Sunday, January 30, 2011

Despicable Me

Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud, 2010 (8.0*)
Another typical kids animation feature, not as good as the best ones (Finding Nemo, Wall-E), but better than some others (Up, Monsters Inc, Polar Express). This involves three very cute orphan girls and a Mr. Burns-like super criminal, Mr. Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), who adopts them on a trial basis as part of a scheme. The plot is actually science fiction, as various criminals want a 'shrinking-ray' device that reduces objects to a tiny portion allowing the fiendish to steal even one of the pyramids!

Of course, it's a preposterous story, with a obligatory chase sequence, and of course it's got the major cuteness-sentimentality factor going to make five-yr olds like it, but it does have a nicely warped sense of humor. As Mr. Gru goes into a secret bank, the sign reads "Bank of Evil - Formerly Lehman Bros"

The wonderful little yellow creatures you see in all the promotions for this film, the knee-high yellow thingies sometimes with two eyes, sometimes just one, are called Minions - of the rich criminal, basically personal servants. Steve Carell is just ok in the title role, it really needed someone more 'animated', pun intended.. like Robin Williams or Jim Carrey.


Saturday, January 29, 2011

Women Without Men

Shirin Neshat, Shoja Azari, Iran, 2009 (8.1*)
This story links the lives of four different women living in or near Tehran, Iran during the time, 1953, that their elected President was replaced by the Shah in a CIA-backed coup, after British ships blockaded Iranian oil tankers. Their stories are unified by an idyllic garden location, and the symbology of Eden is apparent. Co-director Shirin Neshat is a visual artist turned director, known for her works exploring gender relations.

One woman is unmarried at 30, living with her brother, who considers her a family disgrace for not yet accepting any suitor. He truly cares more about his own social status in the community than his sister's happiness. Another woman is a miserable and bored prostitute. Another is the jaded wife of a long, boring marriage, whose husband has a younger mistress.

Using some indelible and haunting images, we are given a poetic story of the stuggle of women in a fundamentalist society in political turmoil. Most of the women here had their lives dominated by men, so there was no personal independence for an entire gender. The film succeeds most when it ignores politics and becomes lost in the imagery of people in nature, dwarfed by the vast landscapes here.

It's not surprising that the novel this is based on by Shahrnush Parsipur is banned in Iran, and also this film, it's an important look the plight of women in some cultures of the world, and the hopelessness faced by some of them.


Friday, January 28, 2011

Federico Fellini's 8 ½

Federico Fellini, 1960, Italy, bw (8.3*)
Federico Fellini's 8 ½ is probably Fellini's most famous film, and is certainly his most artistic. It's a bit surreal for most audiences, but if you don't mind getting visually assaulted with all types of seemingly unrelated images, such as rockets on launching pads, nuns, beautiful women modeling high fashion, and don't get overwhelmed by all the symbolism, then this could be an enjoyable ride through the senses.

Otherwise, it may provide two hours of tedium as there is no real story progression, nor any gripping characters or plotlines. It's more about the style and inner mind of Fellini himself, and less about a vehicle of entertainment for the masses. The title supposedly refers to Fellini, who is the one-half, played by Marcello Mastrionni, as a director plagued by self-doubt, and eight women in his life, mostly ex-wives.

Personally, I prefer his study of decadence among the famous, La Dolce Vita, as it's Italian realism; this is Italian surrealism, closer to Salvadore Dali's artwork than, say, a Vittorio De Sica drama. Yet this ranks very high on all-time film polls. It's #37 on our survey of all internet film polls..


Thursday, January 27, 2011


Fritz Lang, Germany, 1927, silent, bw (7.8*)
[Restored version]
Of course this looks pretty dated now, but when Fritz Lang created his science fiction masterpiece, there were no films as experimental or as striking an individual vision in the history of cinema up to that point. This version has some lost footage restored that was found in 2008 in a film warehouse in Argentina, who didn't return the print when WW2 broke out in Europe, so this is the most complete version available since it's release as all the other copies were destroyed by Allied air raids.

This story is from a novel by Thea von Harbou, who also wrote the screenplay. The heavily symbolic story involves a society where the wealthy live in a club above ground that resembles heaven, while the workers live and work underground in repetitive drudgery running giant machines. Lang's entire film is an indictment of a mechanized world usurping human individuality and choice, where there is no escape from the 'worker's hell' underground.

One particular woman, an angel named Maria, is a voice against the system who incites the workers to stand up. Meanwhile, the head capitalist has an inventor with a female robot he calls "Machine Man", who gets used in a political scheme to destroy Maria and a mysterious coming 'mediator', who can unite the two factions.

A lot of this story is pretty corny ("the head and the hands need a heart to unite them"), yet you can see that it influenced later films like Chaplin's Modern Times, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and even the dark mood of Gotham City in the Batman films. In fact, it was decades before sf films even had this much vision again.

This is a must for fans of German expressionism, it's probably the finest example of that movement. It's #96 on the IMDB top 250 films, which is probably a bit high, but you can see its influence in cinema history.

One of the first recipients of  our World Film Awards, as we awarded 15 silents films first.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Social Network

David Fincher, 2010 (8.4*)
I love David Fincher but was not as impressed with Social Network as some of his other films, such as The Game, Fight Club, and Zodiac. Network is well-crafted, but these other films had an existential edge that put people in life or death situations.

Social Network only put people in lawsuit situations as the film was about a liar, a cheat, and a thief, played with little acting by Jesse Eisenberg, who is about as bland as a computer bytehead ought to be; and about a white collar criminal, who, rather than serving time, has been made a billionaire by this unscrupulous system. It's more enraging than entertaining, a sad statement on the current economic reality, that if you're willing to steal data, hack into proprietary computer systems (with immunity I might add), and cheat your partners, such as CFO Eduardo Saverin (effectively played by Andrew Garfield), then maybe you too can become an American billionaire and a folk hero. And who needs old friends, many new ones will flock to the money once you have it, especially the babes; and who cares why they're there - the important point is that they're hanging around.

All in all, this is not a very respectable businessman, or even a worthy human being. In the film, he has no friends for a good reason, he's pretty much a despicable egotist with obvious disdain for most others. The film even begins with a display of his egotism, which causes his current girlfriend, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) to break up. In spite he embarasses her in his blog online, which is really a slanderous offense, so I hope she later got some money from this all-American jerk.

This is how the founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg got his start: he hacked in and stole The Harvard Facebook, which was an online directory of university students with ID photos, very much like an online yearbook. He then had a 'rate the girls' contest with the photos of the female students, in which he paired two at a time on his blog site. His penalty when caught? Academic suspension for six months, which then gave him more free time to do more hacking and stealing. He then did the same to some other universities, committing a federal crime in each case. Where the heck was the FBI?

A couple of entrepreneurs, who row crew for Harvard, came up with the idea for a Facebook styled reference just for Harvard U. that he agreed to work on for them. Rather than show them anything, he kept stalling them while he created Facebook for himself. So there's the story in a nutshell; it's public knowledge, this film just adds a few personal confrontations and anecdotes, and is told is flashback style from some legal depositions for the lawsuits, as this immature kid created nothing but enemies. He had no real original ideas, just a few minor enhancements to existing networks, such as the 'relationship status' of the individual (whoopee..) and he didn't even create a unique name. This is very similar to simple online resume and job sites, all that was basically added was a message system like the 80's style bulletin boards. So, combine personal resumes with 80's level internet, and 'boom', instant success with very little work.

Ironically, in California to seek venture capital, he teams up with Napster (ie, stolen music) creator Sean Parker (an effectively obnoxious Justin Timberlake), who admits "everyone was suing us, so I just said 'fuck it' and declared bankruptcy." Yep, avoid all liability and punishment by just going bankrupt; what a clever system the lawyers have devised to protect guilty capitalists at the public's expense, as only corporate not personal wealth is at risk; you can keep whatever you managed to steal or get as 'compensation', and if the corporation is 'bankrupt', none of the guilty lose anything except a job, but someone else crooked will always hire a crook with experience. It's only fitting that these two should team up in Facebook's early success.

Fincher and the film will apparently win many awards this year, but I preferred the fight for survival in the austere crime film Winter's Bone, and the mind-blowing complexity of the sci-fi film Inception. However, this belongs in the short list of films worth seeing about capitalism, which includes Wall Street, Rogue Trader, Boiler Room, Executive Suite, The Hudsucker Proxy, Putney Swope, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and Tucker: A Man and His Dream. Ironically, only Suite and Tucker were about anyone with any real ethics and original business ideas, the rest were about con artists, thieves, and manipulators.

Awards page at IMDB, it's up to 55 so far.. it's also #167 on the IMDB top 250 films..


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Samson and Delilah

Warwick Thornton, Australia, 2009 (8.2*)

Australian Film Institute, Best Picture
Samson & Delilah is not the biblical duo, but a couple of aborigine teenagers in the central Australian desert. Delilah (Marissa Gibson) lives in austere poverty with her Nana (Mitjili Napanangka Gibson), who takes care of the very old Nana; together they survive by making Aborigine rugs for sale at an upscale native art gallery run by upper-class whites.

The aimless petrol-sniffing Samson (Rowan McNamara) lives with older brother (Matthew Gibson) with whom he doesn't get along, being extremely fed up with the brother's one-song reggae band, which seems to play the same music incessantly on their front porch. Samson decides to move to Delilah's place, which delights Nana, who calls him Delilah's husband, but frustrates the reluctant Delilah. This is all done without dialogue in a strange courtship ritual.

Soon, both teens are forced to hit the road after Nana unexpectly dies and the village women beat Delilah, while Samson's brother chases him off after an ugly confrontation. They're now a traveling couple depending on each other to survive. They meet their future at a highway overpass in a marginally sane and homeless white man named Gonzo, played by the director's brother Scott Thornton, who was replaying his own lifestyle.

The story is a wake-up call about downtrodden native Australians, and poverty-stricken outcasts everywhere, who are considered an untouchable problem but become an exploited lower class whenever possible. Not a pleasant film, but a necessary one. Warwick Thornton used film newcomers for his lead actors, and his debut film was selected as best feature by the Australian Film Institute, where it won three awards. It won 10 awards overall


Monday, January 24, 2011

Life With Father

Michael Curtiz, 1947 (8.2*)
From the director of Casablanca comes this wonderful classic comedy of the family patriarch and universal curmudgeon, a film of the long-running Broadway play which thrives on probably the best performance ever by William Powell, better known for the Thin Man series. This is author Clarence Day's coming-of-age story, which centers on the aristocratic and authoritarian, yet humorous father. Classic comedienne Irene Dunne is his long suffering wife.

Powell created the epitome of the stubborn, self-righteous, but lovable family man, later emulated in shows like The Honeymooners and All in the Family. In this first film (there were sequels), much is made of the fact that he has never been baptized, so everyone is convinced he's going to hell when he dies, which seems to worry everyone else more than father.


Picnic at Hanging Rock

Peter Weir, Australia, 1975 (8.6*)
Moody and at times surreal, this is based on a true story around the turn of the last century when a group of Australian schoolgirls disappeared while on a simple country outing. Master Australian director Peter Weir made his mark with this spellbinding, small, and austere film. It's a great example of doing a lot with a little, without letting the director or process interfere with the story itself.

Weir always makes films worth seeing, such as Fearless, Witness, Dead Poet's Society, Mosquito Coast, and Master and Commander. In this small gem, many think he made his finest film. It's certainly one of his most unique.


Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Beautiful Country

Hans Petter Noland, Norway, 2004 (8.2*)
An orphaned Vietnamese youth has an aimless life in Vietnam after the death of his mother. His dad was a U.S. soldier stationed there during the war, but who has since returned to his life in the states. Binh, played by Damien Nguyen, dreams of going to America to be reunited with his natural father, and we follow him on his quest in this film.

Both Nick Nolte and Tim Roth have small parts in this film, Nolte is particularly effective, keeping himself understated for once. The title refers to Vietnam; the opening scenes are truly beautiful. This is one of those small indie films that makes an impression on you without car chases, explosions, or any of what passes for action, yet a story in which a character goes through profound individual changes in self-discovery.


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Wes Anderson, 2009 (8.5*)
A hilariously adult animated comedy, but still G-rated, in which the star, George Clooney as Mr. Fox, has no constructive line of work (he's a chicken thief), which causes constant stream of harangue from Meryl Streep as Mrs. Fox. The dialogue is a throwback to the 30's screwball comedies style, so it's sparkling in comparison to most talking animal pictures, which seem aimed at five year olds. The talented comedic cast also includes Bill Murray and Owen Wilson.

The animation has the old style claymation/puppet look, which makes it look more like real objects than cartoons, so that adds to the element of reality the storyline establishes. This was a refreshing antidote to all the Disney-esque animated ventures which always seem to follow a similar heart-tugging path that requires sad violin music. If you're looking for a different kind of comedy, check this out.


Friday, January 21, 2011

A Beautiful Mind

Ron Howard, 2001 (8.4*)
Best Picture (AA, GG)
This look at the life of brilliant mathmatician John Nash becomes also a study of schizophrenia. As a student, Nash shows signs of brilliance, coupled with an obsession with irrelevant minutae, such as the feeding patterns of pidgeons. Later, he is asked to work on top secret cryptography for the government, and descends into his own imaginative mind. Russell Crowe turned in his most versatile performance to date, understated enough to be his most credible role.

Not an easy biopic to watch, but nevertheless one of the finest cinematic snapshots of madness, along with The Three Faces of Eve and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Beautiful co-star Jennifer Connelly, who plays Nash's wife, won 9 supporting actress awards, likely many for her snub for the incredible performance in 2000's Requiem for a Dream, in which she played a drug addict willing to perform girl-on-girl shows to get drug money.

Director Ron Howard's most successful film, was a winner of Oscars® for best picture, director, supporting actress, and screenplay, and 31 awards overall, including four for picture. Awards page at IMDB


Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Ronald Neame, 1969 (8.3*)
"I am in my prime", proudly proclaims Maggie Smith as private school teacher Jean Brodie, to her "gehls" in this incisive character study of an aristocratic yet lonely schoolteacher in Scotland. Smith is dead on in her Oscar®-winning performance for best actress, as a women who is vicariously living her dreams through her impressionable students.

At times a comedy, the film's ultimate tone is one of serious drama as Miss Brodie realizes her special girls will all become adults, often sooner than she expects. She also comes face-to-face with the ramifications of her personal teachings, which lean toward the pro-fascist side. Ironically, Smith would repeat these politics later in Zefferelli's Tea With Mussolini, as a Brit in pre-war Florence, who "admires the fascists because they brought order to chaos", and who eventually actually has tea with Mussolini himself!

Maggie Smith is one of the best actresses of all-time, winning a second Oscar® for supporting actress in California Suite, becoming one of the few actors to achieve double Oscar status. See our post here at Worlds Best Films for multiple Oscar winners..


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Robert Ellis Miller, 1968 (8.5*)
The novel by southern author Carson McCullers makes for a heart-rending film thanks to a terrific Oscar®-nominated performance by Alan Arkin as a deaf-mute man renting a room from a family to be near a friend of his in a state mental institution, incarcerated for his uncontrollable desire for sweets. Sondra Locke, also an Oscar®-nominee for supporting actress, burst into stardom as the teenage daughter of Arkin's landlord, and this is really her coming-of-age story.

The entire cast sells this story, which is really about dealing with loneliness in its various forms, as each character is disconnected from the world in some way. McCullers' novels, and subsequent films, are not always pleasant but are usually rooted in reality, and most people can find some personal connection within her characters. Stacy Keach turns in a very good supporting performance here, as does comedian Chuch McCann as Arkin's friend in the hospital.

Though this seemed more like a 30's story, it still spoke to audiences when released in 1968 due to universal themes of personal pain and suffering while trying to find your place in the world. Alan Arkin won two critics awards for best actor for this performance.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Usual Suspects

Bryan Singer, 1995 (9.1*)
Told in flashback form in this brilliant Oscar®-winning script by Christopher McQuarrie, this is a crime story like none other. A witness, Oscar®-winner Kevin Spacey, is a lone survivor to a gang massacre at a dockside ship, and he tells a harrowing tale to police detective Chazz Palmentieri.

The story begins with a lineup which gathers together five career criminals, aka 'the usual suspects', which allows them to plot a major heist together, and it is this story we learn in the tale told by Spacey. The excellent cast makes this story a gripping mystery - Kevin Pollack, Gabriel Byrne, Benecio del Toro, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Baldwin play the criminals, with Palmentieri and Dan Hedaya the detectives.

This is a creative and unique story that you won't easily forget, with twists you can't see coming, and this film is now permanently entrenched in the crime hall of fame. Now #25 on the IMDB top 250, rated by viewers.


Atlantic City

Louis Malle, 1980 (8.8*)
My favorite film from French director Louis Malle, this one is a crime story in English. Burt Lancaster turns in one of his best performances as a flunkie to an aging actress retired in Atlantic City. His passions are flamed by neighbor Susan Sarandon, a casino worker with little more than dreams to keep her going, and who bathes her bare breasts with lemons in front of the window.

Suddenly their lives are turned upside down by an ex of Sarandon's, who shows up after pulling a drug heist. This is a gritty, realistic look at romance on the seedier side, with people barely surviving on the borderlines, yet who have the same universal dreams as anyone else. Nominated for five academy awards.

Quote: You should've seen the Atlantic back then - it was really something. (Burt Lancaster)


Sunday, January 16, 2011

On Golden Pond

Mark Rydell, 1981 (8.4*)
A beautifully acted, slow-paced, adult family film about an elderly dad's attempt to come to terms with his estranged daughter while he still has a chance. Henry Fonda turned in the performance of his career, and was rewarded with his only Oscar® for acting. Daughter Jane Fonda was a supporting nominee in a role that she said was very hard to face day in and day out, as it was too close to reality for comfort. One can only imagine what Henry thought of his 'commie hippie' kids, who made drug (The Trip, Easy Rider) and soft core porn films (Barbarella, The Game Is Over) when young.

Katherine Hepburn got her record fourth Oscar® for her performance of Fonda's wife, in one of her best performances as well; she's credible and touching without over-sentimentality. In fact, more modern dialogue injects plenty of humor (and "face sucking") into what could have been a dreary play on the end of life, of love lost and love maintained.

Note: Henry was too ailing and near death to accept his Oscar®, so Jane did and gave one of the most touching speeches in academy history.


Saturday, January 15, 2011


Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1972 (8.1*)
This engaging mystery play by Anthony Shaffer becomes an acting tour-de-force for it's two stars, Laurence Olivier, as a man whose wife is having an affair with a younger man, and Michael Caine, as the wife's lover. Olivier invites Caine to his home for a drink and what follows is an intellectual game of oneupmanship as the two battle wits in what is perhaps the best performances of each actor as they skillfully play off each other and the incisive repartee.

You could call this an experimental play, as it's an all dialogue piece for two actors, and it's underlying uniqueness is also perhaps it's major weakness. Rather lengthy at nearly three hours, if one tires of the one room setting or the voices of Olivier and Caine, then there's really no escape within the film. However, there are enough twists in the plot puzzle to keep more mental movie fans riveted throughout as the film is basically a crime mystery.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz is the brilliant director of 1950's best picture and director winner All About Eve, which also featured two actors sparring throughout, Bette Davis and Anne Baxter but also a terrific supporting cast.


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Days of Glory

aka Indigènes (Algeria-Morocco-France-Belgium)
Rachid Bouchareb, 2006 (9.3*)A ten-year project for director Bouchareb, who had to research this story by spending a year interviewing survivors of WW2, then around 80-90 years old who fought for Algeria and Morocco in liberating France, which were around 200,000 in total number. He then completely story boarded the film with over 900 drawings.

The story follows four soldiers in one unit from Algeria, and their sergeant from Morocco, beginning with the invasion of Italy and continuing through France. The acting is uniformly superb, and all the male lead actors won best actor at Cannes as a group. The action is at the level of Patton and Saving Private Ryan, perhaps a bit more Hollywood looking, but then it was made for just around 15 million - here it would have been a 50m epic from Spielberg or Eastwood and been nominated for 8 Oscars. Personally, I think the acting is better than either of these American films, far more realistic and credible overall; there are no hams in this group because there are no stars. (Of course, Scott needed to be over the top because George Patton was also, certainly 'bigger than life' compared to the unheralded infantryman.)

In actuality, it grossed only 300k in the U.S., which means it was seen by less than 100,000 people. That's a crime for a war film this good. Perhaps its because a large part of the story's intent is to enlighten us to the untold story of North African fighters who were largely ignored by history and the French government. There are also issues of prejudice between the Moroccans and Algerians, and of course major ones between the French and Algerian.

The war scenes are realistic and intense without excessive gore, and the overall pace held my interest until the end; it's a very finely crafted film. Overall, this is a film you won't easily forget. It should have won more awards worldwide, but did get nominated for 9 Cesars in France, and a foreign language Oscar® here, representing Algeria. [It was a tough year for that category, see my note below] Winner of 6 awards out of 18 nominations.

Note: the foreign language film academy award that (in 2007 for 2006 films) was a far better group than the main best picture films. The winner, The Lives of Others, is a great film about espionage of ordinary citizens. After the Wedding is my favorite Danish film, an all-time top 50 for me. Water, from Indian director Deepa Mehta, is her best to me, also one of my favorites of the decade. The only one I didn't like was a double Oscar® winner (Special effects, Makeup) and was favored here, Pan's Labyrinth. It's story wasn't nearly as compelling as the other four, which are all classics of their genres. I would have understood any of these winning except Pan's. Voters in this category have to attend pre-Oscar® screenings of all five in order to vote, so there's a more fair assessment than any other category. I agree with the choice, and Lives of Others is one of only 5 films in history to win both the US and British academy awards for foreign language film.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Winter's Bone

Debra Granik, 2010 (9.4*)
Grand Jury Award, Sundance
Excellent southern gothic story, being called 'film noir', about a teenage girl hunting for her dad, who has disappeared before a court appearance after putting up their Ozark mountain shack and land for a bail bond. Since he's a meth cooker, many feel that he's either fled to avoid prison, or has been fed to some pigs. The film hinges on the terrific breakthrough performance by Jennifer Lawrence, nominated for many acting awards this year.

Jennifer gives a touching performance as a girl, Rolly Dee, who has to take care of two younger siblings who don't get enough to eat. She teaches them how to survive without her, typical backwoods skills like hunting and cleaning squirrels for dinner. To complicate matters, her mother is now catatonic and is still at home. This is a rough life that is all too typical all over the south; in fact, this is so close to my Georgia mountain homeland that it's almost unbearable.

Terrific indie actor John Hawkes is perfect as her uncle, who provides the only real adult support that she gets. Even more memorable is actress Dale Dickey [photo rt] as a scary distant relative who warns her not to come around their place anymore, as many who visit the meth dealers domain don't leave.

Already a winner of 10 awards, with 27 nominations, including the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Winter's was directed and co-written by Debra Granik [photo lt], who has a wonderful touch with keeping the story and the actors understated, which adds to the realism and therefore the story's impact. In upcoming ceremonies, Winter's Bone is also nominated for 7 Indie Spirit awards, including best feature, director, actress, screenplay, supporting actor and actress - and 7 Satellite awards. It should receive some Oscar® nominations, if justice is served: picture, director, screenplay, actress for Lawrence, and supporting actress for Dickey. The film has a rating of 90/100 at Metacritic, which compiles critics ratings - this would place it in the all-time top 100. Lawrence is being compared to Streep, and Granik to Kathryn Bigelow.

Update: Winter's Bone received Oscar® nominations for best picture, actress (Lawrence), adapted screenplay, and supporting actor (Hawkes)

Young Jennifer Lawrence in a breakthrough performance


Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Christopher Nolan, 2010 (9.2*)
If you take the paradoxical spacial anomalies of artist M.C. Escher and use that structure to construct a film narrative, you'll get an approximation of the complexity of the plot of Christopher Nolan's amazing science fiction film. Most of the action takes place in a dream state, which means that you get something based in reality, yet one which seems to have some small anomalies that trigger the uneasy feeling that something is not quite right.

Using the idea that the subconscious may be manipulated from this state, an idea they call 'inception', scientist Leonardo Dicaprio has built a small company that attempts corporate espionage for huge fees. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays his assistant, always there to help monitor the dream state, while ex-wife Marion Cotillard, who steals the acting kudos in this, usually shows up in Dicaprio’s sub-conscious state.

In a new assignment, he is hired by Ken Watanabe who has a business agenda involving the late Pete Postlethwaite (who recently died of cancer), plays a dying business tycoon who built a huge congomerate that he’s passing on to son Cillian Murphy. He enlists the aid of an architect, in this case student Ellen Page, to build a false world but one based on the reality of the particular subject's.

There are elements injected by Nolan that the non-scientist wouldn't consider, so this is a well-researched idea that gives reality to the subconscious world through some mind and space-bending special effects. Nolan has managed to create an imaginary world so close to reality that the subject is fooled into thinking he's in a real situation and responds to the manipulation.

The man who gave us the complex backward chronology of the murder mystery Memento has once again used a brain-scrambling narrative that will both intrigue and baffle many viewers. Nolan, who also gave us Batman Begins and The Dark Knight and the Sci-fi magic tale The Prestige, is proving to be able to stand apart from a legion of formulaic filmmakers in making us think while he keeps us riveted with action that threatens to propel his main character over the edge of a cliff at any moment.

Currently ranked #6 all-time on the IMDB 250, it's obvious that Inception has enough action to satisfy that lowest common-denominator of film fans, cloaked in an intellectual puzzle sophisticated enough to intrigue and pique the interest of those of us tired of the standard action formula film of good vs. evil with a fight to the death as a predictable climax. The film is up for four upcoming Golden Globe awards, and 11 Satellite awards, and will certainly be a contender for some Oscars® as well.


Thursday, January 6, 2011

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse

Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, 1991 (9.2*)
Documentary footage by Eleanor Coppola

Perhaps the most incredible film about the filmmaking process ever made, which was put together by Bahr and Hickenlooper using over 60 hours of Eleanor Coppola's footage that was shot to document husband Francis Ford's monumental effort to make his war classic Apocalypse Now!

We get to see behinds the scenes obstacles, such as how actor Martin Sheen almost died during filming, suffering a heart attack likely brought on by exhaustion. We see Francis wrestling with the ultimate statement of the film, the ending. In one revealing scene he says something to the effect of "I have this incredible journey on film without a destination, without a proper conclusion".

The production faced set-destroying typhoons, lack of financing, disease, and even at one point had their helicopters pulled by the Philippines military to use in fighting rebels. The fact that we have this film at all is really a minor miracle, as Coppola had to mortgage his own personal home to continue shooting.

This is a must-see documentary for all fans of the creative process in general, and filmmaking in particular. Along with Burden of Dreams, which followed Werner Herzog as he filmed Fitzcarraldo in the Brazilian jungle, one of the most moving testaments to a director's obsession with a personal project that simply must get filmed at all costs.

An excellent companion to this film is Eleanor's book "Notes", a non-fiction journal kept daily during the filming.


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Now, Voyager

Irving Rapper, 1942, bw (9.0*)
One of the best Bette Davis films, this is an uncompromising adult story that was all too rare in Hollywood's heyday of crowd-pleasing happy films with pat stories.

Davis has a domineering mom that drives her to a sanitarium. There she finds a kindred spirit, the daughter of her therapist (Claude Rains) who moves in with her after they recover and leave. She takes an ocean voyage on which she falls in love with a married man, Paul Henreid. I can't say more without spoiling the story and plot, but suffice to say that Davis had the best discretion of any actress for choosing which scripts were best for herself - she turned down Gone With the Wind after filming Jezebel the year before.

If not for the astounding All About Eve (1950), this would be my favorite Davis film. Ironically, the film's release was held up while waiting for the symphonic Max Steiner (Gone With the Wind) score, which Davis felt would "walk all over the actor's lines" and hurt her chance for another Oscar. She was right of course, the music is entirely unnecessary and detracts rather than enhances.

This is a must-see for fans of Davis and intelligent classic films without a formulaic storyline.

Quote: I didn't want to be born. You didn't want me to be born. It's been a calamity on both sides.
Quote2: Oh Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars.

Note: The daughter of Claude Rains, in a recent TCM interview, said that Davis always loved Rains, would often show up at his house during troubled marriages, once spending six weeks, but he would never commit to her. Women were attracted by his self-confidence, not to mention his incredible talent.


Tuesday, January 4, 2011


William Wyler, 1938, bw (8.1*)
Wyler has a track record likely to remain unbroken, as 13 of his films were nominated for best picture Oscars®, including five years in a row, and he successfully directed actors to 12 individual Oscars®, including Bette Davis for this film. When she was asked to play Scarlett in Gone With the Wind a year later (she was the overwhelming choice of fans and the producers), she replied, "No thanks - I've already played Scarlett once".

This story is also a little soapy like Wind, but at least we're only subjected to less than two hours rather than nearly four. Here she also plays a less than saintly southern belle, who also scandalized the town, in this case by appearing at a ball in a red dress, which unfortunately loses some impact by being in black-and-white.

I did like the ending of this film more than Wind, which I found to be dreary and hopeless. As many know, the south really never recovered from the Civil War and remains in pretty much a depression nowdays. Georgia leads the nation in recent bank failures and is in the top 3-5 for unemployment, so the end of Wind made me think that Scarlett likely did not have any life to envy after returning to Tara.

Nevertheless, for fans of perhaps the greatest actress in film history, a double-Oscar® winner, and one of the greatest directors, this is a must-see.


Monday, January 3, 2011


Catherine Hardwicke, 2003 (8.4*)
Tough, edgy, and gritty, this realistic look at a young teenage girl in L.A. is very disturbing. The film is carried by terrific performances by Holly Hunter as the mother of 13-yr old Tracy, brilliantly portrayed by Evan Rachel Wood. Hunter is actually more like a big sister or a friend to Tracy, as she's struggling to make ends meet with little support from her ex-husband.

When Tracy begins the 7th grade, she sees a popular teen who looks and acts far beyond her age, Evie, played by the screenplay's co-author Nikki Reed, who was just 15 when she wrote this in just six days, and who also received one acting award as best newcomer. Until that day, Tracy had been a good mommy's girl, but goes through changes nearly overnight in her desire to be as popular as Evie. The two start hanging out together and in order to keep up, Tracy begins stealing money, going on mindless shopping sprees, and partaking in drugs with Evie. The two become inseparable, and Tracy begins to disobey her mother, avoid school altogether, and seems to be only interested in shallow and temporary pleasures.

The transformation is frightening to watch, as both girls are beyond control or self-discipline, and have no real goals in life other than instant gratification. This is an almost entirely female-produced film, from Hunter as star and producer, to the screenplay by Reed and director Hardwicke, to the cast, whose only males are Tracy's brother, dad, and a few male high school friends. It makes an important statement about parenthood, and though R-rated, seems to be a film that should be watched by parents with their teenaged kids, as a warning of how not to act if you want to reach adulthood with any semblance of maturity. This is a film that makes me glad I never had kids, as they often seem to rebel out of boredom or an impatience to become adult.

Hunter was nominated for a supporting actress Oscar®, and the film won 13 awards out of 35 nominations


Sunday, January 2, 2011

Me and You and Everyone We Know

Miranda July, 2006 (8.7*)
Special Jury Prize, Sundance
Visual artist Miranda July made this film to publicize her museum quality artwork. In her story, an artist, played by herself, is working on a show in a local museum. This circular storyline rarely works, but it certainly works here, thanks to her honest artistry.

Along the way we get treated to a budding romance she has with a shoe salesman, wonderfully played by John Hawkes [note: now a best supporting actor nominee for 2010's Winter's Bone], and a hilarious internet romance struck up using chat by the museum's female director. This leads to one of the funniest scenes in recent films when a meeting takes place at a park bench.

This film epitomized the term small indie film. As such, it is an important statement by a female artist and budding film director. Miranda wrote, directed, and stars in this film which essentially makes it a one person work of art, and one which is about the artist herself. Usually this sort of exercise reeks of self-promotional egoism, yet somehow Miranda's self-deprecating and realistic viewpoint make this film an intimate and revealing look at how the creative process can give us a glimpse into the soul of the artist.

For me it is for more interesting than the facile laziness I feel when watching some of the films by John Cassavetes or even lesser Woody Allen vehicles. I hope she continues with her film career and perhaps turns the camera on external subjects next time, for she's a very talented filmmaker, and unlike any other.

This film won FOUR awards at Cannes: Critics Week Grand Prize, Un Certain Regard, Golden Camera, and the Young Critics Award. At Sundance, it won the Special Jury Prize for 'originality and vision'. Overall it won 18 awards out of 26 nominations, with 16 awards going to Miranda, most for director or film, but a couple for screenplay and ensemble cast.


Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Professional

aka Léon
Luc Besson, 1994 (8.6*)

Critics panned this violent film when it came out, but I was captivated by the first time performance of newcomer (and amateur) 12 yr old Natalie Portman, who was discovered in a Long Island laundromat with her mom by a model agency rep on a weekend. When she went to the agency the following Monday, they sent her to audition for this film and she got the lead role.

She plays a young girl who goes out for some groceries while her family is massacred by corrupt drug agents, led by an insidiously evil Gary Oldman. She continues past her apt and knocks on the door of French hitman Jean Reno, who takes her in out of pity.

What follows is a western style bloodbath, as Reno is so good at his profession, and in his best film role (Ronin is another good one, a Frankenheimer action film with DeNiro) that no one can capture him, and he vows to protect the girl with his life, as well as teach her what he knows about survival.

This is an enjoyable action film, yet you also buy the platonic relationship and affection Reno develops for the tomboyish orphan. Portman displays incredible emotion (see photo rt) with no prior training as a waif cast adrift by the lawlessness of the big city. Portman is so good in this film that everyone could tell she'd be a major star, eventually garnering an Oscar® nomination for Closer.

This is now considered a cult classic, and is on many top film lists. Currently #35 all-time on the IMDB top 250.


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These are the individual film reviews of what I'm considering the best 1000 dvds available, whether they are films, miniseries, or live concerts. Rather than rush out all 1000 at once, I'm doing them over time to allow inclusion of new releases - in fact, 2008 has the most of any year so far, 30 titles in all; that was a very good year for films, one of the best ever.

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