Sunday, January 15, 2006

Brokeback Munich

I've still not seen many of the best, or most-hyped, movies of the year, but over the last couple of weeks I did manage to see both Brokeback Mountain and Munich. Both were very good, but I have a clear favorite between the two, and it's a leading contender for my #1 movie of 2005.

It isn't Brokeback Mountain. I liked the movie, it looks fantastic, like all Ang Lee films, and it's well-written and structured. But I had two problems with it, one minor, one major. The minor problem is that there isn't enough balance in the story of how the two marriages dissolve. One minute we see Jake Gyllenhaal finally triumph over his father-in-law, which prompts a loving smile from Anne Hathaway (not Shakespeare's wife, but the girl from The PrIncess Diaries), the next minute, the two can't hardly speak to each other and Gyllenhaal's hitting on both a rancher and the rancher's wife. It feels like something got cut out that we needed to see. The major problem is that I just didn't buy the love story. And that's really what the movie needs to deliver to rise above a simple message film, in order for it to do something more than just tell me things I already know. It's not necessarily the actors, bother Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger give excellent performances, it's that there's just a real lack of chemistry between the two. That, and the fact that I can't understand why either character likes the other. I can understand it from just a physical attraction standpoint, but physical attraction isn't enough to maintain a 20 year secret relationship. I didn't really like either of the characters (I didn't hate them either), but more importantly, I didn't understand what they liked about each other. That could be the actor's fault, it could be the script's fault, or it could be the theatre's fault, that I just couldn't get into the movie with such a large, and noisy, audience. I'll probably watch it again when it comes out on DVD though, we'll see if my mind changes.

Munich I liked a lot. It works very well as a thriller, including one scene that's textbook Hitchcockian suspense. But it also plays upon those thriller conventions to force the audience to think about violence and revenge and terrorism and war. It's surprisingly mature for a Spielberg film, one where he does not seem o know the answers to the questions his film poses, unlike, well, every single other Spielberg film. That's what makes it so different from a Saving Private Ryan. SPR tells you what to think and feel with every frame, Munich raises issues, allows both sides to argue reasonably and leaves the conclusion making to the audience. Eric Bana gives one of my very favorite performances of the year, and the rest of the cast (Geoffrey Rush, Daniel Craig, Ciarán Hinds (Julius Caesar on "Rome" and Mathieu Kassovitz (who was in Amélie) is very good as well.

This film is getting buried by the Brokeback Mountain hype. Which is what you'd expect. Spielberg's own Saving Private Ryan did the same thing to The Thin Red Line a few years ago. Hype machines like movies that don't make you think. The subtle Crouching Tiger lost to the noisy Gladiator. The subtle Thin Red Line lost to the noisy SPR. The subtle Munich will lose to the noisy BBM. Karma.

Holiday Hangover

Can't say I've been in much of a writing mood lately. I've pretty much felt more incoherent than usual over the last month. I blame the rain (27 straight days and counting as of yesterday!). Anyway, I finally finished 2001 and got that posted, and here's a quick post to show what I've been doing for the last month:

Sports: I won my fantasy football league, and two whatifsports World Series with the 2005 Mariners. And the Seahawks won a playoff game yesterday for what I'm pretty sure is the first time since 1988. They're no the favorites to get to and actually win the Super Bowl.

Books: I read Lonesome Dove, a book that had been repeatedly recommended to me for years and, of course, lived up to the hype. It's the only Western I've read, though I imagine I'l eventually get around to reading it's sequel and two prequels. My biggest complaint: no map. Even better than the TV miniseries, which I rated as the 22nd best film of 1989. I'm now in the middle of reading Three Kingdoms, the epic Chinese proto-novel that's kinda of the Chinese version of Illiad. I'm also playing the 10th version of the video game based on the book, Romance of The Three Kingdoms, the first version of which I played excessively on the original Nintendo many many years ago. It's terrific, I'm actually liking it better than the Illiad, which is saying a lot. It's ridiculously long (about 2000 pages all together) but the narrative moves along so quickly and the story is told with such economy that it's never slow or boring. It's like a serial that keeps going and going for decades.

Music: Got a lot more recent stuff: The White Stripes, Death Cab For Cutie, Modest Mouse, Sufjan Stevens, The Decemerists, The New Pornographers, Badly Drawn Boy, The Go! Team, Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, Silver Jews, The Shins, along with some more Johnny Cash and the Anthology of American Folk Music I mentioned in my review of Greil Marcus's book about The Basement Tapes. I'll have more on these eventually when I get around to making an Albums Of The Year post for 2005.

Video: I spent the last month buying a lot of DVDs, finally getting around to trying to build a collection. There's too many to list in detail here, some of the highlights are a great Woody Allen Collection, all 3 kung fu art movies (Crouching Tiger, Hero and House Of Flying Daggers), the extended Return of The King (completing my collection), the complete Alien collection, and the first two seasons of Newsradio. I also found a great site online that offers tremendous deals on Criterion Collection films ( and I've got Ran and The Red Shoes on the way from them for what I would have paid for just one of them at Barnes & Noble or Best Buy.

Movies Of The Year: 2001

A few more movies seen from this year, and a much better year overall than 2000. But still, nowhere close to as good as those mid 90s years. A good year for geek movies.

31. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
30. Hannibal
29. Spy Kids
28. Bridget Jones's Diary
27. Legally Blonde
26. American Pie 2
25. The Man Who Wasn't There
24. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
23. Not Another Teen Movie
22. Y Tu Mamá También
21. Gosford Park
20. Ghost World
19. Shrek
18. Pearl Harbor
17. A Beautiful Mind
16. Metropolis

15. Knockin' On Heaven's Door - Film versions of anime TV series don't have a particularly good history. The Escaflowne movie cut out everything good in the series and uglied up the animation to make a terrible film, #26 in 2000. The two Neon Genesis: Evangelion movies are utterly incomprehensible, even, or especially, after watching the series (though there's a new translation out there that might be more intelligible, but I haven't seen it). This, the Cowboy Bebop movie, manages to get everything right though. The series is better, of course, but this is still a fine action film, it just plays like an extra-long episode, though a little dumbed down for the mass audience. The Yoko Kanno soundtrack is as good as anything she did for the series, which is saying a lot.

14. 61* - This HBO film is just about the best thing Billy Crystal's done since When Harry Met Sally. It's the story of the 1961 home run race between teammates Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, as they try to break Babe Ruth's single-season home run record. Barry Pepper and Tom Jane are very good as Maris and Mantle, respectively. Whether or not you already know the story of how everyone loved Mantle and hated Maris, and how the stress caused Maris to lose his hair and how Mantle was a big drunk while Maris really was the All-American hero-type that people thought Mantle was, you'll still dig this movie. It also stars Anthony Michael Hall as Whitey Ford. After Mr. Saturday Night and Forget Paris, Crystal finally managed to direct a good movie.

13. Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back - After the messy flop that was Dogma, Kevin Smith decided to remake a Crosby-Hope road movie (Laurel and Hardy? Abbot and Costello?) with the sophmoric mentality of Mallrats. The result is this often funny but almost never smart comedy.

12. Zoolander - Another dumb comedy that's nevertheless entertaining. Probably the best of the ben Stiller/Owen Wilson comedies, certainly better than Starsky and Hutch. Like most of the Stiller/Wilson/Farrell/Vaughn comedies of the last 5 years, it's very hit and miss. Walks a very narrow line between funny and annoying.

11. Wet Hot American Summer - The best American comedy of the year did nothing theatrically ( I think the three people I saw it with might have been it's total gross), but reached a kind of cult status on video. It's largely the product of veterans of the sketch comedy series The State, though the cast also features Janeane Garofolo, David Hyde Pierce, Molly Shannon, Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper and Amy Poehler. It takes place on the last day of summer camp at some time in the early 80s, late 70s, wacky fun ensues.

10. Vanilla Sky - I actually prefer it to the original, Abre Los Ojos, directed by Alejandro Amenábar (#28, 1997), largely because Cameron Crowe's much better at establishing the romantic relationship between Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz. Of course, as I've said before, I'm a huge sucker for Cameron Crowe movies. While I like parts of this movie quite a bit (the meet cute with Cruz and Cruise, the album cover recreation, the most interesting use of color of Crowe's career, it is, ultimately, just a trick movie. Albeit, like Memento and Fight Club, a trick movie that reflects the post-modern equivalence of simulation and reality that Chuck Klosterman, apparently ripping off one of my college Film Theory papers writes about in Sex, Drugs and Cocoa-Puffs. Thieving bastard.

9. Shaolin Soccer - Stephen Chow's breakthrough kung fu soccer comedy needs to be seen in the long Hong Kong version and not the chopped up Miramax release that cut out about 20 minutes of the original film for US theatrical release. It follows the same basic plot of any misfit sports movie, From The Longest Yard to The Bad News Bears to Victory, only this time with soccer and special effects type kung fu. Martial arts comedies have long been common in Hong Kong cinema, but hardly any of them have ever made it over here. Comedy's even an important part of most jackie Chan or Jet Li movies. But in those the comedy is very lowbrow, slapstick, and often annoying. Shaolin Soccer is similarly slapstick, but never seems as weird as say, the Stinky Tofu subplot of Michelle Yeoh's Wing Chun (#26, 1994, a great movie, by the way, directed by Yuen Wo Ping and also starring Donnie Yen). Chow topped it this year with Kung Fu Hustle.

8. The Royal Tenenbaums - I've only seen it once, and thought it was alright, but I can't say I like it as much as other Wes Anderson films (Bottle Rocket: #14, 1996; Rushmore: #2, 1998). There's always a lot of melancholy in Anderson's films, but this one seemed to cross the line into just plain depressing. And, as you know if you've been reading this, I'm not a big fan of depressing movies. Still, there's a lot to like here: the soundtrack, the performances, especially Gwynneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson. The comment on IMDB, which appears to have been written by Wes Anderson's mom, uses words like "jubilant", "soul-lifting", "hilarious", and "bouquet of priceless cinema" to describe it, so maybe I should watch it again.

7. Black Hawk Down - Vastly superior to his multi-Oscar winning Gladiator, is this war film by Ridley Scott. What makes it his best film since Alien is how understated it is. Unlike Gladiator or Kingdom Of Heaven or GI Jane, it's a war movie without any pretension of any kind of larger meaning. Or rather, it's a war movie that lets the war speak for itself instead of having the director making speeches about whatever point he wants to make about war or life or androids. The cast is oputstanding: Ewan McGregor, Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore, Sam Shepard, Ron Eldard, William Fichtner, Jasson Isaacs, Jeremy Piven, Orlando Bloom, Ewen Bremner, and Eric Bana.

6. AI - A Spielberg movie that a whole lot of people seem to hate, and I've never understood why. Haley Joel Osment plays an android child that gets adopted and then abandoned by a yuppie couple. He then goes on a quest to prove himself worthy of his "mother's" love. It gets a lot of hack criticism because Spielberg's version of the story is supposedly very different from what people think Kubrick's would have been (Kubrick originally worked on the idea for the film for years before handing it over to Spielberg). That is, of course, pure snobbishness. The film is definitely one of Spielberg's most perverse, but the influence is not Kubrick but Hitchcock: the whole film plays out as a kind of Freudian joke, one that Hitchcock would have found hilarious. It's the fairy tale mentality that Spielberg brought to it that Kubrick never could have pulled off that makes the story so compelling, and the movie so much fun. A dense, complex film that deserves more attention than it gets.

5. The Others - Alejandro Amenábar , the director of the previously mentioned Abre Los Ojos, directs this outstanding ghost story starring Nicole Kidman as a woman taking care of her two children in a new house while her husband is away. The children are allergic to light and slowly they all become convinced that their house is haunted. The best ghost movie I've seen since, um, Ugetsu? Much better than The Sixth Sense. While both are, in the end, trick movies, The Others is so well-made, and Kidman's performance is so good, that I'd actually watch The Others a second time. I feel no need to ever watch the Sixth Sense again.

4. Amélie - Jean-Pierre Jeunet had a nice little career going making weird French fairy tale movies Delicatessen (#34, 1991) and The City Of Lost Children (#17, 1995). Then, he made Alien: Resurrection (#63, 1997), a disaster of a film if ever there was one. His big comeback came with Amélie, a film that kept the weird fairy tale style of those first two films, but turned the cuteness up to 11. Audrey Tautou stars as the title character, a weird amalgam of Juliette Binoche, Audrey Hepburn and magic elves. I remember when we played it (it played in our theatres for 10 months or so), I had to come up with a plot description for our recording, which wasn't easy without having seen the film. It isn't any easier now, after watching it and reading the plot descriptions on IMDB. Basically, Amélie is a waitress from an odd family and sets out to make people's lives a little better by adding a bit of magic to them. I may have overplayed the cute magic angle here, while the film is those things, it certainly isn't so much as to make you nauseous. It's all very smart and well-done.

3. Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone - I saw this without having read any of the books or knowing anything about the story, other than the very basics of boy goes to wizard school. In that state of ignorance I was able to be totally charmed by this near-perfect kid's movie. All the child actors are pretty good, unlike in say, The Chronicles of Narnia, and while the story is pretty simple, the depth of the world Rowling created is ridiculously impressive. The film's great achievement is visual, the way it recreates so tone-perfectly the world of the Harry Potter books. From a pure cinematic stand-point, it isn't the best Potter film, that would be Alfonso Cuarón's Prisoner of Azkaban, but it's easily the one I've enjoyed the most.

2. Moulin Rouge! - I've mentioned before my irrational love of Baz Luhrmann movies, well, this is the ultimate Baz Luhrmann movie. It's an inversion of his Romeo and Juliet (#11, 1996) which took a historical love story and transposed it into a modern setting, this time, he transposes modern music onto a historical love story and setting. The point is to expose the raw emotional core at the heart of all love stories and pop music Ewan McGregor plays a songwriter who falls hopelessly in love with Nicole Kidman's dancer/prostitute. This being the tragic variety of love story, not only is Kidman's heroine a prostitute, she's also being forced to marry and evil rich guy and she's dying of tuberculosis. All McGregor can do is write songs and pine for his girl, and, with the help of John Lguizamo's Toulouse-Lautrec, put on a really great show. The conceit for this musical, of course, is that all the songs are contemporary pop songs: The theme from The Sound Of Music, Queen's The Show Must Go On, The Police's Roxanne, and Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit.

1. The Fellowship Of The Ring - It's hard to rate the Lord Of The Rings films separately, because they were made at the same time and are meant to be seen together and are really three parts of one great movie that's probably the most impressive film achievement of this century so far, if not the best. That said, I think this is the best of the three films. It's the most individually cohesive, the one best able to stand alone as a film. That's largely because it's the only one without a bifurcated plot: in the latter two films, the Sam and Frodo plotline just isn't as much fun, or as interesting, as the Aragorn and Gandalf storyline. This film also features the best acting of the series, with a great, too short, performance by Cate Blanchett and an outstanding performance from Ian McKellen. It's McKellen's Gandalf that sets up the whole series, that makes the whole thing believable and gives it the weight it needs to sustain your interest for 12 hours. Speaking of which, when referring to the LOTR films, I mean the extended edition versions, not the theatrical ones. The long versions are uniformly superior and a definite must-see if you liked the original versions.

Quite a few Unseen movies again this year, although I've had Musa here from Netflix for a week or so. maybe I'll get to watch it tonight.

Spirited Away
Mulholland Drive
Ocean's Eleven
Donnie Darko
Millenium Actress
Band Of Brothers
The Tailor Of Panama
Waking Life
Kiss Of The Dragon
In The Bedroom
Spy Game
From Hell
The Fast And The Furious
Training Day
The Mummy Returns
Monster's Ball
Scotland, PA
See Spot Run
Say It Isn't So
Sidewalks Of New York
The Princess Diaries
The Devil's Backbone
Rock Star
Shallow Hal
Birthday Girl
Monsoon Wedding
The Cat's Meow
Chelsea Walls
The Princess Blade