Thursday, January 27, 2011

Faves of 2010

20. The American- Anton Corbjin’s lackadaisical hit man procedural felt so out of touch with modern films when it was released earlier this year, perhaps that ‘from-outer-space’ feel remains why its one of the best films of the year. As the elusive, monotone hit man in a foreign land trying to carry out the proverbial “one last job”, Clooney owns every scene of this film, his age and handsome good looks seething with honesty throughout the moody affair. I know it sounds cliché, but if Jean Pierre Melville were still making movies, this would be it.

19. Tron: Legacy-A post-punk electro design style mixed fashionably into a revolving world of neon colored suits, sterile Kubrickian sets and a multi-layered 3D world that continually fascinates. But all these dynamic visuals wouldn't be more than candy coloring if it weren't for the performances of Jeff Bridges, Olivia Wilde, Garrett Hedlund and (especially) Martin Sheen providing a beating heart underneath the technological effects. This is Disney yes, but "Tron: Legacy" maintains a perverse streak in the way the camera frames Wilde seductively posing on a couch or Martin Sheen hamming it up as some sort of carnival ringleader named Zeus. This is erotic and esoteric stuff for a modern blockbuster.

18. Winnebago Man- Beginning as a documentary on the history of the internet’s viral video craze, Ben Steinbauer’s film soon tumbles through a bevy of emotions as the actual Winnebago man is found and a unique relationship forms. At times uncomfortable and unnerving, Steinbauer doesn’t resort to faux/fiction tricks ala “Catfish”, training his camera on something more truthful and real. And the ending- as the Winnebago Man comes face to face with a packed theater house full of “fans”- strikes just the right balance of unease and raw emotion.

17. Morning Glory- Roger Michell is an interesting director, taking standard genre fare and tweaking them into little gems. “Morning Glory” is yet another wonderful surprise. Granted, a majority of the film’s success hinges on Rachel McAdams high-strung, perky performance as a TV producer grasping at straws at a basement-run early morning news show, and for me, she won me over. Even more amazing, though, are the supporting performances by Harrison Ford (as a gruff, been-there-done-that anchor who had me groaning at first, then joyously caught up in his role the next minute), John Pankow as McAdams’ suffering assistant, Jeff Goldblum who delivers every single line with precision and even Patrick Wilson as the love interest who steps outside the usual boundaries of the rom-com archetype. “Morning Glory” is witty, warm and very funny- just watch the background in certain scenes and see the weird extras milling around. I love it when a film totally exceeds my expectations like this.

16. I Am Love- Lush and elegant telling of one industrialist Italian family’s turbulent affairs in both capitalism and love. Greatly endowed to the works of Visconti, director Luca Guadagnino displays a rare talent for balancing both the mundane (cooking) and the manic (sexual temptation). Tilda Swinton as the matriarch gives another riveting performance in a film that boldly veers from picturesque topography to simmering emotions of guilt deftly.

15. Never Let Me Go- Despite the somewhat detached and cerebral critical reaction to Mark Romanek’s “Never Let Me Go”, I found it to be hugely moving experience. Adapted by the great (and under appreciated) Alex Garland from a much beloved novel, “Never Let Me Go” places a sensitive love triangle within an alternate history science fiction tale. Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield are tremendous as the group of young people facing a shaky future. When the film requires each one to wilt literally and figuratively, their eyes hold the screen. They give brave, heartbreaking performances. “Never Let Me Go” is a film about a distorted past and present day in Britain where medical science has prolonged human life to over 100 years and the school of Hailsham is born where children are cultivated for much darker purposes when they grow older. Just like our own youthful days, urban legends are born (such as idea that if a child wanders beyond the boundary, they will end up with their hands and feet cut off) and weird ideas for survival are propagated later in life. The scene where the adult Mulligan and Garfield approach a supposed “art dealer” to grant a wish is handled with delicate intelligence, as is the entire film.

14. A Prophet- Jacques Audiard’s epic prison tale deserves the lauds. Starring Tahar Rahim as Malik, “A Prophet” charts his ascension from lowly prison inmate to eventual drug kingpin with brutal exactitude. Each step in this progression is shown in increments, giving us a fully realized (and at times mystical) journey. Each shot seems destined to express an emotion and that final scene is as telling as the door slamming shut on Michael Corleone in “The Godfather”.

13. Winter’s Bone- Director Debra Granik’s second film is a slice of down-on-their-luck life that succeeds in presenting a young girl's scary waltz through a white trash netherworld of meth cookers and trouble-makers in the Missouri backwoods. Like her debut feature, "Down To the Bone", Granik seems completely in tune with a female versus the world attitude. In that film, relative newcomer Vera Farmiga gave an exhilarating performance as a single mother carrying on two lives... one of affection and dedication to her daughter and the other as a struggling drug addict. In "Winter's Bone", Jennifer Lawrence could be Farmiga 15 years earlier, posing a steely gaze and giving a riveting performance as a 17 year old desperately trying to track down her criminal father before his bond-hopping causes her to lose her home. But Lawrence delivers only half of the film's penetrating mood and atmosphere. As secondary characters, John Hawkes, Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey and Lauren Sweetster inhabit their roles with straight authenticity- right down to the black fingernails and bad teeth. One never knows just exactly where a scene is headed or where Lawrence's journey through backwoods purgatory will end. "Winter's Bone" defiantly bucks the expectation, expertly written and perfectly acted... none more so than in a quiet scene with Lawrence discussing the possibility of joining the army with a recruiter who reveals the naive child behind her otherwise worldly facade.

12 Please Give- Nicole Holofcener’s Robert Altman-esque story about several people floating around the lives of antiques dealers Oliver Platt and Katherine Keener was a huge surprise. Modest in scale and tone, it’s a lovely film that feels real in its characterizations while remaining intensely funny. Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet also give terrific performances as two sisters struggling to deal with the death of their mother and their own shortcomings when it comes to relationships. “Please Give” came and went without a blink, but one owes it to themselves to seek this one out.

11. The White Ribbon- Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” is uber European, and god I love it for that. Set in the German countryside in 1914, Haneke’s latest provocation settles on the quietness before the storm. A series of strange events begin to overtake the village. A wire is set up between two trees which causes the town doctor to take a painful spill off his horse. Children vanish and are then found hanging upside down and whipped. A bird is stabbed with a pair of scissors and left on the owner’s desk. Some of these actions have direct violators, but many don’t. The casual brutality, at first, manifests itself in the children, eventually spreading to the adults. Filmed in austere black and white and full of long takes that observe simple things such as a closed door (for what feels like an eternity at times), Haneke builds a sinister atmosphere around every frame. It’s only in the end, when the narrator reveals that Germany instigated World War 1 the next day, that Haneke’s genius premise snaps into focus. “The White Ribbon” is a film that concentrates on the subconscious malcontent boiling beneath the surface. The words “Nazi” are never uttered, but its there in the cold, soulless faces of the children that in 10-15 years, they’ll be propagating some of the same merciless acts on a global scale. See it with Ingmar Bergman’s “The Serpent’s Egg” for a terrifying double feature.

10. Cyrus- Mark and Jay Duplass' "Cyrus" extends the directing duo's range with an off-kilter romance that veers wildly into several genres without falling into disarray. Part black comedy, part psychological thriller, "Cyrus" proves that "Baghead" (their previous film) was no slouch effort and these guys can walk a tightrope with the best of them. Some have derided the relationship presented in the film between John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei as unrealistic, but as the film unfolds and we get beyond the meet-cute set up, "Cyrus" shows that both of them are potentially damaged souls who happened to intersect at the right moment. It all felt entirely plausible to me. Enter Tomei's 21 year old son played by Jonah Hill (featuring probably his best performance yet) who makes it his goal to usurp their relationship in quiet (but altogether devious) ways and "Cyrus" morphs into a shaggy dog comedy with a black heart.

9. Red Riding Trilogy- If only more studios would take a chance in producing such an ambitious, sprawling masterwork. This trilogy, ostensibly about the murders of several little girls in England during the 60’s and 70’s, soon evolves into something much more enigmatic and probing. The murder investigation is ditched and directors James Marsh, Anand Tucker and Julian Jarrold weave tragically poignant tales of deep police corruption and human redemption. Each film builds on the other resulting in a shattering examination of a country, time and place.

8. The Ghost Writer- Roman Polanski’s quiet thriller is a subtle thing of beauty. As the lead character, Ewan McGregor is yet another cipher for mystery, adding him to a string of protagonists like Jake Gittes and Dean Corso (Depp in “The Ninth gate”) serviced to walk through a series of deeply shattering lies and deception. This time it’s ratcheted up to a political level as McGregor is assigned to write the memoirs of an ex British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) and becomes enveloped in international intrigue. Pregnant with allegory- such as Brosnan leaning against his office window as if the whole world is between his arms- and filled with the precise point of view shots that parcel out hidden meaning, “The Ghost Writer” is a tour de force. It also features what is probably the first use of a GPS machine’s previous destinations function to put some pieces of the puzzle in place.

7. The Killer Inside Me- Michael Winterbottom's twisting Texas noir, "The Killer Inside Me", is a chilling and repugnant adaptation of the great Jim Thompson's pulp novel, sending waves into the pop culture universe for its unflinching violence towards two pretty starlets (Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson) and not really giving a damn about it. I use words like repugnant above in the best sense. This is a great film for the way it buries so many emotions, none more so than the quiet facade led by Texas sheriff Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) as he deviously sacrifices everything he loves to satisfy the demons within. "The Killer Inside Me" doesn't wink at the audience or service any post-modern demands for the neo-noir genre.... it's a film that simply observes it characters strutting around in the well manicured southern locations, quietly tracking the serial killer sheriff with a voice over that almost lulls one to sleep and making one's skin crawl when the inevitable violence does overtake the narrative. In the varied oeuvre of British director Michael Winterbottom, he upholds his chameleon streak with a stifling portrait of small town Texas life in the 50's as if he's always lived here.

6. The Square- Second film from the Aussie New Wave and the same group of creative artists, “The Square” is such a terrific slow-burn noir in the best sense of the word. No “neo” or post modern about it… just a good old fashioned tale of scandal, extramarital affairs and manslaughter that slides further and further down the rabbit hole of no return for its ordinary couple trying to get away.

5. Shutter Island- Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” is his ode to Sam Fuller. Or maybe it’s his ode to Hitchcock. Or wait… it’s most certainly his attempt to recreate those fetishistic images of the 50’s and 60’s old haunted house pictures he absorbed as a boy. Whatever one sees as the direct influence on “Shutter Island’s” visual scheme, the fact is it’s a genre picture of the highest order. Based on a Dennis Lehane novel, Scorsese amps up the proceedings with Lynchian dream sequences that rank as some of the most evocative images of his long career, piercing bits of music that range from classical to Bernard Hermann-like, and a seemingly reclaimed appreciation for the whip pan. Leonardo DiCaprio, in his fourth outing with Scorsese, tackles his most impressive role as the Boston cop trapped on the titular island trying to wrap his brain around the disappearance of a psychiatric patient. People will say they see the “twist” coming a mile away… and that’s all fine and dandy. The real hook of the film lies in the very dark paths it takes, revealing a flawed human being on the brink of madness and with Scorsese’s camera carefully tracking the breakdown. Music and image finally merge into a heartbreaking passion play that feels at once removed and very personal for the aging auteur. Scorsese is reaching for something beyond the twist here, and it got me right in the stomach.

4. Inception- The most bracing idea behind Christopher Nolan’s trippy dream heist epic is his hauntingly resonant motif about a man trying to make amends for past transgressions. In “Memento”, Guy Pearce was trying to piece together his life and resolve the (maybe?) murder of his wife. In “The Prestige”, perhaps the most complete yet overlooked film in Nolan’s career, Hugh Jackman reboots himself to maddening proportions in order to carry out the perfect allusion, triggered by revenge and obsessive compulsive memories of his wife. And in “Inception”, it’s easy to get caught up in the nonlinear dream states that fold in on themselves, or guess exactly what that final shot means, but the most invigorating concept for me is Leonardo Dicaprio’s silent stretch of the imagination just to go home to his wife and kids. Whether any of this has anything to do with Nolan’s own emotional capacity is up for debate, but it drives “Inception” into a near cathartic experience while maintaining an equal amount of ‘wowness’ in the supporting performances (Gordon Levitt and Tom Hardy especially) and complex heist that sometimes veers into the ludicrous. Bottom line, I bought the ludicrousness because its so expertly staged and edited. “Inception” held me in complete rapture from start to finish.

3. True Grit- Even though their latest is a straight-forward genre exercise, the Coen Brothers have manufactured a rousing, emotionally satisfying western that succeeds on every level. The moment young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) bolts her horse across the river to catch up to Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), I was hooked into the film‘s ebullient tone. The Coen Brothers penchant for snappy dialogue and humor in the most absurd of places (the scream of a man getting his fingers cut off etc) remains and it’s probably their most emotional film to date.

2. Black Swan- Like “The Red Shoes” on acid, Aronofsky’s latest is a terror psychodrama that plays like a propulsive fever dream. Natalie Portman is terrific as the dancer who succumbs to the pressures of being a leading lady and Aronofsky (much like he did with Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler”) never falters from having his camera perched just over the shoulders of his star as she marches through reality and unreality. Sound design has always been a staple of Aronofsky films, but he takes it to a new level here in “Black Swan”, echoing laughter in odd places and firmly subverting our own perceptions of what is real and what is not. I keep thinking that Aronofosky can’t possibly match his previous film, and then he goes and does just that.

1. Animal Kingdom- David Michod’s epic tale of crime and punishment down under is a startling debut that portrays both sides of the law with frightening characteristics. From the opening black and white grainy images of a bank robbery, Michod is in firm control of character, place and mood. As the leading film in the so called Aussie New Wave, “Animal Kingdom” doesn’t break new ground- as its “Aussie Goodfellas“ tag proves, but its arrival marks the announcement of an exciting new talent pool.

Honorable mentions: Unstoppable, Valhalla Rising, The Book of Eli, Father of My Children, Spring Fever, Fish Tank, The King’s Speech

Friday, January 21, 2011

Moments of The Year '10

In conjunction with my favorite films of the year list, I offer up some moments out of 2010 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. Possible spoilers so beware!

1. Floating through the entire film with a beautiful waif-like presence, the way in which Alice de Lencquesaing tries to act grown up and orders a coffee… “The Father of My Children”.

2. A camera crew roaming around the burial grounds of a killer at nigh time, running into a group of kids playing urban legends in “Cropsey”

3. Sitting in the backseat of a car, slowly fazing out of focus, a girl (Katie Jarvis) listens to Bobby Womack. “Fish Tank”

4. The percussive editing of Christian Caron’s “Farewell” and a group of spies being arrested, including the wide eyed face of a jogger (Diane Kruger) realizing what’s happening as she tries to run away.

5. A man violently slashing a cabbage patch with a scythe. “The White Ribbon”

6. The lateral pan behind a fence as Nazi soldiers are shot… just the beginning of a nightmare in Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island”.

7. Lizzie Caplan in “Hot Tub Time Machine” and the hug she gives John Cusack with “…maybe the universe will bring us back together.”

8. In “The Ghost Writer”, a note being passed on and on and the camera trained in almost reverent observation.

9. “Hey” as the black swan in her nightmares finally speaks to Nina (Natalie Portman). “Black Swan”

10. Here’s one that got away monologue. “Red Riding Trilogy”

11. A regular guy (Andy Garcia) doing an audition for a Martin Scorsese movie in “City Island”

12. On a rooftop, silhouetted by the setting sun, a guy consoles a girl as a flock of birds flies away. Wordless romanticism visualized to perfection in “The Exploding Girl”

13. The thrashing guitar drone as One Eye (Mads Mikkelson) tramps up a hill in one long take. “Valhalla Rising”

14. Like a beautiful matte painting, a group of scholars and priests surround a man as darkness engulfs the edges in Alejandro Amenenbar’s hugely under appreciated “Agora”

15. Rebecca Hall as a tormented mother almost melting away as she asks Eddie (Andrew Garfield) “are you gonna save me?” “Red Riding Trilogy”

16. The opening black and white surveillance camera images of a bank robbery timed to beautiful music. Just the first images in David Michod’s startling debut “Animal Kingdom”.

17. Val Kilmer oil painting an old woman modeling for him… “MacGruber”

18. “Do you wanna finish this?” and a hand on a gun on the passenger side as a sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) slowly backs away from the vehicle he’s just pulled over in “Winter’s Bone”.

19. “Secret Sunshine”- A woman wailing uncontrollably in a pew in an extreme long take, and then a hand slowly reaching out and touching her head

20. Bathed in red light, the furious struggle of a naked man (Tom Hardy) with his guards timed to The Walker Brothers’ The Electrician. “Bronson”

21. A man looking into the reflection of himself in his computer monitor screen and making a decision. “Father of My Children”

22. A fight amidst a windy garbage dump and each side rolling balls of garbage as their protection… just another absurd and totally unique shoot out scene in a Johnny To film “Vengeance”

23. The eyes of Cora (Olivia Wilde) as she sees her first sunset. “Tron Legacy”

24. In Le You’s “Spring Fever”, the boat ride shared by three people in silence as they all understand their time together will not last much longer… a longeur visualized in heartbreaking terms.

25. “You can tell me anything. Just tell me” and the seemingly caring prodding by a true beast played to scary perfection by Ben Mendelsohn in “Animal Kingdom”

26. A young girl pushing her horse into the water and treading across it as two professional bounty hunters look in on stunned silence… this ain’t your daddy’s western. “True Grit”

27. A woman (Anna Bederk) slowly dancing to techno beat, bathed in blue light, her head tilted and staring straight into the camera. Seduction and lots of food in Fatih Akin’s lighthearted “Soul Kitchen”

28. A horse riding into the frame and suddenly tripping over something invisible. Just the first evil episode in a long line of quiet atrocities. “The White Ribbon”

29. A van diving into the river.. And the 45 minutes of universe and dimension that propels from it. “Inception”

30. During a Fourth of July picnic, the quick, scared glances shared across the grass between a man and woman when they see a house fire in the distance. “The Square”

31. Probably the most unique and inventive car chase in years….a man follows the directions of a saved GPS route in “The Ghost Writer”

32. Wordless, wandering around in despair… and the way her husband picks up her shoes and tries to give them to her. “I Am Love”

33. “fuck you very much” the desperation of being stuck in a coffin and not having a very friendly operator on the cell phone. “Buried”

34. In “True Grit”, the high pitched squeal/scream as a man has his fingers cut off .

35. A man, in slow motion, walking directly into the camera as he carries the limp, lifeless body of a dead girl…. Crime and punishment in “Animal Kingdom”

36. Mack the Knife playing as a man (Tahar Rahim) walks down the street with a baby and woman in tow… and a slow line of vehicles joining in the fray. A king is born. “A Prophet”

37. Walking along a sandy, cold beach in nothing but a flannel shirt, the smile she (Alicja Bachlda) gives the man (Colin Farrell) as he returns home in Neil Jordan’s sublime modern fairy tale “Ondine”

38. A man framed deep in the left corner of the frame, through a window with a vase of yellow flowers dominating the center of the frame…. The cold blooded hit-man-thriller given a painterly point of view in “The American”. It only continues to look better from there.

39. Like something straight out of a 40’s noir, the way smoke curls around Leonard diCaprio as he stands in the center of an adorned room caught between reality and nightmare in “Shutter Island”

40. “Tastes like coconut…and metal.” “Iron Man 2”

41. An overturned vehicle after a chase, and a man running up to peer inside when he discovers something in the backseat. Just more tragedy piled on in “The Square”.

42. Tilda Swinton fighting with her son by the pool… and then…. “I Am Love”

43. The long tracking shot following two men (Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth) as they talk, and eventually fight, along a fog-covered street in "The King's Speech"

44. Just about everything Emma Stone does in "Easy A", but especially as she spells out the word "cunt" with her peas

45. A quiet, slow tracking shot behind a parked car. As a train loudly rolls in front of the car, a shadow jumps up from the backseat to provide food for his young love. "Let Me In"

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Links and Nonsense

First up, some high-res movie stills I came across. I have to admit they don't look so grand here in this form, but if you save them to your desktop and use them as background, they really pop with color.

Secondly, some points of interest.

The blog Rupert Pupkin Speaks is a great site for all things old and new, especially his weekly tip of the hat to new releases available on Netflix's Instant View program. They also include some snappy movie posters for select films mentioned.

Furious Cinema is another site I've been directed to lately. Not only does it have Quentin Tarantino's stamp of approval, but the entries range across the map from grindhouse stuff to soundtracks to just good old fashioned edgy films.

Blogger and online acquaintance Bob at Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind lists his eclectic ten best.

So, all of this to say I really have nothing new to say lately. I need to catch a couple more films before I feel comfortable stopping at the 142 film mark this year and create my own favorites of the year. But no worries, my almost decade old tradition of the Moments of the Year will resume shorty, so everyone can stop holding their breath.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On Tron:Legacy

I'm not quite sure what I expected when walking into Joseph Kosinski's "Tron: Legacy" but it exceeded and effectively wrestled my expectations into submission. This is one trippy, great movie, made all the more interesting by a string of weirdo performances and a go-for-broke visual scheme that enthralled me from the beginning. I've long been a resistant force to the power of CGI, but "Tron: Legacy" elevates effects and the green screen to such an eye-popping pinnacle that I fully bought into the visual pizazz and connected with the characters on a basic emotional level. For a blockbuster of this type, that's saying something special.

Kosinski and cinematographer Claudio Miranda take a post-punk electro design style and mix it fashionably into a revolving world of neon colored suits, sterile Kubrickian sets and a multi-layered 3D world that continually fascinates. But all these dynamic visuals wouldn't be more than candy coloring if it weren't for the performances of Jeff Bridges, Olivia Wilde, Garrett Hedlund and (especially) Martin Sheen providing a beating heart underneath the technological effects. This is Disney yes, but "Tron: Legacy" maintains a perverse streak in the way the camera frames Wilde seductively posing on a couch or Martin Sheen hamming it up as some sort of carnival ringleader named Zeus. This is erotic and esoteric stuff for a modern blockbuster. And finally my praises will end with this: give Daft Punk the Oscar for original score now. I tip my hat to Trent Reznor for similarly unique and inventive compositions, but the electronic, propulsive score by Daft Punk, part Tangerine Dream and part techno rave, deserve the credit for amping up the film's action and matching its breathless visuals to a terrific sound.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Indelible Performances of 2010

In no particular order, the performances that moved me during the year:

1 and 2. Michael Fassbender and Katie Jarvis in "Fish Tank"

Andrea Arnold's poignant, somewhat disturbing coming of age story is handled with delicacy and honesty, mostly driven by the ferocious performance of newcomer Katie Jarvis. In the opening scenes, she's followed as she storms about town, fighting with local girls and then trying to free a horse that's tied up in a trailer park. The rest of the film is just as whirlwindish as Jarvis experiences the frustrations and sexual longings of a 15 year old trapped in the dead-end UK. Enter her mom's new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender) and things really get complicated. Fassbender and Jarvis play remarkably well off each other, and never skip a beat as their relationship develops from mutual tenderness to something deeper.

3. Kevin Breznahan in "Winter's Bone"

Sure, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey, Jennifer Lawrence and the great Garret Dillahunt are getting most of the raves for Debra Granik's ascent into Ozarks hell, but it was the small performance of Kevin Breznahan that stuck with me long after the film was over. As Little Arthur, the timid, ultimately helpful boyfriend of Ree's best friend, Kevin just has that sad sack look that's been perfect in tiny roles since "Magnolia" and "Adventureland".

4. Tilda Swinton in "I Am Love"

Pretty much any year and one can find Tilda Swinton on my list of great performances, but her staggering accomplishments in Luca Guadagnino's sprawling yet intimate Italian family epic are mind bending. Beginning as a faithful wife, then slowly transforming into the cause of a disaster that made me gasp with surprise when it occurred on-screen, Swinton simply unravels before our eyes. A remarkable film full of uncompromising moments and luscious cinematography, Guadagnino is a real talent to watch.

5. Andrew Garfield in "Never Let Me Go", "Red Riding Trilogy" and "The Social Network"

What a standout year for young Andrew Garfield. While he was the absolute best thing about "The Social Network", his performances in Mark Romanek's "Never Let Me Go" and as a headstrong investigative journalist in the "Red Riding Trilogy" were high watermarks for an actor who just doesn't seem to be trying hard at all.

6. Zoe Kazan in "The Exploding Girl"

In last year's "Me and Orson Welles", I was immediately attracted to the brainy library flirtation that hovers in and out of Zac Ephron's world. This was Zoe Kazan. That same intelligent intensity is magnified in her first real leading role in Bradley Rust Gray's micro-budget romance "The Exploding Girl". During summer break, Ivy (Kazan) jumbles hanging out with her best friend Al (Mark Rendell, another young actor on the rise) and playing phone tag with her increasingly despondent boyfriend back at school. Ivy also suffers from seizures when the pressure gets too much for her. Kazan embodies Ivy as a wide-eyed, infectious nineteen year old going through hell as the lazy New York summer rolls along. Not much happens in "The Exploding Girl", yet it's an amazingly tactile rendering of that age when every little thing seems momentous. Rust Gray has a knack for creating great images (such as a rooftop conversation at sundown) and Kazan is alive in every inch of this movie. With her role in "Meek's Cutoff", I look forward to watching her grow with every role.

7. Rebecca Hall in "Please Give" and "The Town" and "Red Riding Trilogy"

Like Andrew Garfield, Rebecca Hall really broke out in 2010, most notably by her performance in Ben Affleck's "The Town". It was that central relationship that had me booing in disbelief at the screen (not literally) but luckily, Hall redeemed herself in two other pictures. She has limited screen time in "Red Riding Trilogy" as the emotionally wounded mother of a murdered girl and there's one scene where she aches with tension and hurt. In "Please Give", she portrays a frumpy, lonely neighbor who slowly becomes the central emotional arch of Nicole Holofcener's cavalcade of characters. Not to mention she's sexy beyond belief no matter how frumpy they make her look.

8. Emir Kusturica in "Farewell"

Kusturica has always been a terrific and unique director, and he can also act.... well. As the Russian handler trading in secrets in this quiet Cold War thriller, Kusturica runs the gamut of emotions from hanging his head out the window of his car as he drives to being the sacrificial lamb. The film wrings out its moments of suspense, but its Kusturica who gives "Farewell" the heart.

9. Lizzy Caplan in "Hot Tub Time Machine"

After first watching "Hot Tub Time Machine", I had this to say: Starring the always likable John Cusack- who established himself in 80’s comedies and seems to feel right at home as one of the four modern men who find themselves trapped back in 1986 on one eventful night that- “Hot Tub Time Machine” also develops a sweet relationship between him and music writer April, played to dizzying perfection by Lizzy Caplan. It’s this peripheral romance that gives the film its zeal. Caplan, who is a newcomer to me but has obviously been around on the small screen for years, hits the perfect mixture of 70’s hippiness and 80’s sweet girl persona. From the first time they meet on-screen at a party, Cusack and Caplan make their connection feel real and inspired. I almost wish the entire film could have been about them. But, director Pink has more important things on his mind, such as a male-on-male blowjob and hand soap designed to look like ejaculate on someone’s face. I understand today’s comedy has to reach a certain shock value (which is depressing), and “Hot Tub Time Machine” has that built in for audience acceptance. It’s just the film really soars when it tries to connect on a smaller level. That’s the kind of comedy film we could use more of today.

I still feel this way now. Caplan raises everything about this film and I've watched it twice since then just for her performance.

10. Do-yeon Jeon in "Secret Sunshine"

Right after the scene in which Korean actress Do-yeon Jeon is framed wailing uncontrollably in a pew for what feels like minutes, I knew her performance was reaching something beyond 'method acting'. Lee Dang Chong's "Secret Sunshine" perches the camera on this woman's grief and suffering and search for something religious without hesitaton or fear of alienating the audience. Jeon handles it magnificently.

Monday, January 03, 2011

70's Bonanza: 99 and 44/100% Dead

John Frankenheimer is not known for his comedies, but his mid 70's oddity about a hitman caught in the middle of a gangland war called "99 and 44/100% Dead" is a hoot. Barely released on home video and rarely shown on cable, the film begins with tongue firmly in cheek as it explores the numerous underwater tombs of the poor souls unlucky enough to be caught in the wrath of the town's mafioso kingpins. Uncle Frank (Edmond O' Brian) and Big Eddie (Bradford Dillman in a very quirky role) have littered the town (and ocean) with bodies. Frank, desperate to end the war and return to business as usual, calls upon the best hitman in the business, a silent but deadly Richard Harris. Harris returns home and rekindles his relationship with school teacher Buffy (Ann Turkel) while trying to clean up the mess of bullets in the streets. Pitted against Harris is his old nemesis, Claw Zuckerman.... a role played to lurid perfection by none other than Chuck Conners. For the life of me I can't figure out why this role isn't lauded more in the cult cinema world. Reminiscent of a bad James Bond villain, Conners plays Zuckerman as a deranged henchman with a metal claw for a hand who gets his amusement by quickly changing out the stub with various utensils and weapons in the hopes of frightening a hooker. Or the way in which he finally gives up trying to scare her and places a corkscrew on his stub to open a bottle of champagne. It's a pitch perfect performance that could only exist in the lost world of 70's cinema.

Frankenheimer is a serious director, which makes "99 and 44/100% Dead" even more funny. Partially subverting the thriller genre he racketed for many years and mostly coming off like a pastiche attempt at the pop art films of the late 60's (including catchy opening titles and tune), "99 and 44/100% Dead" never plays it straight. Known for his virtuoso car chase sequences and depth of field cinematography (see "Grand Prix", "Ronin"), it's hard to resist the humor in the way Frankenheimer posits his only car chase sequence in the movie between a limo and a huge, lumbering school bus. Or the way one dialogue sequence is filmed inside a huge inflatable blow-up attraction. Yes friends, "99 and 44/100% Dead" is that kind of out-of-left-field-crazy fun.