Saturday, January 09, 2010

Most Anticipated Films of 2010

2009 is over. The 00s are over. It’s time for a new decade and an exciting new year of movies. Some years, I’ve had to scrounge around to find enough movies to fill out this list, but this year I’ve got an overflow. Of course, three of them are the same films that topped last year’s list, but hopefully they’ll all make it out this year, and hopefully this will be a great bunch of films. First off, some films I’m looking forward to that didn’t make the list include Alice in Wonderland, Toy Story 3, Scott Pilgrim, Cemetery Junction and Kick-Ass. Here’s my ten most anticipated…

10. Tron Legacy - If I had to honestly guess, I’d say this will be a terrible film. The first Tron is pretty bad, though it does have some charms, and I think what I’m looking for from this film is not what it’s going to deliver. So why is it on here? It’s primarily because it’s being scored by Daft Punk and in my mind, I see a 90 minute avant garde burst of light and strange visuals, accompanied by a killer new Daft Punk score. The teaser reel shown at Comicon is pretty great, but I just fear the actual dialogue and narrative will kill the experience. So, let’s hope there’s not too much of that, and we can focus on the abstract Daft Punk experience. Bangalter’s score for Irreversible was the best score of the decade, let’s hope he matches it here.

9. Your Highness - I love the old David Gordon Green, “the next Terence Malick,” but he’s chosen now to become the next Ivan Reitman. Still, as long as he makes films as entertaining as Pineapple Express, I’m down. I’d love to see him do a non-studio project next, but the cast here is fantastic, with James Franco, Danny McBride and perhaps too much hipster cuteness to believe with both Natalie Portman and Zooey Deschanel in the same film. The premise is great, and hopefully it’ll be a really fun epic comedy. And, the thought of Natalie Portman in the role of a warrior princess brings to mind her fantastic work in The Professional, so I’m eager for that.

8. The Green Hornet - I remember the old 60s series, which was most notable for its great theme song. The film offers a lot more, with Gondry and Rogen sure to bring us an unconventional action film. The issue for me is that I’ve seen diminishing returns from Gondry’s work since Eternal Sunshine, his visual tricks have gotten a bit stale, and Be Kind, Rewind just didn’t work that well. Rogen has a similar problem, where his schtick has been so prominent, it doesn’t have the fresh quality it did in Knocked Up. But, Rogen’s never done a bad film, and maybe matching Gondry’s visual style to a blockbuster structure will make for something really special. The presence of Christoph Waltz is a great bonus, coming off an instantly legendary turn in Inglorious Basterds.

7. The Runaways - I’m pretty confident the two preceding films will at least be entertaining, this one’s more of a question mark. I like the premise, and musician biopics can be a great frame through which to explore social and cultural change. Of course, only filmmaker has used them in that way, the brilliant Todd Haynes. But, with director Floria Sigismondi at the helm, I’m hoping this will be something more than your typical rise and fall narrative. She has an amazing eye, and I’m eager to see what she does with a more long form work. The trailer looks pretty exciting, but I fear that she’s going to be constrained by a weak narrative and that she doesn’t have the clout to do Haynes style avant garde visual indulgence. But, it looks like a fun film and will hopefully deliver.

6. Kaboom - Gregg Araki followed up his most consistently great film to date, Mysterious Skin with a goofy throwaway, Smiley Face, that was unjustly neglected by its distributor. But, he’s back in his classic thematic wheelhouse with this tale of teenagers in a wacky universe of craziness. The initial stills look great, and I love Araki at his most personal and experimental, so I’m eager to see how he brings the style of The Doom Generation and Nowhere into a new era. His Twin Peaks comparisons only make me more intrigued.

5. The Black Swan - Speaking of films that have too much hipster cuteness, here’s Natalie Portman and Winona Ryder in the same film. And on top of that Vincent Cassel. But, the real attraction is Darren Aronofsky who’s following up his “comeback” The Wrestler with a thriller that sounds inspired by Argento’s Suspiria. I think Aronofsky’s never made a film that wasn’t great, and I’m eager to see him continue to branch out. I’d like to see a bit more stylistic experimentation here than in The Wrestler, but I’m sure whatever he does will make the film work. For all the attention that his technique gets, he always does a great job immersing you in character subjectivity, and that seems like a perfect technique for a film about identities in crisis.

4. Somewhere - Sofia Coppola is another director who’s never made a film that wasn’t great. Her new one sounds like a retread of some Lost in Translation themes, but I’m confident in her taste, and am sure that even if it is narratively similar, there will be a lot of wonderful images and moments to enjoy. I loved Marie Antoinette, and think she’s been consistent in really using film as a medium in a way that so few other filmmakers can. An assist from her partner Thomas Mars on music will only make it even sweeter.

3. Rebuild of Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance - This film was released in Japan in June, but thanks to the horrific distribution of foreign films, it’s still not made it over here in either a legal format or a subbed DVD release. But, it’s slated to drop on DVD in the spring, and I’m eagerly awaiting checking out this new film which diverges from the timeline of the original series to offer something new. Anno is one of the best filmmakers out there, and I’m sure he has good reason to revisit his masterpiece and bring it into a new, modern light. This film also introduces my favorite character from the series, Asuka. And, if we’re lucky, maybe we’ll see 3.0 this year as well.

2. The Tree of Life - It was a big disappointment when this one didn’t make it out this holiday season, but hopefully we’ll see it in the late summer as rumored. Malick is a master filmmaker, telling stories through film in a way that no one else even tries to, and this sounds like his most ambitious, cosmic project yet. I’m also really excited for the rumored Imax companion project. It’s going to be very annoying if this film turns up on the most anticipated of 2011 list.

1. Enter the Void - Another film that’s been released abroad, but hasn’t been seen here yet. The film got a mixed reception, but every critical review only made me want to see the film more. It sounds like a groundbreaking, sensory experience that redefines what cinema is capable of. Irreversible was the most innovative use of filmmaking in countless years, and I can’t wait to see Noe push it further with this film. I’m hoping to go to Europe in the spring, and if the film hasn’t made it here by then, there might have to be a special trip to France to check this one out.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The Third Age: Episode Seven - 'The Tree of Life'

If you watch one episode of The Third Age, make it this one! This week, Holly leads a ritual to find out the truth about Morning, and is shocked by what she discovers! It's a more experimental episode than usual, and is my personal favorite of the series to date. I'd love to hear what you think.

In other news, after the epic posting frenzy of best of time, things will probably slow up for a bit. In the next couple of days, I'll be posting my most anticipated movies list for 2010, and in the next couple of weeks, Caprica, Lost and Big Love will start up, all shows I'll surely be writing about.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Best of 2009: Film

Here’s the last of the best of lists. Just a quick note, I haven’t been able to see all the films I’d like to see, here’s some of the key gaps in my viewing: Antichrist, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orelans, A Single Man and a couple that didn’t make it over here, but will likely be part of next year’s list are Enter the Void and Rebuild of Evangelion 2.0.

10. Observe and Report - A dark slacker comedy riff on Taxi Driver, Observe and Report is a great journey into one ordinary man’s mad world. Seth Rogen does his most intense work yet, as a local flasher becomes the bane of his delusional existence. Considering the prominence of Rogen in Apatow’s work, this film is a great subversion of the lifestyle celebrated by countless slacker comedies. Not every slacker has a heart of gold, some are trapped in insanity, and this film conveys that in a really dynamic way. Plus, it’s got a great, fearless supporting performance from Anna Faris. Definitely an underrated film.

9. Up in the Air - Clooney is one of the last movie stars left in Hollywood. Like classic stars, think Gable or Grant, every character he plays exist somewhere within the spectrum of the core George Clooney persona. Up in the Air works as an examination of someone who thinks he has his life totally under control, think he has everything he wants, and realizes that maybe he doesn’t, and has to deal with that revelation. The film has some major flaws for me, notably a slightly off key tone in the Jason Bateman scenes, and overuse of voiceover, particularly at the beginning, but Clooney and Vera Farmiga are incredible together, and everything with them works great. The trip to Miami is one of the most fun sequences in any film this year, and I particularly love the way so much of what we expect is subverted by the film’s ending. This is a smart, satisfying character study, and a great exploration of one particular aspect of the Clooney character.

8. Funny People - This film carried the advance hype of being Apatow’s turn to drama, and in the end, yes, it is dramatic, but I don’t think significantly more so than Knocked Up. And like Knocked Up, this is a great story that’s topped with a lot of really funny jokes. The thing I love about this movie is the way that its lengthy running time means that it doesn’t fit neatly into a three act box. The characters’ lives sprawl across multiple stories, and though that can make the film feel disjointed, it gives it the lived in feel of a real world. It’s hard to predict things because the film doesn’t fit into a 90 minute comedy box, and that’s great. I hope Apatow doesn’t see the lukewarm reaction to this film as an incentive to dumb down. Keep telling emotionally true, funny stories.

7. The Limits of Control - The artiest film on the list, Control is my favorite Jarmusch to date. A total dedramatization of what could have been a traditional action plot, the film is a surreal journey through Spain, that has that distinctly Jarmusch slow paced dreaminess. I love the production design and Christopher Doyle’s cinematography is beautiful throughout. What really makes the film work is the confrontation with Bill Murray, and the haunting finale. The film is a hazy dream, and I think some mistook its stylishness for vapidity. There’s intelligence here, but even if there wasn’t, isn’t it nice to just get lost in this strange world for a bit?

6. Avatar - I could point to a hundred flaws in Avatar, I could point out to serious social and thematic issues, derivative plot points and cardboard characterization, but I choose to focus on what works about that film, on the dazzling visuals, the audacious and important thematic statements and most of all, the emotional rush you feel watching the film. It really does build a world and wrap you up in it in a way that few films before have. Cameron has pushed the boundaries on a technical level, and the dragons vs. helicopters closing fight scene is pure energy to watch. But, I also think there’s a strong philosophical and emotional core at the center of the story that’s impossible to ignore. I love that he has such a distinctive voice and watching a film like this reminds you just how good blockbuster cinema can be. There’s a reason that he’ll soon be the director of the two highest grossing films of all time.

5. Star Trek - While less ambitious than Avatar, Star Trek was equally spectacular and emotionally engaged. By maintaining a tight character focus, Abrams was able to craft a blockbuster that felt like a TV show, and I mean that as a good thing. He never got caught up in just showing random CG beasts, the goal was always to explore the way that events shaped the characters and to keep the crazy goings on anchored in emotional reality. That’s not to say there wasn’t great spectacle, the effects were fantastic, and the action scenes were tense and riveting. I’ll always have a soft spot for space action like this, and Star Trek ensures that the next generation will as well.

4. Where the Wild Things Are - As with many of the films on the list, WTWA has some flaws that prevent it from reaching all time greatness, but the heights that this one reaches are even higher than almost anything else this year. After the first half hour of the film, I was ready to call this Spike Jonze’s career best, the intense subjectivity and raw emotion of the real world segment is harrowing and does an incredible job of totally immersing us in Max’s view of the world. And, the first glimpse of the Wild Things is awe inspiring. The film’s issue is that it doesn’t always know where to go from there, and though the emotional issues raised at the top persist throughout, the film just isn’t as riveting as it was right out of the gate. That said, it’s good throughout, and ends on a really powerful note. It’s still a great film, just not as great as it could be.

3. Fantastic Mr. Fox - Another ostensibly kid targeted film from an acclaimed indie director, Mr. Fox feels in many ways like the most adult of any of his movies. It’s also one of the most fun. Visually, it’s like nothing I’ve seen before, with its utterly tactile animation, it’s entertaining just to watch the characters move, particularly during the interludes where they cut loose with dancing. But its not just spectacle, there’s real emotion that runs the gamut from melancholy to joy. And, as with Up in the Air, it’s an interesting exploration of the Clooney persona. His presence comes across in a way no celebrity voice in animation has before, and you get a real sense of performance. This film is a really cool world to visit with its own wacky flourishes, it’s everything I like about Anderson’s films in a snappy, exciting story.

2. Public Enemies - Michael Mann continues his work making esoteric, rambling art films within studio blockbuster structures. Returning to many of his core themes, he uses the visual language of Miami Vice to tell a story that makes the 30s feel real and vibrant, not like something out of a storybook. Depp and Cotillard have fantastic chemistry, and carry a sense of doomed abandon throughout. Dillinger knows he’ll die, but they hold on to the dream that somehow they can escape. The film’s most haunting moments are Dillinger’s death, staged like a film shoot, and ending in a flood of crowd and media, it’s the birth of law enforcement as spectacle. The emotional punch is then driven home in the devastating starkness of the final scene. Mann is turning back the clock, and acting like it’s the 70s, when intelligence and adult themes were mandatory in blockbuster cinema. Hopefully he’ll get to keep experimenting and exploring as a filmmaker. I can’t wait to see where he goes next.

1. Inglorious Basterds - All the preceding films were great, but nothing this year, or in the past five years, can come close to Inglorious Basterds. I’ve written about it extensively already, but I’ll stress just how exciting and suspenseful and virtuostic the film is. I’ve seen it three times and it’s still a rush every time. Tarantino puts on a masterclass in how to produce suspense, and skillfully pulls together several disparate plot strands into a perfect finale. I particularly love the seamless jumps between the goofy over the top violence of the Brad Pitt section and the very real emotion Shosanna experiences, and how the ending is able to meld the two modes so that the Basterds’ violence becomes our catharsis after the emotional climax of Shosanna’s story. No question, this is the best film of the year, and of the second half of the decade as a whole.

Best of 2009: TV

2009 was a great year for TV, with some long running shows having their best season yet, and a lot of great shows staying strong. It’s a wealth of riches on the list here, let’s check it out…

10. True Blood
Best Episode: ‘Timebomb’

The show improved on its first season by refining its campy appeal and upping the stakes. The season peaked early, at the end of the Fellowship of the Sun arc, and kind of petered out at the end, but the peak was great. I think there’s still room for some more real emotion in the show, but they know that it’s supposed to be fun and the show is able to poke enough fun at itself to make it work. I wish Alan Ball was doing something better than this, but if it’s a show like this or another ponderous film like “Towelhead,” let’s stick with this.

9. Bored to Death
Best Episode: ‘The Case of the Beautiful Blackmailer’

This show was ostensibly a comedy and was never particularly funny, nor was it dramatic, but it was charming throughout. I loved the New York locations, and the three leads were all a lot of fun to watch. The show struck a tricky balance, and as it went on, it just got better and better. I love the quirky world they’ve built, and hopefully it’ll continue to grow in interesting directions in season two.

8. Parks and Recreation
Best Episode: ‘Greg Pikitis’

I’m one of the few people who actually really liked the show in its first season, so I was even more excited when it took a major quality leap in year two. The show has one of the deepest comedy casts of any series, and the characters are developed in ways that make sense, and over the course of the series so far, they’ve developed the kind of depth and emotional engagement that make for a long running sitcom. There’s been some very sweet moments, like the relationship between Dave and Leslie, or April’s fliration with Andy, but throughout it all, they keep things funny and snappy. It’s the best comedy on TV right now, and a few more seasons at this level could make it one of the best sitcoms all time.

7. Big Love
Best Episode: ‘On Trial’

I liked the first two season of Big Love, but the show made a quantum leap in quality in the third season. The big emotional hook for me was Nikki’s work at the D.A’s office, and the way that her flirtation with her boss opened up a window to a new world for her. But pretty much every element of the season worked, and it had a hyped up, every episode’s a season finale level of intensity that made the whole season riveting to watch. It’s always nice to see a show realize its full potential, and that’s what Big Love did this year.

6. Battlestar Galactica
Best Episode: ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’

The controversial final season of Battlestar worked for me on most levels, but had some key missteps that stopped it from hitting the series’ highest heights. The much beloved military coup arc did nothing for me, and the resolution to the final five storyline was extremely convoluted and didn’t really hold together in terms of making sense. But, I love a lot of the ideas throughout, and thought the final episode was haunting and epic. Visually, the show was on its game, and certain moments, like the appearance of the final five on the flight deck, were haunting and burned in my memory. Like the show as a whole, it had moments of brilliance mixed with ideas that didn’t quite come together. Still, to see such an ambitious and mostly successful work reach a satisfying conclusion was merit enough.

5. Doctor Who
Best Episode: ‘The End of Time: Part II’

I was holding off on writing the list until the last of Tennant era Who had aired. Technically, End of Time II aired in 2010, but I’m grouping it with ’09 for list making purposes. This year’s Who started off with a dud, but the last three episodes were all fantastic. The intense ‘Water of Mars’ ominously set the stage for an epic finale that didn’t quite come together on a plot level, but was so satisfying emotionally, I’ve got to include it here. I felt emotionally fulfilled at the end, but like the Doctor said, I didn’t want him to go. I wasn’t sure what the specials could add to the epic finale of ‘The Stolen Earth,’ what they gave us was a Doctor coming to terms with his own mortality, an extended meditation on the inevitability of death, and a call to do the most we can with the time we have.

4. Torchwood
Best Episode: ‘Children of Earth, Day Five’

More than any other show this year, Torchwood made a massive jump in quality. The first two series were very hit and miss, but this intense, character focused miniseries was intense brilliance from start to finish. The characters were all the same, the scenarios were the same, but the focus was so much tighter, and over the course of the series’ five episodes, it crescendoed to higher and higher intensity, culminating in a final episode that featured devastating scenes of the UK giving in to alien demands and Jack sacrificing his ties to humanity to save them. It’s a series that forced the characters to make tough choices and never backed down from putting the audience through the ringer. Not since Buffy season one to Buffy season two have I seen a series make such a giant quality leap between seasons.

3. Friday Night Lights
Best Episode: ‘Tomorrow Blues’

Speaking of shows that made a giant leap, after the disastrous second season, Friday Night Lights bounced back with a fantastic third season and is now working on an even stronger fourth year. It’s very rare that a show can as successfully reinvent themselves as FNL has, but the East Dillon setting has reinvigorated the series and changed its narrative. I’m always frustrated by shows like Alias and Battlestar Galactica that hinted at big change then retreated from it. By shifting its basic status quo, FNL has become a much more exciting show, and this most recent year may top even its brilliant first season. Seamlessly introduced new characters and consistent brilliance from Chandler and Britton keep this one of the best hours on TV, and that’s not even bringing it the series’ unparalleled cinematography.

2. Mad Men
Best Episode: ‘Seven Twenty Three’

In its third season, Mad Men continued to be the most challenging and artistically ambitious series currently on the air, and perhaps ever. The complexity of the stories increased, and the end of the season opened up some amazing new directions for future plotlines. I don’t think this year quite matched the second season, but the consistency of its ambition only adds to its reputation. The fact that nine year old Sally Draper is more complex and well developed than the vast majority of adult lead characters is a testmanet to the show’s greatness.

1. Lost
Best Episode: The Incident

Lost’s great problem since the start has been its inconsistency, so it was surprising and exciting to see it finally produce a season that was just outright great from start to finish. The series attempted an ambitious time travel storyline and nailed it throughout, giving us great timeloop moments, like Locke coming across himself in the past, but the primary joy was seeing our lead characters in the 70s, and getting an insight into what the Dharma Initiative was like back then. Those episodes were just so much fun and built such a great world, I would have loved to stay there for much longer. And, one scene in the season finale totally changed the game looking forward, opening up a myriad of interesting new storytelling possibilities. It was all anchored by great character work on Locke, Ben, and in particular the series’ heart, Sawyer and Juliet. If the last season is as good as this one, it’ll go down as one of the all time great series.