Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My top films of 2010

Note: For a while now, I've started each year with a list of my top 10 films of the previous year. I've been an errant blogger, so this list includes only eight movies, and I haven't added honorable mentions, as I usually do. That said, I spent some time on this, and late is better than never. Plus, these films deserve the praise, however belated. Enjoy!

1. Greenberg

Last year, the movie that made me happiest wasn't the gritty war saga that ended up winning Best Picture. (That film, The Hurt Locker, was second on my list.) Similarly, the likely winner of this year's top Oscar, The Social Network, didn't warm my heart as much as a much smaller-scale indie dramedy about relationships, romantic and otherwise. In 2009, I fell hard for Humpday; in 2010, Greenberg won my heart with terrific casting, a very smart script, and plum roles for both Ben Stiller and mumblecore heartthrob Greta Gerwig, one of my favorite young actresses. (Writer-director Noah Baumbach gets bonus points for casting Rhys Ifans, somewhat against type, as Stiller's patient, thoughtful -- and seemingly only -- friend.)

In 1998's Permanent Midnight, Stiller proved that he could carry an edgy, darkly comic indie film on his shoulders. That year, he also did some impressive, outside-the-box work opposite Bill Pullman in Jake Kasdan's equally underrated Zero Effect. After that banner year, however, Stiller spent most of his time in middling comedies of the Meet the Parents variety. Sure, there was Zoolander, but he had to create that deliciously off-the-wall comic role for himself. I've waited more than a decade for the Ben Stiller I knew and loved in the late '90s to return; in Greenberg, he was in stronger form than even I expected.

Some of my friends avoided the movie because they didn't want to spend any of their valuable time trapped in a dark room with such a misanthropic figure. To me, on the other hand, Roger Greenberg is both touching and inspiring. Baumbach, whose The Squid and the Whale was my favorite film of 2005, hints throughout Greenberg that its title character is not beyond repair. "Hurt people hurt people" is the movie's unofficial mantra, and Greenberg's ability to hurt others never quite overshadows his own suffering, for which he's constantly, desperately seeking relief. It's such a deeply human state to be in.

While some viewers felt that Gerwig's character, the confused but kind-hearted Florence Marr, deserved better than Greenberg, the movie's exceedingly graceful ending offers hope that the grouchy protagonist can change, and even that he wants to change, in order to be worthy of Florence's love. Baumbach specializes in thorny, complicated relationships, yet he doesn't craft them coldly, as some kind of creative exercise. By the end of Greenberg, I so wanted Stiller's character to release the smitten, honest, caring person trapped inside him that my heart ached.

Although it boasted one of the year's finest trailers, I was almost afraid to hope that David Fincher's collaboration with West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin would be as good as I wanted it to be. What a wonderful surprise, then, to discover an expertly edited, cracklingly written, superbly acted psychodrama about the origin of something that has come to permeate our lives: Facebook. I've enjoyed Jesse Eisenberg's work ever since his terrific performance in 2002's unfairly forgotten Roger Dodger, and while he's certainly had high points in the last eight years (The Squid and the Whale, mentioned above, gave him his first chance to play a conceited, unlikable young man), Mark Zuckerberg is clearly the role he had been building toward.

Much was made of the differences between the real-life Facebook founder and the cinematic version, and many a critic has discussed Sorkin's Luddite tendencies. To me, though, all that matters is that Network delivers an engaging story, and that it's distinguished by some of the year's nimblest acting. In a perfect world, both Justin Timberlake and Andrew Garfield would score Oscar nominations for their work as, respectively, Napster founder Sean Parker and Zuckerberg crony-turned-nemesis Eduardo Saverin. I occasionally found the much-buzzed-about score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross a bit distracting, but its quiet menace did fit the film's tone and themes. I think this is the film to beat for the Best Picture statuette; I can't think of another movie that got (and kept) people talking this year like The Social Network.

Writer-director Debra Granik's stunning second feature has integrity in a way that few contemporary films do. Like its characters, all fighting poverty and somehow connected to the meth trade, it doesn't waste words. Granik reveals the Ozarks' anachronistic culture bit by bit, sometimes focusing on vivid details, sometimes giving us a battered landscape to inspect on our own. There are various kinds of strength on display in this film; some types can coexist peaceably, while others inevitably result in bloodshed.

As Ree Dolly, an unusually resourceful 17-year-old, Jennifer Lawrence gives a revelatory performance. Granik gets clean, raw acting out of her leads; Vera Farmiga, in Down to the Bone, slipped with similar grace and conviction into her character. What makes both films outstanding is not only their unflinching realism but also their unexpected watchability. A wrenching account of an addict struggling to stay sober -- sounds like a slow trudge through highly unpleasant terrain. So does Winter's Bone, when you first hear the premise: world-weary teenager goes on a quest to find her meth-cooking father, who put the family home up as bail, then skipped town. If she doesn't find him, or evidence that he's dead, the Dollys, including Ree's two younger siblings, will "have to live in the field like dogs," as Ree puts it.

What ensues is a journey at once soulful and entirely unsentimental. When Ree's uncle, Teardrop (Deadwood's John Hawkes, who also deserves an Oscar nod), decides to help her, we get the most unshowy kind of buddy movie imaginable. Both characters are tight-lipped and think they know how to fend for themselves; both find a few surprises as they draw nearer to Ree's father, Jessup, or at least what's left of him. What a contrast between this screenplay and The Social Network's! While the latter sparkles with wit and verbal flourish, Winter's Bone has a spare beauty that will haunt you for days after you see it.

Low-budget indie romantic comedies set in New York City -- aren't there, like, 10 million of those by now? Quite possibly. So what a wonder it is that Breaking Upwards, by young writer-director-actor Daryl Wein, manages to make its characters and story compelling. In collaboration with Zoe Lister-Jones, who cowrote and stars opposite him, Wein has fictionalized, achingly and sweetly, his actual relationship with Lister-Jones. This conceit reminds me of another fine recent indie, Tiny Furniture, in which writer-director-star Lena Dunham cast her mother as her character's mother and, yes, her sister as her character's sister. There's thinly veiled autobiography, and then there are films like these, in which the veil may or may not exist at any given moment.

In any case, Upwards is deeply enjoyable even if you know nothing of its backstory, and that's certainly a testament to its narrative and emotional strength. It starts much the way a lesser 2010 indie, The Freebie, started: Two attractive young people are in a long-standing relationship, and though they love each other very much, they're a little bored. Or maybe a lot bored. So they concoct a plan to add spark to their bond without severing it -- because, of course, that would be unthinkable.

How much freedom can couples give themselves? How much can they stray without wrecking their relationship? Both movies ask these questions, but Wein's interrogates monogamy much more satisfyingly. Even when his characters visit a party populated almost entirely by polyamorists, the film is intellectually curious, not dismissive and mocking. It's easy to ridicule non-monogamy, Wein seems to be saying, but you know what they say about glass houses.

Wein and Lister-Jones are extremely appealing, and their characters are both lovable and obviously flawed. They're fun to watch together, but they're also interesting to observe apart, which is sometimes what separates a very good romantic comedy from a sea of decent ones. What also makes Upwards a joy is the casting of the secondary roles. Andrea Martin is absolutely marvelous as Zoe's open-minded mother, and Julie White and Peter Friedman are equally good as Daryl's parents.

Both Zoe and Daryl spend a lot of time with their parents -- an almost disturbing amount, unless it's a New York Jewish thing -- which lets us decide how many of their neuroses are their own, and how many could be inherited. All that parent-child bonding also opens up these characters, lets them exist outside the central relationship, and gives us an all-access pass into their emotional lives. The film's last scene channels the heartbreak and joy of romantic partnership: the anxiety, the complexity, and the vital friendship that somehow remains beneath it all. Movies can tell us 'tis better to have loved and lost, but this one has the courage, and the skill, to show us.

Lisa Cholodenko's 1998 debut feature, High Art, left me cold. Her 2002 follow-up, Laurel Canyon, looked a bit livelier, but I never got around to seeing it. I knew Cholodenko was talented, but something just wasn't clicking for me. Then The Kids Are All Right came along, and the coolness of High Art became a distant memory. The story of a lesbian couple, their two teenage kids, and the kids' biological father, All Right achieves a tremendous balancing act in terms of tone. Although it's no screwball comedy, light comic notes permeate the film. Yet when it comes time for Julianne Moore's climactic speech, its emotional weight doesn't feel incongruous.

This is, in short, a film that never quite manages to decide whether it's a comedy or a drama, and not only doesn't it seem to care, neither do we. Cholodenko's open-hearted exploration of her characters' flaws and redemptive virtues is what holds your attention and affection. As warm and inviting as High Art was chilly and distant, the movie makes an understated but undeniable case for embracing family in all its forms. We now live in a post-"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" era, and The Kids Are All Right is precisely the kind of smart, humanistic entertainment our time deserves.

If you think the term "threequel" is annoying, you should try watching the third movie in a franchise sometime. (The Godfather: Part III and Alien 3 are two of the most notorious examples.) Those of us who were teens in 1995, when the original Toy Story was released, were afraid to hope that the final piece of the trilogy would rival, or even approach, the first two films' wit, expert pacing, and tender (but never maudlin) tone. But really, who were we to doubt Pixar? The Disney-owned animation powerhouse seems capable of almost anything at this point; the studio's diehard fans would probably line up to watch Up: Part 12. For the past few years, I've essentially had a Pixar slot in my top 10 list. Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up are all among my favorite films of their respective years. As it turns out, 2010 is no different.

Toy Story 3 is about growing up, and knowing what to hold onto and what to let go. The longtime owner of the movies' toys, Andy, is ready for college, and it's unclear what role his childhood playthings will have in his life. Everyone who clung to his beloved stuffed animals past the "normal" point of giving them away will recognize this situation. Woody, the cowboy voiced by Tom Hanks, stands the best chance of joining Andy at college: the token toy to bring along, the talisman, a piece of childhood Andy won't be too embarrassed to have lying around. All the others, including heroic astronaut Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen), appear destined for a place in the attic. Not ideal, but not the trash heap, either. By a twist of fate, however, the entire gang ends up at a daycare center that seems benign at first -- don't they always? -- but turns out to be a dictatorship run by a big, pink bear named Lotso (as in Lots-O'-Huggin'), voiced with great chumminess, and then even greater menace, by Ned Beatty.

Not unlike 2000's delightful Chicken Run, TS3 gleefully borrows tropes from classic prison-break movies, but it's never too derivative to feel fresh, or too clever by half (I'm looking at you, Shrek). Cleverness, after all, is no substitute for intelligence, great storytelling, and heart, and this movie has all three in spades. When the band of toys faces annihilation in a bravura scene set in a trash incinerator, the moment has all the emotional charge of a live-action film, and why shouldn't it? We've come to know and love these characters as much as many of our favorite non-animated ones, and the filmmakers miraculously managed to gather the vast majority of the voice cast from the first two movies. That even the secondary characters still have the same voices makes TS3 an especially graceful way to end what might be the most consistent trilogy in film history. (Sorry, Lord of the Rings.) Also, the subplot involving Ken and Barbie? Terrific.

I stayed away from Kick-Ass for a long time. I wasn't exactly drawn in by the media uproar over the fact that 13-year-old Chloe Moretz swears like a sailor in a few scenes. I also knew that the movie was extremely violent, and I'm still sensitive to gratuitous mayhem, even if I'm watching more horror films than ever these days. So the controversy came and went, and Kick-Ass came to DVD, and curiosity finally got the better of me. What I found was a comic-book adaptation with an unflagging sense of humor, a whole lot of energy, and -- most surprising -- some emotional undercurrents that made me feel more than, say, Iron Man ever did (and I loved Iron Man).

Perhaps the key to Matthew Vaughn's movie, what makes the whole thing work, is the casting of Dave Lizewski, our painfully normal teenage hero. Aaron Johnson seemed to come out of nowhere to snag this role; his previous work mostly involved bit parts in little-seen films. In one year, he managed to play an unlikely superhero and a young John Lennon, and now he's a Hollywood It Boy. It's not hard to see why: Johnson is handsome, but he makes you forget his good looks in Kick-Ass by being a very specific kind of geek. He's into comic books, but he isn't friendless; he's lonely, but he's not especially off-putting; and he's the opposite of a burnout, maintaining ideals about justice that propel him into a makeshift costume and a life of crime-fighting. "Kick-Ass" seems like the dorkiest superhero name in history at the beginning of the movie, but by the end it actually sounds kind of cool. That's Dave's trajectory in a nutshell.

Of course, there's more to the story than one average kid's self-realization. As he has so many times before, Nicolas Cage tiptoes happily along the line between eccentricity and full-blown psychosis. Some critics might be tired of Cage's crazy-guy shtick, but I find nuances in each performance that engage me. Here, as former cop Damon Macready, he's certainly nuts, but he has a young daughter, Mindy (Moretz), whom he loves more than anything in the world, and that love grounds and steadies the character (as much as that's possible). Like so many superheroes, Damon has a score to settle with a crime boss; he battles wrongdoing as Big Daddy, with Mindy, aka Hit-Girl, by his side. He may not be the most rational parent in the world, but Damon finds his own ways to be nurturing. When he puts a bulletproof vest on his daughter and shoots her at medium range to prepare her for gun battle, he uses low-velocity bullets. Awww.

The film's other unexpectedly moving relationship involves Dave and his girlfriend, Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca). First nice surprise: They get together before the end of the movie, defying the tired notion that the hero can't win the heroine's love until after the climactic battle, wherein the former proves his mettle. Dave proves worthy of Katie's devotion pretty much by being his usual, dorky self. Once she realizes he's actually straight (long story), she finds him damn near irresistible. When that climactic battle finally arrives, what's shocking is that Dave's inner monologue, as he's being beaten to a pulp, is genuinely touching. He doesn't just like Katie because she's arm candy; he loves her because she's a good, if sometimes misguided, person. It's a real relationship, and he wants it to have a real future -- and so do we. In most cases, a superhero's life-or-death battle has only one possible outcome: life, victory, the triumph of good over evil, etc. Kick-Ass has the gumption to only partially satisfy our happy-ending expectations, which makes it far more emotionally satisfying than your typical comic-turned-movie. Yes, Vaughn's film has its moments of ghastly splatter and hair-curling vulgarity, but it's as much about the sweetness of love as the thrill of the kill.

"Cantankerous" is a nice word for what Jack Rebney is. The hero of Ben Steinbauer's unexpectedly moving documentary is prone to spouting vulgarities and conspiracy theories in roughly equal measure, and he's going blind. He lives alone, far from civilization, with a dog to whom he shows affection the only way he knows how: cussing and complaining. Rebney is one of those figures in nonfiction film, like the absurdly vain antagonist of The King of Kong, who pack more punch than a dozen average Hollywood characters put together.

Rebney shot to YouTube fame because, back in the day, he appeared in promotional films created by the Winnebago company. We expect pitchmen in such films to be bland, polite, and salesman-like. We don't expect them to swear at every living thing they see, including flies, and launch into hot-blooded tirades against cast, crew, and even themselves. Yet that's precisely what Rebney does in the widely viewed films, and that's what his many fans love him for.

Steinbauer doesn't spend too much time wondering why a man's renown could rest on such a weirdly candid display of rage. Instead, he explores Rebney the Man, who turns out to have a talent for deception exceeded only by his desire to spend a little more time in the spotlight. At first, the director has to drag his idol into the film, and there are uncomfortable scenes of Steinbauer driving an ambivalent Rebney to and fro.

It's hard not to think that the young filmmaker is exploiting his cranky old subject; after all, the latter's popularity rests on the schadenfreude of millions. What makes the movie memorable, and even redemptive, is that Rebney warms up as his reentry into civilized life proceeds. When he finally appears at a screening of the Winnebago films at the Found Footage Festival, two things become clear. His fans don't adore him simply because they enjoy watching a man suffer and melt down; they actually admire the honesty of his hilarious logorrhea, just as many people in 2010 admired the flight attendant who impulsively quit and then went down an emergency slide.

We keep so much inside; the Jack Rebneys of the world let it out, and it's cathartic as well as funny (and, yes, a little sad). Winnebago Man could have been a simple tribute or takedown, but instead it lands skillfully in the middle. It's really just a character study -- and boy, what a character.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Propaganda on wheels? The "war crimes" bus ads

I haven't blogged in more than three months. I've been using Facebook to convey most of my opinions on local and global happenings, and since the fall was packed with GRE prep, classes, and another contract gig for the Times, I seriously de-prioritized blogging. Still, I missed it. I missed writing in brief or at length about things that mattered to me. I missed getting the occasional response from a reader in New Zealand or Vermont or Patagonia. And since the cinematic year is drawing to a close, and I always make sure to write about my top 10 films of the year, I'll make sure 2010 is no exception. (Expect that post in early January; I still have to catch up on Winter's Bone, The Ghost Writer, and other critical darlings.)

In the meantime, I'll say that the growing Facebook campaign to remove a series of bus ads that accuse Israel of war crimes is getting my goat. It reminds me of the controversy surrounding the Seattle Rep's 2007 production of My Name is Rachel Corrie, a one-woman show that presented the Israel-Palestine conflict from the perspective of a young woman who spent a lot more time with the Palestinians than with the Israelis, and who died after being run over by an Israeli bulldozer.

The Jewish community's argument against the show was that it offered a one-sided view of the Mideast conflict, and that the Rep's discussion panel included only liberal Jews. While it can certainly be argued that the play isn't an even-handed overview of Palestinian and Israeli concerns, the next step for outraged local Jews should have been to make statements, in whatever media they deemed appropriate, that reflected the pro-peace aspects of Israeli society and government. To an extent, they did just that. Aren't such actions protest enough?

Looking back, I think Rep artistic director David Esbjornson erred in claiming that the ADL's and Federation's program ads were an attempt to "discredit" the show. I also think Jewish leaders shouldn't have assumed that they would be afforded program space rather than having to purchase ads to air their views. As I've indicated on Facebook, in response to a group that intends to "stop" the bus ads, I think the Jewish community does itself a disservice when it pushes for censorship -- the outright removal of views it doesn't like -- rather than figuring out how best to answer the offending messages.

A little pro-Israel advertising might go a long way towards making people think; throwing around the word "libel" makes us look reactionary and defensive. And protected speech is protected speech. The bus ads qualify, and if that makes some local Jews uncomfortable, well, that's the price of free speech. The people who so despise those bus ads should come up with a little free speech of their own and, if need be, cover a few city buses with it. Couldn't hurt.