10 Critics’ Thoughts on 10 Coen Brothers Films

Master filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen are the subject of a summer-long retrospective at AFI (now through September 5th) featuring many of their greatest works. The film family over at Brightest Young Things (myself included) thought this provided a great reason to write briefly about our most favorite Coen Brothers films. I had to get the jump on Barton Fink. But 9 other great BYT film writers posted their own personal thoughts about other films in the great Coen Oeuvre. I made sure to add a link to that below, complete with a listing of writers and the films chosen. Hope you enjoy — and feel free to comment and tell us what YOUR favorite Coen Brothers movie is!

MY THOUGHTS ON BARTON FINK (1991)

Though it may be their least accessible film for a mainstream audience, Barton Fink remains my favorite Coen Brothers film to date. Not only do I never get tired watching their 4th feature film, but I manage to capture something new or add a new piece to the puzzle with each viewing. Set in 1941, the film stars John Turturro (one of our most underrated actors) as the title character — a Clifford Odets-like playwright who writes for “the common man” and is now the toast of Broadway. The lure of Hollywood success reels him in and Barton now finds himself in the surreal and forsaken Hotel Earle, a hellish west coast hotel where he must begin work on a screenplay for a Wallace Beery wrestling picture. But things don’t go so smoothly for Barton as he suddenly experiences a horrible case of writer’s block. On top of this, he must deal with constant visits from Charlie Meadows (John Goodman in a towering performance), his chatty and ominous neighbor.

Feeling the pressure to produce, Barton seeks producer Ben Geisler (a hilarious Tony Shalhoub) for advice and is instructed to seek the counsel from a fellow writer. Barton obeys and meets with famed novelist (and drunk) W.P. “Bill” Mayhew (John Mahoney), a character mirrored after William Faulkner who Barton initially has tremendous admiration for. Barton later calls on Mayhew’s secretary (Judy Davis) and asks her to visit him at the hotel for more help. When he wakes up the following morning to the ubiquitous sound of the room’s mosquito, Barton finds the woman dead in his bed. And so the fun begins.

The Coen Brothers are masters at ambiguity. They rarely serve up all the answers to their viewers on a silver platter, which is one of the reasons why I admire their work so much. They constantly challenge their audiences and let you put the pieces together for yourself. No strangers to period pieces, the Coens beautifully capture the look and feel of 1941 here. The exquisite art direction (especially in the contrast of the Hotel Earle and the luxurious surroundings of the Hollywood elite) by Dennis Gassner is stunning to take in and Carter Burwell’s haunting score adds to the foreboding mood. And as we have come to expect (now 20 years after the release of Barton Fink), the cinematography by the masterful Roger Deakins is splendid. Barton Fink is a haunting and yes, oftentimes funny film filled with quirky characters and picth-perfect dialogue that have become standard fare in most of the Coen Brothers works. Turturro is mesmerizing as the troubled intellectual writer and his chemistry with Goodman is ever-engaging. Their scenes together are a pleasure to watch and absorb. The supporting cast is no less impressive – they are fittingly cast and a marvel to watch. The film takes a strong look at the culture of Hollywood and entertainment as well as the process of writing. It is also laden with symbolism throughout (though the Coens have always denied most of it).

I vividly recall seeing this movie in the theater when it was first released in 1991 when I was a student at New York University. I went with two close friends who lived in Long Island at the time. They took the train in to see it with me, as we were already huge fans of the Coen Brothers and couldn’t wait to see their new flick. I distinctly remember the overall feeling of disappointment upon leaving the theater, with my friend Chris saying what a tremendous waste of a train trip it was — that we had just witnessed pretentious garbage. I didn’t love it, I must admit. But i was certainly intrigued by it and I told my film-loving friend, “We missed something…we didn’t get it.” Barton Fink is certainly not the film for those who don’t embrace and appreciate the voice of the Coens’ to be sure. It isn’t the film I would inaugurate someone unfamiliar with their impressive canon of work. It may not be their strongest work, but after that initial screening, it quickly became my most favorite. At the risk of hyperbole, I think the Coen Brothers are without a doubt the finest American filmmakers working today, creating one remarkable film after the next with astonishing continuity. If you’re a fan — and you have yet to see this early work, get ready to be challenged and watch this perplexing, rioutous, dark, and fascinating film.

Click HERE to see the full article by the film staff at Brightest Young Things. Each writer gives his/her personal thoughts on a Coen Brothers film of their choosing.

The 10 Movies Chosen Are:

The Big Lebowski by Logan Donaldson
Fargo by Erin Holmes
The Hudsucker Proxy by Svetlana Legetic
Intolerable Cruelty by Alan Zilberman
Miller’s Crossing by Peter Heyneman
O’ Brother Where Art Thou? by Andrew Bucket
Raising Arizona by John Foster
A Serious Man by Zach Goldbaum
“Tuileries” by William Albeque
Barton Fink by moi

The Top 5 Coen Brothers Films…So Far

I am not one for hyperbole, especially when it comes to my assessment of films. I won’t write it if I don’t fully believe in what it is I am pontificating. That said, as I was walking out of the move theater this weekend to see the remake of True Grit, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Are there any better American filmmakers working today than Joel and Ethan Coen?” I am of course aware of heavyweights such as Coppola, Scorsese, Lynch, Eastwood, and Spielberg (to name a few), but since their impressive debut in 1984 with Blood Simple, all they have done is repeatedly churn out stylized, profound and highly entertaining works on a consistent basis that is quite uncanny. I am sure the most ardent of Coen Brothers fans can even excuse the much more commercially targeted Intolerable Cruelty, as I do. The only other director who I see as coming close to this ridiculously high batting average is the brilliant P.T. Anderson, but I will reserve judgment until he builds more of a resume. True Grit marks the 15th feature film for Joel and Ethan Coen and it surely did not disappoint. More on that terrific film in a later post. First, since coming to the realization of where the Coen Brothers stand at present, I thought I’d celebrate this earth-shattering epiphany with what I view their Top 5 films to be. With so many good ones, this was pretty tough to put in order. Also, if you can think of another director who releases one brilliant work after another for as long as they have, I would love to hear it!

5. A Serious Man (2009)

This slot could have easily been reserved for Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men or even their latest, True Grit. But I was so taken aback with this oeuvre (rightly deserving of its Oscar nom for ‘Best Picture’) for its tremendous profundity, dark wit, and waters yet unchartered by the master filmmakers. To me, this is their most personal, most mature work to date. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a Midwestern professor of mathematics who is used to solving formulas and equations with ease. But he is left helpless when, bit by bit, coincidental events take hold of his life which is slipping through his fingers. Stuhlbarg was robbed of a ‘Best Actor’ Oscar nomination and his work here is extraordinary. Richard Kind plays his brother, Uncle Arthur and brings a great deal of empathy to the role. Fred Melamed is a joy to watch as Sy – the man who steals Larry’s wife away from him. The screenplay is taut and insightful, the mood, ominous throughout. Again, the Coen Brothers don’t serve up all the answers for you on a silver platter – they challenge their audience, letting you solve the puzzle on your own. I was glad to see the filmmakers tackle on such issues as God, faith, the Jewish religion, fate and karma in such a forward manner. This film is unlike any other they have ever done –a bold project to be sure, though the Coen Brothers never seem to shy away from new challenges and new frontiers. A small gem of a film that stays with you long after the end credits roll.

4. The Big Lebowski (1998)

I’m not sure what to say here except when I first saw the film, I never would have guessed the enormous cult following and staying power that this ridiculous comedy would endure. Like most Coen Brothers films, this one gets better with additional viewings. Many of their dramas have a lot of comedic elements and humorous nuances, but this one (like the very funny Raising Arizona), is straight up funny, bordering on the farcical. With “The Dude,” Jeff Bridges creates a character that will surely go down as one of the most comical in film history. Bridges makes it all look so effortless, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s not a brilliant performance. Like his Almighty rug, this Dude ties the movie together. John Goodman is loud, maniacal, and uproarious. Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman add more laughs – and John Turturro, with about 5 minutes of screen time, steals the show as The Jesus, the master bowler who will fuck you any day of the week. I also love Sam Elliott as The Stranger, the film’s narrator…perfect voice for it. The pacing of the film in non-stop and it’s one absurd incident after another, one insane line after the next. You sit back, and go along for the ride. It is pure Coen Brothers comedy – and there was no way I could omit it from this prestigious Top 5.

3. Fargo (1996)

I vividly recall the late Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert proclaiming this to be their #1 film of 1996, stating that this was the reason they went to the movies – that this was one of the finest American films to be released in that decade. Though the Coen Brothers were already critical darlings for a few years, this one seemed to put them over the top, garnering a number of Oscar noms, while taking home two. One of the many things that the Coen Brothers are brilliant at is giving the viewer a sense of time and place. Fargo is the perfect example of this. As a wanna-be writer, I would love to be a fly on the wall to study and see how the two writers go through the process of writing their scripts because their framework and dialogue is so masterful. The script here is what every writer should strive for, capturing the characters and their regional vernacular so exquisitely. The film is bloody, dark, funny, and at times, quite touching. The score also plays a pivotal role (which is true of just about any of their films) and depicts the mood perfectly. The unbelievably talented Frances McDormand shines here as Marge Gunderson, the pregnant police officer. But it is William H. Macy’s incompetent car salesman that sets the wheels in motion. Everything falls apart for poor Jerry Lundegaard and so many others pay the heavy consequences. In many ways, the film remind’s me of David Lynch’s 1986 masterpiece, Blue Velvet – exploring the dark and violent side of suburban America. An outstanding piece of filmmaking — considered by most critics to be their signature work and has already gone down as one of the finest films ever made.

2. Miller’s Crossing (1990)

When I think of finest screenplays written, I always think of this masterful mobster flick. The dialogue cracks, sizzles and keeps coming at you at a fever pitch – so authentic to the prohibition era that it is set in – and oh so very smart (“take your flunky and dangle”). As is the case with all of their films, the Coen Brothers get wonderful performances from their impressive ensemble that includes Albert Finney, Marcia Gay Harden, Jon Polito (again), and J.E. Freeman. Gabriel Byrne is perfectly cast and the wise-cracking poetry just oozes from his lips like honey. As the film’s nucleus, Byrne holds it all together – he is strong, witty and merciful. And it should be to no one’s surprise that John Turturro as Bernie Bernbaum rocks the house. It constantly amazes me how much Turturro adds to the supporting roles he plays (see Film #4). The climatic scene where Byrne’s Tom Reagan takes Turturro out to the middle of the woods (Miller’s Crossing) to shoot him dead is riveting and always has me on the edge of my seat. It is wonderful work and Turturro doesn’t hold back one tiny bit. One of their more violent films, Miller’s Crossing is beautifully shot and the costume design and art direction are without flaws. It also keeps you on your toes – who is double-crossing who? Who is working for who? Who is going to get rubbed out next? I know we all think of The Godfather trilogy and Goodfellas when we think of cinema’s greatest mobster flicks, but this deserves to be strongly placed in the Top 5. And that, my friends, is the rumpus!

1. Barton Fink (1991)

This one is a no-brainer for me. This haunting (oftentimes funny) film has always fascinated and entertained me, while never losing tread on the wheels with many repeat viewings. In fact, I seem to catch something new each time. John Turturro, one of our most underrated actors, takes the lead here as a New York playwright who suddenly becomes the toast of Broadway. The lure of Hollywood success and money reels him in and Barton now finds himself in a hellish west coast hotel writing a motion picture about a wrestler. John Goodman is brilliant as his ominous neighbor, Charlie Meadows. Turturro is mesmerizing as the often-troubled intellectual writer and his chemistry with Goodman is ever-engaging. Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Judy Davis and Jon Polito turn in outstanding performances as well. The film is filled with quirky characters and dialogue that have become standard fare in most of the Coen Brothers’ works. No strangers to period pieces, the Coens beautifully capture the look and feel of 1941. Exquisite art direction, a haunting score and superb cinematography – the film never caves in and gives you all the answers. It challenges its audience and forces you to figure it out, which I admire and appreciate. Not a movie for those who don’t embrace and appreciate the voice of the Coens’, to be sure. But a brilliant film — perhaps their closest to a masterpiece yet. Then again, perhaps it is.

In my estimation, these are some of the finest films made in the past 25 years — and they don’t show any signs of slowing down or fading out. The Coen Brothers are master storytellers who seem to do just about everything right — and to this one film buff, have no equal in the industry at present.

The Top 10 Films of 2009 Ranked by Peter Eramo


2009 was a relatively weak year for films. Unfortunately, I don’t get paid to be a film critic (not yet anyway) so I don’t see eveything that comes out. Though I did manage to view 125+ films for the year — I try and stay away from the “safe bets” guaranteed to be crap like “The Proposal” or “The Land of the Lost” or “The Ugly Truth” and focus on the ones that look as if they are worth my time and money. There was not a stand-out phenomenal film this past year…no modern-day classic to speak of. Hopefully, 2010 brings us a better crop in the months ahead.

In any case, here is my list of the Top 10 films from 2009, complete with a list of honorable mentions that are also all solid films. At the bottom of each post is a link to view the official trailers in case you’d like to give it a peek. Give it a read, and as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject…what do you feel I omitted, what film am I nuts for including, where was I actually (dare I say) right on the money?

10. Fantastic Mr. Fox (dir. Wes Anderson)

Featuring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Michael Gambon, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, among others, this was certainly the best animated film of the year, without a doubt. And don’t give me “Up”…please. Based on the story by Roald Dahl, this film was pure enjoyment to watch — as well as being uproariously funny. For a full review on this film, click on this link.

9. Sunshine Cleaning (dir. Christine Jeffs)

A charming, poignant and offbeat indie film from the producers behind the Cinderella film, “Little Miss Sunshine.” This film revolves around the relationship between Rose (Amy Adams) and Norah (Emily Blunt), two sisters who are leading completely unfulfilling lives — but manage to set up shop and start their own business…crime-scene clean-up! Once upon a time, Amy had her whole future ahead of her when she was a popular cheerleader in high school dating the star football player. Now she is a single mom with a young son and though she still sees that same football player (Steve Zahn), it is nothing more than an illicit, thankless affair since he has married another.

The film focuses on Amy putting her foot down and getting her life in order, but it also does a terrific job at exploring the relationship between the two diverse sisters. Emily Blunt (who is just adorable to watch anywhere, anytime) is incredibly effective here — the hard-as-nails, pot-smoking aunt on the outside, but underneath, we see that she is simply vulnerable and frightened. Alan Arkin is great (no shocker) as their dad and his scenes with his precocious grandson are very humorous. Though it is not laugh-out-loud funny, there are some terribly funny moments here, especially as the gals start going out on jobs cleaning up shackled homes of people who have just committed suicide. When Rose is asked by one of her friends (who apparently has actually made something of her life) if she actually likes her grotesque job, she responds, quite philosophically, somewhat appropos: “Yeah. I do. We come into people’s lives when they have experienced something profound – and sad. And they’ve lost somebody. And the circumstances, they’re always different. But that’s the same. And we help. In some small way, we help.” A bittersweet film, with a genuine and effective script and authentic performances all-around, this one was too enjoyable for me not to include here.
*To watch the trailer for “Sunshine Cleaning,” click here

8. A Serious Man (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

I’m not sure I would recommend this film to someone unfamiliar with the ouevre of the brilliant work of the Coen brothers, but to me, it surely ranks as one of their stronger films and is most similar in style and tone to their masterpiece, “Barton Fink.” It is certainly their most universal — and most Jewish film to date. Not a full-out comedy like “The Big Lebowski” or “Raising Arizona,” but filled with much of the dark humor that has been a staple in nearly all of their films. This is a very mature, intelligent work with skilled art direction, use of music, and a helluva image to use as the film’s final shot. No big stars in this film at all, which I think was a bold, smart choice. Rarely do these guys make a wrong turn (well, there was “Intolerable Cruelty,” but so what…one bad turn).

The film is set in 1967 and revolves around the relatively simple life of college professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). He lives in a world of formulas and certainty, but many times, the world around us doesn’t follow rules or certainty. Ironically, he teaches the Theory of Uncertainty, but really doesn’t grasp its concepts beyond the mathematics. His whole world is coming down around him and he merely seeks answers as to why and the film focuses on Gopnik trying to cope with all the chaos that is swarming around him.

Amazing performances by a relatively unknown cast. Michael Stuhlbarg was certainly snubbed of a Best Actor Oscar nomination here as the film is all on his shoulders and he does a wonderful job as our modern-day Job. Richard Kind is great as Larry’s bizarre brother, and Fred Melamud plays Sy, the man who is having an affair with Larry’s wife. Melamud is perfect casting here…a seemingly perfect gentleman on the surface, but what a slimeball this guy is! A top-notch screenplay and careful, astute direction (as always), I cannot wait to give this movie another viewing. Like all of the films made by the Coen Brothers, there is always something new to catch and one gains a greater appreciation for the movie as a whole. A clever, dark, and honest film.
*To watch the trailer for “A Serious Man,” click here

7. (500) Days of Summer (dir. Marc Webb)

Viewers of this film are warned even before the credits even roll that “This is Not A Love Story,” so those who may enjoy the typical formulated, predictable romantic-comedies (can anyone say Hugh Grant, Drew Barrymore, Sandra Bullock) may be disappointed here. It tells the story of Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he reflects back on his relationship with Summer (Zooey Deschanel). The fresh and creative script jumps us back and forth in time through the (500) days of their bi-polar relationship and director Marc Webb uses some amusing techniques (split screens, animation, a hokey/cute musical dance number set to Hall & Oates) throughout to show the viewers how Tom is experiencing things. He is head over heels in love with the quirky and independent Summer – Tom fully believes that she is the one. The only problem is that Summer doesn’t believe in long relationships or in love – she feels that life will always get in the way. Tom seeks advice and guidance from his two best friends, but most of all from his little sister Rachel (Chloe Moretz).

Despite the forewarning we are given, “(500) Days of Summer” is love story. There is no way around it. It may not be the typical love story — or follow the conventional “love story” plot devices, but this is a wonderful departure from all of that and that is what makes this film a breath of fresh air. Gordon-Levitt (excellent in “The Lookout“) is very natural here, very soft-spoken as Tom, the greeting card writer who aspires to become an architecht — and who is desperately trying to win over the woman he loves so passionately. Deschanel is a joy to watch. She is not your typical leading lady at all, but there is something about her that keeps your eyes glued to her every move. She’s got that hypnotic sing-song voice and of course, is lovely to look at – we can see and understand why Tom is bitten so hard here. Their chemistry here seemed very natural throughout. I could not believe the film was snubbed of all Oscar categories, especially for Original Screenplay. But it remains one of the stronger, more creative romantic-comedies (too bad guys…it is one) in recent years and surely one of 2009’s very best.
*To watch the trailer for “(500) Days of Summer,” click here

6. Watchmen (dir. Zack Snyder)

I could not believe how much I enjoyed and how overly impressed I was with this unique superhero film. I am not a reader of graphic novels and knew nothing about this particular one written by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, so I went in completely blind. Unlike most films of its genre, “The Watchmen” is highly stylized, dark, and cynical, containing much more material for adults than teens (in themes, graphic violence and sex/nudity). What I also enjoyed (and was surprised by, quite frankly) was the moral questions that the film raises and tries to answer. I enjoyed this film more than “The Dark Knight” and almost any other superhero film I have seen.

The film is set in an alternative 1985, with Richard Nixon in his fourth term as U.S. president, the Cold War raging on and superheroes are banned from using their powers despite the constant threat of a nuclear war. After one of the masked members of the Watchmen group is murdered, an investigation (initiated by the memorable Rorschach character) follows and with it, a far deeper plot that the heroes must combat.

The film is so beautifully stylized, with tremendous visual effects and art direction. How this film wasn’t nominated in a handful of the technical Oscar categories still escapes me. And though it is high in budget, there still has a feel of art-house in it. The soundtrack is phenomenal, as it cleverly incorporates some classic rock tunes by Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Janis Joplin, among others. Jackie Earle Haley steals the show as Rorschach, but Billy Crudup (Dr. Manhattan), Patrick Wilson (Nite Owl) and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Comedian) are all great here. I remember before its release, a film-blogging friend was a bit worried about the movie because he absolutely loved the graphic novel and was a loyal follower of it. He was so overly impressed with it, I think he went at least 8 times in the theatre to screen it. He told me how faithful it was to the novel and that it far exceeded any expectations he had going in…and this is from a guy who is an avid follower of the literature. Again, I went in “blind” and loved it as well.
*To watch the trailer for “Watchmen,” click here

5. Das Weisse Band or The White Ribbon (dir. Michael Haneke)

A magnificent cinematic achievement, “The White Ribbon” takes place in a small, rural town in Germany during 1913-1914. reminiscient of Bergman’s masterpiece “Fanny and Alexander” in some ways,Haneke’s film explores the darkness of man and foreshadows the darkness of what is to come in Germany in the years that follow. A number of peculiar, horrific crimes/acts occur in this small village and the mystery abounds as to who is responsible for them. But Haneke is not concerned with solving this mystery as much as he is trying to illustrate the brutality that exists in both adults and children. Filmed in gorgeous black-and-white, the white ribbon of the title suggests an innocence which has been lost and possibly the looming apparition of facsism; the small community, an analogy for a world on the brink of war.

The performances here are extraordinary. Though the pacing may be slow to some, it is a riveting drama exploring character and the hypocrisy of domestic and religious values. Yes, there are moments that are rather difficult to watch (in the best way possible), but they surely serve a greater purpose. Haunting, profound, potent and altogether human, “The White Ribbon” is a triumph of a film.
*To watch a trailer for “The White Ribbon,” click here

4. The Invention of Lying (dir. Ricky Gervais & Matthew Robinson)

You’re probably laughing at me right now, wondering why in the world is this film included here, let alone ranked so high on the list itself. Is it a higher cinematic achievement than “The White Ribbon” or “A Serious Man“? Probably not, I would agree. But my reasoning here is quite simple — pure enjoyment! Comedies are always overshadowed by their big brothers – the more serious dramas and “arthouse” films on these kinds of Top 10 lists. I did not want to fall victim to that. But that is not the only reason I include this film. It was just too damn funny, too damn smart and too damn fine a film.

The film is set in a world where no one has ever told a lie. That is, until Mark Bellison, a writer who is about to be fired (Ricky Gervais), creates one on the spur of the moment for personal gain. Mark is overweight, under-successful, short and comes from a poor gene pool. He is in love with Anna (Jennifer Garner) who is way out of his league as she is looking for the perfect mate with ideal genes to create perfect, good-looking children. Of course Mark begins to take advantage of his discovery little by little until one day, the hospital staff overhear him speaking to his mother on her deathbed as he desribes what Heaven is truly like. Everyone believes him of course and Mark not only becomes famous, but a prophet of the people as well.

What Gervais and Robinson have created here is one of the better comedies I have seen in years (although “Tropic Thunder” is right up there as well). I was constantly reminded of the better films of Albert Brooks and Woody Allen throughout. Gervais gives an endearing, hilarious performance here and manages to also include his own personal opinions on God, religion, love and the backwards priorities of our society. An entirely original film, I was blown away at how funny and clever it was. The film also features some great cameo appearances (which I won’t spoil here) and execllent supporting work from Rob Lowe, Tina Fey, and Jonah Hill. Gervais is certainly making a name for himself here in the States — I only hope that people begin to recognize that this is a major force in comedy right now — not only is this one downright hilarious, but on top of that, has a heart to match.
*To watch the trailer for “Invention of Lying” click here

3. Inglourious Basterds (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Well, one thing is for certain…this film is unlike any other war film you have ever seen. That’s for damn sure. The film reeks of Tarantino dialogue, plot twists, homages to the spaghetti westerns and French New Wave cinema — as well as the dark humor that has been a trademark of his since his debut with “Reservoir Dogs.” I went in really not wanting to like it (as I’m not the biggest fan of his), but I could not deny what an excellent film he helmed here.

We are in Nazi-occupied France during World War II and a platoon of Jewish American soldiers are enlisted to spread fear throughout Hitler’s Third Reich…they have one mission — to kill and skin the heads of us many Nazis as they possibly can. The Basterds are headed by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a Southern American with a thick accent and passion for killing Nazis. The other part of the film focuses on Jewish refugee Shosanna Dreyfus (a very impressive Melanie Laurent), who is plotting her revenge several years later after witnessing the slaughtering of her family. The first scene of the film itself (a long, fascinating scene) keeps you glued to the edge of your seat…Tarantino does a brilliant job of building the suspense here with effective use of editing, exceptional dialogue and the masterful performance of Christoph Waltz (Col. Hans Landa) who steals the film and has created one of film’s very best villains, wholly deserving of his Best Supporting Actor Oscar win. Waltz is unbelievable and is at his most evil when there is a smile across his face.

There is hardly a dull moment here and when you are thinking one thing is going to happen, you find that you are wrong and something else does. Pitt is fine here with his deadpan delivery and is actually quite funny. Great use of color, set design and photography, this is a film that builds from the very first scene and never lets up. Yes, it is not at all historically accurate, but Tarantino knows that and he also knows his business is to entertain….he does that here in spades.
*To watch the trailer for “Inglourious Basterds” click here

2. Up in the Air (dir. Jason Reitman)

An American film that does such an interesting, on-the-mark job of conveying modern American values and the historical unemployment recession that has fallen on us these recent years. Jason Reitman wrote/directed the utterly brilliant “Thank You for Smoking” and the tad over-rated “Juno,” but rebounds nicely with this superb script which makes for a highly pleasing film and one of the year’s very best.

Ryan Bingham’s (George Clooney) job is to fire people from theirs. He spends nearly his entire life living out of a suitcase, going from airport to airport and hotel to hotel – and he loves every minute of it. He has almost no connections in his life – not even his family. The firm takes on young Natalie (Anna Kendrink) who has come up with a method of firing these poor schleps via video conferencing, thereby threatening Ryan’s way of living — his way of being. He takes her under his tutelage on one of his cross-country firing sprees and as the brash Natalie begins to see the actual pain and suffering she is causing real people with real families, Ryan is beinning to discover a lot more about himself. Along the way, we follow the relationship between Ryan and Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow corporate traveler. The two try and meet up as often as their schedules will allow and Ryan begins to feel that perhaps he may want more from Alex than just sex in a different hotel room each time.

The script in itself is a great achievement. I’m still angered that it did not capture the Best Original Screenplay Oscar as it most certainly deserved it. The performances, all solid. Clooney is perfect as Ryan Bingham – he is confident, charming, quick-witted and at times, vulnerable…in other words, he does his “Clooney thing” – he can do this in his sleep. Vera Farmiga is wonderful here and in one scene in particular (she’s in her car alone), you just want to smack her. Jason Bateman also has a strong supporting role as Bingham’s boss – a clever bit of casting here. “Up in the Air” is a timely film, a well-made film and most of all, a very, very enjoyable film. Reitman is really building up quite a nice resume here and I am anxious to see what he gives us next.
*to watch the trailer for “Up in the Air” click here

1. District 9 (dir. Neill Blomkamp)

I am in no way a science-fiction film. But it is so much more than that. I was not expecting to enjoy this movie as much as I did and though it came out relatively early in 2009, it never lost its ranking as what I perceived as the best motion picture of the year. The onset of the film has an authentic docu-drama look and feel to it, but as the film builds, it morphs into sci-fi character drama and finally, a police thriller. And all the while, it never loses its sense of realism, nor do we ever not believe in any of the characters or their choices.

An extraterrestrial race is forced to live in slum-like conditions in Johannesburg — a refugee-camp where humans refer to them as “prawns” as they exploit and abuse these creatures since they arrived on Earth in 1982. Now it is 2010 and Multi-National United, a munitions corporation is forcing the eviction of these aliens from District 9 to a new camp. The man in charge of the operation is Wilus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley). At first quite clumsy and a somewhat silly authoritative figure, van der Merwe is suddenly exposed to a strange alien chemical and must now rely on his new prawn friends to save his own life as his human family and friends begin to turn on him.

The analogies in the film (apartheid, Guantanamo Bay) are evident, but it doesn’t hit you over the head or insult the viewer. The relatively unknown Copley gives an outstanding performance here and the visual effects are top-notch even though it’s not technically a high-budget film. What makes “District 9” such a remarkable film is its excellent work of character, its sense of authenticity, crisp editing, great action sequences (especially the last 20 minutes or so) and the way it makes you sympathize and feel for the aliens. The very last shot in itself is a memorable, chilling one. A powerful, intelligent, and moving film on a whole. This is Blomkamp’s first major film (produced by Peter Jackson) and he has delivered a near-masterpiece of a film that I think will be remembered for years to come…the best to come out in 2009!
*to watch the trailer for “District 9” click here.

HIGHLY HONORABLE MENTIONS
Though they did not crack the Top 10 list, here is a brief listing of some other excellent films that came out last year that I would surely recommend. They are, in no particular order:

Sin Nombre (dir. Cary Fukunaga)
Funny People (dir. Judd Apatow)
The Cove (dir. Louie Psihoyos)
Julia (dir. Erick Zonca)
Management (dir. Stephen Belber)
The Road (dir. John Hillcoat)
The Last Station (dir. Michael Hoffman)
Crazy Heart (dir. Scott Cooper)
The Great Buck Howard (dir. Sean McGinly)

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Predictions for the 82nd Annual Academy Awards (2010)


The nominees have been announced, the studios all campaigning wildly, and the film critics and pundits all making their annual predictions as to who will take home the revered statues come the evening of March 7, 2010. As I do every year, I try to come to grips with those who have been snubbed of well-deserved recognition (see my previous posting on this blog) and those who are nominated for reasons I cannot yet fathom. In addition, this year brings the new anxiety of trying to brace myself of having to sit and watch Alec Baldwin co-host the ceremonies….I feel it does not bode well for the millions of viewers across the globe. As I stated earlier, it hasn’t been the strongest year for film. Even the nominees were somewhat of a bore…a bit anti-climatic. Not many great races to speak of as well, with a few categories already being viewed as semi-locks. I am hoping that this is not an omen of a 4-hour snoozefest on Oscar night, but the realist in me says that this is most likely what we will get.

So here are my predictions for the 82nd Annual Academy Awards in all of the major categories — complete with a listing of “Who Will Win,” “Who Should Win” and finally, “Who Should Have Been in the Running.” Enjoy — and please feel free to post your comments in agreement or heated disagreement!!! I welcome it all….

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Matt Damon (Invictus)
Woody Harrelson (The Messenger)
Christopher Plummer (The Last Station)
Stanley Tucci (The Lovely Bones)
Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds)

This one is a slam dunk. As soon as I left the theatre, I vividly remember thinking, “This guy has the Oscar wrapped up.” Many months later, that same sentiment holds true. This “guy”? Christoph Waltz as Colonel Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s very strong “Inglourious Basterds.” He’s already won numerous accolades for his performance and I don’t see what is to stop him from receiving the grandest accolade of all – especially when I don’t think the film has a legit shot at Picture or Director here. The only competition comes from the wonderful Christopher Plummer, portraying the celebrated author and idealist Tolstoy. He was (as always) truly a marvel to watch – and has never received an Oscar in his prolific career. But in the end, I don’t believe enough people saw the film. Same goes for the other nominees – not many at all saw “Invictus” or “The Messenger” and both Woody Harrelson and Matt Damon are deserving of their nominations here. As for Stanley Tucci, I confess, I did not see the film, but have heard he was one of the very few bright spots in Peter Jackson’s critically (and publically) roasted failure. He nearly ruined King Kong…might as well hurt Alice Sebold’s prose while he’s at it, right?

Who Will Win: Christoph Waltz
Who Should Win: Christoph Waltz
Who Should Have Been Nominated: Burghart Klaubner (The White Ribbon)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Penelope Cruz (Nine)
Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air)
Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart)
Anna Kendrik (Up in the Air)
Mo’Nique (Precious)

I’m in an odd position here and I’ll readily admit this – that based on all that I have read and heard, the winner may very well be the only performance I have missed (“Precious” being the only film of the nominated 10 that I unfortunately missed). But I cannot believe that Maggie Gyllenhaal would win (Lord help us) as I don’t feel a nomination was warranted. And what’s with Penelope Cruz? Why do voters have a fixation with everything she does? Her best work is in Almodovar films – yet she wins for a Woody Allen film when clearly, Amy Adams or Marisa Tomei should have won last year. Go figure. Anyway, she plays the same unbalanced lover here in the subpar “Nine” so I don’t see her winning in back-to-back years. The race comes down to Vera Farmiga and the heavily favored Mo’Nique. Mo’Nique has won just about every “Supporting Actress” award this year and there was some bad press over the fact of whether she would do press for the film or wouldn’t she. That’s all been cleared by now. I liked what Ms. Farmiga did in the Jason Reitman’s wonderful “Up in the Air.” Sadly, I think the film will, for the most part, be going home empty on Oscar night – and the two actresses nominated here may also split the votes. I can’t speak to Mo’Nique’s performance, but because none of the other four “wowed” me and the glowing press so far received, I have to believe that she will take home the Golden statue.

Who Will Win: Mo’Nique
Who Should Win: since I didn’t see ‘Precious’ I can’t say with authority
Who Should Have Been Nominated: Kate del Castillo (Julia) or
Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds)

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Avatar
Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
The White Ribbon

An interesting list of nominees this year in an all-important category. As impressive as “Avatar” and “Inglourious Basterds” is from a photography standpoint, I would think that the beautifully shot black-and-white film, “The White Ribbon” will steal this one. It’s got a couple of strikes against it in that (a) it’s a foreign film so hence (b) not many have seen the film. I’m certainly not picking it simply because it’s a B&W film. I was just overly impressed with the film as a whole, cinematography included. In addition, the film did just win the A.S.C. award, so it has a little steam going in.

Who Will Win: The White Ribbon
Who Should Win: The White Ribbon
Who Should Have Been Nominated: The Road

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM

Coraline
Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Princess and the Frog
The Secret of Kells
Up

One of the few locks of the evening for sure. The fact that “Up” happens to be nominated for the actual “Best Picture” award tells you all you need to know. I thought “Up” was sweet…a strong 3-star film and not much more. The highlight of the film was the very moving montage between Carl and the love of his life Ellie – without dialogue. Quite beautiful. A sweet film, no doubt, but not one of Pixar’s best. I didn’t get into “Coraline” at all and if you can sit there and tell me that you saw “The Secret of Kells” playing at a theatre near you, I’ll call you a liar right now. “Up” is the sure winner here, but “Fantastic Mr. Fox” was the stronger work and greater achievement in film. I was hoping “Cloudy with A Chance of Meatballs” would get a nomination as I did find that film to be great fun.

Who Will Win: Up
Who Should Win: Fantastic Mr. Fox
Who Should Have Been Nominated: Cloudy with A Chance of Meatballs

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

“Almost There” (Princess & the Frog)
“Down in New Orleans” (Princess & the Frog)
“Loin de Paname” (Paris 36)
“Take it All” (Nine)
“The Weary Kind” (Crazy Heart)

This is a two-horse race, but I really don’t see “The Weary Kind” (by T-Bone Burnett and Ryan Bingham) losing. The two selections by Randy Newman are, let’s face it, Randy Newman songs. No knock on Mr. Newman, but there’s not much new here. A “Best Song” should capture the essence of a character or a specific scene or the film as a whole – or all three. No song has done that better in recent years than the marvelous “Falling Slowly” featured in the little indie-that-could “Once.” Eminem’sLose Yourself” (from “8 Mile”) back in 2002 also is a great example. There have been some wonderful songs featured in this category over the years. Sadly, the producers of this year’s telecast have chosen NOT to showcase each song individually and have the artists sing it. This was a great disappointment as some of the most memorable moments in Oscar’s history have come from the musical artist performing the piece live for us. The only competition that “The Weary Kind” may have is “Taken it All” from the musical “Nine.” This is a wonderful song written specially for the film – and is performed with raw passion by Marion Cotillard. It encapsulates her character and everything she has gone through in her failure-of-a-marriage to her ingenious husband. “The Weary Kind” however, is near perfect and will take home the gold. Bingham’s raspy, old vet voice fits splendidly. The lyrics and music perfectly complement the feel of the film (“Crazy Heart”) and depicts the man that is Bad Blake – (“Your body aches/Playing your guitar and sweating out the hate”….” this ain’t no place to fall behind/Pick up your crazy heart and give it one more try.”) I only wish we were given the opportunity to watch it sung for us live on Oscar night.

Who Will Win: “The Weary Kind”
Who Should Win: “The Weary Kind”

Listen to the song here:

BEST ACTOR

Jeff Bridges (“Crazy Heart”)
George Clooney (“Up in the Air”)
Colin Firth (“A Single Man”)
Morgan Freeman (“Invictus”)
Jeremy Renner (“The Hurt Locker”)

Lock. L-O-C-K! And well deserved, I might add. Mr. Bridges is 0 for 4 as an Oscar nominee, but America’s most under-rated actor (can we now say that anymore?) will be winning come Sunday night. It’s a vulnerable, gritty, honest and seemingly effortless performance and his Bad Blake is truly a character to remember. We sympathize with Bad, we root for him, we want him to succeed and get well. That’s what Mr. Bridges brings to the table here. Also, he’s got a nice set of pipes on him! He looked the part and looked quite the natural in all of his vocal scenes. Perfect casting and it is always such a pleasure to watch him work in indie films such as this one – and the bigger blockbusters that he sometimes does. I’m still trying to get over the fact that nominating Jeremy Renner is an utter waste of a perfectly fine 5th slot here. Colin Firth was terrific and the one shining star in what I found to be an unremarkable film. George Clooney is the tricky one here. He was wonderful in a great movie. However, if I am truly honest about it – it was George doing what George does best…the kind of role he can do in his sleep. He is charming, witty, charismatic and at times, susceptible. I enjoyed his performance, but could never think of him beating out the work that Jeff Bridges turned out this past year – it will be a pleasure to watch his acceptance speech. The Dude prevails….

Who Will Win: Jeff Bridges
Who Should Win: Jeff Bridges
Who Should Have Been Nominated: Michael Stuhlbarg (“A Serious Man”)

BEST ACTRESS

Sandra Bullock (“The Blind Side”)
Helen Mirren (“The Last Station”)
Carey Mulligan (“An Education”)
Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious”)
Meryl Streep (“Julie & Julia”)

What a weak category this year. W-E-A-K! It also illustrates a year where there were not very good roles for leading women in cinema. As written in my previous blog, I have no idea why Tilda Swinton was completely forgotten and not nominated for giving the year’s best performance in the very powerful, but little known film “Julia.” Having said that, if Sandra Bullock wins, I will weep. I like Sandra Bullock. I have nothing against Sandra Bullock. She was fine here…gave a good performance. But Oscar worthy?! Please! Years from now we’re going to look back at this film and see an actress truly shine? Hardly. She is here because voters approve of the fact that we’re not seeing her in another piece of crap – plain and simple. That, plus the poor roles for leading women in 2009. But sadly, she does have a legit shot. The movie raked in millions and America loves her. Despite my animosity towards the nomination, her chances are very good…scary, right? The winner, I’m afraid will be Ms. Streep in the very mediocre “Julia & Julia.” I adore Meryl Streep – love her in just about everything she does. With more nominations than anyone in Oscar history now, she surely is one of the greatest actors to ever grace the silver screen – period! Having said that, this is NOT the film she deserves to win for. Not after Oscar has shot her down in much better films in which she has given outstanding performances in like “Doubt,” “Adaptation,” “One True Thing,” and “Out of Africa” to name a few. So why will she win this year? Hollywood adores her (as they should) and she hasn’t won since 1982 – it’s been a while! She’s always there; each year, smiling gracefully each time she is defeated. I feel she will be rewarded for that this year at the expense of Ms. Mulligan who turns in a multi-layered, well-crafted performance in a film that few went out to see. I love Helen Mirren and she is great in “The Last Station,” but she won just a few years back and nobody saw this under-rated film about Tolstoy and his wife in their latter years. It’s a battle for the two undeserving this year. Bullock vs. Streep. It will be nice to see Ms. Streep walk up to accept, and I guess I can swallow that after years of hoping that she would win…however, this year, I know better. You just watch – she’ll give a breathtaking performance in another film this year or next – and will lose out once again.

Quick Change of Heart as of Sunday, March 7th: I can’t stand this anymore. I can’t sleep well knowing I picked Streep or Bullock to win for performances they surely don’t deserve the gold for. I’m going with the evening’s upset special: Carey Mulligan. Why? Simply because she deserves it. I did this a couple of years back and went out on a limb picking Marion Cotillard for her brilliant performance in “La Vie en Rose” and that turned out well. So I’m going with my gut and hope the Academy sees that Carey Mulligan gave the most winning performance.

Who Will Win: Carey Mulligan
Who Should Win: Carey Mulligan
Who Should Have Been Nominated: Tilda Swinton (“Julia”)

BEST DIRECTOR

James Cameron (Avatar)
Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker)
Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds)
Lee Daniels (Precious)
Jason Reitman (Up in the Air)

This seems to be a very competitive two (wo)man race – between James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow. Those two seem to be the darlings of past awards presentations over the past couple of months. In my opinion, both simply do not deserve it. Of the five nominees, I would say that Tarantino’s work is the most deserving – and I don’t even care for the man. I hate listening to him speak in that self-important, supercilious way that he does. In truth, I can’t stand watching him, but I can be objective here and say that the man can make a fine film from time to time (“Jackie Brown” and “Kill Bill: Volume I” as examples). I thoroughly enjoyed “Inglourious Basterds” and put it in my Top 10 of the Year. Though he is deserving, he won’t win. It’s between the couple that once was. Not many people like James Cameron – especially after he made a bit of a spectacle of himself when he won for the over-glorified “Titanic” and just a few weeks ago when he dissed Meryl Streep. NOBODY disses Meryl Streep and gets away with it! Not in Hollywood, at least. My feeling is that this year, the “Best Picture” and “Best Director” awards will be split – and history will be made with the first female director ever taking home the Oscar. This does not mean she actually deserves this distinction though – but voters like to congratulate themselves for this kind of thing. You can make a strong argument that Lina Wertmuller deserved to be the first back in 1976 (“Seven Beauties”), but it will instead be for the very over-rated, much ballyhooed “The Hurt Locker.”

Who Will Win: Kathryn Bigelow
Who Should Win: Quintin Tarantino
Who Should Have Been Nominated: Neill Blomkamp (“District 9”)

BEST MOTION PICTURE OF 2009

So “Avatar” took home a zillion dollars, or something like that and was, for all intents and purposes, cutting-edge as far as film achievement goes. It was a wonder to watch in the theatre. I cannot deny the remarkable triumph in that regard. It will continue its phenomenal success by taking home the “Best Picture” Oscar and raking up more zillions in the theatre, in merchandise and in Blue-Ray sales. Having said that, it is not the best film of the year. Think about why it didn’t even garner a screenwriting nomination. The story was not very good at all – highly predictable and took from so many other films in years past. You couldn’t sit through “Avatar” and not be reminded of a film here and another film there (“Dances with Wolves” in particular). Glorious to watch, for sure…but I wouldn’t put it in my Top 10 or Top 15 of the year. It will win though – there are years when Oscar likes to go to the big blockbuster (“Titanic,” “LOTR: Return of the King,” and “Gladiator” to name a few). This will reward the millions watching at home who actually saw one of the nominees and rooting hard for it.

I already made my feelings known about “The Hurt Locker.” Though a critical darling and on many Top 10 lists around the country, I simply do not see it. I feel it is overvalued. Maybe I missed something. Maybe I was in a cranky mood when I saw it. I have no idea. I simply know that when it was over, I thought, “Hmph, that was it?”

District 9” deserves the win, but has no chance at all, especially when the director is not nominated here – and I don’t see another “Driving Miss Daisy” year coming. Of the ten, it was the strongest and most powerful piece of original filmmaking. I’m not a sci-fi guy by any stretch, but the film works as a marvelous parable to our world today. It is riveting, haunting and at times, quite touching. I’ll be rooting hard for it, but to no avail, I’m afraid.

Up” has its own category all to itself – way to waste a place Oscar voters! That’s why the “Best Animated Feature” was created to begin with – to prevent this!

I loved Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air.” What a fine filmmaker with this work following the wonderful dark comedy, “Thank You for Smoking” (I felt “Juno” was the weakest of the three by far). “Up in the Air” is probably the most topical film of 2009 and makes a profound statement on our economy and the job market during a historical recession. Great performances across the board and a sharp, clever, thoughtful screenplay. This would be my personal #2 choice. An outside shot at best – if “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker” split the votes, this could creep in and surprise everyone. Let’s hope it does!

A Serious Man” (besides “Intolerable Cruelty” the Coen Brothers have not made a bad film!) is along for the ride here – but I was thrilled to see it not forgotten and in the running for the evening’s grand prize – kudos to the voters for including this insightful, funny and splendid film.

Who Will Win: Avatar
Who Should Win: District 9
Who Should Have Been Nominated: Watchmen or (500) Days of Summer

OTHER PICKS:

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Who Will Win: Inglourious Basterds
Who Should Win: A Serious Man
Who Should Have Been Nominated: (500) Days of Summer

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Who Will Win: Up in the Air
Who Should Win: Up in the Air
Who Should Have Been Nominated: Julia (or Where the Wild Things Are)

BEST FILM EDITING

Who Will Win: The Hurt Locker
Who Should Win: District 9

BEST ART DIRECTION

Who Will Win: Avatar
Who Should Win: Avatar

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

Who Will Win: Avatar
Who Should Win: Avatar

BEST MAKE-UP

Who Will Win: Star Trek
Who Should Win: Star Trek

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

Who Will Win: The Young Victoria
Who Should Win: (did not see 2 of the films nominated)

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

Who Will Win: The Cove (if you haven’t seen it – rent it!)
I felt “Food Inc.”, as informative as it was could have been more “viewer-friendly” if that makes any sense. Michael Moore – pay attention…this is what documentaries are supposed to be….they are not editorials.

So those are my picks – for better or for worse. I hope I am wrong about a number of them. I’ve been watching the Academy Awards each year without fail since I was about eight or nine years old. Too young to even care, I suppose. My friends and family have always joked with me, calling Oscar night my Christmas. In many ways, it is. I love film just about more than anything. It is what I do…I watch movies. I watch too many movies – but there are very few things that give me greater pleasure than going to a theatre, sitting in the darkened room and watching a work of art on the screen. And film is art – there is no question about that. And that art is celebrated each year in grand fashion at the Kodak Theatre. I could care less about the Red Carpet – I never even watch that. I could care less about the dresses. I watch no other Awards show prior to the Oscars (could never be bothered with the SAG awards or the over-hyped Golden Globes). It’s all about the little golden guy they have called Oscar since 1928. No matter what films are nominated, which films or actors win or lose, I am glued to the television – and they become a part of motion picture history. The past few ceremonies have been somewhat boring, true. Here’s hoping that this year will be a pleasant surprise – and that the best artists in each category win!

Again, I welcome any and all comments here. Feel free to share your own picks on this page. That would be great. I’m hoping some are even reading this blog and that I’m not writing for my own sake. That would just be sad.

Most of all – to each of you – enjoy your Oscar Night!!!

(Next Posting Coming Soon — Best & Worst Films of 2009)

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