Monday 29 December 2008

Favourites of 2008

I joked with my friend the other day that I was just about ready to do my Top 10 list for the year - except that the year was 2004.

I watch a good deal of movies every year (I'll be around 450 this year), but I don't really see a whole lot from the current year in the theatres - typically maybe one a month. My count is higher this year because of several film festivals, but I can't claim any kind of definitive "Best Of" list for the year. It doesn't mean I won't slap one together anyway, but I'll supplement it with some favourite moments from other films I saw for the first time this year.

So here's my stab at a compilation of a few faves...

Favourite Female Performances From 2008 Films

  • The female cast of "Synecdoche NY": Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Diane Weist, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh and a luscious Hope Davis are all terrific and a great deal of fun in their roles. I know, the film is not usually attached with the word "fun", but I think the actresses throw themselves right into their roles so well that you can't help but gain a great deal of pleasure from what they've created.
  • Lina Leandersson (in "Let The Right One In"): As Eli, she has the central role of the film and does a wonderfully subtle job of creating an old soul within her 12 year old frame.
  • Agnes Varda (in "Plages D'Agnes"): Not so much an acting role, but just being herself on screen and chatting about and walking through moments of her life. As I had mentioned in an earlier review, had she showed up for a post-film Q&A the crowd would have given her a group hug.

Favourite Male Performances From 2008 Films

  • Alfredo Castro (in "Tony Manero"): It's hard to watch Castro's character Raul at times - he's ugly, self-centered and brutal - but he's fascinating.
  • Kare Hidebrant (in "Let The Right One In"): Oskar is awkward, unsure and doesn't seem to be much fun to be around. In other words, he's 12 - and Hidebrant brings that across wonderfully well.
  • Antoine L'Ecuyer (in "C'est Pas Moi Je Le Jure!"): There's an amazing naturalness to Antoine's portrayal of 10 year old Leon in Philippe Falardeau's film. I can't help but think that he has the potential to be one of Canada's finest actors in the next 10-15 years.

Favourite 2008 Films

  1. Synecdoche NY
  2. Still Walking
  3. Country Wedding
  4. Man On Wire
  5. Let The Right One In
  6. WALL-E
  7. C'est Pas Moi Je Le Jure
  8. 4bia
  9. Anvil! The Story Of Anvil
  10. Soul Power

Favourite First Time Viewings of Older Films in 2008

  • "Once" (2006 - John Carney) - Enjoyed it so much I watched it again the very next night.
  • "Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter" (1970 - Yasuharu Hasebe) - Meiko Kaji (I may have mentioned her before...) is just so striking and powerful in this great looking, fun and occasionally goofy film.

  • "Lola" (1961) / "Bay Of Angels" (1963, Jacques Demy) - Seeing both of these Demy films on the big screen was simply tremendous. I can't think of a more perfect definition of the word 'bittersweet' than the ending of "Lola". And "Bay Of Angels" didn't let go of me once from the moment it opens on Jeanne Moreau with that great pull back shot to the end - swelling music and all.
  • "Royal Wedding" (1951 - Stanley Donan) - Immediately became one of my favourite musicals of all time after seeing the exceptionally upbeat number "How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I've Been A Liar All My Life". Of course, Fred Astaire dancing on ceilings, walls and with a variety of gym equipment helped as well. And so did Jane Powell's adorable performance.
  • "A Hundred And One Nights" (1995 - Agnes Varda) - Agnes Varda grew leaps and bounds in my estimation after viewing this film. I already thought highly of her after seeing "Vagabond" and "Cleo From 5 To 7", but this was a unique and very entertaining take on celebrating the history of film and Varda's own influences as well. The actual plot elements aren't as interesting as Michel Piccoli's rambling stories (in his guise as different characters) and appearances from Moreau, Deneuve, De Niro, Mastroianni, Delon and a bunch of other stars.
  • "Antonio Gaudi" (1984 - Hiroshi Teshigahara) - I can't believe the people of Barcelona get to live with this every day. I want to go there now.

  • "Jean De Florette / Manon Of The Spring" (1986 - Claude Berri) - I think it was David Gilmour's terrific book "Film Club: A True Story Of A Father And A Son" that finally made me watch this duo of films. I'll have to thank him one day as they are brilliant in just about every way.
  • "Cloverfield" (2007 - Matt Reeves) / "The Mist" (2007 - Frank Darabont) - Two monster movies that I had zero expectations for and absolutely no plans on seeing initially. Boy am I glad I got around to them.
  • "Murmur Of The Heart" (1971) / "Lacombe, Lucien" (1974) / "Au Revoir Les Enfants" (1987, Louis Malle) - I saw a bunch of other Malle films this past year - "The Lovers", "Vanya On 42nd Street", many of his documentaries - but these three truly stood out as remarkable character portraits. I'll admit that none of their descriptions really grabbed my attention, but each reeled me in within minutes and kept me completely enveloped in their characters' lives until the end.

  • "Dance Party U.S.A." (2006 - Aaron Katz) - The oddly and unfortunately named Mumblecore "movement" had its own travelling film festival named Generation DIY. Though rather poorly promoted, I was able to attend a couple of screenings when it rolled through Toronto and "Dance Party USA" was by far my favourite - perhaps because it was based around a couple of high school kids, it felt so much more honest than some of the other whiny loser films of the "genre" that I've seen (I couldn't stand a single character in "Hannah Takes The Stairs" and though I found "LOL" much more interesting, each of the guys in it were freaking doofuses). I was able to chat with director Aaron Katz for a bit after the film and he was very friendly and talked about how his ideas and scripts came from real life encounters or situations. I still need to catch up with his follow-up film "Quiet City" and I hope we see more from him.
  • "Only Human" (2004 - Dominic Harari, Teresa Pelegri) - The first film I chose for my ongoing series of Goin' In Blind reviews was one of my favourite discoveries of the year. Expertly timed character based comedy that still allowed for plenty of silliness and slapstick.
  • "Midnight" (1939 - Mitchell Leisen) - I've had ups and downs when delving into the 30s-40s era of screwball comedies (e.g. "Bringing Up Baby" just didn't click with me), but "Midnight" is a no-doubt-about-it keeper. There's an ease in the flow of banter between Colbert and Ameche that's very charming and John Barrymore seems to be at his best here.
  • "One, Two, Three" (1961 - Billy Wilder) - One of the most consistently funny movies I've seen in quite some time. Sharp, witty, satiric and very silly.

  • "The Celebration" (1998 - Thomas Vinterberg) - Almost painful to watch at times, I just couldn't look away from this train wreck of a family gathering. A remarkable set of actors work within the confines of Dogme 95, but the style helps to put you right within all the chaos.
  • Aki Kaurismaki - Each of Kaurismaki's 5 films I saw this year were perfect little slices of life - darkly comic, bittersweet and sometimes quite sad lives. I can't wait to see more of his work.
  • "The Skull" (1965 - Freddie Francis) / "Strait-Jacket" (1964 - William Castle) / "Spider Baby" (1968 - Jack Hill) - Three of the most fun films I saw on DVD all year (what does it say about me that all of them contain murder and mayhem?). Each film understands exactly what it is and plays on that and yet also delivers beautiful cinematography, terrific framing and perfect pacing.
  • Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2008 - As much as I love Hot Docs and as great as TIFF was for me this year, there's no more fun then the Toronto After Dark festival. I saw every screening this year except the late midnight one for "Donkey Punch". The lineup can be a bit of a mixed bag, but the vast majority of the films were at least entertaining and fun to watch with a crowd - with several of them being exceptional: "Let The Right One In", "Mirageman" (which would've been on my Top 10 of the year, but it is actually an older film), "4bia", "Home Movie", "Idiots And Angels" and the WTF experience of "Tokyo Gore Police".

    Almost better than the movies is the "vibe" in the theatre and the crowd itself. Much of this can be attributed to the fearless leader of the fest, Adam Lopez. He has a genuine love for these films and wants to really share that with others. I was also fortunate enough to meet a number of truly excellent folks this year - this made each viewing more memorable and the nightly pub nights (after the films) fun discussions about, well, just about anything. So thanks Shannon, James, Sarah, Sarah's Mom, Rob, Andrew, Kurt, Trista, Stephen, Chris, Polly, Matt...

  • "Silent Light" (2007 - Carlos Reygados) - Just stunning. The visuals perfectly pace the story and move towards a truly breathtaking end.
  • "Le Doulos" (1962 - Jean-Pierre Melville) - I will not rest until I see every single one of this man's films.

Friday 26 December 2008

Holiday Movie Quiz

As an additional Christmas present to myself, I decided to take Professor Kingsfield's Hair-Raising, Bar-Raising Holiday Movie Quiz from over at Sergio Leone And The Infield Fly Rule. These quizzes happen about quarterly and they are a blast to fill out and even better when you read everyone else's responses.

So here we go...

1) What was the last movie you saw theatrically? On DVD or Blu-ray?

The last theatrical showing would've been "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" with my son and his friend. It was OK, but their giggling made it so much better.

My last DVD viewing was "Creepshow 2" just last night 'cause nothing says Christmas like a horror anthology. It too was OK...A pretty dull first story, followed by a good monster tale in the middle (a large pile of sludge in a small lake attacks some kids on a raft) and finishing up with what could have been the best part - a woman who runs into a hitchhiker, flees the scene and then can't shake that same hitchhiker who keeps popping up around, on or in her car (getting progressively bloodier each time) - but is too lazy to work with atmosphere or tension and instead has the lone woman driver talk to herself the whole time (as she rationalizes her actions and screams and curses the hitchhiker). As a family we had watched "A Christmas Story" just beforehand and loved it just as much as we did when we watched it last year.

2) Holiday movies— Do you like them naughty or nice?

Geez, I don't know...I like 'em both. I guess I would lean towards the nice ones, since I like my holiday movies to end on an up note, but I don't have a problem if they want to get mean and vicious somewhere in the middle.

I have an odd fondness for "White Christmas", but "Scrooged", "Christmas Vacation" and the aforementioned "A Christmas Story" are my fall backs. And Alistair Sim's "Scrooge" (which my Dad and I watched a bit of last night as well).

3) Ida Lupino or Mercedes McCambridge?

Ida. No offense to Mercedes, but Ida not only appeared in some terrific noirs, but directed some as well. She must've been one helluva tough cookie...

4) Favorite actor/character from Twin Peaks

The music. I'm not a hard core devotee of the show and haven't seen all the episodes, but I always found the music (in particular that opening theme) set the tone exceedingly well.

5) It’s been said that, rather than remaking beloved, respected films, Hollywood should concentrate more on righting the wrongs of the past and tinker more with films that didn’t work so well the first time. Pretending for a moment that movies are made in an economic vacuum, name a good candidate for a remake based on this criterion.

I'd like to see another really good heist film - "Topkapi", "The Anderson Tapes" and "The Hot Rock" all were slight disappointments for me, so using the central concepts of those films wouldn't be a bad idea. Get some good characters, a witty but compact script and work through a complicated yet hopefully somewhat realistic heist.

6) Favorite Spike Lee joint.

"Do The Right Thing", if only because the characters and what they say frustrate me so much while I'm watching it - the misunderstandings, the small incidents that get blown out of proportion, the people with chips on their shoulder that piss me off - that I get all worked up about the very issue the film is trying to bring out for discussion.

And it's an amazing looking film too.

7) Lawrence Tierney or Scott Brady?

I didn't even have to look up who Scott Brady is to know that the answer is Lawrence Tierney. As it turns out, they were brothers. You still can't mess with the lit fuse that was Tierney.

8) Are most movies too long?

If it's good, it's just the right length (e.g. P.T. Anderson's 3 hour "Magnolia" and 90 minute "Punch Drunk Love" are 2 of my favourite films of the past decade).

Having said that, I do tend to look for shorter movies these days...There's been a bit of a tendency to stretch some films towards 2 hours when they should be cutting back to 90 minutes (or less). A good example are some of the Apatow (and Apatow-style) comedies - I enjoy them, but they are usually longer then they need to be. And that typically hurts the film a bit.

9) Favorite performance by an actor portraying a real-life politician.

I'm blanking a bit on this one, but the first thing that came to mind was Colm Feore's performance as Pierre Elliott Trudeau in a 2-part made for TV biopic.

10) Create the main event card for the ultimate giant movie monster smackdown.

For the classic monsters, I think the Japanese already covered it (Godzilla vs. Mothra). For the more recent variety, that thing in "The Host" vs. that thing in "Cloverfield". Now that's a Pay Per View match!

11) Jean Peters or Sheree North?

Jean was in "Pickup On South Street" which certainly helps, but Sheree has 4 times the number of credits and was in piles of TV. So I'm going with Lou Grant's old girlfriend Sheree...

12) Why would you ever want or need to see a movie more than once?

Why would you ever want to look at a piece of art more than once? Or re-read a book. Or listen to an album you've heard before? It's about the joy and comfort of experiencing art that appeals to you, re-experiencing moments that make you smile and discovering new things in works you thought you knew.

Pauline Kael was a great writer, but she missed the boat here.

13) Favorite road movie.

I'll go with "Almost Famous". Three others that jump to mind are "Y Tu Mama Tambien", "The Sure Thing" and "Going Places" (a 1974 French film I just posted about the other day). All fine examples.

14) Favorite Budd Boetticher picture.

Sadly, I've never seen one. I will rectify that over the coming year (I'm tempted to buy that box set blind).

15) Who is the one person, living or dead, famous or unknown, who most informed or encouraged your appreciation of movies?

I have to say, it might be Roger Ebert. Just watching him and Siskel discussing movies on their old PBS show (and later the syndicated one) - the overarching themes and the small details - made me start thinking of film in a different way. And as I started watching some of their recommendations, I found new avenues open to me. I tended to side with Ebert at the time.

16) Favorite opening credit sequence. (Please include YouTube link if possible.)

"Panic Room", "Anatomy Of A Murder", "Monsters Inc.", "Playtime", "To Kill A Mockingbird" (though the music may be different in this video) and "Halloween".

17) Kenneth Tobey or John Agar?

Didn't recognize either name, but after a quick Google Image search, I certainly recognized both their faces. Tobey is the most easily recognizable - I just saw him in "The Vampire" and he was in "Airplane" along with a number of noirs. Case closed.

18) Jean-Luc Godard once suggested that the more popular the movie, the less likely it was that it was a good movie. Is he right or just cranky? Cite the best evidence one way or the other.

Either way, Godard is cranky. It's a statement that implies that "good" is objective - and as much as I want to think that sometimes, it's not true. Elements of filmmaking can be looked at objectively, but not the whole. It's a personal reaction.

19) Favorite Jonathan Demme movie.

"Stop Making Sense". The big suit, the different lighting for every song, the energy of the band, the single take of David Byrne throughout "Once In A Lifetime", the jogging, etc. One of the best concert films ever.

20) Tatum O’Neal or Linda Blair?

Tatum - I had a big crush on her in "Bad News Bears". And she rarely spins her head completely around so that helps.

21) Favorite use of irony in a movie. (This could be an idea, moment, scene, or an entire film.)

"The Others" is my first thought so I'm sticking with it. "Reality Bites" has a good scene about irony in it (though I didn't care for the film overall much) - Winona Ryder's character is pushing for a job writing until she is asked to define irony. When she can't, she says "But I know it when I see it!". End of interview...

22) Favorite Claude Chabrol film.

I just saw an early film by him entitled "A Double Tour". I quite liked it even if the ending fizzled a bit. Since it's the only Chabrol I've seen (sigh, yet something else I need to fix over the next year), I'll go with that.

23) The best movie of the year to which very little attention seems to have been paid.

Hirokazu Kore-eda's "Still Walking" and Valdis Oskarsdottir's "Country Wedding". The former is a wonderful examination of a family with plenty of charm and sadness. The latter is like an hilarious Icelandic Dogme 95 road film done by Christopher Guest.

Neither has been released in North America as far as I know though, so maybe I'll go with "Forgetting Sarah Marshall". The trailer didn't sell the movie at all, but when I began hearing some pretty decent reviews in a few corners, I caught up with it on DVD. The cast is great, there's some real character based humour, Russell Brand is terrific and Jason Seagel's "Dracula" song deserves an Oscar nomination.

24) Dennis Christopher or Robby Benson?

Robby Benson always kinda creeped me out on the cover of my sister's Tiger Beat magazines...And anyway, "Breaking Away" is a favourite film of mine, so how can I not choose Christopher? On top of that, while looking at his credits on IMDB, I see that he has way more than I expected, appeared in a Fellini film ("Roma"), two Altman ones ("3 Women", "A Wedding") and an Oscar winner for Best Picture ("Chariots Of Fire").

25) Favorite movie about journalism.

"All The President's Men" is the obvious choice and also a damn good choice. But I think I'll lean towards "Almost Famous" simply because I like to mention that film whenever I can.

26) What’s the DVD commentary you’d most like to hear? Who would be on the audio track?

I'd love to hear a Buster Keaton commentary over any of his films talking about his stunts, how they were filmed and what it was like making pictures at that time. I always found him fascinating whenever I heard interviews in his later years.

27) Favorite movie directed by Clint Eastwood.

His films don't typically scream out to me that I need to see them..."Unforgiven" is the exception.

28) Paul Dooley or Kurtwood Smith?

Dooley. Didn't I just say that "Breaking Away" is a favourite?

29) Your clairvoyant moment: Make a prediction about the Oscar season.

"Man On Wire" for Best Documentary, "WALL-E" for Best Animated Picture (going out on a limb for that one...) and they will likely pick the least deserving song for Best Song.

30) Your hope for the movies in 2009.

That they keep getting made.

31) What’s your top 10 of 2008? (If you have a blog and have your list posted, please feel free to leave a link to the post.)

Well, my blog posting when I get to it later this week will be more about the best things I saw this year (regardless of when they were made) because I rarely see enough new films in a calendar year to talk about the best over the past 12 months. I did see a bunch this year though, but mostly from film festivals. Here goes anyway:

1. Synecdoche NY
2. Still Walking
3. Country Wedding
4. Man On Wire
5. Let The Right One In
7. C'est Pas Moi Je Le Jure
8. 4bia
9. Anvil! The Story Of Anvil
10. Soul Power

BONUS QUESTION (to be answered after December 25):

32) What was your favorite movie-related Christmas gift you received?

"A Century Of Canadian Cinema" by Gerald Pratley. Didn't even know the book existed and I'm woefully ignorant on my own nation's film history.

Tuesday 23 December 2008

Basking In The Cesspool Of Filth #9

Forgive me if I don't have anything particularly insightful to add in the following post...It's a few days before Christmas and I'm already bloated from overindulgence. But what's Christmas without a few horror films?

The Return Of Dracula (1958 - Paul Landres) - If the whole film doesn't quite live up to its opening image...

...that's quite all right because it's still a good deal of fun. Due in part to Francis Lederer...

...and this guy...

...and some nicely composed shots...

...and a confused young woman...

...and vampires NOT being in the mirror...

...and a single splash of colour.

The Vampire (1957 - Paul Landres) - This earlier Landres effort is not a great film by any stretch, nor is it overly scary or even suspenseful. But it was still entertaining and has one of the great metamorphosis scenes I've seen in awhile:

That second screencap is a dead ringer for how I look the next morning after a bender.

The Devil Rides Out (1968 - Terence Fisher) - I expected a bit more from this tale of devil worshipers trying to rope in two new members since I had heard it was one of Hammer Studios' best works. It looked great (so does everything I've seen by Terence Fisher and Freddie Francis so far), but it didn't generate enough creepy scenes or an intriguing enough plot to really hold my attention. Still, there were several moments and some fun scenes:

How great is Charles Gray's stare in this film? That's a rhetorical question - it's great and you can't deny it. Known more for being Blofeld or The Criminologist in Rocky Horror, I think he's the best thing about this film.

So what went wrong? Even Christopher Lee doesn't know...

Monday 22 December 2008

Goin' In Blind #5 - Going Places

"Goin' In Blind is a series of reviews of movies that I had never heard of in any context before I picked them up off the (physical or virtual) DVD rental shelf. Take a look also at He Shot Cyrus' Never Heard Of It series of posts. We both independently started doing them around the same time, but his are far more interesting...

"Going Places" is not the proper translation of the name of this 1974 French film. It's proper title is actually "Les Valseuses" which technically translates to "The Waltzers" or more generically "people who go off in all different directions". However, the English title still fits as a reasonable one as long as you attach some irony to it. The two wandering small time crooks in the film do indeed go to many different places as they bounce around aimlessly - but they never really arrive anywhere.

They sure do get around though and get involved in numerous thefts and petty crimes (not usually very well-though out ones).

Jean-Claude (Gerard Depardieu) and Pierrot (Patrick Dewaere) are the two unemployed criminals and we meet them at the outset as they tail an older woman back to her apartment and taunt and frighten her into giving up her purse. Soon they are chased out of the town - a somewhat repeating theme throughout the film...

I have to say that I was a bit conflicted in my feelings for the film...On the one hand, it has Jeanne Moreau and the beautiful young Miou-Miou, a variety of different locations and numerous surprises, but on the other its two main protagonists are just plain unlikeable. I considered turning it off after about half an hour - did I really want to spend lots of time with these two creeps? Along with all the stealing and complete lack of empathy for anyone else, they also tend to treat women like crap. The scene with the old woman at the start as well as a really disturbing one on a train (where they move in on a lone woman with a baby) were both hard to watch because of the intimidation and fear to which each woman was subjected.

But then there's Marie-Ange (Miou-Miou) - the lovely young blonde who seems bored with just about everything she does and everyone she's with. She lets the two of them stay at her place, have sex with her, treat her in demeaning ways and yet has no problem whenever they come back to her. It's hard to understand her, but my curiosity was certainly piqued.

Then there's the older Jeanne (Jeanne Moreau). While trying to pick up some young ladies at a bowling alley one night (and getting rebuffed), Jean-Claude comes up with the idea of going after an older, experienced and possibly desperate woman. And who better than a just released female convict? They find her just outside the prison walls and though she is wary of the young men (inexplicably, one of them calls her ugly), she slowly warms to them. And they start to show some respect.

After an "incident" with Jeanne, Jean-Claude and Pierrot are on the move again and Miou-Miou is along for the ride. The adventures continue and no matter my feelings about the male characters, their motives and whether I care what happens to them, I was still caught up in the episodic nature of the story. Especially during one of the more amusing sections when the three travellers have brought Jeanne's son to their temporary abode. He seems shy and a bit awkward, so the two men convince him to go to bed with Marie-Ange (who simply accepts their offer). We've discovered earlier in the film that she has never had an orgasm - so sex for her isn't something that she really cares about either way. But this time, the young timid man is able to bring her to the heights of passion. Her screams of delight are heard by Jean-Claude and Pierrot as they walk by a river and it stops them in their tracks as they both realize the young man is accomplishing what neither of them could do...

I saw the film about a month ago (I'm nothing if not timely on this blog!) and I must admit it has grown in my estimation the more I've sat back to reflect on it. The women seem to be the ones who hold the power in the end - making their own decisions and gaining their own freedoms. It's filled with some darkly comic moments including some of the small comeuppances the men receive throughout, so that eases my reservations somewhat...

It also has an early appearance by Isabelle Huppert:

And I love the last image of the film...The newly pilfered Citroen (possibly the same one they booby trapped earlier in the film) speeding along a dangerous road and disappearing into a tunnel. The implications, innuendos and possibilities all contained in that one shot were the final reward for me.