Wednesday, March 31, 2010

April revivals: first half

Hey all. Mike here with what to catch for the first half of April. Didn't post anything for the second half of March, because there just wasn't anything. Nothing I was willing to stick my neck out for, or hadn't done already. But it seems April will more then make up for a lack of revivals these two weeks. Here we go:

SUNRISE- Sat Apr 3, Mon Apr 5 and Tues Apr 6 at 7:40 and 9:50- Film Forum- A new 35mm print of F.A. Murnau's silent film classic. Might be subtle as a brick, and at times a little on the hammy side in terms of some its performances, but it's still considered a classic (despite its disappointing box office), and it's receiving a week-long run at the Forum. These are the only days I can make, in theory anyway.

George O'Brien plays a farmer who loves his wife. Until he goes into the city and falls for some sort of tramp. She convinces him to kill his wife. But can he?

Winners of the first Oscars for Janet Gaynor for Actress (who also won for two other films she starred in, something that would never happen again) and for Cinematography. It also won for Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production, as opposed to Best Picture as we know it, which Wings had won. The Unique and Artistic Production category was discontinued afterwards by the way.

Sunrise was not on the first AFI Top 100 list, but made it to the second list. I wonder if it should be on that second list, as opposed to films I enjoyed that were dropped, like Fargo, Dr. Zhivago, The Third Man and Fantasia. I'd like to find out.

ALIENS- Sat Apr 3 at 12:15AM- IFC Center- Part of a series of Midnight films alternating with some of James Cameron's films, and with ex-wife/ ex co-worker/ director who snagged an Oscar over him, Kathryn Bigelow's films. Here, it's Cameron's turn with Aliens. His best film from the 1980s, and among the better action films from that decade as well. Used to be thought of as one of the few films better then its predecessor, until the director's cut of Alien came out in 2003, correctly changing that attitude. And while Alien made Sigourney Weaver a working film actress with lead roles, Aliens made her entrenched in both A-list status and as an action star regardless of gender, plus an Oscar nomination for Best Actress to boot.

The planet where the first Alien was discovered has been colonized, but WHOOPS, there's an alien(s) problem there. So the set-up is like an old episode of Star Trek, except instead of a starship, the Marines are sent in, in full gung-ho mode that fit in perfectly in Reagan-era 1986 alongside Top Gun (but with a better script). Ripley comes along as an advisor few take seriously. Some purists had a problem with the Ripley character seemingly changed to be lady Rambo, but the action scenes are too damn good, and Weaver and Cameron sell it. Basically, anything you might have had a problem with regarding Avatar, Aliens does it well, and probably did it before Avatar. If you think you can do this on Easter weekend, let's go for it.

ACE IN THE HOLE- Fri Apr 9 and Sat Apr 10 at 5:30, 7:40 and 10- Friday’s 7:40 show introduced by Brooke Gladstone, co-host of NPR’s On the Media- Film Forum- The start of of a retrospective of films about or involving the newspaper business. Directed and co-written by Billy Wilder. Consider this a film-noir/drama. Kirk Douglas stars as a disgraced newspaper man, forced to work in a lowly newspaper in Albuquerque. But when a man seems doomed to die in a cave-in, Douglas will do anything to cash in, by making this national news, and make himself a name again. But the feeding frenzy from the newly arrived media and the townspeople, even the trapped man's wife, seem even creepier than Douglas.

This was Wilder's golden ticket film. Yes he had some hit films already, but this was the dream project he got to do after the success of Sunset Blvd. But the critics attacked this as being over the top and unlikeable, as well as inaccurate in its depiction of the media, and it became the first major flop in Wilder's career. But similar to Network; by the time we got to the mid 80s, where you had the baby Jessica story (the girl trapped in the well) played in the media with similarities to Ace, the Wilder film seemed prophetic. And this was before we had more cable channels and more media outlets that desperately need a steady diet of sellable news. It may not have helped in 1951 that the only likable person in the picture, was the poor schmuck trapped in the cave in, but it seems to fit the noir style.

I'd also say it's similar to Elia Kazan's A Face In The Crowd. Not big hits in its day, both dark as hell, but both better appreciated today. Maybe A Face is appreciated much more among film fans. And in Wilder's career, it would later be dwarfed, with films like Stalag 17, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment and The Fortune Cookie coming down the pike. But Ace In The Hole is rarely screened on TCM, is only available on DVD through the Criterion Collection, so chances are high that you haven't seen this. We can change that now.

It plays for two nights. But on Friday Apr 9, Brooke Gladstone of NPR's On the Media, will host the 7:40 screening. I wouldn't mind catching that particular screening, but I don't have to. But I would like to catch this at some point on either day.

NEAR DARK- Fri Apr 9 and Sat Apr 10 at Midnight- IFC Center- Part of the Cameron vs. Bigelow retro. Bigelow's second film, and her first solo, feature-length directorial effort. A cult hit from 1987. Not so much at the box office, but from home video and cable. A teenage boy (Adrian Pasdar of Heroes), picks up a cute girl. She likes him. Then she bites him, thus turning him into a vampire. He ends up joining the girl's "family" of vampires, as they terrorize and feed of people in Oklahoma. The "family" includes Lance Henriksen and an especially brutal Bill Paxton, a year after their appearances in Aliens (Jenette Goldstein, Vasquez in Aliens, also appears as a vampire). Forgotten now, but for those who were video renting in the late 80s/early 90s, it was one of the few horror films that were released in that era worth repeated viewings. But most of us have never seen it on the big screen. Now is the time.

SEPARATE TABLES- Mon Apr 12 at 8- MOMA- Part of a David Niven retrospective. Among the few films I'll post this entire month from the retrospective. Most of them are scheduled for times that are inconvenient for me, and some favorites of mine (The Guns of Navarone, The Pink Panther, and the very silly Murder By Death) are not playing at all. There will be one more film posted on the next list for sure, maybe two if I work up the courage to post Around the World in 80 Days.

An adaptation of Terrence Rattigan's romantic drama (who co-wrote the adaptation), Separate Tables follows several guests who form couples at a seaside hotel. The romance between Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth is one that runs throughout the picture. But the storyline that is singled out for praise, is where Niven's Major, with a blustery exterior and crumbling lonely interior, tries to woo meek, mother-domineered Deborah Kerr. Niven won his only Oscar here for Best Actor, and Wendy Hiller won for Supporting Actress. Nominations for Picture, Kerr for Actress, Screenplay, Cinematography, and for the film's score.

DERSU UZALA- Wed Apr 14, Fri Apr 16- Mon Apr 19 and Wed Apr 21 at 3:45, 6:30 and 9:15- Film Forum- Brought back by popular demand from the Forum's Akira Kurosawa retrospective, the first of two Kurosawa films playing in April. Specifically, his first two color films, released in the U.S. in the 1970s. I wished I could have caught this back in February, but I knew I didn't have time, so I didn't bother to post it.

Set in the 19th Century, a Russian captain bonds with an old mountain man while making an expedition of Eastern Siberia. The captain tries to convince his friend to rejoin him back in society. By the time the mountain man decides to come back, modern society at that point might be too much for him. So imagine Crocodile Dundee, but with very human difficulties not played for broad comedy. Won the Oscar for Foreign Language Film, the first time I believe a Kurosawa film ever won. Not a short film, or a simple one, but it sounds like a rewarding one.

Well, that's the list so let me know if there's interest. On another topic, just because I didn't put up a list of revivals a couple of weeks ago, doesn't mean I didn't catch any revivals. To help publicize their first annual classic films festival out west, TCM has been sponsoring free screenings of classic films in different parts of the country. On March 23, a free screening of All About Eve was held at the Ziegfeld. Free as long as you brought a print out of the screening as your "ticket". I was planning on bringing this up when I first heard about it and printed my own, but catching up with Oscar flicks and putting up a Top 10 of 09 took priority. I had planned to do a quick write up and post the link by March 17th, but by the morning of March 15th, they were no more passes available, except for some contest by WCBS-FM I didn't hear about till afterwards. I did tell a few people, but only those who have done revivals in the recent past or would definitely be near the Ziegfeld that night.

I went, bringing someone who never saw it before. Apparently we sat there with about 900 All About Eve fanatics. And they loved it, based on the amount of applause throughout, and thorough enjoyment of key scenes and laugh lines. While the one I brought may not have it in his top 35 all time like I did, he enjoyed it quite a bit as well.

I included the only decent shots I was able to get of host Robert Osbourne and special guest Elaine Stritch. They had a brief Q and A before the screening; Osbourne concentrated on taking questions about the film, and Stritch handled all else. Osbourne was also unofficial translator, turning some questioners' inarticulate statements, and turning them into questions that could be answered. He also had to remind Stritch several times to use her microphone, otherwise she couldn't be heard. No mean feat for Osbourne to pull off. All those jobs I mean. One memorable comment from all that. When a young woman began her question with the phrase "Back in your day . . . ", Stritch shot a look that stopped the girl, took a beat, and said something to the effect of "My dear, this IS my day!". After the laughter and applause died down, Stritch did smile at the girl, let her off the hook, and let her ask the question that there was no reason to remember as it turned out.

Anyway, that's all I got. Later all.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Best of 2009

Mike here with my favorites of 2009. Strange year. Overall, I was well entertained, but a top 10 has not been easy to put together. My top two formed fairly quickly this summer. But after 1-4, 5-7 could almost be interchangeable, and I would have been happier to put together a top twelve or thirteen. And anything 5-13 would have had difficulty getting into any previous year this past decade. Ok, not 2000 or 2006, but every other year. Please, don't get me wrong, this was an entertaining year. Check my previous posts of 09 films, and there were some good pictures.

But I can only have ten, and luckily none of them were Antichrist. Alternating between fascinating and "Give me a break", aided by a great first ten minutes, and a strong lead performance from Charlotte Gainsbourg. But even she and Willem Dafoe can't escape being reduced to living symbols of "unfettered nature" and "blind arrogant logic", respectively. But after the halfway mark, when she jacks off Willem Dafoe and blood shoots out of his penis, I thought "Fuck you, Lars von Triers", and emotionally checked out.

Now this wasn't the worst film I'd seen of 09, that would be Paul Blart: Mall Cop. But that wasn't horrific, just bland with all the funny parts in the trailer. And I only saw that, because we paid to see Slumdog Millionaire with a coupon, tried to sneak into My Bloody Valentine (because sometimes you just want to see teenagers get hit in the head with a pick axe, in 3-D), couldn't sneak in, and settled for the only other film starting at that time, Paul Blart. Oops. But it didn't piss me off, making me imagine my money going up in flames, and into von Triers pocket, like Antichrist did.

Like I said with previous lists, it's subject to change when I get older, but this particular, I don't see much changing here, except for putting The White Ribbon to number 10 or moving White Ribbon and film number ten up a slot, and removing number 9. Maybe, just maybe. Though any film that requires reading about the subtext before going in, doesn't deserve a spot in my top 10. Deserves to be seen, especially for its cinematography. Maybe a repeat viewing will change my view; I'm not opposed to the idea.

Anyway, when the films I missed catching, turned out to be some scattered indies, documentaries, and foreign films, plus Nine, The Messenger, and Julie and Julia, I'm just fine with the list as is. Here we go:

10) AVATAR- Yes, the overall scripts is nothing special. You'd rather wish that James Cameron just conceives the story, and let someone else write the actual dialogue. If he hired ghost writers, wow they suck. I could have lived a long time without Cameron indulging in a little 9/11 imagery with the destruction of the giant tree. Just because Avatar's story is interchangeable with Disney's Pocahontas (don't believe me; see the outline I posted above) and might forever be known as Dances with Smurfs, doesn't make it a bad film. I liked Dances With Wolves, and I liked Star Wars, therefore I liked Avatar. A visual spectacle, though it seems to only work best in 3-D. This may not be much, but for the Star Wars of this current generation, I'm fine with that. The idea of this film representing anti-American rhetoric, a bit much. The republic will survive. If anything, the typical Lars von Triers film is a crueler American depiction.

Yeah, I got nothing else. Maybe if it was a better film. Just speed through as much dialogue as you can when you get the DVD, and enjoy the action.

9) CRAZY HEART- I came into this expecting a slightly upbeat version of The Wrestler, with a Southern drawl, and a lot less New Jersey. But I got an unexpected treat, despite it being a story of an alcoholic country singer/ songwriter, who hasn't quite hit bottom, but who interests a small town journalist on the way down. More than a little reminiscent of Tender Mercies, starring Crazy Heart's Robert Duvall (who has a small role), but that's a plus here.

Good dialogue, with not just credible but good country music performances. And gee, now that Maggie Gyllenhaal has been nominated for her very good performance here, people who hated her in Dark Knight seemed to suddenly shut the fuck up. Probably because they actually haven't seen Crazy Heart, but hopefully that should change. Now her character falling so hard for the drunken singer is some serious bullshit to swallow. Maybe the fact that the singer also cares for her son helps us swallow some of this, but not all, thus the lower ranking on this list.

Fans of acting should study Jeff Bridges' performance like you would examine the Zapruder film. Incredibly naturalistic, just as likely to tip over for a bad gait as he is for a lack of sobriety, determined to live out every cliche of a country song because it's all he can do. Alternately proud, defiant, and slowly waking up to how pathetic his life has become. Bridges is why the film is on this list at all, and why if he wins for Best Actor, it won't come off as career achievement, like Pacino in Scent of a Woman, but as a reward for vibrant work.

8) DEPARTURES- Winner of Best Foreign Film last year. I was stunned that this beat both The Class and Waltz With Bashir, two of my favorites from 2008. While I won't put it above either film, I fell for this subtle Japanese film. A failed musician unexpectedly becomes good at a new job. An encoffiner, who prepares a dead body in robes and ceremony, usually in front of family, before the body is put in a coffin. But in a society where handling dead bodies, and especially making money off of death, is considered taboo, he's treated like if not worse, then a garbage man here in the states. Good acting, subtly funny in the first half, and moving in the second half. Find it on Netflix, or whenever it finally hits Sundance or IFC.

7) THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX- The most fun I had of any film on this list, and my favorite Wes Anderson film, replacing The Royal Tennanbaums. Also the best Roald Dahl adaptation, sorry Willy Wonka fans (both film versions), and an underrated caper film. Not for little kids, but kids at least 8 shouldn't have the adult sensibilities The story of the super suave Mr. Fox, who can't feel complete domestic bliss without going back to dabbling his old job, stealing chickens from three evil foxes. He's not the perfect father (his son feels inadequate on a good day), his wife is mad at being lied to, and he certainly doesn't concern himself with consequences. Until the farmers seek brutal revenge on him and their animal friends. But how can you hate a man, er, fox, who has lines like "Who am I? And how can a fox ever be happy without, you'll forgive the expression, a chicken in its teeth?".

It's as though Anderson's sensibilities match well with animation, though it's probably just my reaction to a film director knowing how to put pictures together. Like George Miller and Happy Feet, with better results. The use of stop motion animation is impressive, the screenplay adaptation is highly underrated, and the voice casting was well done indeed. Yes, Clooney was pitch perfect, though if Jason Schwartzman doesn't pull off the role of the son, the story would have had major problems. My favorite was Willem Dafoe, embodying everything that's stereotypically slimy about rats, and the French. I was stunned how little seen this film was, and can only hope that when the DVD comes out at the end of March, will at least raise its profile to cult status.

6) UP- The best animated film of 2009, but barely. Based on the reaction, you would think this was the greatest animated film ever made. And the first eleven minutes were excellent film making. But because of how sensitive and not-completely kid friendly that segment is, I can almost understand why Disney advertised this as a laugh riot.

But that feels a little like false advertising. Up, I feel, is a fantasy adventure like E.T., and is only a comedy like that Spielberg film. You might not remember that E.T. has quite a number of hilarious sequences, but who thinks of that as a comedy? Up is a wonderful adventure film, with great visuals, and anytime I see Dug the dog, I can't help but laugh. But the best animated film ever? I won't go in that exact direction, but last I heard, Wall-E's perfect 35 minutes, is more than triple Up's 11 minutes. I was reminded by someone who saw last year's Best of list, that I lean heavily toward dystopian fare, so Up number one? Sorry, it have to settle for being in comparable Ratatouille/ The Incredibles territory, which is pretty damned good.

5) INGLORIOUS BASTERDS-Accept the fact that this is essentially an alternate universe that resembles World War 2, and you have a good "movie" movie here. It makes up its own rules, makes Eli Roth human (I'm still waiting for "Thanksgiving" damn it!), and introduces all English language-speaking only Americans to Melanie Laurent and the sure to win an Oscar Christoph Waltz. I'm so glad I caught this in its one week re-release in December, as opposed to its first few weeks; probably full of people, waiting such a long time for action scenes and bloody scalps, they probably would have been highly annoying.

Still, by the time we got to London, featuring Mike Meyers and The Birds' Rod Taylor as Winston Churchill, I was beginning to lose a little interest. Not that I didn't like the sequence. I did, and it was important to set up the extended, tense, bar scene with Diane Kruger (also good). But it was taking me away from Laurent's character, Waltz's character, and a lot more of the Basterds. And they were stronger sections. But the payoffs in the cinema makes everything worth it. Check out Waltz early in that lobby scene (before he has his one on one with Kruger). The way he's absolutely enjoying this cat and mouse with these ridiculous Basterds, it's my favorite scene.

4) BROKEN EMBRACES- Pedro Almodovar returns to Bad Education territory. Constantly shifting in time, with a movie inside a movie aspect. While I can understand why some won't think this is in his top three or four, I liked Bad Education too much not to enjoy Broken Embraces nearly as much. A sad romance, as a former film director, now blind screenwriter, is forced to look back at his doomed romance with an actress (played by Penelope Cruz, who always seems to be good when speaking her native tongue) with a powerful, abusive older husband. The mysteries are fairly easy to figure out, but it's all about execution, and Pedro has that going on in spades. His most self-assured film yet.

3) UP IN THE AIR - Jason Reitman's and George Clooney's best films yet. Actually Reitman doesn't have that many films on his credit, but don't hold that against me for that lame statement. But Clooney has made quite a few, and considering that while I liked Michael Clayton, I wasn't beating the drums saying it was one of the best films of that year or in George's career. But I will here.

The basic story: a man more comfortable living out of hotels and airports, who's hired to go around the country to layoff individuals, must accept less time on the road and do his job via teleconference, or else he might not have a job at all. While showing the ropes to a young arrogant programmer, he falls for another woman, who spends about the same amount of time on the road as he does.

But the first thing it got to me was that the three characters I brought up, all seemed to follow some aspect of Spock. Now, the common misconception of the Spock character is that he is an emotionless man. He's not emotionless; they are there, he just spends his time (varying, depending on the episode or film) suppressing them, keeping them in check. Anna Kendrick's character treats the idea of firing people over a computer as amounts of data, and she starts off sounding the most Vulcan. But when she actually lays off people, both in person and through a monitor, and her personal life falls apart, she falls apart as well. Vera Farmiga's character, ok this Spock character thing doesn't work too well. She just happens to de-compartmentalize her emotions; she might appear to be the most bubbly, but she's probably even colder than Jason Bateman's boss character. And Clooney's character, until he meets Farmiga, only seems to be able to emote, when consoling those he's laying off. In order to survive a rootless life, he's kind of achieved a position of total logic and certainty. But it also cuts him off from any personal connections or passions. While Spock abandoned this pursuit, Clooney's trapped, and self-awareness of his situation only makes worse.

But it does make a compelling story, even for non-Trekkies. It probably wouldn't be ranked as high, if the usage of mostly non-actors getting fired didn't work. Using actual laid off people, to either re-enact how they were fired, or to say what they wish they could have said when they were fired, added an emotional resonance. Not in only their firing scenes, but their eventually depiction of being able to pick up the pieces and move on, contrasting with the inability of Clooney's character to do the same, packs a punch.

A very good dark dramedy, but for a film that ventures further in the comedy without losing any of its darkness, there's . . .

2) IN THE LOOP - Now starts the portion of the list where there's a clear divide in quality from the rest of the list. I brought this film up back in January. The Oscar nominee you probably don't know, unless you've been around me, pounding this film's virtues since it's late July release. The best political comedy since Dr. Strangelove. I'm not the first to say this, but it gives you an idea. If the best political on-screen satire in between these films is Wag The Dog, you get the idea how brutally difficult it is to pull this kind of picture off. The best comedy of 2009, and also the best film made from a TV series with the same or similar number of original cast members from the series. Now granted, that's a small number with the most notable titles being Sex And The City and Star Trek.

But I'm not trying to damn with faint praise. It's also one of the best satires, political or otherwise, in a long while. The film comes from the British series The Thick of It, a descendant of "Yes, Minster" and "Yes, Prime Minister", and written and shot in the same style as both versions of The Office. In this film, Presidents and Prime Ministers seem to set the agenda for their respective governments, but it's up to others lower in the food chain to implement and sometimes, actually decide the policy. Or change the policy to stay in power, by any verbal means necessary. And if you're in the British government, do not piss off the American government.

When a low level Minister accidentally remarks that major power war involvement in the Middle East is "unforeseeable", then accidentally makes a statement advocating war when trying to recant the previous statement, it launches a shit storm between both the American and British governments. Also fighting are 2 factions within the U.S. govt., between a war pushing Rumsfeld-type, and anti-war Hillary and Colin Powell types. All with their own acolytes that might be for or against them. Both sides trying to convince the Brits to get on board. And how does everyone deal with each other? Pretty much like high school. The bigger the insults in a world where words cause harm, the better. And winning is all that matters, damn the opposition, and us.

Now did I mention at any point this film is hysterical? It never sacrifices humor just for a jab. At times, it figures out how to do both, but priority one is humor. On occasion, the characters sound too similar to each other, but will you be laughing too hard to notice? Probably. Scenes are stolen left and right by Peter Capaldi, of who it would be a major disappointment if In The Loop is too small to get him noticed for a Supporting Actor nomination. He plays the British (but don't call him FUCKING ENGLISH!!!!) communications manager who, despite his title, can verbally intimidate and/or crush his subordinates, and other ministers, even those supposedly more powerful than he. The character is modeled after Tony Blair's press secretary, Alistair Campbell after all.

But does he meet his match against the Americans? The film seems partly set up as a Clash of the Titans between Capaldi's Malcolm Tucker, and James Gandolfini's Powell-esque general. Maybe it feels that way because of Gandolfini's impact as Tony Soprano. But the scenes between Capaldi and Gandolfini are nothing short of electric and show-stopping.

Now on DVD, so now you have no excuse not to catch it.

1) THE HURT LOCKER- Finally, Kathryn Bigelow fulfills the promise of Near Dark. After stuff like Point Break and Blue Steel, I essentially gave up on her (I'm pretending that K-19 The Widowmaker doesn't exist.). But with The Hurt Locker, not only do we have a good war film and a very good drama, but we have the best action film in a long time. Great tension, following a bomb disposal unit in Iraq, where the second they leave their compound, anyone with a cell phone, or peaking out of a window, may be trying to kill them. And that's not counting the openly armed enemy.

But having a lead character, superbly played by Jeremy Renner (capable of pulling off an Adrian Brody-esque win over Jeff Bridges), treating war like a drug, was fascinating. Ok, it's not war, it's adrenaline. Having an adrenaline junkie, taking over the lead of a team only wanting to get out safely in the last thirty days of their tour, in the environment I just mentioned. The "junkie" will do his duty, because it's not only his job, but it's where he can get his fix. But when the distinctions blur, and his comrades wonder whether they're considered less important than his fix, Then this film begins to rock. Yes, the film offers no explanation for his behavior, but because the character himself refuses to fully explain himself, not even to his wife, I'm fine with that.

I'm disappointed that I wasn't very successful in getting people to see it last summer, or after it received a lot of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. I hope after Sunday night's ceremony; where its clips will be seen by more people than those who actually paid to see it, and where it will hopefully win Best Picture, that The Hurt Locker will finally find an audience. I'm mean, seriously, Summit Distribution knows how to sell a vampire fairy tale in Twilight, but they can't figure out how to sell this? Give me a break.

That's it. Later all.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Other films from 2009

These all missed my top 10 of 2009 for sure; I hope to get it out by Sunday afternoon. Not everything I saw. I left out those I brought up in two out of the last three posts, plus The Hangover, I Love You Man (both thumbs up), Watchmen (thumbs up. Not perfect, but damn you fanboys making it hard for civilians to accept it on its own terms). I know I missed a few, as well, like Anvil! (good), Duplicity (passable, but patience is rewarded) and Paul Blart: Mall Cop (thumbs down. Long story how ended up there; thank God my money went to Slumdog Millonaire instead).

AN EDUCATION- If this film didn't have English accents in it, it would be a less glorified Lifetime for women movie. And if you saw The Girl with Green Eyes, then this film is very familar. But if you're reading this, then you're not British and that film means nothing to you, and An Education might feel fresh. Certainly captured a feeling of early 60s London, both of look and of its times for a middle class girl with limited options. A good cast, though the best I can say about Peter Sarsgaard is, he tries. A luminous lead performance from Carey Mulligan deserves all the accolades it's getting. And though I understand this is based on a woman's memoir, the script grows dramatically weak once we realize the guy is no good. It's like "Hurry up, let's play up the irony about the girl getting 'An Education', WHOOPS WE'RE RUNNING OUT OF TIME AND MONEY! Let's wrap this up NOW!". A strong feeling of 'that's it?' created a sense of enu in me. That and "This and The Blind Side, for different reasons, makes having ten nominees for Best Picture, a bad idea.". An idea we'll probably have to deal with for at least three or four years.

THE LAST STATION- And if this film didn't have any English-sounding dialects delivered by an A list cast, then this would be a less glorified Masterpiece Theatre film. But since I have been ambivalent about most of director Michael Hoffman's films, such as Restoration, the 1999 Midsummer Night's Dream, and Game 6, I shouldn't be surprised in retrospect. The love story between the Tolstoys carries most of the film's interest; the nominated performances of Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer have more than a little to do with it. Kerry Condon is appealing, and she's the only reason any storyline involving James McAvoy is interesting. A young man finding his way, doesn't hold a candle to Leo Tolstoy and his drama queen/Countess of a wife. Throw in Paul Giamatti in restrained villain mode . . . I mean please, he's forced to twirl his mustache! Save your money, because this just screams cable/Netflix.

PRECIOUS- The first half has a similar feel to The Passion of the Christ. The gauntlet the young woman runs through has the same brutal feel as in Mel Gibson's film. Get through that, and then Precious's borderline indomitable spirit begins to come through. This wouldn't have work if this became just a feature length pity party, and thank God that wasn't the case. Good job of capturing a decayed New York, both visually and, story-wise, institutional standpoint. The late 80s, which was the end of the Mayor Koch era, was only pretty when compared to the late 70s. And the further away you got from the middle of Manhattan, eeck. At least I know director Lee Daniels can actually make a good film, as opposed to one of my favorite bad flicks of the last decade, Shadowboxer (imdb that on your own).

If the Academy goes young as opposed to veteran with the Best Actress category, it would be interesting if they go with the subtle work of rookie Gabourey Sidibe over the subtle work and English accent of Carey Mulligan. In the cases of both An Education and Precious, the lead female performances work, therefore the films work. But the cast in Precious is so good, I didn't even recognize Lenny Kravitz until late in the picture. Hell, I didn't recognize Shari Shepherd at all. So now I can think of her as more than just that idiot from The View who didn't know the Earth was round (I REFUSE to let that go!).

But if the only Oscar Precious wins is Monique for Supporting Actress, I'm ok with that. What a repellent creature. I guess I can understand why, in her last scene, they could see a trace of humanity in her character, but I'm not going there. Hell no. There were more traces of humanity in Bruno Ganz's performance in Downfall, and he played Hitler. No blame on the actress here, don't misunderstand. She affected me that much.

A TOWN CALLED PANIC- About as dramatic a film as Precious was a slapstick comedy. Total opposites. A French stop motion animated film, based on a popular series of shorts that are easy to find on Youtube. Certainly not a better animated film than say, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Coraline or Up, but possibly the most fun from 2009.

More from the Chuck Jones/Looney Tunes school of animation, as opposed to something epic from Pixar, or something slapped together from Dreamworks, post Shrek. Most figures about the size and texture of your typical toy solider, cowboy or Indian. A little town where the smart Horse, lives with his best friends, the moronic Indian and the even stupider Cowboy. It's Horse's birthday, and his friends buy bricks (using Horse's credit card of course) to build a barbecue. But after accidentally buying 50 billion bricks, the problems come faster than the bricks can be delivered (and those millions of delivery trucks come fast). Spoofs on Journey to the Center of the Earth and March of the Penguins, plus difficulties above and below the sea all interfere with Horse's budding relationship with his piano teacher.

The plot is deceptively simple and on second viewing, fairly intricate. But on first viewing, just understand that linear logic isn't obvious. And for the most part, the film is built on forward momentum; better to get to a new joke and a new obstacle, and to do it quickly. Not rated, but consider this the most fun PG film you'd see that has come out of 2009.

INVICTUS- A bit of a spinach film (here, watch this film, it's GOOD for you!). I don't take credit for that saying; I heard it before back in the early 90s, but don't remember the source. But more successful in giving us an insight into Mandela and the state of South Africa through this brief period of time, than any feature-length bio pic would probably provide. The HBO film Mandela, starring Danny Glover is a prime example.

You may not learn much more about Rugby then you did going in, but the climatic World Cup match is pulled off quite well. Just as good in pulling off time and place on a large budget, as An Education and Precious did on smaller budgets. Glad Freeman got a Best Actor nod as Mandela, but Matt Damon for Supporting Actor? Really? So indifferent. A nice cap to a good decade of consistent film making from director Clint Eastwood. Still waiting for a Clint as director only retrospective. Are you listening Film Forum, or MOMA?

THE MAID- Little seen Chilean film received the acclaim, but whenever it comes out on DVD or either IFC or Sundance Channel, find it. An overworked maid, with an apparent black belt in passive aggressive, has just reached in middle age, and has had enough. Things slowly get worse and then change, but not in the way you might expect. Let's just say, if you thought from the advertising and somewhat cryptic reviews that you were getting a kind of Fatal Attraction, you'd be pleasantly mistaken. Director/Co-Writer Sebastian Silva takes an Altman-esque approach, in terms of character exploration and overlapping dialogue, and that's a good thing.

STAR TREK- The most fun summer blockbuster of 2009. For fans of Star Wars who are not Trekkies/ers. I was bemused by some of those pro-SW anti ST types, who claimed they didn't think the franchise had it in it (damn my lack of grasp of English). But Star Trek was always flexible enough to pull of action, metaphorical stories, character driven pieces and the like. It always depended on the cast, the writers and the budget to pull off anything devised. Admittedly not three elements ran well over the course of 43 years, but it happened with J.J. Abrams film. It's at point where it could go almost anywhere; either re-do and improve a classic story or villain, or go into a different direction. The possibilities are exciting to think about, the audience goodwill is there, and my hopes are high. I almost wish Avatar was out so Star Trek could get some visual effects Oscar love.

500 DAYS OF SUMMER- Good dialogue and winning lead performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt carry the film. Once the film's romance sours, the pain is well felt. But there were better films in 09, so I don't have much more to go about here.

REVANCHE- Respectable Austrian film, nominated at last year's Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film. A story of revenge (possible) and forgiveness (possible?), told through the filter of a crime drama. An ex-con, involved in a robbery gone wrong, seeks revenge on the patrolman who accidentally ruined his life. He tracks the cop down. The cop just happens to live near the farm of the ex-con's elderly uncle. But when he re-connects the uncle, and connects with the cop's frustrated wife, is he ready to forgive something that was basically an accident the way things played out? Deliberately paced (yes, that occasionally means slow), so that we know all people involved, so that the possibilities for tragedy can be truly felt. Available through the Criterion Collection, so hopefully it won't completely fall through the cracks.

BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS- Ignore the connections to the forgotten Harvey Kietel NYC cult classic; the title addition of the first two words, was apparently done by the money people involved as opposed to anyone with artistic power. That aside, any pairing of Nicolas Cage and director Werner Herzog would seem batshit crazy, and it works. Not as brutal as the Kietel picture, but not full of it self, and not afraid to throw a little light(ish) humor in there. Might get a little too quiet for those expecting full blown nuts Cage all the time, but it's not unusual if you know Herzog.

TYSON- Not the best documentary I've seen from 2009, that would the Oscar nominated Daniel Ellsberg/ Pentagon Papers documentary. But this is still fascinating to watch. No talking heads, and the only time you hear or see someone talking who isn't Tyson comes from the many interviews, fight coverage and even commercials. Whether you're sympathetic, repulsed or just pitying him, it is compelling to watch.