Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Trailer for "Frankie and Alice"

Certainly an interesting enough premise, and I like the cast enough (especially Skarsgaard). The question here is whether Berry can actually break into the Best Actress race. She's being campaigned, that's been confirmed, but will people go for it in a year that's already so stacked and has two strong front-runners (Bening and Portman)? The role, with its oh-no-I-have-the-head-crazies angle, is certainly baity enough for AMPAS voters to latch onto; Oscar loves 'em mental. Like Kidman, Berry is poised to stage a major Oscar comeback, where the nomination alone will be her reward. Considering Berry's critical track record ever since her Oscar win, a second nomination could only help.

2011 Independent Spirit Award Nominees

Not content to let the National Board of Review beat them to the punch, the ISA revealed their nominees for the current awards year, and results showcase the high number of indie films likely to make a splash when the Oscar nominations are announced in January. And the nominees are...

BEST FEATURE (Award given to the Producer)
127 Hours
Black Swan
The Kids Are All Right
Winter’s Bone

To steal from Nathaniel R over at the The Film Experience, 80% of this lineup is in strong contention for a Best Picture nomination from the Academy. From what I've seen, I'm not surprised. The only film I haven't seen is Black Swan (that changes tomorrow!), and for the most part I'm not crazy about any of the nominees. They certainly have their strengths, especially 127 Hours, but Greenberg and Winter's Bone mostly left me cold. As it stands, Winter's Bone or The Kids Are All Right will likely take this one. A shame that Please Give (1 nomination + an honorary award) was left out here.

Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
Danny Boyle, 127 Hours
Lisa Cholodenko, The Kids Are All Right
Debra Granik, Winter’s Bone
John Cameron Mitchell, Rabbit Hole

The big surprise here is John Cameron Mitchell; he's the only director whose film isn't up for Best Feature. This makes me wonder how close Rabbit Hole was to edging into the Feature lineup, seeing as it's been gaining momentum ever since its premiere in Toronto. While Cholodenko or Granik would seem like obvious choices, there's always the chance the ISA will go with someone who can make independent films that are also striking visually, which would bode well for Aronofsky and Boyle.

(Given to the best feature made for under $500,000; award given to the writer, director, and producer)
Daddy Longlegs
The Exploding Girl
Lovers of Hate

Only seen The Exploding Girl, and I really hope that writer/director Bradley Rust takes this one. A limited film, but a successful one, and featuring a wonderful lead performance (a shame Kazan was snubbed).

Stuart Blumberg, Lisa Cholodenko, The Kids Are All Right
Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini, Winter’s Bone
Nicole Holofcener, Please Give
David Lindsay-Abaire, Rabbit Hole
Todd Solondz, Life During Wartime

I love any love I see for Please Give, which I'll gladly take over Winter's Bone or The Kids Are All Right any day. A shame the ISA couldn't have thrown it at least one acting nomination (one of these days, Rebecca Hall, one of these days...). The wild card here is Life During Wartime, who would be a pretty amazing upset. Unlikely though, considering how much people seem to love Granik and Cholodenko's films.

Diane Bell, Obselidia
Lena Dunham, Tiny Furniture
Nik Fackler, Lovely, Still
Bob Glaudini, Jack Goes Boating
Dana Adam Shapiro, Evan M. Wiener, Monogamy

Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Greta Gerwig, Greenberg
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

It's pretty amazing to think that everyone on this list (save Gerwig) is in some degree of contention for Best Actress at the Oscars. Indies really have been good to women this year. This is also a big move for Kidman, who rarely, if ever, receives recognition for her (usually very odd) indie film choices. And where on earth is Julianne Moore!?

Ronald Bronstein, Daddy Longlegs
Aaron Eckhart, Rabbit Hole
James Franco, 127 Hours
John C. Reilly, Cyrus
Ben Stiller, Greenberg

Disregarding the lack of nomination for Colin Firth, this makes sense considering the critical and audience standouts from the indie set this year. Eckhart could prove a surprising threat, and Stiller could even take it simply for playing against type, but the safe and obvious bet here is Franco. After all, he's not hosting the Spirit Awards...(heheheheh)

Ashley Bell, The Last Exorcism
Dale Dickey, Winter’s Bone
Allison Janney, Life During Wartime
Daphne Rubin-Vega, Jack Goes Boating
Naomi Watts, Mother and Child

I'm not sure I ever expected The Last Exorcism to be nominated for anything, but, hey, apparently the ISA crowd liked her enough (or just needed a fifth slot filler). Watts is probably gaining the most from this, as her film didn't make much of a wave when it hit indie theaters over the summer. Apparently the studio is attempting a campaign, and this could encourage them to really push Watts along with co-star Annette Bening.

John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone
Samuel L. Jackson, Mother and Child
Bill Murray, Get Low
John Ortiz, Jack Goes Boating
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right

I still can't get on the John Hawkes bandwagon, but it's either him or Ruffalo who will likely walk away with the trophy. What's really puzzling here is how Bill Murray scored a nomination for sleeping through his role while co-star Robert Duvall wasn't even nominated.

Adam Kimmel, Never Let Me Go
Matthew Libatique, Black Swan
Jody Lee Lipes, Tiny Furniture
Michael McDonough, Winter’s Bone
Harris Savides, Greenberg

Here's Black Swan's easiest score of the night, with the only competition coming from Kimmel's lovely work on Never Let Me Go. I'm not sure what about Greenberg's cinematography was worthy of a nomination, but clearly the ISA liked that film a great deal more than I did.

BEST DOCUMENTARY (Award given to the director)
Exit Through The Gift Shop
Thunder Soul

Exit Through the Gift Shop or Restrepo for the win here.

BEST FOREIGN FILM (Award given to the director)
Mademoiselle Chambon
Of Gods and Men
The King’s Speech
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Unlike the Oscars, the category doesn't include the word "language" in the title, hence the inclusion of The King's Speech. Apparently this must take the film out of the running for other awards, because it's strange to think that Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush would be left out here. The King's Speech's status as an Oscar front-runner could propel it to a win, but Cannes entries Uncle Boonmee (which won the Palme) and Of Gods and Men were generally well received and could provide some interesting competition.

(Given to one film’s director, casting director, and its ensemble cast)
Please Give
Director: Nicole Holofcener
Casting Director: Jeanne McCarthy
Ensemble Cast: Ann Guilbert, Rebecca Hall, Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Lois Smith, Sara Steele

It's great that this little film is receiving a special honorary award, but I would rather this go to something else and have Please Give score nominations for Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress, and Supporting Actor instead. Oh well, beggars can't be choosers and all that jazz.

In-Ah Lee, Au Revoir Taipei
Adele Romanski, The Myth of the American Sleepover
Anish Savjani, Meek’s Cutoff

Hossein Keshavarz, Dog Sweat
Laurel Nakadate, The Wolf Knife
Mike Ott, Littlerock

Ilisa Barbash, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Sweetgrass
Jeff Malmberg, Marwencol
Lynn True, Nelson Walker, Summer Pasture

Monday, November 29, 2010

What I watched this week: Nov 22-28

As we bring November to a close, I have two more viewings before we move into the last month of 2010. Well, technically one, since the first was seen in theaters and is from the current year. I just didn't feel like having a post titled "what I watched this week" with only one entry, hence my cheating.

Love and Other Drugs (2010) dir. Ed Zwick:
The name Ed Zwick usually calls to mind accessible action flicks with at least one key, often nominated, supporting actor. Notable examples include Glory (Oscar for Denzel Washington), The Last Samurai (nomination for Ken Watanabe), and Blood Diamond (nomination for Djimon Honsou). Which is what makes Zwick's latest effort such a strange departure: an R-rated romantic comedy. Based on Jamie Reidy's novel "Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman," Drugs tells the story of up-and-coming pharmaceutical salesman Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal). While trying to push one brand of anti-depressant to a doctor (Hank Azaria), Jamie meets patient Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), who has Parkinson's. After a first meeting that ends with Maggie attacking Jamie with her purse, the two begin having a relationship-free relationship, centered only on guilt-free, no-strings-attached sex.

As the film progresses of course, a real relationship begins to take place, and (a few) complications ensue. Yet for much of the film, the story remains as breezy as Jamie and Maggie's early relationship. Despite running roughly 1 hr 50 min, Love and Other Drugs flies by, and the large amount of skin-baring scenes manage to not be repetitive. The sex scenes actually manage to push the relationship, and even the plot forward (if at times just barely), and keeps the film from feeling indulgent or tacky. Gyllenhaal and Hathaway fulfill the promise showed in the much more somber Brokeback Mountain, and radiate chemistry with this significantly lighter fare. Hathaway in particular makes the most out of her character, though this is in part due to it being much meatier. Gyllenhaal is charming, though the scenes that could have yielded stronger, richer work are often simplified, watered down even. And along with the supporting cast, namely Josh Gad as Jamie's brother, the pair get a good number of well-earned laughs.

The story, despite its ending, also manages to avoid a great deal of the tedious mush that so many romantic comedies fall into. Yes, there's the inevitable brief parting-of-ways, but here it isn't contrived. It's a bit too brief and comes too late, but it's not annoying just because it delays the inevitable. Where the film runs into problems, though, is that in its quest to satisfy the obvious need to see Jake and Anne naked, the greater issues are pushed to the side. One of the film's most interesting conflicts, Maggie suffers from a disease that requires her to take a number of medications while Jamie's job is to further turn medicine into a money machine, is barely touched upon, though it is hinted at on the surface. Meanwhile, Oliver Platt is stuck in a wholly thankless role as Jamie's roadside partner; by the film's end, Platt is rendered little more than a plot device. His final scene, in which he makes a revelation to Jamie in a bar, feels weightless as a result, despite the script's attempt to make it indicative of the character's conflict about his job and his family life. Hank Azaria, who has much more screen time, fares worse. The character never changes, and is so static and blank, and this is made worse by the film's attempt to use his role to show the dark side of certain kinds of doctors.

By the time Love breezes through to its conclusion, it feels as though the film's last act should have given the material some more weight. It's satisfying, but just barely so. Hathaway and Gyllenhaal make for an extremely appealing and watchable coupling, but even their considerable charms (and bone structure) can't completely mask the weaknesses in the screenplay.

Grade: B-

Apocalypse Now (1979) dir. Francis Ford Coppola:
When you take a step back, there have actually been quite a few good or great war movies. And yet in reviews, writers always talk about these films as though they're first of their kind. This is one of those genres of storytelling where the devil really is in the details. Plenty of war films are appropriately gritty. Plenty of them pull no punches when showing us the horror and madness of war, free of action movie tropes. And plenty of them feature strong performances. Where they really make a mark for themselves has to be somewhere else, and for Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," that comes in the final 30 minutes.

At a sprawling length of 2 hours and 40 minutes (the Redux clocks in at 3 hours), the original cut is a very strong war movie, filled with great production values, strong acting, and brutally honest depictions of violence. But, coming from the perspective of one who only saw the film for the first time a few days ago, these traits feel routine. They feel expected. And that's what makes the last half hour so dizzyingly brilliant. I had no problems with following Capt. Ben Willard (Martin Sheen) and his team as they navigated up a river to find the renegade Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). I was never bored, and the pacing (from a team of four editors) always kept my interest. Coppola's execution of the majority of the film is also great, especially the helicopter attack set to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," made all the more chilling by the fact that the music is being played by on-screen characters. It's brutal but not exploitative, and it captures so much about the shades of grey that war brings out in us. The sight of a surfboard strapped to the side of a helicopter next to missiles and machine guns is hard to shake, even when its shot so matter-of-fact.

But when Willard and his team finally reach Kurtz, and the native village he has essentially become god of, the film reaches new heights. This is where Apocalypse Now puts its own stamp on the war story. Not that the outsider-becomes-worshipped-by-natives angle hasn't been used before, but here it comes loaded with so much complexity. Issues of what it means to be barbaric, in terms of different cultures and even time periods, along with man's transformation in war, all come to the surface without clashing or boiling over. And when Capt. Willard emerges from the water and mud and opens his eyes, his face covered in mud and paint, and marches toward Col. Kurtz, the film reaches mythic heights of cinematic expression. It's a towering work of construction and execution, and one that manages to distinguish itself without betraying its subject matter, which is no easy task, and just one more reason why Apocalypse Now still deserves to be regarded as a masterpiece.

Grade: A

We have our Oscar hosts

The Associated Press, along with a number of other news outlets, are reporting that at long last, the 83rd Annual Academy Awards have hosts. Following in the vein of 82's Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin hosting duo, James Franco and Anne Hathaway will be our MCs. Honestly, the choice perplexes me a little. Baldwin and Martin (the latter especially) are proven comedic talents, with Martin being a former host. And Hugh Jackman, host of the 81st ceremony, made sense because of his status as a triple threat: acting, singing, and dancing (and those previous gigs hosting the Tony's couldn't have hurt). Out of the two, Hathaway certainly makes more sense; she showed off some serious singing/performing skills in Jackman's opening number. But Franco? Um...where exactly did that come from? I'm not saying that he's a bad choice, far from it. It's just a question of why? Why would you pick a host who is currently a front-runner for one of your acting prizes? Granted, Hugh Jackman managed to pick up a Tony when he was host, but he's an exception. Somehow, Hathaway and Franco seems like a much bigger gamble than Martin and Baldwin. On the flip side, it could pay off, and the two could have great chemistry. And, now that I think about it, this certainly helps the Academy seem more friendly towards younger movie-goers, which AMPAS has been trying to accomplish for years now.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Dead On Arrival: Oscar hopefuls worth crossing off

It happens every year. Some film(s), stocked with a solid-to-high pedigree, from everything from actors to directors to subject matter, has to crash and burn. So, what films are most likely already fading from memory, or simply not "in" enough to make it big with the Academy? Quite a few, as is typical per every year. No, we haven't even seen the first major critics awards of the year, and there's always the chance that a certain film or performance will make a comeback, but in certain stacked categories, it doesn't look good. However, Robert Butler of The Kansas City Star seems to be convinced otherwise. In an article that ran today in multiple papers, Butler remains confident in a number of films that really ought to be taken out of the running. For whatever the reason, the article as it appeared in The Houston Chronicle only contained about half of the films. To be fair, the full list does have a number of likely contenders, but that still doesn't excuse the sheer amount of DOA entries on the list. And the losers are...

Conviction: Butler insists that both Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell should get nominations. I haven't seen the film, so I can't comment on should, but as far as will, the film's reception was so lukewarm that the only thing that can save Swank or Rockwell will be the critics awards. Rockwell has the better chance, seeing as this is the first time in recent years that Supporting Actor hasn't been dominated by buzz for one performance (Bardem, Ledger, Waltz). Swank faces a steeper battle, as 2010 is shaping up to be one of the most crowded years for Best Actress in a long while. With contenders in better received films like Black Swan, Rabbit Hole, Winter's Bone, and of course, The Kids Are All Right, along with dark horses like Halle Berry in Frankie and Alice, Swank's chances aren't looking great. Butler seems to be judging this film in terms of what he wants, instead of what makes sense.

Hereafter: Granted, Invictus didn't receive great reviews, but they were certainly better than this supernatural drama. To call the reception lukewarm is an understatement. Butler's fixation here is Bryce Dallas Howard's supporting turn, and though notices were generally positive for the actress, there wasn't exactly a consensus that she was deserving of awards. Factor in contenders like Dianne Wiest, Helena Bonham Carter, and Amy Adams (not as much of a sure bet, though), and Howard isn't exactly what one would call a front-runner.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: I've said it before and I'll gladly say it again: Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander is a character who deserves to be the star of a better series. As a character she's fascinating, but as far as Noomi Rapace's performance goes, it's a far cry from A) a great performance, B) in a foreign language, and C) not exactly flashy. If AMPAS does decide to nominate a non-English speaking performance this year, odds are it won't be this one.

Solitary Man: Butler claims that people who saw the film "can't shake Michael Douglas' turn." Only one problem: almost no one saw it. And I'm not talking The Hurt Locker-level lack of audience, I'm talking not even $10 million at the box office lack of audience.

Eat Pray Love: Thankfully Butler admits that the film itself won't go far, but he feels compelled to trumpet Richard Jenkins' performance. That's all fine and good, but remember, Butler starts off the article talking about front-runners, not "who deserves to be nominated." If Jenkins has a critical following out there for this performance, they've yet to make themselves noticeable.

The Ghost Writer: Butler seems convinced that Roman Polanski is a shoo-in for a Best Director nomination. This one's really a head-scratcher. The early release date all but killed the film's chances, and with so many potential contenders from the past few months, the likelihood of a nomination for Polanski is unbelievably small.

For Colored Girls: Yes, the performances were generally well-received, but again, there's too many potential contenders from well-received films in both lead and supporting actress. That, and Tyler Perry has yet to get on the good side of the Academy, and For Colored Girls didn't change that...yet.

The Karate Kid: I'm not sure what planet you have to be on to think that Jackie Chan has the potential to land a Supporting Actor nomination, but apparently Butler's been a resident for quite some time.

"Unstoppable" - [mini] REVIEW

You're waiting for train, a train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you can't be sure. You just hope that it will take you far away from Unstoppable, the latest so-so effort from action director Tony Scott.

Based on allegedly true events, Scott's latest film, his second in a row involving a train and Denzel Washington (after The Taking of Pelham 123), looks at a runaway train that is the fault of one thing: stupidity. In fact, if you were to try and glean some sort of hidden message from Unstoppable, it's that the entire state of Pennsylvania, along with the entire railroad industry, is run by morons. From the incident that sets off the story proper, to the actions taken along the way, there's a lot of stupidity on display, and after a while it becomes frustrating. For example, even when the issue of having a runaway train that is "like a missile the size of the Chrysler Building" is fully known, the two men responsible for the train still have the gall to flip off their superiors.

In fact, no one seems to have much sense, save for the leads, played by Washington and Star Trek's Chris Pine, and Rosario Dawson. Most everyone else is either there to say 'yes' or 'no,' or to be a cheap antagonist. And as likable as Washington and Pine are, the movie keeps sidetracking itself with the behind-the-scenes incompetence. Cops try and shoot a fail safe break without realizing that they almost hit a fuel tank, and even worse, Scott throws in a hilariously unnecessary car crash, again enforcing the idea that authorities are incompetent, and only a pair of "real Americans" have what it takes to stop this train. Not that there aren't a few moments of tension; when Scott actually looks at Washington and Pine trying to stop the train, the film holds your interest. But otherwise, it's plain, empty, and worst of all, stupid.

Grade: C/C-

Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Burlesque" - REVIEW

In the long line of star vehicles for singers, it's rare to find one that isn't a train wreck. Remember Glitter? I'm still trying to forget that one. And then there's work like Showgirls, which lacks the singer-turned-actress angle but is just so plain bad that it's driven some people to the brink of believing that it's actually a satiric masterpiece. So where does Burlesque, which had all of the potential to be campy and trashy beyond all belief, land? In a surprisingly decent place, actually.

The plot set-up is almost identical to Showgirls: small-town girl heads to a big city in hopes of being a dancer/performer. This time, the small-town girl is Christina Aguilera, who, even with her ups and downs over the years, is already light years more bearable than Elizabeth "DIFF'RENT PLACES!" Berkeley. Aguilera plays Ali, who moves from Iowa to LA, and struggles to find solid employment. When she chances upon the fading Burlesque Nightclub, she's entranced by the performers and sets out to work her way onto that stage. Along the way, she has to prove herself to the club's owner, Tess (Cher), who's struggling to keep the club out of the hands of sleazy mogul Marcus (Eric Dane). With help from Jack (Cam Gigandet) and a little conniving, Ali begins waitressing at the club, while constantly fighting for opportunities to show what she's made of.

As a story there is nothing, and I mean nothing, new here. Steve Antin's script seems to be simply checking off the boxes of various events and relationships, without ever putting too much into them. For the first chunk of the movie, it was hard not to feel just a little bit antsy; we know that the "star is born" moment is coming, and after a while you just want the film to arrive at that point. And as far as villains go, the film's two antagonists, Marcus and Nikki (Kristen Bell), barely register as threats. Bell especially is used more as a verbal punching bag for just about everyone. Yet the film avoids the plot pitfalls of Showgirls, so Burlesque is never sleazy. The club where Ali dreams of working isn't a strip club; it's a performance club. Yes, there's the occasional strip tease, but it's relatively innocent and never out of control (only one fan dance).

So how does Aguilera fare in her first real acting role? Not bad, though not especially good. She's got a nice presence, but at times she can feel either too blank or like she's trying too hard to show us that she's "ACTING." In an early scene where she looks for work while wandering the streets, you can practically feel her over thinking her looks of confusion. That the character doesn't offer her too much to work with doesn't help, though she gets a few good zingers in there. However, she can sing, and Burlesque offers a wonderfully balanced array of songs for her to fully demonstrate her mind-blowing vocal range. Already a performer, it makes Aguilera's musical numbers that much more believable, and even when certain performances are over-edited, they're still hugely enjoyable to watch. Costumes, art direction, some cinematography, and sound design are all aces, to the film's benefit.

Cher and Tucci, meanwhile, work their roles like old pros, and their chemistry is charming. Cher in particular, puts her all into it, namely in a down-and-out number titled "Last Of Me." As for the rest of the cast, they're all fine, save for Alan Cumming, whose glorified cameo conveys a delightful amount of mischief with so very little. And even as the plot moves through its required stages, is becomes less and less of a distraction as the number finally kick into high gear. At times you'll wish that they would just show an entire song uninterrupted, instead of cutting between conversations and song, but for the most part, it works (just barely). There's never any doubt as to where this story is going to go; not a bit. And the non-singing scenes lack the bite or all-around acting strength of musicals like Moulin Rouge! or Chicago. But Burlesque isn't concerned with making us sweat about stuff like plot or deep characterization. It gives us just enough to qualify as a movie (and not a string of music videos), and takes us along for an empty but surprisingly satisfying ride.

Grade: B-/C+

Monday, November 22, 2010

What I watched this week: Nov 13-21

Another slow week; next week will hopefully be better with time off for Thanksgiving. Still, November is light years ahead in terms of movie viewing compared to where I was two months ago.

Jeux d'enfants (Love Me if You Dare) (2003) dir. Yann Samuell:
I have no problem with films with a wicked sense of humor, but there has to be balance. There's a thin line between darkly funny and obnoxious and irritating, and this is a film that struggles to keep itself from straying into obnoxious territory. Julien and Sophie (real-life couple Guillaume Canet and Marion Cotillard) have been friends since they were children. And ever since they've been friends, their friendship has revolved around constantly playing pranks and constantly one-upping each other. Surprisingly, when the two stars finally take on the roles (roughly 20-30 minutes in), the pranks actually become more tolerable and seem to find the weird niche vibe that writer/director Yann Samuell was going for. Unfortunately, opening shot aside, the film gets off to a horrendous start. As children, the kids are almost insufferable, especially Julien. On numerous occasions I wanted to reach through the screen and slap them both. As it is, it makes the remainder of the film somewhat awkward to adjust to. Granted, it's good to see that the characters don't just continue their games without care (Sophie in particular grows tired of them), but even so, the damage has already been done. Samuell also has a tendency to thrown in kooky animated sequences that look like bits left on the cutting room floor from Amelie (and we'll get to Jean-Pierre Jeunet in a minute). That's not to say that there aren't things to like. A scene when Julien and Sophie see each other in a bar (after a significant time apart) is particularly effective, and in its own strange way the ending works perfectly on a thematic level. Canet and Cotillard are also very strong as well, better than the film around them by a considerable margin. It's nice to see Cotillard in a girlfriend in a role that doesn't relegate her to supporting/weak status (see: Public Enemies, Inception). Not exactly a bad film, but in a ways a bit too unpleasant for its own good, and difficult to strongly recommend.

Grade: B-

A Very Long Engagement (2004) dir. Jean Pierre Jeunet:

Three years before this film, Jeunet made another film called Amelie, and though this film shares that film's leading lady, the two couldn't be any more different. Amelie was a charming and quirky Gallic romance, whereas this film is a mostly somber affair about lost love amid the horror and aftermath of World War I. Mathilde (Audrey Tatou) and Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) were lovers shortly before the start of the war. Unfortunately, Manech has yet to return, and the war has long since been over. Desperate to find him, Mathilde sets out on a quest to find out where he is, starting by investigating a group of soldiers who Manech was last seen with. The journey leads her through any number of complications, the most formidable of all being Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard), the lover/whore of one of the men who has gone about killing the men responsible for the man's untimely death. For the most part, Jeunet leaves his slightly overbearing quirks behind, but unfortunately, perhaps in an attempt to lighten the mood, they still creep through. There are no weird animated sequences or hyper active montages, but there are smaller things, like Mathilde's aunt's obsession with her dog's flatulence, which seems like the sort of characterization that doesn't belong here (or anywhere, for that matter). Still, even with Jeunet's quirks, he does manage to make a solid transition into such heavy material, though at times the results border on plodding. All around, the performances are very strong, especially Tatou. Cotillard has moments too, though for the first half of the film her character is used more as an emblem; she's given two spectacularly designed (albeit simple) kill sequences and that's pretty much it until her big scene with Tatou. And though Jeunet doesn't shy away from the horror of war, there's a scene near the end that is equal parts horrifying and horribly contrived. Still, the visuals, art direction, costume design, and acting mostly make up for it. At the same time, one can't help but feel that the film would have benefitted from someone more committed to the overriding grimness of the story.

Grade: B

Friday, November 19, 2010

Trailer for Duncan Jones' (Moon) "Source Code"

Duncan Jones' Moon may have been criminally overlooked at both the box office and during awards season last year, but apparently someone took notice of the exceptional debut. I remember hearing this title being thrown around as Jones' next effort, but never investigated it much (I didn't even know Gyllenhaal was the star until now). While the trailer certainly has a more commercial feel to it than the art house-y Moon, I wouldn't be surprised if the film is more than a high concept thriller. Then again, maybe it's yet another "countdown" thriller in the vein of films like the recent Unstoppable. Still, Jones was able to accomplish a lot on a tiny budget with Moon, which is impressive considering the lunar setting, so I'm interested to see what he cooks up with an obviously larger budget. There's always the risk that having a studio behind him will force the film to be watered down from whatever Jones' original vision was, but if it does well, Jones could begin to gain the clout necessary to make more films like Moon, and that's certainly not a bad thing.

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1" - REVIEW

The first words spoken in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the first half of the conclusion to the mega-franchise, are spoken by new Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour (Bill Nighy), and they couldn't be more appropriate: "These are dark times indeed." And with that, we've reached the beginning of the end. Whether or not you're a die-hard fan of the series, or if you've kept up with all of the books/films, there's no denying that this is end...almost.

When Warner Brothers first announced that "The Deathly Hallows" would be adapted as two films, there was a mixed response. Yes, two films would allow for more of the generally event-filled story to transfer to the screen, but did it really need to? Was this just a shameless attempt to squeeze even more money out of audiences? In some ways, it's both. While David Yates' latest installment in the series (he directed the previous two films as well) is certainly strong, it also has uneven patches that suggest that one 3 and a half hour film might have been a better overall finished product.

Not to say that there isn't quite a bit right with Part I. In particular, the opening scenes, establishing the present situations of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, are solemnly effective, especially a scene in which, for their own safety, the Grangers' memories of their daughter are wiped. The emphasis on scenes not set fully in the wizarding world helps add an constant sense of weight. The days of lightness and charm, so constant in the hallowed halls of Hogwarts even when evil lurked in the shadows, are over. Even in moments of humor, and there are a surprising number of them, a cloud of gloom hangs over, thanks in large part to the phenomenal art direction and cinematography, which mixes in a wide array of sights for the eyes: the gilded halls of the ministry of magic, the decrepit house of Bathilda Bagshot, and a whole host of gorgeously shot landscape vistas. In addition to the understated score by Alexandre Desplat, the film may be one of the most beautifully executed entries in the series, albeit in a much different way from its predecessors.

As for the the story telling, it has its ups and downs. Scenes never feel rushed to the point of being sloppy, but there are scenes that don't seem to reach their full potential, and are lucky to have the general atmosphere as a safety net. This is particularly true when the trio sneak into the Ministry of Magic and have an encounter with Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), now a member of the now-Voldemort-controlled-Ministry. A significant part of the scene involves the heroes being chased by Dementors, figures which drain happiness and literally suck out souls. Yet the screenplay never gives any mention to the presence of effects of the Dementors, as opposed to the way Alfonso Cuaron's Prisoner of Azkaban conveyed their effects so menacingly. Here they feel like props, almost thrown in carelessly. The film also has a somewhat unevenly paced middle section, involving the trio traveling and hiding in the woods. It's not boring, but it's not entirely compelling, and it's hard not to feel that there had to be a better way to execute (and condense) this portion of the story. There is one moment of true narrative brilliance; the tale of the three brothers (the first owners of the Deathly Hallows), which is done in beautiful shades of black and white animation, is a mesmerizing and gorgeously designed piece that would be a work of art even as a standalone work. Yet when the story finally concludes and the movie continues through to its end, it's hard not to be left with a painful feeling of longing for the final chapter.

All the same, there's plenty in the execution that works. There are laughs, as previously mentioned, and a great jump scare, and solidly executed action sequences. Yates might not necessarily have a flair for fight scenes (although I'll always love the Dumbledore vs. Voldemort duel from "Phoenix"), but he makes up for it in tone. Here the magic is generally without flash. Wands are waved, sometimes with words spoken, and then bursts of light send debris flying. A scene in which the trio are attacked in a London cafe feels less like a magical showdown and more like a gunfight. And even though the character injuries and deaths may not register as truly heart-wrenching, the aforementioned atmosphere helps fill in the screenplay gaps and lends the film many moments of quiet sorrow.

So where does the penultimate installment rank among the previous films? It's certainly below Prisoner of Azkaban and Order of the Phoenix, the two best of the films. For now, it's sitting either at equal standing with or just below The Half-Blood Prince as the third best, the major difference being that "Half-Blood" told a complete story arc in its run time, whereas "Hallows" still has so much more to tell. In some ways, it might be better to look back on this film when part 2 is released in July, to see how it stacks up once the book in its entirety has finally been delivered. For now, though, we can only judge it on what we have.

Grade: B

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Trailer Triple Threat: "Green Lantern," "Your Highness," and "Red Riding Hood"

As is common practice, Tuesday brought us the latest batch of major trailers, and this week offered up three very interesting projects, two of which I was aware of, and the third of which has come completely out of nowhere.

First is the trailer for Martin Campbell's The Green Lantern (2011). After the slightly junky looking Entertainment Tonight clip, this is definitely more satisfying. Granted, the visual effects still have a ways to go, but that's expected (plenty of effects were incomplete when the first Watchmen trailer debuted). I can see Reynolds as the character well enough. Unfortunately, Blake Lively is distracting, and I just can't buy her as a hot-shot pilot. Granted, I don't have an immediate suggestion regarding who should have been cast as the romantic foil, but I can't help but be worried that Lively will be to this film what Denise Richards was to The World is Not Enough. I can't help but get a slight Fantastic 4 vibe from certain scenes as well, and that's not a good thing. Still, it does look better than the other green film, The Green Hornet, and I have a solid amount of faith in Campbell, who directed Daniel Craig's excellent first outing as 007, Casino Royale.

Next comes David Gordon Green's Your Highness, starring James Franco, Natalie Portman, Danny McBride, and Zooey Deschanel. You don't see many live-action-period-action-comedies, and even though I wasn't a big fan of Pineapple Express, I can't deny that this rather long trailer did make me laugh. I'm not on the Danny McBride bandwagon, but even he managed to make me laugh, and it looks like he and Franco have good comedic chemistry.

Finally we come to Catherine Hardwicke's Red Riding Hood. As much as I like the idea, the cast, and some of the visuals, this looks extremely iffy to me. There's one too many shades of Twilight in the story, especially with that whole "I'm no good for you" "I don't care!" bit with Seyfried and whoever the blandly attractive guy was. Still, Seyfried does really rock the red hood and cape, though I have to wonder if the sheer length of that thing is going to give her any trouble when she has to run from the wolf...

In a year of mostly crummy posters...

Natalie stands tall. No really, in addition to those posters from the London Film Festival, the marketing team for this film has really done a phenomenal job of creating beautiful and intriguing posters, which are, after all, the "faces" of films. Contrast this with the dreck put out for The King's Speech (even the director hates it), or the just-plain-ordinary work for much of the year's releases, and you can see why a poster like the one above is such a great thing to see. Hopefully more follow, both for this film and others.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What I watched this week: Nov 8-14

After my mostly stellar week of rentals in the first week of November, week 2 was a somewhat iffy, though by no means bad, follow-up. My recent string of French film viewings continued with two classics, both of which left curious impressions on me:

Murmur of the Heart (1971) dir. Louis Malle:
It's hard to accuse Malle of doing the same thing twice. This is my third film of his, and it couldn't be more different than the previous two: adultery thriller Elevator to the Gallows and WWII coming-of-age tale (and masterpiece) Au Revoirs Les Enfants. In Murmur of the Heart, Malle once again focuses on a young male protagonist, but one of a very different nature. Where Au Revoir's protagonist was far from grown up (both in age and experience) and loses his innocence without choice, Murmur's is desperately trying to rid himself of innocence. Laurent Chevalier, youngest son of a bourgeois family, is trying his best to lose his virginity, but various and sundry obstacles keep getting in they way, including his older brothers. While Malle's story here is less overtly eventful, he still has a skill for keeping your attention, even in a low-key manner. The scenes with the brothers ring true, as does the portrayal of young boys trying to make themselves feel like adults. The problem, though, is simply that the film is just a little too long for its own good. Boring? Not at all. In need of some trimming here and there? Yes. The film's stronger second half, focusing mostly on the boy's relationship with his loving but unfaithful mother, could have arrived sooner, and we could be spared some of the three brothers' obnoxious antics; after a while it stops being interesting. Not a bad film. Actually quite the opposite. It's a very understated and mature work, complete with a surprisingly scandalous ending, but it just doesn't feel as accomplished as the other two Malle films that I've seen.

Grade: B/B+

Le Samourai (1967) dir. Jean-Pierre Melville:
Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I have no problem with slow "minimalist" movies. That said, I just couldn't get into Melville's supposed masterpiece about a usually perfect hitman (Alain Delon) who finally makes a mistake. The problem for me is that the film's dialogue is often too functional, while the quieter moments feel empty as opposed to introspective. Alain Delon's stoic gaze, while appropriate for the character, fails to communicate whatever feelings or thoughts Melville was trying to get across. And unlike Murmur of the Heart, Melville's film did cross the dreaded line into boredom, and on multiple occasions. Not that there aren't things to like. The opening that leads up to the kill that sets off the story proper is wonderfully composed and structured. Unfortunately, once Delon's Jef Costello is identified as a possible suspect, the film loses the quiet magnetism that it had before. The result leaves the plot's minimal bursts of violence without impact or tension, and the poetically designed/written ending without real poetry. An interesting work with a handful of moments, but otherwise a well-made disappointment.

Grade: B-

Sunday, November 14, 2010

"127 Hours" - REVIEW

If you saw the most recent episode of NBC's Community, you probably remember the character Abed repeatedly using the term "bottle episode." The term, which refers to narrative structures taking place entirely in a single location, is a staple of TV, but on film it can be seen as unflattering. Film is expected to be bigger and encompass more, hence why we rarely see bottle films. In 2010, however, we got two: the Ryan Reynolds fictional thriller Buried, and now Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, which tells the true story of Aron Ralston, who found himself trapped between two walls of rock after a large rock fell on his arm.

The story, adapted from Ralston's book about his experience by Boyle and Slumdog Millionaire scribe Simon Beaufoy, was always going to be a challenge to tell, and yet Boyle's hyperactive visual style makes a surprisingly good device to depict Ralston's story. The film, which runs 90 minutes, sets up Aron as a careless, albeit knowledgeable, adventurer, and Boyle's use of triple split-screen lends an energy to the photography, even in scenes as mundane as Ralston packing his bag as he leaves to hike. Quite efficiently, the film takes us through Aron biking and hiking, as well as an encounter with two young women (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara), before bringing us to that pivotal moment when Ralston slips and becomes trapped.

Of course, this could have been the point where the movie ground to a halt and become tedious. Thankfully, Boyle's style comes through in surprising ways, making Ralston's dreams, memories, fantasies, and hallucinations come vividly to life. These moments help expand the film, and keep the good hour or so spent with Ralston trapped from lagging, and they provide little glimpses into Ralston's past. There's also the brilliant use of music and sound. AR Rahman's thumping, non-orchestral score works well with the images of the barren desert and massive canyons and rock formations. More impressive is the sound design. In the pivotal scene, in which Ralston performs amputation on his arm, the use of a fuzzy rock chord in moments of sharp pain, combined with images of Ralston screaming, magnifies the intensity to brilliant and harrowing effect.

Of course, helping this all along is the film's star, Mr. Franco. As the film's only real character, it all comes down to Franco's ability to make Ralston worth caring about, and he does it. Though the first third or so of the trapped portion involves little dialogue, Franco manages to communicate the character's frustration and fear with skill. And when his character becomes more convinced of his own doom, the performance turns magnificent, particularly in a scene in which Aron pretends that he is on a talk show, and does the voice of every "character." It's a remarkable (almost) one-man show that owes a lot to Franco's portrayal. And it no doubt helps that Ralston isn't the sort of person who needs to be mimicked; Franco is able to play the character through emotion alone, and without any sort of mimicry or vocal/facial idiosyncrasies. Ralston could have been a fictional creation, and it wouldn't have made the film or performance any less striking.

That's not to say that the film is perfect, however. While Boyle's style is undeniably attention-grabbing and lively, at times it takes us too far outside the realm of the canyon, reducing the feeling of claustrophobia. And Boyle and Beaufoy's screenplay, even with its flashbacks and hallucinations, doesn't quite fill in pre-accident Ralston's character enough. Ralston's character arc feels diminished, because we don't have enough to come to a conclusion about his life before the accident, and how the accident is "changing him." Even the moment when Ralston first falls feels somewhat devoid of horror because there's little we know or feel about Ralston.

But even with the issues with style and screenplay, there's no denying that Boyle's latest is a strong effort, and a testament to the fact that bottle stories are worthy of being told on the big screen. And that's especially true when they contain the strength of acting as shown by Franco, and the general level of craftsmanship by Boyle and his crew.

Grade: B/B+

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Beautiful official "Blue Valentine" poster

"Jane Eyre" (2011) Trailer

Certainly a bit darker and "thriller-ish" than I would have expected. Embarrassing admission time, though: I haven't read Charlotte Bronte's classic novel, so I can't really comment on what I think of the look in regards to the source material, or whether the actors seem to fit their parts. But overall, there seems to be an extremely gloomy air to this, with little gothic touches that make it feel like a camp-free cousin to Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow. Whether the March release date is a sign of bad things to come or not, this trailer doesn't exactly have me sold, even though I like everyone involved.

Third and final trailer for "TRON: Legacy"

Even without having seen the original, this trailer finally has me excited. The visuals looks unbelievably slick, and the fact that this time the trailer actually communicates the back story effectively makes it much more appealing. And how amazing is the CGI used to create young(ish) Jeff Bridges? Garrett Hedlund is a young actor who I've never really paid much attention to, but along with this and Country Strong, this could be the year that he really makes a name for himself (he gets to act opposite an Oscar winner in both projects...not too shabby). As for Jeff Bridges, we can pretty much expect at least solid work from him; this is The Dude we're talking about, after all. Then there's Olivia Wilde and her funky asymmetrical hair, which I'm loving the more I see it. I don't watch House, and I've never seen Wilde in anything else, but she seems like a solid enough female foil for Hedlund, and convincing enough as a badass action heroine. Watch your back Angelina...

Monday, November 8, 2010

First poster for "Jane Eyre" (2011)

The first poster for Cary Fukunaga's Jane Eyre, and it's surprisingly simple (in a good way). The film is a big departure in terms of subject matter from Fukunaga's last film, the immigration thriller Sin Nombre. One of the great things about having so many adaptations of works like Bronte's is that there are so many different ways directors and actors can impact the way the story is told, and Fukunaga could prove a surprising fit for the material. The film is also notable for its casting, namely Mia Wasikowska as the titular Jane. Wasikowska has been slowly making herself a name in the States, starting with a role on the first season of In Treatment, and then moving on to Alice in Wonderland earlier this year, which made bucket loads but did little to advance her status as an actress. Then came The Kids Are All Right, in which she actually got a chance to act, despite being overshadowed by her adult cast members. Should the film play well, it could be the big critical break that Wasikowska has been looking for, even if it is coming out in the dreaded month of March. Along for the ride are reliable actors Judi Dench, Jaime Bell (Billy Elliot), Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds, Hunger), and Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky).

**Actually, it kind of reminds me of the first poster for Blue Valentine, certainly not a bad thing.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

What I watched this week: Nov 1-7

Overall, one of the best movie-viewing weeks I've had in quite some time...

Last Year at Marienbad (1961) dir. Alain Resnais:
Considered one of the last great black and white films, Resnais' tale of past love (which might not be real...) is a bizarre, mesmerizing work. The set-up could have been simple: a man tries to convince a woman that one year ago they had an affair at a luxurious hotel. And yet, from the first frame, Resnais' film is anything but. As a block of voice-over narration is repeated ad nauseum, the camera glides through hallway after hallway of a mysterious hotel. This goes on for what feels like 10 or 15 minutes, before we see the first characters, none of whom are of major importance (on a strictly narrative level). And yet once the Man (Giorgio Albertazzi) starts speaking to the Woman (Delphine Seyrig), it only becomes more strange, more confusing, and more fascinating. Above all things, it's a masterwork of cinematography and editing.
The gorgeous gliding camera work, mixed in with appropriate wide shots and a crane shot or two (one stunner involves the camera rising up from behind a pair of statues). As far as editing, the film seems to have level upon level. In one instant you'll see the Woman in her room in a white dress, and the next instant she'll be in a black one; this may happen with a shot in between, or may simply happen consecutively. As far as trying to keep the different strands figured out (how both see it, how they imagine it, etc...) it's best to simply let the images unfold if this is your first viewing. Along with the eerie music (most of which comes from a rather dingy sounding church organ), Marienbad is a haunting, mind-bending tale featuring gorgeous production design and a script and story that will probably continue to reveal details after each viewing.

Grade: A-

Au Revoirs Les Enfants (1987) dir. Louis Malle:

Only my second Louis Malle film, this tale of boyhood relationships picked up Venice's Golden Lion, and for good reason. In the midst of World War II, Julien slowly develops a friendship with new classmate Jean Bonnet. The pair attend an all-boys Catholic boarding school, generally away from, but never complete separated, the horrors taking place in Europe. The majority of the film could have easily been mundane, but Malle's beautiful screenplay keeps things moving just enough without rushing. The relationship between the boys feels real; they don't immediately become best friends after some single incident. They get closer, and then one gets angry at the other for one reason or another, and so on. But what really carries the film, is its point of view: war and its effects through the eyes of a child. There is not an ounce of bloodshed in the story, nor any death, and there's a purpose for that. When the film reaches its final 20 minutes, it becomes agonizing and horrifying to watch. It easily ranks up there with the best sequences in cinema history, despite its total lack of flash or grandeur. It is a heartbreaker of stunning power, without ever being manipulative. To put an end to my rant, suffice it to say that this is film making of the highest order, and whether it was based entirely on Malle's childhood or not, is a beautifully human story of friendship.

Grade: A

Manhattan (1979) dir. Woody Allen:

With directors as prolific as Woody Allen, sometimes it's easy to forget the strongest works of their careers. Thankfully I made myself watch Manhattan, and I couldn't have been more pleased. This is classic Allen, all the way down to the character the famed auteur plays and the references to Bergman and Fellini, the quick bursts of laugh-out-loud hilarity, but it's also Allen at his finest. He isn't trying too hard, and it's too early in his career for him to rehash past work. I particularly love the opening sequence, in which Allen's Isaac tries to write the opening of his book describing New York City, as Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" plays majestically over the gorgeous black and white photography. The film's other strong point is the way in which Allen almost seems to be poking fun (quietly) at the film itself. It opens with grand images of skyscrapers, yet then jumps into the intimate relationships of a small group of people. In the film's best scene, Isaac and Mary (Diane Keaton) discuss their relationships in the planetarium, as objects of far greaert importance loom in the background, emphasizing how small and trivial their issues are in the grand scheme of the universe. It's just one example of a master working at the top of his game, and it's actually reinvigorated my interest in Allen's filmography, even with the beating that You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is taking.

Grade: A-

And in repeat viewings...

I am Love (2010) dir. Luca Guadagnino:

I wasn't really fond of this when I first saw it over the summer (my review), but I remember being so shaken by this film that I've been dying to give it another look. Sadly, after seeing again, little has changed, although my general bitterness towards the film has lessened somewhat. What this film is to me is an interesting idea with simply one too many things wrong with it mucking up the works. I'd love to say that Swinton is great, but I can't. She has a few good scenes, it's true, but even though I made it my goal to really pay attention specifically to her, I just got lost in Guadagnino's relentless style, and not in a good way.The stand out for me is still Flavio Parenti as Swinton's eldest son, and he's the closest the film has to a truly interesting, worth-caring-about character (I'd say the same for the daughter, but the role is too limited despite the conflict she has). Upon looking at the film, so many of the lines, from very early on, carry strong meaning. The problem is that the dialogue carries too much meaning. Not in a blunt, beat-you-over-the-head way, but in a manner that's almost too low-key for its own good. For such stylish (and eventually over-the-top) execution, everything else is too low on the radar, making the "importance" of things like Emma's feeling of stillness/oppression feel academic to the point that they don't really register. And yes, those last five minutes are still a hilarious train wreck, and a total waste of John Adams' glorious music. Still, I'd be lying if I didn't say that I did find it a liiiiiittle bit better on the second go round, missteps and all.

Grade: C/C+

The Month in Review: October 2010

Another month, another wrap-up, albeit one that is a week late. Thanks to the godsend that is Netflix Instant Watch, I can actually keep this series going; the November wrap-up will be particularly good, I promise.

Best Film (Theaters): [Default] Never Let Me Go
Mark Romanek's adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel didn't exactly blow me away, but seeing as it was my only trip to the theater in October, it's my default winner. Even though I gave the film a B-, it does have its strong points, namely the performances (with Keira Knightley as the film's surprise MVP). Unfortunately, the overall effort lacks the weight of Ishiguro's quietly moving novel, and the film's big scene is off its mark in terms of timing and editing, wasting a perfectly solid performance by Charlotte Rampling. At the same time, this is a quietly affecting film when it works, featuring a mostly good score from Rachel Portman and beautifully composed images by director of photography Adam Kimmel. A nice effort, but with one too many faults, that ends up feeling slight.

Runner Up: None

Best Film (DVD/Rental): Lilya 4-Ever
Lukas Moodysson's hard-hitting 2002/3 film begins with a jarring opening: a frantic looking girl running along a highway while heavy metal music blares in the background. She reaches a pedestrian walkway, and prepares to jump down into the traffic, before the film cuts to black and rewinds. Even so, the film doesn't get any happier. Set mostly in Estonia, the film follows Lilya (Oksana Akinshina), a 16 year old girl left behind by her mother basically to fend for herself. Her only friend is a young boy named Volodja, and the two eventually make plans to flee Estonia for Sweden with a new acquaintance. While not exactly something to make you smile, Moodysson's film is a powerful and moving piece that doesn't pull any cheap shots; it is frank and unpleasant, yet never delves into the realm of "misery porn." Led by Akinshina's wonderful breakthrough performance, Moodysson's bleak tale isn't meant for light/casual viewing, but it deserves to be seen.

Runner Up: Black Narcissus

Best Director: Lukas Moodysson - Lilya 4-Ever
The story of a young girl's life going from bad to worse could have been an easy opportunity for Lukas Moodysson to lay the suffering on thick. Thankfully he refrains, and instead crafts (he also wrote the screenplay) a painful but never exploitative look at the way a young girl sells her body to survive, first by choice and then out of obligation. A scene involving close-ups of half a dozen "clients" in the film's last half hour isn't visually graphic, but it gets to point across to horrifying and slightly nauseating effect. This is a tough story told with grace and maturity, forgoing shock value for brutally honest narrative construction.

Runner Up: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger - Black Narcissus

Best Actor: Andrew Garfield - Never Let Me Go
Never a particular favorite of mine ever since his unbelievably annoying US debut in Lions for Lambs, 2010 seems to be the year that Garfield redeemed himself to me as an up and coming talent. Along with The Social Network, Garfield created his second sympathetic character of the year without feeling like a repeat. As Tommy, the occasionally volatile but mostly well-intentioned friend of Kathy H (Carey Mulligan) and Ruth (Keira Knightley), Garfield is subdued and sweet without ever being cloying or feeling like a non-entity. The scene in which he climbs aboard an abandoned fishing boat on the beach is a moment of quiet magic; the way he conveys the characters joy and awe amid his internal pain is wonderful, and makes me want to reconsider my initial opinion of him.

Runner Up: None

Best Actress: Zoe Kazan - The Exploding Girl
Bradley Gray's quietly, eerily realistic film about a young girl's relatively aimless summer vacation gets its heft from its star, Zoe Kazan. Her cute, slightly cherubic face is a delight to watch in this ultra-low-key drama, but what really makes the performance work are her eyes. Kazan's ability to convey so much through her looks - sadness, regret, happiness, and even anger - gives the film its emotional center. And when Kazan's charcter finally "explodes," (in a nicely shot, almost understated scene) you feel for her. Too often these sorts of films feel weightless and empty, but Gray's strong ear for natural-sounding dialogue (I feel like I've heard some of these conversations before) and the performance of his leading lady come together to create a lovely little performance that deserves to be seen.

Runner Up: Keira Knightley - Never Let Me Go

Best Screenplay: Bradley Rust - The Exploding Girl

As mentioned above, part of what makes this small film work is the way Rust perfectly captures his characters through their understated, seemingly banal dialogue. The build up to the "explosion" is steady without being boring, and the relationship between Ivy (Kazan) and Al (Mark Rendall) is sweet and believable, even if it follows a somewhat expected arc. And when this laid back character study is complete, Rust concludes the film perfectly, with a scene that could have so easily been cheesy, but instead feels tender, warm, and well-earned.

Runner Up: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger - Black Narcissus

Best Ensemble Cast: Never Let Me Go

Whatever the flaws of Romanek's direction and Garland's screenplay may be, it's hard to deny the strength of the casting of Never Let Me Go. The central trio in particular are perfect, even if Mulligan is (strangely) my least favorite, and they're backed up by small-yet-valuable turns by Sally Hawkins, Charlotte Rampling, and Nathalie Richard. Credit should also go to the child actors who play Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy as children, and perfectly match their grown-up counterparts.

Runner Up: Black Narcissus

Best Cinematography: Jack Cardiff - The Red Shoes/Black Narcissus

In his back-to-back collaborations with directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, director of photography Jack Cardiff earned two Oscars, both of them richly deserved. In Black Nariccus, he engagingly and mysteriously photographs the Himalayan palace-turned-monastery with wonderful angles and camera movements, all while making beautiful use of the matte-painted backgrounds for some of the mystical landscape shots. But perhaps more impressive is his work on the ballet tale The Red Shoes. In conjunction with the art direction and costume design teams, Cardiff masterfully shoots the film's central ballet sequence, which spans more than 10 minutes of screen time. From its smaller opening images, to its grandiose backdrops and eerie lighting, it's a masterpiece of cinematic photography. But the shining moment may be its smallest. The lead ballerina (Moira Shearer), having donned the show-within-the-film's titular shoes, can't control her dancing, because a pair of shadows are grabbing at her feet. Describing it doesn't do it justice, but suffice it to say that it's one small moment in a staggering work of visual genius.