The Ghost Writer - A paranoid conspiracy thriller from Roman Polanski that has good performances and great atmosphere and not a whole lot else. Ewan MacGregor is hired to ghost write the memoirs of former Prime Minister Pierce Brosnan. Brosnan's being charged with war crimes for helping the US government extraordinarily rend Iraq War prisoners to be tortured, but there may be a bigger secret hidden within the memoirs that cost the last ghost writer his life. The plot, and the politics, are by far the least interesting things about the film, which is better experienced as a sequence of moods created through images and music. In fact, I bet I would have liked the whole thing better if it was dubbed into some language I don't speak.
The Good The Bad The Weird - An affectionate homage to the Spaghetti Western and the first film I've seen from director Kim Ji-woon. Set in Manchuria in the 1940s, the titular guys are all after a treasure map while trying to avoid the police, rival gangs of criminals and the Japanese army. The Good is a bounty hunter, The Bad is a badass hired killer and The Weird is a comical thief. The film rollicks from massive action set-piece to massive action set-piece, rarely letting up for anything as boring as character development or plot complication. Fortunately, the action sequences are wonderfully done. Kim's camera moves constantly, but never distractingly, and he maintains the integrity of his spaces better than most Hollywood action directors can manage. It's a tremendously entertaining film, if not as audacious a take on the genre as Wisit Sasanatieng's Tears of the Black Tiger. The #20 film of 2008.
The Art of the Steal - A rich guy named Barnes amassed a massive collection of post-Impressionist and early modern art and hated museums and rich people. He built is own museum/school to house the art, and displayed it in fascinatingly incongruous ways (to create aesthetic context for the art, rather than simply chronologically by artist and movement, like most museums). When he died, he insisted that his art, valued in the billions of dollars, never be sold, or loaned or moved, especially not to the rich swells of Philadelphia society. So, for the next 50 years, the rich swells did everything they could think of to steal the art, and finally succeeded, under the guise of "saving" the art from Barnes's now fiscally-troubled foundation. It's a great and depressing story, more so because something not entirely dissimilar is currently happening to my movie theatre (don't ask). But as a documentary film, it really isn't anything special. The #40 film of 2009.
The Beaches of Agnes - More cinematically interesting is Agnes Varda's autobiographical documentary. Narratively it's pretty straightforward, covering her childhood, education, encounters with the New Wave, relationship with fellow director Jacques Demy and various of her films. Visually, it's something else, suffused with arty mirrors and pretty beaches and recreations of events from her life (sometimes using her films, sometimes not) and brilliant colors and Varda herself walking backwards as she reminisces about her past. Chris Marker even shows up as an animated cat. It's all quite lovely. I kinda want her to be my grandma. The #24 film of 2008.
Sweetgrass - This is the third time I've seen a sheep give birth on film in the last 16 months and I've really had enough. Yes, the miracle of life is gross. Enough! Much like Way of Nature, a Swedish doc I saw at the Vancouver Film Festival last year, this is about a year in the life of a sheep farm. And the first half or so of this one is much the same as that one (which was alright, but not really all that interesting). In the second half of this one, though, a pair of cowboys are left on a Montana mountainside to watch the herd graze for the summer. One is a grizzled veteran, who mumbles to his horse and shoots wildly at shapes in the night that might be wolverines. The other is younger, and may very well be the whiniest cowboy who ever herded sheep. Apparently he's shocked to discover that life on a mountain is hard. The film's high point is him, on a beautiful mountainside (the locations are absolutely stunning), sheep wandering in the distance, complaining to his mom on a cell phone about how hard his job is. I see generations of men rolling over in their graves. The film ends with a short statement that farmers aren't allowed to graze their sheep on these public mountainsides anymore, but we aren't told why. Perhaps this new generation of cowboys is the reason. The #42 film of 2009.