Edward Norton's motion picture debut back in 1996 is his best performance to date. The movie is called Primal Fear, and, in my opinion, it is not only one of the most underrated films of the past twenty years, but it is also one of the best courtroom dramas I've ever seen. That is, in large part, due to Norton's performance, but it is still a great film nonetheless.

In the movie, Norton plays a teenage altar boy who is accused of murdering the archbishop. That is all the plot details I'm going to give because to say too much about the storyline would be a crime. Just see the film.

The character that Norton creates is easily one of the most memorable characters in courtroom drama history. And what's even more remarkable about all of this is that it's a supporting performance. Sure, he's on screen a lot, but Richard Gere is the lead actor here. Gere is very good in the film, but Norton is in another league. For a supporting performance to have this much impact is truly special.

It's a shame that I couldn't watch this performance back in 1996 because I would've loved to watch it as his debut. I knew how good of an actor he was before I watched
Primal Fear for this first time, but this is still the performance of his that has had the most impact on me. Anyone who sees the film will have to agree. For an actor to pull off a role with such boldness and confidence in his debut is something rarely seen in the movies.

Edward Norton did receive an Oscar nomination for this role, his second to date, the other one being in
American History X. However, Norton lost out on an Oscar to Cuba Gooding Jr. I am still steaming on this one. Jerry Maguire is a perfectly fine film, and
Cuba is perfect for his role in the movie, but his performance is just not nearly as difficult as Norton’s. We sense that Cuba could’ve pulled that role off in his sleep. But Norton’s transformation…It reminds me a little bit of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. I am likely to dedicate one of these articles to Day-Lewis after I have given There Will Be Blood another watch, but his performance reminds me of Norton because they both play roles that don't seem humanly possible. They are on different planets. There are the recognizable voice and posture changes, but there are also the mannerisms that they both embody the character with. It's a marvel to watch.

With all that being said, I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of mainstream moviegoers out there haven't even heard of
Primal Fear. I stand by the fact that it is one of the most underrated films I've ever seen, and, as a result, hasn't had much staying power since its release. I also wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of Norton fans out there haven’t seen this film. For all those Norton fans who have only seen movies such as Fight Club, The Incredible Hulk, and some of his other more recent work, please give Primal Fear a watch. You won’t be disappointed. In fact, you’ll be blown away.

In this new weekly feature titled Great Performances, I will give an in-depth analysis of some of the best performances I've ever seen. In this first edition, the performance I have chosen is one that is still fresh in my mind. It is Mickey Rourke's stunning, Oscar-nominated work in The Wrestler.

This is a performance that was widely loved by both critics and audiences. However, he did lose the highly competitive Best Actor race to Sean Penn for his role in Milk. The only bad thing I've heard about Rourke's performance is that he is really isn't acting, he's basically playing himself. Well, first off, that doesn't make much sense because Mickey isn't the first talented actor to struggle in Hollywood, and if playing yourself is so effective, why hasn't it been done before? The second thing wrong with that statement, is that by saying he plays himself in the movie, you are implying that not much work went into his performance. That is ridiculous. He went through rigorous training for the wrestling scenes, and he is quoted as saying that "I got hurt more in the three months of wrestling than I did in 16 years of boxing." And for those of you that have seen the results of his boxing career that is really saying something.

Another great thing about this performance is that Mickey didn't shy away from any challenge that Darren Aronofsky presented to him. To have a great performance, there needs to be a great chemistry, respect, and friendship between director and actor, and Aronofsky and Rourke definitely have that. If this movie was in anyone else's hands, besides Aronofsky, this whole movie could've fallen apart. Rourke put so much trust into his director and believed in everything he was doing. But he also risked a lot. If this movie didn't open up to it's glowing reception, think about how bad Mickey would've felt then. This movie was basically a make-or-break comeback. If it worked, he'd have a revived career; if it didn't, he'd be bashed even more than he was before.

One more thing to consider about this performance is how much of it was orchestrated by Rourke himself. He improvised a lot of the scenes, most notably the fantastic deli and locker room scenes. He wanted the movie to be purely authentic, and that’s exactly what it was. Mickey also re-wrote some of his scenes, including the best scene in the movie where he bears his soul to Evan Rachel Wood. I'm not sure I've seen a more genuine moment in the history of cinema than when the tears fall from the face of Randy "The Ram”.

Did he deserve the Oscar? You bet. Do I really care that he didn't get it? A little bit. Regardless of who won the award, there's no question that in twenty years Rourke's work will be more remembered than Penn's. I'm not bashing Sean Penn. In fact, I think he's a magnificent actor. But Mystic River was his masterpiece. The Wrestler is Mickey Rourke's. And that's that.

I’m not exactly sure how I found a solid amount of enjoyment in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It really isn’t consistently funny when Sean Penn is off screen, and the movie is limited in terms of its dramatic strength. I think it’s the performances that ultimately save this film. This film features multiple actors who have since become big names in the industry, such as Sean Penn, Forest Whitaker, and Nicolas Cage. Of the three, Sean Penn obviously has the biggest role in this film. He creates one of the most memorable stoner characters ever in surfer dude Jeff Spicoli. Another performance I would like to recognize is Robert Romanus, who plays Mike Damone. He, like Penn, creates an iconic character; however, unlike Penn, his performance is the one that finds the best mix of drama and comedy.

The movie follows several students during the school year at Ridgemont High School. These students include Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Mark Ratner (Brian Backer), Brad (Judge Reinhold), and Linda (Phoebe Cates). The movie also features Ray Walston in a downright hilarious performance as the up-tight history teacher named Mr. Hand. All of these characters’ stories, along with Spicoli and Romanus, are eventually weaved together at one point or another. But the film really isn’t about a story; it’s simply just an account of a handful of students going through a year of school.

It is hard to overlook the influence that this film has had on modern cinema. With more and more high school stoner comedies coming out these days, the comparisons are inevitable. A lot of films in this genre are quite similar, but if they are done effectively, they can still be quite good. One of the most important things in these types of movies is the soundtrack. The music is great in this movie and it’s hard to deny the fact that the right choice of song can make a movie better and easier to watch.

With all that being said about the performances and the soundtrack, it is necessary to point out the film’s flaws as well. The funniest scenes in the movie are the ones between Jeff Spicoli and Mr. Hand, but, like I said before, when Penn isn’t on screen, the movie just isn’t funny on a consistent basis. It’s also limited in the dramatic department, and, for some reason, director Amy Heckerling decided to go way over the top with the sex scenes. They are shot with little taste and really add nothing to the characters. When these scenes are shot with professionalism and effectiveness, I am thinking Greg Mottola’s Adventureland, they add not only to the romance, but they add to the characters as well. This film has none of that.

The screenwriter for this film is Cameron Crowe, who has become a dynamo in the comedy-drama genre. He has created some of the best films in that department, such as Say Anything…, Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous. His writing talents are on display in this film, but I have a feeling that if he was also in the director’s chair, we would’ve gotten a better movie. All in all, this is a satisfactory film, which is one of those movies that fall into the category of being more influential than actually being very good.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Looking Back on 2009

How have the most anticipated movies of 2009 fared so far? This is a very interesting topic because it makes one think about how the most anticipated movies usually fare. It is also interesting because one could make the argument that anticipating a film too much can possibly ruin the experience. For example, if a faithful fan of the Watchmen comic doesn't get the film they have been expecting for over twenty years, they just might label it as a failure simply because it doesn't agree with their vision. Does that really mean the film is a disappointment? If a movie isn't everything you have imagined and anticipated, does that have a negative effect on the experience?

With those questions in mind, let's dive right in...


Despite dividing critics, and being somewhat of a box-office bomb, for me, it is one of the best movies of the year. That being said, you might be surprised to hear that I didn't read the comic before I saw the film. One of the main criticisms of this movie was that the wild narrative would make viewers unfamiliar with the comic uninterested in the film. Although that is the case with some, it wasn't the case for me. Maybe some of that has to do with the beauty of the
IMAX screen, and I admit the film had numerous flaws, but it was a great theater experience. It also features two great performances; a breakout one from Jeffrey Dean Morgan and a comeback one from Jackie Earle Haley.

It's tough to label this film as a failure because it is a movie that has been deemed "unfilmable" since the novel came out. And I would even say that the critical reception, however divided it might've been, was pretty solid considering how bold and dark of an effort this movie is. And as for the box-office numbers, it certainly didn't live up to expectations. But there haven't been many films of its elk that have drawn in mass crowds. I bet there were a lot of people, unfamiliar with the book, who read about the hard R-rating, the epic running time, and the complex story, and simply said "No way." Well, it’s their loss.

Star Trek:

J.J. Abrams created a very strong prequel with this year's
Star Trek, and I would say this one has completely exceeded expectations. Maybe it has lost some steam since its theatrical release back in May, but it still remains one of the critical favorites of the year, and it was a major box-office success.

Even though I haven't watched much previous
Star Trek-related things, I can't imagine anyone (Trekkie or not) seeing this film and being disappointed. It is solid summer entertainment: funny, action-packed, and viscerally thrilling. It also features strong performances, highlighted by a star-making turn (I think) from Chris Pine.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince:

This is a tough one. The reviews are very good, not great, and the box-office numbers are very good, not great. Its current domestic total at the box-office is about $291 million on a production budget of $250 million. Not exactly glowing numbers considering the
midnight record it set. On top of that, it only won one weekend, after losing to the kids' flick, G-Force.

It also seems that audiences are somewhat split on this film. I have heard such things as "too long" and "just plain boring." This film has been labeled as a sort of setup for the final two-parter, so let's hope the payoff works. It’s certainly not a failure, but it’s tough to ignore the underperforming box-office numbers.


Pixar's 2009 effort was a beautiful film that did certainly live up to its billing, if not exceed it. I think it is one of Pixar's best efforts, certainly better than last year's
Wall-E, and it was no box-office slouch either. Pleasing both critics and audiences, this is a film that is very tough to dislike. The opening sequence is probably the most emotional work ever done in a Pixar film, and even though the rest of the film can't match the first fifteen minutes, it is, nonetheless, a remarkable effort. Considering the Academy's expansion to ten Best Picture nominees, this one is looking like more and more of a shoo-in for nominations in multiple categories.

The Hurt Locker:

Certainly one of the best movies of the summer, this is a film that was anticipated by serious moviegoers and critics, but not so much by mainstream audiences. It hasn't gotten a ton of theaters, but the critical reception has been glowing, and it is well-deserved. Kathryn Bigelow creates the best Iraq War movie yet, and the lead performance of Jeremy Renner will be strongly considered for a Best Actor nomination come Award season time. It also, maybe more importantly, creates buzz for a woman to be honored in the Best Director category.

Inglourious Basterds:

The best movie I have seen all year, this film lived right up to its critical expectations, and it exceeded its commercial ones. Winning its first weekend at a unexpected $38.1 million, this is Tarantino's biggest opening yet, and his best film since 1994's
Pulp Fiction. Tarantino creates some of his most memorable characters yet, highlighted by Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine and Christoph Waltz’s Col. Hans Landa.

I'm sure that Waltz is a lock for an Oscar nomination at this point, and I would hope that Tarantino at least gets a screenplay nomination. It has some of his best dialogue ever written, and the story is weaved together beautifully. For the Academy to overlook the screenplay as one of the five best original works of the year would be an absolute crime. Enough said.

Public Enemies:

Pubilc Enemies is a solid film that, simply put, did not live up to expectations. When I first saw the trailer for this movie, I was saying to myself, "Oscar, Oscar, Oscar." When I came out of the theater after seeing the movie, I was saying, "Good, not great."

The only thing that exceeds expectations in this film is Cotillard's performance. She has another Award season contender coming out later this year called
Nine, and perhaps her work in that movie will overshadow her performance in the summer-released Public Enemies. But make no mistake; she is brilliant in this movie. Depp gives a great performance as Dillinger, but I was expecting something great, so I can't necessarily say he exceeded what I expected. Ultimately, this script is what let this film down. In fact, the script of this film is quite poor. But, put into the hands of Mann, Depp, Bale, and Cotillard, it makes for a solid crime drama.

Now...What do you think? Did your most anticipated live up to their billing? In no way have I come close to writing about all the anticipated films of the year, so please weigh in below with your selections and judgments.

A Tarantino world is graphic, disturbing, and drawn-out. It’s also fascinating, original, and just plain fun. His latest film, Inglourious Basterds, is no different. I believe it is on the same level as his masterpiece, Pulp Fiction, and, although it might be affected from the high of the experience, right now, I am saying it is the best film I have seen all year. The movie is broken up into five chapters, and for the whole two and a half hour running time, I never took my eyes off the screen. Not during the brutal violence, the loud and bloody climax, or the scenes of teeth-cringing suspense. This is a filmmaker that knows how to get an audience’s attention and keep it for the entire film.

The movie’s brilliant opening scene introduces the memorable character Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa, played with so many emotions by the relatively unknown Austrian actor Christoph Waltz. In this first chapter, Landa enters the home of a dairy farmer named Perrier LaPadite and conducts a subtle interrogation that eventually gets the job done. He finds the Jews and takes them out…but one, named Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), escapes.

In the second chapter, we are greeted with a long, expertly-written harangue delivered by the audacious and hysterical Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). Pitt is assembling a team of Jewish American soldiers whose mission is to scalp as many Nazis as possible. In fact, Raine actually demands 100 Nazi scalps from each member of the squad. Needless to say, they pass the test with flying colors. Arguably the most outrageous member of the crew, besides Raine, is Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), better known as “The Bear Jew”. He spends his days beating Nazi soldiers to death with a bat. And they all love it.

After we meet the Basterds, we find Shosanna a couple years later, now living under the name of Emmanuelle Mimieux, as the owner and operator of a cinema which has been chosen by her somewhat stalker friend Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) to premiere a feature film titled A Nation’s Pride, which chronicles Zoller’s unbelievable experience of killing 300 enemy soldiers by himself over the course of three days.

There are many more characters to meet in this film, such as the German actress, double agent named Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), and Hugo Stiglitz, played by Til Schweiger. It would take too much to explain all of these stories in this short review, and you might seem lost already, but in this film Tarantino weaves this story as good as any story he’s written before. Everything comes together beautifully and it is perfectly entertaining throughout.

Tarantino writes this film in an alternate history of World War II, which gives him complete freedom, and it certainly pays off. He doesn’t want this to be “just another WWII film.” He is creating a clever and completely original experience of a topic that has been filmed what seems like over a million times.

The performances that Tarantino gets in this film are all stunning. Even the actors that are in the movie for only one or two scenes create characters that are fully memorable, which is also credit to the script. Waltz’s performance is undoubtedly the stand-out, not only because Waltz is terrific, but also because he is the most fascinating character on the page as well. The writer-director created a character that needed a big-time performer, and Waltz delivers. He turns in a performance that is hilarious, frightening, devilishly cunning, and it will certainly not be forgotten come Award season. Brad Pitt’s performance is also very well done. Even though his character basically only hits one note the entire film, he manages to make every note funny and entertaining.

This is a film that has Tarantino written all over it. In some parts, you will be repulsed by the graphic violence, and in others, entranced in the dialogue that is absolute genius. From top to bottom, it is the best experience I’ve had at the theater the whole year. Sure, it’s a little too long and a little too violent in places. But, who really cares? I am judging the movie as a whole, and it is undoubtedly four-star experience. And sometimes a four-star experience is better and more refreshing than a four-star film.

Produced by Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings), District 9 is also the directorial debut of Neill Blomkamp. It is a stunning and mesmerizing work of science fiction that dazzles the audience not only with its visuals, but also with its brutal, and often times disturbing passion. The movie is based on a short film by Blomkamp titled Alive in Joburg. With all of the brilliant effects and CGI in this film, it is hard to believe it was only made for $30 million. In a summer filled with big-budget, no brainer films such as Transformers and G.I. Joe, District 9 is a movie that uses its modest budget to the fullest effect, and, as a result, looks like a film that was made for $100 million.

The movie opens with a series of interviews describing how a species of aliens came to live in
District 9. Apparently, twenty years ago, a ship halted above
Johannesburg, South Africa, and when humans cut their way in, they found a group of malnourished aliens. Thus, District 9 was created to house the aliens and keep them separate from the humans.

Twenty years later, a field operative for Multinational United (NMU) named Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is assigned the difficult task of transporting about 1.8 millions aliens to a new camp located 24 km outside of
Johannesburg. This mission does not go as planned, and Wikus becomes the recipient of an alien virus that turns him into a sort of human-alien hybrid. As a result, the government wants to use him on experiments, and, more importantly, to learn how to operate the alien weapons that are useless in the hands of humans.

Copley delivers a gut-wrenching performance in the lead role. He is likeable and also heartbreaking. I suspect that most audience members will be surprised as how emotional this film can get. It is also an incredibly disturbing film, not so much in the violence, but in the savage nature of the humans depicted in the film. The aliens, and van der Merwe for that matter, are treated like subjects and objects and the pain they go through is discarded by the government workers.

I would say that the first hour of this film is as good as anything I've seen all year. Copley is actually at his best in the first half of the film, and the movie follows suit. It is fast-paced filmmaking that is as good as any science fiction film we've seen this decade. However, the third act is quite problematic. The action climax at the end of the film, even though it is well shot, goes on way too long, and it seems like the ending cheats a little bit. The first half sets it up so well that the ending it a let down that doesn't really seem to solve that much.

However, this is still a film that is more than worth seeing. It features two brilliant debuts from director Blomkamp and Sharlto Copley. The
CGI is first rate and the movie will seem even better than it truly is when one compares it to some of the weaker efforts this summer. District 9 is really quite an achievement coming from a first-time director, and even though it falls just short of classic status in the sci-fi genre, it's still one of the best films of the summer.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Movie Review: Thief (1981) - 3 1/2 stars

Thief, made way back in 1981, was Michael Mann's directorial debut and it is a fascinating heist film that has a lot more to it than you might think. Sure, it is a movie about a professional jewel thief, and there are extended sequences throughout the film depicting his expertise; however, I think the core of this movie is about relationships. It's about the type of relationships a person needs to have in order to live a rewarding life. 

James Caan stars as the expert thief named Frank. Caan gives a remarkable performance in the title role creating a multi-layered character that is rarely seen in these types of movies. The movie shows us just how good Frank is at his job in the opening scene by showing him cracking a safe with tremendous ease. However, after he finishes the job, we see that there is more to Frank than just a jewel thief. He owns a car dealership and a restaurant, and he also makes a promise to break his mentor and father figure, Okla (Willie Nelson), out of prison. But to complete the picture, Frank needs a woman. In the memorable diner sequence, Frank opens his heart to a virtual stranger (Tuesday Weld) and they eventually get married.

Frank needs these relationships to be able to move on from his passion for theft and live a controlled, settled-down life style. In order to be able to retire much sooner, Frank sets up one more job with a powerful crime boss named Leo (Robert Prosky). Leo appears to be nice on the outside and tries to take Frank under his wing, but when Frank stays true to his desire of getting in and getting out, things take a turn for the worse.

This is a rare thriller film that has a lot of character development and also retains a fast pace throughout. From the great performances to the breathtaking score by Tangerine Dream, this is a film that is full of Mann trademarks from start to finish. It is one of his best works to date that is even good enough to draw inevitable comparisons to his future films such as
Heat, Manhunter, and Public Enemies.

The only thing that disappointed me in this film was the ending. While I applaud the film for not choosing to travel the "happily ever after" route, I still don't think the movie ended on quite the right note. Even though the final sequence is a heart-pounding sequence of cat and mouse, I'm not sure it did justice to the relationships and the development that Frank's character made and experienced throughout the film.

This is a film that was not initially successful in commercial terms, but as Mann’s name has turned into one that is synonymous with crime sagas, the film’s popularity has increased since its initial theatrical release. A lot of that is due to the performance of James Caan, which is as good as anything he has ever done. He creates, in my opinion, one of the best characters ever to be featured in a Mann film. The movie is so smart and professionally made that it is definitely a film that anyone would enjoy. Ranking among Mann’s best all-time work,
Thief is a mesmerizing entry in the crime genre.

Best Picture:

What Won?:
Slumdog Millionaire
What Should've Won?:
The Dark Knight

Out of the five nominees that were chosen, I actually agree with the Academy that Slumdog Millionaire was the best film out of those five. However, they got the nominations all wrong as The Dark Knight and The Wrestler were the two best films of the year and neither film garnered nominations in this category. For the academy to nominate films like The Reader and Frost/Nixon over those two films is pretty pathetic. Both are solid films, but are they Best Picture worthy? I don’t see how you can make that argument. Oh well, we all knew Slumdog was going to win anyway.

Best Actor in a Leading Role:

Who Won?: Sean Penn,
Who Should've Won?: Mickey Rourke,
The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke's performance in The Wrestler makes every other performance of the year seem emotionless. He graces the screen with such pure and real emotion, we connect with the character from the immediate opening shot of him sitting in that classroom. It was such a risky thing for Rourke to do, but boy did it pay off. After this performance, the chances of Rourke winning an Oscar before his career is over are probably close to nothing. If he can’t win for the performance he gave in this film, I don't know what the Academy wants him to do to bring home that gold statue.

Best Actress in a Leading Role:

Who Won?: Kate Winslet,
The Reader
Who Should've Won?: Anne Hathaway,
Rachel Getting Married

Kate Winslet is a phenomenal actress and I can live with her victory in this category simply because she has given so many good performances in her career that she was definitely going to win one sooner or later. However, I actually think her performance in Revolutionary Road was more qualified for the award, and I'm still not quite sure why the Academy decided to forget about her role in that film and acknowledge her work in The Reader. With all that being said, the best female performance of 2008 was...Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married. Her work in that film was absolutely unbelievable. It is such an intense performance that it almost knocks you off your feet. I had no idea she had that kind of depth as an actress, but she completely nailed every part of that performance. Enough said.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:

Who Won?: Heath Ledger,
The Dark Knight
Who Should've Won?: Heath Ledger,
The Dark Knight

Come on, who are we kidding? I shouldn't even bother to support my choice, but I will anyway because I love the performance. Heath's transformation into The Joker is one of the greatest things I have ever seen on film. He controls the screen every single second he is on it and he is constantly in our minds even when the character isn't on screen. Outside of his work in The Dark Knight, I also think Heath should've won the Oscar for his work in Brokeback Mountain. For all of you Dark Knight fans out there who haven't seen Brokeback Mountain, give it a watch and you will see an actor with some remarkable versatility. Let's recap his two Oscar quality performances: In 2005, he played a somewhat bisexual cowboy in a romantic western epic. In 2008, he played one of the most notorious villains in the history of film and made Jack Nicholson look like Mary Poppins. That's a special actor, folks.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role:

Who Won?: Penélope Cruz,
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Who Should've Won?: Penélope Cruz,
Vicky Cristina Barcelona

This was an incredibly close category as Cruz, Davis, Adams, and Tomei all give performances that are worthy of an Oscar. I think that the performances of Davis and Tomei just might have been a little bit too small to win. Davis only graces the screen for one scene, and as for The Wrestler, it is Mickey Rourke's film. Therefore, Tomei's performance, and even Evan Rachel Wood’s performance for that matter, didn’t have quite as much screen time as it could've had. That leaves Adams and Cruz, and to be honest, I would've been happy with either one. They both deserve Oscars, and I am happy that Cruz got one. I'm sure Adams will get one pretty darn soon.

Best Director:

Who Won?: Danny Boyle,
Slumdog Millionaire
Who Should've Won?: Christopher Nolan,
The Dark Knight

This is another tough category for me because I felt the wrong people were nominated. Out of these five, Boyle definitely deserved to win, but I felt the two best directorial achievements of the year were Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky. Aronofsky made decisions that took The Wrestler to another level. He casted one of the most controversial people in Hollywood and got a performance out of him that will be remembered forever. He also decided to shoot the film with handheld cameras in a documentary style; a decision that made the film more real and believable. In any other hands, The Wrestler would've come off as a corny and cheap film, but Aronofsky creates the most emotionally effective work of the year. As for Christopher Nolan, he made a film that reached heights of critical and commercial success that have never been matched before in cinema history. He created a film experience that was the best one all year. This film transcended the superhero genre to create a real crime saga that didn’t necessarily feel entirely like a comic book movie. We have already seen the effects of studios trying to go for "darker" superhero movies, not to mention the Academy's decision to increase the field of Best Picture nominations to ten. Well, Nolan started it, and he should've been rewarded for it.

Those are my thoughts on the top Oscar categories. Please weigh in with your selections in the comments sections. Do you agree or disagree with my selections? I would love to hear what you think about the accuracy of the nominations and winners.

Once is a tender and charming romance that centers around two struggling musicians, played by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who form an innocent friendship built on their mutual passion for music. The movie is written and directed by John Carney, and on a budget of only about $160,000 and a 17 day shooting schedule, the film was a major success grossing over $20 million worldwide. It's not hard to figure out why audiences fell in love with this film.

The basis of the film is simply this: the guy meets the girl. They meet each other one night after Hansard's character finishes performing an original song, and there is an instant chemistry between the two characters that we notice as something real and genuine. It seems even as if it could be Hansard’s first time talking with someone other than his dad in a long time.

They are both working odd jobs to pursue their true calling, which is music. And the music they perform throughout the film is absolutely perfect. All of the songs are originally composed and performed by the two leads and that is for good reason. To describe how good the music in the film is, I will just say that there is not one song in the movie that I wouldn't want to listen to again.

John Carney does such a brilliant job of not over-directing. It would've been easy for him to try to do too much with such talented musicians, but he makes the right decision by letting Hansard and Irglová do most of the work. He realized how good they were together and let them steal the show. It is a smart film that knows what its purpose is and never strays off course.

Their performances, both by non-professional actors, really do complement each other perfectly. Hansard sings with such passion and intensity alongside Irglová's calm, laid-back demeanor that it seems like they were born to do this together. To watch them perform is complete magic. Arguably the best sequence of the film is the scene where they perform "Falling Slowly” together, and I would say that it is one of the best scenes I have ever seen in a musical.

There is not much more I can say about the film in this review other than you just have to see it. And if you have seen it, give it another viewing. In a running time of only about 80 minutes, this movie has so much to like and absolutely nothing to hate. I dare anyone to come out of this film not humming the music and not feeling better about themselves. It is a movie that simply makes you smile. It's tough to compare it to the bigger, darker films of 2007 such as
No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and Michael Clayton, but this is a film that is just as satisfying, if not more satisfying than all three I just mentioned. I'm probably beginning to sound like a broken record, so I'll just stop at this: Once is one of the best films of 2007.

Successful actor Bill Paxton (Apollo 13, Twister, True Lies) makes a striking and riveting directorial debut with Frailty. This is not your average thriller because not only does it try and frighten, but it also raises incredibly powerful psychological questions about the influence of God and whether God should or should not have such a powerful effect on a normal family man.

That family man is played by Paxton as a hard-working, caring, and widowed father of two boys, Fenton (Matt O’Leary) and Adam (Jeremy Sumpter). The family has a normal daily routine that it follows for a while until one night when Paxton suddenly wakes up his children in the middle of the night. He tells the boys that he has received a message from God that says he needs to seek out and “destroy” demons. The names of these demons will be provided to him by a sort of guardian angel, and then he must “destroy” them, not kill them. Yes, it is a somewhat outrageous subject matter, but that is also what makes it so frightening because it makes us wonder if people outside of the movies feel these types of influences.

The movie starts with an older Fenton, played by Matthew McConaughey, walking into a police station one night and informing an agent (Powers Boothe) that the “God’s Hand” killer is his brother, Adam. After this point, the movie goes into flashback mode with Paxton, O’Leary, and Sumpter occupying the screen for most of the movie. Paxton gives a strong performance as a desperate father who really isn’t a bad guy; he just believes the visions he is having and the messages he’s receiving. Who are we to say that he is a bad man? If an honest man truly believes he is doing God’s work, does that make him crazy, or does it make God crazy? These are some of the overriding questions that the film asks and they will certainly keep you thinking after the credits roll.

Paxton shows here that he is definitely a versatile talent with some real directorial skill. He has only directed one other film since Frailty but hopefully he plans to add more to his résumé in the not-so-distant future. It would be a shame for this film to be his sole achievement in the director’s chair because it feels like there really is something genuine in his storytelling.

Perhaps the most surprising element of this film is the performances that Paxton gets out of his two child stars, Matt O’Leary and Jeremy Sumpter. They have a lot screen time in this film and if they weren’t up to the task, the whole film could’ve fallen apart. There is also credit due to Bill Paxton because he truly creates such an original film in the genre. It is violent and scary without being gory and it is thought-provoking without being preachy to the audience.

I was completely astounded at how good this film is, and I think most audiences will be too. It was only made for $11 million even though it features some recognizable actors, and it just barely earned more than its budget at the box office. However, as this movie ages, I’m sure that it will grow in terms of its fan base. It is a film that makes all the other ones similar to it pale in comparison.

Christopher Nolan's directorial debut Following is an engrossing film noir and watching it as I did a couple of days ago makes me even appreciate it more after seeing Nolan become one of the best filmmakers that are working today. The film was made for only $6,000 and it took a whole year to shoot because all of the people involved had full-time occupations. It’s incredible to think that this movie is where Nolan started and ten years later he made one of the most successful blockbusters ever in The Dark Knight. Another interesting note about this film is that it bears a striking resemblance to Nolan’s next work Memento, with the non-chronological story line and the black and white photography.

The movie follows a struggling writer, played perfectly by Jeremy Theobald, as he starts to follow strangers through the streets of
London looking for literary inspiration. However, he becomes sidetracked after he is confronted by a man he is following. The man calls himself Cobb and Cobb quickly introduces Theobald's character into the world of burglary. The interesting thing about Cobb is that he doesn't necessarily go through houses for money; he does it because he is fascinated by affecting the lives of random people. He enjoys the thought of his victims re-evaluate their lives as a result of his actions.

At first hesitant, the young writer eventually is taken with Cobb and he begins robbing regularly himself. The new friendship is blossoming perfectly until Theobald's character risks everything by starting to chase after a young blonde woman played by Lucy Russell. I will not reveal any more of the plot because I do not want to spoil the movie in this review.

The acting in this film is surprisingly good considering these actors were mostly likely paid close to nothing. Theobald, Haw, and Russell don't try to do too much with their performances. The script is so good that they don't need to do too much here, they just need to bring the script to life, and they all do a great job.

Many short (this one is only 70 minutes), low-budget films suffer not only due to lack of character development, but also because they fail to be emotionally resonant. Following succeeds on both accounts because the characters are well introduced and they all show change throughout the story. We also find ourselves caring for this young writer, even though we constantly see him going through the items of strangers and making less than chivalrous decisions. We sense he isn't a criminal, he's just a broken man looking for guidance. When he meets Cobb and they rob their first house together, it's as if Theobald's character receives an oxygen boost, a new sense of life. But that doesn't mean he is a bad person; if anything, it proves just how desperate he is to have a path in life.

I would recommend any Nolan fan to check this film out if they haven't already. There is something that is really intriguing in watching the film now after Nolan has become a major success. People might forget how great of a storyteller he is after some of his recent big-budget productions, but in this film, his ability to weave a fascinating story is in full display.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

My Top Ten Movies of 2008

1. The Dark Knight

Christopher Nolan is an absolute machine. He has yet to make a bad film, and in 2008 he made his best film yet with The Dark Knight. Not only the greatest superhero movie ever made, but it is also one of the defining films of the decade. Heath Ledger gives a performance that in my opinion is one of the greatest screen portrayals I have ever seen. His character symbolizes the darkness of this film about a vigilante who refuses to kill, and the villain who stretches his good nature to the limits. The film also features Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhart in what I think are two of the more underrated supporting performances of the year. With action sequences sure to take your breath away, and memorable dialogue that is sure to be quoted for years to come, Nolan’s masterpiece will always be remembered as the film of 2008.

2. The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky’s brilliant return to form is titled The Wrestler and it features the best male lead performance of the year. Mickey Rourke delivers something that is as vulnerable and honest as any work we have seen in recent memory. Aronofsky brilliantly mixes moments of brutality and sincerity to make for the most emotionally moving film of the year. From the opening shot of Mickey sitting alone in that classroom, there is not a moment in this film where we are not rooting for Randy “The Ram”. The supporting performances are pitch perfect from Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood and the masterful boardwalk scene is sure to go down as the signature moment of Rourke’s career.

3. Gran Torino

Clint Eastwood proves once again that he can tell a powerful story in just about any setting. Filmed largely in one neighborhood for the entire film and featuring a cast of no-namers, this is an Eastwood film unlike any other. Although he may play the same character he usually does, Eastwood gives a lead performance that is as affecting as he always is. But the best thing about this film is how we can see Clint’s growth as a storyteller. When I saw the trailer for this film, it looked like an absolute joke, but as I sat in the theater watching it, I couldn’t find one thing wrong with the film. Probably one of the most underrated movies of his career, Gran Torino could be one of those movies that will gain more popularity as it gets older.

4. Slumdog Millionaire

One of the most affective love stories of the year, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is his best work to date. With breakout performances from Dev Patel and Freida Pinto, this is probably the most likeable film to be distributed in 2008. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone coming out of this film and not being impressed. This is one of those rare movies that actually make affective and important use of flashbacks. In a lot of movies flashbacks feel forced and corny, but in this one they add so much to the characters. With a storyline that is incredibly entertaining and potent, it is two of the best hours I spent at the movies all year.

5. Let the Right One In

Tomas Alfredson’s directorial effort in this film is absolutely stunning. He gets performances out of his two child actors that are on par with any work we have ever seen in vampire movies, and he creates a wholly original experience in a genre that has been beaten down pretty bad. The cinematography is so memorable; the film features some of the best shots of 2008. This is a rare vampire movie that is as gory and violent as it is emotionally affective. The movie earns its somewhat cliché of an ending because every minute of this film is presented in such an original and professional manner. Grade A filmmaking here from Alfredson.

6. The Visitor

The Visitor is worth every minute because of Richard Jenkins’ career-defining performance. Completely deserving the Oscar nomination he received, his work is reflective of the film as a whole. It is a subtle, moving work from Tom McCarthy, without a doubt the director’s greatest achievement to date. The greatest strength of the film is obviously Jenkins’ performance, but the film also has an emotionally powerful story that should be thankful to the supporting performances of Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira. A well-acted, well-written, well-done film.

7. Rachel Getting Married

Sometimes an actor or an actress delivers a performance that is so unbelievable because no one had any idea they were capable of such profound work. Such is the case with Anne Hathaway’s lead role in Rachel Getting Married. But it is not only her on display as the movie features a handful of great performances from Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, and Debra Winger. The decision to shoot this film with handheld cameras adds largely to the overall power of the film, because it feels so genuine and real as if we really were spying on this harrowing family reunion.

8. Doubt

Light on story, heavy on acting, this movie proves that a great ensemble can carry a movie to great heights. Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis turn in performances that carry the movie from start to finish. All four of the lead actors were nominated for Oscars, and they all deserved one. Director John Patrick Shanley delivers an incredibly smart film, and fortunately for us, he realized what great actors he had and let them do most of the work.

9. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

A departure from usual David Fincher movies such as Seven, Fight Club, and Zodiac, this fantasy epic is a largely affecting work that is surprisingly entertaining for its almost three hour running time. Brad Pitt gives a somewhat overrated performance, not that it is bad, but it isn’t Oscar nomination quality. The supporting cast featuring Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett, and Taraji P. Henson also give solid performances, but the movie mostly succeeds due to Fincher’s direction, and the long, but fast-moving story. It is a rare thing to find a 166 minute movie with hardly any action that manages to be entertaining for its whole runtime.

10. Changeling

Clint Eastwood’s Changeling is one of the more harrowing films of the year, due in large part to the fact that it is a true story. If it weren’t true, audience members might even laugh at the preposterousness of the story, but given that it is true, its power is undeniable. Received by somewhat mixed reviews from critics, this is a movie that is not easy to watch, but is even harder to look away from. Jolie’s performance is somewhat over the top, but it needs to be because the story and the things she are put through are so outrageous. Eastwood does a beautiful job of capturing the feel of the late 1920s, and as a result, this film is a mix of a successful period piece and a frightening, fear-provoking thriller.

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