Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Awards and Aces

I roll my eyes at Oscar blogging, the endless navel-gazing and prognosticating, on matters as weighty as "Will Ben Affleck be nominated for Hollywoodland?". [No.] But now that the nominations have been announced, I should probably say a few words, a day late (an eternity in blogging time) I know, but I'm still ever-so-slightly jet-lagged from our weeklong trip to Hong Kong.

Actually, I did contribute a few timely words on the topic, in response to a ongoing thread on the Mobius Home Video Forum. I put in my two cents worth about the Oscar-ability of Happy Feet (come to think of it, a film better than just about any of the Best Picture nominees, Meryl Streep as Best Actress (and not Supporting Actress), and Little Miss Sunshine, which seems to be blamed for stealing Dreamgirls' Oscar thunder and global warming and the Iraq crisis in some circles (I liked it more than Sunshine, a pallid, feel-good version of a Michael Ritchie picture like Smile, circa 1975, but can't be roused to make a federal case for it).

As I was saying:

"I haven't seen Cars, but Happy Feet is dazzling and has a certain audacity to it. See it; it's not so easily dismissed (there's more to it than just musical penguins) and should win. Director George Miller richly deserves a statuette anyway. Monster House is enjoyable but really something to see in 3D. I would've liked to have seen A Scanner Darkly in there but oh, well. [A lot of people seem to feel its rotoscoping technique isn't "real" animation.]

Streep dominates Devil. Anne Hathaway holds her own and has more screen time but it's her show all the way; the movie hangs on her chilly, regal presence. [Plus, I assume Fox positioned her for that category, and no one objected.]

Little Miss Sunshine is just OK enough to squeak out a win. It's neither here nor there for me and overrated. If it does win, after last year's Crash win, the Oscars are no longer to be taken seriously at all, and are clearly in the hands of voting hoi polloi. That said I liked it more than Babel (its Oscar-nominated performers are clearly there for allowing themselves to be thoroughly humiliated in the course of the storyline) and Letters From Iwo Jima. I'm only middling on The Departed, which I need to see again, and would go for The Queen, the best of the bunch but I'm not seeing Best Picture there, actress and adapted screenplay for sure. [Its composer, Alexandre Desplat, should have been nominated for his exquisite Painted Veil score and not for this, but it was not to be.] It's an odd, maybe off, year in this category; there were better pictures, some of them nominees in other categories, but they just didn't get enough steam.

I'm delighted to see Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson) and Leonardo DiCaprio nominated; the acting nominations were pleasantly eclectic and give hope that the voters actually are paying attention. The former is a terrific actor and the film worth seeking out. Blood Diamond, for which I am a support team of one, is quite underrated and its risk-taking star gives a fine performance, South African accent and all. His and Djimon Hounsou's nominations may give it a boxoffice boost. But I think the Forest Whitaker steamroller, for an obvious and just OK performance in a mediocre picture whose acclaim passeth understanding to me, will win out. Will Smith's performance, based on its boxoffice, is about the only one holding Whitaker back. Anyway, I wonder if Whitaker and Mirren are tired of bumping into each other on various daises?"

I'll have more to say about this--everyone will have more to say about this--on or near Feb. 25, Oscar night. Oscar blogging for 07 pictures will commence Feb. 26, if it hasn't already ("will Hillary Swank win a third Oscar for Freedom Writers?).

One thing's for sure: Smokin' Aces, which Universal opens on Friday, won't be up for consideration next year. A warmed-over retread from the era of Tarantino knockoffs, circa 1998, that swaggers and snarls like it's really something special, the film is a comedown from the gritty neo-noir of writer/director Joe Carnahan's very fine Narc. An all-star cast of sort-of stars (many of them gratingly one-note performers, including Andy Garcia and Jeremy Piven) fires heavy ammo and hardboiled quips at each other for close to two hours in a tortured hit man scenario. It ends not with a twist, but with lunkheaded exposition that strains mightily to supply the picture with a twist (contrast this with the supple writing of The Usual Suspects, one of the films it nakedly wants to be, with visual allusions to blaxploitation and Mad Max besides). I laughed at Jason Bateman's sad-sack lawyer and the pumped-up samurai kid, but these were oases I fell onto gratefully, anything to relieve the tedium of being dragged back into a picture based on Maxim magazine babes-and-firepower attitude.

Sigh, shrug: It's January. If you must, see Anthony Minghella's well-intentioned if not entirely succesful contribution to the well-intentioned but never entirely succesful multi-story genre (Babel, Crash), Breaking and Entering (Miramax, opens Friday) or, better, catch up with a deserving Oscar nominee like Pan's Labyrinth.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Tops (and flops) of 2006

So here, on my 100th post, and first of the new year, I salute the Top 10 films of 2006: Army of Shadows, Casino Royale, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, The Devil Wears Prada, The Hidden Blade, Iraq in Fragments, The Painted Veil, Pan's Labyrinth, The Queen, and A Scanner Darkly.

I feel no urgent need to put them into order of preference, which smacks of Golden globalism and Oscar blogging, as if endless ranking, grading, and enumeration have anything whatsoever to do with quality. It doesn't--all of them have stayed with me, a total of 10x more than others. That were 10 films I found outstanding last year, plus a few "11's" and a bunch of worthy titles well worth exploring on DVD, cable, or better yet at the theater, is pleasure enough for me--particularly given that quality Hollywood releases pretty much pulled their usual, aggravating no-show from January-March, and were notably scarce over the summer.

It's not a terribly surprising list, for which I make no apologies. There is sometimes sense in consensus, though The Devil Wears Prada (the only movie I saw twice theatrically last year) and particularly The Painted Veil strike me as undervalued. The only unfamiliar title for veteran Top 10 watchers might be The Hidden Blade, Yoji Yamada's excellent samurai picture that I saw as a screener DVD, a good thing, as like so many arthouse releases and foreign films it died theatrically. Look for a roll call of the dead below, under noteworthy films I missed; many are documentaries, which seem to be press-screened far more than actually exhibited, and if I blinked, I had no choice but to Netflix them.

A few things. I had no problem putting Army of Shadows, the best film of 1969 released in 2006, on my list; it is, in this country, for all intents and purposes a new release, for which we can thank New York's Film Forum. But the decision by many critics to put Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke on their lists strikes me as flat-out wrong; true, it was shown at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, but it was an HBO picture shown otherwise on HBO, and doesn't count as a feature film release. It's an outstanding documentary, to be sure, but it's superb television, not cinema.

My underrated releases could easily be filed as "Certain Regard" pictures, but one of their attributes was how they slid under the critical radar. I was glad to find them. My overrateds, however, aren't necessarily terrible; it's just that one of their attributes was how needlessly fussed-over they were, particularly the enervating Eastwood war pictures, which between them have maybe three or four inspired scenes (Letters from Iwo Jima is like a slow and draggy Sam Fuller picture from a half-century ago, updated, like its companion, with noticeably poor CGI). Into a category called "Unresolved" I filed a few pictures that I can't quite shake, but can't quite define, either, like Hostel, which I'm (almost) sure is a bad movie but captures the contemporary horror zeitgeist better than its ilk.

One thing I can say with certainty is that my worst pictures are all pretty horrible. Some of the wounds were self-inflicted; did I really need to watch the remake of When a Stranger Calls on Starz? The worst of the lot was the posturing, excruciating Miami Vice. That experience I will quantify for you.

On with the show. And to all a good year, which has already yielded a few good pictures, as you will see.

11s (close, not quite there): Borat, Children of Men, Happy Feet, Notes on a Scandal.

UN CERTAIN REGARD: Blood Diamond, The Bridge, Candy, The Departed, The Descent, Down in the Valley, Dreamgirls, Duck Season, Edmond, Gabrielle, Half Nelson, The House of Sand, Inside Man, jackass number two, Lady Vengeance, L'Enfant, Le Petit Lieutenant, Monster House (in 3D), Mountain Patrol: Kekexili, Night Watch, Our Brand is Crisis, Running Scared, Shortbus, Sisters in Law, Sophie Scholl--The Final Days, State of Fear, Thank You for Smoking, United 93, Venus, Volver, Why We Fight.

WORST: Babel, Beowulf & Grendel, Bloodrayne, The Da Vinci Code, The Good German, The Good Shepherd, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Manderlay, Miami Vice, The Omen, Running with Scissors, Trust the Man, When a Stranger Calls, The Wicker Man.

OVERRATED: Brick, Flags of Our Fathers, The Last King of Scotland, Letters from Iwo Jima, Little Children, Little Miss Sunshine, A Prairie Home Companion, The Prestige, Unknown White Male, V for Vendetta.

UNDERRATED: The Bridesmaid, District B13, Excellent Cadavers, Find Me Guilty, Hard Candy, Heading South, Home of the Brave, Hollywoodland, Infamous, Lemming, The Motel, The Road to Guantanamo, Scoop, Slither, Superman Returns.

UNRESOLVED:(out there, vexing, but with merit): The Fountain, Hostel, Inland Empire, The Proposition, 13 Tzameti, Tideland.

SEE YOU LATER (noteworthy movies, for better or for worse, I missed): Bobby, Come Early Morning, Death of a President, Deliver Us From Evil, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Fast Food Nation, 51 Birch Street, For Your Consideration, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, The Ground Truth, Idiocracy, An Inconvenient Truth, Jesus Camp, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, Lady in the Water, Marie Antoinette, Mutual Appreciation, The Pursuit of Happyness, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, The Science of Sleep, Sherrybaby, Shut Up and Sing, Stranger Than Fiction, This Film is Not Yet Rated, The U.S. vs. John Lennon, Who Killed the Electric Car?

FIRST 2007 RELEASE SEEN: Nick Cassavetes' Alpha Dog, a true-life teens in troubler, opening tomorrow. The opening shots, of children at play as "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" plays on the soundtrack, is fair warning that the next two hours will be pretty heavy-handed. Better is ahead.

ONES TO WATCH FOR THIS YEAR (based on screenings and festival viewings): Black Book (March 2), Exiled (June), The Hoax (Apr. 6), The Host (March 9), Poison Friends (March 30), Tales of the Brothers Quay retrospective (Jan. 19), Triad Election (Apr. 25).

DISTRIBUTOR WANTED: The wrenching, Cambodia-set child prostitution drama Holly, the best film I saw at the Montreal World Film Festival last August. Someone in the U.S. should take a chance on the fine Spanish crime melodrama Round Two as well.