Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Top 25 Movies of 2010

Not many movie years out there like this one. It started off godawful slow, but once the summer was half over, it felt like we were in the midst of a full-time parade of landmark cinema. Per usual, there were a few crashing disappointments come December, but overall, there were lots of breathtaking pieces sprinkled throughout these past 12 months, and a shocking number of them were about REAL PEOPLE and REAL EVENTS! 2010 gave us a hefty package of comedy, drama, action, horror, news, romance, spectacle, and mystery, and I haven't even seen everything I need to take in (as usual on filmicability, these lists are a work-in-progress, changing as I catch relevant titles). And, is it me, or are a bunch of these films about letting go and accepting reality? Or am I in that point in my life where I'm only reading this into stuff? (Ahh, pshaw...come to consider it, I think it's all there in the movies.)

Anyway, with only a single frame and a 15-word review limit for each title, here are my choices for the best movies of 2010:

1) Greenberg (Noah Baumbach)
Doing nothing requires a lot of effort.

2) Another Year (Mike Leigh)
Passage into old age, with a great filmmaker's coterie of MVPs.

3) The Social Network (David Fincher)
Being social while in a bubble all his own.

4) The King's Speech (Tom Hooper)
A leader finds a voice in a brilliant piece of old-time entertainment.

5) The Fighter (David O. Russell)
An old story made anew by a top-flight acting ensemble under inventive direction.

6) Inside Job (Charles Ferguson)
How the mess we're in happened.

7) Inception (Christopher Nolan)
Time, dreams and movement vivisected. The visual experience of 2010.

8) Boxing Gym (Frederick Wiseman)
Punches thrown and footwork nailed in a Texas locale run over with rhythmic soul.

9) Let Me In (Matt Reeves)
No mean feat, this--to take a much loved movie and best it.

10) The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet)
A final script from Jacques Tati, beautifully realized through animation.

11) The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski)
We're up against a comedy of errors if we want to get to the truth.

12) Please Give (Nicole Holofcener)
NYC upper-class guilt gets a honest workout.

13) The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Chodolenko)
The comedy of the year, the heartfelt sort of which we rarely see.

14) Easy A (Will Gluck)
The OTHER comedy of the year, with a captivating, hilarious lead performance from Emma Stone.

15) Carlos (Oliver Assayas)
Gangster or freedom-fighter? You decide.

16) My Dog Tulip (Paul and Sandra Fierlinger)
The best animated film of 2010 is also the year's greatest love story.

17) Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (Edgar Wright)
Put your quarter in and spar to see if you can love again.

18) Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek)
After Tarkovsky's Solaris, the saddest science fiction movie ever made.

19) Frozen (Adam Green)
Real tension, literally, found in icy climbs.

20) A Letter to Elia (Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones)
The fan letter all us movie geeks would like to compose for our filmmaking idols.

21) Mother and Child (Rodrigo Garcia)
Conceptions made in innocence, regret and hope.

22) Marcel The Shell With Shoes On (Dean Flischer-Camp and Jenny Slate)
The most cuteness-laden and addictive film of the year: I've seen it thirty times.

23) Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance)
Romance, born and snuffed out.

24) Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy) 
A great joke, well told.

25) Lebanon (Samuel Maoz) 
Unfair wartime, seen through the lens of a tank's gunsight.

OF NOTE: Buried, Winter's Bone, Catfish, Cyrus, Day and Night, Dock Ellis and the LSD No-No, Dogtooth, Fish Tank, Four Lions, I Am Love, I'm Still Here, Insidious, Leaves of Grass, Louie CK: Hilarious, Lovely Still, The Oath, Rabbit Hole, Red, Solitary Man, Smash His Camera, Splice, Temple Grandin, The Tillman Story, The Town, White Material, Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?, You Don't Know Jack, Youth in Revolt

GUILTY PLEASURES: Death at a Funeral, Hot Tub Time Machine, Monsters, Multiple Sarcasms, Salt, Stone 

My 10 favorite classics I saw for the first time in 2010: A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger, 46); Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, 2003); Edvard Munch (Peter Watkins, 74); Nuremberg: Its Lesson For Today (Stuart Schulberg, 48); Nights and Weekends (Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig, 2008); Disneyland Dream (Robbins Barstow, 56); Catalog (John Whitney Sr., 61); Our Day (Wallace Kelly, 38); Hausu (Nobuhiko Ohbayashi, 77); Deep End (Jerry Skolimowski, 70) 

Best Picture: Greenberg
Best Director: David Fincher -- The Social Network
Best Actor: Colin Firth -- The King's Speech
Best Actress: Lesley Manville - Another Year
Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale -- The Fighter
Best Supporting Actress: Greta Gerwig -- Greenberg
Best Original Screenplay: Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh -- Greenberg
Best Adapted Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin -- The Social Network
Best Cinematography: Grieg Fraser -- Let Me In
Best Production Design: Eve Stewart -- The King's Speech
Best Costume Design: Jenny Beavan -- The King's Speech
Best Editing: Lee Smith -- Inception
Best Sound: Black Swan
Best Special Effects: Inception and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
Best Music Score: Alexander Desplat -- The King's Speech
Best Thriller: Frozen
Best Comedy: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (special mention to Black Swan)
Best Documentary: Inside Job
Best Animation: The Illusionist
Best Action Film: Inception 
Best Entertainment: The Social Network
Most Promising Director: Matt Reeves -- Let Me In
Most Promising Actor: Andrew Garfield -- The Social Network and Never Let Me Go
Most Promising Actress: Greta Gerwig -- Greenberg
Most Underrated Films: My Dog Tulip and Easy A
Most Neglected Films: Greenberg, Let Me In, and Never Let Me Go
Most Imaginative Film: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
Best Re-Discovery: The Outsiders (director's cut)

MOST OVERRATED MOVIES OF THE YEAR: 127 Hours, Toy Story 3, Animal Kingdom, Get Low, Gasland
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS: Shutter Island and Nowhere Boy
WORST MOVIES I SAW THIS YEAR: Kick-AssUnstoppable, and Macgruber
WORST STUDIO FILMS I DIDN'T SEE IN 2010: Alice in Wonderland, The Last Airbender, and Sex and the City 2
WORST INDIE FILMS I DIDN'T SEE IN 2010: The Human Centipede and Babies

PERSONAL HIGHS THIS YEAR: Getting to meet my favorite filmmaker in the world, Mike Leigh, after watching his newest, Another Year, at the New York Film Festival (and meeting a lot of my film blogging colleagues there, to boot). Also, getting to sit a couple hours with Player Hating: A Love Story and War Zone filmmaker Maggie Hadleigh West. Having my 150 Best Movie Endings article twittered about by Roger Ebert in May. Being given, as a token of friendship, my first personal film print of a movie I love, Thanksgiving, by its writer/director Alex R. Johnson. And last but not least, participating in the Movie Geeks United podcast and hitting more than 160,000 hits on filmicability!

BEST MOVIE-WATCHING EVENT OF THE YEAR: Seeing some amazing experimental Super 8mm, 16mm, and video work at the Millenium Film Workshop's monthly first come, first serve "show your own movie" show, along with my friend, celebrated documentarian Richard Sandler (who did The Gods of Times Square and, most recently, the 8mm footage for Winter's Bone; he was unspooling for the first time his newest experimental work, Forever and Sunsmell, based on the piece by John Cage and the poem by e.e. cummings). Saw some incredible work: a piece on food modification by Lily White and an absolutely astounding piece of 70s-era NYC pixilation by a man who introduced himself only as "Mr. E". Seeing all of this in the East Village's historic Millenium, where Stan Brakhage attended many a premiere, was overwhelming!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Film #138: Disneyland Dream (RIP: Robbins Barstow 1919-2010)

In 2008, among the 25 movies that the National Film Registry included in its yearly list of American movies to be preserved was one title I didn't recognize (not something new for me with the Registry; they're astonishing authorities on indespensible film obscurities). The movie's was called Disneyland Dream, and it was made in 1956 by a Connecticut family man named Robbins Barstow. I saw the title on the list, and simply shrugged back in 2008. But recently, I was looking at a compendium of the 525 movies the Registry has dedicated themselves to, and I saw Disneyland Dream down there again and, curious, I tracked it down on the astounding Internet Moving Image Archive.

I was immediately charmed and won over by Barstow's epic 16mm home movie. As you can surmise, the film tells the story of the Barstow family--Robbins, wife Meg, kids Mary, David and Dan--and their journey to California's Magic Kingdom. But, to me, the equally fascinating aspect of the film takes place in and around the Barstows' New England home, where they prepare to enter a contest given by the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company. Each family member concocts a little project to illustrate, to parent company 3M, why they love Scotch Tape; the winners will be treated to that tony California vacation. These are the parts I really love--the making of the projects, the wait for results, the talks to the family parrot Binky, and the hilarious slo-mo/fainting/fireworked reactions of each family member as they hear the good news. Whole bunches of sweetness are blooming all around in this movie.

Barstow goes all out with Disneyland Dream. He narrates the film, of course (the soundtrack was added in 1995; I suppose he voiced it live previously). But there are credits, an opening theme via Sergei Rachmaninoff, special effects, and even a movie star (though Robbins could have not know this back then). Apparently, in the shot where the Robbins' family first arrives at Disneyland, they pass under a train's bridge, and you can glimpse a little boy in a top hat down in the right hand corner of the screen. This was confirmed, by the star himself (in a letter to Barstow) to be none other than Steve Martin, caught on film for the first time as he works as a pamphlet hawker for the theme park (Steve Martin appears at about 5:22 in Part 3, seen below). This is a particularly nifty revelation about a film which is already a gem.

Naturally, Disneyland Dream taps into that idyllic 1950s innocence to which many people futilely wish this country could return. I personally feel a rush of warmth when seeing the reaction of the Barstows' neighbors to the family's good fortune; this is a close, friendly world long gone, it seems. But the film's remarkable in other sociological ways. It points to a time where home movie-making was a hobby only a few took as seriously as did Barstow. This film--one of many by the director--clearly required a mini-scaled version of the planning and follow-through that goes into any professional documentary. The shot choices are intelligent and well-schemed, the editing detailed, and occasional effects (simple things like slow motion, rudimentary animation, and backwards-running shots) are unusual for a vacation film. Still, and irresistibly, with its occasionally clunky cuts and camerawork, the movie never feels anything less than a labor of unschooled film love.

And, then, of course, as a travelogue of 1950s California, the film is an invaluable historical document. The Disneyland footage is the main event here, and it doesn't disappoint, of course. But we also get glimpses of 50s-era airplanes and automobiles, luxury hotels, Davy Crockett jackets and hats, St. Louis, Hollywood and Vine, and an aerial view of New York City (the Barstows had to connect to another flight at NYC's NY International Airport, which later changed its name to JFK). Movie fans will also dig the family's trip to Grauman's Chinese Theater (I think the theater is showing The Robe, and we can see the handprints of Bill Hart, John Barrymore, Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe). Plus we get a superb tour of Will Rogers' home, Knotts' Berry Farm and--best of all--the Walt Disney and Universal Studios, where we can peep quickly at old small-town and European-themed backlots and facades. The whole thing--with Barstow's wry, cozy commentary as an essential addendum--is just a spectacular tornado of fun.

Since aqe 10, Barstow had been a lifelong booster of amateur filmmaking, having shown his movies in local outlets and on Connecticut public access for years before Disneyland Dream made the National Film Registry. Once this event occurred, though, the film entered a new era of appreciation, going viral online at 76,000 downloads (an earlier movie of his, 1936's fanfilm Tarzan and the Rocky Gorge, has fared even better at more than 150,000 downloads; 16 more of his movies can be seen at the Moving Image Archive and Disneyland Dream can be purchased on a Barstow-produced DVD--complete with a making-of documentary--through Amazon). Notoriety was a little cherry on top for Robbins Barstow: after the NFR honor was bestowed on him in 2008, the man was tapped--as the most famous of all American amateur filmmakers--to spearhead a lovely PSA urging people to honor Home Movie Day by getting their old 8mm and 16mm movies transferred to digital for safekeeping (this is something I need to do with my own 8mm and 16mm films, too, and pronto):



On November 7, Robbins Barstow passed away at 91, having spent his life as a well-loved educational administrator (his day job), filmmaker, world traveler, husband, father, and grandfather. His legacy is one of time well-spent, and well-documented, here in this terra realm. He's obviously an inspiration to many filmmakers and viewers still today. And here, for that fabled viewing pleasure of yours, is a big reason why: Disneyland Dream, in four parts, via that great repository of amateur film, You Tube. Enjoy it, and thank you, Robbins Barstow!




Thursday, November 11, 2010

Film #137: Marcel The Shell With Shoes On

When I hear about something like Marcel The Shell With Shoes On (what a fantastic title), as I just have today, I feel both behind and in front of the times. Behind because this has become an "internet sensation" with nearly 1.5 million hits on You Tube. In front of, because I think it deserves many more hits, and it doesn't even have an entry on IMDB. It's directed and co-written by Dean Fleischer-Camp, and co-written and voiced by whom I suspect is an autuer of equal import, the recently ousted (and unbelievably cute) new/old Saturday Night Live appointee Jenny Slate (she quite understandably let a "fuckin'" slip out in a "frickin'" routine, but that didn't stop her from cruelly being cut from the cast--get a grip, NBC and FCC).

This uncommonly simple, utterly unique little (VERY little) movie is, I'm sure, the beginning of something larger. It charmed so many at the recent American Film Institute Festival that it won the Audience Award for Best Animated Short, instantly putting in qualification for the Best Animated Short Film award at the upcoming Oscars. I'd love to see it nominated. Sometimes, animation is not about the pyrotechnics involved in the movie's making, but about the feeling the results evoke (the editing and sound are magnificent, if you pay attention). This film conjures a powerful adoration for its feisty, diminutive subject, voiced without enhancement by Jenny Slate (who I imagine, at least, has this character in her mind for some time; either that, or it was thought of instantaneously, I imagine, in a very happy moment for Slate). The direction is superb (I really like Marcel's relationship with the interviewer), and the laughs are absolutely well earned; in fact, no feature this year has more joyful moments than you'll experience in Marcel The Shell With Shoes On. I want to see much more of Marcel, and so many others out there obviously want to as well. Wallace and Grommit won three Oscars for just the same reason. Mark my words: this isn't the last of this brave, lovely bit-player. By the way: I defy you to watch this film only once.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Charles Schulz At The Movies


Anybody who knows me knows I'm only a rabid fan of three things: Stanley Kubrick, The Beatles, and Charlie Brown. Charles M. Schulz's daily comic strip Peanuts began its life on October 2, 1950, and ended just over 50 years later, with the final strip appearing only days after Schulz's 2/12/2000 death (it continues to be printed to this day, the only strip ever to have outlived its author by more than a decade, to my knowledge; it seems that comic strip readers can't conceive of a funnies page without Peanuts). To me, Schulz's body of work is paralleled only by the other two artists I mentioned--Kubrick and The Beatles; they are similar to each other mostly in that all three had ultimate control over and mastery of their respective crafts, and that the general public, as fickle as they sometimes can be, all wisely agreed this was obviously so.

I've been collecting Fantagraphic's magnificent volumes of The Complete Peanuts now for the past decade. Brilliantly edited and designed (by comic artist and fellow fan Seth), and indexed with great, amusing detail, these books--two a year--have been given to me each Christmas by my mother as a sort of "of course, you have to have these" gift, and I look forward to them with sublime anticipation. I spend the first six months of every annum pouring over every detail of Schulz's work, and I still marvel at how so many panels (especially in the 1970s, his peak) really make me guffaw with surprise.

In looking at them recently, I noticed I'd perk up whenever the strips referenced the movies or moviegoing, so I decided to do a little research and collect these strips here, mainly for my own amusement, as each are redolent with personal nostalgia. For instance, I remember looking at the kiddie-show Sunday panels as a child and wishing I had interest in such events (I largely went to the movies with my parents or on my own, and don't think I ever experienced a theater full of kids until, maybe, Star Wars showed up in 1977). And the couple of strips showing Linus looking at the movie ads were something I could relate to vehemently (I collected movie ads amassed in little stapled-taped-and-glued-together books of notebook paper when I was young). And, naturally, I wondered what this Citizen Kane was all about.

Surely, when a movie warranted a mention in Peanuts, the title had fully made its way into the zeitgeist. Schulz, to my knowledge, wasn't a huge cinema fan, but he knew what he liked (hence the many mentions of Kane in his strips), and he knew what the public at large would respond to. Other than the 30 strips I've collected here (which end right before 1975, the point where The Complete Peanuts collection is at now), there were many mentions of cowboys, spacemen, as well as a couple of Dracula references--all obviously movie-inspired. But I've not included them; here, I've only comprised very specific pieces. I've listed them in order of their appearance, and have commented slightly on each. If you're somehow a novice to Peanuts, go here and see if you like them. And you can go here to see my piece on the landmark 1965 TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas. Otherwise, enjoy this movie-centric collection, and click on the individual strips to see them much larger. (PS: Though I wish I could have made the strips sharper, this post was a lot more difficult to achieve than it might look.)

April 26, 1960 (Google Albert Schweitzer, if you must. By the way, Jerome Hill won an Academy Award for his 1957 documentary titled Albert Schweitzer.)

April 30, 1960 (These were the days...)

March 26, 1961 (I love Charlie Brown's face as he's watching the movie!)

June 13, 1961 (This is totally hilarious to me...)

March 8, 1962 (Not really a strip about the movies, but about criticism.)

February 1, 1963 (I guess some things don't really change.)

May 20, 1963 (A Hitchcock joke!)

October 5, 1963 (Into the mythic.)

November 19, 1967 (The first, and possibly most iconic, of Schulz's kiddie-show box office Sunday strips.) 

October 20, 1968 (Peanuts trivia question: what are the names of the twin girls at the head of the line?)

December 18, 1968 (The first of many mentions of Citizen Kane, reportedly Schulz's favorite movie.)

January 5, 1969 (The one time Snoopy gets a ticket.)

May 13, 1969 (It was only a matter of time before this reference dropped near Schroeder's piano.)

June 19, 1969 (Lucy agreed to take care of that stupid beagle for a week.)

June 28, 1970 (I like Snoopy's "smoothy" face.)

July 27, 1970 (Nominally a reference to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but mainly to the Oscar-winning Hal David/Burt Bacharach songwriting team.)

February 7, 1971 (Rejected again...)

March 7, 1971 (More unrequited love, and anger at the sometimes secondary nature of the movie's quality; somewhere, Pauline Kael is smiling.)

May 10, 1971 (The blockbuster of its era.)

September 21, 1971 (A movie with green rats and purple vampires is definitely one I have to see.)

May 21, 1972 (These treeside talks about love and life between Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty were nearly always profound. By the way, I LOVE how Snoopy's ears pop up at the botched revelation. How could anyone mistake Susan Hayward for Anne Baxter???)

October 14, 1972 (A long series of strips chronicling Snoopy's investigation into the whereabouts of the Head Beagle's Beagle-in-the-Field Thompson--who was overrun by 10,000 rabbits--concludes with a reference to The Godfather, of course.)

October 29, 1972 (More Kane...)

December 9, 1973 (...And yet more Kane, with the ultimate in spoilers; perhaps the finest movie-related comic of all time.)

February 20, 1974 (An unanswered movie trivia question.)

February 22, 1974 (I wish this trivia thing had been a regular feature; these are great questions.)

March 24, 1974 (The first Gone With The Wind reference; Snoopy's Pawpet Theater goes on to feature a few more movie touchstones.)

April 29, 1974 (Schulz's funniest movie-related strip is clearly about The Exorcist, and about a lot more, too.)

June 30, 1974 (I believe I've read that William Wellman's 1939 production of Beau Geste is another of Charles Schulz's favorite movies)

July 16, 1974 (...and this is what it all boils down to.)