Wednesday, January 31, 2007


Passing through alot of fellow blogs and sites lately, it's apparent that we're all making some sort of new year's resolution within the wide universe of blog-ism. Some, like Moriarity at Aint It Cool News, plans on bringing back his much appreciated DVD blog. Others, such as TLRHB plan on posting more about specific directors (and check out his latest post on John Dahl, one of a handful of underappreciated genre directors working today). Still there's Adam over at DVD Panache who plans on re-vitalizing a trick from a newspaper in his hometown that conducted weekly 'spotlights' on people, re-focusing that effort on more contemporary means by choosing a different blog to link each Friday. He's neatly transformed that into yet another exciting example of the 'linking possibilities' opened up by ordinary people who use the blogger universe to type out thousand word essays on whatever topic charges their minds. It's empowering to see (even in the short year I've been hammering away at this site) the number of friendships and acquaintances struck across the globe due to the limitless structure designed by the blog. No longer is media criticism (or any other criticism for that matter) created and consumed by the print conglomerates. Some of the most inventive, insightful and entertaining writings I've read in the last 15 years have surfaced from unpaid writers on a simple computer screen (and that even includes the message board and newsgroup formats, which is currently drawing its last breath as I type this). So, I fully intend to throw my hat in the ring, pull no punches, and continue to fully embrace the blog format in all its glories and I hope everyone else does the same.

With that comes great responsibility, grasshopper. I intend to post more frequently this year, and I've got several things in the mix that will hopefully help me achieve that modest goal. First, as far as movies go, I've been invited to participate in a website found here that should motivate me to more opening weekends this year than ever before and supply me with ample fodder for capsule reviews. The site, which officially launches tomorrow, February 1st, contains a wonderful roster of writers, and if we have any say on things, should eventually rival Film Freak Central (which I won't link to, obviously, because they're now the enemy). Secondly, I plan on doing more of the same type of director appreciations found at TLRHB. Only one last year on this site, dedicated to Michael Haneke, is certainly not enough. Next, I plan on attending the newly renovated American Film Festival held every spring here in Dallas that always brings a nice flavor of selections to the city. Rumors are already flying that this fest will host David Gordon Green's latest! And finally, I think the trick to posting more is finding a niche that forces you to post more. For example, The Listening Ear conducts a Friday 'random music list' from his Ipod. Jim at Talking Moviezzz also raises the music bar by adding a weekly You Tube clip that highlights a forgotten 80's video. So, what's my niche? I figured I'd post a weekly (or hell, bi-weekly, I'm not that voracious of a viewer) list of movies in my Netflix queue. Not only does a list do the body good, but certain titles may well inspire someone to spark up a discussion on it. Or someone may ask why in the hell I'd want to watch that. But regardless, it's a few more posts a month, it gives everyone some insight into my viewing tastes (which I assure you are varied!) and just may continue a small portion of the healthy debate already blazing across this splendid creation known as blogs.

So, without further ado: the current ten titles in my Netflix queue (excluding recently mailed)
1. Nathalie (Anne Fontaine)- French film that got some accolades.
2. The Guard From Underground- early nineties Kiyoshi Kurosawa that I've never heard of before- I'm a Kurosawa junkie so couldn't pass this one up.
3.Into the Perilous Night- Johnny To film, still trying to watch all that are available from this fantastic director.
4. Bob Le Flambeur- all the talk about "Army of Shadows" gave me the jones to revisit all of Melville's films, so few there are on DVD.
5. Back Door To Hell- Last film that I need to watch from Monte Hellman. I loved "Two Lane Blacktop" and "Cockfigter", could barely make it through "China 9/Liberty 37", so his 70's output is very inconsistent. We'll see.
6. Tora, Tora, Tora- Ever since late last year, I've been eating up war films by the dozen. I've never seen this film, so hit me now.
7. Cutter's Way-I remember Richard Jameson in Film Comment raving about this one and came across it on Netflix while just skimming through one day (to hell with those recommendations that NEVER seem to recommend anything half-way cool).
8. Wu Yen- Johnny To
9. Love On a Diet- Yes, even more Johnny To. Hell he made 4 films a year, ok.
10. Uno Bianca- Drew at Aint It Cool News called this one the "Heat" of the Italian 90's pics. That's mighty praise.

Let me know what your thoughts are on this. Happy belated new year everyone!

Monday, January 29, 2007

Fairy Tales Gone Horribly Wrong

Playing catch up is never fun, but when faced with the slew of usual January dumping ground affairs (“Blood and Chocolate, anyone?), it’s actually kinda fun to be faced with the idea of going to see the mentioned films below.

Pan’s Labyrinth

Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a wonderfully handsome and inventive yarn that, if there were any justice in the world, would win its nominated Oscar of original screenplay simply for the way the film’s two central plot strands mirror each in other depth and emotion. There are two grand ideas at work here- first, in order to settle his vivacious need for the ‘fantastic’, Del Toro has created an adult fairy tale that frightens with its dark and moody attention and impressively designed creatures (that thing with the eyes in the hands is the stuff of true nightmares). If this alone had been the entire premise of the film, it would’ve succeeded magnificently. But secondly, Del Toro brings us out of the fairy tale world into the harsh realities of past-day Spain in which villains are more clearly embodied as the military and, specifically, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), a man so consumed with hatred and spite for the rebels he’s chasing that his actions bring about more cringe-worthy moments than the underworld creatures. As Ofelia (a natural and charismatic young actress named Ivana Baquero) revolves back in forth between the real world and the (maybe) unreal one, Del Toro’s screenplay subtly begins drawing parallels between them. Ofelia in the adult world is represented by Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), the housekeeper who is also sublimating herself between two alternate and equally dangerous worlds, working in the mill for the military while supplying her rebel brother with food and supplies. Simply put, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is that rare type of film that expressively uses a children’s medium (fantasy) to highlight commentary and sneak in mature outcries against the political and social regime of the day. I think the enduring reason that C.S Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” series has held up for so long in popular culture is this very reason- it works as a pure children’s fantasy while slowly revealing hidden snippets on religion and politics that become apparent in adulthood. “Pan’s Labyrinth” is certainly not for children, but it hosts a feast of ideas and images for adults and deserves to be seen, felt and heard for a long time.

The Queen

For whatever reason, I never ventured out to see Stephen Frears’ “The Queen” when it was in limited release here in Dallas throughout December. Well, the above is a small white lie. Fact is, this is the type of stodgy British film that never appeals to me so I never had that strong of an urge. With the impending Oscar noms under the film’s belt, I figured it was time to give this feature a chance; that and the fact that director Frears’ versatility is sharp as a filmmaker (he’s recently bounced from “The Hi-Lo Country” to “High Fidelity” to “Dirty Pretty Things”!) While “The Queen” is better than I expected, it also never breaks out of its stuffy confines into anything transcendental. And, in keeping with the title of this post, its a fairly reliable story about a fairy tale gone horribly wrong (royal family faced with the dilemma of losing their beautiful ex-princess to the tragic beasts of vanity). The most interesting aspect of the film (besides the marvelous performance of Michael Sheen as Tony Blair) is the visual struggle that Frears toys with throughout. “The Queen”, at the heart of the story, is the idea of old vs. new and traditional vs. modern. Frears couples that wavering feeling by quietly alternating between traditional pans and cuts when he’s within the confines of the royal family with more handheld and close-up shots when dealing with the fastidious rituals of the labor party headquarters. It was a technique I noticed about halfway through during a scene in which Sheen as Blair calls the Queen (Helen Mirren) on the telephone. That opened up a whole new interest in the film. “The Queen” is one of those polite films that deals with British royalty in a passive aggressive manner, documenting the days after Princess Diana’s death and the royal family’s unwilling interest to speak out or even fly a flag at half-mast. Instead, they spend their days hunting and vainly attempting to keep everything “a private affair”. Archived footage of the social unrest that developed during that week after the tragedy are interspersed with a fictional script by Peter Morgan that also wants to shine a spotlight on the conflicting personalities between the family and the new political labor party. A majority of “The Queen” plays out like a mini-thriller, suggesting that Prince Charles’ alliance lies more with the press and people than the stuffy obligations of the royal family. Likewise, Morgan’s script breathes life into the inner circle of Blair in the early days, including his speechwriter and wife as they attempt to align themselves strategically for the future. “The Queen” is a fine film for its modest purposes and stands to be the next film that declares a best actress amongst its crew.

These reviews and others can be read here

Friday, January 19, 2007

So Much Great TV, So Little Time

My TV watching continues to grow exponentially. I’ve recently been turned onto 2 new shows that have gotten their fair share of critical acclaim, but for whatever reason, never found room on my television set.

The Wire- now in its fourth season, “The Wire” is a dense and telling look inside the procedural bureaucracy of a Baltimore police department as they struggle to topple the drug trade in a sprawling apartment complex. Juggling 20 or so characters from all levels of the power structure, it’s probably one of the most informative series in years about the details of the business (both judicial and criminal). It’s also very smart, relying on the viewer to fill in small details as the series grows. Like the best episodic series, “The Wire” is equal to an epic novel, laying out the structure for a grand chessboard of movers and shakers over long periods of time. HBO continues to leverage their thirst for intelligent adult programming, and this is certainly one of the best.

Battlestar Galactica- When I traveled home for the holidays, my brother persuaded me to borrow his season 1 box set of the Sci-Fi channel’s series “Battlestar Galactica”. He told me it’s nothing like the original, only building on that show’s basic narrative structure in inventive and entertaining ways. I watched the 3 hour mini-series pilot and was hooked. And I’ve quickly come to learn what makes for rapturous viewing- take hotties from different nationalities and put them in space. You’ve got the pretty Asian pilot, the blonde tom-boy ace fighter pilot, the attractive girl next door mechanic, and a 6 foot tall luscious blond who gets to portray the evil killing machine in a slinky red dress. But seriously, this is a fantastic show that blends great CGI with enthralling characters. You can read a virtual week by week analysis at The House Next Door on both shows, and kudos to that blog (and my brother) for opening up new doors of requisite viewing. I’ll go play catch up now.

And you thought I was kidding about the pretty women?

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Notes on a Scandal

Richard Eyer’s “Notes on a Scandal”, based on a sharp and biting script from Patrick Marber, is a nicely affecting drama about the wild disintegration of a family due to one mother’s indiscreet (and controversial) affair. Playing her sensuality to the hilt, Cate Blanchett stars as Sheba, the latest faculty addition at a British school. Everyone (and I mean everyone) is attracted to her, none more so than the aged and lonely Barbara, played with restrained contempt by Judi Dench. When Sheba is caught having a sexual relationship with one of the school’s 15 year old male students, Barbara uses the scandal to manipulate Sheba into her own devices. Sounds very Douglas Sirkian doesn’t it? There are moments when the acting and tone of “Notes on a Scandal” threaten to overthrow the logical maneuvers of the sordid story, but there’s something touching and real about the motives behind each and every character step. Blanchett, looking as gorgeous and sexy as ever, easily embodies the confused, reckless persona of the bourgeous wife who’s helplessly trapped in between a marriage of convenience (to a husband played with ferocious charm by Bill Nighy) and the constrictive responsibilities of bringing up two children, one teenage female as confused about love as her mother and the other a 12 year old boy with down syndrome. It’s no wonder she continually subverts her normal life for a touch of the sordid. Dench, saddled with the juicy role of manipulator and closet lesbian, walks through the entire film with a hollow and malicious tone that is chilling and pitch-perfect, and given the film’s best dialogue in clipped voice-overs. Marber’s script, though it veers wildly into several different categories of camp towards the climax, strikes several small coups of storytelling, such as the time bomb unleashed when Barbara’s cat dies or the way the film’s explosive confrontation happens just after Blanchett has dolled herself up in fish net stockings and black mascara, trying to re-establish an emotional link to her punk rock past. And that alone is the basic idea behind “Notes on a Scandal”- how rebellious actions tend to recreate themselves over and over in our lives when complacency sets in. “Notes on a Scandal” documents that complacency, as well as the twisted obsessions that haphazardly form between two people, with damning accuracy.

I first remember seeing Cate Blanchett on the big screen in 1998 after her Oscar winning peformance in "Elizabeth", a film whose character required Blanchett's seething sensuality to shine through layers of thick make-up and extravagant costumes. Next came the moribund Mike Nichols comedy about stressed out air traffic controllers (yea, we all wanted to see that!)called "Pushing Tin" where Cate held her own against the sex pot hurricane that was just beginning to form around Angelina Jolie. Then came the one-two punch of "The Gift" and "Bandits", two films that required Blanchett to embody diametrically opposed characters- the first being a Southern pyschic caught up in murder and intrigue in Sam Raimi's gothic horror story, and the second as a muse towards two low-level criminals in Barry Levinson's humurous "Bandits". From there, Blanchett retreated a little into more personal works, bringint to life on the screen two strong, politically motivated women in "Charlotte Gray" and "Veronica Guerin", the latter an immensely moving performance. She then became the fanboy's dream (hey, nothing wrong with that.. I"m the one writing 1000 words about her) harboring a recurring part in Peter jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy as the ethereal Galadriel. But, her strongest performance (aside from her latest role in "Notes on a Scandal") lies in last year's gritty "Little Fish". As Tracy, a video store clerk desperately trying to keep her head above water from a past full of drug addiction and petty violence, Blanchett boldly carried the film's generic themes into a whole other realm of naturalistic glances and body language. As in "Notes on a Scandal", she proves that beauty can be a little fucked-up, a little intelligent and very scary sometimes. If there was any justice, she'd win an Oscar this year for her performances so far. And if not, in the words of fellow blogger Dennis Cozzalio, her's is a face I love.

This review (minus the ode to Blanchett) can also be read here.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Favorites of 2006

20. Déjà vu- The annual appearance of a Tony Scott film! Scott always wants to make more than a Bruckheimer financed action film, and he often carves out sublime little moments between his characters, giving his films an extra dose of personality. Plus, he’s a director who understands the nuances of charismatic lead performances, presenting Denzel with what feels like his most loose and vivid performance in a few years. This is the most fun I've had at the movies in a while, and it features one helluva car chase that has implications for 2 different dimensions.

19. Slither- James Gunn’s “Slither” is a gore-filled modern day horror film that clearly understands its roots in the “b” movies of the 50’s and 60’s when communism was represented as an unknown evil from outer space that would quietly and efficiently cocoon inside normal people’s bodies and devastate small towns. I could be describing “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” or “Slither”, so not much has changed in the wake of terrorism! Whether it’s the delirious plot or the immensely entertaining performances of Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker, Nathan Fillion or Gregg Henry, “Slither”, like “Casino Royale” mirrors the most inventive and entertaining slices of its genre without pretension.

18. Casino Royale- Daniel Craig has saved Bond. Well, maybe not. But “Casino Royale” exceeded a lot of expectations. As a spy film, it’s thrilling in the economic way it deals with locations and double-cross interactions. As a Bond film, it features ‘hot ladies and suave drinks’ while maintaining a sense of realism about its emotions and its violence. And ss a Hollywood blockbuster, it heightens the insane action set-piece (see the run through a construction site) that dominates the genre. Pretty much on every level, “Casino Royale” is a fantastic treat.

17. The Good Shepherd- Taut and compelling filmmaking on the birth of the CIA with another morally complex script by Eric Roth. With its long procession of whispers, furtive glances, double speak and quiet betrayals, it’s a spy film that owes more to the cinema of the 70’s rather than the slam-bang politics of today’s film market. Director Robert DeNiro gave speaking parts to a host of great actors, but it’s the quiet fortitude of Matt Damon (who truly established himself this year with this movie and “The Departed”) and the reserve of Keir Dullea as a side-switching KGB agent that grounded the film in realism.

16. United 93- While Oliver Stone opted for more maudlin sentimentalism, director Paul Greengrass chose to film the events of September 11th with a much more authentic and gut-wrenching account of the day’s events. Filmed with documentary like precision, “United 93” methodically showed the day’s horrible events with mind-numbing detail.

15. Tristram Shandy; A Cock and Bull Story- In between political commentary films such as “In this World” and “Road To Guantanamo”, British director Michael Winterbottom took time out to helm “Tristram Shandy” which is an adroit comedy about the filming of a movie overrun with procrastinations, based on a novel about procrastination. Ehh, none of that makes sense, but the film, starring Steve Coogan, is witty and serious fun. Once again, Winterbottom has proven his chameleon-like prowess as he dives from one genre to the next with ease.

14. The Devil and Daniel Johnston- The year’s best documentary didn’t deal with the war in Iraq or document a mass terror such as life inside Jonestown. Instead, director Jeff Feuerzeig’s tale simply details the unknown rise and eventual fall of one Daniel Johnston from Texas, a songwriter who inspired the likes of Kurt Cobain and Pearl Jam and was a smash hit at several Austin South by Southwest festivals. This is highly entertaining as the musical portrait of a disturbed genius and harrowing in it’s depiction of one man’s slow crawl into mental illness. I urge everyone to check this one out. You’ll not be disappointed. Rent this and “Be Here To Love Me” for a fantastic Texas-cult-rock-savior-turned-crazy documentary double feature at home!

13. Breaking News- Each year, a new Johnny To crops up on my list. After including “Throwdown” last year, I said something to the effect of “the most underappreciated Asian director working today.” That theory still holds true, as he’s already filmed and released 3 more films in 2006, all getting raves from the festival circuit. “Breaking News” begins with an elaborate 8 minute tracking shot that documents the shoot-out between cops and robbers. It goes even more haywire from there, throwing up elaborate set-piece after elaborate set-piece as the criminals sneak their way around an apartment high rise and the media traces every violent step. There’s nothing really deep here, but To films with such kinetic energy, his films leap off the screen. I implore everyone to fill up their Netflix queues with his films. There’s not a loser in the bunch.

12. Fast Food Nation- Richard Linklater’s panoramic view of three distinct tiers of people involved in the meat packaging industry- illegal immigrant workers, middle class workers and activists, and the executive suite- is sharp and incisive in its observant demeanor. This was a banner year for Linklater (after molding “A Scanner Darkly” into required viewing) and “Fast Food Nation” doesn’t cheapen tough ideas for the sake of entertainment. This is a film that wants to examine the problem of “shit in the meat” from a wide variety of angles, and in doing so, Linklater also explores the divergent modes of life within America.

11. Half Nelson- Ryan Fleck’s film sounds like the stuff of genuine Lifetime channel programming- an inner city school teacher (played brilliantly by Ryan Gosling) inspires kids by day and smokes crack at night. One of his students (Shareeka Epps) discovers his secret but decides to keep it to herself. The greatness of Fleck’s film is in the details- nothing is forced and the dynamics between Epps and Gosling are amazing. Fleck also continually places his characters in predictable circumstances and gives us unpredictable narrative turns- such as the scene where Gosling goes to confront a local drug dealer played by Anthony Mackie (who, if there were any justice, would receive and win the supporting actor Oscar) outside his house and a wholly believable reaction between the two develops. “Half Nelson” is a character study that resonates.

10. The 3 Burials of Melquidas Estrada- Working from a script by Mexican scriptwriter Guillermo Arriaga, Tommy Lee Jones’ directing debut is a powerful gut shot that re-imagines the western and would make Peckinpah proud. Taking justice into his own hands, Jones rounds up the border patrol officer (Barry Pepper) who killed his friend and drags him (literally at times) across the Mexican border to bury the body. The depth of Jones’ direction and the ensemble acting are stunning in their simplicity. Eschewing melodramatic bonding moments, Arriaga’s script bounces back and forth in time without feeling like a cheap trick. With the addition of “The Proposition”, it looks like the western may be making one bloody good return.

9. A Scanner Darkly- Linklater’s second film on this list utilizes a Philip K. Dick story as a jumping off point for a grand, rambling exercise in sci-fi muck racking and paranoia from the likes of Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson and Winona Ryder (animated, of course, in more ways than one). It would be easy to get lost in the continuous banter that has made Linklater a cult favorite, but “A Scanner Darkly” succeeds in more than that, giving us a masterful and surprising look at the future with brains and heart. And that final scene is a knock-out.

8. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu- A two-and-a-half hour funeral procession is, basically, at the heart of Cristi Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. The title character complains of a headache and we follow him over the course of the next two hours and 30 minutes as he’s shuffled from hospital to hospital, emergency room to emergency room, lost in a bureaucratic groundswell because they continually misinterpret his severe symptoms as alcoholism. While the film is maddening and infuriating, it also draws some pretty sharp characterizations of doctors and nurses who rule their 5-10 minutes of screen time. Puiu’s camerawork, alternating between static long shots and handheld fluidity, acutely documents the mass confusion of the Romanian hospitals coming-and-goings. While the story is sad, Puiu imbues the whole sardonic affair with a vast intelligence.

7. Clean- The most criminally underappreciated film on this list, French auteur Olivier Assayas strikes subtle gold again as he charts the day-to-day survival of the gloriously pretty Maggie Cheung, fresh out of rehab after the drug overdose of her rock star husband. The film’s main conceit is the unobtrusive manner in which the camera hovers on Cheung’s shoulder as she struggles to reconnect with her son, now in the possession of his grandfather (played with tender precision by Nick Nolte, an Oscar worthy performance). Assayas works best in casual modes, and the beauty of “Clean” lies in the unpredictable narrative turns between Nolte and Cheung. Plus, no director films “hanging out” quite as easily as Assayas does.

6. Miami Vice- If only I could see Michael Mann’s latest film on a digital projector again. It’s certainly the best looking film of the year, and one that’s made me a proponent of Hi-Def filmmaking if they all look like this. Cheesy 80’s pop culture references aside, this is not the old Miami Vice. All of Mann’s tropes are in play here- aching loneliness between city dwellers who are one step away from living in alternate (i.e. normal) universes, a lucid understanding of honor, and shoot outs filmed in dazzling style that clearly understand the complex logistics that accompany such a cluster fuck. And, the bad guys truly look and feel like bad guys. “Miami Vice”- right up to its beautifully timed fade out as Farrell walks towards a hospital- still places Mann as the premier filmmaker of the high-gloss- thinking-man’s-action picture. No one strips apart the crime genre quite as brilliantly either.

5. Hidden- Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has the market cornered on clinical observations of violence, but with “Hidden”, his tight aesthetics reach a smothering level of malaise. When an intellectual couple (Daniel Autiel and Juliet Binoche) begin receiving copies of videotapes filmed in long shot outside their apartment, tensions and old political wounds began to boil to the surface. As the videotapes rise in intimacy (shooting inside his house and the house of others), so does the claustrophobic and paranoid actions of Autiel. There are no shock cuts here- only static long shots that sustain the unrelenting mood of the film. And much has been made of the film’s final shot, but seen in the light of Haneke’s oeuvre, it’s a pretty clear statement about the propagation of youth inflicted violence. There are more genuine surprises here than in six other films combined.

4. Children Of Men- There’s one thing if a film is technically proficient, and then there’s the type of film like Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children Of Men” that’s technically proficient because of its strong narrative, and the two compliment each other beautifully. There are 2 steadicam shots in this film that are beyond description, but they wouldn’t mean a thing if we didn’t care about the characters trudging through them. While Cuaron thickly lays on the metaphorical digressions (there’s something in the way those kittens cling to Clive Owen’s pants and the dogs who “never like anybody” are at peace with him), “Children Of Men” excels in manufacturing a convincing vision of the future that’s terrifying and oh so contemporary.

3. A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints- The true underdog of the year (and the best debut of 2006), Dito Montiel’s highly autobiographical tale of growing up in Astoria, Queens in the 1980’s feels as fresh and energetic as the first images blazed onto the screen from Scorsese. Both filmmakers have an acute vision of male teen angst on the hardened concrete streets. From the film’s opening frames, Montiel is in full command, driving a youthful cast through moving, unexpected slices of life. There’s such an emotional honesty in certain scenes between Shia Lebouf and his father (Chazz Palminteri) that Montiel reminds me of Cassavetes in the way he maneuvers through sensitive territory with body language and editing. So, that’s 2 great directors mentioned already. I’ll stop there. Needless to say, this is a film that understands the pains of growing up- and by adding Robert Downey Jr to the mix as the main character returning home later in life, Montiel also layers the film with authentic guilt that can only come from someone who lived it.

2. The New World-You know it’s one hell of a year when faced with choosing between a new Malick and a new Scorsese as the top film event of the year. Released eleven months ago, Malick’s tone poem about new lands and new love resonates just as deeply today as it did back in January. This is a stunning film in every sense of the word. Malick’s use of movement and music, his disassociation of word and image through voice over, the heartbreakingly natural performance of Q’Orianka Kilcher and the crisp visuals… all juxtaposed together in an epic manner to tell the humblest of stories. “The New World”, like all of Malick’s films, is one that sinks under your skin and places you in a totally different state of mind. Beautiful filmmaking on every level.

1. The Departed - In transferring a Hong Kong action thriller to American shores by way of Boston, director Martin Scorsese brings together an all star cast and efficiently re-invests himself in the criminal world. Not only is the violence brash and the characterizations vibrant, but there’s a sublime connection even in the film’s small moments- the electricity between DiCaprio and Farmiga in a kitchen, the seething hatred of Mark Wahlberg- and tension that mounts with each passing moment as The Departed continually shocks and confronts the viewers expected notions of how a ‘blockbuster’ crime film should end. This is certainly the towering cinematic achievement in 2006.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Moments of '06

In anticipation of my favorite films of the year list which should be appearing soon, I offer up some moments out of 2006 films that made an indelible impression on me. Older online buddies will recognize this as a recurring event. This list is a collection of film dialogue, gestures, camera movements, moods or looks and ideas within a given scene. This list is inspired by Roger Ebert's list of movie moments as well as the once great (now dead) yearly wrap up in Film Comment. Feel free to add your own.
1. The shot of the year- a crane shot up and over a building, briefly outlining the body of a person laying in a field of grass, shifting right, then following a police car down an alley- even though DePalma’s “The Black Dahlia” suffers from many things, its still a technically proficient and sometimes exciting effort.
2. After an argument, the gun shot that pierces the air in a genuinely surprising moment in David Jacobsen’s “Down In the Valley”.
3. Not only the entire performance of Q’Orianka Kilcher, but the moment she runs back into frame and clutches onto the arm of John Rolfe (Christian Bale) and James Horner’s music swells on the soundtrack- the perfect fusion of image, sound and emotion in Terence Malick’s grand masterpiece, “The New World”.
4. As Tubbs and Crockett (Farrell and Foxx) speak on a cell phone on the roof of a nightclub, the way the color of pink, purple and black illuminate the sky behind them in Michael Mann’s “Miami Vice”.
5. Robert Downey Jr. bursting into his crummy pad, pushing a bike as he mumbles” Total. Total.Total. Tot… total providence”… and then the five minute discussion between him and Woody Harrelson as they argue over the gears on the bike. “A Scanner Darkly”.
6. Penelope Cruz bringing a restaurant to a stop as she sings in “Volver”.
7. Two people casually meeting on the steps in the upper left hand corner of the frame.. such a hidden but telling moment in the film of the same name. in Michael Haneke's “Hidden”.
8. The torture sequence in “Casino Royale”. I was hurting right there with him.
9. The glances exchanged when a student (Shareeka Epps) sees her teacher (Ryan Gosling) crouched in the corner of a seedy motel room smoking crack while Broken Social Scene’s Shampoo Suicide plays wildy on the soundtrack in “Half Nelson”.
10. A group of people praying together… and the pure emotion that rolls out of Paul Giamatti as we realize he’s praying more for himself than for his visitor in M. Night Shyamalan’s greatly underappreciated “Lady In the Water”.
11. The regretful way in which Robert Downey Jr. flirts from the street with his first girlfriend (Rosario Dawson) as she sits at the window playing with her daughter. The whole film is masked in regret, but this scene stands out in “A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints”.
12. “Is it real?” and the way DiCaprio nervously looks to his left and bites his lip when asked this question in “The Departed”. Probably the most electric scene between a couple on film all year.
13. The totally unexpected (and restrained) response from Nick Nolte when he sees Maggie Cheung waiting outside the hotel, leaning on her bike in “Clean”.
14. The tale of Sonic Youth driving the streets of New York looking for a mentally unhinged Daniel Johnston in the year’s best documentary- “The Devil and Daniel Johnston”.
15. The best representation of ‘beer goggles’ ever put on film- “Beerfest”.
16. In IIya Khrzhanovsky’s “4”, a five minute scene as a woman wanders through a foggy, barren industrial landscape, the soundtrack filled with mechanical hisses and thuds, and she inexplicably arrives at the foot of a small hill where a funeral procession full of screaming, crying women appears in front of her. Russian cinema at its most bizarre.
17. The cast of a long shadow against the rubble of the ground where a skating rink once stood- Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) pointing to where he remembers Adrian and himself skating in “Rocky Balboa”… probably the surprise of the year as boxing takes a backseat to numerous scenes that emphasize nice acting and genuine heart.
18. Pell James as Maleria, the down home good Baptist girl corrupted in “The King”- a performance full of innocent sexuality and girl-next-door appeal who surely holds her own against the acting force of Gael Garcia Bernal.”
19. “You know, they say it’s not the apple on the tree that causes problems, but the pear on the ground.” Just one of the many great lines from John Michael Higgins that warrants repeating in Christopher Guest’s “For Your Consideration”.
20. The silent look that falls over Mos Def’s face when David Morse enters the bar- tension that could be cut with a knife in Richard Donner’s workmanlike action pic “Sixteen Blocks”.
21. The lateral tracking shot across the killing floor in “Fast Food Nation” and the single tear that falls down the face of Catalina Sandino Moreno in Linklater’s “Fast Food Nation”.
22. “I come to New York only with one suitcase and a veil full of gypsy tears to help protect me from AIDS”…. Straight from the mouth of “Borat”, one to never mince words.
23. That first glimpse of something in the darkness… as if the paranoia and claustrophobia of the film’s first 45 minutes wasn’t enough….. “The Descent”.
24. In “Miami Vice”, the static, beautifully composed scene as Gong Li chats with her boss on a bed in front of a huge glass window, and outside stands a tall oak tree with fluorescent lightning crackling in the background.
25. Virtually any scene that features Mia Kirshner in Brian DePalma’s “The Black Dahlia”, an actress whose vitality and sexuality single handedly saved the film from becoming truly horrendous, and especially the way she looks directly at the camera and wipes away a tear as she curls up her torn-stockinged legs in a vain attempt to mask her vulnerability.
26. The minute long tracking shot that nervously follows Ethan Hunt (Cruise) as he runs and runs and runs down the street, narrowly avoiding wicker carts and people. “Mission Impossible III”
27. In the film’s most affecting thread, a deaf Japanese teenager (Ryuiko Richici) enters a rave and the film is rushed into hyper overdrive where drum beats and flashing lights takes control. If anything, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has always been in full command of sound editing. “Babel”
28. Allow me to digress into the TV world for a minute- the performance of Peter Weller (yes, that Peter Weller) on “24”, the perpetual badass who finally rivals the hardcore edge of Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland). If only Jack would've given him 30 more seconds inside that apartment....
29. A man slitting his throat in front of us, and the way his body falls violently to the ground. “Hidden”
30. The response given by Elizabeth Rodriguez after she enters a white supremacist’s house and he tells her, “go ahead and shoot me, and she dies” in “Miami Vice”, a scene worthy of Dirty Harry pulled off magically by a tough actress who deserves so many more screen roles.
31. The numb expression on Jason Schwartzman’s face as huge plates of food cross over the table in front of him and his new wife. “Marie Antoinette”
32. The opening of “The Proposition” as sunlight streams through the bullet holes.
33. “Lady Vengenace” running against the wind and snow with a black brick wall behind her.
34. “Do you want some big ass fries to go with that big ass taco?” asks a mechanical food dispenser in Mike Judge’s sharp but slight “Idiocracy” 35. Martin Sheen’s body falling,, and falling.. off the roof of a building. “The Departed”.
36. A soldier telling the true story of his (wrong) split second decision to shoot and kill an Islamic woman in a black dress as she walks towards a tank in “The Ground Truth”.
37. Beatrice Dalle slowly swaggering her way around a pool table with a cigarette dangling from her mouth- no one makes hanging out seem cooler than Olivier Assayas in “Clean”.
38. The quick fadeouts as Dito’s father (Chazz Palminteri) begins to suffer a heart attack in “A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints”
39. “They got this house, and like… there’s a hole in the wall with.. like.. this tube stuck in the hole and its pointing towards this clock tower… and they like.. what time is it?” No one tells a story quite like Dave Chappelle. “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party”.
40.The sheer confusion and dread, subtly underplayed, as planes start dropping off the radar in “United 93”.