Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top Ten List for 2010

Traditional top ten lists are for excellence in film making, achievement on artistic merit and recognition of special accomplishments. I have a different criteria for my first list on this blog. These were simply the movies that I got the most satisfaction from seeing, usually an emotional response, but easily measured by a simple critical standard-would I pay full price to see it again?


This is my favorite movie of the year. I paid full price to see it three times in theaters and sat through one of those trips twice. I have it on my i-pod and watch part of it every week. Roger Ebert says it is hateful and disgusting, Roger you are further away from the critic I once loved watching every week. I still respect you but you are off on this. Hit Girl is my favorite character in movies in the last five years and Nicolas Cage as Big Daddy is hysterical. The use of music is wonderful and the integration of a comic in the story was excellent. I am not a comic book guy but I appreciated the way this movie gets that culture.


This may be the best movie on the list. The story is wonderful, the actors are perfectly cast, the movie is paced well and it looks terrific. I have three animated movies on my list and Pixar is represented but it was not the best this year. I love Toy Story 3, it will appear momentarily, but it is not as fresh and surprising as this was. I laughed a lot and I cried as well. I even went out looking for the toy. If we are talking about award worthy films, this should be on your list also.


For serious lists of great films this year, you will find this movie. For my list it appears because of the emotional resonance. The story concerns facing your fears, as the world is being confronted by the greatest threat to civilization that ever was. The two leads are amazing, and I expect both will be awarded many honors. Any movie that points out the nobility of those that stood up in World War 2, even this indirectly, has some value to it. I just saw it and expect I will see it a couple more times before it makes it to home video as the Academy Award winning best picture of 2010.


I told you it was coming, Pixar so far has not made a movie that I have not loved. Most third films in a series are weak payoffs and simply designed to generate cash. This movie like it's predecessor, exists for good logical story telling reasons and it brings us back in contact with characters that we have loved for more than fifteen years. It also brings all of us back to the wonders of childhood and the beauty of real imagination. Like Meryl Streep has a permanent place on Oscar lists each year for the quality of her work, Pixar fits the same mold for animation.


You can read a full commentary on this film in the blog on another posting. I am surprised at how much I liked it because I am a huge fan of the original. Jeff Bridges is no John Wayne, but he takes this part in a different direction primarily through actor's choices, and it works. The movie is beautiful to look at as well.


Maybe you don't expect a horror movie to make this kind of a list, but this is a sharp little movie with a lot of things going for it. The story is creepy enough to freak you out, there is a lot of tension and atmosphere. All of the actors do a solid job, but the sheriff and his deputy deserve special praise. I am a sucker for a small budget film that accomplishes everything it sets out to do, this movie meets that criteria.


What else is there to say? Aaron Sorkin writes dialog that actors should kill to do, and he put together a story that gets to the ideas and themes he wants regardless of fidelity to the truth. David Fincher is a great director, who's best film "Zodiac" was ignored a few years ago, and now he is getting appropriate recognition. This movie is entertaining as hell and will make you worry about the future of civilization at the same time.


A movie most of you will never have heard of, featuring the best performance of Andy Garcia's career. He is truly funny and honest in this slice of life comedy set in a odd location in NYC. I can't promise anyone who reads this the same deal, but if you know me, and you rent this movie and do not enjoy it, I will pay for your rental. How is that for a guarantee? The rest of you, check it out, it is not the finest movie ever made but it is a sharp funny and touching two hours that is a better way to spend your time than 95% of the other things you might be doing.


I'm old enough to enjoy the idea of older actors hamming it up just to show that they still have it. This will never win any awards but it will entertain you and make you wish that Bruce Willis never stops playing hard guy characters and that Morgan Freeman was in everything. Stuff explodes, wisecracks get made and John Malkovich goes over the top, what could be better?


This was a movie I knew nothing about, had minimal expectations for and is really not designed for me at this stage of my life. I loved it. I was surprised by the tone of the film, the cleverness of the dialog and the visual images. I saw it in 3-D and enjoyed it despite that. The minions in the movie are worth the price of admission, but there is a warm-hearted story here regardless of what the title implies.

There are other notable films, I will have a couple of more postings for you. I limited myself to movies I actually saw, and this year I was below my annual average. I went to see about 55 films in theaters this year, and on the next posting I'm going to share why that list shoud have been smaller. For now Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

True Grit 2010

Many critics and film fans have suggested that John Wayne won his sole Academy Award as a result of a sentimental nod to his career, rather than for the actual performance in the original True Grit. There is nothing wrong with that if it is true, it often happens that the Academy seems to do make goods when they have failed to deliver in the past. I think however that the people who truly believe this about the 1969 Wayne performance must be blind. John Wayne does a comedic turn as a cowboy, much more effectively than Lee Marvin four years earlier, and he is bad-ass John Wayne to boot. Wayne did many westerns with strong comedy themes, although he was not usually the clown, someone else in the picture was. Here he was front and center as a near tragic washout, with a drinking problem and a pig headed attitude. You could laugh at what he said, what he did, and what he was. The tone was sentimental and the movie played for pure entertainment purposes. I saw this movie in theaters when I was a kid, I must have been just eleven, but I knew I was watching something special because I enjoyed it so much.

The Coen Brother's version of True Grit is just as special, but with a completely different tone. When the shot for shot remake of Psycho came out several years ago, everyone wondered why do it? The answer is is this movie, to see how tone and performance can alter the way we see the story. True Grit is not a shot for shot remake, in fact the Coen Brothers claim it is not a remake at all. The word "re-imagining" has been invented by film-makers to justify taking old movies and doing them again, without sounding like you are simply trying to cash in on the same story twice. I first remember hearing the phrase used to describe Tim Burton's version of Planet of the Apes. True Grit is the first time I have heard the phrase used where it is clear that there was a re-imagining of the story. Unlike the other remakes that tinker with the story and try to put a twist on it to make something new, this version of True Grit tells the exact same story, with much of the dialog exactly the same as the original, but it changes the tone of the story in subtle yet dramatic ways.

The music in the film is elegiac, at the start of the film it is mournful for the father that has been lost. At the end of the movie it is a tribute to heroes that have passed. Most of the film highlights traditions, ways of speaking and mores that are also dead and gone. In the original Wayne version of the film the cinematography was crisp and beautiful to look at but it did not call attention to time or place, it was simply workmanlike to move us through the story. In the current version, the cinematography tells a story also, about the harshness of the life in those days, the isolation and loneliness that a body would feel in a place that was not unknown, but was less than well traveled. The images, lighting and color palate suggest a way of life that is long gone. The dialog in the film highlights this tone even more. While many of the same lines were used in the original, there are more examples of the archaic speech patterns in this version. They turn the English language into a foreign sounding flow of syntax and adjectives. This is another reminder of how the world has changed.

Since the performances are the substance of the original's strength, it is essential to compare the work done in these roles. Jeff Bridges' take on Rooster Cogburn is substantially different than John Waynes. Wayne was likable, even when he said or did things that as an audience we might not approve of. There was never any doubt that he was a Hero, even if it was a tattered one. Bridges on the other hand is likable sometimes and despicable other times. We can believe that he has abandoned the chase and is leaving Mattie on her own. His intolerance of others is not just comedic contentiousness, but plain disdain for the opinion of others. He also sounds like someone who is drunk most of the time, phlegm in his voice and marbles in his mouth. His take may be the more accurate view of a lawman in the times, but it is not as iconic. It may suffer a bit in the Awards season because it is so similar to the role he played last year in Crazy Heart that he may not get credit for the hard work it takes to play this kind of a drunk. His character in last years film is much close to the John Wayne performance than the same character he is playing.

Matt Damon is a tool, but he is also a good actor and a bright guy. He has it all over Glen Campbell as an actor so it is really not much of a comparison. Glen Campbell was a singer/guitarist who was making his big screen debut, and as far as I can tell his only theatrical acting feature. Damon is an actor/writer with awards and dozens of feature film roles to his credit. The resolution of his character's storyline is a little incomplete, but much more satisfying in the new version than in the 1969 version. Both times, the role was set up for comedic purposes, and both times it works as a way of injecting some sly humor into the story and providing a solution to a story element.

The character of Mattie Ross is pivotal to the new version of the story, in the long run the issue of "True Grit" is that she is the one that has it all along. Kim Darby was an actress that I don't think anybody ever cared much for. She was well cast in some things but not especially versatile and her looks were a bit bland. I thought she was believable as a fourteen year old when I first saw this movie, when I see it now she seems a little old. Hailee Steinfeld is fourteen and plays older because the times seem to demand that sort of maturity in those situations. Darby's take on the character seems petulant and obstinate while this new young actress comes across as steely and resolute. She is in nearly every scene in the film and stands up well next to professionals like Bridges and Damon.

Josh Brolin is third billed in the new version but his part is relatively small. He is perfectly cast as the prairie scum that kills Mattie's father and sets the story in motion. There is humor in his role but the menace is much more in evidence than in the part as played by Jeff Corey in the Wayne version. Both takes on the character show us a low life who brings misery into the lives of those he has contact with, but the part adds just enough more in the new tale that we understand it a little better. Barry Pepper plays Lucky Ned Pepper in the new film, he has the unfortunate task of filling in for one of the great actors of the 2oth century, Robert Duvall. Both times the role is written for a fairly generic bad guy. Duvall added some charisma to Ned Pepper, and you can tell he was a leader, even if it was of horrible human beings. Barry Pepper works because he has a maniacal gleam in his eye. He uses the same manner of speech as the other main characters and delivers it with gusto. His retort to Rooster that his threat is "Bold talk for a one-eyed fat man" is acceptable but lacks the sense of superiority that Duvall used when he delivered it.

There are a dozen character parts in the original that were fleshed out more than in the new version. The members of the Ned Pepper gang get very little focus in the 2010 film, and the scene in the cabin while maybe more jarring, is limited by the absence of Dennis Hopper as Moon. Of course the background character I payed most attention to was Col. Stonehill the horse trader. The comedic interaction between he and Mattie is a chess game that everyone can watch and enjoy. This years version was fine, the actor Dakin Matthews has an expressive face and gets most of the laughs with his eyes, but frankly he is simply outclassed here. Strother Martin appeared in all three of the great westerns from 1969, True Grit, The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In each of those pictures he is hysterical, but the utter frustration, flummoxing, and final surrender he does in the original True Grit cannot be matched. His voice is so appropriate, and well developed, that all that arcane dialog sounds like it was written specifically with him in mind.

Either version of True Grit is something that is worth your time. If you are one of those people that worship at the feet of the Coens, you will not be disappointed, and if you think John Wayne is definitive, you are right, but that doesn't make the new version any less valid. The new version is darker in tone and strains to be saying something that may not need to be said. It is also funny, dramatic and filled with lines that are simply fun to listen to good actors saying.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Must Share

Christmas Movies

I have created a bit of a monster. My youngest daughter is as nuts as I am about movies and she has us on a movie a day schedule for the month of December. There is of course a Christmas theme and most of the movies are playing on a variety of channels if you look around hard enough, but she has a particular order and reason that she wants us to watch each film. I like that her mind works that way but I am a little frightened about the meticulous process that we must follow, "Can you say 'Control'?"

We all have favorite movies that we see at Christmas, I am struck over how many of them are barely Christmas related. We started off our month with Die Hard, the quintessential action movie of all time. It is set at a Christmas party and most people barely remember that. The movie is sprinkled with references to the holiday but it plays so much like a summer movie that you may forget this. Of course the weather outside will do nothing to remind most of the country that it is Christmas, in Southern California we don't have Winter Season, we have awards season. The closest we get to snow in the original Die Hard is at the end when debris if floating all around the Nakatomi Plaza. Later this month we have Gremlins, which contains the single most depressing Christmas story ever.

I mention the strange Christmas settings because my daughters favorite Christmas movie is not really about Christmas. There is one extended segment set at Christmas and that is what qualifies it for our list. She had a Cinema minor at U.S.C. and took a couple of classes in a series about Hollywood film genres. Her professor in the Musical class she took had this as his favorite musical, and she knows a heck of a lot about the movie, "Meet Me in St. Louis". We watched this the other night and it is of course pure gold. Set nearly a hundred years ago, we get to know a family from St Louis and their loves and foibles. Judy Garland sings and looks wonderful, and the stories are heartwarming and funny. The Christmas segment has the amazing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", followed by one true moment of despair as Tootie, the youngest sister breaks down and frightens her whole family with the anxiety and hopelessness that the rest of them are feeling but can't quite give voice to. When I hear kids today dismiss movies that are older than they are, this is one of the treasures that I feel bad for them missing.

I am in the afterglow of the Trojan Victory over the Bruins yesterday and I just felt like a little commentary was needed to start the morning off right. This is not a full review and I don't want to promise an entry a day for the movie project, but everyone who reads this might want to know that I am still going to provide some regular insight on the Movie Day I am having. Maybe this next year the goal will be to comment on all the films we see in theaters. I am going to add a slideshow for the movies we are watching here during the holidays, if you keep your eyes open, you may find a post or two on them.

Here is a link to You Tube and the Movie Clip of Judy Garland singing.