Thursday Ten: The Best Films I've Seen at CIFF

The Chicago International Film Festival begins tonight with the world premiere of Fischer Steven’s Stand Up Guys. Not to knock Chicago-native Steven or the ensemble cast of Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin, but one would have hoped that the festival would at least attempt to strive for relevancy. Other festivals throughout the world, from Cannes to Telluride, Toronto to New York, have strong lineups that include debut features and festival darlings that make for a wholly unique experience. That was certainly the case when I attended the New York Film Festival two years ago – as the Lincoln Center provided such a rich atmosphere for cinematic consumption.

Still, I won’t completely dismiss a festival that has afforded me the opportunity to watch many great films. And that’s what this week’s Thursday Ten is all about – to reflect on the films that I’ve seen at the Chicago International Film Festival since first attending in 2008. So as I’ll be attending films like David Chase’s Not Fade Away, David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, and Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (among others), this list will change. But for the here and now – the following ten films are enough evidence to know that there will always be films to keep me coming.

10.

Turn Me On, Dammit! (CIFF 2011) Directed by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen 

Turn Me On, Dammit! was one of those films that snuck up on me. Part of the pleasures of any festival is to experiment and dabble in the unknown. Knowing next to nothing about this Norwegian film was probably for the best – from the onset, it presents a set of expectations only to subvert them in virtually every way. Turn me On, Dammit! takes normative clichés of films of its type and provides a refreshing feminine perspective. In my original review of the film, I acknowledged the similarities it had with a film like Youth in Revolt – and honestly, there hasn’t been a better film to offer a comparison. The two present their central teenage characters as oversexed and yearning for connection in a middling community. Complimentary as they are, I would give the edge to Turn Me On, Dammit!, largely on how audacious and flagrant it becomes at addressing feminine sexuality. But most of all, Turn Me On, Dammit! is a perfect example of why a film like this succeeds in a festival setting – it offers pleasant surprises. (Full Review Here)

9.

A Dangerous Method (CIFF 2011) Directed by David Cronenberg

I had (and continue to have) reservations on David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. It was a film that I saw at CIFF with great anticipation – while intellectually stimulating, the film never reached out for me as I sat watching from a distance. But as I am removed from the film, and following a screening of Cronenberg’s follow up, Cosmopolis, I can’t help but feel dots begin to connect. While I highlighted the positives of festival viewings with my write-up of Turn Me On, Dammit!, their shortcomings may rear their ugly head with a viewing like A Dangerous Method. There’s a degree of synthesis that certain films demand upon viewing, and if you, like me, tend to use the festival setting as a way of seeing as many movies as possible, these films may slip through the cracks. A Dangerous Method may not have connected with me initially, but it is a film that, a year removed, resonates. (Full Review Here)

8.

Mother (CIFF 2009) Directed by Bong Joon-ho

My experience watching Mother is one that remains surprisingly clear – a sold-out screening for a pensive South Korean film on a Friday night was something I was not expecting during my college days. And after an all-nighter, I had reservations evening attending the picture. But I followed through and exhausted as I may have been, I was entirely engrossed in Bong Joon-ho’s picture. Considerable as a directorial effort, Mother is one of those pictures that I saw pieces of what I was learning in college – community building, social construction, and class conflict comprise much of the narrative. With a compelling central performance by Kim Hye-ja and a terse narrative structure, Mother fulfills the promise that Joon-ho has as being one of the best of an elite class of South Korean directors.

7.

Cold Weather (CIFF 2010) Directed by Aaron Katz

If there’s one thing that really impressed me about Cold Weather is its sense of place and community – here’s a fully- realized world, one where individuals are not defined as characters but as people, and where a sense of atmosphere is felt through the warmness of apartment lights and the chilliness of an ice factory. Aaron Katz uses the environment to maximum effect, methodically piecing together the world before introducing the film’s more story-driven aspects. And what’s great is how he doesn’t compromise the environment or people when introducing the narrative – instead it flows organically as something that just happens. The delight I had after watching Cold Weather is not easily shaken – it’s a film that I have returned to before and one that I can see again and again.

6.

The House of the Devil (CIFF 2009) Directed by Ti West

One of the better recurring events that CIFF has put on is their “After Dark” series. Comprised of future cult classics and horror pictures, it has provided audiences with a more audacious and viscerally engaging set of films. That, or just a good set of gross-out picture with lots of blood and guts and stuff. Ti West’s The House of the Devil is a picture that makes no compromise. It’s a directorial force with its share of kinetic scares. And while West has risen from unknown to only a semi-obscure name in horror, festival screenings of The House of the Devil are really what allowed him to ascend the cult-horror strata. At least I can say that I got to meet Ti West before he hits it big.

5.

The Wrestler (CIFF 2008) Directed by Darren Aronofsky

While Black Swan improved on many of the ideas posited by The Wrestler, the film proved to be a significant turning point for Darren Aronofsky as a director. The grim discourse is still prevalent, but it’s the methodology of his filmmaking that flourishes. It’s odd to think, but watching The Wrestler at CIFF was a significant turning point in my perception of contemporary filmmaking. While cognizant of his filmmaking techniques, to see a director like Aronofsky – someone who deployed his own unique perspective in films like Pi and Requiem for a Dream – utilize the techniques of many of my own favorite directors in The Wrestler was a minor revelation. I was viewing a director who was still shaping his grasp of cinematic language – and to be aware of this shaping was something new to me at the time.

4.

Antichrist (CIFF 2009) Directed by Lars von Trier

One’s appreciation for Antichrist hinges on your ability to view the material on a comedic level. I say comedic in less a “ha-ha” sense and more in an appreciation of the sober ridiculousness on display. Having only experienced the film once with a sold-out audience with Willem Dafoe in attendance, what Antichrist showed me was how incredibly divisive a picture can be. As audience members walked out, I was engrossed by the visceral qualities of Lars von Trier’s film. And as the picture goes absolutely bat-shit crazy in its last half, I couldn’t help but laugh at the audacity of it all. Some may connect with the film’s contemplations on anxiety or its bizarre gender politics – what I got out of Antichrist is the sense of how immediate and powerful a film can be when it aims to purely attack the senses.

3.

Certified Copy (CIFF 2010) Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

There are several films over the past few years that I embraced with the utmost conviction only to forget about them a week removed. Similarly, there have been many films in the past few years that I walked away from with uncertainty. There’s usually been something about that I admired. But ultimately, my immediate response is always hazy. Certified Copy fits the former. It was a film that I admired for aspects that I could not wholly explain. And there were aspects of it, its ambiguity, which prevented me from wholly embracing it. It’s only with time does the picture seem to click. Pictures of this nature, to be so far removed yet to recall with such impeccable fluidity, are of a rare breed. To have this immediacy with Certified Copy is almost par for the course – it certainly seems to be the sort of picture that people discover through fragments of their memory.

2.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (CIFF 2011) Directed by Lynne Ramsay

There are certain films that are so emotionally taxing that they simply linger in the air. And when John C. Reilly, an actor many would regard as a purely comedic talent, notes how unquestionably still the audience becomes after watching such an excruciatingly uncomfortable film like We Need to Talk About Kevin, one has to wonder what a guy like him will need to do to break the ice. Talented an actor and comedian that Reilly is, even he can’t bring the audience out of the emotional comatose induced by a film like We Need to Talk About Kevin – a film that deals with the brutal realities of motherhood and the false promises of familial bonds. Pandora’s Box was opened the night that film screened in Chicago, and the comedic stylings of John C. Reilly wasn’t going to close it. (Full Review Here)

1.

Happy-Go-Lucky (CIFF 2008) Directed by Mike Leigh

Certain films simply exude infectious exuberance. Happy-Go-Lucky is a film that makes any writer’s job difficult in that it’s hard not to employ cliché remarks on the utter joy it evokes. Here’s a film that presents a character of sincerity and good-heartedness and allows the audience to follow her in her exploits. By the picture’s end, you can’t help but have a smile sew across your face. The delightfulness of Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky is in its ability to view the world at large – there’s messiness strewn across the world. It’s in the central character’s ability to confront these issues that makes the film feel larger than it may seem. Mike Leigh, a director known for his bleak and emotionally draining worldview, offers one of the most overwhelmingly harmonious and life-affirming films of the decade. Walking out of a film festival with a worldview that has been transformed for the better is enough justification to keep on coming. 

Thursday Ten - Best Judd Apatow Productions

With The Five-Year Engagement coming to theaters tomorrow, I thought that this would be an opportune chance to look back at some of Judd Apatow’s filmography. I was first introduced to his work via television, with Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared constructing virtually everything I knew about high school and college life. While his television work never really caught on beyond its cult following, the man has had a sizable influence in several of Hollywood’s contemporary comedies. Along with being a successful producer, he has proven to be quite a directorial presence. Apatow’s greatest talents remain in his excellent comedic writing, wherein he excels in his ability to bridge emotional conflict with various forms of comedy, whether it’s straightforward slapstick or something with a dash of wit. The films selected for this Thursday Ten span the gamut of his talents, whether they’re penned, directed, or exclusively produced by Apatow, they all share a common thread; they’re all very, very funny.

10.

Superbad (2007)  

Directed by Greg Mottola and written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, Superbad seemed to have taken a lot of people off guard upon its release. Here’s a film that took the high school arena and presented it under some explicit and raunchy terms.  While the American Pie franchise illustrated this concept, the novelty with Superbad is in how it embraces its overblown masculine bravado with a sense of sincerity. Reportedly written during both Rogen and Goldberg’s formative years, the picture registers as particularly true to how teenagers simply want to be accepted. While Superbad is a bit self-absorbed and obsessed with the male anatomy, it works on the strengths of its comedic material. The Apatow formula of meshing comedic elements with periods of emotional heavy-handedness doesn’t work here quite as well as some of his other films, as the immature, gross-out humor can be overwhelming at times. But it remains a critical work in Apatow’s canon, if not for introducing actors like Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, and Emma Stone to a wider audience.

9.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)

Co-written by Judd Apatow, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story essentially mocks every music biopic convention. Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) is a character comprised of virtually every stereotype associated with musicians and their downfalls. But what elevates the basic premise of a parody on music biopics is Apatow’s comedic sensibilities and Reilly’s conviction to the character. For one, the use of Reilly to play both his teenage and elderly self with little more than minor dialogue indicators to differentiate between them is just good comedy. While this may be the sort of role that befits Will Farrell, I found Reilly’s performance to be surprisingly stirring – through the comedic facade are glimpses of sincerity that only Reilly could’ve accomplished.

8.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

Like with a majority of Apatow’s productions, the farfetched comedic nature of Forgetting Sarah Marshall is given universal appeal through its ability to relate with the common man. With this film, Jason Segel stars (and writes) in a narrative about coping with a breakup. Segal, who is a staple of many of Apatow’s films, dating back to Freaks and Geeks, gives a grounded performance so as to allow the supporting cast, which includes Russell Brand, Jonah Hill, and Paul Rudd, to run amok with some of the film’s more audacious material. Forgetting Sarah Marshall subscribes to Apatow’s template almost to a fault, but through Segel’s sharp writing he’s able to take fairly pedestrian material and enliven it with sharp comedic appeal.

7.

Funny People (2009)

Judd Apatow’s third directorial feature is not his best work, but it is an interesting film that attempts to subvert some of the expectations that come out of utilizing the comedic template that he popularized. For one, the casting of Adam Sandler in the title role is of particular interest given the sort of comedian Sandler has evolved (or devolved) into. The narrative also unfolds in an atypical fashion, as it’s halved by two divergent narrative threads. Some of the problems associated with Apatow’s films (feminine subversion, poorly constructed final act, bromance relationships) persist.  But this film diverts from expectations in how Apatow has essentially taken Adam Sandler, the man, and deconstructed his career into a cohesive and entertaining narrative. While Paul Thomas Anderson had a markedly more successful film doing essentially the same thing in 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, Funny People registers as particularly insightful given the expectations that people had of Apatow.

6.

Knocked Up (2007)

An ideal contemporary romantic-comedy, whereupon the balancing act between masculine and feminine perspectives are at their best, Knocked Up strikes me as Apatow’s finest example of sharp writing. It’s the one film that he has written that I feel doesn’t necessarily need to be cut down. Its masculine perspective is thankfully diluted by a more vocal and persistent female perspective. And its ensemble cast, which includes a triad of stoners hoping to catch Spider Man and a sharp married pair in Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, is perhaps the finest cast ensemble in any of Apatow’s productions. The direction isn’t much to flaunt, but Knocked Up works in its ability to be consistently funny without jeopardizing its universal perspective.

5.

Bridesmaids (2011)

The most recent film on the list remains Apatow’s wholly feminine picture. While its release and marketing treated the picture as little more than The Hangover for girls, Bridesmaids exploits the preconceived notion to great effect. The gender dynamic shift gives the Apatow formula a great deal of freshness, as the arena for crassness is now occupied by women. And for that, it works wonderfully. Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Rose Byrne give effectively diverse performances while tinkering with the archetypes developed by films like The Hangover and Apatow productions like Knocked Up or Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Given the masculine perspective of almost every film on this list, it was a welcome reprieve to have a film from a wholly feminine comedic perspective.

4.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

From a film with an eclectic female cast to one dominated by white men who fear the presence of authoritative women, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy isn’t a particularly good film, per se. But within the silliness of its plot and writing is an actor who is a capable of illustrating an unwavering conviction to the material. Will Farrell’s performance in Anchorman isn’t typically cited as a breakthrough performance – few comedic performances garner such praise. But it’s an impressive performance given the utter absurdity of the situations the actor places himself in. Uttering lines like “I'm in a glass case of emotion” while trapped in a phone booth or “Discovered by the Germans in 1904, they named it San Diego, which of course in German means a whale's vagina”, Will Farrell validates his character by making it seem like he really believes it too. Sometimes absurdity can work when the material is funneled through someone who actually has faith in the comic material.

3.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)

A crucial film within the Apatow canon, The 40-Year-Old Virgin essentially codified and developed the foundation for contemporary American comedies. It brought Apatow to the forefront as a director and writer, while cementing Steve Carrell, who has largely been known as a television personality prior to this film’s release, as a significant Hollywood movie star. It also propelled the careers of secondary actors such as Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd into leading roles. The script’s lewdness is complemented by an essentially wholesome perspective on marriage and yearning love that brings the whole picture together. The comic notes were particularly novel at the time, as Apatow’s formula elicited both humor and sympathy for a good-hearted nerd who fumbled on every potential sexual conquest.

2. 

The Cable Guy (1996)

The critical dismissal of The Cable Guy is really an issue of time and place. Had the film been released now, wherein bromance comedies have reached a saturation point, I suspect that the picture may take on greater value as a critique on the sort of industry that Apatow had helped create. Central to The Cable Guy’s worldview is an analysis on isolation and yearning for camaraderie amongst men. This acceptance among men is a thematic element in most of Apatow’s features that carries homoerotic undertones – but here, these undertones have far more dangerous implications. Key to the film’s success is a lead performance by Jim Carrey. Following Dumb and Dumber and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls with a film like this, Carrey’s buffoonery is exchanged for something far darker and human. The picture has an incredible ability to ramp tension by utilizing Carrey’s elastic features, as he can range from sincere to insane with a glance. The Cable Guy is by far the most different of Apatow’s features and a clear departure to the formula he’s utilized for the past decade, but the complexities involved here are really impressive.

1.

Pineapple Express (2008)

Pineapple Express is really the epitome of Apatow’s formula, wherein the writing, performances, and direction registers as the most effective. Whereas The Cable Guy complicates bromance films, Pineapple Express embraces the homoerotic undertones with bravado. It’s an interesting conceit that pays off because the individuals handling the material treat it with admiration.  David Gordon Green, who up to this point had directed excellent features like George Washington, All the Real Girls, and Undertow, applied his sensibilities to a genre that requires a bit of depth. Green’s emphasis on the mundane aspects of life work exceedingly well with the stoner script, wherein the two organically coalesce into something funny, poignant, and visually refined.

As much fun as I have with Apatow’s features, there’s a lack of true emotional depth to the pictures that hinder my ability to embrace them on all levels. With The Cable Guy and Pineapple Express, there are efforts to expand and question the superficial qualities of a solid formula.

Tanner Hall (Francesca Gregorini and Tatiana von Furstenberg, 2009)

After premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009, Tanner Hall collected dust, awaiting eventual straight-to-DVD release. Upon the news that Rooney Mara would be starring in David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the film’s distributor’s opted to have a very limited release in theaters before releasing the picture on DVD/Blu-ray a few weeks ago. And well, it’s a shame. Tanner Hall may be lacking, but it’s a picture that sails on a breezy tone. Composed of four narrative arches, each of varying degrees of importance, Tanner Hall has an earnest tone to its sentimentality that makes it work.

Taking place in a New England boarding school, Fernanda (Rooney Mara), Victoria (Georgia King), Kate (Brie Larson), and Lucasta (Amy Ferguson) contend with the social anxieties of adolescence. Directors Francesca Gregorini and Tatiana von Furstenberg take their jabs on the problems of upper class teenage life, undoubtedly drawing upon their own wealthy upbringing. But as the film addresses particular intricacies in each girl, Gregorini and von Furstenberg distill any commentary on issues of youthful entitlement, instead opting to address more universal concepts that cross socioeconomic lines. It works about half the time, as Rooney Mara and Amy Ferguson benefit from having a significantly more fleshed out narrative arch. Mara’s arch places her in a relationship that is well outside her comfort, whereas Ferguson’s closeted character is genuinely convincing and heartfelt.

Despite dwelling on material that can sometimes seem generic, Tanner Hall benefits from Gregorini and von Furstenberg’s keen visual eye. Given that the picture is largely contained in its claustrophobic boarding school setting, the two directors enhance every frame with rich visual appeal. From Brain Hubbard’s well-lit cinematography to the impressive contemporary costume design, Tanner Hall is a surprisingly well-constructed piece of work.

Gregorini and von Furstenberg fumble with some of the picture’s writing aspects, especially as they take customary dips into the comedic well. And obviously, while two of the lead characters are well-developed, the other two seem to fit a perfunctory role that does little to enhance the whole of the picture. Still, while drawing upon films like Drew Barrymore’s Whip It and Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, Tanner Hall operates as a fairly effective as an examination of female adolescence. The picture can be broad, and doesn’t quite achieve all its sets out to do, but it’s still a fairly observant and engaging film that left me pleasantly surprised.

Rating: 6/10

Thursday Ten: Best Animated Films of the Past Five Years

Apologies for this late installment of the Thursday Ten. Busy, busy, busy…

I have quite the soft spot for animated films. Like most of my generation, I grew up with Disney’s yearly efforts. The serene carpet rides of Aladdin were one of my earliest theater going memories. Beauty and the Beast would get weekly, almost daily, viewings in its VHS form. Their rich hand-drawn appeal and musical numbers are etched into my memory. I would gather with my family and appreciate the simple story-telling. These early film experiences exposed me to how viscerally engaging a film can be. I doubt I was the only one who shed a tear when Simba lifted his dead father’s paw in The Lion King or feel goosebumps when the Beast battled with Gaston atop his castle in Beauty and the Beast.

Eventually the American animated crown would be bestowed upon Pixar. Their 1995 feature debut, Toy Story, would be one of the most revolutionary films of the modern era and usher a change in the way animated films would be made. They eventually reached a renaissance period in the late aughts, with films like Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 engaging both younger and older audiences. Unfortunately, their latest effort in Cars 2 showed the first signs of fatigue from the studio.

DreamWorks is a studio that has played second fiddle to Pixar’s brand name. After some commercial successes and the creation of the profitable Shrek franchise, the studio seems to be more concentrated in garnering critical favor than ever before. They haven’t quite achieved a masterpiece work as of yet, though 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon was their best effort to date. Meanwhile, Japan’s Studio Ghibili releases their animated films on a quasi- biannual basis. Typically involving Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghbili is perhaps the most consistent animation studio going at the moment. Unfortunately, the case tends to be that their films simply don’t get the wide-spread American release that they deserve.

Given the rather dismal state of animation for 2011, I thought it appropriate to look at the past five years for a brighter time. Maybe I’m being presumptuous, but this week’s animated offering of Happy Feet 2 is unlikely going to be the film that reignites my affinity for animation.

10.  Wallace and Gromit in: A Matter of Loaf and Death (Nick Park, 2008)

Wallace and Gromit run a bakery and get involved in a murder mystery. It’s a simple premise with absolutely enchanting results. What Nick Park achieves in all of his animated endeavors, whether it is in the Wallace and Gromit franchise or in Chicken Run, is a rich sense of developing characters. Through simple actions, whether it is Gromit furrowing his brow or Wallace singing along to a commercial jingle, you get a deep-rooted sense of personality and spirit. The fact that Park can achieve this within a 30-minute period is almost as impressive as the absolutely painstaking patience it must take to achieve his stunning stop-motion animation.

9.  Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley, 2008)

One of the truly unsung filmmakers of recent years has to be Nina Paley. Her debut 82-minute feature was largely made on her own, as she edited, produced, and animated the whole endeavor. She acutely takes a story from the Ramayana, focusing on the lovelorn relationship between Sita and Rama, and uses the epic to frame her own failed relationship. It’s a collage of visual design, as various stages of the narrative are drawn and animated differently. Sita Sings the Blues operates as both a rich feminist critique on marriage and relationships as well as an impressive exhibition of how various animation methods can be bridged together in an effective manner.

8.  Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki, 2008)

Accusations that Ponyo is minor Miyazaki have struck me as a bit odd. But then again, I’ve gravitated toward Miyazaki’s more quiet and restrained efforts. The childish exuberance that Ponyo dives into is of innocence and patient control. What Miyazaki achieves with Ponyo is an everlasting sense of wonder and spectacle, as his vibrant animated sequences are grounded in a close relationship between a child and princess. Akin to Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Ponyo retells that story with children, effectively examining the threshold between childhood and adolescence. Mostly calm in tone, the film ruminates over the magic of childhood, with the astute awareness that it doesn’t last forever.

 7.  Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009)

Wes Anderson’s first foray into animation proved how incredibly versatile that director can be. In a new realm of filmmaking, the director managed to maintain his stylistic integrity and inclinations. One could have easily been able to tell that they were watching a Wes Anderson film simply based on the droll dialogue, visually sharp set pieces, and incredible art direction. It’s the only kind of film that Anderson makes, and it’s the sort of film that feels so fresh within an animated context. Featuring George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Billy Murray, and Jason Schwartzman, Fantastic Mr. Fox examines youthful indiscretion with a wink – it’s simply the sort of film that really has a good time with itself, and as a result, you do too.

6.  Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, 2007)

I saw Persepolis at a very crucial point in my life, wherein I was deliberating my own goals while delving into the richness that cinema could provide. What Persepolis accomplishes better than virtually any modern animated film I’ve seen is develop a female character on both a universal and abstract terms. Initially taking place in Tehran during the late 70s, Persepolis is about a young girl named Marjane. The film follows her ascent into adolescence and adulthood, wherein she encounters war, death, heartache, and love. While its setting can be difficult to comprehend for those not living in the period, Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, paints the world in broad strokes that effectively makes it universal. Very much a coming-of-age story, Persepolis’ uniquely feminist perspective is a rarity in live-action films – it’s virtually nonexistent in the realm of animation.

5.  WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

I tend to gravitate toward films that revolve around the dichotomy of love and loneliness (yikes, what does that say about me!). WALL-E explores that dichotomy so sharply, while juggling concepts of environmentalism and the nostalgic value of media, that it’s a wonder that the film works at all. And while the Pixar crew fumbles a bit in its middle section, there is a persistent sense honesty to the proceedings. With a dash of Charlie Chaplin and 2001: A Space Odyssey, WALL-E marries its cosmic setting with something entirely human – incredible given that it’s lead character is a mute robot. Along with such an incredibly rich visual palette to work with, WALL-E marked a significant turning point in how mainstream animated films have bridged a gap between what is exclusive for children and what has adult appeal.

4.  Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, 2009)

For a film that explores a world of suicides, mental disorders, and bullying, Mary and Max might be the most optimistic film on this list. It’s a film that follows the correspondence between a young girl named Mary living in the suburbs of Melbourne and a middle-aged New Yorker with Asperger's Syndrome named Max. Mary and Max is one of the most remarkable examinations of friendship that I’ve ever seen. Max sends a letter out of sheer loneliness, and Mary responds for the same reason. Their correspondence spans twenty years, where Mary grows into womanhood while Max’s health wanes. The two know each other based entirely on their correspondence, where they find a true human connection. The world that director Adam Elliot paints makes use of black, white, and multiple shades of gray, but within this gloom, the innocence and fragility of Mary and Max’s friendship shines bright.

3.  The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet, 2010)

As we live in Pixar’s age of computer animation, there’s a novelty to watching something as beautifully illustrated as Sylvain Chomet’s sophomore effort, The Illusionist. It’s a film comprised of visual sights, wherein characters don’t utter words so much as merely speak in garbled terms. Based on an unproduced script from Jacques Tati, The Illusionist addresses a time where, as children, we embrace a certain level of mysticism in the world. Concepts of a Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, etc. were embraced at one time or another in people’s lives. But what Chomet beautifully encapsulates in The Illusionist is that there is a line we cross when we realize the reality of the situation, and in so, we’re stripped of a little bit of wonder.

2.  Up (Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, 2009)

The opening sequence to Up has the distinction of being one of those moments where just about everyone begins to shed tears. It’s a sequence that details a loving relationship between husband and wife. Simply thinking about it now has me trying to fight back the tears. It’s majestic and a true wonder in contemporary animation. With Michael Giacchino’s wonderfully delicate score underlining the beauty of the sequence, I recall successfully restraining myself from weeping buckets.

That is until a certain other scene toward the beginning of the final act, that doesn’t get quite the attention that the opening sequence gets. As our lead character Carl (Ed Asner) opens a scrapbook that belonged to his deceased wife, screenwriters and directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson effectively level their audience with a genuine display of love and emotion. Up doesn’t just tell a story about love and friendship, it comes close to viscerally engaging you with the concepts.

1.  Everything Will Be Ok (Don Hertzfeldt, 2006)

There are routines we all experience. We don’t talk much about them, but they exist and we deal with them in our ways.  In Everything Will Be Ok, our lead character contends with those routines, observing with an astute eye the trivial social situations that we get ourselves involved into. The film is clever in its observations, but director Don Hertzfeldt extends the meaning behind these situations by commanding a sense of realism to the affair. There’s something so inherently palpable about the way the stick-figure character named Bill moves through his daily routine.

Upon Bill’s mental breakdown, you get a greater sense of those around Bill. His family comes to his aid, though their intervention is a mixed blessing. In the film’s most touching moment, we see Bill come to grips with his disorder as he questions the help he’s receiving from the one person who seems to care from Bill. It’s a painstakingly true moment, which is all the more impressive given the limitations of the simple animation – the stick figures in Everything Will Be Ok are more expressive than most contemporary mainstream actors.

There’s a subtle sadness to the film’s title that comes full circle upon the film’s conclusion. Perhaps we all venture back into the world of the mundane. But amidst the sadness, Bill returns to his life, knowing more about himself, and in that, there’s a glimmering sense of hopefulness.

Cinema Chatter – Guesswork

Part of what enamors me about the whole concept of Oscar prognostication is the mystery of it all. It’s trying to separate between your own taste and those of a larger voting body. It’s attempting to understand the perspective of studios in terms of pushing one actor over another. There’s nothing artistic about the process; if anything, it strips the artistry of filmmaking to a science. The science can become repetitive and mind-numbing; at my recent prescreening of Young Adult, director Jason Reitman expressed fatigue when dealing with the press and pundits. After the disappointing performance of Up in the Air following a long festival campaign to push the film, it’s no wonder he has opted to pursue smaller individual venues to get the word out. It works for me; Young Adult is one of the year’s best films, and the whole experience of having him, writer Diablo Cody, and actor Patton Oswalt to do Q&A was terrific.

Just a year after Reitman’s Up in the Air fiasco, director David Fincher went all out on a press campaign for The Social Network. The film was critically lauded and looked to have had its Best Picture and Best Director wins sealed; that is until the Producers Guild of America awarded The King’s Speech instead. Things went south fast for The Social Network, so it’s no wonder Fincher has opted against any sort of awards campaign on his part for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

But as you can see on the updated sidebar, I’m thinking the film is going to play big. Like the Coens’ True Grit, I’m getting a sense that it’ll be the sort of late player that doesn’t have a wider buzz circulating around it until after its release. And perhaps this is a bold statement, but I’m thinking the film will be a larger commercial player than any of Spielberg’s films in the December timeframe.

Part of what makes this whole prognosticating thing a snap is that I’m working with historical data. When you have someone like Meryl Streep, who’s been nominated 16 times since 1979, it’s going to be likely that she’ll be nominated again given the weight of her role in The Iron Lady. Sight unseen, you’re taking a logical bet. Similarly, Steven Spielberg’s one-two punch with War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin lead me to believe that he’ll secure a nomination (for the former, though it’s not out of the question for the latter) for either Best Picture and/or Best Director. Numbers are on your side.

There are plenty of curveballs to throw you off though; there are typically one or two first-time nominees who enter the field. From there, you’re basing your information on others expectations, adding up praise and subtracting dismissals. One can attempt to create a formula to the whole affair, but then, there are those odd-ball nominations that simply come out of nowhere and can’t be justified (Tommy Lee Jones for In The Valley of Elah for one).

But as we wait for the upcoming New York Film Critics Circle to outline what will certainly alleviate confusion as to who are “contenders” (which will be followed by the National Board of Review’s top films), it’s all guesswork. And well, it’s the best time for this sort of thing; it’s probably the closest any Oscar pundit gets to actually implementing their own cinematic taste into the proceedings.

So for now, here’s my first stab at predicting the 2012 Academy Awards. It’ll be lots of fun to see how off I am come February 26.

Best Picture: The Artist

Best Director: Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

Best Actor: George Clooney, The Descendants

Best Actress: Viola Davis, The Help

Best Supporting Actor: Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life

Best Supporting Actress: Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus

Best Writing (Adapted): The Descendants (Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne, Jim Rash)

Best Writing (Original): The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)

Best Art Direction: Hugo

Best Cinematography: The Tree of Life

Best Costume Design: The Artist

Best Film Editing: The Artist

Best Makeup: The Iron Lady

Best Music (Original Score): War Horse

Best Music (Original Song): The Muppets 

Best Sound Editing: War Horse

Best Sound Mixing: The Adventures of Tintin

Best Visual Effects: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Best Animated Feature: The Adventures of Tintin

Best Documentary Feature: Tabloid

Best Foreign Language Film: A Separation 

 

Mystery Team (Dan Eckman, 2009)

Mystery Team is an interesting feature in that it forces the audience to accustom itself to the type of humor the film employs. It’s quite peculiar to be jolted into the world that Mystery Team inhabits, particularly because from the opening sequence, one does not completely understand the dynamics of its characters. But what a slew of writers do in constructing the film is essentially create a picture of varying view points, wherein the audience eventually begins to embrace the rather absurd premise.

Mystery Team focuses on the exploits of three high school teenagers. The trio is socially alienated for their dated and childish perspective on the world – they behave in the same manner that they did as when they were children, solving mysteries at a dime rate. After a few silly mysteries in the book, they’re eventually approached with the prospect of solving a legitimate mystery – a murder.

The film’s comic sensibility is sharp enough to avoid the pitfalls of typical sketch-based comedies – for its premise, Mystery Team is remarkably tight. We move from scene to scene with a rich sense of comic intellect matched with a keen grasp of social insight. Another key element to the film’s success stems from its stellar casting – composed of the sort of individuals that populate NBC’s Thursday block of comedy, Mystery Team is enabled by an incredibly youthful and fresh amount of faces. Donald Glover has an infectious charm as the film’s central socially-stunted character, while his supporting crew of Scooby-Doo detectives fit the bill perfectly. Aubrey Plaza as the central love interest isn’t that much of a departure from her Parks and Recreation role, but that isn’t entirely a bad thing. As a whole, the likability of all the actors goes a long way in selling me on the premise of the film.

What causes the film to falter is its inconsistent sense of pacing and rather languid direction. Dan Eckman is unremarkable in the director’s chair, often framing shots in an all too consistent and all too dull manner. It results in some prolonged monologues that serve to hinder the film’s growing momentum. And such amateurish direction simply serves to undercut the film’s sharper elements. It’s not enough to disparage the film entirely, but one has to wonder what the result would have been had it been left in more capable hands. Mystery Team ends on the possibility of a sequel – here’s hoping there is one.

Rating: 6/10

My Dog Tulip (Paul & Sandra Fierlinger, 2009)

As a man who has never had a dog before, I suppose I was most taken aback by how relatable My Dog Tulip turned out to be. Based on J.R. Ackerley’s memoir, My Dog Tulip follows Ackerley as he relishes in the bonds of friendship. This friendship, this love, is with his dog Tulip. In a world where Ackerley had not been able to make a human connection, he found refuge in his companion.

There’s a solemn simplicity to the way Paul and Sandra Fierlinger broach this notion of canine companionship. It’s largely due to the rather crude animation style that Sandra Fierlinger employs – characters, settings, etc. are not the most elegant, but it serves to match the material well in that it is rough around the edges. So much of what My Dog Tulip dwells upon is a sense of quiet sorrow and amusing observations, all which are highlighted by this particular animated style.

Ackerely’s words provide the whole film with a true sense of grace; the verbal dexterity of his words is the film’s most compelling element and serves to punctuate the emotionally one-sided aspect of the relationship. Ackerley opens himself up through his words, to the point that one can easily relate to his sense of loneliness, along with his sense of glee when interacting and pleasing his best friend, Tulip. The film could have just as easily been called My Best Friend, Tulip, with the film never losing sight of its purpose.

My Dog Tulip can at times become difficult to watch. Ackerley’s honesty portrays him as somewhat egotistical. The film’s ending, in which he notes that Tulip was indeed his best friend because of her undying devotion to him, leaves little room for judgment. Tulip may or may not have judged Ackerley – it is what he perceives as her actions to him that makes that assumption. Can a pet pass judgment? If not, is that truly their most valuable quality in the end? Perhaps that’s the point of having a pet?  Regardless, it all rings as rather selfish to me. In that, I suppose there’s a barrier to what a pet owner perceives as self-centered. There’s a sense of companionship to be had with any pet, but the philosophy in which Ackerley subscribed to makes the whole relationship one of demand on one end, without much thought as to what the other wants. It’s rather unfulfilling if you ask me. And with that, even with the film’s visually eccentric style and impressive writing, I too was left a little unfulfilled too.  There’s a vacant emotional component to the film that can’t be felt – it’s all in Tulip.

Rating: 6/10

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (Werner Herzog, 2009)

The apocalypse happened yesterday – in Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon) is living in its aftermath. Mr. Herzog’s obsession with the genius of madness has played an integral part in many of his films, with even his documentaries brining in a wide array of over-the-top, lunatic individuals (the man discovering cave openings with his nose in Cave of Forgotten Dreams). And with My Son, Mr. Herzog inverts typical notions of police standoff procedurals into something far more radical – you know that’s the case when Detective Hank Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) matter- of- factly notes the madness of the situation and Brad here: He's claiming his name is Farouk, he shouts about God, and he tosses oatmeal at us. It's all a little confusing."

The narrative (an inadequate word to describe My Son’s goings-on) is framed as a true-to-life event.  Brad McCullum hides in his home as he is surrounded by the authorities- led by Detective Havenhurst and Detective Vargas (Michael Pena). The crime? McCullum is accused of killing his mother. These details would arouse a certain reaction depending on who we associate with the whole project – someone like Ron Howard sitting in the director’s chair would make me avoid the film at all costs. But two names are involved here that I presume piques everyone’s interest in My Son– director Werner Herzog and producer David Lynch. Expectations are put into place, wherein conventional cinematic expectations are inverted, mutated, and skewed; something we haven’t seen is going to happen.

And that’s precisely what happens. The motive behind McCullum’s actions are based on his theatrical career, and in a way, inspired by Sophocles. Details and events are tossed every which way in hopes of making sense of it all. McCullum  murdered his mother with a sword. An ostrich steals someone’s glasses. McCullum goes to Peru and whatever brewing sense of madness that is inside him is uncorked. Tales of McCullum’s past are recounted by his girlfriend, Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny) and his theater director, Lee (Udo Kier). What they amount to gives Detective Havenhurst very little to work with – the sense that it’s all a little confusing echoes throughout My Son.

The ambiguity and sense of utter disorientation works just as much in favor of the film as it does against it. There seems to be an honest effort to try and tell some sort of story here, but the weirdness involved almost exceeds my liking. And unlike some Mr. Herzog’s other efforts, there’s not enough from Shannon to anchor the whole film steady. Nicholas Cage in The Bad Lieutenant, Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Bruno S. in Strozek all brought the most intense levels of craziness to their roles– you sense that’s brewing inside Shannon, but it never quite gets there. It’s simply a case of not enough razzle dazzle in its lead performance to push this thing all the way.

Rating: 6/10

Confessions of a Shopaholic (P.J. Hogan, 2009)

Isla Fisher, consumer. Released in 2009, months removed from the 2008 financial collapse, Confessions of a Shopaholic’s existence is an anomaly. Excessive credit spending is the predominant reason as to why we – the public – are in the fiscal crisis that we are still in now. Yet P.J. Hogan’s film, adapted from Sophie Kinsella’s novel, not only glamorizes excessive spending, but justifies it as a form of liberation. Even as the film reaches its hackneyed conclusion, the cycle of consumption continues – more people buy, more people spend.

The film’s central protagonist (at least within the confines of the narrative), is Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher) – a naïve college graduate who finds herself in debt due to her shopping habits. She’s not particularly bright, but she manages to have a somewhat steady income from writing for a gardening magazine. When Ms. Bloomwood is not thinking about what scarf goes with whatever shoe, she daydreams of working at a fashion magazine headed by Alette Naylor (Kristin Scott Thomas). Her daydreams get the better of her, as she becomes wholly unaware of the fact that her gardening magazine is releasing its staff – therein presenting the only hint that a fiscal crisis is going on in Ms.Bloomwood’s world. With no job and mounting credit card debt, one would have to wonder what Ms. Bloomwood will do to pull herself out of the abyss. The answer is: nothing! It’s not until the proverbial knight in shining armor swoops in to save Ms. Bloomwood from her bad decisions.

The gender politics of Confessions of a Shopaholic is so unabashedly antiquated that, if not for the fashion on display, one could confuse the era entirely. Bloomwood’s existence is dependent on obtaining the material, and later, obtaining the man. “Obtaining” is the emblematic word here, as it denotes a sense that what is being obtained is merely an object – clothes are objects, men are objects. So in a sense, the concept of liberation is fulfilled for Ms. Bloomwood on a surface level. But looking closely (mind you, not too closely), it’s the clothes that identify Ms. Bloomwood. They serve as personality markers – she is essentially as material as the clothes she buys, because without them, she’s no one. That’s the idea that Confessions of a Shopaholic perpetuates upon the introduction of Luke Brandon (Hugh Dancy) – Brandon has an identity through his work and family. He awakens something within Ms. Bloomwood that eventually forces her to abandon her shopping habits. Ms. Bloomwood latches onto Brandon as she did to her clothes – he will suffice as the new marker of her identity. The male hegemony continues unabated.  The film concludes not with self-revelation, but coerced submission. Ms. Bloomwood (reluctantly) sells her material possessions to prove something not to herself, but to Mr. Brandon. Confessions of a Shopaholic instills the primitive notion that women can feel free to spend, spend, spend – their knight will surely save them. In a world like today’s, the mere suggestion of that idea is revolting.

Rating: 1/10