Archive for the ‘Films of 2009’ Category

My 25 Favorite Films of 2009

March 27, 2010

Normally I do a list of my 30 favorite films of each year, but as I was constructing one this time around I just couldn’t find 30 strong enough to make a full list. So here are my 25 faves…

1.Up in the Air
2.Inglourious Basterds
3.Broken Embraces
4.A Serious Man
5.The Hurt Locker
6.Up
7.(500) Days of Summer
8.Knowing
9.Crazy Heart
10.Funny People
11.Away We Go
12.Humpday
13.Whip It
14.Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
15.The Informant!
16.Public Enemies
17.Avatar
18.The Girlfriend Experience
19.Fantastic Mr. Fox
20.I Love You, Man
21.Sugar
22.Whatever Works
23.World’s Greatest Dad
24.Notorious
25.State of Play

Things get complicated for “Funny People”, too

August 3, 2009

Funny570

Rated R : 2 hours 26 minutes : Universal/Columbia Pictures

There’s really nothing left for Judd Apatow to prove to us as far as the world of comedy is concerned. He owns it. Most all of us know by now that he has produced some of the elite films of the genre over the last five years, including Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Superbad, Walk Hard, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Pineapple Express. As a producer he has brought together a group of actors and crew who are now labeled “The Apatow Family”. They are the assembled, rotating team of familiar faces that we have come to count on in our times of need for consistent laughter. It took him a while to break into the mainstream, but Apatow has cemented himself to become the busiest comedy producer in the world, delivering several projects a year. What I find most intriguing about the mastermind, though, is the writer/director side of him. In 2005 he had to prove to Universal that he could direct just as well as he writes and produces, so he started out by teaming with the popular Steve Carrell for the laugh fest, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which became such an immediate hit that he quickly found the freedom to take on whatever kind of film he wanted to next. It would be with his second feature at the helm, Knocked Up, that we would come to find the major difference between Apatow-produced films and Apatow-produced/written/directed films: the attention to serious undertones and endearing, realistic situations life puts us in….all the while mixing in a boatload of his trademark comedy, of course. He had showed major improvement with his direction in just his second full-length, and ever since the June 2007 released of Knocked Up, I considered that the finest achievement of his career. That was until he decided to continue the trend of one-upping himself with the next directing effort, this time with the seriously affecting Funny People.

It’s been an extremely long wait for Apatow to finally work with old college roommate Adam Sandler on such a major project like this. They did a bit of collaborating in the past, like in the excellent but sadly cut-short television series, Undeclared, where Sandler played himself in one of the shows most memorable episodes. Apatow also co-wrote the script for the uneven You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, but the old friends hadn’t done anything with this much weight to it yet. I’m glad they saved Funny People for the first time they were to do something substantial together, because it gives Sandler his most challenging role since Paul Thomas Anderson wrote and directed him in 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love. Like the actor did in Anderson’s film, Sandler brings out a side of him we rarely get to see, playing George Simmons, one of the world’s most popular comedic actors who in his middle-aged days finds out that he has been diagnosed with a form of leukemia and has limited time left on earth. George lives in a California mansion that is occupied only by himself and the hired help, for he has driven all of the family and friends out of his life over the years. When he learns of his illness, Simmons notifies no one, he just heads back to the stand-up clubs that he started out in when he was young, surprising the audience-hungry promoters with his presence and the request to perform. It is at The Improv that he will first come into contact with Ira Wright, a dime-a-dozen aspiring comic who writes with promise but has a bumbling stage presence. Wright saves his set from failing by taking a stab as Simmons’ complete failure to generate laughs just a few minutes before, and with the audience opening up he goes on to have what must be the comfortable set he’s ever done. Simmons take a liking to Wright’s sense of humor and hires him to write jokes for him as he plots a stand-up tour, which he assumes will be his last. He is a complicated individual, one who we come to find has buried emotions deep inside for many years, and the relationship that unfolds between he and Ira, no matter how much he would consider it to be of the “hired help” kind, will prove to be just the kind of real friendship that he has always needed and, really, desired.

Of course there is far more to be told in this truly epic comedy, where Apatow once again puts on display the necessity of a strong supporting cast of characters who all get their dose of depth in the sharply written screenplay. The ensemble of actors is as stacked as any Apatow production to date, including Leslie Mann, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, Eric Bana, Aubrey Plaza,and a long list of other familiar faces showing up for minor roles. The most impressive thing (among countless impressive things) about Funny People, is the daring, unconventional approach that Apatow took with the structure of the screenplay. He knew that he could take any sort of risks he wanted to this time around, because having Adam Sandler on board is going to guarantee that the box-office numbers will be high at the very least. Knowing this, he takes his characters on an emotional journey that is unpredictable and always veering off the standard “three act” path of a normal screen story. By doing this, Apatow challenges his three main actors, and especially Sandler, to tag along with him as he attempts to mature in his storytelling. He also gets the two most human performances of both Rogen and Mann’s careers to date. Funny People was the most anticipated film in over a year for me personally. It had a lot to live up to, what with me talking about wanting to see it and all of its potential greatness for nearly an entire year after hearing of the talented involved and the premise. What Apatow has accomplished with this film is incredible and really too brilliant to put into words. I saw it twice on its opening day last Friday, and it only got better with the second viewing. Like all of the great comedies he is involved in, I suspect this will continue to endear with each passing watch, but because it was made with such a sense of personal involvement and an obvious long history of understanding the people working alongside him, it will become not only a favorite, but an essential piece of work out of everything I will see. This is where Apatow goes from making one of the funniest films of the year, to one of the best. It’s a masterpiece.

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Cast
Adam Sandler
Seth Rogen
Leslie Mann
Eric Bana
Jonah Hill
Jason Schwartzman
Aubrey Plaza
Maude Apatow
Iris Apatow

Written & Directed by
Judd Apatow

Phoenix leaves us with the brilliant “Two Lovers”

July 29, 2009

two_lovers_joaquin_phoenix_gwyneth_paltrow

Rated R: 1 hour 50 minutes : Magnolia Pictures

Writer/director James Gray has developed such a strong working relationship with actor Joaquin Phoenix over the last several years that it makes Phoenix’s recent decision to retire all the more baffling. They first started working together at the very beginning of the decade with The Yards, a solid drama that featured several strong performances and showed that Gray, who was then only his second film in, was a promising American filmmaker. Both Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg returned from The Yards for Gray’s next one, a “brothers on both sides of the law” project called We Own the Night, which had its strong moments and was overall recommendable but inevitably suffered from the retread material factor. Still, it was evident that Gray could possibly have a strong piece of work up his sleeve in the near future, and with the release of this year’s Two Lovers, we have gotten just that.

Phoenix plays Leonard, a man who is clearly devastated by the breaking of ties with a longtime love, and out of concern that he could physically and mentally deteriorate he moves back in with his family at their request.  He spends little time outside the confines of his apartment complex, sheltering himself other than when he’s working at his father’s dry-cleaning business. Haunted by the lingering reminders of a past happiness, he’s only made into a more damaged soul as the days turn into weeks, then months into years. We are introduced to Leonard at a peculiar time in his life; while under the close supervision of his caring parents (and especially his mother, played beautifully by Isabella Rosellini) he is thrown into the middle of a love triangle that he will ultimately create for himself. Just as he is introduced to Sandra, the daughter of the wealthy family that plan to buy out his father’s dry-cleaning business, he becomes infatuated with Michelle, a vulnerable but out-of-his-league woman that lives on a higher floor at the same complex. Leonard’s mental state is already at a point to where he cannot find a level-headed way to deal with life, so when he decides to juggle between two entirely different women and romantic situations, there can only be dismantling in his future. Phoenix goes above and beyond with the character, finding all the right subtle notes and giving a brilliant performance. If this truly is a send-off to his short acting career, then at least he’s done it with his most seasoned and masterful portrayal yet.

Vinessa Shaw plays Sandra, the woman who Leonard’s parents want so badly to see him settle down with. Sandra has a real care for his feeligns and understands what he is going through, and Shaw plays the part very nicely. Hopefully we get to see her around more often in significant roles. Giving another fine performance and only adding to her versatility is Gwyneth Paltrow, as the torn-apart, beautiful, and needy Michelle, whose affair with a wealthy businessman (played by the small role journeyman, Elias Koteas) has led her down a path of mental fatigue, so she finds herself latching onto Leonard more and more for close, genuine comfort. Gray and Phoenix have finally given us what we knew they had in them – a wonderful, wounded, flawless piece of work that feels fresh all around. This is definitely one of the best films I’ve seen throughout the first seven months of the year.

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Cast
Joaquin Phoenix
Gwyneth Paltrow
Vinessa Shaw
Isabella Rosellini
Moni Moshonov
Elias Koteas
Written by
James Gray
Ric Menello
Directed by
James Gray

78356_joaquin-phoenix-at-the-screening-of-two-lovers
Why, Joaquin? Why?

Mann, Depp at the top of their game in “Public Enemies”

July 27, 2009

public_enemies_movie_image_johnny_depp__2_1

Rated R : 2 hours 20 minutes : Universal Pictures

There seems to be an odd little trend set in place over the last ten years when it comes to Michael Mann-directed films. Since the acclaimed filmmaker released The Insider in 1999 (which I consider his career-crowning masterpiece) his body of work has generated terrific pieces of work between slight disappointments. After that under-appreciated film ten years ago, he went on to deliver the ambitious but ultimately less than stellar biopic, Ali, with Will Smith’s outstanding performance getting diluted by a confused approach at storytelling. In 2004 he would quickly return to fine form with Collateral, which featured two brilliant performances by Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx, the latter of whom took a dramatic challenge and ran with it. The success that Foxx has had with focused performances since that time can be directly attributed to Mann giving him the chance to make a statement as the taxi driver in Collateral. Mann immediately brought Foxx back to work with him, and alongside Colin Farrell, with the film update of Miami Vice. That one ended up being a mild entertainment but just not up to par for a director of such caliber. So you could say that with the standards Mann has set in his long career, the last decade has been literally every other film hit-and-miss, with the hits being very high and the misses only slightly missing and not bad enough to call awful.

In keeping with the coincidental trend that began in 1999, Mann has once again found a groove with his newest film, Public Enemies, where we find a perfectly cast Johnny Depp as famed bankrobber, John Dillinger. Mann’s trademark style of shifting between digital and film is put to at a major amount in this film and it proves to be a perfect aid to the pace of a story that calls for swift movement. Dillinger was the first nationally wanted criminal of his kind, bankrobbing consuming the majority of his time, so the choice to include a hefty amount of that in the movie was smart and really essential. Life is short: you rob banks and then you die. That was sadly the story of Dillinger’s existence, but in Public Enemies we also get inside some of the more personal and loyal aspects of the intriguing and legendary figure. Other main focuses in the film belong to the woman in his life, Billie, (Marion Cotillard) and the badge on his tail, Melvin Purvis, played by Christian Bale in a calm, understated performance. Cotillard follows her incredible, award-winning performance in La Vie En Rose with her first breakout chance in American cinema, and she pulls the role off with ease alongside the commanding Depp. Purvis is put in charge of the Dillinger team by the orders of J. Edgar Hoover, who is played by Billy Crudup in another underrated performance by one of our more overlooked actors. Like in all of Mann’s films – and especially recent ones – there is a long list of noticeable actors that appear for very minor roles throughout the film, and in Public Enemies we get to see Giovanni Ribisi, Leelee Sobieski, Channing Tatum, Shawn Hatosy, Stephen Lang, Matt Craven, and Lili Taylor all fit in an ensemble that goes on forever. The finest of the supporting cast outside of the three main characters has got to be Jason Clarke and Dillinger’s true right-hand-man, Red. Clarke is so excellent in this role and really handles himself well in a film full of experienced veterans of their craft, creating a valiant and memorable performance that resonated with me long after the film ended.

There is a lot to praise about this film, which is every bit as good as the awesome Collateral and arguably his best film since The Insider, and the majority of the reason it works as an entertainment and a character study is simply the complete and dedicated immersion by Depp in the lead role. Over the last several years the unbelievably talented actor has been consumed by Tim Burton’s demented Hollywood blockbusters, which there is nothing wrong with except the fact that it occupies Depp so much that he hasn’t had the chance to play actual human characters like Dillinger, which he can pull off better than all of the top legends in the history of cinema. I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to see him back in a role like this, bringing back fond memories of powerful performances in films like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Donnie Brasco, and Blow. I’ve since revisited Public Enemies two more times and I think that this is the very best ‘ve seen Depp to this point in his already terrific career, stepping into Dillinger with a stern intimidation and creating the best performance of the year to this point. Mann has made a rousing piece of entertainment and a near-perfect film on every level. I hope you had the chance to see this one the silver screen.

star_ratings_image3 and a half

Cast
Johnny Depp
Christian Bale
Marion Cotillard
Jason Clarke
Billy Crudup
Stephen Lang
Stephen Dorff
Based on the book by
Bryan Burrough
Screenplay adapted by
Ronan Bennett
Michael Mann
Ann Biderman
Directed by
Michael Mann

Cohen goes ultra-offensive with “Bruno”

July 20, 2009


Rated R : 1 hour 23 minutes : Universal Pictures

At the time actor/screenwriter Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles were into principal photography for the 2006 film, Borat, I assume that it was much easier to “dupe” unsuspecting people into the trickery that took place in that hysterical comedy masterpiece. I say easier because four years ago Cohen was a considerably lesser-known face in film, let alone comedy; with only die hard fans of his television show able to point him and his characters out. He used America’s unfamiliarity with him to his full humurous advantage in every nook and cranny of Borat, and we all laughed. So three years have came and went, and he has sky-rocketed into mainstream popularity with the help of other films as well, such as Talladega Nights, and Sweeney Todd. Whether you love his style of comedy or hate it, (because there is no in-between) one thing is for sure: you will forever remember the trademark face and antics of Cohen and his creations. For that reason alone, I would think the production of Cohen’s next full-length film, Bruno, would have been a million times harder to mold together with realistic trickery. I guess it must have just came down to he, Charles, and a large team of researches/investigators/assistants finding certain areas of the world that are populated with people who still would have no idea who Cohen really is and what he is up to. Seeing the finished product of Bruno led me to believe that they succeeded very highly again, and for what I assume has got to be the final time.

Cohen wastes no time with letting the audience know that the Austrian fashionista, Bruno, is going to be far more shocking than Borat could ever even dream of being. In his home country he hosts a television show and frequently declares himself “the face of Austrian fashion”, but his longtime successful run in the business is put to a shameful end when his velcro-suit invention backfires on him at a major fashion show, and he must flee out of country in hopes to regain face and stardom elsewhere. With only his “assistant to his assistant”, Lutz, still vowing to stay by his side, Bruno heads to America in hopes of making a television show and being the greatest gay interviewer in the history of the country. Needless to say, this instigates some outrageous interactions with well-known American faces, such as Paula Abdul, Harrison Ford, and even Ron Paul, who is so genuinely frightened and disgusted by the advances of Bruno that the sequence alone becomes worth the price of admission. It would be insane and downright disrespectful to go into details about just what kinds of tricks Cohen has up his sleeve this time around, so I will only say that if you were worried that he might not have it in him to make as effective an experience as he did three years ago in Borat (I had my doubts, I’m not going to lie), you will be pleasantly relieved within seconds of this film beginning.

There are many more appearances by celebrities in this film than I thought there would be (and even a ridiculous collection of artists joining Bruno for a send-off song in the finale) but what remains Cohen’s bread and butter is his selection of which pedestrians to take advantage of and make feel extremely uncomfortable. When Bruno visits a gay converter in Alabama there are moments of comic bliss, but what had me rolling as much as even the best scenes in Borat, were when he decides to attend a swinger party…or, more accurately: a heterosexual swinger party. Overall it makes complete and obvious sense to why Cohen decided to bring us Borat followed by Bruno, because the former was a perfect way to blast us with unexpected brilliance, and then when he had to one-up himself with shock value he could bring out the extremely flamboyant homosexual acts of Bruno. It all works extremely well and was the worth the wait, even though it wasn’t quite as perfect as Borat. One thing is certain: barring a miracle, this is going to be the last time Cohen will be able to pull off realistic antics like this on such a massive scale. What a nice send-off to a unique comedic genre.

star_ratings_image3 and a half

Cast
Sacha Baron Cohen
Gustaf Hammarsten
Written by
Sacha Baron Cohen
Anthony Hines
Dan Mazer
Jeff Schaffer
Directed by
Larry Charles