Saturday, March 06, 2010

Movie Roundup: Oscar Eve Edition

The September Issue - RJ Cutler's documentary is billed as being the Anna Wintour movie, but in fact is more about what its title claims it to be: the making of the September issue of Vogue magazine. There is, of course, quite a bit about the impenetrable Ms. Wintour, but because of her famous iciness (and perhaps out of a desire to show in her a better light than her relatively monstrous reputation) the heart of the film ends up elsewhere, in the form of Vogue's Creative Director Grace Coddington. Coddington, a former model with a wild head of orange hair, struggles to get her images, some of them quite stunning, into the magazine while meeting Wintour's often gnomic demands. The sense we get is of a real artist struggling to share her vision with a mass market audience (most of whom probably aren't the least bit interested in her artistry). That Wintour has been able to successfully balance both the creative and business drives of her enterprise is a testament to her managerial abilities. And her remoteness, we might conclude (though this case isn't really made by the film) is both the cause and consequence of her success. Cutler tells a fascinating story that isn't particularly inventive but is none the less entertaining and, as one would expect in a documentary about fashion, full of interesting characters and beautiful images.

Intolerance: Love's Struggle Through the Ages - I finally sat down to watch one of the most celebrated films of all-time, DW Griffith's four-part epic about love that was reportedly his response to the criticisms of his earlier pro-KKK blockbuster Birth of a Nation. I've never learned whether this film was meant to be an atonement for that one's sins (the Intolerance being the source material that he later realized was in fact evil) or the critics and protesters who tried (and in some places succeeded) in getting the film banned (the Intolerance being those who would dare to limit Griffith's free speech rights). Watching the film doesn't really answer that question, as it treats both Love and Intolerance more as organizing principles than as themes to be examined. The film is, as reputed, a marvel of technique, if it doesn't invent it certainly consolidates and epitomizes the state of the art in filmmaking as of 1916: it's a virtual instruction manual in the art of parallel editing, as well as the use of close-ups and crane shots (all of which were fairly novel at the time). More amazing to me, though, was how perfectly structured the film is. After several explanatory titles explaining the nature of the film (intercutting four different stories in four different times), Griffith gradually brings less and less attention to the transitions. The individual stories themselves don't say much about the theme delineated in the title: some have very little to do with Intolerance, some very little to do with Love. It's only when they are told as a whole does Griffith's conception make a kind of sense. It's not an intellectual argument so much as an emotional one, where the Modern Day Love story gives emotional resonance to the Intolerant brutality of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, and the detail of the sectarian strife in Ancient Babylon is given added resonance by the Passion in the Jerusalem story. That the whole ends up being greater than the sum of any one of its parts is the ultimate argument in favor of Griffith's parallel editing style: no wonder it won. It deserves its reputation as one of the great works of cinema, and should replace the detestable Birth of a Nation in curricula everywhere. Also fun, look for people in small parts who later became famous: directors Frank Borzage, Tod Browning, WS Van Dyke, actor Donald Crisp and the virtually unrecognizable character actor Eugene Pallette. The #1 film of 1916.

Ong Bak 2: The Beginning - Tony Jaa's prequel to his breakthrough low-budget action film about a country kid who goes to the big city to retrieve his village's stolen artifacts. That film, and Jaa's follow-up The Protector, had a lot of goofy, B-Movie charm ("You killed my father. . . and STOLE MY ELEPHANT!") whereas this latest film is a big budget, CGI filled spectacle that's one of the most brutal and emotionally bleak martial arts films I've ever seen. Jaa plays the sole survivor of a noble family that's been wiped out by bad guys. He's rescued and trained in many combat skills by a band of outlaws, of whom he becomes the eventual leader. He then embarks on a quest for bloody revenge. Jaa hasn't improved much as an actor (his near refusal to speak in any of his films was comical in the first two, here it makes him kind of boring), but his stunt work is again extraordinary. The film doesn't have anything as formally exciting as the repeated shots in the first Ong Bak or the already legendary tracking shot in The Protector, but the last half hour or so of the film, an extended action sequence (which starts, surprisingly enough, with a tremendous dance sequence by costar Primorata Dejudom) is as intense and breathtaking as anything he's done before. This is only the first part of the prequel story, here's hoping Jaa lets a little light into the next chapter. The #39 film of 2008.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Movies of the Year Award Nominations: 2009

It's Oscartime again, and that means it's time to hand out the annual End of Cinema awards (the Endys) for all the films and performances that will doubtless be overlooked this weekend. Only films with an imdb date of 2009 are eligible (which makes it hard, because many of the best 2009 films haven't even been released in this country yet, but these are the rules. Someday, I'll get around to revising previous years' award winners with all the movies I've seen since handing them out.) These are the nominees; the winners, and the Movies of the Year list for 2009, will follow on Oscar morning.

Best Picture:

1. Fantastic Mr. Fox
2. Inglourious Basterds
3. The Limits of Control
4. Oxhide II
5. A Serious Man

Best Director:

1. Wes Anderson, Fantastic Mr. Fox
2. Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
3. Jim Jarmusch, The Limits of Control
4. Liu Jiayin, Oxhide II
5. Joel & Ethan Coen, A Serious Man


1. Nicholas Cage, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
2. Ben Whishaw, Bright Star
3. Isaach De Bankolé, The Limits of Control
4. Sam Rockwell, Moon
5. Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man


1. Abbie Cornish, Bright Star
2. Alison Lohman, Drag Me to Hell
3. Carey Mulligan, An Education
4. Déborah François, Unmade Beds
5. Emily Blunt, The Young Victoria

Supporting Actor:

1. Alfred Molina, An Education
2. Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
3. Michael Fassbender, Inglourious Basterds
4. Brad Pitt, Inglourious Basterds
5. Peter Capaldi, In the Loop

Supporting Actress:

1. Marilou Lopes-Benites, Bluebeard
2. Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds
3. Diane Kreuger, Inglourious Basterds
4. Tilda Swinton, The Limits of Control
5. Kelly Lin, Written By

Original Screenplay:

1. Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
2. Hong Sang-soo, Like You Know It All
3. Liu Jiayin, Oxhide II
4. Joel & Ethan Coen, A Serious Man
5. Wai Ka-fai & Au Kin-yee, Written By

Adapted Screenplay:

1. William Finkelstein, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
2. Catherine Breillat, Bluebeard
3. Manoel de Oliveira, Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl
4. Wes Anderson & Noah Baumbach, Fantastic Mr. Fox
5. Armando Iannucci et al, In the Loop

Foreign Language Film:

1. Oxhide II
2. Like You Know It All
3. Written By
4. Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl
5. Bluebeard

Documentary Feature:

1. 1939: Hollywood's Greatest Year
2. The Cove
3. Food, Inc
4. In Search of Beethoven
5. The September Issue

Animated Feature:

1. Coraline
2. Fantastic Mr. Fox
3. Up

Film Editing:

1. Drag Me to Hell
2. Fantastic Mr. Fox
3. Inglourious Basterds
4. Public Enemies
5. A Serious Man


1. Greig Fraser, Bright Star
2. Robert Richardson, Inglourious Basterds
3. Christopher Doyle, The Limits of Control
4. Dante Spinotti, Public Enemies
5. Richard Dawkins, A Serious Man*

Should be Roger Deakins, of course. An interesting Freudian slip there, I think.

Art Direction:

1. Fantastic Mr. Fox
2. Inglourious Basterds
3. The Limits of Control
4. Public Enemies
5. A Serious Man

Costume Design:

1. Bright Star
2. Fantastic Mr. Fox
3. The Limits of Control
4. Public Enemies
5. The Young Victoria


1. District 9
2. Drag Me to Hell
3. Star Trek
4. Watchmen
5. The Young Victoria

Sound Mixing:

1. Avatar
2. Inglourious Basterds
3. Public Enemies
4. A Serious Man
5. Star Trek

Sound Editing:

1. Avatar
2. Fantastic Mr. Fox
3. Public Enemies
4. Star Trek
5. Up

Visual Effects:

1. Avatar
2. District 9
3. Star Trek
4. Watchmen
5. Written By

Original Score:

1. Paul Englishby, An Education
2. Alexandre Desplat, Fantastic Mr. Fox
3. Boris, The Limits of Control
4. Carter Burwell, A Serious Man
5. Michael Giacchino, Up


1. Adventureland
2. Fantastic Mr. Fox
3. Inglourious Basterds
4. In Search of Beethoven
5. The Limits of Control