Oscar Nominations 2011: My Thoughts

The nominations for the 83rd Annual Academy Awards were announced early this morning and, like most years, it seemed to be quite the ho-hum affair – very few surprises, many who were snubbed, and even more who won a nomination thanks in part to fervent studio campaigning and “bandwagon word-of-mouth” via the blitzkrieg that is the media. Though it doesn’t lead the pack in nominations garnered, David Fincher’s The Social Network looks to be the early odds-on favorite – and though I thought it was a very good film, I can’t help but think how lucky it is to be released in what was yet another weak year in motion pictures. I look at the titles of the 120+ films I have screened so far this year (and still a few I must soon see) and see many good films that made their way to movie screens in 2010. What I fail to see are many great films released. One, two….three? Does anyone see three? Can I get a three? Anyone? [insert cricket noise here] It seems to me, to be indicative of last year and the recent years that preceded it – a bunch of solid, quality films and very few truly remarkable ones.

In any case, I thought I would share with you my immediate reactions to the list of nominations for this year’s Oscar. Please feel free to comment and leave your own thoughts on the Oscar race.

And let’s be real. All of these Awards ceremonies, the gluttony of presentations we see with each new year are just fodder…they really don’t mean very much at all…To be honest, it is all just meaningless filler – that is, until my own prestigious Magic Lantern Award nominations are announced! The most distinguished always makes the final entrance – and, if I may say, that holds true here as well. I will make sure to post the 1st Annual Magic Lantern Awards noms within 7-10 days. Sorry for the delay – I just need to make sure and see a few more select films.

OK, enough. My quick reactions to the Oscar noms:

What is the point of having a category for the ‘Best Animated Feature’ if you are just going to consider these films for the ‘Best Picture’ category? It seems to me that nominating Toy Story 3 for ‘Best Picture’ is an absolute waste – and completely unfair to a number of films that were very deserving of the 10th slot. We all know how this plays out anyway – no chance in hell of winning ‘Best Picture,’ but a shoo-in to win the Animated category.

I was afraid that Jesse Eisenberg would win a ‘Best Actor’ nom and sure enough, he did. Eisenberg did what he always does in the very same manner. He just happened to do it in a critically acclaimed film. What’s next? Michael Cera gets a nod for the one role he doesn’t wear a hoodie for?

Kudos to the voters for remembering and honoring much smaller/lesser seen films that deserve recognition such as: Jacki Warner’s chilling performance in Animal Kingdom, John Hawkes’ terrific work in Winter’s Bone, the intriguing documentary Waste Land, the very nice costume designs in the otherwise lackluster I Am Love, the impressive art direction and costumes in Alice in Wonderland.

Did Robert Duvall do or say something to piss Hollywood off at some point? His performance in Get Low was one of the year’s best and I thought, a shoo-in for a ‘Best Actor’ nom. Seems a shame that James Franco and Eisenberg get these slots. Don’t worry, Bob…there’s always the Magic Lantern nomination soon coming.

Speaking of James Franco – it has crossed my mind that if he were not co-hosting the Oscars this year, he would not have been voted in for ‘Best Actor.’ So he cut off an arm. Big deal. Not many stand-out performers by lead actors this year, but I can think of 5 better right off the bat. And while on the topic of hosts – this odd experiment of Franco and Anne Hathaway has boring flop written all over it.

Thank you voters for not encouraging the pretentiousness of Christopher Nolan with a ‘Best Director’ nomination. It’s bad enough the film is nominated for Picture (though certainly deserving of its Cinematography and Art Direction nominations). Thank God it was left out of the Editing category too – because that could have used some chopping up.

I saw Rabbit Hole (good) and Blue Valentine (not so good). Nicole Kidman and Michelle Williams give good performances. That’s it. Good. So many others are far more deserving this year – we nominate male leads in foreign films…why not Hye-ja Kim (Mother) or Noomi Rapace for giving the year’s gutsiest performance in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The omission of Rapace is this year’s biggest snub. And, Annette Bening surely deserves a nomination here – they just picked the wrong film to nominate her from.

I am thrilled to see little-seen The Illusionist nominated in the ‘Best Animated Film’ category. But where the hell is the absolutely charming and intelligent My Dog Tulip? The film has received nothing but praise and they only nominate three films anyway. Seems to be a glaring omission from here. Gorgeous animation, wonderful narration by Christopher Plummer and one of the year’s smarter films.

Jeff Bridges. That is all.

Looks like comedies get left out in the cold again. It’s tough to squeeze them in, I understand – but in looking at all of the nominations – there aren’t a lot of laughs going around. City Island, Kick-Ass, Wonderful World, Please Give are all fine films…just couldn’t break through here. I know I piss all over the Golden Globes, but maybe the Oscars should start thinking of having a ‘Best Comedic Film’ category. Something to mull over, at least.

I still strongly believe there needs to be an award for “Best Performance by a Child.” There always seems to be a few solid performances given by actors under the age of 16. It is my belief that the work of a young child of say, 12 should not be compared to the work of an actor with years of experience and training. This would also avoid the whole Tatum O’Neal and Anna Paquin disasters. The Academy made the smart step in creating a category for animated films – this needs to be the next step. Chloe Moretz was too good this year to be excluded and Ms. Hailee Steinfeld (who was wonderful in True Grit) should not be going up against the multi-layered talents of Helena Bonham-Carter and Melissa Leo.

We’ll see how the race takes shape over the next few weeks. The King’s Speech made a mighty statement by winning the most nominations, perhaps putting a small dent in the momentum of The Social Network. Right now, it seems like a 2-horse race, but again…we’ll see how the media’s influence starts to shape the outcome.

As always, I am looking forward to watching the telecast, despite the inane choice in hosts and predictable ‘Best Picture’ nominations.

Next Up – The Magic Lantern Award Nominations!!!

You know…the real shit!

10 Fun Film Superlatives for 2010

Two things. One is that with 2010 now complete, everyone’s Top 10 lists have been coming out. I can’t do this just yet as there are still a handful of films I need to see before composing my own. I never like to rush such a list as I take it kind of seriously (too seriously, if you ask me) and it takes a while for me to figure it all out. So my personal Top 10 List of 2010 will probably be posted in the next few weeks.

Second nugget. I don’t follow any Awards shows, but have been glued to the Oscars since I was a child. I watch them each year without fail and many close to me refer to the Oscars telecast as my Christmas. I know they are very political in nature, but this does not seem to deter my passion for following them. Each year that the nominees are announced, I (like most of my film blogging companions) am left feeling happy for some who are recognized and angered at the omissions who I feel were worthy of great praise. I see where all of the marketing, campaigning and politicking take effect and taint the list of nominees. So, I have come up with my own solution. Now that I wield such enormous power with this Film Blog, I will start my very own listing of Awards — The Magic Lantern Awards. I will post my own list of nominees in the “major” categories and decide upon a winner, who will be awarded the prestigious Lantern (small print: actual award not real). Sure it will all be just one movie buff’s opinion, but I shall not be swayed by anything doled out by the media or other awards ceremonies. So I will be working on that and releasing the nominees quite soon (I know – you are all waiting with bated breath).

In the meantime, here are 10 superlatives (or stand-outs) in film for the 2010 year – 6 very positive and 4 that are…well, not so positive. As always, your comments and feedback are encouraged. And here we go!

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Awarded To: The Red Riding Trilogy

This honor does not go to a terrible film that I wasn’t expecting much from in the first place (see Grown Ups or Cop Out). This is for a movie I thought would be great and turned out to be a big let-down. When I saw the trailers for The Red Riding trilogy, I couldn’t wait to see all three films (1974, 1980, 1983) that centered around the Yorkshire killer. It looked suspenseful, exciting and dark. Turns out that it was all one big snoozefest. I couldn’t believe how slow and uninteresting it all was. What a downer.

MOST OVERRATED FILM

Awarded To: Inception

I have already come to terms with the fact that Christopher Nolan’s opus is going to garner a slew of awards and nominations in the months ahead. I want to make clear that I don’t think this was a bad film at all. There were some great aspects to it (see my review here). I just never got on the bandwagon that many bloggers and critics hitched to declaring it to be some kind of masterpiece. It was visually stunning and challenged its audience. But there was a lot left to be desired, such as plot holes, poor characterization, and much needless over-indulgence on Nolan’s part. Again, not a bad flick – just so highly overrated.

Honorable mention should go to all the praise that Jesse Eisenberg is getting for his lead role in The Social Network. I really liked this movie and he was fine in it – but he really didn’t do anything he hasn’t already done in his other films. Same delivery, same persona, same style. I am hoping that a ‘Best Actor’ Oscar slot isn’t wasted on this mediocre performance.

BIGGEST PIECE OF SELF INDULGENCE

Awarded To:     Prodigal Sons

I wanted to go with Casey Affleck’s I’m Still Here — absolutely fitting in that it seemed as if Joaquin Phoenix and Affleck served only to gratify themselves here with this ho-hum project. In the end, I had to go with Prodigal Sons, a documentary by Kimberly Reed. Reed happily turns the camera on herself (and her family) in her return to Montana for her high school reunion where she was once a star athlete, and yes, a young man. In her long absence away from home, she had a sex change operation which has caused much friction between herself and her adopted brother, Marc. Marc made for a fascinating subject, but Reed is so overly concerned with herself throughout the film that we are left wanting more of an exploration on Marc. It is oh-so-obvious that she wants so desperately to get dramatic reactions from her old classmates when they now see her as a woman. It backfires, as everyone seems more than fine with the extreme transformation. The whole time I kept thinking this came off as a glorified home video made by someone who wants much more attention than she deserves. A real, “Look At Me!” piece of filmmaking.

BIGGEST WASTE OF MY VALUABLE TIME

Awarded To:     Catfish

Again, I’d love to go with Grown Ups here, but I kinda knew what I was in for walking into the theater. Instead, I’ll go with the “documentary” that led viewers to think one thing in the trailer and provide something completely unsatisfying with the end product. I have made my strong feelings pretty clear in earlier postings (see here), so I will try not to repeat myself. Suffice it to say that this was a manipulative, anti-climatic and insulting film. And after the appearance made by its creators (Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, & Nev Schulman) on the nationally televised “20/20,” I still say that they’re hypocrites (see why here). This was a tremendous waste of 87 minutes that I will never get back – 87 minutes that I would have rather spent doing something else that I hate…like trying to repair something or ironing all of my trousers…even turn on any of the crap that airs on primetime TV would have been a welcome reprieve.

And Now For The Good….

 

BEST ENSEMBLE CAST

Awarded To:     The Fighter

Marc Wahlberg, as the struggling boxer Mickey Ward, is very good as the centerpiece to David O. Russell’s powerful film….the supporting cast around him is nothing short of extraordinary. The casting could not have been more ideal here. Melissa Leo again proves that she is one of our most gifted actors (though often overlooked) in a towering performance as matriarch of her clan. Though the character doesn’t win our sympathy, Leo certainly owns the screen and commands our attention. Jack McGee plays her husband and is terrific as a man torn between his loyalty towards his wife and his dilemma-ridden son. All of the Eklund sisters are cast beautifully and have the look and feel of Lowell, Massachusetts. It is also a pleasure to watch Amy Adams finally take off the princess tiara and get her hands dirty in a meaty role that she takes complete advantage of. Adams is wonderful and is a force to be reckoned with as she battles wits with her boyfriend’s over-protective mother. She is also pretty damn sexy to watch as well. But the real standout among this talented ensemble is Christian Bale. Now, I am not a fan and I really don’t much care for the guy, but I never let my personal feelings inhibit my critique and what this gifted actor does as Dicky Eklund, the drug-addicted former boxer clinging to a what-might-have-been past, is nothing short of spectacular. Sitting in the theatre, I could not believe what Bale was doing and he had my complete attention. A marvelous performance that is deserving of every accolade I am sure it will get. A stellar job by a top-notch cast.

Honorable Mentions The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and You will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger

BIGGEST WAKE-UP CALL

Awarded To:     Waiting for Superman

As I said in my initial review (which you can view here), if you have a child or want to see how pathetic the education system is in this country (as opposed to others who are ahead of us by leaps and bounds), then you must see this eye-opening documentary by Davis Guggenheim. The statistics here are startling as teachers and school systems across the country continue to fail the generations of tomorrow. Unlike Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth, which I considered to be a somewhat biased documentary with some errors in facts presented, Waiting for Superman is not subjective at all and lets the facts do all the talking. The film explores our joke of a tenure system as well as those educational crusaders who know how to turn the madness around and educate our children properly – but fight tremendous opposition and a futile uphill battle. Like Food, Inc., The Cove and Jesus Camp, this is an alarming wake-up call for anyone who is willing to open their eyes.

MOST IMPRESSIVE BREAKTHROUGH PERFORMANCE

Awarded To:     Noomi Rapace (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo)

This was a toughie as the distinction could just as easily go to Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone), Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit), or Chloe Moretz (Kick-Ass; Let Me In) – all doing astounding work in 2010. I must also add that it is nice to actually embrace and feel good about the success of a child star…I was getting so used to experiencing my knee-jerk reaction of wanting to turn off the TV if my eyes landed on Dakota Fanning.

In the end though, I was left most impressed by the work of Swedish actress, Noomi Rapace for her jaw-dropping performance in the Stieg Larsson trilogy (mostly for its 1st installment, which I still can’t get out of my mind). Rapace turned in one of the most courageous performances by a leading actress that I have seen in years (Tilda Swinton in Julia or Mimi Rogers in The Rapture come to mind). As the troubled and fearless computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, Rapace is flawless and is more than up to the ever-demanding task of everything this poor character has to endure. And it’s not simply what Rapace must portray, but her every move, however subtle, is right on the money. It angers and upsets me that her name is barely being mentioned by critics throughout all of the year-end Awards hoopla. Was the first film released too soon in the year? Is everyone’s memory that poor? Or is it because she is a foreign actress that we are not acknowledging this remarkable talent? Whatever the case, the American version of this trilogy is (sadly) in the works and I don’t even have to see it to feel secure in the fact that no matter how effective Rooney Mara may be, she won’t come close to what Rapace was able to capture here.

MOST DESERVING OF AN OSCAR NOMINATION
(Though Will Likely Be Snubbed)

Awarded To:     Noomi Rapace (see above)

                   

You can also include Michael Nyqvist for the same film, who many overlook and is overshadowed by the “showier” role of Lisbeth. I also fear that Hye-ja Kim’s fascinating performance in Joon-ho Bong’s compelling Mother will go unnoticed, due to either forgetfulness and/or sheer ignorance. Jeff Bridges rightfully won the Oscar for ‘Best Actor’ last year and I hope that doesn’t deter those in power to nominate him once again for his magnificent turn as the drunken U.S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn in the Coen Brothers’ impressive remake of True Grit. It should come as a shock to no one that Bridges is the epitome of awesomeness in this gripping western.

BEST FILM YOU HAVEN’T SEEN

Awarded To:    Cemetery Junction

I was getting used to seeing Ricky Gervais in ridiculously funny comedies, but here, he and co-writer/director Stephen Merchant present us with a more touching and heartfelt dramatic comedy. This is one of the films that I can’t imagine anyone watching and not enjoying it. Set in the 1970’s in a blue-collar English town, the movie revolves around 3 young friends, with one (Christian Cooke as Freddie) dying to get out and onto bigger and better things. The supporting cast is great, which includes a stuffy Ralph Fiennes, Emily Watson, Felicity Jones and Gervais himself in a backseat role as Freddie’s father. I also appreciated the depth given to all of the supporting characters and what they were going through too. Gervais’ scenes are quite amusing, but the film is a moving drama at heart that showcases the scope and talent of Gervais and Merchant. I don’t recall ever seeing this in U.S. movie theaters, but I rented and did a write-up of it (see here) because I was so happily surprised at how good it was. Charming and poignant, the movie tackles such themes as love, family, friendship, and loyalty. A great little film that unfortunately, I don’t think many have seen just yet.

Honorable MentionsMy Dog Tulip and La Barbe Bleue (Bluebeard)

MOST DELIGHTFUL SURPRISE

Awarded To: Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (TIE

                                    

These two films were such pleasant surprises to me and among the year’s best films. Matthew Vaughn’s highly entertaining Kick-Ass took me completely off-guard with its intelligence, humor and unpredictability. Chloe Moretz rocked in this movie as Hit Girl and Aaron Johnson made a charming lead as the awkward teenager who has fantasies about becoming a real life superhero. Nicolas Cage hammed up his supporting role – and I mean that in the best way possible. Judging by the way it ended, a sequel is surely in the works and this time, I won’t wait to rent it. I have high hopes now.

As far as Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, word of mouth led me to finally watch this one. I’m not big on Michael Cera. I mean, he’s funny at what he does, but he only does one thing. Here, he is pretty much the same (albeit a different hoodie), but the film is just done in such a unique, stylish fashion. Adapted from a graphic novel, Scott must defeat his new girlfriend’s 7 evil exes if he has any shot at staying with her. Sounds silly, but I loved it. The screenplay (like Kick-Ass) is clever and the supporting cast is great. If you haven’t seen either of these films and you’re in the mood for a comedy, I would surely recommend both — as they had me laughing out loud.

So that’s it. Ten fun movie superlatives to kick-off the end of 2010. Now to get to those few films I have yet to see – and work on my exalted Top 10 List…and the nominees for the 1st Annual Lantern Awards! I know…you can’t wait, right?

Rent It or Skip It? 5 Movies on DVD!

With so much crap in the theatres lately, I’ve been watching more film rentals at home. Since these films were out earlier in the year, I didn’t bother to write up any extensive reviews here on the site. But I thought I would do a quick run-down of what I have been watching and letting you know whether you should RENT IT! or SKIP IT! Please note that these are not film reviews – just very brief thoughts on some of the movies I’ve been playing on the ‘ol DVD.

Kick-Ass (dir. Matthew Vaughn)

What a pleasant surprise this was! In what has been a very lackluster year for film thus far, this one easily stands out for me as one of the year’s best. Highly entertaining, funny, unpredictable and clever — unlike any superhero film you have ever seen. Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is a nerdy high school student who no one seems to notice. He desperately yearns to do good for society and decides to buy a costume online and become a modern-day super hero. Johnson fits perfectly here and he is extremely likeable. A bright future for him, for sure. Nicolas Cage gives a strong and humorous performance in a supporting role and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (you know — McLovin) is great fun as the Red Mist. Who steals the show here is Chloe Moretz as Cage’s very young daughter. She comes out with some great lines and knows how to dish out her own can of Whoop-ass. What movies should be…great fun!
VERDICT: RENT IT!

Me and Orson Welles (dir. Richard Linklater)

A very sweet coming of age story and overall, a strong film based on the novel by Robert Kaplow. I don’t know anything about Zac Efron and haven’t really seen him in anything, but he is perfectly cast here as Richard Samuels, a high school student who yearns to make something of himself in the Big City as an artist. He impresses a young Orson Welles outside his Mercury Theatre and gets a small part in what would be an extraordinary revival of Julius Caesar by the famed director. Young Richard learns a lot about love, the theatre and the politics involved throughout while dismissing his duties at school and home. Christian McKay is phenomenal as Orson Welles, showing all of his ego, bravado, charm and brilliance with tremendous subtlety. Welles is portrayed as a real shit here, albeit ingenious. Zoe Kazan has a couple of great scenes with Efron and she is simply delightful to watch. Claire Danes is fine, but really…are we supposed to believe that she is the object of every man’s affection at the theatre? There is nothing physically appealing about Ms. Danes and for her to be cast as such is downright laughable. Nonetheless, a charming little film that should have received a bigger and better push from the studios.
VERDICT: RENT IT!

The Killer Inside Me (dir. Michael Winterbottom)

I was expecting big things here and had heard that Casey Affleck’s psychotic killer put Christian Bale’s (in American Psycho) to shame. First of all, that is in no way true. Second, this film, despite some very positive reviews, was a huge disappointment in my book. Winterbottom has yet to wow us, after the sub-par A Mighty Heart and the horrendously dreadful 9 Songs. And can I say this about Casey Affleck? Does this guy have anything in his reserve tank other than hit his one note? In the films I have seen him in, he hits that one note very well, but that is it — he does little else at all and shows absolutely no range. He is boring. Here, he plays a Texas deputy sheriff who is sent to drive a prostitute (Jessica Alba) away from town. Instead of doing so, he begins a torrid affair with her and we slowly see his psychotic inner being come to the forefront. The supporting cast is very effective here, especially Kate Hudson who plays his faithful and loving girlfriend, just waiting to be proposed to. Alba pulls in a gutsy and strong performance. Tom Bower and Elias Koteas are also quite good in this wanna-be film noir that seems to have so much potential, but in the end, misses the boat.
VERDICT: SKIP IT!

The Losers (dir. Sylvain White)

Another fun, entertaining, popcorn flick. I had heard some good things about this movie and was not led astray. The film centers around a CIA Black Ops team that is left for dead. The group begins to plot their revenge on those in power who targeted their assassinations. Their leader is Clay and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (impressive in Watchmen) fits the role very well. He is witty, strong, sexy and commands our attention. His crew is also filled with fine performances and it was nice to see some unknown faces do good work. Not a star vehicle at all, which is usually not such a bad thing. Jason Patric is the biggest name here and he is the villain of the film.  Patric is so cartoonish and over-the-top and given such ridiculous “villain-lines” to say that you know the creative team is not taking itself too seriously here. Zoe Saldana makes for one bad-ass female, assisting the team in seeking out who they need to find, though it is never quite clear whose side she is really on. Her chemistry with Clay is a strong one. If you are looking to sit back, unwind and have some snacks to an action-packed and at times, very funny movie, take your chances on this.
VERDICT: RENT IT!

Cop Out (dir. Kevin Smith)

I don’t know why I keep watching Kevin Smith films, since he has only made one very good one (Dogma). And don’t give me Clerks because I’ll laugh at you. This one is a mess from start to finish and filled with all the cliches that make us roll our eyes repeatedly for about 90 minutes. Bruce Willis plays NYPD vet Jimmy Monroe whose daughter is about to get married. Jimmy refuses to let her arrogant stepfather (Jason Lee) pay for the expensive day so he decides to sell his very rare baseball card. Of course, the card gets stolen – and that’s when all of the zany lunacy begins. Paired up with Willis is Tracy Morgan, who is funny in short spurts – but not at all engaging enough to drive a movie. His back-and-forth with Willis is at times funny, but it wears off pretty quickly. Willis’ deadpan reactions to Morgan are also funny at times, I won’t deny that. But the film gives us nothing new. It is predictable, tedious, unoriginal, and, at times, weary. Some small laughs here and there, but not enough to waste your time on.
VERDICT: SKIP IT!

OTHER MOVIES OUT ON DVD/BLUE-RAY:

The Yellow Handkerchief (**) — SKIP IT!
The Girl on the Train (**) — SKIP IT!
The Joneses (** ½) — Can go either way here, but original & worth a shot
Mother (*** ½) — RENT IT!
Chloe (***) — RENT IT! despite it’s very poor final act

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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