Tag Archives: Oscars

Top Ten of 2009

10. The Hurt Locker

This taut Iraqi war thriller uses very few special effects. Perhaps it is because it more a character drama than an action flick. Bigelow elevates what could have been a very standard film about defusing bombs by focusing on the motivations of the leader of the bomb defusing crew and the two supporting men with nuances of their own. What really propels this film beyond mediocrity, though, is the last two scenes with James in the supermarket and the monologue he delivers to his son. Simply haunting.

9. Fanboys

Coming of age, friendship, road trip, kitsch, blah blah blah. But really? Kristen bell in a Princess Leia bikini!

8. Avatar

The story is older than time to the point of trite. It is a Bush-era alien Pocahontas. Yet when the first floating pink flower starts swirling mid-air and flies out into the audience, none of that seems to matter. The fact that half the lines are clunky can be ignored when you are staring at a ten-foot tall blue creature speaking in a completely invented language with perfect human emotional nuances.

7. Up in the Air

I love airports, airplanes, flying, frequent flyer miles, etc. Ryan Bingham’s life is the life I want. Thus, I found the first 2/3 of this movie extremely fun and witty. The acting really gave it the extra zing of sitting in the front row of the theater an enjoyable experience. Although, I did not find the ending at all satisfying, I also recognize that I am supposed to be left disturbed. I am supposed to realize what Bingham realizes: life cannot be lived without making human connections. It is a hard lesson to learn at any age, but even harder at Bingham’s. Oh, also, the economy sucks.

6. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

This was my favorite book of the series. I have already come to accept that with the exception of Prisoner of Azkaban, the movies will never be as good as the books. However, HBP came very close. It was visually stunning; Yates captured the frolicking frivolity of adolescence and the ensuing “snogging”; the Dumbledore/Harry bond was well formed. But as is common in Harry Potter movies, the ending was botched. Instead of adding an unnecessary attack on the Weasley house, Yates should have kept the Battle at Hogwarts between the Death Eaters and the Order of the Phoenix. Without the battle, there was really no reason for Draco Malfoy to be working on the transporting chamber. Also, Harry should have been petrified during the last scene instead of watching dumbly as Dumbledore is attacked. Still, this was a great 2.5 hours at the movies in a series very close to my heart.

5. The Fantastic Mr. Fox

This was really the first Wes Anderson film I actually liked. And yes, you can absolutely tell that this is a Wes Anderson film. It’s got the whimsy, the snark and even the Jason Schwartzmann! The combination really works for animation.

4. I Love You, Man

People get too caught up with appreciating the serious movies. Sometimes, you need to just recognize a good bromantic comedy when you see one. Has Paul Rudd ever made a bad movie? And after Forgetting Sarah Marshall last year and continued success with How I Met Your Mother, Jason Segel is on a roll.

3. (500) Days of Summer

I loved that this movie took the romantic comedy genre and turned it upside down. It is a far more realistic representation of relationships as they happen and how they are interpreted by each sex. I have talked to both males and females about this movie and the reactions to who was responsible for the dissolution of the relationship and the following animosity differs drastically. Written by a male, this movie does skew slightly to the boy’s side, but is overall surprisingly balanced and enjoyable by both sexes. The chemistry between Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel is palpable.

2. Inglourious Basterds

Just like all his other films, if this screenplay were directed by anyone other than Tarantino, this movie would not have worked. Divided into chapters as usual, Tarantino tells the story of Nazi hunters and Jew hunters in occupied France. The largely European ensemble is fantastically delicious with Cristoph Waltz and Melanie Laurent leading as cat and mouse respectively. Waltz, especially, masters four languages throughout the film and steals every scene he is in. The restaurant scene between Hans Landa (Waltz) and Shoshanna Dreyfus (Laurent) is so tense that the audience collectively catches its breath along with Laurent when it is over.

My only gripe about this movie is the ridiculous ending. Although it makes no pretense of trying to be serious, there are elements that are unnecessarily sloppy and I am not even talking about the part where QT rewrites history. For example, was it necessary for Operation Kino to be a suicide mission? And should the Italian directors be surprised at how fortuitous this situation is that all the Germans are LOCKED in the BURNING cinema, both elements they had not anticipated? In fact, after killing the principles of the war, they could have just left the cinema and saved their own lives and let the fire consume all the extras. Finally, Landa’s last-minute switching of sides needed a bit more explanation. All in all, though, the film had all the elements that make me love Tarantino: revenge, dialogue, style and an ode to cinema history.

1. Up

How can animated characters be more emotional than human portrayals? You could ask Zoe Saldana further down on this list or you could just ask Pete Docter who made the best Pixar film so far, Up. Pixar has established itself as the company that can make animated kid’s movie where there is no central romance involved. Of all the Pixar movies this decade, more were about friends and family (Finding Nemo, Monster’s Inc, The Incredibles, etc.) than about the romances that permeated classic Disney 2D animation (from Sleeping Beauty to Pocahontas). Even more, Pixar has embraced the non-traditional family. In this case, it is the story of an Asian-American boy with an absent father and an old bitter man living alone and the family these two people unexpectedly create. I saw this movie twice and I sobbed like a baby both times, even when I knew what was coming. The relationships presented here are so genuine and so touching, that it is hard not to let yourself go. This movie is my #1 for redefining love, animation and most of all, adventure.

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Up In The Air (2009)

Ryan Bingham is a “transition specialist,” a fancy corporate chess piece brought in to companies to fire employees when the boss cannot muster the decency to do it himself. He lives a life always on the move from airport to airport, surrounded by people, but unable to form a relationship with any of them. Bingham has lived the majority of his life with this lifestyle and has been content with it until two women come along and shake up his routine. One is the female version of himself and the other is his nightmare, a young woman essentially trying to eliminate his job. The first, Alex, gives Bingham a taste of what it means to see the same person more than once. The second, Natalie, exposes how callous he has become and perhaps there are things to be gained from softening up. Both open up the proverbial Pandora’s box.

SPOILERS:

Bingham was ignorantly bliss before these women came along and given the events of the third act, can you really say Bingham is a better person after meeting these two? Films do not always need a happy ending, but a dismal ending should be justified whether it is portraying harsh reality (as in Precious) or delivering a message (as in Atonement). Up In The Air is firmly a message piece since Bingham’s occupation is rather esoteric and not an accurate portrayal of reality. Indeed, the film is full of “messages,” but whether they are true or need to be told remains up for debate. Bingham does open himself up to pursue a relationship with Alex, but suffers quite severely from it. By the end, his life has come full circle: he continues to live airport to airport and remains single. The only difference is that at the end, he is unhappy with this situation. Surely, the pursuit of love requires vulnerability and the chance to get burned, but even then, the rejected comes out the other side with some amount of personal growth. In Bingham’s case, it is not clear that he has grown or learned something about life. In fact, the last scene shows a man that has grown weary of the game and has had the life force sucked out of him. He is not stronger and we have no idea if he will attempt to find another partner or if he will go back to a life of isolation. The tagline on the movie poster, claims that he is ready to make a connection, but it is unclear if he feels the same way by the end of the movie. On a larger scale, the audience is left to wonder if the suave, charming, fast-talking Bingham (played by an equally suave and charming George Clooney) cannot find love, then are the rest of us mortals doomed?

The other half of the plot in this film – the art of firing people – was more than just a plot device. Unlike the main plotline, the interludes of celebrity firings actually strengthened the film’s thesis that even under the most desperate circumstances, human interaction is craved. Whereas Bingham never required human connection for happiness, the people he fires do. They have families to support and children for whom to be role models and in a moment of personal tragedy, they need a real person to deliver the news rather than an email, a text or a virtual person 1,000 miles away. In his moment of personal tragedy, Bingham could have also used a human connection, but ironically, he could have avoided this tragedy if he had not put himself out at the mercy of another human.

Despite my dislike of the plot message, every other facet of this film was crafted with fine detail. The performances by Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick were stellar. The dialogue was sharp and unforced. The directorial style was not flashy, just solid. I can see how some people are eager to throw end-of-the-year accolades at this film, but 2009 has produced stronger films with more creativity (Inglourious Basterds), more emotion (Up), and more hope (District 9).

An Education (2009)

poster_an_educationAn Education (2009)

Nick Hornby’s story would have worked far better as a short story than as a feature length movie. The screenplay was full of sharp dialogue and witty one-liners. However, much of the action in this story was internal within Jenny which could benefit from expository writing. The role of Jenny put a lot of pressure on Carey Mulligan to deliver a performance that could resonate the naive, wide-eyed precociousness and eventually the disillusionment Jenny felt. Mulligan achieves the former by being as cute as a button and giving an impassioned speech to the headmistress of her school, brilliantly played by Emma Thompson. As we sit, watching Jenny gloat about the excitement in her life, we cringe because we know how wrong she is (given that we are above a certain age) and yet we also wish she was right. By the end of the movie, the disillusioned Jenny says “I feel older, but not wiser.” Indeed, growing up, causes you to, for one reason or another, abandon your pipe dreams and exit the world of fancy. Likewise, being thrust out of the world of fancy ages you immediately. This may not make you wiser, because it only exposes all that you didn’t know before. However, part of education is acknowledging how little you know. Ironically, as one gets wiser, one feels less wise.

The final outcome cannot be blamed entirely on the petulance of youth, of course. It is the responsibility of parents to foster growth, maturity and aging without completely quashing one’s spirits. Jenny’s father, hilariously portrayed by Alfred Molina, had failed her in this regard, partly as a product of the times and partly because he was projecting his own desires and fancies onto Jenny.

The theme of fancy and impracticality run deep through the movie and are embodied by the merry group of friends consisting of Peter Sarsgaard, Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike. Nick Hornby, the screenwriter, is careful not to place all the blame on this lifestyle and even glamorizes it through to the end. The object of this film is not to judge the wild, fancy, free attitude but rather to point out its role in coming-of-age and reaching a certain level of education.

Changeling (2008)

Changeling has a 142 minute run time and I still can’t find anything substantial to say about this movie…except does anyone else find the name of this movie awkward when the “The” is dropped? Also, why did the guy from Burn Notice have an accent in this movie? It sounded like a Southern drawl. So as not to leave my legions of readers (legions I say!) hot and dry, I give you the following conversation.

A: I watched Changeling last night.

M: That movie does not interest me in the least

A: I knew you were going to say that, but you are justified this time. It was pretty boring and too long.

M: What can I say, I am predictable.

A: And Angelina was not good.

M: Is that Clint Eastwood directed?

A: Yes.

M: Yeah, the impression I got was that her part mostly consisted of her screaming “Where’s my child!”

A: Yes. If I had the patience to watch it again, I would count how many times she screamed “my son.” It would give Michael from Lost a run for his money

M: haha. “WAAAAALLLLLLLTTTTTTT!”

A: Know what’s funny? The kid’s name in this movie is Walter.

M: Oh god, so much synchronocity!

I will say one last thing. Angelina is truly at her best when she plays crazy (Girl, Interrupted) or sexy badass (Wanted, Tomb Raider, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Sky Captain, Gone in 60 Seconds, etc), which bodes very well for the upcoming Edwin A. Salt. Angelina is by no stretch of the imagination an ordinary woman and I honestly don’t think she has the acting chops to make me believe she is.

An Imagined Interview with Stephen Daldry, director of The Reader

A: Hello, Stephen. How are you feeling today? Or more appropriately, how did you feel on January 22?

SD: Well, I can’t complain. It always feels good to be an Oscar nominee.

A: Not just any Oscar nominee, you obviously know. I believe you may be the only director to ever be nominated for three Oscars for his first movies!

SD: Oh thank you. I’d like to say that I planned it that way, but I certainly didn’t.

A: Was the nomination for The Reader a surprise to you?

SD: Well, wasn’t it a surprise for everyone? This movie was getting wildly mixed reviews from different critics, so I had no idea what to expect. And the release of the film was so rushed and there was so much controversy over Kate having two movies out at the same time. I try and stay out of all that happens after I make the movie.

A: What was your interaction with Harvey Weinstein like? The media makes him out to be a shrewd, calculating marketing genius.

SD: Well, he’s certainly shrewd. I will give you that. It’s funny that all three of us – Harvey, Scott [Rudin] and I – wanted the same thing. We were all looking out for the best interest of the movie. It was sort of like the three of us were going through a rough patch in our marriage and we had to keep our tempers on hold for the sake of our baby. I was not willing to release The Reader in a sub-par format and Harvey was not willing to release the movie at a time when it would make no money.

A: Can you give us any insider information on why Scott Rudin bowed out of the film? The rumor mills are saying it was because he had to choose between Revolutionary Road and The Reader and he went with Revolutionary Road.

SD: Much of that is speculation, but all I want to say is that Rudin is listed as a producer for Doubt as well. When you are involved in as many movies as Rudin is per year, you will always run into the problems of playing favorites. I think the dispute over The Reader had other political groundings that I really don’t feel comfortable commenting on.

A: Can you tell us about why you chose The Reader as your third feature film?

SD: I love literary adaptations and when David Hare signed on to be the screenwriter, I knew it would be given justice. I was eager to visualize his words again after working with him on The Hours. Also, I felt that the movie had an important message and profound talking points.

A: It actually may have had too many talking points. As I was watching the movie, I couldn’t figure out if this movie was about an unusual romance, about literacy or about the Holocaust.

SD: Can it not be all of those things?

A: Sure, but the first half and the second half seemed like they were two separate movies.

SD: Well, they were two episodes in the life of Hanna Schmitz, but it is all one life, so I cannot see how they are separate. If you view the movie as a character essay on Hanna’s life and analyze her motives for doing the things she does, everything will fall into place. The movie can be about those three things you mentioned, but at the same time, they are not about any of those three things specifically.

A: Since you bring up motives, a lot of criticism has erupted over both Hanna’s motives for seducing the young Michael Berg and her motives for letting the 300 Jewish women burn. Can you comment?

SD: I don’t think Hanna has her own morality. As the director, I was not trying to justify the actions of Nazi guards, but rather just delve into this woman’s psyche. In the post-World War I era, Germany was in such a state of despair and disillusionment that people were fighting for jobs and very willing to simply take orders as long as it put food on the plates. As evidenced in the courtroom scene, Hanna’s reason for not unlocking the gates was because she could not let the women escape; that was exactly what her job was supposed to prevent. So, the question becomes do we fault Hanna for being blind to the genocide she was part of or do we find her guilty of being anti-semitic?

Similarly, the morality of bedding a sixteen-year-old boy did not play any role in Hanna and Michael’s affair. As far as Hanna was concerned, Michael was a “kid” and lover that showed interest in her. In the scene where Hanna first bathes Michael, she looks down at him and says “..so that’s why you came back.” Both of their intentions were known at that point. Everything was hanging out in the open so to speak. It was not like Hanna was attempting to seduce Michael or take advantage of him clandestinely. A lot of the controversies over the sex scenes, I believe, come from American prudishness or just the uncomfortableness people feel when they see an older woman with this young boy. As a director, though, my goal is never to make a comfortable film and so the fact that this film is getting people uncomfortable, getting people talking means that I did my job. I hope people are not just saying they think these things wrong, but really take time to analyze why their morals are shaped the way they are.

A: So you find nothing wrong with a woman in her 30s sleeping with a sixteen year old boy?

SD: I think we are too traditional with our definitions of appropriate relationships. Michael and Hanna made each other happy. They provided each other with things the other needed. Isn’t that all it should take to make a relationship work?

A: Do your own personal relationships have an effect on the way you see other relationships?

SD: Certainly, my personal life affects my opinions and as much as I try to separate that from my work, some will spill over. I am a gay man with a fulfilling romantic and sexual relationship with my wife, so yes, I know a thing or two about unusual relationships. I still stand by my statement that as long as all parties involved are mutually benefiting, there is nothing wrong.

A: Both The Hours and The Reader are very different in tone from your first feature, Billy Elliot. Do you see yourself sticking to dramas or will you make another light-hearted feature?

SD: The Hours and The Reader were certainly grimmer than Billy Elliot, but I disagree that Billy Elliot is light-hearted. Sure, there was much music and dancing but there were deep, universal themes in the film. Billy Elliot was as much about escaping the world one is confined to as The Hours was about the inability to do so. I think it is very important for people to not let societal pressures be the barrier to keep you from living the life you think you are destined for and I try to embody that theme in all my work. Too many people in this world are unhappy. If you are one of the lucky ones to know what it is you need to do to make yourself happy, whether it is dancing, getting out of suburban life or learning to read, by golly go and do it. We have become so in love with conforming that we have become afraid of making ourselves happy.

A: In The Reader, Hanna does teach herself how to read, yet she is not happy. How do you explain that?

SD: Well, one of the things I liked about The Reader is that Hanna is a dynamic character. I truly believe she had time to do a lot of soul-searching in prison. At the time of the court scenes, Hanna felt no remorse, but I believe she formed a guilt she could not live with in prison. When Michael came to see her the week before she was to be released, Hanna saw the lingering disapproval and intentional distance Michael was keeping from her. Hanna literally had nothing but her guilt to keep her company.

A: This year, you have directed your fourth actress to an Oscar nomination – Julie Walters, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and now Kate Winslet. How do you know women so well?

SD: Haha, I wouldn’t say I understand women. Much of my success in that department has come from the screenwriters writing such compelling characters for these talented actresses to bring to life. Not every woman is a happy housewife sex object. Women have as many layers as men do. A good example would be the relatively simple role of ballet instructor that Julie brought to life. She understood something about the very blue-collar environment in which her character lived and infused that culture into all her actions.

A: Well, that was certainly a more sensitive answer than Melvin Udall [from As Good As It Gets] gave! Thank you for sitting for this interview and I wish you the best of luck on Oscar night and on your next feature. You know I will be there!

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

ATTENTION: MINOR SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW

Benjamin Button tells the story of a man born with the body of someone 80 years old, but then ages backwards. I appreciated this movie for its technical achievements and the unique concept, but not much more. David Fincher’s direction certainly took ingenuity and vision, but much of it was flawed. The pacing was excruciatingly slow and a healthy proportion of the theater was getting restless in their seats as the movie progressed along its 80 year journey. Secondly, I take issues with the logistics of Benjamin’s aging. I realize that this movie is built on fantasy, but even fantasy should have some rules. For example, Benjamin is born the size of a normal baby looking like an old man and continues to grow in size (height and weight) throughout his life. Thus, it stands to reason that when he dies, he should be the size of an old man with the face and skin tone of a baby. He is born with calcified valves and arthritic joints, physiological findings in the elderly. He learns to walk by throwing off his crutches. Thus, it stands to reason that as he grows younger, his body should get physiologically younger. Yet, when he dies, he shows signs of dementia, something that should not be seen in someone so young. Eric Roth, the screenwriter, should have set the parameters of Benjamin’s life before he began writing the screenplay.

The major comparison that is made between this film is that it follows the same trajectory as Forrest Gump. This is partially true in that both movies tell life stories where the protagonist undergoes defining events and meets unique people. Gump, however, moved faster as it covered more events and served as a whirlwind journey through history. Benjamin Button had fewer events and fewer people that the protagonist met, but Fincher took his time with each episode of Benjamin’s life. Benjamin Button was certainly more of a character drama than Forrest Gump, but the only problem is that very few people have the patience to watch a 2.5 hour character drama. One episode that showed a particularly captivating character development was the one involving Tilda Swinton as a married woman with whom Benjamin had an affair. Swinton herself is such an enigma and a shapeshifter that any role she takes becomes an engaging performance.

The acting in general is phenomenal, particularly Brad Pitt as Benjamin. The role is not showy, yet Pitt gives Benjamin a personality just by smiling and body positioning. Oftentimes, the roles that win Oscars are the ones that get to deliver memorable lines or accents or a physical transformation that is the opposite of what the actor normally is. Recent performances that fit these criteria include Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich’s sassy, push-up bra wearing zingers), Philip Seymour Hoffman (losing weight and keeping a high pitched accent as Truman Capote), Nicole Kidman (prosthetic nose) and Charlize Theron (transformed into Aileen Wournos, yet still the prettiest ugly girl I have ever seen). Brad Pitt had CGI and make-up on his side, but at all points throughout the movie, he was still Brad Pitt, just at different time points. The strength in Pitt’s acting was nothing physical, but entirely emotional and the ambience he brought to each scene which is much harder than simply delivering a line.

The devil must be a photographer, because Cate Blanchett sold her soul to him ages ago. The camera undeniably loves her and her dancing scenes are lovely. The vibrancy she shows in her 20s contrasts starkly with her portrayal of a dying woman. These two portrayals plus the fact that she was a Russian spy earlier in the year proves Blanchett can do anything. Taraji P. Henson also gives an adorable performance as Benjamin’s mother although it did seem rather one-note after the first hour.

From a philosophical standpoint, the movie is beautiful as it emphasizes how paralell our childhoods are with old age. The best line in the entire movie was delivered by Blanchett: “Benjamin, in the end, we all end up in diapers.” The film also emphasizes how universal the aging process is, whether it is forward or backward. In short, Benjamin Button was a fine character essay that could benefit from some better editing and some more though put into its screenplay.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Slumdog Millionaire

I am surprised that this movie has been getting all the acclaim it has recently. In fact, this movie started garnering praise when it premiered at Toronto and it hasn’t relented since. At first, I knew nothing about this movie other than its title and judging by that alone, I thought the movie would tank. Slumdog Millionaire just seems a bit clunk and awkward, no?

Then, I read the plot synopsis. A boy who grew up in the slums finds himself at the final question on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. When accused of cheating, he explains how he is able to answer each question from past life experiences; the movie is told in a series of flashbacks. After reading the synopsis, I thought, “Hmm…not what I expected after I heard the title, but it still sounds sort of awkward.”

I had dismissed the movie, but then early December rolled around and it was literally on every single top ten list. Being Indian myself, I decided I should go support this film in the theaters. As I walked out of the theater, I was grinning ear to ear, but I thought to myself “It’s just a feel-good movie. It won’t last and I will forget about it soon.” That was two weeks ago and I can still vividly remember how Jamal was able to answer each of his questions.

I still do not think that the plot is anything unique since it follows the basic epic hero journey archetype. Jamal is the hero, his life goal is Latika’s love and every single entity of his life gets in his way. It is a classic boy meets girl, but boy cannot have girl story typical of every romantic comedy, epic romance and 95% of Bollywood films. Yet, somehow, Slumdog Millionaire managed to distinguish itself. The difference lies within Danny Boyle.

The most lauded aspect of the movie has been the direction and the vibrancy of the storytelling. I must agree with this. The cinematography, the colors, and the score all culminate to make the story jump off the screen and remain indelible in our minds. Boyle’s biggest strength, arguably, is his ease in directing children. He had proved it with Millions before, but the scenes he directed with the youngest Jamal, Salim (Jamal’s older brother) and Latika were so endearing I never wanted the children to grow up, because things could only get worse.

And worse they got. Perhaps one reason why I am not falling into the glut of unequivocal praise for this movie is that it reminded me too much of The Kite Runner (a book which I despised). Think of every horrible contrived thing that could happen to one boy (with a heart of gold, no less) and see if he can still rise up after he has been beaten down repeatedly by each insult. Both The Kite Runner and Slumdog Millionaire worked upon this framework, but the execution in Slumdog saved it from the utterly ridiculous melodrama that was the ending of The Kite Runner.

That’s not to say that the ending of Slumdog Millionaire wasn’t without its share of criticisms. For one, the movie hits us over the head with the theme of destiny, so we already know the ending. I was waiting for some inspired dialogue at the end that would cement the charm of the movie, but this is where the screenplay fails and we are left with an extremely cheesy ending line.

The light at the end of this movie was Freida Pinto, a model/actress who played the oldest Latika. Every time she was on screen, it was luminescent and the chemistry between Pinto and Dev Patel was undeniable. It is strange that Patel is the one receiving all the acting accolades when Ayush Mahesh Khedekar (youngest Jamal), Madhur Mittal (oldest Salim) and Anil Kapoor (show host, Prem Kumar) all gave outstanding performances.

The Oscars are fickle and have strange rules, so I am not sure if the A.R. Rahman score is eligible, but if it is, it must get nominated. The beats and the choice of M.I.A. songs added so much to this movie. It is quite a shame that Pineapple Express came out before Slumdog and pretty much relegated Paper Planes to being a pothead song, because it fits far better in Slumdog. In short, this is a film to check out; just don’t go into it with lofty expectations from all the hype.