Favorite & Least Favorite Films of 2009


As some of you already know, I usually wait till long after awards season and the general critical hubbub has passed before I post any personal lists on the previous year’s films. And along with that notion, I reserve the right to add to that list as I take in more films from that year. I’ve been lucky enough to see quite a few of the films released in 2009 so far, but there’s always more to watch and I’ll be doing that as they become available on DVD or Blu-ray.

So here is the list as it stands today. I’ve broken the titles down alphabetically as it is far too difficult to break them down much further than that for me. And I don’t limit any group to a certain number. There are as many or as few listed as I felt warranted inclusion. And, as happens often with me, many of the year’s most popular films don’t show up on my favorites list. Though a few do.

The groups listed below are:
FAVORITE FILMS OF 2009
FILMS FROM 2009 DESERVING HONORABLE MENTION
LEAST FAVORITE FILMS OF 2009
MOST DISAPPOINTING FILMS OF 2009
FAVORITE OLDER FILMS SEEN FOR 1ST TIME IN 2009

And here they are:

FAVORITE FILMS OF 2009 (alphabetical):

ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL

CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY

CORALINE

DAMNED UNITED, THE

FANTASTIC MR. FOX

GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE, THE

IN THE LOOP

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

LAST STATION, THE

MOON

SERIOUS MAN, A

SIN NOMBRE

SINGLE MAN, A

TOKYO SONATA

UP

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

WHITE RIBBON, THE

Oddly enough, I would have to say my favorite of all the above-mentioned films was WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. A film I expected to enjoy, but not as much as I did. I had heard rumblings of disappointment from others and even the occasional claim of “boring” from a few. And then there were those who liked it, but didn’t seem to rave. Well, when someone says boring, it almost always turns out to be a Hal favorite. Not out of any desire to be a rebel, but I’ve simply learned that what others often experience as boring, I experience as multi-layered and exciting.

Spike Jonzes interpretation of Maurice Sendak’s book is a raw emotional journey that works on such a wonderfully internal level that I think many folks who were expecting a more traditional narrative completely missed just how incredible this film actually is. Stream-of-consciousness writing at its best! And luckily, since publicly confessing my love of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, many friends and acquaintances have come out of the woodwork to share with me their love for this film as well! I think it’s a movie that will stand the test of time and find its audience.

I also felt that A SINGLE MAN, A SERIOUS MAN and INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS would be right at the top of the list. For anyone interested, here’s my extensive breakdown and commentary on Quentin’s film from an earlier post, Subversive Cinema: Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.

A SINGLE MAN gave us both a startlingly calculated directorial debut by Tom Ford and Colin Firth’s performance of a lifetime. As much as I love Jeff Bridges (and I do), I would have given the acting Oscar to Firth for this one.

A SERIOUS MAN is the Coen Brothers at their best. A film that seemed to alienate many unfamiliar with Jewish-American culture, this is nonetheless the kind of film gifted filmmakers take on after winning an Oscar the previous year. One from the heart, as it were. For me, the film captured the grotesquery of faces that occupied my childhood along with the superstitious belief that the universe is out to get us for even the smallest transgressions, including the worst one of all, the belief that things may turn out alright.

Two documentaries made their way to my faves this year. Michael Moore’s CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY and  ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL. The first is in a long line of terrifically frightening, revealing and darkly amusing films by Mr. Moore. This one is right up there among his best. It is a fascinating look at the pitfalls of a Capitalist society at odds with its democratic foundation.

ANVIL is essentially the true life SPINAL TAP with story and characters almost too perfect to not have been made up. The founding members of the heavy metal band ANVIL are at the center of this document of passion and resilience. Regardless of whether or not you like their music (I don’t, particularly), their story is so damn human that anyone who has ever fought to follow their passion will relate to these aging guys and their incredible ongoing journey. I had the privilege of seeing them perform live immediately after the screening I attended.

2009 was also a good year for animated films as three topped my faves list. THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX may have been my favorite of all of them with George Clooney giving the performance he actually should have been nominated for. The old-style stop-motion animation is simply outstanding and a rare treat in the face of so much digital work overtaking the medium. And Wes Anderson’s unique style of comedy and timing (mixed with Roald Dahl’s imagination) has never been used to better effect. It may be the perfect marriage of style and content.

Meanwhile, CORALINE gave us one of the darkest children’s films to come along in quite a while. Visually breathtaking, the story and characters are straight out of a nightmare, one birthed of a wildly vivid imagination and startlingly brought to life by director Henry Selick based on author Neil Gaiman’s very cool book.

And, of course, the folks at Pixar do it again with UP. While not my all-time favorite Pixar flick, I did enjoy it more than some of their more recent outings which, while I enjoyed immensely, left me wanting something more. This one didn’t. It was perfectly touching, funny and inventive.

Steven Soderbergh’s THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE is why I want that man’s career. Any director who can go from OCEAN’S 13  to CHE to this low-budget gem is my kind of director. Shot on the Red One camera and starring complete unknowns (with the exception of porn star Sasha Grey) Soderbergh continues his well-deserved and incredibly rewarding experiments in film. He is a true auteur.

A British director largely known for his television work, Tom Hooper does a stunning job with Peter Morgan’s tight script (based on David Peace’s novel) of THE DAMNED UNITED. As that rare breed of guy missing the popular sports-gene, it takes a bit of effort for me to commit to watching any film that has a sport at its center. Lucky for me I overcame my concerns (thanks to the knowledge that Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney were in the leading roles) because UNITED is thoroughly engaging. Not so much about football (soccer to those U.S.-bound folks) as it is about vengeance, obsession, insecurity and friendship, UNITED has some of the strongest performances I’ve seen all year. Sheen is truly extraordinary in what has to be the most spot-on casting of 2009. And Timothy Spall is, as always, a joy to watch. I was completely taken with this film.

IN THE LOOP is one of the best political satires I’ve seen in a long time. While American satires rarely transcend the obviousness of films like WAG THE DOG, the Brits have a knack for taking their satires to incredible heights. LOOP feels oddly realistic in its re-creation of a world (not unlike the film industry) steeped in dysfunction and abuse and filled with personal realities that remain unaffected by the unwelcome intrusion of facts.

THE LAST STATION, while not as cinematic as I would have liked, is nonetheless riveting for both its performances and its historical depiction. A sucker for any films about Russian history, STATION also threw both Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer into the package for me. Thanks.

MOON is one of the more interesting sci-fi films to come along in many years. Held together by Sam Rockwell’s little-recognized but nonetheless incredible tour de force performance, MOON harkens back to the sci fi’s of my youth, most notably SILENT RUNNING. And the film proves that sci fi can be done on a very small budget ($8 million) so long as you have a great script, great actors, and a director with vision. Wish the public had embraced this film over the lesser DISTRICT 9.

SIN NOBRE was one of the two best foreign language films I took in this year. Granted, many of the Oscar nominees in that category haven’t been released here in the States yet so I can’t compare, but I found NOMBRE to be gripping, frightening and intensely emotional. I enjoyed every second.

Best known for his creepy, highly cinematic tales of ghosts and other unsettling phenomena, Japanese director Kyoshi Kurosawa brings his unique visual style to tell this tale of an ordinary family in crisis. No poltergeists or serial killers, the enemy in TOKYO SONATA comes from within (which, truth be told, is still in keeping with Kurosawa’s favorite themes). Japanese society, status, authority, communication, and economy are all examined under the director’s revealing inner microscope. Moving, disturbing and, at times, funny, Kurosawa’s SONATA was honored with the Un Certain Regard Award at Cannes. And it was an award well-deserved. A beautiful and, yes, haunting tale of ordinary people trying to overcome very human obstacles.

The other foreign language film that completely knocked me out was Michael Haneke’s THE WHITE RIBBON. Astonishingly beautiful in stark black and white, Haneke’s emotionally violent film is mesmerizing and, like all of his films, exists in the world of the subconscious. It’s a thoughtfully paced film that squeezes you tightly and refuses to let go. Its grip lingers long after the film has ended.

Moving on now to those films I feel deserve mention, though they didn’t quite effect me intensely enough to make my Favorites list. These films worked for me on different levels. Some in their entirety, and others only in part. But in each, I feel there is something of value and interest to me that made them stand out.

FILMS FROM 2009 DESERVING HONORABLE MENTION (alphabetical)

AVATAR

BRIGHT STAR

BROKEN EMBRACES

COCO BEFORE CHANEL

EDUCATION, AN

EVERY LITTLE STEP

FLAME AND CITRON

HARRY BROWN

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE

HURT LOCKER, THE

IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSIS, THE

INFORMANT!, THE

JULIA

MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS, THE

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY

PUBLIC ENEMIES

ROAD, THE

TAKING WOODSTOCK

TETRO

Okay, so while AVATAR may have had one of the weakest, most formulaic scripts to come along in quite some time, it nevertheless has its charms and is a fun, if not completely predictable, ride that appealed to the 15 year old boy in me. And while I appreciate the film’s left-leaning, socially and environmentally conscious themes, it’s the groundbreaking 3-D that makes seeing this film truly worthwhile.

BRIGHT STAR is one of Jane Campion’s more down-to-earth, straight-forward films. With terrific perfs all around, Campion’s style keeps us at a bit of a distance allowing us to watch these historically emotional events as if uncomfortable bystanders who simply cannot look away. And yes, that’s a good thing.

For years, Pedro Almodovar’s films lost me. I have always been a huge fan of his early work, but sometime soon after WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN he lost me. It wasn’t until the last few years that he started making films that spoke to me again. And while BROKEN EMBRACES may not be one of Almodovar’s best, it’s still damned entertaining.

COCO BEFORE CHANEL is gorgeous to look at and never a bore. My biggest complaint would be the underplaying of Coco’s struggle to make it in a man’s world. Despite this, I was still immensely entertained and enjoyed the film, but this kept it from being a favorite. However, the cinematography and performances are more than worthwhile.

AN EDUCATION is a somewhat uneven film, but its central perf by Carey Mulligan makes it a must-see. I truly enjoyed most of the film and its period recreation, but it was mostly the depiction of Jenny’s parents that took me out of the world of the film. Despite the fact that Alfred Molina is one of my favorite actors! They were just a bit too much comic relief where none was needed and never managed to be completely believable within the context of the film. For me.

EVERY LITTLE STEP, like ANVIL in many ways, is a testament to the resiliency and hard work of artists. Anyone who has ever tested the odds of career success as an artist will understand the trials and tribulations on display in this film. It is an emotional journey well worth taking. And, as someone who has worked casting for far too many years now, I had some personal insights that made it even more fascinating to watch.

FLAME AND CITRON is a solid WWII film set in Denmark. It’s part film noir, part historical drama and damned entertaining from start to finish. There’s something about the film that kept it from being great, however, but that didn’t stop me from sitting on the edge of my seat throughout.

HARRY BROWN is a wonderful return to form for Michael Caine. One of the best revenge films I’ve seen in many a year. Not exploitative and not an action film, BROWN is a riveting character study and just a terrific genre role for Caine.

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE. Okay, so we’re not talking masterpiece here. But for someone like myself who started out not really liking this movie franchise, as the films progressed and each one grew even darker than the previous, my level of enjoyment increased exponentially. This is my favorite one to date.

Despite winning a slew of Academy Awards including Best Director and Best Picture, I don’t think THE HURT LOCKER is a groundbreaking film. And while I did find it well made and intense at times, the impact of the film was lessened for me after having previously viewed HBO’s miniseries GENERATION KILL, which I felt was similar but superior. By comparison, THE HURT LOCKER felt a tad contrived. That said, I still found it to be an above-average film and well worth seeing.

THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSIS is pure Terry Gilliam. Weird, startlingly creative and the best kind of eye-candy. It also contains Heath Ledger’s final performance. And it’s a wonderful one at that. I was completely taken with the world of this film. It may not be as breathtaking as Gilliam’s BRAZIL, but very little in this world is.

Soderbergh’s THE INFORMANT! contains the Matt Damon performance he should have been nominated for. The film’s disturbingly funny and tragic take on this character belongs to a world all its own. Soderbergh walks a fine line here, but manages to make it all work beautifully.

JULIA is a tough film in many ways. I found it extremely difficult to watch at times due to its uncomfortable subject matter that pushed a lot of personal buttons for me. The plot moves in many different directions, many of which you never see coming, but it’s Tilda Swinton’s performance that keeps you riveted. While not at all subtle, Swinton still manages to give us one of the most memorable portrayals of an alcoholic in cinema history. The film has strong shades of Cassavetes’ GLORIA and doesn’t seem the least bit concerned with political correctness or forgiving its lead character.

Grant Heslov’s THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS, based on Jon Ronson’s book, is a quirky little film with some great comic performances. Jeff Bridges is terrific as always and George Clooney is spot on. I would have much preferred to see him nominated for this one over UP IN THE AIR. But alas… The film did poorly over all, which is a shame. It’s thoroughly enjoyable, but maybe a tad too deadpan for today’s comedy audience that still insist WEDDING CRASHERS was funny.

Yeah, there were moments I didn’t completely buy and I though the end (both of them, actually) was disappointing, but PARANORMAL ACTIVITY still did what it set out to do: scare the shit outta me.

PUBLIC ENEMIES is an incredibly imperfect film, but I really enjoyed the period recreation and many of the performances. I’m a sucker for old-style gangster films (far more than contemporary gangster films) and this one had an artistic edge to it that appealed to me. Not often a fan of Michael Mann as a director (though I loved THE INSIDER), this film has some terrific use of silent communication; how characters communicate with eyes and body language either without dialogue or between/beneath the dialogue.

THE ROAD is a stark, dour film. And that equals enjoyment for Hal. No traditional plot to speak of, THE ROAD meanders across one of the bleakest landscapes captured in modern film, both internally and externally. This one almost made my favorites list, but something about the film didn’t stick with me as long as I had expected it to. Or wanted it to.

TAKING WOODSTOCK is pure, simple fun. Nothing unpredictable about it. For more of my thoughts on this film, check out my earlier post, Seeing WOODSTOCK Before TAKING WOODSTOCK.

Francis Coppola’s recently rediscovered himself as a filmmaker. After years of squandering his vast talents in order to free himself of massive debt, this master filmmaker is now making films on his own terms. And nothing could make me happier. While TETRO wasn’t quite as compelling for me as Coppola’s previous YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH, it is still brimming with creativity, inventiveness, atmosphere, and a deep love of cinema.

Now let’s move on to those films that were just so poor by my standards that they actually warrant mention as my least favorites. And I say this with full knowledge of how difficult it is to make a film, any film, and with an understanding that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. But here’s my trash.

LEAST FAVORITE FILMS OF 2009 (alphabetical)

2012

FOURTH KIND, THE

IT’S COMPLICATED

ZOMBIELAND

2012 was so ridiculous and heavy-handed that even my guilty pleasure love of disaster films wasn’t strong enough to withstand this. So much worse than it had any right to be. And all this despite the wonderful John Cusack who is completely wasted here.

THE FOURTH KIND is more of a gimmick than it is a film. Supposedly based on true events, one would never know given that the filmmakers shot recreations and then shot recreations of their recreations so that they could cut back and forth between two sets of recreated footage–one low-budget, one higher budget. The result is a mess with no scares and no tension. It’s a bit baffling to watch as none of the characters (in either footage) act with much common sense. One has to wonder what Elias Koteas and Will Patton were doing here; two wonderful actors completely wasted. And the director made the giant mistake as casting himself in the film. Granted, it’s a small role with almost no dialogue, but rarely in film history have I seen anyone appear so uncomfortable and self-conscious in front of a camera.

I must confess here and now to not being able to get through IT’S COMPLICATED. I have never been a fan of Nancy Meyers and this film highlights all the reasons why that is. For the record, I couldn’t get through her previous film, THE HOLIDAY, either. I find the humor and the characters in Meyers’ films to be completely uninteresting and obvious, as I do her dialogue. Even the talents of Meryl Streep couldn’t pull me through this one. It was actually painful for me to watch those talents wasted here to such a staggering degree.

And ZOMBIELAND, despite its popularity, didn’t work for me on any level. The humor was shockingly unfunny and the zombie action scenes quite possibly the most boring ever burned to celluloid. The entire exercise felt like a string of disconnected commercials wrapped around a few lame SNL sketches. There was no connective tissue or individual style to the world of ZOMBIELAND. The rules changed on a dime and I couldn’t help feeling that it was more a vehicle for product placement than a film or a story. Sorry ZOMBIELAND fans.

Now for those films that, while not downright awful IMHO, were nonetheless disappointing to me. Of course, in order for a film to be disappointing, one has to have entered into it with some expectations that it was going to be better. So it’s a very relative category. So here are the films I had, at least, hoped would be better than they actually were:

MOST DISAPPOINTING FILMS OF 2009 (alphabetical)

BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL – NEW ORLEANS, THE

DISTRICT 9

DRAG ME TO HELL

LOVELY BONES, THE

PANDORUM

UP IN THE AIR

WATCHMEN

WHATEVER WORKS

BAD LIEUTENANT was disappointing because I know what director Herzog is capable of. This film, for me, was a train wreck. I have no idea if Herzog meant it as a comedy or a drama as it never quite worked for me as either.

DISTRICT 9, while disgustingly popular, is nothing more than a video game actioner disguised as political commentary. For more in-depth thoughts on this, check out my previous post, DISTRICT 9: If You’re Hungry Enough, Even Cat Food Can Taste Like Fine Cuisine.

DRAG ME TO HELL left me bored. Lots of style, no real script. Had heard that the film was fun despite its lack of story. I heard wrong.

THE LOVELY BONES, while taken from great source material, completely missed the mark for me. Jackson’s view of a little girl’s heaven was both distracting and distancing for me. It felt more like an episode of MY LITTLE PONY than the drama it was meant to be. And the film concentrated less on the emotional journey of the characters and more on the “thriller” elements, which was not what I was expecting, nor was it what I wanted. And Jackson chose not to deal with the fact that this little girl was raped and dismembered. That does not exist in this film and, since it is the crux of the story and the emotional battles that ensue, I felt the film suffered tremendously from its exclusion from the story line.

PANDORUM. Okay, so I really didn’t expect this film to be any good as, by the time I became aware of its existence, it had already bombed miserably and vanished from theaters. But I love Dennis Quaid and think he is still one of the most underrated actors working today. So I’m always rooting for him. But PANDORUM is a jumbled mess that harkens back to such filmic disasters as EVENT HORIZON. Once the downward spiral starts, it swiftly picks up speed until you just want to get out of its way and let it run its course while you look elsewhere.

UP IN THE AIR. So many people loved this film, called it deep. I thought it was moderately entertaining at times, boring and self-consciously “hip” at others. In the end, I found the characters unmotivated and unbelievable. The film played it too safe for my tastes. And while I loved the cast, I didn’t feel they rose to the occasion, despite the Academy noms.

WATCHMEN was just more style over substance. The first half hour was beyond boring to me. It improved slightly as it trudged along, but never enough to propel it out of that category of potential lacking a deeper vision. Odd for a movie advertised as “From the visionary director of 300,” another film that left me hollow inside.

And despite my lifelong love of Woody Allen, the casting of Larry David as the lead in WHATEVER WORKS, while interesting in concept, was terrible in execution. David just couldn’t carry the film or handle the role and it sunk the film for me, despite a relatively amusing script. For more on this, check out my earlier post, WHATEVER WORKS. Sadly, Larry David Doesn’t.

And of course, every year brings the joy of seeing films released in previous years that I, for whatever reason, never caught up with before, but fell in love with in 2009.

FAVORITE OLDER FILMS SEEN FOR 1ST TIME IN 2009 (alphabetical)

LE FILS (2002)

BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX, THE (2008)

BOY A (2007)

CODE UNKNOWN (2000)

MARTYRS (2008)

MYSTERIOUS SKIN (2005)

PARANOID PARK (2007)

ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED (2008)

SECRET LIFE OF WORDS, THE (2005)

TELL NO ONE (2006)

WOODSTOCK: 3 DAYS OF PEACE AND MUSIC: DIRECTOR’S CUT (1970 -Had never seen the Director’s Cut before)

The Dardenne Brothers film LE FILS (The Son) is a daring and challenging journey for both its protagonist and the film’s viewers. Handheld and oftentimes hovering just behind our “hero’s” back, we are taken along a path seemingly ordinary at first, but with subtle complexities that build as the film progresses. Terrific performances and style.

THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX is one of the best bio pics I’ve seen in ages. A return to form for director Uli Edel who hadn’t made a feature film for theatrical release since 1989’s LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN (he’s been living in TV land ever since), BAADER is about as compelling as film gets. Following the exploits of the German terrorist group The Red Army Faction, the film creates a complex tapestry of emotions and political ideologies that are anything but black and white. The film simultaneously gives us a glimpse into our past while commenting enormously on our present.

BOY A is worth seeing for so many reasons, the greatest of which is Andrew Garfield’s outstanding performance as a young man released from prison for a crime he committed as a child. The film raises so many moral and social questions that it’s impossible not to be moved by the events and characters depicted here.

CODE UNKNOWN is another incredible and complex film by Michael Haneke. Following several different characters whose stories all intersect, Haneke explores the ways in which we communicate and, more importantly, fail to communicate with one another. Juliette Binoche gives one of the many terrific perfs to be found in here. I loved every second and, in perfect Haneke fashion, the film raises more questions than it answers. My kind of film!

MARTYRS is, quite simply, the most violent film I’ve ever seen. Brutal, unrelenting, terrifying. There’s also a point to the violence (though it takes a while to find it) and I found the film to be unusually and unexpectedly thought-provoking. But be warned, it will challenge the hell out of you. If you’re even a little squeamish, there’s a good chance you won’t make it too far into this one. If you think you can handle it, though, give it a try. I found it to be worth the journey. It’s certainly unlike any film I’ve seen before and the two lead performances are uninhibited and completely committed. The film would not have worked without them.

MYSTERIOUS SKIN is my favorite of the Gregg Araki films I’ve seen. Held together by a truly fearless performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, SKIN knocked me out. It’s a painful film that treads into sometimes difficult emotional territory, but Araki handles it with both an artistic eye and an extreme amount of compassion.

PARANOID PARK is another in an ever-growing list of lower-budget films from Gus Van Sant. A great companion piece to Van Sant’s ELEPHANT, PARK takes us into the world of Pacific Northwest youth and the trials, tribulations and emotional roller-coaster rides that transpire out of eye-shot of the adult world. It’s an amazing film and another testament to Van Sant’s talents and another reason why he should continue to stay away from the Hollywood machine that simply doesn’t seem to be the creative environment for him to produce his best work.

ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED is a truly amazing documentary that dives headfirst into the complexities and misunderstandings surrounding Roman Polanski’s trial and paints a vivid picture of what drove the famous director to flee the country before sentencing. Regardless of what you think of Polanski, his crime, and the events that have happened since, this film will shed new light on your previous notions.

THE SECRET LIFE OF WORDS. I’m a big fan of director Isabel Coixet. Her last film, ELEGY, knocked me over and I’ve since made it a point to catch up with those handful of films she’s made that I somehow missed. This was one of them and it’s a terrific study of two injured people finding one another in the most unusual and unexpected of circumstances. Achingly beautiful  performances by Sarah Polley and Tim Robbins.

I found the French thriller/murder mystery TELL NO ONE to be completely riveting. It’s so rare to get a thriller that actually works and doesn’t assume the audience is a bunch of idiots. It seems to me that Europe tends to produce better thrillers than Hollywood does these days and this is most certainly one of them.

As for WOODSTOCK, though I grew up watching this film, this is the first time I’d had the opportunity to see the full director’s cut. And it was a revelation. For my full review, check out my earlier post Cinematic Masterpieces: WOODSTOCK: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT.

So that’s the wrap-up of my reactions to the films of 2009 and a handful of others. All in all not a bad year. By the same token, not one for the history books either. I’ll be adding more films to the list as I view them, so feel free to check back from time to time.

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Favorite & Least Favorite Films of 2009

This Year’s Oscar Rant


The Academy Awards is always a love/hate relationship for me. I love the tradition and the memories of what the Oscars were to me when I was a kid. And I love the occasional inspirational speech made by an award winner (when they’re not unceremoniously cut off), but I can’t stand the forced “entertainment” qualities on display each year to keep the ratings up and the lowest-common-denominator grinning. The problem, I realize, is not with the Oscars, but with me. I want the Oscars to be something they’re not, something they’ve never been: a respectable awards show celebrating the art of cinema.

The Academy Awards have been coined a “popularity contest” by many and never have truer words been spoken. Films may be nominated by their peers, but that, sadly, is not saying much as this year’s Writers Guild Award nominations included both AVATAR and THE HANGOVER for best screenplay. I’ve expressed my horror and disappointment about that before in previous posts. The Academy Awards are an extension of that mindset. One wonders how many of the voters actually know much about film, its history and/or artistry. Not to mention whether or not the voting members have even seen most of the films out there. Particularly the less popular ones (films, that is, not voting members).

I’ve never had the stomach for the red carpet scene that serves as the tasteless introduction to the proceedings. A couple of artificial-looking pseudo celebs asking mundane questions and calling all the stars by their first names as if they were great pals while complimenting their overpriced attire. But the public has always had a fascination with the wardrobes and excesses of Hollywood stars and starlets. And this tradition keeps the gawkers happy while maintaining a disturbing air of voyeuristic mock-reality that holds about as much excitement for me as watching two lobotomized inmates examine one another’s teeth.

Then there’s the Awards ceremony itself. This year’s started off with a completely uncalled for musical number sung by the always charming Neil Patrick Harris. Not as excruciating as watching Hugh Jackman do his song-and-dance-man schtick the previous year, this entire opening was nonetheless a complete waste of time, a false-start hiccup that kept the show from actually beginning on time. And all this with the producers well-aware that the show will inevitably struggle to fit in its already-determined time slot and that something (or, rather, someone) will be cut from the show as a result.

Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin were irreverent and entertaining enough, but their overly scripted banter was often obvious and felt more like a moderate sitcom than an awards show of any repute. But they had a few genuinely funny moments and they are both likable, so I was, when all is said and done, okay with them. They never tried to “steal” the show and for that I am thankful.

But early on, the show’s director decided–as is shamefully done every year–to do the one thing I will never get over, the one glaring miscalculation and unforgivable insult to any award-winner that can ever be done, to cut off a speech before it’s even begun. The greatest thing about the Academy Awards is to witness someone living that dream moment; to be recognized by one’s peers and community for their contribution. But for the Academy, this part of the show seems more necessary evil than anything else. Sure, you have to make certain that the show isn’t wildly long and that people don’t go on and on forever, but let them at least spit out a “thank you”. There is nothing more degrading and disrespectful than to see an award-winner get his or her opportunity to step up to that mic only to find it silenced while the orchestra slams into another theme that should be titled “You’re not really important.”

But thank god we have time for Ben Stiller dressed up as a Na’vi from AVATAR going on and on long after his joke has ended. Yeah, that’s why I tuned in: to see some comedian covered in blue make-up drag a joke to its death instead of honoring the people WE CAME HERE TO HONOR! Where was the music and the silent microphone when we most needed it?

Follow this with something I’d hoped the Academy had put to rest years ago: the interpretive dance number. Sometimes it’s for Best Costume, sometimes for Best song, this year it was for Best Score. Yes, I’ve always wondered what THE HURT LOCKER would look like if re-imagined with some graceful hip-hop moves… Wait for the Broadway musical, fools! You know it’s coming! But the Academy Awards is not the time or the place. Priorities at the Oscars are ass-backwards. But who am I to argue that seeing a bloated, gratuitous dance number is more entertaining than seeing Lauren Bacall or Gordon Willis or Roger Corman receive lifetime achievement awards? So long as those viewers bored with all that silly talking are kept happy.

And while we’re on the subject of what is kept and what is cut, how about that Cinematography Oscar? Nice to know that one of the most visual, “cinematic” categories to be awarded at the Oscars doesn’t even warrant enough respect or foresight to actually show us some of the remarkable imagery we’re throwing an Oscar at! Or did they have to cut that due to time wasted by Ben Stiller and the “fabulous” League of Extraordinary Dancers? Because, really, at the end of the day, who in the audience at home even knows what cinematography is, no less cares?

But I’m glad they brought out Tyler Perry to squander more time “explaining” what editing was for the folks at home. So let me get this straight… Editing is the art of deciding between a long shot, a medium shot, or a close-shot? Okay, got it. Glad to have been educated in the most demeaning, misleading and pandering way possible. So much better than hearing someone’s acceptance speech that they’ve dreamed of delivering their entire fucking lives and may never get another chance to do! And don’t even talk to me about the non-sequitur “Tribute” to Horror Films that took up even more precious time. Don’t misunderstand me, I love horror films. I even made one. But was this relevant to anything? Anything at all?

Sorry, didn’t mean to infuse this post with anything nearing real emotion.

But since I mentioned emotion, how nice was it to see all the wonderful filmmakers and stars who passed away in 2009 that were completely ignored or forgotten in the “In Memory Of” montage. Why should anyone like Farrah Fawcett or Dan O’Bannon or Bea Arthur or Henry Gibson or Harve Presnell be remembered? That would take away from the endless appreciation of John Hughes that petered out in awkwardness. Don’t get me wrong, Hughes made a wonderful contribution to cinema. In fact, looking back at his films now shows just how much more depth there was in the teen comedy/drama then than there is now. But Mr. Hughes was no more (or less) important than all the other great artists that we lost last year. I mean Dan O’Bannon only wrote ALIEN. No one remembers that film. Or how about Kathryn Bigelow’s BLUE THUNDER? Or TOTAL RECALL? Or the dozens of others including John Carpenter’s very first film DARK STAR? And let’s not bother mentioning the extraordinary visual effects work he did on a little film called STAR WARS! Yeah, they were right to leave him out entirely. And Farrah was just a TV star, you say? Then clearly you never saw LOGAN’S RUN or SATURN 3 or THE CANNONBALL RUN or EXTREMITIES or THE APOSTLE or DR. T AND THE WOMEN. Far more films than Michael Jackson can lay claim to, although he was represented in the Academy’s little montage. I guess Mr. Jackson’s death got to eclipse Ms. Fawcett’s just one more time. And Bea Arthur, while it’s true that she was mostly known for her TV roles so it’s not exactly a snub that she wasn’t included here, she was not a complete stranger to film either: LOVERS AND OTHER STRANGERS, MAME, HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART 1, to name but a few. And Henry Gibson’s “minimal” contribution to cinema only included such classics as NASHVILLE, THE LONG GOODBYE, THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, CHARLOTTE’S WEB, THE BLUES BROTHERS… The list goes on. And on. Maybe the Academy doesn’t miss him, but I sure as hell do. And then there’s Harve Presnell who, like Bea Arthur, did a lot of TV, but also graced the silver screen in such pictures as PAINT YOUR WAGON, FARGO, FACE/OFF, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, PATCH ADAMS, THE FAMILY MAN, OLD SCHOOL, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, EVAN ALMIGHTY… No stranger to our beloved cinema. The bottom line is it doesn’t take a lot of work to find out who has passed away in the last year. I’m sure SOMEONE at the Academy has internet access, no? So when they say “We can’t include everyone,” I have to ask, “Why not?”

Moving on to something new to this year’s Academy Awards is the inclusion of 10 films (as opposed to the usual 5) nominated for Best Picture. This made room for such mediocrity as DISTRICT 9, THE BLIND SIDE and UP IN THE AIR. All films that have an audience and work in their own way, but are not Best Picture caliber IMHO. But it sure does help those ratings! Sadly, the two dance numbers and bloated comedy routines went on so long that Mr. Tom Hanks barely had time to open the envelope and announce the winner. No time to read the list of nominees so the winner is Hurt Locker good night and drive safe.

On the up side (and a non-sarcastic note), I’m glad there were a couple of moving speeches that made the cut. I was thrilled that THE HURT LOCKER’s oscar-winning editor Bob Murawski (who shared the award with Chris Innes) stated for all the world to hear:

“Thank you to the Academy for giving this award to a movie that was made without compromise. We didn’t have any preview screenings or focus groups or studio notes. Everybody made the movie we wanted to make and it turned out great, so I’m glad everybody liked it.”

I think the more people and young filmmakers (and studio development heads and studio heads) that can hear this the better. A film made WITHOUT COMPROMISE, WITH NO STUDIO NOTES, can win Best Picture. Listen up filmmakers. In the immortal words of Frank Capra, “If Hollywood is dying, it’s because you haven’t got control of your own films yet. You have to find a way to get control of your films away from those who consider film as some leisure-time investment, an orc in a conglomerate of some kind. It’s got to come back into the hands of the creative people.” The Academy Awards show might pander to their ratings and the lowest-common-denominator, but filmmakers need not.

And while I disagree personally with many of the Awards (I would have liked to see FANTASTIC MR. FOX win for Best Animated Feature and Original Score, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS for Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture, Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep for Best Actress, Colin Firth for Best Actor–though I love Jeff Bridges to no end–THE WHITE RIBBON for cinematography, and WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE simply nominated), I realize that I will never be in sync with the tastes of the Academy in all things. Or even most. That’s a given and I accept that. Though my heart always mourns for those incredible films overlooked each year because they were simply too daring, too odd, too misunderstood, or too unpopular to warrant the attention and admiration of a majority of Academy voters. To see DISTRICT 9 nominated for its video-game screenplay while a superior sci-fi like MOON goes unnoticed, not to mention Sam Rockwell’s riveting tour-de-force performance, always makes me sad. Or Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant film THE INFORMANT! with an amazingly daring perf by Matt Damon (far more challenging and impressive than his nominated INVICTUS perf), or Soderbergh’s micro-budget THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE, fearless and original in every way, or Spike Jonze’s raw emotional take on childhood WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE with its unconventional stream-of-consciousness approach to storytelling. But so is the way of any award celebration. Years from now, people will be mystified as to how these films were ignored while lesser films praised.

At the end of the day, the Academy Awards seem to have more in common with American Idol than with any real appreciation of world cinema. It’s more surface entertainment value than an award show with any real prestige. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t turn down an Oscar or spit in the face of the Academy if nominated for one, but I know what it is and I know what it isn’t. And it’s not what I wish it was. Nor is it what I once believed it was. It is, as we said before, a popularity contest. But at the end of the day, who doesn’t want to be popular, right? And like I mentioned earlier, the problem isn’t with the Academy or its awards show. It’s with me and my desire to see an award ceremony that respectfully honors cinema with a sense of decorum and a sincere understanding of and appreciation for the extraordinary art of filmmaking.

This Year’s Oscar Rant

Award Season Blues: This Year’s Rant


It’s always a bit tough to see films you just didn’t like or admire nominated for awards. This year’s Writers Guild Nominees almost made me want to revoke my membership out of shame and embarrassment. I used to believe that it was Hollywood that was keeping good writers down; that great scripts were being raped and rewritten and solid writers who knew better were scripting pablum at the behest of those signing their checks.

But this year’s nominees, writers voting on writers, proved to me that even our guilded scribes no longer recognize good writing. With one exception: I thought A SERIOUS MAN was a great film and a great script. But clearly WGA members just THINK they’re supposed to like the Coen Brothers and vote for them each year regardless because, with that exception, most everything else here is mediocre at best.

THE HANGOVER? Really? That’s not a joke? Writers voted for that? Writers? WRITERS? While this film may be one of the “better” of the new wave of frat boy films, it’s still a piece of mediocrity at best. But of all the films released this year to choose from, Writers narrowed their choices down to this.

THE HURT LOCKER? Okay, this one is not embarrassing. I was not as “wowed” by it as many others and I thought the HBO miniseries GENERATION KILL did a much better job of tackling a similar subject matter, but this was not a dumb film or a simple film. I still found it a bit contrived at times, but at least it was adult. I didn’t love it, but I do admire it. So this one gets a free pass from me.

PRECIOUS? Out of all the Adapted Screenplay choices, I almost voted for this one. I ended up not casting a vote for any. Because, though I actually enjoyed the film and thought it was pretty decent and, at times, hard-hitting, I found some of the “speeches’ to be a bit more writer-centric and not completely believable; they were almost too self-aware for me to buy coming out of the mouths of the characters. But nonetheless, it was a good film and it wasn’t trying to make everybody happy. It took some risks. I can live with this one. I just can’t vote for it.

CRAZY HEART? People, the performances were impressive and the T-Bone Burnett songs were great, but the material was a retread and the characters somewhat under-motivated. Learn to separate. And the tacked-on ending was embarrassing and almost entirely undermined any of the good stuff that came before it.

AVATAR? Where’s the hidden camera, because this can’t be real? Take off the 3-D glasses guys! The effects were impressive and the movie fun, but it was a formula 101 script with real roll-your-eyes moments. Not to mention a complete lack of subtlety. Did anyone not see every moment coming? Did someone actually think the dialogue was good? Apparently, writers did. Almost all complaints about this film have been script-based. So how did it end up on this list? Beats me. The film was enjoyable DESPITE its script!

JULIE AND JULIA? It’s Nora Ephron! She’s not a good writer! Granted, this is easily the best film she’s ever made, but most of that is thanks to Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci’s terrific perfs. Not Ephron’s “brilliant” script. Remember the Amy Adams portion of the film? She wrote that, too!

STAR TREK? Sorry kids. It may have been fun, and even mildly witty and inventive at times, but it’s also incredibly lazy. They jettison Kirk off the ship onto an ice planet for no other reason than to pull together two plot points! Writers backed into a corner and coming up with a lazy solution. It’s not feature film award-worthy! It’s above-average network television writing!

500 DAYS OF SUMMER? Really? I’ll say it again. Really? And l enjoyed this film. It was charming and had some touching, well-structured moments. But it’s still a pretty surface-level film. With a terrible final sequence. A real “nice” little conclusion to make everyone feel all warm and fuzzy. No risk, no daring. Someone called it the ANNIE HALL for a new generation. HAVE YOU ALL GONE MAD!? Go back and watch ANNIE HALL, for the love of god! It’s like comparing CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS to, say, THE HANGOVER?

UP IN THE AIR? I know tons of people loved this picture and thought it was deep. It’s not. Maybe by today’s standards of “deep,” but not in any sane world. CRASH was deeper and that film took its audience to be a bunch of children who needed everything spelled out in big, block letters. While UP IN THE AIR certainly doesn’t suck, it’s another sloppy script where the characters are not true to themselves. And there’s four musical montages. FOUR! That’s not feature film writing, that’s a music video! And Vera Farmiga’s character betrays her own development. There is nothing believable, as fine an actress and Farmiga is, when her character turns into an oblivious woman shocked at Clooney’s genuine admiration for her. It’s a scripted moment that defies all that’s come before it. There’s a difference between putting in lines of dialogue to “explain” motivation, and actually having characters that are believably motivated. This one may fall on the shoulders of director Reitman, but nonetheless, it ends up being a failure of the script as well.

And I’m sorry, but Clooney’s character is the result of play-it-safe writing. He’s a sweet, likable guy, who fucks people over for a living. Too scared to make him actually unlikable, he floats somewhere in that safe place where we don’t really know why he’s separated himself from true human contact. And it doesn’t matter. So long as he’s handsome and charming and learns a valuable lesson and most all the people he fired are actually better off and happy in the end. The script has them tell us so themselves. Because we don’t want the audience leaving the theater worried about anyone or anything. Because we’re too afraid to make movies that actually say something or take a real stand! This is to films what Libertarians are to politics!

How can we ever get good films made or gain some measure of respect if we, ourselves, honor mediocrity at every turn? Where are the good writers? The daring writers? The writers who challenge us? The writers that take risks? Look deep? Explore the human condition? Or at least bring some intelligence and real wit to those things that make us laugh? Have we forgotten the very basics of our craft? Are we artists or simply entertainers? And if we’re both, can we at least learn to recognize it when we see it?

Now let’s turn to the Academy Awards. For years now the Academy has been a disappointment. The shows themselves are more like episodes of Entertainment Tonight than a respectable Awards show. And this year degrades it even more by offering 10 Best Picture slots so that they can include more “popular” fare (it’s all about ratings at the end of the day).

I have many of the same complaints here that I’ve already stated above. And though I do love George Clooney as an actor, I thought his perf in UP IN THE AIR was one of his weaker moments. Despite always being a class-act, Clooney’s portrayal of this guy just didn’t elevate the character above the script. The film seemed to ride more on Clooney’s charm than on the inner-workings of the character itself. Case in point, I never for a moment believed his “back-pack” lectures. Had I attended that lecture, I would have demanded my money back within minutes. Was this performance really better than Michael Stuhlbarg’s in A SERIOUS MAN? Problem is, no one knows Stuhlbarg so… No nomination. Or how about Sam Rockwells’ tour de force perf in MOON, a film completely ignored by the Academy? No, I would have much preferred to see Clooney nominated for THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX where his acting talents were on full display with the challenge of using only his voice.

As for Vera Farmiga’s performance, had her character stayed true to itself, I would have bought it. But it didn’t and no amount of good acting could save it. I’m a fan of Farmiga and was glad to see her here. But it simply wasn’t, for me, one of her best performances. Again, this feels more like a popularity contest for the film than it is actual admiration for the acting in it.

Which brings us to Anna Kendrick in UP IN THE AIR. Again, this is clearly a popularity vote. While Ms. Kendrick was very good, it is not an award-worthy perf. It’s simply a nice role well-acted. Charming and safe.

And the trend continues with Mr. Reitman’s nom as best director. As stated above, any director who relies on four musical montages to tell his story has a ways to go before he earns himself an Academy Award nomination. Oh wait, I’m clearly wrong here as the nominations will attest. A lazy script with a somewhat lazy director = nomination. Is anyone getting the idea that I wasn’t crazy about this film and that all the hype and accolades surrounding it has frustrated me? Or have I been too subtle in my derision?

And while I love Stanley Tucci, I would rather have seen him get a Best Supporting Nom for JULIE AND JULIA. I found his murderous pedophile in THE LOVELY BONES to be a bit spot on. He just seemed to be a stereotype of the creepy pedophile neighbor. I would have suspected him even if nothing had happened! I suppose the fact that Tucci was almost unrecognizable is what nominating members are responding to. I thought the subtlety he exhibited alongside Meryl Streep was far more deserving.

As for Best Picture, well, this category has now become a joke. And throwing DISTRICT 9 in there, while no surprise, is another grand disappointment to me. What? You didn’t like DISTRICT 9 either, Hal?

Nope. I thought it was a terrific premise that was never explored in any depth and the entire film deteriorated quickly into a video game with one-dimensional, over-the-top, black-and-white characters. Cool effects, original setting, weak script. Setting a film in Johannesburg and comparing the treatment of aliens to apartheid is not enough if you don’t follow through with an actual story. It was the Emperor’s New Clothes for 2009 (for more thoughts on this, go HERE).

But on the bright side, I was glad to see films like A SINGLE MAN, AN EDUCATION, A SERIOUS MAN, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, UP, THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX (though, sadly, only for the obvious Best Animated Film category), THE WHITE RIBBON, and THE LAST STATION get some attention.

As always, so many great films are ignored come Awards season. And I am rarely satisfied. But I suppose the good part to that is I am rarely surprised to be disappointed. And it feeds my love of complaining. And it motivates me to want to do better, to dig deeper, to be more creative. Even if it means never getting nominated for an award.

Award Season Blues: This Year’s Rant

Subversive Cinema: Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS


Contains massive spoilers! Do not read if you haven’t seen the film!

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There’s more to Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS than meets the eye. If you were hoping to see KELLEY’S HEROES, THE DIRTY DOZEN, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE or even a remake of the original THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS, this film probably left you feeling like Tarantino missed some crucial elements of the Men-On-A-Mission/War genre.

In fact, Tarantino, who has exhibited his love of film and genre-filmmaking time and again, has bumped himself up a notch here and twisted our expectations to make a film that is both artistically and historically subversive.

But let me start with a brief introduction to Tarantino and my reactions to his earlier films. While I loved RESERVOIR DOGS and its character-driven and deeply cinematic approach to the Heist-Gone-Wrong genre, I found PULP FICTION (Tarantino’s most commercially popular film) to be rather slight. It was cinematically fun and contained moments of truly witty, well-written dialogue, but at the end of the day the film left me feeling empty. And while JACKIE BROWN was entertaining and gave us a chance to see some sorely missed faces return to the big screen, the film didn’t knock me out, though I did appreciate it. The KILL BILL movies I found to be terrific. Not deep or meaningful, but filled with a love and mastery of a specific genre that Tarantino knows very well. It is a glourious1homage to so many films that one has to share Tarantino’s knowledge to recognize them all. Luckily, that’s not a prerequisite to the film’s enjoyment. It just adds another dimension. DEATH PROOF, the second feature on the GRINDHOUSE double bill, was a mixed bag for me. I found the scenes with Kurt Russell to be mythic and engaging and exactly what I would have hoped for. The long passages of dialogue with the young women, however, particularly the first set, seemed endless and a tad masturbatory. For me, it took the wind out of the GRINDHOUSE sails, particularly after Robert Rodriguez’s rousing zombie actioner that preceded it. All this said, I believe each and every one of the above-mentioned films deserves another look as INGLOURIOUS proved to be so much more than I initially thought.

Upon leaving the theater after the brief closing credits for INGLOURIOUS, I thought to myself that I had just seen a truly captivating and fun Tarantino film. Already one of my favorites. But there was something nagging at me; areas of the film that seemed “underdeveloped” or misdirected. But Tarantino’s no dummy and he knows his genre films better than most. So what exactly was I feeling? What was that brewing just beneath the surface?

Well, through conversations with friends and my own inner dialogue, I started to see the film Tarantino had made, instead of the film I had expected him to make. And like some of the greatest filmmakers of all time (e.g. Stanley Kubrick, John Cassavetes) Tarantino’s new film will elicit different reactions based on expectations and might easily be dismissed and/or misunderstood. At least initially. That said, I don’t consider Tarantino a director of the caliber of a Kubrick or Cassavetes (yet), but I think in this age of lowest-common-denominator filmmaking, Tarantino still understands the word “cinema” and has placed his own stamp on it. This puts him leagues above many of his working contemporaries.

Let’s start with the Basterds themselves. A seemingly familiar team of rag-tag rebels thrown together by circumstance and talent to create the perfect unity for accomplishing a near-impossible task at great risk to themselves. And like all Men-On-A-Mission films, the lives of thousands, maybe millions, hang in the balance. However, the main thing that appears to be missing from Tarantino’s take on the genre is time spent getting to know these characters. In INGLOURIOUS, the Basterds are sorely lacking in dimension. We know little about most of them and, as a result, have little investment. Naturally, this seems to be the antithesis of the genre as we know it. Especially since one of Tarantino’s specialities is finding ways to make even the smallest character unique and three-dimensional. Take the inglourious-basterds-2scene in the underground bar, for example. The celebrating Nazi soldiers are given moments that tell us something about their personalities and interactions. When the female soldier (Petra Hartung) puts her pal in a headlock and teases him by twisting his nose (an iconic image of youthful innocence and playful — albeit somewhat masculine — affection), the young man’s anger, resentment and humiliation is present even as the camera pans away. Relationships, personalities and hierarchies are established almost instantaneously. Even the frightening Maj. Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl) seems to be the only one present who recognizes that the film KING KONG was a reflection of America’s fear of the black male. While playing a name game, Hellstrom asks Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) “Am I the story of the negro in America?” When Hicox answers “No”, Hellstrom replies with “Well, then, I must be King Kong.” It is Hicox’s oblivious denial and lack of awareness that allows Hellstrom to be certain of the correct answer. So it takes a racist Gestapo Major to recognize an allegory for America’s fear and racism when we ourselves may not see it. And this, without question, tells us quite a bit about Hellstrom. It also serves as a hint to the audience that the film we ourselves are watching may be richer in social meaning than its facade suggests.

Even the new Nazi father, Master Sgt. Wilhelm, played with drunken delight by Alexander Fehling, immediately gains our sympathy and understanding. We don’t want him to die. We want him to go on to see his son Maximilian grow up. And there is an air of sorrow when he does not.

So why not make the Basterds equally as sympathetic? As revealing? Why not give them equal presence? It is Hellstrom and Wilhelm who steal the bar scene. It is they whom Tarantino chooses to explore. By comparison, Fassbender’s Hicox is shown to be both arrogant, dimensionless and sloppy. It is he who singlehandedly undermines the entire mission with his lack of self-control and self-awareness.

At first, one starts to think perhaps crucial footage was cut from the film in order to accommodate a shorter running time. In fact, some footage was cut (as is always the case), but I’m starting to think that may have been a wise, insightful move. The Basterds are presented as brutal, Nazi-scalping killers. And if one is to keep score (as you should), the most graphic violence in the film comes from these men.

inglourious_basterds_8By contrast, let’s take a look at the Germans, the Nazis, the “villains”? They are, oddly enough, more developed characters than our “heroes”. Christoph Waltz’s star-making turn as Col. Hans Landa, while being a frightful man in may ways, is also portrayed as engaging, intelligent and, at times, somewhat charming. He’s the German Sherlock Holmes. Only he’s hunting Jews. And we admire his skill, as appalling as its intent may be. And though he may not necessarily be “likable”, his time onscreen is nothing short of mesmerizing. And while he is responsible for the death of an innocent Jewish family early in the film, this massacre is shown with bullet holes in the floor as opposed to a splattering of blood and guts. Not like the graphic nature of the Basterds whose scalpings are shown in gory detail throughout the film. And both inglourious-basterds-brad-pittLanda and Brad Pitt’s commanding Basterd, Lt. Aldo Raine, each let one survivor go, both scarred in their own way. Both men are playing God. The difference is that Pitt’s Raine is presented as the quintessential American caricature. He’s dimensionless and boiled down to a series of stereotypes. This is, essentially, how we have portrayed Nazis and villains in film after film. The Aryan-featured SS officer with a scar down his cheek, a thick, repulsive accent, and a kind of sadistic glee. Pitt’s “Nazi Killer” is just that. Only he’s the American version with a scar across his throat.

We’re also reminded here of the Hollywood stereotype of American Indian “savagery”. After all,  Raine claims to be part Indian and thinks of his merry gang as “Apache Jews” and is himself known as “Aldo the Apache.” The fear tactics used by the Basterds are the same tactics used by American Indians against the U.S. Cavalry; essentially, being outnumbered, the Indians created an overwhelming degree of fear in the minds of their enemy through unspeakably violent and humiliating acts. So much so that the enemy believed it would be better to kill themselves and their families rather than be captured.  In contemporary terms, these tactics are commonly known as “acts of terrorism.” Even Col. Landa, in his face-to-face conversation with Raine toward the end of the film, makes a similar comparison. “And your mission–some would call it terrorist plot– is still a go…” If one stops for a moment to look at the Basterds’ final plan, it is to strap explosives to themselves and blow up a theater full of people. One need not stretch one’s imagination too far to make the necessary comparisons to today’s threat of suicide bombers. Nor would it be inappropriate to draw a line between some of the Basterds’ tactics and American military methods used at facilities such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

holeLt. Aldo Raine’s interrogation of Bridgett von Hammersmark (played by the lovely and tough Diane Kruger), is nothing short of brutal and heartless torture as Raine calmly presses his finger deep into Hammersmark’s fresh and oozing bullet wound. What makes this scene even more subversive is that it is intercut with a quick “fireside chat” with a vulnerable and all-too-human Adolf Hitler as he explains his reasons for wanting to attend the upcoming screening of “Stolz der Nation.” Placing these two contrasting images side-by-side competes with our desired concept of heroes and villains, Americans and Nazis. To portray Hitler as more sympathetic than the American soldier trying to stop him clashes head-on with our collective self-perceptions by twisting and shattering beloved and much-needed icons. As a result, Inglourious_Basterds_Hitler_talksTarantino successfully blurs the lines between heroes and villains and what happens when human beings lose sight of their own humanity. No matter what side they’re on. And it is in that same conversation mentioned above between Raine and Landa, that Landa compares the two men as equals. “Tell me Aldo, if I were sitting where you’re sitting, would you show me mercy?” To which Raine replies with unabashed honesty, “Nope.” This is soon followed by Landa’s disgruntled observation, “Lt. Aldo, if you think I wouldn’t interrogate every one of your swastika-marked survivors… we simply aren’t operating on the level of mutual respect I assumed.”

Two peas in a pod.

But Landa is not the only character Raine is compared to. Despite claims that Pitt’s performance came across as if he were in a different film from the rest of the cast, Pitt plays the part of Raine with a full understanding of his role within the big picture. It is Martin Wuttke’s committed portrayal of Adolf Hitler as an angry, spoiled child that comes across equally as broad and stereotyped. Raine and Hitler inhabit similar worlds within the genre. But unlike Pitt’s Raine, Wuttke’s Hitler is never shown enacting any violence himself. In fact, in one scene, Hitler and the soldier Raine set free are essentially crowned Basterds-8-300with a halo of sorts. And Hitler never questions the surviving soldier’s lame alibi, but instead sets him free, though the weight of history and Hitler’s childlike relish at watching Americans slaughtered in the film within a film “Stolz der Nation” still keeps him a dangerous, buffoonish sort of villain worthy of a bloody end. But those same childlike qualities and vulnerabilities make his death just a tad less satisfying than, say, if he’d killed the surviving soldier as one would expect a villain like Hitler to do. He does not interrogate this “swastika-marked survivor” as Landa or Raine would.

By the same token, Raine and his men are only heroes to us in that they’re killing Nazis and history has shown us just how horrible and atrocious the Nazis were. But, as we’re starting to realize, in Tarantino’s Nazi occupied France, the Germans are presented in a somewhat different light than we’re used to from the genre. And though Tarantino is clearly relishing his ability to rewrite history, he is not presenting the Nazi’s as innocents or heroes. He’s not glorifying or forgiving them. Hardly. That’s not the history he’s rewriting. But he manages inglourious_basterds16something fascinating. When Richard Sammel’s Sgt. Werner Rachtman is asked by Raine to divulge the whereabouts of his fellow soldiers, their weapons and mission, he “respectfully” refuses. Even though he knows that he will face a brutal and painful death. But even though this man is a Jew-hater and murderer, there is also a bravery and strength of character, something admirable about him. And when he answers with a “Fuck You” to Raine, we understand and hope that we would have a similar conviction and commitment to our own beliefs. Yet his “Fuck You” is also followed by “And your Jew dogs”, forever reminding us who this man is, what he represents and, at the same time, instilling a sense of bewilderment at our own conflicted reactions to him. It is this depiction against the dimensionless brutality of Raine and his merry gang of mercenaries that we, as the audience, start to experience something that, at first, seems “wrong.” Isn’t Aldo Raine the hero? Aren’t the Basterds the good guys? Shouldn’t we be admiring them? Perhaps, but Tarantino concludes the sequence with Sgt. Donny Donowitz questioning the purpose of a medal hanging from Rachtman’s chest: “You get that for killing Jews?” “Bravery,” is Rachtman’s answer. And brave he is, by any set of standards. Even Rachtman’s walk to his inevitable death is given to us in slow-motion as a stirring spaghetti-western-flavored score — usually reserved for heroes and stoic characters — unspools in the background. Rachtman is then ceremoniously beaten to death with a baseball bat. And Tarantino trains the camera on every skull-cracking, brain-squashing moment. And we do recoil somewhat. Even though we know that this Sgt. has committed atrocities possibly worthy of such a death. And yet there’s something else in the air, something off in this interpretation of the genre as we know it. Even the young terrified Nazi soldier who is given his freedom gains our sympathy. We “feel” for him, his fear, his humanity. We don’t want to see Raine and the others beat his head in, too.

inglourious_basterds_eli_roth_mIt should be pointed out that the American who wields the bat that crushes the life out of Sgt. Rachtman is horror/torture-porn director Eli Roth (CABIN FEVER, HOSTEL). Not personally a fan of Roth as a filmmaker, I carry that slight aversion onto his acting and presence in the film. He’s not awful, not by a long shot, but he’s also not of the caliber to be acting alongside the likes of Waltz, Pitt and others. There is also something definitively unsettling about seeing this guy who directs pornographically violent films, wielding a bat and series of machine guns and acting out what seems like a disturbed childhood fantasy. I’d like to think that Tarantino made this choice on purpose; that it was meant to be a statement in and of itself. That would certainly coincide with the rest of the themes inherent in the film and filmmaking. But Tarantino also used Roth to annoying effect in DEATH PROOF and produced Roth’s HOSTEL, so one can assume he’s fond of the guy. But Roth’s own take on INGLOURIOUS just adds to my distaste: “It’s almost a deep sexual satisfaction of wanting to beat Nazis to death, an orgasmic feeling…. My character gets to beat Nazis to death. That’s something I could watch all day.” This led Roth to tag INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS “Kosher Porn.” Perhaps this is the place Roth needed to go (or was led) in order to play the character of Sgt. Donny Donowitz, a.k.a. The Bear Jew, but I do not believe it defines the essence of the film. It is a simplistic interpretation that I believe speaks more to Roth’s sensibilities than to the film’s.
 
Which brings me to a slight aside: Is a film its filmmaker’s intent? If Tarantino shared Roth’s interpretation of INGLOURIOUS, would that make it so? I believe, unequivocally, no. Like the makers of KING KONG who may not have intended their film to be an allegory for the slave trade, we do not know how many of the connections made here regarding INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS were intentional on the part of Tarantino. And truth be told, it doesn’t really matter. Once a piece of work is put out there for public consumption, it no longer belongs to the artist; his or her intentions are secondary to the experience of the film itself, as Tarantino himself will attest to:

“When I write, I’m not very analytical about it, I don’t ever deal with the subtext cause I just know it’s there… I just keep it about the scenario, I keep it on the surface, all my concerns… And one of the fun things is that when I’m done with everything, now you get to be analytical about the process, and now I can watch the movie and see all the different connection things and see all the things that are underneath the surface. But I don’t want to deal with the underneath while I’m making it or when I’m writing it… because, again, I don’t want to hit these nails on the head too strongly. But that’s one of the things that I love the most about when I do write film criticism and stuff, is getting into the subtextual areas.”

In fact, when confronted with similarities between the Basterds and Al Queda, Tarantino answered:

“I wasn’t trying to necessarily make a political point in there. It literally was just the next step in the story as far as I was concerned. However, once I did it, the irony was not lost on me at all.”

By the same token, Tarantino wasn’t completely oblivious either, as his statement here on his intentions suggests:

“I wanted the film [to work] sort of the way ‘Bonnie and Clyde‘ worked when it came out. It was an old genre that took place in the ’30s, but it was actually telling you something about the time today. And that was what I was trying to do with this in this genre.”

It is what is inside the filmmaker that comes out in his or her art and finds its way into the subtext. Any artist who trusts their talent and is not stifled by some predetermined formula knows this to be true. Tarantino again:

“My movies are painfully personal, but I’m never trying to let you know how personal they are. It’s my job to make it be personal, and also to disguise that so only I or the people who know me know how personal it is. ‘Kill Bill’ is a very personal movie…. It’s my job to invest in it and hide it inside of genre…. Most of it should be subconscious, if the work is coming from a special place. If I’m thinking and maneuvering that pen around, then that’s me doing it. I really should let the characters take it. But the characters are different facets of me, or maybe they’re not me, but they are coming from me. So when they take it, that’s just me letting my subconscious rip.”

With that, I’ll continue.

In the above-mentioned Sgt. Rachtman death scene, we are given a glimpse into the background of one of the Basterds. Til Schweiger’s Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz. At first, I assumed this was a device that would be used to stiglitzreveal the histories and personalities of all the Basterds. But this turned out not to be the case. Again, no mistake. Sgt. Stiglitz was a Nazi turned Nazi-killer. He was inducted into the Basterds for his skills. He is still a German. And he is given more development than any of the American or British characters in the film.

I was told there were scenes shot detailing the past of Eli Roth’s Donny Donowitz. If true, I don’t know why the scenes were removed, but judging from the structure of the film and the themes present in this cut, I believe that better serves the film.

Now let’s take a look at the characters of the French Jew Shosanna Dreyfus and her unrequited Nazi suitor Pvt. Frederick Zoller, played by Melanie Laurent and Daniel Brühl respectively. Shosanna is cold and distant, but understandably so. Her family was brutally murdered by the Nazis under the command of Col. Landa. This “other” storyline has richer characters than any concerning the Basterds. The inglourious-basterds-danielbruhlpersistent Zoller is a walking contradiction; a German war hero who singlehandedly slaughtered upwards of 200 Americans in a 72 hour period, and who is also charming, sincere and extremely likable throughout most of the film. We can’t help but like him despite the fact that he has committed mass murder. After all, he was just a soldier doing his job and his affections for Shosanna seem downright innocent and boyish. However, the closest thing to a friend, or perhaps a mentor, that Zoller is shown as having is none other than Joseph Goebbels, played with disarming vulnerability by Sylvester Groth. Certainly not the Goebbels of our history books nor of American films past. This Goebbels has a genuine love of cinema and even sheds a tear of pure unadulterated joy when his Führer/father-figure proclaims that Goebbels’ newest film may be his best ever. Ironically, the German director responsible for the Führer’s new favorite film is nowhere to be found. He is not seated in the private booth with Goebbels and Hitler, nor is he (or she) ever mentioned or congratulated. This is especially noteworthy as Zoller is the star of the film within a film and Shosanna pangs him earlier with the line “I’m French. We respect directors” when he asks her why she included director G.W. Pabst’s name on the marquee for an earlier film showing at her cinema.

Meanwhile, Shosanna’s true love, her projectionist and partner in crime Marcel, played with understated pride by Jacky Ido, enacts a crucial role in the events to take place and in aiding in the development of Shosanna’s onscreen character. Sadly, he himself has far too little screen time and the film yearns for the possible inclusion of a scene that was supposedly shot and removed before release detailing how Shosanna became the owner of the theater and met and fell in love with Marcel. Not having seen this footage, I obviously cannot comment on the actual benefits of its inclusion into the story. Nonetheless, the result is once again going against convention and not giving equal attention to our typically heroic characters and, though we like Marcel, we are given little of him.

But Shosanna has another man in her life. Col. Landa. The scene staged between these two is filled with all the tension one would hope for from such an encounter. It is landafarmeralmost Hitchcockian in the way its deceptively simple dialogue places you on the edge of your seat. Like the film’s opening scene between Landa and Denis Menochet’s strong and sympathetic Pierre Lapadite. Few films can claim such a riveting opening consisting almost entirely of 20-plus minutes of pure conversation (as well as appropriately inspired camerawork).

But back to the scene at hand… One wonders fearfully if Landa knows who the woman he is sharing strudel with actually is? Was his ordering Shosanna a glass of milk to compliment her dessert an innocent gesture or a subtle torture? Or is all this insistence on milk and creme just Landa’s way of weeding out Jews by seeing who will consume dairy products not in sync with proper Orthodox dietary laws? We never find out. Shosanna’s plot to kill the Nazi elite, though successful, is never revealed to Landa, whose job it is to prevent such actions from occurring. Shosanna gets her revenge, but the man who killed her family is not there to witness it. He never knows who was behind it. Tarantino pulls the rug out from under us yet again as he denies us, as well as Shosanna, that moment of gleeful, personal revenge. In fact, Landa is too busy working out the details of his happy future living the good life on Nantucket Island to notice much else!

And here is where the lines blur even deeper as we find ourselves spiraling toward our climax. The charming and terrifying Landa gets his hands truly bloody for the first time in the film as he strangles to death German actress turned British spyinglourious_basterds14 Bridgett von Hammersmark. There is a brutality here that we have not seen before. Though he is responsible for the killing of Shosanna’s family, he has his soldiers do the actual dirty work. It is an important distinction and somehow manages to change how we feel about this character when he decides to do exactly what von Hammersmark was attempting by betraying his country and his comrades. It is he who carries on her work! His killing of von Hammersmark is not a product of national pride, but of personal pride. It has more to do with her foolish attempt to trick him than with what it is she is trying to achieve. Landa becomes truly monstrous at this point, beyond his already unsettling presence. And this, ironically, just moments before he decides to become a willing U.S. ally and let the Basterd’s plan run its course. It’s almost as if he had to prove his brutal worth within the context of the film before trying to become a Basterd himself.

At the same time, Shosanna’s boyish Nazi suitor shows another disarming quality as he exhibits a level of disgust at watching the film version of himself massacring the “enemy.” But just as we think we know where this is going, Tarantino throws us for another loop as Zoller shows us the dark side that allowed him to kill those people in the first place. Gone is the charming suitor, and in his stead we find a wrathful bully angered by Shosanna’s apparent lack of feeling. But it’s only after Shosanna has shot him down, both literally and figuratively, that she finally shows any real signs of sympathy and remorse. But it’s a direct result of her glimpsing Zoller’s “innocent onscreen hero” projected on the big screen before her and not Zoller himself. She, like the film’s Nazi audience, is taken in by the propaganda machine responsible for so many mistruths and untimely deaths. And it results in her own. Her moment of weakness (or humanity–you decide) is met with her brutal shooting at the 1224252968211_1hands of the real Zoller whose final act is one of bloody vengeance. Shosanna doesn’t live to see the fruits of her labor. By this point in the film, Shosanna is inexorably linked to her Nazi audience both physically, emotionally and psychologically. When she puts on her rouge to prepare for the evening’s bloody proceedings, it is clearly more war paint than makeup, and the swastika looming in the background completes the picture. It should also be noted that it is film itself, the highly flammable 35mm nitrate prints Shosanna has collected, that is used to spark the fire that destroys everyone in the theater and ends the war. Like its effect on Shosanna’s feelings toward Zoller, it is both creative and destructive, truth and lies, as our characters are both beautiful and ugly simultaneously. They are flip-flopping now at a rapid pace. The distinction between villains and heroes narrows even further. All victory, for the characters and audience, is marred.

And it is around this point in the film that we start to realize that Tarantino is truly playing God, not only with our moral conscience and our genre expectations, but with history itself. While we’re busy wondering how Hitler and Goebbels and the rest of the Nazi elite will escape the impending arson (because history insists that they must), Tarantino gives us the one thing no film in this genre has attempted before. He lets them all die. The war comes to a screeching halt and millions of lives that were lost in actuality, are spared. We are permitted to celebrate the fantasy death of these historical monsters as the film’s opening statement “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France” comes to fruition. But all at a price.

While watching the film version of Zoller’s “heroic” massacre of American soldiers, the Germans cheer and celebrate each and every brutal killing. And in doing so, they disgust us. But suddenly the tables are turned as we find ourselves cheering the deaths of Hitler, Goebbels and others trapped inside the burning theater. As they panic and claw at one another in an attempt to escape the flames and smoke that will consume them (oven and gas chamber references welcome), two Basterds mow them down with machine guns. Men and women, in their best celebratory attire, drop like flies, their bodies riddled with bullets. Meanwhile, ibface2-thumb-500x264-11600Shosanna’s laughing face is projected onto the smoke from the flames like that of a crazed demon or the devil herself. She has placed herself in the film. She is the film. And the propaganda of her final act is now aimed at us. This is truly a scene of genuine horror. Heroes and monsters are suddenly lumped together as the audience watching INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS becomes a mirror image of the audience of Nazi elite watching Stolz Der Nation or Nation’s Pride. We are denied our moment of pure vengeance, of having done the right thing, of the heroes overcoming the villains. Everyone here is a villain. Even Donowitz’s frenzied destruction of Hitler’s face is both satisfying and sickening all at the same time. Hitler’s long dead by the time Donowitz turns his machine gun on him one last time. It all happens so fast that we are never given a moment to revel in Hitler’s realization that he has been outwitted and undone. It simply doesn’t occur. Our fantasy scenario has been marred and we are left unsure as to whether we should cheer or put our heads down and mourn the loss of all humanity.

And this is carried out right up to the last frame in the film. Though we know Raine’s carving of the Nazi swastika deep into Landa’s forehead is just and deserved, it is also shown in such graphic detail as to be simultaneously sickening. In fact, it is through Landa’s (and, in an earlier scene, a young Nazi soldier’s) point of view that we witness Raine’s final deed of “just vengeance,” making us, the viewer, the recipient of his knife-wielding handiwork. These shots, consciously or unconsciously, are disturbingly reminiscent of a famous publicity still (used on the film’s soundtrack LP cover) from Wes Craven’s chilling and bloody 1972 revenge-fest, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, taken from a scene in which one of the film’s sadistic killers, while out in the woods, carves his name into his victim’s flesh and then leans back to admire it, while his equally twisted partners-in-crime look on, impressed.

As a result, in the final shots of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, Raine and his Basterd partner (B.J. Novak) seem a bit more demented than heroic, even though we can’t flaw them for their actions and, to a degree, celebrate them. But Tarantino makes it just a tad harder to revel in their deeds without infusing a small tinge of something else there too. Something lacking humanity.

And so, like Cassavetes’ use of the public’s expectations of the Hollywood Romance genre to turn the audience on their heads in MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ, Tarantino takes our expectations of the Men On A Mission and American World War II genres and completely subverts them. He gives us our cake, and lets us eat it, too. But he purposefully leaves out the sugar.

melanie

Subversive Cinema: Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS