Saturday, December 25, 2010

written on christmas eve, 2010, to commemorate a dinner with old friends

We raise a toast to celebrate those that are here on this night. It doesn’t matter that it pains us all, so late and so cold, to venture from our families and out into the wild. The slick-song whisper of a snowy winter night beckoning us all to warmth and light and company.

We raise a toast because that’s what we’ve always done. We fondly remember those who could not be here, even when we don’t fondly remember those who are absent. It is a night for putting those things out of ones mind, at least sitting round the table with old friends such as these.

Roads taken. Roads forsaken. We are the results of our choices, sundered by the seas of time and distance and occupation. At times one looks upon those gathered and thinks that there but for the grace of god go I, other times a man heart swells with a dark jealousy for the fortune of friends, unspeakable longing for half-remembered futures and hastily constructed pasts. 

Years might have past. Days. Hours. Old jokes spring forth, easy informality a warm blanket against the season, laughter pours forth to smooth over the gaps in knowledge, the vast unmentionable spans of time between moments such as these. We gather not to remember that lack, but to celebrate the riches we have now. The memories. The stories. New stories or old, the stories are what bind us. We share and we grow closer.

Yes, we toast to all of this. To shared experience and experience shared. To those who left us, and those who could stay. And when we leave this table, we know not when we’ll sit here again. On this night, this yearly tradition, we come together more by fate than the calendar’s sway. And someday, in some distant future we can only barely dream about, perhaps we shall do it again. Yet if we only have this moment, this one cold evening where we came together in true friendship, then that will warm us on many more nights such as these where there is no fellowship to comfort us. 

We part, one by one, leaving as they came. Each back to their own heads, their own hearts, their own homes. Connections broken, destinies sundered. Alone. But with the ghost of togetherness, that ephemeral spark of company and happiness, to validate all the other, all the blackness and wondering and loneliness and nostalgia oh nostalgia that bitter drink of spoiled dreams and chased after moments. You sat at our table too, you ruiner, and marveled at us.

We thank you too for your silence, however brief it might have been.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Prelude to the End: 2010s Random Movie Awards

Three hundred and forty.  That’s how many movie’s I’ve seen in 2010 as of the time of writing this.  Don’t believe me? Don’t worry, I keep a list. That’s not quite a movie a day, but it’s awfully close and if you want to get real serious about it, nearly a dozen of those entries are TV seasons and should maybe count more than once.  Needless to say, I’ve spent a lot of time in 2010 watching movies. 

I can’t even begin to sum up what kind of an experience that’s been.  Movies are my passion, the thing that I enjoy doing more than anything else. Like any good passion, sometimes I let myself get carried away with it, but I really never regret it. We all have something in life, and this is my thing, and I’ll follow that cinematic rabbit hole as far as I have to.

Of course, that turns the movie awards at the end of the year into something of a mess. Yeah, I have picks for the top 10 movies that came out in 2010, but I also have innumerable other things I want to talk about. Movies that were great, moments that I felt like sharing, bad experiences I feel like others should suffer along with me. Movies are, at heart, a social medium. They were conceived to view with others, and even when we don’t do that so much anymore, they’re there to tell us our stories and encourage us to share with others.

So let’s talk some movies. Not the top movies, because that’s for next week after I’ve seen the last of the movies that are going to come out in theaters here before 2011 rolls up on my doorstep and starts demanding I retrain my fingers to type the year again. No, this is instead more of a hodgepodge collection of things I feel like talking about. Random would be the best word to describe it, though that isn’t to imply that I didn’t give these awards a lot of thought. 

So feel free to let me know what you think about any of this stuff. This is just the first course, a nice soup or salad to get you started. The main dish is coming next week, once I finally finish tying it all up with a neat bow (and hopefully cutting it down to 10, though I can promise NOTHING).  Until then, enjoy…



The Avatar Award – 2010s best argument for 3D                                                            
Step Up 3Dstepup3d

Look, I agree with everyone, 3D movies have a big problem.  For all the hype coming into this year, with Avatar blowing most people away with its spectacle (and even the haters have to admit, it was a spectacle) and bringing 3D to the masses, 2010 has been a piss poor showing for the fledgling display format.  For whatever reason—be it the difficulty in shooting in 3D, the length of production meaning movies in 2010 were already shot when Avatar made its impact, or just because everyone’s not sure how to approach what is supposedly a hard format to wrap one’s head around.

But some movies are definitely trying, and they come from the strangest places.  Which leads us to Step Up 3D, the third film in the dance/coming-of-age franchise.  Full disclosure, I’ve not seen the other films in this franchise as of the writing, but I doubt it’s going to be necessary. Step Up 3D isn’t going to win any awards with its story, with its simple rival dance teams/star-crossed lovers storyline.  But the part where it’s a dance movie is where it justifies not only itself, but the format it’s shot in.  

There’s a sense of shape and form to dance that really lends itself to 3D, with spaces being well defined and the intricacies of people performing a physical art well pops off the screen and is given a surprising energy through the layering of 3D.  It’s an enthralling thing to see, full of energy and a great sense of fun.  It’s a movie where the thing you came to see is most suited to the format, that increases the immersion and impact of the actions, and that’s what I feel 3D does best. 

2010s best movie of 2009                                                                                                  
House of the Devilhouseofthedevilposter

Classic horror is a hard thing ti pin down.  The genre has had some pretty extreme evolutions in its time, and many of the fond memories people have for old horror movies don’t hold up.  This is especially true for many of the low budget slasher films of the 70s and 80s.  So it is a great relief that a movie like House of the Devil exists, which is not only steeped in the history of horror, but validates a whole genre of movies that might not have ages particularly well by crafting a great modern entry into it. 

On the surface a tale of Satanic cults and of a girl being stalked for a sacrifice, House of the Devil sets itself apart from the seedier aspects of the genre by the incredible pacing choices, especially in the middle act.  The main girl, left in charge of an empty house and to watch over an old woman we have never seen sleeping in a top floor room, is a pitch-perfect 20 minutes of the most agonizing shots of her exploring this structure.

Any horror fan knows the shots to look for, the scenes staged in a doorway or at a high angle, where the camera sees more than the heroine, where the shot lingers a second too long and we expect a killer to appear in a hallway or mirror.  House of the Devil knows all these tricks, and extends the foreplay of the drawn out reveal until it becomes torture for the audience. The girl in peril goes about her business with an almost infuriating innocence, but for those of us who know what’s coming and can read the signs we’re being given, it had me squirming in my chair, wishing the tension would finally stop.   It is that pitch perfect tone, that balance between the slow build and the film cue combination assault that make House of the Devil stand out as one of the best horror movies in years.  

Film Unjustly Thrown Under a Bus By All You Assholes Award                                      
Let Me Inletmeinposter

I could say a lot of things about Let Me In.  But instead I just want to take a moment of silence to lament how poorly this movie did in the face of audience apathy and the most misplaced cinematic activism I have ever seen.  Oh, Let Me In, we hardly knew ye.

Now, let me tell you a bit about Let Me In.  It is both a remake of the Sweedish film Let The Right One In and the novel of the same name. Most people probably know the story by now, troubled boy meets mysterious girl who turns out to be a vampire.  But what most people don’t know is that Let Me In is as good of a movie as the original, in some ways an even better one. For one, the casting is stronger, with the boy played by Kodi Smit-McPhee offering a much more compelling main character than in the Swedish original.  Chloe Moretz, hot off of Kick-Ass, is amazing as a creature that is both beguilingly vulnerable and incredibly dangerous, a delicate balance between nostalgic longing and cruel brutality that the entire film is based in.  There are decisions made in this movie, from its 80s setting to the construction of specific shots, that give it a tone all its own, a tone that grounds the source material in our culture without destroying what it was. 

Yet for all its effort the movie has been largely ignored.  It’s a shame, as most of the people who refused to see it would probably very much enjoy it.  In a world with terrible remakes and adaptations, one must never forget that a good reworking of material, if it brings something new to the table, can be as effective as an original film.  Only the most foolish and short-sighted would forget that the history of cinema is littered with quality remakes.  Only the most stubborn, wrong-minded movie fan would ignore Let Me In. 

Bucket List Award for Best Film Experience of 2010                                                       
the restored Metropolis

metropolisposterThe best movie moment for me this year is a no brainer.  Earlier in the year, Kino Films released a restored version of Metropolis, the 1927 sci-fi epic. The story of Metropolis’ various versions is almost as incredible as the movie itself, but needless to say that the version they were putting out was vastly more complete and in better shape than the previous ‘definitive’ version which I had seen two years prior. 

In touring the country with the film, I had the opportunity to see it with a live performance of the soundtrack by the Alloy Orchestra, a three piece ensemble that performs a version of the original score to the film as it’s playing.  And if you have never seen a silent film with live music, it is a real treat, a mixture of the energy of a concert with the enjoyment of a great film, a mashup of mediums that is incredibly powerful in a way that’s hard to define. 

It doesn’t hurt that the restored version of Metropolis is a thing of beauty.  Now that the film is out on DVD and Blu-Ray, any fan of cinema needs to see it.  I consider it one of, if not the, most influential film ever made. It’s incredibly ambitious, effective even in the modern era, with a story that still resonates because it has been so often readapted in our time.  The new version is likely as complete a film as will ever exist, with only a few minutes now missing, and the picture it paints is sweeping and beautiful.  If you care at all about movies, you need to see Metropolis. 


Next Week’s Top 10’s Most Notable Absence                                                                   

Of all the movies that I expected to make it into my top movies of 2010 list, Inception was the most obvious. Christopher Nolan has always been a favorite director of mine, with many of his films ranking as my favorites of that year and Memento easily in my top 5 movies ever.

So how wouldn’t I like Inception? It’s a complex, well-made, intricately structured puzzle box of a movie, a movie with great actors doing crazy things, a movie for people who like their movies both epic and intelligent. I can’t deny any of those things. Inception is a great movie, to be sure.  But it still didn’t make the cut onto my top 10 list, and I feel like I should explain why.

The problem with Inception isn’t a lack of skill but a lack of heart. For all of its bombast (and it’s got that in spades) and intricate layering of plot (that too!) Inception is a very cold movie. For the first half of the movie characters are laying out the groundwork of this universe in such painstaking detail that character moments are breezy and limited, and in the second half the action and scope expand too far for all but the most cursory emotional beats. It’s only at the end that Nolan remembers to engage the heartstrings, at which point it starts to feel too late.  There is too much world building and not enough character building to make those emotional moments pay off in any real way.

The problem is that in many ways Inception isn’t a great story. It is an amazing clock, a framework of gears that are laid out for us neatly and tick inevitably towards the conclusion. But clocks are inherently dispassionate and in deciding to be a clockmaker over a filmmaker, Nolan turns Inception into something remote, just out of the ability to fully empathize with. Which means, for all its greatness, it becomes a movie to be respected rather than a movie to be loved.  As such, I couldn’t justify putting it on my list, when there are so many things I DO love that have come out this year.


The Badass Award for New Achievements in Ridiculousness                                             
The Good The Bad and The Weird

goodbadweirdposterKorean cinema is a strange beast. I’ve normally been more exposed to Japanese cinema, with its traditional history and modern descent into weird, fanboy-exploitation nonsense. It’s fun, it’s weird, but it’s all kind of easily pegged as ‘crazy Japanese movie’.  I’m simplifying, of course, but that’s certainly true of most of the things that make it to our shores.  Korean movies, on the other hand, seem to come from a place where there are no rules. Genre doesn’t seem to really matter. Comedy and drama walk hand in hand without feeling pandering. A horror movie can be touching. A noir movie can be horrifying, or hilarious, or absurd.

The Good, The Bad, and The Weird is, on paper, a reinterpretation of Sergio Leone’s masterpiece The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It’s about three gunslingers of questionable morality going after a McGuffin that carries them all across the countryside as their paths continue to cross. But instead of the American southwest, this movie takes place in China, and instead of Leone’s carefully paced, methodical epic of a film, this movie goes at a hundred miles an hour.

Part action movie, part revenge drama, part absurdist comedy, The Good The Bad and The Weird is at times hilarious and at times depressing, but it is always awesome. Whether people are swinging across vast sets shooting six-shooters like they were automatic rifles, or horses and jeeps get involved car chases better paced than most modern car chase movies, or with wild music selections that elaborate on many of the absurd Spaghetti Western choices Tarantino made for the Kill Bill movies, The Good The Bad and The Weird is relentless in its quest to be badass. And it succeeds admirably, making it all look effortless and cool and exhilarating. It takes a lot of balls to try to so blatantly riff on an undeniable classic like Leone’s masterpiece, but this movie’s got balls to spare.


The Back Catalogue Award (best movie pre-2009 I saw in 2010)                                    
Double Indemnity doubleindemnityposter

This was the hardest award to peg down, simply because I’ve seen so many great movies in 2010. But of them all, only one or two jumped out at me as possible contenders for this award, and it was easy to pick the winner out of that list. Double Indemnity is not only one of the best examples of film noir, but it’s one fo the best movies ever made. 

It’s not just the weaving plot, which has its twists and turns, danger and dames, murder and intrigue, but it’s the incredible dialogue, the characters that exude a deadly charm, the incredible cinematography, all shadows and framing. 

Just look at this piece of dialogue when the two leads, played by Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, meet for the first time:

Phyllis: I hope I've got my face on straight.
Neff: Perfect for my money.
Phyllis: Neff is the name, isn't it?
Neff: Yeah, two 'Fs,' like in Philadelphia, if you know the story.
Phyllis: What story?
Neff: The Philadelphia Story.

There is something about Double Indemnity, the pace at which it moves, the inevitability of violence and its fallout, the lack of any truly noble character, that makes it a marvel to watch. It’s not that they don’t make movies like that anymore, it’s that they never did. Double Indemnity is one of a kind.


Best Direct to DVD Movie                                                                                                 
Batman: Under the Red Hood

batmanredhoodposterBatman: Under the Red Hood is the 2nd best Batman movie of all time, right behind Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.  Yeah, I’l let you think about that for a second.  But it shouldn’t be any real surprise. Batman has always worked better in his animated outings than he has in his live-action ones, and as much as I like the Nolan adaptation of the character, nothing has quite felt as genuinely Batman since Batman: The Animated Series went off the air.  Kevin Conroy’s portrayal of the Caped Crusader will always be the Batman I hear in my head..

That said, the adaptation of   the darker, more violent “Death in the Family” and “Under the Hood” comic story arcs collected here in one movie serves as one of the more honest appraisals of Batman ever committed to film.  Batman is a man driven, and in his quest to achieve his goals often he strays far over the line of what constitutes heroic behavior. 

This movie is probably the darkest Batman story on film, a story of death and betrayal, of the potential for good intentions to go horribly awry, the struggle of a man devoted to stopping evil struggling not to cross over the line to become evil himself.  It feels very devoted to telling a Batman universe story without compromise, a story of the human responses (both inspirational and disheartening) to the dark side of life.


2010’s Most Disappointing Movie                                                                                     
The Expendablesexpendablesposter

The Expendables is not the worst movie of 2010, but it is decidedly the most disappointing.  The initial reports about what the movie was going to be about seemed like a movie buff’s wet dream—gather together every famous and not-exactly-famous action star from the last 20 years and throw them into one giant, ridiculous homage to the action films of yore.  This movie was, before production had kicked off, one of my most anticipated movies of this year.  How could you fuck that up? 

It turns out, it’s not actually all that difficult.  First off, right out of the gate, Stallone had to compromise on the cast. Names that should have been on this movie were approached and turned it down: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Wesley Snipes, Steven Seagal, Kurt Russell.  Instead we get wrestlers and NFL stars.  Second, for an homage to the lost action movies of yore, The Expendables suffers by emulating the worst part of the modern entries in the genre.  

CG is all over the movie. I’m not sure there’s a single actual squib going off in the entire movie, as each bullet hit is a mess of crazy, cartoonishly dumb CG blood. Guns are incredibly over exaggerated, shotguns blowing people limb from limb at range.  It’s a ridiculousness borne out of modern Asian action films, but with none of the sense of play.  Instead, The Expendables is oppressively self-serious. What should have been a riff of actors hamming it up and causing chaos turns into a story about a mercenary team liberating an oppressed people and oh yeah they have family issues at home, too.  It is a tumor of misspent machismo, a world where people call each other “brother” unironically. For all of its promise, it’s a sagging, unfortunate reminder that the classic action movie is dead, never to return. 

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Podcast is Born!

So, ever since I started listening to the damn things, I’ve wanted to do a podcast. There are a number of reasons, chief among them being I Like to Talk, and I Have A Lot Of Opinions. Those seem like good reasons to do anything, so I’ve been hunting for the right topics, the right venue, and the right cohost.

Well, I’m still looking. (But seriously folks) in the meantime I decided to go ahead and make one with the ever engaging Elizabeth Ditty, who is my partner in crime when it comes to talking way too much about movies. But instead of allowing it to become a petty back and forth in an IM window, we’ve burst our discussion out onto the greater internet for you all to enjoy!

That’s right, we have a movie podcast up RIGHT NOW. Here’s the link: YO CLICK ME BITCHES! Also see the handy embedded player below. The hosting solution probably isn’t permanent, but it’ll do while we find our feet.

The topics covered in our first amazing episode include such delights as:

  • Why 3D movies are ruining theaters.
  • The whole mess of movies coming out this holiday seasons.
  • 127 Hours
  • Black Swan
  • Some Netflix whoring and recommendations for movies to watch that aren’t in a theater.

We’re planning to do another one of these next month, but between now and then we need your feedback. Among other things, we have no title for our little Christmas miracle of a show, and are offering a CASH PRIZE (well, as close as an amazon gift card gets to a cash prize) for the person who offers up the perfect name.

So have a listen, comment either here on this blog post or on Elizabeth’s, and you can always hit either of us up on twitter for a more immediate sense of communication in this bleak, lonely world (I am @litrock and she is @ditty1013, and you should definitely be following her if you are me!). Enjoy the podcast, have a great Christmas and New Years, and stay tuned this week for more movie-themed madness as I go in depth about my favorite stuff this year.