the sorts of things that would have put his career at a standstill had he just made another Knocked Up clone with the same affable manchild characters (the most childish character is also the least likable this time around) and gross-out humour.  But it feels like what could have been here is better than the final product.

B-

Weekend Rentals: February 20th

Millions – Dir. Danny Boyle (2004)
It’s so incredibly rare that I see a “family film”.  I suppose if you qualify Pixar’s animated features as family films, I see maybe one per year.  Part of this is because I’m neither a child nor a parent, but partly is because family movies are so rarely made to appeal beyond the youngest audience members.  When asked if he was being too harsh on a kids movie after giving Star Wars – The Clone Wars a particularly bad review, Roger Ebert said that if anything, kids movies should be better than mainstream movies.  And he’s absolutely right.  And that’s why I was so impressed with Millions.  It fits into the “family film” genre fairly easily, and even could be classified as a Christian movie (which are, by reputation, notorious for being creatively and even spiritually lacking), but it has the same level of creative intensity as anything else Danny Boyle has done.  It occasionally does flirt with cliche, but it never relies on it and the cast never overplays their hand.  It’s similar to what he did with Slumdog Millionaire in allowing the scene to inspire emotions rather than just present emotions.  The result is always stronger than a heavy-handed emotional scene, and even with some flaws, Millions is a very strong film.  B+

Waking Life – Dir. Richard Linklater (2001)
I enjoyed A Scanner Darkly quite a bit, and like countless others, really enjoyed Dazed and Confused.  So naturally, I was interested in Waking Life.  It has the same sort of visual hook as A Scanner Darkly.  What it lacks, however, is a narrative structure.  It’s essentially a collection of dialogues about heavy philosophical concetps, and for what it is, it’s about as interesting as it can be.  However, some of the scenes play a little awkward, or aren’t quite as effective as others.  The whole film fully disregards realism, and I can appreciate that, but by the same token, I still find it a little unusual to see an academically-sourced conversation about reincarnation between a couple in bed, especially when the dialogue feels stiff.  When the movie works, it’s very interesting.  The visuals certainly make it more watchable than it would have been if it was filmed traditionally, but it’s not quite as consistent as it could be.  Granted, just due to how outside the norm Waking Life is, it could very well grow on me after multiple viewings, but the first go around left me a little cold.  But it’s certainly more interesting than your average Philosophy textbook.  B-

Five Movies I Like: Valentines Day Edition

Disclaimer: this entry contains some minor spoilers of somewhat recent movies.  So don’t say I didn’t warn you.

There’s a very good reason that the vast majority of men (and to be fair, a good number of women) cringe at the mention of date movies.  And there’s always a deluge of them either released on video or in theatres around Valentine’s Day.  And they’re generally intellectually insulting, overwhelmingly sentimental, and almost always pandering to what (predominantly male) writers and directors think women want to see onscreen, almost always at the expense of realism and truth.  And they make copius amounts of money and have even proven to have altered the psychological makeup of North America.

But they’re not all unwatchable.  I’d consider myself something of a recovering Romantic.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m a cynic when it comes to love, but the pie-in-the-sky ideal of romance as a panacea simply doesn’t ring true to me anymore, and I’ve come to resent the traditional Hollywood Romance myth.  At the age of 24, my view is now as such: Relationships can’t solve problems by virtue of simply existing.  They offer the advantage of solidarity when facing them, which can be an enormous feat, but they don’t have magical powers that can move mountains or make ordinary people break into song.  Romance is wonderful, don’t get me wrong; it’s just not a panacea.

But if you, faithful reader, identify as a romantic, here’s some onscreen love stories that’ll appeal to both head and heart, cynic and romantic.

Once – 2007, dir. John Carney
Once is one of those movies that’s hard to look at and scoff.  It subverts so very many conventions of both musicals and romance movies, but it’s a beautiful little movie about two people who come to something bigger and better than just jumping off into bed together after falling for eachother.  Starring musicians Glen Handard (of The Frames and Swell Season) and Marketa Inglova (also of Swell Season), this little Irish flick doesn’t offer the sort of big romantic end you expect, but it doesn’t disappoint either.  It’s incredibly refreshing as a whole, the performances feel spontaneous and natural, and the music is top-notch.  It’s a far cry from a chick flick, but it’s legitimately romantic by freeing itself of Hollywood conventions and fully embracing the relationship it portrays.

Garden State – 2004, dir. Zach Braff
Garden State juggles genres a fair bit.  It’s a meditation on post-modern malaise, it’s a buddy movie, it’s a bildungsroman of sorts, and it’s (ostensibly) about falling in love.  Zach Braff (he of Scrubs fame) and Natalie Portman (she of Star Wars fame) spend much of the movie learning about eachother and shaking loose their neuroses during a week in New Jersey.  Most coming-of-age movies add a little romance to the mix, and Garden State is no exception, but for whatever reason, it feels a bit more fresh here.  Maybe it’s the music, or maybe it’s how slowly it sneaks towards it’s final act, or maybe it’s how gosh-darned adorable those two crazy kids are, but the movie resonates emotionally, and stronger than you might expect.  It’s not free of convention like Once, but it knows how to use convention to tell a story right.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall – 2008, dir. Nicholas Stoller
Judd Apatow used to be known for his much loved but little known TV series Freaks and Geeks, but then came a little movie called The 40-Year-Old Virgin that made Steve Carrell a star and mixed raunchy comedy with legitimately sweet romance.  The mixture doesn’t sit well with everyone, but Apatow’s second directorial effort Knocked Up proved that it’s effective.  Apatow has also produced a number of similar movies, such as Superbad.  In 2008, however, actor Jason Segel (from Freaks and Geeks and How I Met Your Mother) bared his soul (and other parts) in his debut screenplay, Forgetting Sarah Marshall.  It leans much more towards the cynical end of things, and very much earns it’s R rating, but it still provides enough of a heart to keep from turning into the most depressing breakup comedy you’re likely to see; and it’s pretty funny any way you slice it.  If you’re feeling bold and don’t mind a little splash of romance in your schadenfreude, it’s worth a look.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – 2004, dir. Michel Gondry
Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet nearly completely deconstruct the romantic comedy in this one, and it’s the sort of movie that could easily be just plain depressing.  But between Andy Kaufman’s script and the flashes of beauty thrown in, it manages to be a strong romantic film in it’s own right.  It’s by far the most ambitious and challenging movie on this list, and it’s central thesis is effectively “relationships can be so horrible that you’ll want to wipe them from your memory”, but there’s a beating heart to be found here and it’s got an enormous amount of depth and truth.

Shaun of the Dead – 2004, dir. Edgar Wright
I’ve said a few times that the key relationship in Shaun of the Dead isn’t between Shaun (Simon Pegg) and Liz, but between Shaun and his bumbling best friend Ed (Nick Frost).  And I maintain that this is the case, but I also can’t deny that there’s a strong love story to be found in here.  After all, take away the zombies, and you have a movie about a man who finds out the hard way that he needs to shape up to win back the woman of his dreams.  Keep the zombies in, and you have a movie about a man who’s willing to take on an army of the undead armed only with a cricket bat to win back the woman of his dreams.  And seriously ladies… what could possibly be more romantic than that?

Review: Rachel Getting Married

Film is all about appearances.  While it does rely heavily on sound, no matter how a movie sounds, it still needs to resemble something coherent and consistent to matter.  While there’s a great deal of movies that are flawed from the conception stage onward, a strong, unwavering visual concept can go a long way.  Take, for example, Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married.  The story is dead simple:  Recovering drug addict Kym (Anne Hathaway) leaves rehab to attend her sister Rachel’s wedding.  The visual hook?  The whole thing is presented as though it’s someone’s home movies.  It’s a far cry from a glossy epic with sweeping crane shots; it even looks rough compared to The Wrestler.  But it absolutely draws the audience in.

The strength of the movie is that it seldom looks scripted.  And even when it does, it’s not performed that way.  The performances are far and away the best thing Rachel Getting Married has going for it.  Nar-Anon meetings look almost as though they just sent a cameraman and a handful of actors to the real deal, rehearsal dinner speeches look very much off-the-cuff, and the most raw emotional scenes look painfully legitimate.

The sense of handycam realism is assisted by the fact that a handful of characters are actually videotaping the whole thing.  Whether those cameras are props or actually shooting isn’t always easy to tell, but that’s not really important.  It makes the setting absolutely real.  Unfortunately, the DIY presentation is the film’s biggest weakness.  While it does capture some amazing performances by nearly anyone with more than a paragraph of dialogue, it too frequently lacks the sort of cohesion one would expect from a movie; even one edited on someone’s laptop.  While I can forgive the handheld shaky-cam as much as it typically bothers me, the movie is at least 10-15 minutes too long and loses it’s focus towards the end.

The appearance of spontaneity, however, does propel the story, and to say it turns the typical wedding movie on it’s head is an understatement.  It’s by no means a comedy, there’s no predictable plot turns, and it denies the audience full closure just as much as it denies the characters the same thing.

Anne Hathaway deserves an Academy Award for her performance, and it earns major points for making zero concessions in terms of realism.  And perhaps most importantly, even the most intense scenes don’t result in overacting or hamming.  But the final half-hour really should have been a final 15 minutes.  It’s a flawed film that can be afforded a lot of grace by virtue of it’s cast, but it’s still not quite what it could have been.

Verdict: B

The Oscars: Some Snubs

The Oscars make mistakes.  A lot.  Granted, they are subjective awards, but Stanley Kubrick never won an Oscar, and nothing changes that.

This year, the biggest snub is generally considered to be The Dark Knight receiving neither a Best Picture nor Best Director nomination.  While I agree with the masses that it’s deserving of both nominations (Slumdog Millionaire should win both in my opinion), it still received eight well-deserved nominations, and will more than likely win (and deservedly so) Best Supporting Actor for the late Heath Ledger.

The other big snub was Wall-E for Best Picture.  Again, I agree, especially since the Best Animated Feature has devolved into a Pixar Appreciation award.  But it will win, and it stands a pretty good chance of winning Best Original Screenplay and Best Song.

My biggest beefs with the academy are found within those two categories though.

First and foremost: Best Song.  I’m not convinced there are any rules for this category anymore. Any film with more than one song generally has all of them nominated, and it leaves a number of songs in the dust.  This year, though not agregious as Enchanted or Dreamgirls dominating the nominations, two from Slumdog Millionaire were nominated, while Bruce Springsteen’s song of the same name from The Wrestler was ignored entirely.  Likewise with Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino.  Only three songs were nominated from two movies this year, and those two songs wound up ignored.  Madness.

My second beef is that In Bruges only recieved a single nomination.  Yes, it absolutely deserves at least a Best Original Screenplay nomination, but it’s a challenging and satisfying movie that ranked on a lot of critical top-ten lists and earned Colin Farrell a Golden Globe.  It’s not a movie that’s easily categorized (it ranges from laugh-out-loud funny to bittersweet to downright tragic), but it’s an incredible movie.  Perhaps it proves that there’s a real need for a Best New Filmmaker award, as it was Martin McDonogh’s first theatrical effort, and proof that there’s still a lot of great stories left to be told.

Beyond that, I don’t have any major issues.  It’d be nice if the nominations for blatant Oscar-bait (I’m looking at you, The Reader and Milk) would once and for all give way to validation of more original and creative works like In Bruges, but the movies I’ve enjoyed most this year have, by and large, been nominated.

Review: Slumdog Millionaire

I didn’t realize it until about a month ago, but Danny Boyle is one of my favourite filmmakers.  And I’ve only seen a handful of his work at this point.  I recently watched Sunshine, his 2007 sci-fi offering that’s equal part claustrophobic thriller and psychological space drama.  Visually, it was easily one of the most involving movies I’ve ever seen.  I have no hesitation in adding it to my (still quite short) list of movies I’d consider buying Blu-ray for.  Slumdog Millionaire, of course, has incredibly little in common with Sunshine.  I think the only comparisons are that both are in colour.  Danny Boyle’s back catalog is diverse to say the least.

There’s theoretically a lot working against Slumdog Millionaire.  For one, it has no recognizable actors.  Dev Patel is fairly well-known in the UK for his work on Skins, but Boyle’s leading lady is an unknown, and the bulk of the film uses child actors.  Second, a good deal of the dialogue is in Hindi.  And third, it’s plot, though appearing complex, is at least somewhat cliche.

But thanks to a smart script, incredible visuals, and strong performances, it not only works, it works almost perfectly.  Much like The Dark Knight, it’s one of those movies that is able to completely shut out the rest of the world while you watch it. It’s an almost pitch-perfect example of every element working to serve the story.  While there are some very strong elements (the cinematography/editing and music are outstanding), there are also no weak elements, and most importantly, no superfluous ones.

Much like The Wrestler, the strongest elements are the most prominent.  It’s impossible to ignore how gorgeous the movie looks and sounds.  Cinematography is something that Danny Boyle has always paid special attention to, even in 28 Days Later, which was shot on DV cameras (for both logistical reasons and creative reasons), but it stands out all the more when paired with AR Rahman’s Bollywood-inspired score.

Slumdog is still character-driven though.  The visuals, unlike a Bax Luhrman movie, don’t distract from the story so much as they add to it, and the film’s cast, especially the child actors, carry the complex screenplay admirably.  When paired with Danny Boyle’s less-than-mainstream sensibilities, the screenplay manages to subvert the usual expectations of a tale-of-destiny style love-story and replacing them with something more powerful.  There’s no tear-jerking monologue about lost love, and Boyle denies them a grand, romantic reunion.  But it manages to deliver on an emotional level despite that, and that deserves celebration.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a conventional movie made by an unconventional filmmaker, and as such, it manages to be more powerful than it’s story alone.  Slumdog Millionaire, however, takes it further and takes a conventional story and tells it in an unconventional way through an unconventional filmmaker.  The results of both films speak for themselves, but Slumdog speaks louder.

Vertict: A

Review: The Wrestler

Less is more.

It’s an ageless maxim, especially in the arts, but is it always true?  I’m a fan of simplicity myself.  As I get older, I find myself less and less interested in spectacle; especially if it’s at the expense of characters.  This is a major reason why Transformers was as boring to me as it was.  All some movies have going for them are special effects.  They’re great to watch on the big screen, but ultimately, there’s no attachment to the characters or their circumstances.

On the exact opposite end of the filmmaking spectrum is Darren Aronofsky’s drama The Wrestler.  No special effects, no quick edits, no fancy cinematography.  Unflinching realism is the order of the day, and absolutely everything is at the service of the character.  But does it work?

In this case, it does.  Mickey Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a professional wrestler two decades past his prime and doing matches for cash while working part-time at a grocery store.  He lives a relatively lonely life; he’s estranged from his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and really only communicates with a stripper (Marissa Tomei) and his fellow wrestlers.  After a brutal hardcore match involving barbed wire, staplers, silverware, and plate glass, Ram suffers a heart attack and is forced to face a life without wrestling.

The Wrestler is driven primarily by Mickey Rourke’s performance.  He’s very rarely not on-screen, and he’s only absent from two or three scenes.  Rourke is, thankfully, up to the challenge.  His performance is powerful in it’s own right, garnering sympathy even for his stupidest decisions and most avoidable mistakes, and making the most of his sparse dialogue.  His speech to the crowd in the film’s final match could have been played as cheesy and intentionally tear-jerking, but Rourke sells it without a trace of self-awareness.  How much of his performance is technique and how much is therapy is a matter of debate, but the product on-screen speaks for itself.  I’m going to join the chorus of film critics demanding a Best Actor win for this performance.

Marissa Tomei, however, deserves any awards and accolades that come her way as well.  In many ways, Cassidy is Ram’s female counterpart.  Neither are in careers that reward seniority, and both are no stranger to pain.  She serves as both a comrade and a foil, and is more than up to the task of matching Rourke’s performance.  Evan Rachel Wood is largely limited by the size of her role, but she too manages to produce a strong performance, albeit not as dynamic a performance as Rourke or Tomei’s.

The overall style of the movie is somewhat hit-or-miss though.  It’s shot almost entirely handheld, documentary style, and looks very low-concept.  It bears a strong resemblence to the 1999 pro wrestling documentary Beyond The Mat.  While this greatly enhances the effectiveness of the cast and Clint Mansell’s guitar-driven score, it’s minimalism and realism doesn’t always play out quite right.  Some cuts and edits feel awkward, and while the background characters add a lot of colour, it feels as though there’s some distinction from the written dialogue and improvised lines, whether that’s the case or not.

But it’s fundamentally a character study, and it’s a fascinating study of someone who put everything on the line until there was nothing left.  While it’s not a perfect film, it’s strengths simply can’t be dismissed, and that makes it’s weaknesses pretty easy to overlook.

Verdict: B+

Tales from the middle of the pack