Friday, September 23, 2011


Bennett Miller's "Moneyball" ushers us into the fall movie season. It's time to get serious, to tell stories rich with drama and meaning and resonance. Or at least to get Brad Pitt an Oscar nomination - that's a good thing, right? It'll have to be, because "Moneyball" is thin, forgettable and dramatically inert.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

"Drive": To Live and Drive in L.A.

The more I sit here thinking about "Drive," the more parallels I find to "To Live and Die in L.A." This is high praise, as TLADILA is one of my all-time favorite (and most often watched) films. Nicolas Winding Refn's picture opens with Ryan Gosling acting as a getaway driver for two robbers (his day job is as a stunt driver for the movies). "I give you a five minute window," he tells them. "Anything that happens in those five minutes, I've got you covered. Something happens a minute on either side, you're on your own." The gorgeous lights of downtown L.A. at night play across Gosling's face, which we see mostly through his rearview mirror. This sequence can't compare to TLADILA's definitive car chase (driven the wrong way through the L.A. freeway system), but it's a terrific opening set to - of all things - Ralph Lawler's radio call of a Clippers-Raptors game (you had to know I was going to like this movie). Did I hear echoes of William Petersen extolling the virtues of Quentin Dailey's jumper in TLADILA? Yeah, I did. (By the way, later in the movie Gosling takes his neighbor Carey Mulligan and her son on a ride through the same L.A. River basin featured prominently in the TLADILA chase.)

Monday, September 19, 2011

"Restless": a career nadir for Gus Van Sant

Gus Van Sant has made some terrific pictures, including several of his recent, more under-the-radar works: "Elephant," "Gerry," "Paranoid Park."

Sunday, September 18, 2011

"Happy, Happy": Adultery in the outskirts of Oslo...

Ever been really into a movie, relating to it on an emotional level, when the idiots around you laughed in all the wrong places? That was my experience of "Happy, Happy,"

"My Afternoons with Margueritte": Sleep-inducing, go-nowhere...

The average foreign film we see in America is better than the average Hollywood production if for no other reason than the limited number of art-house screens and the resultant winnowing process that happens before a subtitled flick ever gets U.S. distribution.
That doesn't explain the sleep-inducing, go-nowhere "My Afternoons with Margueritte,"

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Mr. Nice

Rhys Ifans gets a rare starring role in "Mr. Nice," the true story of Howard Marks, an accidental hashish dealer who in the 70s and 80s became a high-living, fun-loving, identity-morphing kingpin always just ahead of the law (and simultaneously an unacknowledged agent of MI6).

"Contagion": Come on in, the water's fine...

Steven Soderbergh would seem to have the right impersonal, clinical detachment required to make "Contagion" taut, gripping and seminal - the kind of issue movie that makes the cover of Time magazine. (Certainly the thought of a biological weapon such as the film's mutant bat-pig virus strain is deeply frightening.) Unfortunately, cinematizing even the most epidemic subject matter involves some choice of characters through whom to tell the story, and Soderbergh has created several uninteresting ones.

Sunday, September 4, 2011


"Littlerock" takes place not in Arkansas but in the Antelope County freeway town of Littlerock, CA, population 1377, where a Japanese brother and sister stop on their way to Manzanar and San Francisco and stay a bit longer than expected.

"Love Crime": Much More Fun than a Good Movie

Of Ludivine Sagnier's performance in the new howler "Love Crime," let me just say that I have not been so moved by an actress since Pia Zadora in "Butterfly." As a senior executive in the Paris office of an "ago-business" firm, Sagnier looks like a thirteen-year-old girl playing dress-up. Some of the dialogue from the business-world scenes has to be heard to be believed: "I speak for all of us," one male colleague tells Sagnier, "when I say you are the perfect woman."

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Recap: The First Half of 2011 in Movies

A quick thumbs-up, thumbs-down recap of the 57 movies I've seen in the first half of 2011.

All close calls get thumbs up.

  • On the Bowery (restoration): THUMBS UP
  • No Strings Attached: THUMBS DOWN
  • Unknown: THUMBS UP
  • Of Gods and Men: THUMBS DOWN
  • The Adjustment Bureau: THUMBS DOWN
  • Jane Eyre: THUMBS UP
  • Certified Copy: THUMBS DOWN
  • Battleship Potemkin (restoration): THUMBS UP
  • Win Win: THUMBS UP
  • Potiche: THUMBS DOWN
  • Bill Cunningham New York: THUMBS DOWN
  • Source Code: THUMBS DOWN
  • In a Better World: THUMBS DOWN
  • The Lincoln Lawyer: THUMBS UP
  • Limitless: THUMBS DOWN
  • Hanna: THUMBS UP
  • Circo: THUMBS DOWN
  • Henry's Crime: THUMBS UP
  • The Princess of Montpensier: THUMBS DOWN
  • Water for Elephants: THUMBS DOWN
  • Incendies: THUMBS DOWN
  • Queen to Play: THUMBS DOWN
  • Nostalgia for the Light: THUMBS DOWN
  • The Double Hour: THUMBS UP
  • Fast Five: THUMBS UP
  • The Beaver: THUMBS DOWN
  • The Robber: THUMBS DOWN
  • Poetry: THUMBS DOWN
  • Something Borrowed: THUMBS DOWN
  • Everything Must Go: THUMBS UP
  • Skateland: THUMBS DOWN
  • The Cave of Forgotten Dreams: THUMBS DOWN
  • Bridesmaids: THUMBS UP
  • Midnight in Paris: THUMBS DOWN
  • L'Amour Fou: THUMBS DOWN
  • The Tree of Life: THUMBS DOWN
  • The Hangover Part II: THUMBS DOWN
  • Dumbstruck: THUMBS UP
  • Blank City: THUMBS UP
  • Submarine: THUMBS DOWN
  • Beginners: THUMBS UP
  • Beautiful Boy: THUMBS UP
  • Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today: THUMBS DOWN
  • Super 8: THUMBS DOWN
  • The Trip: THUMBS UP
  • Viva Riva!: THUMBS UP
  • The City of Life and Death: THUMBS UP
  • Page One: THUMBS DOWN
  • A Better Life: THUMBS DOWN
  • The Names of Love: THUMBS UP
  • Cars 2: THUMBS DOWN
  • Conan O'Brien Can't Stop: THUMBS DOWN
  • Bad Teacher: THUMBS UP
  • Monte Carlo: THUMBS UP
  • Larry Crowne: THUMBS DOWN
  • Terri: THUMBS DOWN

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Oscar-Nominated Documentary Features

With "Gasland,"easily the most important of the nominees, director Josh Fox sounds a clarion call on the horrific human health consequences of the practice of hydraulic fracturing by the natural gas industry.

Either his picture or the hugely entertaining "Exit Through the Gift Shop," which has really captured the zeitgeist, would make a worthy winner.
Honorable mention goes to Lucy Walker's "Waste Land," about the Brazilian artist Vic Muniz's yearlong project involving pickers from the largest dump in Rio. A step down from there to the war movie "Restrepo," but still better than the cheap-shot tactics of "Inside Job."

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

  • "Strangers No More"
  • "Killing in the Name"
draw the stark contrast between Israel and radical Islam - the former, representing the best of humanity; the latter, incompatible with civilized society. The standout 
  • "Strangers,"
the one feel-great short in an otherwise endless litany of woe, introduces us to the Bialik-Rogozin school in Tel Aviv, where students from 48 countries, many of them poor immigrants, are welcomed with open arms and nurtured to become color-blind friends and academic achievers.
  • "Killing"
focuses on the groom whose 2005 wedding was bombed by an Al-Qaeda operative, killing his father and 26 family members. The man, Ashraf Al-Khaled, has become a crusader against terrorism, and we watch him argue in vain with young jihadist disciples. But his argument is not so much against killing per se; rather, it's against killing that happens to imperil Muslim bystanders, as though it would be hunky-dory otherwise. Also in the program: 
  • "Sun Come Up,"
the touching story of Carteret Islanders who must travel to neighboring Bougainville, hat in hand, to beg for land to resettle to as their island sinks slowly into the sea; 
  • "The Warriors of Qiugang,"
about the victimized villagers leading the embryonic environmentalist movement in China; and a possible upset winner, 
  • "Poster Girl,"
about Robynn Murray, an all-American cheerleader turned Army poster girl turned antiwar activist with PTSD. Murray is a rarely eloquent and reflective subject, and might just make the Oscar stage next Sunday night.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts

With his fully developed concept realized in lush black and white, Luke Matheny, the director and star of 

  • "God of Love,"
announces his arrival as one to watch. His short is the best of the bunch, but may lose out to 
  • "Wish 143,"
the smart comic story of an adolescent cancer patient who gets to "Make a Wish" and asks to have sex with a beautiful girl. 
  • "The Crush,"
the story of an Irish second-grader's crush on his teacher, starts brilliantly (he asks his parents how old he has to be to get married; they tell him sixteen and ask, "Why, do you have some news for us?"; "No," he responds, "well, not at the moment"), but takes an abrupt turn toward incongruous violence and profanity that doesn't fit the characters. 
  • "Na Wewe"
might have been a fascinating tale of a tour bus stopped by machete-wielding child soldiers in Burundi in the early 90s, but ends up going for a bad joke that trivializes the whole thing. Worst of all is 
  • "The Confession,"
which begins interestingly with a young Catholic boy trying to find something good to confess to his priest, but falls back on the overly coincidental plotting that marks most bad short stories.

The Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts

The cream of this year's crop of Oscar-nominated animated shorts is
  • "The Gruffalo,"
with Helena Bonham Carter leading a star-studded cast in a beautiful, fully realized telling of a delightful, classic children's story. I also had a soft spot for 
  • "The Lost Thing,"
about an eccentric young man who finds and takes home a huge, mysterious lost object with limbs, tendrils, and bells extending out of its amorphous form. Also worthwhile is 
  • "Madagascar, Carnet de Voyage,"
a picture scrapbook of the director's trip to Madagascar come to life. 
  • "Day & Night,"
the Pixar production that screened with "Toy Story 3" last year, is the least interesting offering, but still better than "Let's Pollute," a self-congratulatory and ham-handed winky "educational film" about the merits of pollution.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Honorable Mentions 2010

Films that didn't make my top ten list this year but might have in another year and are well worth seeing: 

  • "Cyrus,"
a sadly underseen comedy - with great work by John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei - that couldn't quite sustain its edge in the final third; 
  • "Enter the Void,"
surely the best rave movie since "Go," with a ubiquitous-neon vision of Tokyo that will forever be etched in my memory;
  • "The Ghost Writer,"
Roman Polanski's cleverly constructed and highly absorbing thriller;
  • "Greenberg,"
Noah Baumbach's caustic social commentary, with a wise-beyond-her-years performance by Greta Gerwig; 
  • "Hot Tub Time Machine,"
the mainstream American comedy with the highest hit-to-miss ratio this year and a lot of big laughs;
Nicole Holofcener's 
  • "Please Give,"
which made any theater playing it a bullshit-free zone;
  • "Tangled,"
the best Disney animation in two decades and the family entertainment of the year;
  • "Tiny Furniture,"
an excitingly confident debut by Lena Dunham and a great New York movie; and
  • "True Grit,"
the most fun Western in a coon's age, in which Hailee Steinfeld gives those nasty boys all they want and then some.

Great Documentaries of 2010

2010 gave us a number of edutaining documentaries about public education, the financial crisis, and corruption in politics, but the half dozen I liked best were mostly profiles that gave private dimension to public (or semi-public) figures:

The Worst Movie of 2010

There was plenty of dreck at the cinema this year - as there always is - but I can't think of a movie by a talented director more disappointing than Stephen Frears' moronic and woman-hating 
  • "Tamara Drewe."
It will remain a mystery what drew Frears - who has given us such fine films as "Dangerous Liaisons," "The Grifters," "The Snapper," "Dirty Pretty Things," and "The Queen" - to this bad-sitcom level material, but the hateful characters, asinine situations and pervasive vulgarity made for as unpleasant a moviegoing experience as any this year. For shame.

A Few Words About My 2010 Top-Ten List

To be eligible for my list, a feature film must have opened theatrically in Los Angeles in 2010. Sometimes a film will have opened elsewhere earlier or will not open elsewhere until later - them's the breaks.
After trying to place my top ten into exact spots, I quickly realized I couldn't, so I'll cover #s 2-10 alphabetically in one note and #1, of which I am supremely confident, in another.
I try to avoid the fallacy of recency, but the majority of the year's best movies clearly came out after summer. Exclusion from my list may mean only that I didn't get around to a worthy entry, but inclusion this year indicates a film of rare quality.

In the next few notes, I'll list some honorable mentions, some of the year's best documentaries, and my vote for the worst movie of the year.

The #1 Film of 2010

Among some of my friends, the question was not whether you had seen "The Secret in Their Eyes," but how many times.

The #2-#10 Films of 2010

No other film this year is so comfortable in its skin as Mike Leigh's "Another Year," mainly due to the lived-in performances of Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as a happily married couple, he a geologist and she a counselor, around whom swirl others - their son Peter, their friend Mary (the award-worthy Lesley Manville) - at various levels of happiness. "Another Year" is a film of rare honesty and insight in which - when I'm asked "What happens?" - no more and no less than life happens.

Saturday, January 1, 2011