Monday, January 18, 2010

The Top 40 Films of 2009 (30-26)

30. The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (Sophie Fiennes, UK/Austria/Netherlands, 2006)

Your friendly neighborhood Lacanian, Slavoj Zizek, is your irrepressible guide on this immensely entertaining trip through the hidden psychological wormholes of such films as Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds; David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet; Coppola’s The Conversation; The Matrix (“I want a third pill!”); and many others. Zizek is beautifully staged by director Sophie Fiennes in both the actual locations of the films he discusses, or in soundstage recreations. Even after two and a half hours, you’ll be left wanting more; you’ll never see these films in quite the same way again.

29. Of Time and the City (Terence Davies, UK, 2008)

Terence Davies’ exquisite reminiscence of his native Liverpool is a lyrical return for this great filmmaker whom we haven’t heard from since 2000's The House of Mirth. Blending archival footage with newly shot scenes, Davies connects it all with his riveting voiceover, depicting his love-hate (but mostly love) relationship with his city, and how the elements that gave Liverpool its character are nearly gone. Along the way, he recounts his contentious relationship with Catholicism and his first homosexual stirrings. Of Time and the City is a master class in montage and the use of music, most notably in an incredible sequence concerning the Korean War, set to the Hollies’ “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” Davies has a wicked and caustic sense of humor, for example in his description of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, or as he puts it, “The Betty Windsor Show.” And the way he dispenses of and dismisses the Beatles is priceless. Welcome back, Mr. Davies. You’ve been away far too long.


28. Rembrandt’s J’Accuse (Peter Greenaway, Netherlands/UK, 2008)

Greenaway’s examination of Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Night Watch is a compelling master class in visual analysis, art and political history, as well as a masterfully constructed detective story. Reviewed here.

27. Big Man Japan/Dai-Nipponjin (Hitoshi Matsumoto, Japan, 2007) 

Japanese comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto took six years to write and direct this inventive debut film, which takes the grand tradition of kaiju eiga to deliriously surreal heights. Reviewed here.

26. Yasukuni (Li Ying, Japan/China, 2007)

Li Ying’s documentary on the politically contentious titular shrine in central Tokyo puts the viewer in the perilous place where history, memory, and political agendas violently collide, with searing and indelible results. Reviewed here.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Top 40 Films of 2009 (35-31)

Happy New Year! Now, on with the countdown.

35. Humpday (Lynn Shelton, US, 2009)

Showing up most of the other pop-culture depictions of so-called “bromance” for the shallow, witless exercises they are, Humpday concerns two straight men who, on a drunken dare, plan to have sex with one another on camera for an “art project” that is “beyond gay.” Shelton explores this concept with both uproarious humor and penetrating psychological insight. Despite being lazily lumped in with other low-budget American indies termed “mumblecore,” Shelton’s film spiritedly resists easy labeling. Much like her previous feature, My Effortless Brilliance, Shelton examines male friendship and the psychological games men play with one another with a sharp acuity that is only enhanced by the fact that she happens to be a woman. Ben (Mark Duplass), with a stable job and family life, and his long lost buddy Andrew (Joshua Leonard), a self-professed neo-bohemian free spirit, have a lot to prove to one another, which leads to their ill-advised experiment. Ben, especially, feels a great need to demonstrate that he is not the staid square Andrew thinks he is (it is Ben who conceives the porn film idea), and that Andrew is not as free as he thinks he is. Ben’s wife Anna (Alycia Delmore) is an essential ingredient of this mano-a-mano one-upmanship; she reveals herself to be a different woman than her husband thinks. Shelton closely collaborates with her actors on character and dialogue, but the sensibility of her films remain uniquely her own; she is definitely a talent to watch in 2010 and beyond.

34. Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, US, 2009)

Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers’ indie-rock remix of Maurice Sendak’s classic is a kid’s movie for adults, expanding on Sendak’s spare, evocative text to create a somber yet visually exhilarating film. Young Max (Max Records) flees his troubled home life, which he has increasingly little control over, to become a little despot lording over the land of monsters he sails away to. The story’s psychological complexity, left latent in the original version, is fully brought to the fore in Jonze and Eggers’ interpretation.

33. Valentino: The Last Emperor (Matt Tyrnauer, US, 2008)

The perennial clash between art and commerce is vividly dramatized in this brilliant documentary on the iconic fashion artist Valentino, whose life path was set as a young boy when he saw Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Click here to read my review for Meniscus Magazine.

32. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, US, 2009)

Who would have thought Anderson’s most deeply human film would star a bunch of furry critters? His last two films The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited found him burrowing ever deeper into fastidiously art-directed wormholes. However, with Fantastic Mr. Fox, his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book, Anderson finally makes the leap into the sublime that has long eluded him. Stuffed with glorious bric-a-brac and demonstrating an eye for detail that recalls Jacques Tati, this film is a feast for the eyes, as well as deeply affecting.

31. Two Lovers (James Gray, US, 2008)

As fun as it was to watch Joaquin Phoenix’s whacked performance art pieces such as his David Letterman appearance and his attempts to perform hip-hop, it was a real shame that they overshadowed and perhaps doomed the commercial fate of Two Lovers, which contains one of his very best performances. Leonard (Phoenix), a mentally troubled, fragile soul, finds himself torn between two women (Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw), both alluring in their own ways. Gray makes a shift from the operatic expansiveness of We Own the Night to the much more intimate spaces of Two Lovers, his mastery of form remaining intact.