Tuesday, September 29, 2009

No film in 2009 has grown on me in retrospect quite like Pedro Almodovar's Broken Embraces (Sony Pictures Classics, 11/20). Watching an Almodovar film is always a bit like wrapping yourself up in a cinematic warm blanket, even his more disturbing films like Bad Education has that certain warmth one associates with watching a master at work.

Penelope Cruz as Lena/Pina. Photo by Emilia Pereda & Paola Ardizzoni. O Emilio Pereda & Paola Ardizzoni/El Deseo. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Broken Embraces has seen more mixed critical reactions than most of his recent output, and indeed on first glance it is a much more subdued effort on his part. But what struck me the most about this film and is relation to cinema in general (it is ultimately a film about the power of editing and the director's relationship to his work), is how much better it is as using cinema of the past as a reference point than, say, Tarantino's much balleyhooed Inglourious Basterds. The reason being, Almodovar does not use it as a crutch, rather as a subtle reference point to reinforce the film's themes and their cinematic significance. Whereas in Inglourious Basterds, that seems to be the whole reason for its existence.

In all honesty, I think I was more impressed by Broken Embraces than Almodovar's last effort, Volver. It reminded me in some ways of his 1997 film, Live Flesh, one of my personal favorites of his films, in its dark, noir-ish take on love and vengeance.

Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. Photo by: Francois Duhamel/ TWC 2009.

Almodovar and Tarantino both clearly have a deep love of cinema and a keen understanding of its inner workings and its history, but Tarantino's back-referencing tends to be more blunt force, especially in comparison's to Almodovar's more scalpel-like subtlety. It's almost funny to call the often garish colors and transsexual debauchery of Almodovar's films subtle, but the emotions at work in them always sneak up on you when you least expect it. That is the mark of a true master, who pays homage to the masters before him, while giving plenty of new material for the masters who will come after.
By now you've probably heard that renowned filmmaker Roman Polanski (Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby) was arrested in Switzerland yesterday while in route to the Zurich Film Festival to receive an honorary award, in connection with his 1977 statutory rape conviction.

The details surrounding the case, which were chronicled in the 2008 documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, have been considered dubious, and Polanski fled to France after a judge threw out the prosecutor's time served deal. Now, in what can only be called a revenge fueled, image saving, chest thumping neanderthal move, the Los Angeles Prosecutor's Office planned the sting as the Swiss authorities acted on what they call a valid, international warrant.

The victim, Samantha Geimer, now 45, has forgiven the 76 year old, Oscar winning director, reached a settlement, and wants to move on. In other words, she is not behind this. Why can't the LA Prosecutors do the same thing? Were they goaded by the documentary? Do they not have better, more important things to be working on?

No matter what, this is a shameful move. There is no justice in this. Not for the victim, not for anybody. This shows the LA prosecutors in a desperate PR move, and just like the LAPD in Changeling, they're going to end up with egg on their face. Already the internet is aflame with, sanctimonious, self-righteous Polanski haters praising the pointless move. I'm not excusing what he did, but it's time to forgive, forget, and move on just as the victim has. I like how Glenn Kenney put it in a comment at Hollywood-Elsewhere, the whole affair
"just gives people a chance to have a good long wallow in their own inflated sense of righteousness. You should enjoy, as they say."

France's SACD has begun a petition for the release of Polanski, which includes signatures from the likes of Pedro Almodovar, Wong Kar Wai, Harmony Korine, Stephen Frears, Alexander Payne, Michael Mann, Wim Wenders, Tilda Swinton, Julian Schnabel, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Alexandre Desplat, Wes Anderson, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Darren Aronofsky, Alfonso Cuaron, Jonathan Demme, Giuseppe Tornatore, Walter Salles, and Tom Tykwer.

For a complete list of signatures, click here.

This has been a non-issue for 30 years. Why now? It's time to let it go, and free Roman Polanski.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

No other filmmaker has quite captured the evolution of modern China as well as Jia Zhang Ke. His films represent a kind of Chinese family album, preserving memories of what once was as progress marches forward. His last film, Still Life, which chronicled lives that were displaced by the damming of the Yangtze river by the massive Three Gorges Dam, made it on to my 2008 top ten list for its haunting portrayal of needless modernization at the expense of history.

Now he has turned his eye on another kind of modernization, but on a much different scale. This time it is modernization of modernization, but is it for the better, or is it the creation of something even more soulless?

The subject of 24 City is the Chengdu Engine Group in Chengdu City, more commonly known by its military designation as Factory 420. Built in 1958 as part of Chairman Mao's plan to move all munitions factories into safer inland areas barring an enemy invasion, Factory 420 enjoyed years of prosperity producing airplane engines before being sold to a large, privately owned real estate developer, who plans to raze the factory and replace it with a large apartment complex called 24 City.

Zhao Tao as seen in Jia Zhang-ke’s “24 City.” Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

Jia crafts his film as a part documentary, part fictional look at the people who made Factory 420 run. Seamlessly mixing real life interviews with fictional monologues, 24 City paints a deeply personal portrait of a generation upon whose backs Factory 420 was built. We hear tales both tragic and heartwarming, as former workers recount profound learning experiences at the hands of their old masters, or in the heartbreaking case of one woman, how she lost her child in a crowd while on the way to the factory, but was forced to leave before he could be found by a cruel deadline.

Yet, despite it all, the workers of Factory 420 seem strangely nostalgic about the place they once called home. Being forced to leave a place that has become the center of their lives into a job market that no longer has a place for their skills is a tragedy in and of itself. The face of China is changing drastically, and for a private company to come in and buy out a state owned operation is a huge deal. The ideals of Communism, that the worker should be put first, are being bulldozed out of the way by the ever encroaching specter of Capitalism.

Joan Chen as seen in Jia Zhang-ke’s “24 City.” Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

To its credit, however, 24 City is not some one sided, anti-Capitalist hit piece. What makes it so surprisingly multi-dimensional is when, near the end, it begins interviewing the children of the workers. All grown now, this new generation has a much different view of Factory 420 than the wistful reverence of their parents. They describe weeping openly at the sight of their parents reduced to the menial labor of the factory, and of a determination to do well by them and buy them an apartment in the new 24 City. It is a stark contrast to the elders' "work hard and glorify China" attitude, another sign of the changing of the times and the ever widening generation gap.

But which one is right? Or could it be both? Jia allows them both to speak, the old and the new, but one can't help but feel a kind of aching sadness, especially in the eyes of the workers, for the soul of how things used to be, that maybe progress, in this case, is a double edged sword. Has the China of today sold its soul to compete in an increasingly fast paced world? It is a fascinating and bittersweet film, its structure creating a wholly original and moving viewing experience that takes the plight of people half a world away, and makes it stunningly, hauntingly, our own.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

24 CITY; Directed by Jia Zhang Ke; Stars Joan Chen, Lv Liping, Zhao Tao, Chen Jianbin; Not Rated; In Mandarin and Shanghainese w/English subtitles.
From The Dispatch:
...the film itself remains strangely aloof, holding the audience at arm's length, its style often impeding the story's natural flow. The film's 1970s spy aesthetic is almost self-conscious, making it hard to really get sucked into the world of the film. It's often visually and aurally pleasing (mostly thanks to Hamlisch's music), but it seems more like a hollow exercise in style than anything else.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Claire Denis' sublime 35 Shots of Rum goes for nearly seven minutes before anyone says a word. And what an enchanting seven minutes it is. Denis begins her tale of a widowed metro conductor and his unconventional family with a lyrical montage of the Parisian metro system, its rough, mechanical landscape creating its own kind of poetry in motion - a symphony of the rails.

It is at once beautiful and mesmerizing, completely enveloping the viewer into the world of the film, both joyous and melancholy, vibrant and mundane. It is a world instantly recognizable in its simple realism - the tale of a father, Lionel (a hauntingly world weary Alex Descas), whose daughter, Joséphine (Mati Diop), has become a sort of surrogate wife to him after his wife's passing. Having lived together for many years, each has settled into their own routine. But gradually, Joséphine has begun spending more time with their neighbor, Noé (Grégoire Colin), while Lionel is having a tentative romance of his own, with an old friend and cab driver, Gabrielle (the regally beautiful Nicole Dogue).

Josephine (Mati Diop) and Lionel (Alex Descas) as seen in Claire Denis’ “35 Shots of Rum.” Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

35 Shots of Rum follows their lives through its routines and hiccups, be it at the retirement party of an old friend, behind the controls of a metro train, having their car break down on the way to a concert, or simply sitting in the kitchen enjoying a meal together. Denis is always keenly in tune with the nuances and rhythms of every day life, and she makes even the most ordinary moments seem extraordinarily beautiful. Her continual return to the music of the metro rails only reinforces its subtle beauty, and when accompanied by Tindersticks' mournfully jazzy score, it becomes something of simple yet transcendent grandeur.

But the real beauty, and indeed the real power of 35 Shots of Rum, comes in what the characters do not say. These characters say more with just a glance or a gesture than pages of dialogue ever could. Denis uses these moments to allow the audience to fill in the blanks, while the words left unsaid reverberate through the silence. To quote Tarantino's Pulp Fiction - "That's when you know you've found somebody special. When you can just shut the fuck up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence." The same applies to films as well. That is the mark of a consummate filmmaker and storyteller - the ability to tell a story without words. 35 Shots of Rum could have easily been a silent film, using only images and music. But the dialogue that is used is so finely tuned and naturalistic that it makes the film that much more immediate.

Lionel (Alex Descas) dances with Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué) as seen in Claire Denis’ “35 Shots of Rum.” Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

Denis obviously knows her characters, and she makes sure the audience does too. The world of the film feels wholly worn and lived in, like a pair of Lionel's old slippers he always changes into when he gets home from work. It's all so loose, so free, so sexy, that it's almost hard to imagine that these characters are not, in fact, real. It is a fully realized and immediately accessable world, that is oddly perfect and expertly crafted by Denis. Everything about it just feels so right, so completely compelling and engrossing that it sets its hooks in the viewer early and never lets go. By the time the film ended I was saddened not so much by the path the characters take (which is a path of moving on that we all end up facing), but by the fact that I had to leave the world of the film.

We empathize with these characters. They are our friends, our family, our neighbors, they are us. 35 Shots of Rum isn't so much a film as it is a mirror, one that invites us to look inside and find ourselves, drawing us into its own tremulous, careworn beauty. It is a world to which I immediately longed to return, and I hope the same can be said for all who choose to take its beguiling journey.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

35 SHOTS OF RUM; Directed by Claire Denis; Stars Alex Descas, Mati Diop, Nicole Dogue, Grégoire Colin; Not Rated; In French w/English subtitles; Now showing at the Film Forum in Manhattan.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The roots and causes of terrorism have been long debated and discussed by politicians, historians, journalists, and commentators for years, most heatedly in America since the events of September 11, 2001. It should come as no surprise, then, that it has also been explored, to great success, by artists and filmmakers as well, giving rise to such films as Paradise Now (Hany Abu-Assad, 2005) and Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005).

While Paradise Now dealt more with the personal motivations of suicide bombers, and Munich the vicious circle that propagates terrorism, Uli Edel's The Baader Meinhof Complex (which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at last year's Academy Awards) examines the societal conditions that radicalize citizens into taking violent action against the government.

The focus here is Germany's Red Army Faction, made up of children of the Nazi generation who in the 1970s rebelled against the government they saw as becoming a police state, and took action to insure that fascism never gained a foothold in their country again.

The RAF was largely born out of student unrest, as protests against the Vietnam war became increasingly violent. In response, the German government stepped up police actions against the protesters, causing violent clashes between students and police. In response students became more and more radicalize and organized, resulting in the creation of the RAF, a leftist terrorist organization whose goal was to fight fascism and protect the third world from oppression. It was led by the fiery Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), his lover,Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), and journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), who left her family and her job to fight for what she felt was right.

Always focusing their efforts on government or police targets instead of civilians, the RAF appealed to the people to support their cause, and the people responded with almost overwhelming support, leaving the government in a sticky situation. But as time wore on and members of the gang were captured, the new members who rose to take their place began to take the group into new, increasingly radical, territory. As the movement spirals out of hand in an increasingly globalized (and dangerous) effort, not even the original founders recognize what it has become.

The Baader Meinhof Complex has been accused, in certain circles, of being pro-terrorism. But to hold that view is to miss the point of the film completely. This is not a film that condones the actions of its protagonists (although, admittedly, they are shown in a sympathetic light), rather it is one that examines what made them who they are, and in many ways, where the Islamic terrorists we know today came from. These were students, journalists, every day people who became radicalized by a wide set of circumstances - who eventually lost sight of their goals and their original identity, changed by their ever shifting ranks and the idealism of youth. The film, more so than any other in recent memory, actually has the nerve to ask "why?" rather than point fingers or paint in broad strokes.

Structurally, The Baader Meinhof Complex is taut and ferocious, a lean, solid, unsentimental narrative that dives right into the nitty gritty details of its subject. It's not always a pleasant film, nor is it meant to be. It is, in many ways, Munich by way of Hunger multiplied by The Hurt Locker. It uses skilled editing and all-around strong performances to convey the sense of desperation and urgency of the RAF, with Edel's stark and efficient direction holding it all together. It is a clear eyed account of the roots of modern terrorism that confronts the viewer with profound and unsettling moral questions, making it a film whose effects will be very hard to shake.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX; Directed by Uli Edel; Stars Moritz Bleibtreu, Martina Gedeck, Johanna Wokalek, Bruno Ganz; Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing images, sexual content, graphic nudity and language; In German with English subtitles. Now playing in select cities, opens in NC in Charlotte at the Regal Park Terrace on Friday, 9/25.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

For those who have seen screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga's collaborations with director Alejandro González Iñárritu, Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, it shouldn't be too hard to anticipate what awaits them in his directorial debut, The Burning Plain.

Following 3 different women across two different time periods, The Burning Plain is yet another one of those interlocking storyline films that have become so prominent in independent filmmaking after Steven Soderbergh's Traffic scored big at the Academy Awards in 2000.

The bulk of the film belongs to Charlize Theron, who plays long suffering waitress, Sylvia; who, while good at her job, finds her life empty, and fills it by having random hookups with complete strangers, trying to purge herself of guilt connected with a traumatic event in her past.

Kim Basinger is Gina, a struggling, emotionally fragile working class mother who is secretly having an affair with a local Mexican worker, Nick (Joaquim de Almeida). The two meet in an old abandoned trailer in the middle of the New Mexico plains, making love on the dusty old bed and leaving the troubles of their every day lives behind.

Charlize Theron in THE BURNING PLAIN, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

It soon seems as if the two have fallen in love, carving out a little haven for themselves to live out an alternate life. But when Gina's teenage daughter, Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence), discovers them, she feels as if her family is falling apart. Worried that Gina and Nick will run away together, Mariana becomes determined to put an end to the affair and find a way to keep her family together in any way she can.

The stories of Sylvia, Gina, and Mariana, slowly converge, and eventually the connection is revealed. But anyone who has been paying any attention should figure it out right away, because what The Burning Plain treats like a great revelation is actually a blatant no-brainer. It's an anti-climactic twist, one so obvious I hesitate to even call it a twist. But the filmmakers obviously think it is, so we'll go with that.

As a whole, The Burning Plain is a perfectly respectable, middle-brow drama with obvious Oscar aspirations. It's also almost instantly forgettable. It rolls along, neither offending with its presence or causing any great excitement, and immediately fades upon leaving the theater, leaving no real lasting impact.

Kim Basinger and Joaquim de Almeida in THE BURNING PLAIN, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Theron and Basinger both deliver fine performances, but everything about the film just seems tired. We've seen it all, done much better, before. There is nothing here worth recommending over other, similar films. It feels like a bland mix, a piece of white bread amidst spicier, more exotic loaves. Structurally, it's very old hat, and this time its cross-cutting between stories doesn't enhance the story, it hinders it. The structure relies upon the third act twist that is so essential to the emotional arc of one of the characters, but since any thinking audience member should already know what it's revealing by that point, we're already 3 steps ahead of Arriaga, making the film feel plodding and redundant.

While one can't knock the solid, basic craft, The Burning Plain is, as a whole, competently assembled, the whole project feels underwhelming. It is both uninspired and langorous, a bland and anonymous concoction, while mildly engaging at the time, leaves no satisfying aftertaste.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

THE BURNING PLAIN; Directed by Guillermo Arriaga; Stars Charlize Theron, Kim Basinger, Jennifer Lawrence, Jose Maria Yazpik, Joaquim de Alameida, Tessa la, Diego P. Torres; Rated R for sexuality, nudity and language. Now playing On Demand. Opens theatrically in select cities tomorrow, 9/18.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

From The Dispatch:
"Whiteout" is a ridiculous, laughable bore from the get-go, with a plodding script and clumsy direction. It uses every cliché red herring trick in the book that even the least sophisticated viewers will be able to see through immediately. The premise isn't an altogether terrible one, but it's just so goofy that there is no way it can be taken seriously.
Click here to read my full review.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Finally, a US trailer has been released for Lars von Trier's searing, flawed masterpiece, Antichrist.

They're pushing the controversial angle hard, which is probably their best bet. Art house films such as this one have always attracted audiences by pushing the naughty bits, and Antichrist has plenty. It is yet to be seen, of course, if this will translate into any significant box office, because I have a feeling audiences will be fleeing from this one in droves, literally and figuratively.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

From The Chicago Sun-Times:
I cannot dismiss this film. It is a real film. It will remain in my mind. Von Trier has reached me and shaken me. It is up to me to decide what that means. I think the film has something to do with religious feeling. It is obvious to anyone who saw "Breaking the Waves" that von Trier's sense of spirituality is intense, and that he can envision the supernatural as literally present in the world. His reference is Catholicism. Raised by a communist mother and a socialist father in a restrictive environment, he was told as an adult that his father was not his natural parent, and renounced that man's Judaism to convert, at the age of 30, to the Catholic church. It was at about the same age that von Trier founded the Dogma movement, with its monkish asceticism.
Click here to read the full article.

Again, Ebert demonstrates why he is the man. He clearly "gets" Antichrist. One of the great critical sins is to dismiss it altogether, as so many have. You can't dismiss it, because it won't let you. As Ebert writes:
I rarely find a serious film by a major director to be this disturbing. Its images are a fork in the eye. Its cruelty is unrelenting. Its despair is profound. Von Trier has a way of affecting his viewers like that. After his "Breaking the Waves" premiered at Cannes in 1996, Georgia Brown of the Village Voice fled to the rest room in emotional turmoil and Janet Maslin of the New York Times followed to comfort her. After this one, Richard and Mary Corliss blogged at Time.com that "Antichrist" presented the spectacle of a director going mad.
There is some truth in that - Antichrist is something of a work of mad genius. But as Seneca said - "There is no great genius without some touch of madness." Ebert's piece is a clear-eyed piece of criticism, something that has been sorely lacking when it comes to Antichrist and Von Trier in general.
From The Dispatch:
There is a reason Michael is only referred to as "The Shape" in the credits of the original "Halloween." He's the boogy man, the essence of pure, faceless evil, not some troubled child who just wants to reunite his family. Zombie may be ramping up the violence, but he's watering down the real terror, the mystery that has made Michael Myers such an enduring character. Movie monsters just aren't any fun if all they are is Freudian caricatures.
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Longtime Variety columnist Army Archerd, who began his covering the entertainment world in 1945, and began his stint at the venerable trade magazine in 1952, working even after his column ended in 2005 as an industry blogger, which ran until July of this year, and was often seen hosting the red carpet at the Oscars, died today of a rare form of cancer.

You can read all the details over at Variety, I just wanted to comment on Archerd's passing briefly because of the old fashioned class I always associated with the man. Archerd was a product of old Hollywood, an era of glamorous stars and big marquee names, and he retained much of that respectful attitude toward a world full of wonder.

That doesn't mean he wasn't afraid to speak his mind, as he often did. But Archerd was a different kind of reporter, cut from a cloth they just don't make anymore. As Anne Thompson said on Twitter, it's the end of an era. He was the last of his kind, and he will be missed.

Friday, September 04, 2009

From Film Comment:
Von Trier can’t seem to keep from confusing the mythic power of the oppressed Female and the history of repressive violence done to women. The two kinds of violence arbitrarily cross paths. Thus Dafoe mutates from symbolizing masculine oppressiveness to being the castrated victim—a proto-woman himself. And this gets mashed up with horror movie conventions. He eventually morphs into the “final girl” who generically survives the knives of movie serial killers like Jason in various horror franchises. And the clitorectomy Gainsbourg performs on herself only dimly makes sense if she has also undergone a spiritual sex change, actively assuming the persona of vindictive masculine oppressor.
Click here to read the full article.

Gross has a lot to say about Antichrist, and while some may be construed as reading too much into something Von Trier really didn't think that much about, I think he's pretty spot on about the film. It's a fascinating reading of the movie, especially the Gainsbourg as masculine oppressor angle, which makes sense.

This is exactly the kind of discussion I hoped would spring from Antichrist. It is obviously a deeply flawed work, but also the work of a deeply troubled artist struggling to pull himself out of a deep depression. Great art springs from great turmoil, Von Trier's work here is staggering. It demands to be mulled over and contemplated. Whether one ends up reacting positively or negatively to it is ultimately beside the point. The point is that Antichrist is a work of mad, staggering genius, even if it is a genius in decline, working as unenthusiastically as possible, churning out what is inevitably going to be a hotly debated and divisive work.

The plus side is that the discussion that springs from it will almost certainly be better than the film itself. But flawed or not, what we are dealing with here is a work of jaw-dropping power and vision. And for that it more than deserves critical consideration.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

It's hard to believe that summer 2009 has come to a close. But with Labor Day marking the official end of the summer movie season, it's time to look back on the last summer of the decade, and all the ups and downs that came along with it. Thankfully, there were quite a few ups this year, with some strong summer fare being released across the board. Here are my ten favorites:

(Pete Docter, USA)Pixar continues its reign as the best animation studio around, delivering yet another warm-hearted, thrilling, and wondrous journey for all ages.


(Neill Blomkamp, South Africa)
While Pixar may be reliably great, the real jolt of creative energy this summer came from a young South African upstart, backed by Peter Jackson, with this stunning sci-fi drama/Apartheid allegory.

(Hayao Miyazaki, Japan)If Pixar are the corporate kings of animation, then Hayao Miyazaki is the reigning auteur, proving yet again that even his lesser, more cutesy outings are more finely crafted and charming than most people's best work.

(J.J. Abrams, USA)
J.J. Abrams reboots the venerable franchise in this sweeping and bold new take on a classic. Pure summer escapism at its best.

(Kathryn Bigelow, USA)Audiences have stayed away from Iraq films in droves, but Kathryn Bigelow's art house hit topped them all, eschewing politics for a pulse-pounding, adreneline pumping action aesthetic that puts its audience through an elite bomb squad's nerve-fraying daily grind.

(Judd Apatow, USA)After nearly perfecting his signature raunchy but sweet brand of comedy in The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, Judd Apatow returns with this, his most mature and personal film yet.

(David Yates, UK)Harry Potter is growing up, and in this sixth installment of the popular series, the boy wizard faces some of his darkest challenges, making for the most emotional, and best Potter film yet.

(Marc Webb, USA)Call it the anti-romance romantic comedy - a charming sweet and sour look at what went wrong in a seemingly idyllic relationship. It's a beautiful and painfully honest look at life, love, and modern relationships.

(Lucrecia Martel, Argentina)Not a summer movie, per se, but since it was released in August I'll count it anyway. Besides, this haunting film about a woman dealing with guilt and a growing mental breakdown after she may or may not have run over a little boy on a lonely stretch of road, is more memorable and more suspenseful than almost any Hollywood thriller released this year.

(Michael Mann, USA)Gangsters are cool again, and Michael Mann expertly channels the 1930s with a startling immediacy through the use of grainy digital photography.

I'd also like to give a special shout-out to Marc Fienberg's Play the Game, which craft-wise isn't as good as the other films on the list, but thanks to Andy Griffith really deserves to be the sleeper hit of the summer. As well as Bandslam, which was, for me, the surprise delight of the summer, an unexpectedly sophisticated musical comedy for the High School Musical set.

Since I don't want to dwell on the negative, I'll only give the worst a passing mention:
  1. G-Force
  2. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
  3. Terminator Salvation
  4. X-Men Origins: Wolverine
  5. Angels and Demons
Now that summer is over, it's time to look forward to the fall movie season (my personal favorite). The best is yet to come, but as summers go, summer 2009 wasn't half bad.
I would be very easy to dismiss Marc Webb's feature directorial debut, (500) Days of Summer, as just another precious indie for the Garden State crowd. Which in many ways it is. Hollywood has found a way to capitalize on this growing sub-genre of quirky romances aimed at hipsters, churning them out with the same soulless corporate mentality they allow their mindless blockbusters, except here the use of an acoustic indie rock song is equated with emotional depth.

This cynical trend to capitalize on twentysomething melancholy officially jumped the shark with Sam Mendes' Away We Go earlier this year, but thanks to Webb's assured and capable hands has been returned to some semblance of respectability with (500) Days of Summer.

It has all the ingredients one would expect - quirky characters with affinities for certain indie rock bands, cutesy line drawings, and a healthy dose of melancholic introspection. This time, however, Webb has the good sense to actually imbue his film with actual insight into life and love, instead of using acoustic rock as a cure all Band-Aid.

The narrator makes it very clear up front that this is not a love story. And it's not...well, not really. (500) Days of Summer is an anti-love story, an examination of how it all went wrong for Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a twentysomething greeting card writer who falls head over heels for his boss' new assistant, Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), an enigmatic free spirit (is there any other kind?) who doesn't believe in love. Tom is infatuated almost instantly once he discovers that they share a mutual love for the band The Smiths, and makes it his goal to win her heart. But Summer has other plans, and while their relationship resembles that of boyfriend and girlfriend, eventually it becomes painfully clear that both are looking for different things, and the relationship ends in heartbreak for Tom.

The film recounts that relationship in a non-linear fashion, looking back over the good times and the bad, to paint a painfully realistic picture of a failed romance. Over the 500 days from the time he meets her until the time he finally learns to move on, the film examines their ups and downs, actually taking the time for a serious and mature look at why love fails. Despite its well chosen soundtrack, we are never left with the feeling that the songs are replacements for actual insight. While (500) Days of Summer stops short of profound, it is a very rare thing to find a film that is this honest and open about modern relationships.

Much of the credit lies with Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber's surprisingly sophisticated screenplay, that treats young heartache with both tenderness and clear-eyed honesty. It doesn't wallow in its moroseness or look down its nose at what are obviously real feelings, nor does it act like it's deeper and more profound than it actually is. It keeps everything in perspective while bringing a refreshing point of view to the table - love isn't always what you see in the movies. It's messy, complicated, and the boy doesn't always get the girl in the end.

As such, (500) Days of Summer is surprisingly successful in its aims, walking a fine line between offbeat comedy and beautiful melancholy. The winning performances of Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel hammer it all home, providing two real, three dimensional human beings, both flawed and both wholly believable and readily recognizable. There is a simple and almost effortless beauty at work here. And while I don't want to ascribe any great importance on the film that simply isn't there, its combination of optimism and practicality is both a refreshing and welcome change to the daily cinematic grind.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER; Directed by Marc Webb; Stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Geoffrey Arend, Chloe Moretz, Matthew Gray Gubbler, Clark Gregg; Rated PG-13 for sexual material and language.
From The Dispatch:
The youngsters are all right, but "Play the Game" belongs to its elderly stars. Griffith, Roberts, and Sheridan own this movie, but Griffith is especially the highlight. The film's tagline proclaims "Andy Griffith like you have never seen him before," and that couldn't be more true. Griffith definitely displays a new side of himself here that is both surprising and hilarious. "Play the Game" would have been little more than another throwaway romantic comedy were it not for his presence. The story and the screenplay are mostly cliché, but Griffith's immense talent and charm carry it a long way, adding a new and welcome twist to a tired formula.
Click here to read my full review.