Thursday, February 24, 2011

Oscar predix: The BIG ones

When the Oscars air Sunday, Sunday just might be a literal term for me.

This will be the first year I'm not watching the Oscars in Ohio. I'm taking a trip down to the Mouse House in Florida, where I understand the sun has been rather abundant of late. So not long after I wipe myself out walking through World Showcase at Epcot, I will be relaxing and watching the telecast

However, since I'm quite busy getting ready for the trip, I MIGHT not have time to predict as many categories as I usually do, or go into great detail on how I made all my picks.

That being the case, I plan to at least give you the major categories now, and if time allows, I will at least list the techs on Friday. I will also be Tweeting @sircritic and posting on Facebook that evening if you'd like to follow me in those domains.

For now, here are the Big Six in this domain:


Javier Bardem, Biutiful: He has a lot of passionate supporters and was something of a surprise nominee. He’s almost always great. But his film has not been widely seen, and it’s not that well liked.

Jeff Bridges, True Grit: He’s one of the industry’s most well-respected actors, and he accomplished the unenviable task of following in John Wayne’s footsteps. Only thing is, he just won last year, for Crazy Heart, and I’m not sure he’s SO beloved to win two years in a row, like Spencer Tracy and Tom Hanks did.

Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network: He very effectively shattered the beef against him that he plays the same likable geek every time, playing Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg as a standoffish genius/traitor, bu he still found an emotional center to the role. I think some voters will be put off by the coldness of the character, though.

Colin Firth, The King’s Speech: He had to play someone who was afraid of his own shadow, but who still seemed like he could be king, and he did it with absolute assurance. Firth is extremely well-liked, and he has a lot of goodwill from his nomination for A Single Man last year. And he’s in the presumed Best Picture winner. The Oscar is his to lose.

James Franco, 127 Hours: He had to carry an entire film almost on the strength of his performance. He is very often the only character onscreen. He IS the film. He’s co-hosting the Oscars this Sunday, so obviously he’s very well liked. However, many find a movie about a man who has to hack his own arm off a very tough sit.

Sir Critic’s prediction: Colin Firth

If it were up to me: Much as I love Firth's performance, I think Eisenberg did the canniest, trickiest work of the lot.


Annette Bening, The Kids are All Right: Let’s face it, Bening is greatly overdue. If anyone can beat front-runner Portman, it’s her. Bening will win someday. Just not this year.

Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole: Kidman turned in her best work in years for this very affecting film, but Rabbit Hole never gained much traction, and Kidman won fairly recently for The Hours.

Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone: Her film has a fervent following, and it’s largely because of her. She was very natural and powerful in a difficult part, and she’s only 20. But all that being the case, she’ll be back.This isn’t her time.

Natalie Portman, Black Swan: She’s won every precursor award under the sun, and even people who didn’t like Black Swan tip their hats to Portman. The one thing that might trip her up is fatigue; she has two movie in theaters now, with at least two more on the way.

Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine: Much as she did in Brokeback Mountain she took the part of a tragic figure and made her mutli-dimensional. But like Kidman, she’s the lone nominee from her film, which hurts her chances. Some other year.

Sir Critic's prediction: Natalie Portman

If it were up to me: Portman gave the performance of the year. Period. If anyone else wins, even the great Michelle Williams, Natalie will have been robbed.


Christian Bale, The Fighter: Bale once again amazed with his chameleon-like abiltites. You completely by him as a gaunt crackhead and forget he was Batman. The question is, are people ready to forgive his sometimes boorish behavior? I think so.

John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone: Hawkes impressed many with his haunting turn as Jennifer Lawrene’s uncle. But the film is remembered primarily as Lawrence’s vehicle.

Jeremy Renner, The Town: Renner is on a roll, having been nominated last year for his similar live-wire performance in The Hurt Locker. However, The Town did not score very high in the nominations.

Mark Ruffalo, The Kids are All Right: He’s immensely winning as a man who tries to connect with the biological children he’s never known. He’s been doing good work for years, so he’s due - but this role may not be hefty enough.

Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech: Riotously funny but still maintainng gravitas when needed. Rush's performane is as key to the success of The King's Speech as Firth's, He’s the person most likely to upset Bale, but one must remember he’s already a winner, for the film Shine.

Sir Critic's prediction: Bale

If it Were Up to Me: It's not just Bale's weight loss that did the trick - he moved me too.


Amy Adams, The Fighter: Adams blew her goody-goody image out of the water with her tough-talking performance as Mark Wahlberg’s squeeze. This is her third nomination, so some may say she’s due. But costar Melssa Leo will cut into her vote.

Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech: Carter isn’t just due, she’s overdue, and she’s very touching as the suffering but steadfast Queen. However, her performance is a bit light compared to others in this category.

Melissa Leo, The Fighter: She completely disappeared into her role as Mark Wahlberg’s oppressive mother, and she’s won most of the precursor awards. However, she put off some voters with her misguided Oscar campaign glamour shot ads. She and Adams may cancel each other out.

Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit: The 14-year-old may be small in stature, but she loomed large in True Grit, where she was really the lead. She more than held her own with the likes of Matt Damon and Jeff Bridges and did it with supreme confidence. However, the category fraud may put off voters, as will her young age.

Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom: Many people say once you see her film, you have a hard time not voting for her. But can enough people say that?

Sir Critic’s predicton: This is the toughest call in the major races.  You could coook up any scenario for any of the nominees winning. However, I lean toward the Hailee Steinfeld scenario most strongly.

If it Were Up to Me: If I vote with my heart, I vote for Amy. But in all honesty,  Steinfeld impressed me even more.


Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan: The auteur has built a strong following over the years, and people who love Black Swan really love it. But too many people find his in-your-face approach off-putting
Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit: The Coens are among the most well respected auteurs out there, and True Grit is their biggest hit to date. But they won very recently, for .No Country for Old Men
David Fincher, The Social Network: Yet another well-regarded autueur, Fincher is long overdue for a win, and his film earned the best reviews of his career.
Tom Hooper, The King's Speech : He won the Director’s Gulld award, which makes him  a favorite, and people love his film. But the winners usually exhibit strong visual personalities, and one could argue Hooper doesn’t have that. And this time, Hooper won't have the support of guild TV directors, who I believe tipped the scales in his favor at DGA.  
David O. Russell, The Fighter : Like Fincher, he’s a respected auteur and is hitting a carrer peak. However, he has a penchant for alienating some of his actors (George Clooney refused to work for him ever again after Three Kings.)   
Sir Critic’s prediction: Conventional wisdome dictates that Hooper will take it, but I think we’ll see a repeat of Chicago’s year, when the relative neophute (Rob Marhshall) won DGA, but the autuer (Roman Polanski) won the Oscar. I predict Fincher. 
If it were up to me: The non-nominated Christopher Nolan, dammit! But since he's not here (grumble), I have to go for Fincher, who took a dialogue-driven film and still made it distinctly his. 


Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids are All Right
The King’s Speech
127 Hours 
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit 
Winter’s Bone

Sir Critic's prediction: Rather than going over each film, I’ll break this down very simply. Only three movies have a shot at winning. True Grit is the long shot, leaving The Social Network and The King’s Speech as the main contenders. It’s an old Oscar story: The warm and fuzzy traditional film vs. the edgy, rule-breaking movie that Says Something Important. Whenever that battle happens (e.g. Forrest Gump vs. Pulp Fiction, heartwarming almost always wins. The King’s Speech is the film to beat. 

If it were up to me: Inception topped my list last year. I just wish it had a chance in hell of topping Oscar's list. Oh well. I can dream, can't I? 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

HE SAID/SHE SAID: I Am Number Four

Wow! My hands come with the flashlight app! 

Timing in Hollywood just makes me laugh sometimes. Earlier this week, entertainment writer Mark Harris published a dissection of Hollywood malaise called The Day the Movies Died.

Only a day or so after Harris' essay ran, Hollywood released I Am Number Four, which turns out to be an excellent audio/visual companion to Harris' piece. You want to know why Hollywood is in trouble? Because it keeps making movies as soulless and mechanical as this one.

When one sees the words "Produced by Michael Bay." one must take the movie with a bit more than a grain of salt.I tried to take it with at least a couple of salt shakers, because the movie had potential - but it failed to live up to it.

I wish I could have seen the movie my colleague Hannah Poturalski was watching. She writes:

D.J. Caruso’s I Am Number Four was entertaining and action packed, but still romantic and thoughtful — you know, in a manly sort of way. Admittedly, I didn’t recognize the director’s name but after looking him up I realized he’s made a number of films I’ve liked — Disturbia (note: Rear Window was so good), Taking Lives, The Salton Sea.

I don't so much lay the blame at Bay's galumphing feet. He didn't direct the movie, Caruso did. And Caruso is a pretty decent action director. Unlike Mr. Bay, he knows how to shoot and edit an action scene so that a viewer can tell what in the world is going on. Caruso's problem is, he hasn't gotten a hold of a decent script lately.

Disturbia was fun, but that was a great movie only to people who had never seen Rear Window. Eagle Eye had some strong action scenes and an imaginative premise - which made less and less sense as it went on.
With I Am Number Four, history repeats itself in short order.

It starts with a fair amount of intrigue. Alex Pettyfer plays the title character, an alien teenager who travels with his guardian Henri (Timothy Olyphant). They're on the run from a batch of nasty aliens who have no hair, but a lot of really gnarly teeth. Living on Earth is difficult for Number Four (who goes by the name John Smith) because he's a showboat who has super powers. And, as is always the case in such stories, a girl (Dianna Agron, AKA Quinn of Glee) by being so darn pretty and lovable. (Added bonus for locals - it's set in a place called Paradise, Ohio, and Agron actually mentions Dayton. She must have a thing for scripts set in Ohio, since Glee is too.)

Yes, the story is about as dopey as the seventh dwarf, but for the first hour or so, it's actually fairly compelling.  The story focuses on the characters, and the lead actors are all solid. Then, it devolves into an elaborate demo reel for visual effects artists and sound editors.

For Hannah, that worked. She said:

Suspense built up pretty well throughout the film. As well the film’s imagery during the action (scenes) was good — I mainly liked seeing the big beasts fight each other.

She also found merit in the film's characters, noting,

As well, the relationship between Henri and John was a thoughtful one because they were like father and son. Henri was very protective of John and made the ultimate sacrifice. Even the friendships that develop between John and the geeky Sam (Callan McAuliffe) and bully Mark (Jake Abel) were enjoyable to watch on-screen. Pretty much all the relationships had relatable moments that made them more sincere.

Eventually, my mind got bored enough that I started asking questions. For example, Henri goes to pains to delete every digital photo of John on the net, replacing them with a handy-dandy "photo not on server" logo. Um ... maybe I'm being too logical here, but if EVERY photo of you disappears from a Facebook album, wouldn't that actually draw MORE attention to you?

The character of Number 6 (Teresa Palamer) is so thinly written, she might as well be called "Hot Chick Who Kicks Ass in the Last Reels." And I could see the final "twist" of the big battle scene coming about three country miles away.

At the very least, I had hoped I Am Number Four would be turn-your-brain-off fun, but it asked me to suspend so much disbelief that my disbelief got too heavy and crashed to the ground. I Am Number Four won't  kill the movies, but it will sure keep them on life support.


Read Hannah's full review here.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Day the Movies Died: We Don't Tell Stories Anymore

Mark Harris has written a detailed, thorough and thought-provoking analysis of why Most Movies Suck. I'll write a more considered response later, but for now I will say this: The article backs up my long-held belief that the studios are run not by entertainers who love movies, but by business majors who love profits.

But there's another key point Harris makes. It's not ALL Hollywood's fault. It's ours too. Here's a link to the piece, and some key excerpts:

The Day the Movies Died: Movies + TV: GQ

For the studios, a good new idea has become just too scary a road to travel. Inception, they will tell you, is an exceptional movie. And movies that need to be exceptional to succeed are bad business. "The scab you're picking at is called execution," says legendary producer Scott Rudin (The Social Network, True Grit). "Studios are hardwired not to bet on execution, and the terrible thing is, they're right. Because in terms of execution, most movies disappoint."

Right now, we can argue that any system that allows David Fincher to plumb the invention of Facebook and the Coen brothers to visit the old West, that lets us spend the holidays gorging on new work by Darren Aronofsky and David O. Russell, has got to mean that American filmmaking is in reasonably good health. But the truth is that we'll be back to summer—which seems to come sooner every year—in a heartbeat. And it's hard to hold out much hope when you hear the words that one studio executive, who could have been speaking for all her kin, is ready to chisel onto Hollywood's tombstone: "We don't tell stories anymore."

How did hollywood get here? There's no overarching theory, no readily identifiable villain, no single moment to which the current combination of caution, despair, and underachievement that defines studio thinking can be traced. But let's pick one anyway: Top Gun.

It's now a movie-history commonplace that the late-'60s-to-mid-'70s creative resurgence of American moviemaking—the Coppola-Altman-Penn-Nichols-Bogdanovich-Ashby decade—was cut short by two movies, Jaws in 1975 and Star Wars in 1977, that lit the fuse for the summer-blockbuster era. But good summer blockbusters never hurt anyone, and in the decade that followed, the notion of "summer movie season" entered the pop-culture lexicon, but the definition of "summer movie" was far more diverse than it is today. The label could encompass a science fiction film as hushed and somber as Alien, a two-and-a-half-hour horror movie like The Shining, a directorial vision as singular as Blade Runner, an adult film noir like Body Heat, a small-scale (yes, it was) movie like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, a frankly erotic romantic drama like An Officer and a Gentleman. Sex was okay—so was an R rating. Adults were treated as adults rather than as overgrown children hell-bent on enshrining their own arrested development.
Then came Top Gun. The man calling the shots may have been Tony Scott, but the film's real auteurs were producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, two men who pioneered the "high-concept" blockbuster—films for which the trailer or even the tagline told the story instantly. At their most basic, their movies weren't movies; they were pure product—stitched-together amalgams of amphetamine action beats, star casting, music videos, and a diamond-hard laminate of technological adrenaline all designed to distract you from their lack of internal coherence, narrative credibility, or recognizable human qualities. They were rails of celluloid cocaine with only one goal: the transient heightening of sensation.
Top Gun landed directly in the cortexes of a generation of young moviegoers whose attention spans and narrative tastes were already being recalibrated by MTV and video games. That generation of 16-to-24-year-olds—the guys who felt the rush of Top Gun because it was custom-built to excite them—is now in its forties, exactly the age of many mid- and upper-midrange studio executives. And increasingly, it is their taste, their appetite, and the aesthetic of their late-'80s postadolescence that is shaping moviemaking. Which may be a brutally unfair generalization, but also leads to a legitimate question: Who would you rather have in charge—someone whose definition of a classic is Jaws or someone whose definition of a classic is Top Gun?
....while that bland assembly-line ethos hasn't affected the small handful of terrific American movies that reach screens every year, it's been absolutely devastating for the stuff in the middle—that whole tier of movies that used to reside in quality somewhere below, say, There Will Be Blood but well north of Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married Too? It's your run-of-the-mill hey-what's-playing-tonight movie—the kind of film about which you should be able to say, "That was nothing special, but it was okay"—that has suffered most from Hollywood's collective inattention/indifference to the basic virtues of story development. If films like The Bounty Hunter and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time define the new "okay," then the system is, not to put too fine a point on it, in very deep shit.
"The sad thing," says HBO programming chief Michael Lombardo, "is that a world has closed to a group of serious storytellers—and there are some stories that should be told in a two-hour format. Our success is a sort of silver lining in a story that's economically driven by what studios are doing to try to survive in a complicated international market. But the losers ultimately are people who are looking to appreciate serious work in film."
Blaming the studios for everything lets another culprit off too easily: us. We can complain until we're hoarse that Hollywood abandoned us by ceasing to make the kinds of movies we want to see, but it's just as true that we abandoned Hollywood. Studios make movies for people who go to the movies, and the fact is, we don't go anymore—and by we, I mean the complaining class, of which, if you've read this far, you are absolutely a member. We stay home, and we do it for countless reasons: A trip to the multiplex means paying for parking, a babysitter, and overpriced unhealthy food in order to be trapped in a room with people who refuse to pay for a babysitter, as well as psychos, talkers, line repeaters, texters, cell-phone users, and bedbugs. We can see the movie later, and "later" is pretty soon—on a customized home-theater system or, forget that, just a nice big wide-screen TV, via Netflix, or Amazon streaming, or on-demand, or iPad. The urgency of seeing movies the way they're presumably intended to be seen has given way to the primacy of privacy and the security of knowing that there's really almost no risk of missing a movie you want to see and never having another opportunity to see it. Put simply, we'd rather stay home, and movies are made for people who'd rather go out.

Discuss. Please.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Those wacky MPAA explainers

GASP! It's creature terror!!!

Last night while I was watching Glee, a trailer for the new werewolf movie Red Riding Hood came on. I'm looking forward to the film. I'm a fan of Amanda Seyfried, and I like the director, Catherine Hardwicke.

However, I couldn't help but laugh at the MPAA advisory at the end. We all know that the association's rating system is a nebulous mess, to put it mildly. But seen along with their misplaced ratings are often hilarious explainers of why a movie earned its rating. 

Red Riding Hood: Rated PG-13 for violence, creature terror and some sensuality. 

"Creature terror?" What the hell is THAT? Sounds like a vague description of any of the Twilight movies. And for the record, none of them got saddled with that:

Twilight: Rated PG-13 for some violence and a scene of sensuality.
New Moon: Rated PG-13 for some violence and action
Eclipse; Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence

Nope, no "creature terror" to be found there. How bout Van Helsing? That had creatures in it.

PG-13 for nonstop creature action violence and frightening images and sensuality. 

So what's the difference between "creature action violence" and "creature terror?" Did Red Riding Hood make one of the raters nearly pee their pants? I'll give them one thing about Van Helsing, it certainly did have frightening images. Just not the kind they had in mind. 

How bout the Transformers movies? 

Transformers: PG-13 for intense sequences of of sci-fi action violence, brief sexual humor and language.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, some crude and sexual material and brief drug material.

Hm. No "giant robot terror" to be found anywhere. But I have to give the MPAA props for coming up with different wording to describe those movies' lame attempts at humor.

Were any of the Jurassic Park movies rated PG-13 for "dinosaur terror?" Come to think of it, that kind of counts as creature terror. Had these explainers been around in 1975, Jaws might have been labeled with "Carnivorous fish terror." 

But no. All we get for all three of those movies are variations of "science fiction terror." Maybe the raters were getting bored, because in 1997, things started gettting silly with their explainer for Twister

PG-13 for intense depiciton of very bad weather. 

I swear I'm not making that up. That is the MPAA's official rationale for the Twister rating. Look it up

Hey, why don't we have some real truth in the ratings. Let's try these on for size:

Your Highness: Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, pervasive language, some drug use and Natalie Portman overexposure.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon: Rated PG-13 for instellar giant robot combat, sensuality due to lack of clothing for Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, and drug references via the homage to a classic Pink Floyd album title. 

Friends with Benefits (actual Mlia Kunis rom-com about friends who start having sex): Same reasons as No Strings Attached, except with the Black Swan instead of the White Swan. 

The King's Speech: Rated R for some language. Because we all know hearing a king say "fuck" a lot is just as harmful as seeing Sharon Stone stab somebody to death with an icepick after sex.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A chat with Randy Newman (and a Pixar flashback)

February 12, 2011

Forgive me for not posting here too often lately, but I think this post will make up  for it. You see, Friday, I had the distinct pleasure of talking to one of the great singer-songwriters and film composers, Randy Newman. He is coming to Middletown, Ohio for a concert on Feb. 19, which I will attend. Linked here is my interview with him for the Middletown Journal.

As I suspected, it was a lot of fun to talk to him, and he came across as a very down-to-earth guy who happened to have a sardonic sense of humor. This was a particular honor for me, not only because of Newman's status alone, but because he was the third man I'd spoken to who worked for Pixar. Newman has composed the music for most of Pixar's movies, including all three Toy Story films, a bug's life, Monsters, Inc. and Cars.

Alas he's not written the score for this summer's Cars 2. That would have been ideal to talk to him about that   and have that part of the interview released in June, along with the film. However, Michael Giacchino has written the score for Cars 2, probably because of its international/spy caper themes, whereas Newman's music has a much more Americana vibe. All very understandable, though.

For those of you who may have missed it, or for those who'd like another look, here is my other Pixar interview, with Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera, the director/producer, respectively of Up. This post also contains a video of my interviews. I've always been rather proud of the fact that Docter liked my query about what he and his fellow filmmakers took away from Up.

Enjoy! I sure did!

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Best Films of 2010 - Better late than never

It's about here that I'm supposed to make a statement about how good or bad last year was for movies, but I'm mot going to do that. No matter how good or bad the year is, I find that the top films always deserve to be remembered - and are a refreshing reminder that, contrary to popular opinion, great movies ARE still out there - and there are many of them.

Tto be eligible for my list, a movie has to have premiered  in the Dayton area during the calendar year of 2010. (With three exceptions, as noted below).  That means that Blue Valentine won't make my list until next year.

If I gave a movie a full review, the title will link to it.

Runners-up (in alphabetical order)

Best Worst Movie - This documentary on the making of the hilariously bad Troll 2 focuses on the dichotomy between its actors, who mostly knew they were in a piece of junk - and the filmmakers, who cluelessly believed they had actually made something artful. On the whole, it's more entertaining than Troll 2 itself.

Crazy Heart - It could have been a cliched soap opera with a country twang, but in the hands of this cast and crew, it became something touching and genuine.

Despicable Me - At first glance it looked just like a funny gag reel, but actually turned out to have strong heart too. Hooray for the Minions!

Easy A: Yes, Easy A. Watch Emma Stone's performance and believe. The screenplay is sharp and witty to boot.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest: Most critics pegged this as the weakest of the "Millenium Trilogy," but I disagree. What makes it distinct is that even though it's primarily a courtroom drama, it's still dramatic and suspenseful. (The second film, The Girl Who Played with Fire, is a solid action movie, but is  the least memorable of the lot.)

Hereafter: Clint Eastwood's latest film at first landed on a lot of Oscar prognosticators' lists by default - and then disappeared. It should have stayed. It's a fascinating look not so much at the afterlife, but what people believe to be true about it and how it affects them.

Inside Job - Not being a mathematical creature at all, I have a hard time wrapping my head around the world of finance, but Charles Ferguson deconstructs the implosion of our economy with startling clarity - and the story of its unraveling is by turns despairing and enraging.

The Kids are All Right: This is the movie that JUST missed my top 10, but that takes nothing away from this terrific acting showcase about the tough love of an unconventional family.

The Town: You know, even though Ben Affleck is on camera in his second directorial effort, his very fine film convinced me that he could quit acting and go into directing - and I absolutely mean that as a compliment.

The Tillman Story: Pat Tillman never wanted anyone to make a fuss over him. He just wanted to do his job and to do it well. The best thing about this documentary, is not so much how it reveals that Tillman was crassly exploited, but that it reveals what kind of man he was. And we lament his loss all the more.

Out-of-town specials

Two outstanding films didn't play Dayton in 2010, but they're too good to be excluded from these rankings.

Buried: This intense film about Ryan Reynolds being buried alive in Iraq developed great buzz - which dissipated in a halfhearted release that prevented the movie from reaching as many eyes as it should have. And that's a great pity. This film has the same basic concept as 127 Hours - man confined to narrow space, limited opportunity for visuals - but it's better than Danny Boyle's film which didn't stay with me the way it should have.

Waking Sleeping Beauty: Never mind Tangled. Here was the best film featuring Disney animation released in 2010. This documentary painted a picture of how Disney animation arose from near-irrelevance in the mid-1980s to become a powerhouse in the 1990s. And it makes me long to see Disney reach those heights again.

The 10 Best

10) Flipped: Rob Reiner's best film in nearly 20 years was barely released, and people missed a lovely lilting look at the male vs. female viewpoint which is even more effective than When Harry Met Sally ....

9) How to Train Your Dragon: How does DreamWorks produced its best film to date? By hiring guys who made one of Disney's best films, Lilo & Stitch. It also sported 2011's best use of 3D, with breathtaking flying scenes.

8) The Fighter: Much more than just another boxing crowd-pleaser, this movie is about the dynamics of the family, and how they can damage, when applied recklessly - and heal, when applied with care.

7) Toy Story 3: The last 30 minutes of the film sensationally run the emotional gamut - and Pixar leaves me in tears. Again.

6) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: When I first saw this murder mystery, I thought, "Feels like a David Fincher film." Lo and behold, Fincher is directing the American remake. If his film as half as engrossing as this film was, it will make my 2011 Ten Best List.

5) The King's Speech: So this film is supposedly ordinary and stodgy, is it?  As Bertie might have said, bollocks. This film has more soul than those who despair at its Oscar front-runner status.

4) Shutter Island: Some people misguidedly dismissed Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel as a show-offy lark. Those people ought to take another look. Like many of Hitchcock's best films, it's a stirring, emotional trip that repeat viewings will enrich."Is it better to live as a monster - or to die as a good man?"

3) The Social Network: The film begins with the line, "When people reject you, it won't be because you're a nerd. It'll be because you're an asshole." It ends with the line "You're not an asshole. You just try too hard to be one." The soul of this film lies in the distance between those two lines.

2) Black Swan: Natalie Portman's stunning performance is the best of the year, revealing with startling force the dangers of thinking that being perfect means never making mistakes.

1) Inception: An astonishingly intricate structure. Pulse-pounding action scenes.  Effects that are both groundbreaking and refreshingly old-fashioned. A screenplay that kept me guessing and still makes my mind reel, even after viewings in the double digits. A tale of human heartbreak and redemption. Put more simply, Inception was the film of 2010 that Had It All.

Friday, February 04, 2011

The Social Network's Oscar chances go Up in the Air?

On the surface, The Social Network and Up in the Air would seem to have little in common. But Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly notices some striking similarities that give me pause.

Like The Social Network, Up in the Air won a lot of Oscar precursors, but then gradually lost its momentum as Avatar and finally The Hurt Locker outpaced it.

Cue the current race. The Social Network was winning every award under the sun - at least until a few weeks ago, when The King's Speech started winning every other award under the sun.

Similarly, a lot of critics liked Up in the Air, (including me - it topped my 10 best list in 2009) but it gave way to films that were 1) A cultural phenomenon and 2) A scrappy, hard-hitting little indie directed by a woman who just happened to be the ex of the guy who made the cultural phenomenon.  It became a great David and Goliath story. Ultimately, I think Oscar voters thought "James Cameron has had his glory, let's give the upstarts theirs and make our own milestone in the bargain."

This year's story is a little different, though. The Social Network is clearly this year's critical darling. Save for maybe Toy Story 3, no film was better reviewed in 2010. So of course it would win with all kinds of critics' socieities.

Then came the Golden Globes, and The Social Network won there. That was a bit of a surprise, to me at least. I thought The King's Speech, with its very European story, would appeal heavily to the Hollywood FOREIGN press. It probably did. Nevertheless, the Facebook movie prevailed.

Then along came the Producers Guild, who turned the tide in favor of The King's Speech. Then it went on to win the SAG and DGA prizes as well. So many critics' jaws' dropped that oral surgery bills must be skyrocketing.

And yet, I wasn't SO shocked. One could argue the producers' went for it because it took years to make, with the filmmakers respecting the Queen Mother's wishes to wait until she passed on. The SAG awards went for TKS because it had a fairly large ensemble, which always helps. And I think the fact that the film was directed by Tom Hooper helped the regal story both at SAG and at DGA, because Hopper had a lot of goodwill directing the highly acclaimed HBO miniseries John Adams. Unlike the Oscars, the guilds have a heavy membership in the TV categories.

But  in his blog post, Gleiberman asks a good question. He points out that both Up in the Air and The Social Network suffered backlashes. They both fell victim to the general sentiment of "Yeah, it was good, but not as good as a lot of those highfalutin critics said it was."

So that makes me and Owen wonder  - just what IS an Oscar film supposed to be?  I think a lot of folks - Academy voters and Joe Schmoes alike - think Oscar = BIG, either in feeling or in spectacle. An Oscar winner can be a large-scale epic like Lawrence of Arabia, or a heart-tugger like Casablanca. Or both, like Titanic. An Oscar winner has to have a WOW factor. For a lot of viewers, both Up in the Air and The Social Network lacked that. Both films, especially The Social Network, try to SAY SOMETHING, but a statement never has as much pull as a handkerchief.

There are always exceptions  but in the end, it comes down to the age-old difference between the favorite film and the best film. For some, The Social Network may be the "best" movie. But for many others, The King's Speech will be the favorite. That's why I think the latter will win.

And as I wrote earlier this week, there is no shame in that.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

John Barry, 1933-2011

John Barry once wrote a song called You Only Live Twice - and the great film composer who passed away Sunday kind of did just that.

Looked rather like Michael Caine, didn't he?

Justly, he is most famous for his work with the James Bond series. He may not have written the theme - that's credited to Monty Norman - but Barry made it what it was with his brassy, guitar-driven arrangement, which sounds both timeless and very 60s at once.

It's easier to list the Bond scores Barry did NOT compose. Through 1987's The Living Daylights, he contributed to all of them except Live and Let Die (George Martin), The Spy Who Loved Me (Marvin Hamlisch), and For Your Eyes Only (Bill Conti) All the Bond films scores from Tomorrow Never Dies onward were composed by David Arnold, who is very much a Barry devotee.

Of the Bond title songs Barry wrote, the most famous is probably Goldfinger, but my personal favorite is You Only Live Twice, sung by Nancy Sinatra, with its lovely string arrangement.

As for the scores, by far my favorite is On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the one with "the other fella," George Lazenby. LOVE the fuzz tone and the Alpine horns.

And if that music sounds familiar, it's because you've heard it in association with another movie, Pixar's The Incredibles. It was the teaser music. And Michael Giacchino's score for that film owes a VERY large debt to Barry.

But Barry also lived another very successful life as a composer for non-Bond films, winning Oscars for Born Free, Out of Africa, and The Lion in Winter, which I just recently saw for the first time. Barry's scores were often characterized by sharp uses of brass contrasted with lush string sections. He was one of those composers who had a very definite sound - a sound we will very definitely miss.

And besides, how can I not love the guy when he sort of has a Beatles connection? Vic Flick was a member of the John Barry Seven who played the classic guitar line in the Bond theme. He also played in the film score of A Hard Day's Night - that's him plucking out the guitar line to "This Boy" in the scenes where Ringo is wandering around without the others.

Had to do it!