Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Top Ten Films of 2009

My list of the top ten films of 2009 went online at The Dispatch today. You can read my full write up on each film here.

1
ANTICHRIST
2
STILL WALKING


3
MUNYURANGABO
4
GOODBYE SOLO

5
35 SHOTS OF RUM

6
THE WHITE RIBBON
7
TOKYO SONATA

8
REVANCHE

9
SUMMER HOURS

10
FANTASTIC MR. FOX
HONORABLE MENTIONS (11-20)
Mary & Max (Adam Elliot, Australia)
The Sun (Alexander Sokurov, Russia)
Captain Abu Raed (Amin Matalqa, Jordan)
Unmistaken Child (Nati Baratz, Israel)
The Cove (Louis Psihoyos, USA)
Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, USA)
Avatar (James Cameron, USA)
Up (Pete Docter, USA)
Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan)
Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi, USA)
Three Monkeys (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)

Review: "The White Ribbon"

Looking back on the work of Michael Haneke, which includes films like Funny Games, The Piano Teacher, and Cache, his latest film, the Palme D'Or winning The White Ribbon, appears to be his most accessible film yet. But "accessible" for Haneke is a relative term. While The White Ribbon may not be as blatantly nihilistic and sadistic as Funny Games, it still features what has become Haneke's trademark austerity.

Shot in the starkly beautiful black and white of a world that is slowly losing its soul, The White Ribbon takes place in a small German village just after World War I. It is a quiet little village, deeply religious, and occupied with its simple farming lifestyle. But a mysterious string of seemingly random violent acts is beginning to put them in a state of unease. A man is ripped from his bicycle by a wire strung across the road. A barn is lit on fire. A mentally handicapped child is maliciously attacked and sexually assaulted. The air of creeping dread that begins to overtake the town permeates every frame of the film, and soon the town is consumed by fear and paranoia caused by their unseen assailant.

Leonard Proxauf as Martin (The Pastor's Son). © Films du Losange, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Haneke mostly observes the town and their routines between events. We see the local preacher tying his young son's hands to his bed to prevent him from masturbating, and "giving into sin." We see the tentative beginnings of young love, once again thwarted by circumstance and strict tradition. Everything in this secluded little town is buried beneath the surface, hidden behind a veil of piety and custom. By the time the true culprit is revealed, the effect is deeply unsettling. True to form, Haneke never spells out a specific perpetrator, leaving it open to interpretation. The White Ribbon is a film of ambiguity and nuance, but its conclusion, while open ended, leaves us with a strong and unshakable understanding of a world about to face profound changes.

The film takes its title from the white ribbon that the preacher's wife ties around the arms of her children as a punishment to remind them of their wrong doings. As such, the film is a deeply disconcerting meditation on the social and sexual repression that would foster a deep seeded anger and resentment in an entire generation, eventually leading to the organized hate and systematic murder committed by the Nazis. Haneke isn't trying to place one single explanation for the Holocaust here, The White Ribbon is an exploration of the roots of evil, a look at how and why the seeds of hate are planted in the hearts and minds of the young.

Left to right: Kristina Kneppek as Else, Stephanie Amarell as Sophie, Bianca Mey as Paula, Mika Ahrens as Willi (the Farmer's other children). © Films du Losange, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

The haunting black and white cinematography enhances the feeling that we are watching some sort of contemporary portrait of these people, like an old photograph of people long forgotten. People never seem to smile in those old photographs, lost to time, forever frozen with a grim countenance. So too are the characters that populate The White Ribbon. The adults are stern and severe, the children sullen and oppressed, any glimmer of youthful happiness soon stamped out of them by a strict religious regime. It is a film every bit as bleak as any other Haneke work, maybe even more so. Its chilling effect echoes into our own time, not just as a historical curiosity. The suppression of doubt, the discouraging of healthy sexual exploration, is not only wrong, it's dangerous.

Haneke has made a classically minded film with decidedly modern sensibilities. Its disturbing ambiguity isn't as frustrating as some of Haneke's other films. Here, it enhances the film's disconcerting effect. We know where it will eventually lead, but Haneke never leads us there. The White Ribbon isn't a film of answers, it is a film of questions, one that is as compelling as it is fascinating to contemplate. Haneke both enthralls and repells us, luring us into a world where all feelings are buried deep beneath the quaint and idyllic surface. The pleasure is in the exploration, and The White Ribbon is a rich and captivating film in which to explore.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE WHITE RIBBON; Directed by Michael Haneke; Stars Christian Friedel, Ernst Jacobi, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Ursina Lardi, Burghart Klaußner, Leonard Proxauf; Rated R for some disturbing content involving violence and sexuality. In German w/English subtitles. Opens today, 12/30, in New York and Los Angeles.

Friday, December 25, 2009

'Twas the Night Before Christmas - Star Trek Style

Hope you all enjoy this as much as I did. Merry Christmas!

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the ship
Not a circuit was buzzing, not one microchip;
The phasers were hung in the armory securely,
In hopes that no aliens would get up that early.

The crewmen were nestled all snug in their bunks
(Except for the few who were partying drunks);
And Picard in his nightshirt and Bev in her lace,
Had just settled down for a neat face-to-face...

When out in the halls there arose such a racket,
That we leapt from our beds, pulling on pants and jacket.
Away to the lifts we all shot like a gun,
Leapt into the cars and yelled loudly, "Deck One!"

The bridge Red-Alert lights, which flashed through the din,
Gave a lustre of Hades to objects within.
When, what, on the viewscreen, should our eyes behold,
But a weird kind of sleigh, and some guy who looked old.

But the glint in his eyes was so strange and askew
That we knew in a moment it had to be Q.
His sleigh grew much larger as closer he came.
Then he zapped on the bridge and addressed us by name:

"It's Riker! It's Data! It's Worf and Jean-Luc!
It's Geordi! And Wesley, the genetic fluke!
To the top of the bridge, to the top of the hall!
Now float away! Float away! Float away all!"

As leaves in the autumn are whisked off the street,
So the floor of the bridge came away from our feet,
And up to the ceiling our bodies they flew,
As the captain called out, "What the hell is this, Q?!"

The prankster just laughed and expanded his grin,
And, snapping his fingers, he vanished again.
As we took in our plight and were looking around,
The spell was removed, and we crashed to the ground.

Then Q, dressed in fur from his head to his toe,
Appeared once again, to continue the show.
"That's enough!" cried the captain, "You'll stop this at once!"
And Riker said, "Worf! Take aim at this dunce!"

"I'm deeply offended, Jean-Luc," replied Q,
"I just want to celebrate Christmas with you."
As we scoffed at his words, he produced a large sack.
He dumped out the contents and took a step back.

"I've brought gifts," he said, "just to show I'm sincere.
There's something delightful for everyone here."
He sat on the floor and dug into his pile,
And handed out gifts with his most charming smile:

"For Counsellor Troi, there's no need to explain.
Here's Tylenol-Beta for all of your pain.
For Worf I've some mints as his breath's not too great,
And for Geordi LaForge, an inflatable date.

For Wesley, some hormones, and Clearasil-Plus;
For Data, a joke book; for Riker, a truss.
For Beverly Crusher, there's sleek lingerie,
And for Jean-Luc, the thrill of just seeing her that way."

Then he sprang to his feet with that grin on his face
And clapping his hands, disappeared into space.
But we heard him exclaim as he dwindled from sight,
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good flight!
http://www.dwarfnet.com/christmas/parodies/startrek1.shtml

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My Top Ten Films of the Decade

My list of the top ten films of the decade went online today, and will be published in tomorrow's edition of The Dispatch. You can read the full write up here, but for now, here's the list:

1
THERE WILL BE BLOOD
(Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

2
DOGVILLE
(Lars von Trier, 2004)

3
MULHOLLAND DRIVE

(David Lynch, 2001)
4
THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY
(Peter Jackson, 2001, 2002, 2003)
5
FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS/LETTERS FROM IWO JI
MA
(Clint Eastwood, 2006)
6
SPIRITED AWAY

(Hayao Miyazaki, 2002)
7
CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON
(Ang Lee, 2000)

8
SILENT LIGHT

(Carlos Reygadas, 2008)

9
4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, AND 2 DAYS

(Cristian Mungiu, 2007)

10
GOSFORD PARK

(Robert Altman, 2001)
HONORABLE MENTIONS (11-20)
CHILDREN OF MEN (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)
THE NEW WORLD (Terrence Malick, 2005)
DANCER IN THE DARK (Lars von Trier, 2000)
IN THE BEDROOM (Todd Field, 2001)
MOULIN ROUGE (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (Michel Gondry, 2004)
COWARDS BEND THE KNEE (Guy Maddin, 2004)
THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (Andrew Dominick, 2007)
MUNICH (Steven Spielberg, 2005)
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (Ang Lee, 2005)

Dargis on "Avatar"

Spot on commentary on Avatar by Manohla Dargis in the New York Times:
Few films return us to the lost world of our first cinematic experiences, to that magical moment when movies really were bigger than life (instead of iPhone size), if only because we were children. Movies rarely carry us away, few even try. They entertain and instruct and sometimes enlighten. Some attempt to overwhelm us, but their efforts are usually a matter of volume. What’s often missing is awe, something Mr. Cameron has, after an absence from Hollywood, returned to the screen with a vengeance. He hasn’t changed cinema, but with blue people and pink blooms he has confirmed its wonder.
Click here to read her full review.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Perfection

The ending to Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata is the most pitch-perfect finale of any film this year. There are no real spoilers, but I don't recommend watching it unless you've seen the film. In context, it's pure magic. Just bask in it one more time:

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Fall of the American Empire

Having just gotten a look at Chris Smith's Collapse, I find myself torn. On the one hand, it is a thought-provoking, even frightening exploration of one man's doomsday prophecies, tracing the collapse of the global economy (which he predicted), which he claims will eventually lead to the collapse of civilization as we know it.

On the other hand I can't help but wonder, "who is this guy?"

In its own way, Collapse resembles Errol Morris' The Fog of War, in how it steps back and allows its subject, Michael Ruppert just to talk and explain the roots of our current economic crisis. As a document of one man's ideas, it is an excellent film.

But I wanted more from it. I wanted to know why I should believe him. Smith obviously sympathizes with Ruppert's ideas, but with only his voice saying these things, one can't help but question their credibility. His credentials to be saying what he's saying are almost non-existant. He's basically just a guy who pays close attention to things. Which is great, but I think the film would have carried more weight if it had more fully explored what he was saying, rather than taking it at face value.

Thoughts? Comments? Anyone else seen the film and feel differently? It's definitely an interesting conversation piece, and I would like to hear some feedback.

Review: "Police, Adjective"

There are few aspects of modern film culture that excite me more than the Romanian New Wave. Over the latter half of the decade, Romania has consistently released some of the highest quality cinema in the world. From Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, to Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest, to Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, to Cristian Nemescu's California Dreamin' (Endless), it seems that each new film to come out of Romania is just as fresh and wonderful as the last.

This year, Porumboiu follows up his successful 2007 comedy about the fall of Communism, 12:08 East of Bucharest with an even drier comedy about language and the righteousness of slavish adherence to rules. There is a lot to reflect upon here. Police, Adjective is a nimble and intelligent treatise on words and the folly of law that explores the very meaning of language itself.


Dragos Bucur as Cristi in POLICE, ADJECTIVE directed by Corneliu Porumboiu. Photo Credit: © Marius Panduru. An IFC Films release.


The film follows Cristi, a Romanian police officer assigned to follow a teenage boy suspected of using marijuana. That's right, not selling, not distributing, using. His superiors want the boy arrested and put in jail for the recommended penalty of three years. But Cristi has found himself in a moral conundrum. Not wanting to ruin the boy's life for a simple possession charge, especially since national attitudes toward marijuana are changing and the law could be changed soon anyway, Cristi prefers to follow the boy looking for the source of his marijuana in order to bust the dealer rather than the user. The boy was turned in by a friend of his, who Cristi suspects has an ulterior motive involving a mutual female friend, and what is on the surface a simple case is in fact anything but.

Cristi's superiors, however, will hear none of it. They want the book thrown at the boy. And while Cristi holds them off as long as possible, prolonging the investigation with endless trailing and observation, it soon becomes clear that a decision must be made - Cristi's career, or this boy's freedom. It all culminates in a riveting exchange on the very definition and nature of conscience itself, a hazy definition that leaves a muddled situation even more gray.

Dragos Bucur as Cristi, Vlad Ivanov as Angelache, and Ion Stoica in POLICE, ADJECTIVE directed by Corneliu Porumboiu. Photo Credit: © Marius Panduru. An IFC Films release.


Police, Adjective is filled with endless scenes of Cristi following the boy, observing his daily routines, examining discarded cigarette butts, highlighting the extreme absurdity of the situation he finds himself in. It is labeled a comedy, but unlike Porumboiu's last film, 12:08 East of Bucharest, the humor in Police, Adjective is much more dry. Any humor one may find here arises from the extreme ridiculousness it chronicles. But despite its focus on the absurdity, the questions it raises are no laughing matter. The climactic scene in which Cristi finally confronts his superior over the situation, filmed in one, static take, is utterly compelling stuff. Porumboiu pulls out all the stops, offering one of the most deeply thought out, intellectually stimulating debates on the meaning of words where no set definition exists. It's black and white versus gray, and an actual intelligent exploration of language unlike anything film has given us in a long time. There is a depth here that is almost literary, which gives the film its glacial pace that many may consider dull.

But without its slow pace, the film would not have the same impact that it does. This is the kind of smart, probing filmmaking that filmmakers have forgotten how to make. Porumboiu's script may be heady, but it's one of the sharpest screenplays of the year. He uses words to his advantages, and makes a fascinating film built around the idea of words themselves, and a deep, moral uncertitude that arises in the face of moral certainty. There is no comfort or absolution to be had in Police, Adjective, but for those looking for cinematic intellectual stimulation of a rare and special kind, it is a feast indeed.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

POLICE, ADJECTIVE; Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu; Stars Dragos Bucur, Vlad Ivanov, Irena Saulescu, Ion Stoica; Not Rated; In Romanian w/English subtitles. Opens Wednesday, 12/23, in select cities.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Review: "Fantastic Mr. Fox"

For the better part of the decade, Wes Anderson has seemed like a filmmaker boxed in by his own style. After directing what many consider to be his masterpiece, The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001, each successive film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited, has felt more and more sanitized and stiffly designed. For someone whose instantly recognizable style has so informed and distinguished his work, branching out while still remaining true to one's own voice can be a difficult process.

It's interesting then, that Anderson's latest film, a stop motion animated adaptation of Roald Dahl's book of the same name, would be the film that finally broke him out of his stylistic rut. With this new medium, Anderson has forced himself to branch out, yielding both a natural progession and extension of his almost neurotically sanitized aesthetic.

All of Anderson's films share a similar deadpan, almost melancholic humor, combined with a meticulously composed mise-en-scene. Here, presented with a medium that is completely under his control, where even the actors can be manipulated to meet his exact vision, Anderson has found the perfect outlet for his creative needs.

Mr. Fox and friends. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Like many of Anderson's films, Fantastic Mr. Fox is essentially a family drama dressed up as an exotic adventure. Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is a chicken thief, who makes a promise to his wife (Meryl Streep) to give up his dangerous job after finding out that she is pregnant with their first child. But 12 fox years later, Mr. Fox is tired of living in a whole in the ground, and wants to move up in the world. Being a newspaper man just isn't cutting it, so Mr. Fox, along with his friend Kylie the mole (Wallace Wolodarsky), plan one last big chicken heist, raiding the three farms of Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness), and Bean (Michael Gambon), the meanest farmers in town. But the three farmers are quick to learn of the crime, and set out to find the fox that raided their chicken houses, vowing to destroy him at all costs, sending the Fox family and all the local animals running for their lives.

It's more than just a run for their lives, however. It's sort of an existential crisis, especially for Mr. Fox's awkward and lonely young son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), who is dealing with a major inferiority complex with his well rounded and popular cousin, Krisofferson (Eric Anderson). Desperate for his father's approval, Ash finds life confusing and just wants to be a normal, athletic kid. That relationship, not unlike that of Owen Wilson and Bill Murray in The Life Aquatic, is what makes the backbone of Fantastic Mr. Fox. And for all its wry, often arch humor, the familial conflict and bonding of the Fox family provides the audience with something to connect to. Anderson's humor, while exceedingly clever, can often be insular and distancing for those who are not in tune to his particular filmmaking frequency. Here, however, it is a nearly perfect melding of filmmaker and material, and it may be his most warm and inviting film yet.

L-R: Mr. Fox and Mrs. Fox. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

I hesitate to call Fantastic Mr. Fox a maturation of Anderson's style, because he already reached that in The Royal Tenenbaums. But this new medium seems to have awoken a fresh creative energy in him. By working in a medium that allows him total visual and aesthetic control, Anderson, oddly enough, seems to have relaxed, and the artificiality of his style seems less pronounced. Fantastic Mr. Fox feels free of the self-consiousness that seems to have plagued his last few films. The screenplay, by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, is his wittiest since Tenenbaums, and combined with Anderson's sharp visual eye and since of timing, make Mr. Fox an incredibly funny viewing experience. It has also opened up a fresh creative avenue for composer Alexandre Desplat, who is on something of a roll this year after composing excellent scores for Cheri, Coco Before Chanel, Julie & Julia, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, and A Prophet this year. His folksy melodies, along with Anderson's typical collection of eclectic songs (including everything from "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" to Burl Ives to The Rolling Stones to The Bobby Fuller Four's "Let Her Dance") add to the film's singular atmosphere.

Overall, Fantastic Mr. Fox is Anderson's least sanitized and most original work in years. It's expansion of his stylistic tendencies is both refreshing and entertaining. In what has been a banner year for animation, Anderson's work stands among the very best.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

FANTASTIC MR. FOX; Directed by Wes Anderson; Voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwatzman, Bill Murray, Wallace Wolodarsky, Eric Anderson, Michael Gambon, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, Jarvis Cocker, Wes Anderson, Brian Cox, Adrien Brody, Roman Coppola; Rated PG for action, smoking and slang humor.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

SAG Nominations

The Screen Actors Guild announced their nominations today, and while there aren't really many surprises here (other than Diane Kruger's left field nod for Inglourious Basterds), I must say I'm really liking Woody Harrelson's Oscar chances now. I wish The Messenger had gotten an ensemble nod though, it needed it. Also, why isn't Alfred Molina getting more love for An Education? Anyway, here are the nominees courtesy of Awards Daily:

Ensemble
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Nine
Precious

Best Actress
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabby Sidibe, Precious
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia

Best Actor
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Supporting Actor
Matt Damon, Invictus
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

Supporting Actress
Penelope Cruz, Nine
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Diane Kruger, Inglourious Basterds
Mo’Nique, Precious

Best Stunt Ensemble
Public Enemies
Star Trek
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

On "The Princess and the Frog"

From The Dispatch:
It just feels good to live in a world where movies like this are still made. The spirit of Disney has been recaptured, regardless of whether or not the film is as successful as some of their previous outings. It's a start, proof that it can still be done. I hope this marks the beginning of a new era of Disney musicals, which has been a sorely missed part of movie-going culture for far too long.
Click here to read my full review.

63 Songs Eligible for Oscar

AMPAS released its list of 63 original songs eligible for an Oscar this year. They are:
  • “All Is Love” from “Where the Wild Things Are”
  • “Almost Over You” from “My One and Only”
  • “Almost There” from “The Princess and the Frog”
  • “AyAyAyAy” from “The Maid”
  • “Back to Tennessee” from “Hannah Montana The Movie”
  • “Being Bad” from “Duplicity”
  • “Blanco” from “Fast & Furious”
  • “Brothers in Arms” from “Brothers at War”
  • “Butterfly Fly Away” from “Hannah Montana The Movie”
  • “Cinema Italiano” from “Nine”
  • “Colorblind” from “Invictus”
  • “Depression Era” from “That Evening Sun”
  • “Don’t Walk Away” from “Hannah Montana The Movie”
  • “Dove of Peace” from “Bruno”
  • “Down in New Orleans” from “The Princess and the Frog”
  • “Fly Farm Blues” from “It Might Get Loud”
  • “Forget Me” from “I Love You, Beth Cooper”
  • “God Bless Us Everyone” from “Disney’s A Christmas Carol”
  • “Here” from “Shrink”
  • “Hideaway” from “Where the Wild Things Are”
  • “Hoedown Throwdown” from “Hannah Montana The Movie”
  • “I Bring What I Love” from “Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love”
  • “I See You” from “Avatar”
  • “(I Want to) Come Home” from “Everybody’s Fine”
  • “If You’re Wondering” from “The Lightkeepers”
  • “Impossible Fantasy” from “Adventures of Power”
  • “Innocent Child” from “Skin”
  • “Invictus 9,000 Days” from “Invictus”
  • “Legendary” from “Tyson”
  • “Let Freedom Reign” from “Skin”
  • “Loin de Paname” from “Paris 36”
  • “Ma Belle Evangeline” from “The Princess and the Frog”
  • “My One and Only” from “My One and Only”
  • “Na Na” from “Couples Retreat”
  • “Never Knew I Needed” from “The Princess and the Frog”
  • “New Divide” from “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”
  • “New Jersey Nights” from “Adventures of Power”
  • “New York Is Where I Live” from “Did You Hear about the Morgans?”
  • “No Time for Love” from “Simon & Malou”
  • “One Day” from “Post Grad”
  • “Only You” from “The Young Victoria”
  • “Other Father Song” from “Coraline”
  • “Petey’s Song” from “Fantastic Mr. Fox”
  • “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea” from “Ponyo”“
  • Possibility” from “The Twilight Saga: New Moon”
  • “Raining Sunshine” from “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”
  • “Running Out of Empty (Make Ourselves at Home)” from “Lymelife”
  • “Smoke without Fire” from “An Education”
  • “Somebody Else” from “Crazy Heart”
  • “Stu’s Song” from “The Hangover”
  • “Take It All” from “Nine”
  • “Through the Trees” from “Jennifer’s Body”
  • “Trust Me” from “The Informant!”
  • “Un Bouquet des Violettes” from “New York, I Love You”
  • “We Are the Children of the World” from “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”
  • “We Love Violence” from “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”
  • “The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)” from “Crazy Heart”
  • “When You Find Me” from “Adam”
  • “Winter” from “Brothers”
  • “The Word Is Love” from “Oy Vey! My Son Is Gay!”
  • “You Got Me Wrapped around Your Little Finger” from “An Education”
  • “You’ll Always Find Your Way Back Home” from “Hannah Montana The Movie”
  • “You’ve Been a Friend to Me” from “Old Dogs”

Review: "A Town Called Panic"

A Town Called Panic would be an easy film to dismiss at face value. Running a scant 75 minutes, and animated using tiny plastic figurines, it almost seems like material for a short film rather than a feature. In fact, it is based on a cult, Belgian television series of the same name that ran for 20 episodes back in 2003. Its television roots are readily apparent in its episodic nature, but in that case it's an asset rather than a hindrance. Creating an emotional connection to a few expressionless plastic figures would be difficult to do. So instead, filmmakers Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar set up a series of loosely connected comic vignettes that ends up becoming one of the year's most ingenious and audaciously original works.

The film is centered around the adventures of Cowboy (Aubier), Indian (Bruce Ellison), and Horse (Patar), three figures who live together in a brick house in a town called Panic. The town is aptly named, as all of its plastic citizens seem to be in a constant state of panic for no apparent reason, running frantically from one place to another and yelling everything as if the world is about to end at any minute.

On this particular day in Panic, Horse's birthday is coming up, and Cowboy and Indian want to do something special. The problem is that Horse is the sensible one of the household, and Cowboy and Indian are, well, somewhat inept at life. So while Horse is away wooing the local music teacher, Madame Longray (Jeanne Balibar), Cowboy and Indian decide to build him a barbecue, but instead of ordering the 50 bricks that they need, they accidentally order 50 million bricks, and end up with a giant pile of bricks they have no use for, and in order to get rid of them stack them up on top of their house.

That, of course, doesn't work out so well, and soon Horse, Cowboy, and Indian all find themselves homeless when the bricks crush their house. Luckily, they have 50 million bricks to rebuild with, and begin the project straight away. But something strange is happening in Panic. Someone is coming in the middle of the night and stealing their new walls. Every time they begin again, their house disappears. Becoming increasingly annoyed, Cowboy, Indian, and Horse decide to investigate and catch the thief that is stealing their walls, and embark on a journey that will lead them under the sea, and to the ends of the earth and beyond to rescue their walls and save the very town of Panic itself.

It's all completely ridiculous of course, but that's what makes it wonderful. A Town Called Panic is a hilariously inventive comedy in the best absurdist tradition. Its manic energy is both delightful and infectious, never wearing out its welcome. The short running time is definitely in its favor, never lagging or becoming tiresome. The style is so fresh and inventive that it's easy to forget all we are watching are plastic toys. Aubier and Patar keep the humor fresh and consistent, bringing Cowboy, Indian, Horse, and their kooky neighbors to life with astonishing wit and charm, creating a fully realized world made of plastic and paper maché.

It has been a particularly strong year for animation this year, from the childlike wonder of Ponyo, to the emotional maturity of Up, to the heart wrenching insights of Mary and Max, 2009 has had more than its share of great animated films. A Town Called Panic may not be as deep or as emotional as the other films I mentioned, but it may just be the funniest one of them all. Aubier and Patar aren't trying to make any profound statements about life or create any existential conundrums, they're just looking to entertain, and in A Town Called Panic, they have found a gloriously wacky avenue to do just that.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

A TOWN CALLED PANIC; Directed by Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar; Voices of Stéphane Aubier, Bruce Ellison, Vincent Patar, Jeanne Balibar, Benoît Poelvoorde; Not Rated; In French w/English subtitles; Opens today, 12/16, in NY, and in LA 1/29.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Top 6 Tearjerkers of 2009

If you know me well enough, or spend enough time reading my blog, you know that I'm a big crybaby when it comes to movies (I even cried during Star Trek. Several times). It doesn't take much to get my waterworks going, and in 2009 there were quite a few films that really got to me. Here are six films from 2009 that that made me cry.

1
CAPTAIN ABU RAED
Amin Matalqa's tender tale of redemption about a lonely old man who is mistaken for an airline pilot by local children got to me like no other film this year. Raed's journey from curmudgeon to unlikely hero, and the profound effect he has on one troubled young boy's life, is the stuff great storytelling is made of. It left me in tears all the way through the end credits.

2
THE COVE
By the time we reach the climactic, real life dolphin slaughter in Louis Psihoyos' acclaimed documentary exposing brutal Japanese dolphin hunting tactics, even the most hard-hearted anti-environmentalists would be hard pressed to hold back a tear.

3
UP
Pixar can always be relied upon for making mature animated features infused with great wit and heart, but Up's themes of infertility and mortality make it one of the studio's most grown up and heartwrenching efforts.

4

STILL WALKINGA family drama about missed opportunities with one's parents in the best tradition of Yasujiro Ozu. I've always been a sucker for stuff like this, but Still Walking captures a profound truth in its depiction of a family gathering on the 15th anniversary of the tragic death of the eldest son. It is a gentle reminder to love and appreciate your parents while you still have them, and if in the end it makes you want to go home and hug your mother, well then so much the better.

5
MARY AND MAX
The tale of two unlikely friends, an obese middle aged man with Asperger's syndrome, and a plain, lonely little girl in Australia, who become pen pals and find solace in each other's letters is either an uplifting celebration of the importance of frienship, or unrelentingly depressing, depending on how you look at it. Either way, Mary and Max is a deeply affecting film that finds light amidst the darkness, and packs one big emotional sucker punch.

6
DEPARTURES

Last year's Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film was probably the weakest of the five nominees, but that doesn't mean it's not a shameless tear jerker. It's been accused of being sentimental and manipulative, and it is. But it works. Its tale of a young man coming to terms with the importance of the job he hates, preparing bodies for burial, is the kind of emotional journey the Academy loves. And deserved winner or not, its final impact is hard to ignore.