Picking Winners for Worthless Awards

Ginny says my posts are gibberish, so here’s a more straightforward one: my picks (not predictions) for the 2010 Oscar winners.

Best picture: A Serious Man

Best actress: Meryl Streep for Julie & Julia

Best supporting actress: Mo’Nique for Precious

Best actor: n/a

Best supporting actor: Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds

Best animated feature: Fantastic Mr. Fox

Best cinematography: Das Weisse Band

Best director: Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds

Best documentary: The Cove

Best foreign film: Un Prophete

No one cares about the rest. I don’t watch many movies so I can’t comment on many of those that were nominated. Also, I’ve decided that Up is not just “overrated,” it’s downright mediocre. This was reinforced when I re-watched a bit of Wall-E again. Oh, and I went to Boston’s MFA yesterday and sadly discovered that I had missed their one & only screening of I Killed My Mother by just 20 hours.

2009 Movie Recap

I saw 169 films for the first time this year, about 70 of which were films actually from 2009, and 30 of which were foreign films. 37% of my total were dramas, 28% were documentaries, 18% were comedies, and 17% were thrillers or action flicks.

Most Overrated:
1. Invictus: moralizing, expositional, tension-free… strong performances couldn’t save Eastwood’s mediocre telling of an interesting, complex story.
2. Up: the first minutes are gold, up until the house lands in S. America. The introduction of Indiana Jones-esque pseudo-adventure and talking dogs sadly killed this.
3. The Hurt Locker: I would’ve liked this better if it were called GI Joe: Rise of the Defusers. That way I would’ve gone in prepared for wildly unrealistic scenarios and larger-than-life superheros. At least the acting & direction were superb.

Surprisingly terrible: The Box
Surprisingly good: Away We Go
Predictably terrible: 2012
Predictably good: 500 Days of Summer

First seen: Synecdoche, New York on 01/01/09
Last seen: Nos Que Aqui Estamos Por Vos Esperamos on 12/31/09

My favorite films, loosely ranked in order:

1. I Killed My Mother
2. A Prophet
3. Everyone Else
4. 500 Days of Summer
5. Dogtooth
6. The Cove
7. You, the Living *
8. The Road
9. It Felt Like a Kiss
10. Moon
11. Home
12. Food, Inc.
13. District 9
14. The Class *
15. Where the Wild Things Are

* These were released overseas earlier, but Roger Ebert (using US release/distribution dates) counts them for ’09 so I will too.

Decade Recap

Has this been, like, the worst decade ever or what? Time Magazine seems to think so. They don’t hold back: “Call it the Decade from Hell, or the Reckoning, or the Decade of Broken Dreams, or the Lost Decade. Call it whatever you want — just give thanks that it is nearly over.” I’m surprised this got published, but I can’t say I disagree (some hyperbole notwithstanding). My decade started with promise, then took a sharp downturn real fast. Maybe this New Year’s Eve I’ll rub the belly of a white rabbit to ward off the curse of the fukú.

I like that 2009’s end-of-year lists are all turning into end-of-decade lists. Here’s Telegraph’s list of the top 100 films, and here’s The Times Online’s version; I’ve seen 64% and 68%, respectively, of the films on there. Both lists are pretty shite though, with the possible exception of The Times putting Cache/Hidden at #1. (I may be re-considering The White Ribbon too. We’ll see.) Oh, and Telegraph putting an unreleased film on their list, not to mention Fahrenheit 9/11 at the very top, is pretty LOL.

This has really nothing to do with this past decade, but Zizek’s got a new essay on Lacan.com called “Denial: The Liberal Utopia” that’s worth reading; at least the first section is, I zoned out a bit on the Confucius stuff. His discussion of 1988’s They Live and “critico-ideological glasses” is really top-notch, imo.

Lastly, I have to at least mention this Afghanistan travesty, which I’m hoping will somehow pull the public away from the Tiger Woods drama. I liked Bob Herbert’s NYT essay on this, mostly because he quoted Eisenhower:

“I hate war,” said Dwight Eisenhower,  “as only a soldier who has lived it can, as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” He also said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”

I suspect the impotent Left will wave & holler for a while before giving up and not even protesting when their congressmen quietly vote to fund this escalation. I was hoping the Right would oppose this out of knee-jerk hatred of everything Obama does/says/thinks/is, but it looks like their love affair with cluster-bombs and nifty predator drones will win out; militarism ekes out racism FTW. Well, FTL for Afghans, who will see their “Decade From Hell” stretched a little further.

You, the Living

One of my favorite films is a little-known Swedish tragicomedy called Songs From the Second Floor, made by first-time director Roy Andersson in 2000. His ostensible sequel (there’s supposed to be a trilogy) was released in 2007 but still not widely available. This second outing is entitled You, the Living (Swe: “Du Levande”), named after the Goethe quote that opens the film: “Be pleased then, you the living, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe’s ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot.”

An equally appropriate (albeit less high-brow) quote could’ve come from Woody Allen at the beginning of Annie Hall where Alvy Singer says life is “full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.” Suffice to say, Andersson’s outlook is bleak and misanthropic to the core. Which makes me think of Michael Haneke, since I also just watched The White Ribbon, the punishingly dark winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. But if I’m going to sit through such misery, at least Andersson delivers with a mordant wit and deadpan humor that keeps You, the Living afloat.

And unlike Haneke’s, in Andersson’s films if there’s anything unwatchable it is only on-screen for a few minutes. You, the Living is composed of 50 absurdist vignettes, all filmed in one take and almost always using one fixed camera. Like Songs From the Second Floor, the film’s occupants are primarily ashen, lethargic, and mostly anhedonic. Some characters pop up in multiple segments, but often the individual stories have next to no connection to one another. Most of the pieces deal with life’s humiliations in one form or another, although You, the Living is still lighter and more accessible than Songs From the Second Floor. In my favorite storyline, a girl named Anna is approaching despair over her unrequited love affair with a band’s singer. Even her dreams mock her, in what has to be one of the most beautiful film sequences I’ve ever seen:

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World Film Festival: Part II

Well the World Film Festival was kind of a bust for me. I couldn’t come up with a good schedule and ended up with one very stacked on the last 4 days… which turned out to coincide with me getting sick. I’ve got a couple gripes with how things were run too, all confirming my initial suspicion that the WFFB is definitely playing second fiddle to the Bangkok International Film Festival. So in the end I only saw 5 films; reviews of the first three are here, and the latter two are below.

Letter to a Child / Otroci

Country: Slovenia
Director: Vlado Å kafar
Length: 100 mins.
Rating: C

Synopsis:
““Letter to a Child” combines intimate conversations with perfect strangers and personal letters contemplating bits and pieces of life, collected and addressed to a child. In a series of “guided monologues” people – from kindergarten children to the vintage ages – are contemplating and reliving their lives.”

I really like the simple premise of this documentary — just record people telling their stories — but I found the execution pretty ho-hum. The interviews span seven different age groups, from precocious children up to a dying old man, and vary greatly in quality. Director Å kafar probably should’ve spoken with more people and then extracted the best moments and most intriguing stories. We don’t need, for example, a half hour of banal observations from adolescents about how life is all about “having fun.” I got the feeling that pretty much everyone Å kafar spoke with was included in the film. The best moments, the parts that I suspect are driving the good reviews, don’t come until the 3rd act. There’s a heartbreaking interview with a middle-aged couple who lost both their children in separate car wrecks (even this could’ve been edited down), and a poignant bit with a senile geezer struggling to get through the poem “Memento Mori” by Slovenian poet France PreÅ¡eren. Otherwise… meh. One film critic noted Letter to a Child‘s “radical artlessness,” except he found this praiseworthy and I did not. Maybe that reviewer had just come from 2012 and found this refreshing. But for me, a complete lack of style and sometimes less-than-compelling interviews do this film in.

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World Film Festival of Bangkok

The 7th annual World Film Festival of Bangkok kicked off a week ago, but for a variety of reasons I’ve only managed to see three movies so far, including two today. The three films have also delivered three odd coincidences, which I’ll detail as we go along. As usual, I’ll use (perhaps with slight editing) the film synopses that the festival organizers wrote themselves.

Home / (trailer)

Country: Switzerland
Director: Ursula Meier
Length: 98 mins.
Rating: A-

Synopsis:
“A family’s peaceful existence is threatened when a busy highway is opened only meters away from their isolated house in the middle of nowhere. Refusing to move, Marthe, Michel and their three children find innovative ways to adapt to their new environment. They continue their happy-go-lucky routine despite the daily stress of hundreds of noisy speeding cars. But suspicions about the highway’s unknown long-term dangers cause family tension.”

I’m not sure that synopsis quite captures what a nightmarish film this ends up as. As you might imagine, the bucolic environment is utterly shattered by the sudden intrusion of overwhelming noise pollution. Home essentially chronicles one close-knit family’s descent into insanity as they attempt to cope with, then block out, the deafening highway roar. The breakdowns are varied, but with the inexorable march of automobiles comes each individual’s inexorable march toward madness. Viewers are also taken along this ride, since the noise pollution from the highway contaminates the theater as well (albeit to a lesser extent). Meier does an excellent job transitioning between each of the film’s three sections (normal/loud/quiet, respectively), aided by great cinematography – including two memorable tracking shots. In its depiction of communal isolation, Home reminded me a lot of Dogtooth, also a quiet horror flick. In psychology there’s a concept known as “group polarization” that highlights the radicalizing effects of a group (both peculiar families in these cases). Crazy-pushes-crazy until (as in both films) something finally snaps, creating unpleasant scenarios but fantastic movie-going experiences.

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Where the Wild Moon Hungers

Last week Mike & I went to a theater on Camp Foster to see Where the Wild Things Are. I had pretty mixed feelings about it — I was mostly frustrated with how uneven the film is. I’m glad it’s not a “kids movie” and I’m glad it’s devoid of both moralism & paternalism. Yet Where the Wild Things Are never quite finds the momentum needed to turn it into a truly great film. There are dazzling bits in this film — exciting, hilarious, creatively genius bits… but at the end you’re left wondering, “Is that all?” There’s no disguising the fact that the runtime is too long and the script too thin. I kept wishing that Charlie Kauffman and/or Michel Gondry had had a hand in this, no matter how much I respect Jonze & Eggers. If someone told me they loved this film (my sister), I’d totally understand… but I’d likewise understand if someone said they hated it (my brother).

I did see two movies recently I’d really recommend that both seem to be flying under the mainstream radar. The first one is Hunger, which I saw a few weeks ago. It’s an unconventional picture of Bobby Sands‘ agonizing last days that is quietly brutal. It’s occasionally difficult to watch (the hunger strike, prison abuse, etc) but honest and pays off if you stick with it. Other than Michael Fassbender’s painful physical transformation for this film, the real highlight is an epic 17-minute unbroken medium shot. It’s supposedly the longest shot in film history and simply features Sands and his priest talking & smoking. Only one of the reasons that makes this movie a must-see.

Lastly, a couple nights ago I watched the indie sci-fi flick Moon, starring Sam Rockwell. It centers around Sam Bell, an employee working in solitude on the moon harvesting energy for use on earth. With two weeks to go until his three-year contract is up and he jets home, Bell starts (or continues) going a little batty in the head and, as a result, accidentally wrecks his moon-buggy. After that… I can’t say. But don’t get me wrong: it’s not a “thriller” per se, with crazy surprises and mega-twists in the plot — but I don’t want to spoil all the fun. It’s just that the real strength of Moon lies with Rockwell, who delivers an Oscar-worthy performance, and the atmospherics (cinematography and great soundtrack by Clint Mansell). Since I’m not in the USA I don’t know if this in theaters or what, but check it out if there’s an opportunity.

It Felt Like a Trap

I’ve spent the last couple of days of soaking up more films by Adam Curtis, one of the best living documentary filmmakers. Last year I watched The Power of Nightmares; earlier this year I saw The Century of the Self; lately I’ve been working through his two most recent: The Trap (2007) and It Felt Like a Kiss (2009).

It Felt Like a Kiss is an experimental film that is a haunting evocation of the essence of life during the Cold War. Its cast features “Rock Hudson, Saddam Hussein, Lee Harvey Oswald, Doris Day, Enos the chimp, and everyone above Level 7 in the CIA.” The excellent soundtrack was composed by Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz, etc) and performed by the Kronos Quartet, with loads of additional pop tracks from the period. There’s no real semblance of a plot or, unlike Curtis’ other films, any sort of thesis. It Felt Like a Kiss is quintessential Curtis in terms of look: heavy use of montages (including some dizzying works of editing genius) and heavy use of archival footage, proving that Curtis probably spends 8 hours a day poring through old film reels. Yet this is also a new Curtis — less documentarian, more artist. The result is a trippy hour-long exploration of the ironies, oddities, and ambiguities of 3 or 4 of the most pivotal decades in American history. Were the U.S. a psychotic individual, this film would be its deranged subconscious bubbling up, exposing some of the roots of our modern American madness.

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B.I.F.F. Day 5

Just got home from the last film of the Bangkok International Film Festival and still bummed I knocked out all the best films straight off, though Everyone Else was minor redemption in my otherwise consistent slide to the bottom. Tonight’s full house screening of Mammoth was no exception, sadly.

mammoth_detMammoth (trailer)

Country: Sweden
Director: Lukas Moodysson
Length: 124 mins
Grade: D-

Synopsis: “Leo and Ellen are a successful New York couple, totally immersed in their work. Leo is the creator of a profitable website [a Kongregate rip-off] and finds himself in the world of easy money and big decisions. Ellen is a dedicated ER surgeon who devotes her long shifts to saving lives. Their eight-year-old daughter Jackie spends most of her time with her Filipino nanny Gloria.When Leo travels to Bangkok, he unwittingly sets off a chain of events that will have dramatic consequences on himself and his family.”

Don’t believe the synopsis. Leo (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) does nothing even vaguely similar to setting off a chain of events. In fact, the film is offensive simply for pretending there are “dramatic consequences” for this family. Because Leo & Ellen (Michelle Williams) aren’t just “successful,” they’re filthy rich to the order of tens of millions of dollars. The most dramatic thing to happen to them, and this is ridiculously underscored in the parting shot even, is that they no longer have a live-in nanny/maid and will have to find a new one. That’s it, and I’m not exaggerating. That’s the big conclusion. Yawn.

The fact is that Mammoth is a wholly pointless and utterly plotless movie that rightfully met with a vigorous chorus of boos at the Berlin International Film Festival. Blues Clues has more of a plot than this movie, at least for 80% of the film. In the last 20% director Moodysson attempts to salvage his movie by punishing all non-white, non-rich, non-Soho-dwelling characters in the film. And does this for no discernible reason. Mammoth is like a less-offensive Babel clone, except unfortunately it’s still a Babel clone, by which I mean to say it’s terrible. Beautifully shot, with excellent actors, on fantastic locations**… all in service of a banal script that’s knee-deep in elephant shit. I almost rated this better than Jamila and the President before realizing that Mammoth is equally pretentious, except here the whole brouhaha is simply to make this point: sometimes life is sad, I mean, like real sad, for us rich folks.

** A Swedish / German / Danish production with Mexican & caucasian leads playing a New York couple with a Filipino nanny, Singaporean business partners, African-American coworkers; shot on location in Soho, Olongapo, Bangkok, and some Phuket-esque beach… wowee, it’s all so multi-cultural, isn’t that cute? How precious, just precious.

B.I.F.F Day 4

I had a pretty mixed experience yesterday at the Bangkok International Film Festival. I only saw two movies, one shitty and one great, but mostly kept wishing I could re-watch I Killed My Mother. Tonight is my final film, Mammoth, which will probably play to a very packed house. It’s been really fun to attend a major film festival, and a cheap one at that (ended up being ~$2.60 per film).

Jamila and thre President - Poster4Jamila and the President / Jamila dan Sang Presiden

Country: Indonesia
Director: Ratna Sarumpaet
Length: 97 mins
Grade: D

Synopsis: “Jamila is a prostitute serving a life sentence behind bars. She surrenders herself to the authorities after admitting she killed a high-ranking minister, and refuses to be represented by any lawyer or request a plea to ease her sentence. The controversy spreads all over the nation, followed by a reaction from a militant group forcing the government to give the death penalty to Jamila. The prison slowly reveals Jamila’s story: she is a victim of child trafficking, a crime that has become a custom in many places. Jamila represents millions of children who has been sold in the name of poverty and the lack of education.”

Weighty, important subject matter does not necessarily mean a weighty, important film. Jamila and the President is overwrought, daytime soap opera material. Good production values can’t hide the fact that there’s nothing at its core except a poor script overacted by melodramatic people. Sarumpaet adapted the screenplay from her own theater play and this is very obvious in a few key scenes that don’t translate well to film at all. Most characters act illogically and unrealistically, and by the end I cared little about or for any of them. My bad experience with this movie was not helped by subtitles that were poorly translated and written in large, Comic Sans font.

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B.I.F.F. Day 3

Last night’s films were quite a change from the bing-blang-blaow extravaganza that was Dogtooth, A Prophet, and I Killed My Mother. These two were also different in that both had Q&A sessions afterward with the film’s director. I’ve also used some forward-thinking and bought tonight & tomorrow’s tickets ahead of time so I can stop showing up 75 minutes early and still only get mediocre seats.

Petition - Poster2Petition

Country: China / France
Director: Zhao Liang
Length: 123 mins
Grade: B

Synopsis: “Since 1996 Zhao Liang has filmed the “petitioners,” who come from all over China to make complaints in Beijing about abuses and injustices committed by the local authorities. Gathered near the complaints offices, around the southern railway station of Beijing, the complainants wait for months or years to obtain justice. Peasants thrown off their land, workers from factories which have gone into liquidation, small homeowners who have seen their houses demolished but received no compensation, all types of cases are represented. The film was shot right up to the start of the Olympic Games, showing the persistent contradictions of China in the midst of powerful economic expansion.”

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BFF With BFF

I’ve been serendipitously dropped in Thailand just in time for the Bangkok Farang Festival Film Festival. Kick off was last Thursday with an invitation-only screening of Bad Lieutenant and runs until this coming Wednesday. I’ve still been fighting the same cold from Argentina, only this past week it ramped up to bona fide H1N1 proportions and wiped me out. All that to say, I didn’t get to see anything until Saturday evening. My three reviews from my first 2 days are below. Each cheesy synopsis is copied verbatim from the Bangkok Film Festival guide.

kynodontas-2009Dogtooth / Kynodontas (trailer)

Country: Greece
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Length: 96 mins
Acclaim: Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes
Grade: A-

Synopsis: “A father, a mother and their three kids live in a house in the outskirts of a city. There is a tall fence surrounding the house. The kids have never left the house. They are being educated, entertained, bored and exercised in the manner that their parents deem appropriate, without any influence from the outside world. They believe that the airplanes flying through the sky are toys and that zombies are small yellow flowers. The only person allowed to enter the house is Christina.”

Christina is introduced by Father (all characters are nameless) to perfunctorily satisfy the sexual drives of Son, and of course with the introduction of sex things start to fall apart pretty quickly.  In the world of Dogtooth, that old Baptist joke proves true: avoid sex, because it leads to movie-watching, which leads to dancing. Christina triggers a cataclysmic unraveling of the carefully manufactured world the children live in, all leading to an agonizing climax that could’ve been written by Flannery O’Connor herself.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a refreshingly bizarre piece of filmmaking. Everything about this movie is askew: its morals, its personalities, its reality, even its camerawork — though the cinematography (with tons of fixed camera shots) makes for a really beautiful-looking film. Very little is explained by Lanthimos, forcing viewers to piece things together on their own and provide their own interpretations (Why, for example, are the parents doing this? What’s up with the oft-discussed, never-seen, possibly-nonexistent 2nd Son? etc). Dogtooth is a masterful work of dark, black comedy with enough tragedy to make it stick. It’s hard to even pinpoint why such an crazy, off-center film is so damn riveting — right down to the killer last shot, a testament to the power of subtle horror.

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