Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Favorites of 2009

It’s a little late for this end of the year stuff at this point, but I didn’t get to catch up with a lot of the big ’09 films until the very last minute. So consider the following my belated take on the ten best releases of the year. Also, I might as well start a tradition by once again including the ten best films, both new and old, that I caught up with on video this year.

1. The Hurt Locker

Someone finally realized that the way to make a movie about the Iraq war is to not mention any of the details specific to it. To watch this movie is to understand why Jeremy Renner’s Sergeant James character is so addicted to war: it’s just plain exhilarating. That might be a bit appalling if this wasn’t also one of the first films to truly address the #1 problem of all war movies: that for all their horror, they will always be way too cinematically exciting to really be anti-conflict. That it does that while easily being the most gripping film of the year only adds to its greatness.

2. Inglourious Basterds

3. An Education

People who say “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” apparently haven’t seen this film. It’s classically constructed, beautifully written, and features one of the very best acting performances of the year from Carey Mulligan.

4. Moon

5. Summer Hours

I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t seen even a single one of Olivier Assayas’ other films, but this was enough to make me want to go through his whole catalogue. A deeply moving and meaningful story that tackles subjects rarely covered in the movies. This also features my favorite ending of any movie this year.

6. Goodbye, Solo

7. Thirst

Korean priest-vampires having lots of kinky sex? Count me in! Seriously, though, beyond being one of the most gorgeous looking movies of the year, this one finds a way to take the now very tired concept of the vampire, strip it of all it pretensions, and make one of the most oddly moving morality tales I’ve seen in a good while.

8. Big Fan

Not only is it as creepy as it is funny, but it has the originality (that is, balls) to portray characters that most movies wouldn’t touch. Patton Oswalt also proves once and for all that he’s got the skills to be a truly great actor.

9. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

10. In the Loop

The year’s most scathing satire, this story of the political spin machine at work is full of delightfully obscene dialogue where nearly every other line is something so clever that you feel you should write it down.

Honorable Mentions:

Up in the Air, District 9, Zombieland, Sugar, Not Quite Hollywood, I Love You Man

Video Discoveries of 2009:

Le Corbeau
(1943) D: Henri Georges Clouzot
Elevator to the Gallows (1958) D: Louis Malle
The Young One (1960) D: Louis Bunuel
Le Trou (1960) D: Jacques Becker
Downhill Racer (1969) D: Michael Ritchie
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) D: Peter Yates
Wings of Desire (1987) D: Wim Wenders
Withnail and I (1987) D: Bruce Robinson
The Hidden (1987) D: Jack Sholder
Joint Security Area (2000) D: Park Chan Wook

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

Werner Herzog’s awkwardly titled new film The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans might stand as one of the most interestingly bold choices ever made by a legendary filmmaker. The film, which is full of Big Easy heavies and a ravaged post-Katrina landscape, could be described as a shameless b-movie, but that doesn’t really do it justice. Think of it more as one of those mid-eighties cop movies starring Gary Busey if it had been made by the world’s most prominent art house director…oh yeah, on drugs. (That little post-script might as well be tacked on to every description of this film.) Plenty of directors are willing to touch a toe into the tepid water that is exploitation, but Herzog, never one for doing anything half-assed, dives in headfirst, filling his movie with hookers, dead alligators, mobsters, hallucinatory iguanas, and, weirdest of all, Nicholas Cage. In the process, he finds a way to inject some new life into the “burnt-out cop” movie while simultaneously not forsaking one ounce of his trademark eccentricity. Whether you like the movie hinges almost entirely on whether you’re able to embrace its particular brand of insanity, but if you are, then The Bad Lieutenant proves to be one of the most rewarding and downright fun movies of ‘09.

Nic Cage stars as Terrance McDonagh, a New Orleans detective who, in the aftermath of Katrina, saves a convict from drowning in a flooded prison. His act of heroism earns him a promotion to Lieutenant, but it also leaves him with chronic back pain that leads to a mounting number of drug habits—both legal and otherwise. Just as he’s really starting to spin out of control, Terrance gets put in charge of investigating the execution-style homicide of a family of immigrants. In typical Herzogian fashion, McDonagh becomes absolutely fixated on solving the case—that is, of course, when he’s not too busy raiding the police evidence room for heroin or shaking down club kids for coke. While Terrance’s search for answers in the case leads him to a local drug dealer called “Big Fate,”(Xzibit) he also becomes entangled with a group of would-be mafiosos while trying to protect his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes) from a particularly unpleasant brand of customer.

Herzog shoots this all in the same kind of straightforward, low-budget style as he did Rescue Dawn. Some critics have complained about this, as though in order to really appreciate the fact that Terrance is snorting enough drugs to topple an elephant we need a shakier camera and some quicker pans. This, of course, has never been Herzog’s M.O. Even his grander films like Fitzcarraldo are relatively unadventurous in their visual stylings. He’s a guy much more concerned with just documenting the spectacle going on in the scene than he is with trying to enhance it with elaborate camera moves. That being said, The Bad Lieutenant does have some tricks up its sleeve. On a few occasions where Terrance is really flying high, Herzog switches to what looks like 8mm film to get a real feeling of detachment, and there’s even a bizarre shot sequence where the camera seems to ride on the back of an alligator as it waddles into the swamp. This is only one of dozens of shots in the film that depict the local wildlife (someone should write a book about how animals and insects function in the work of directors like Herzog and Luis Bunuel), from snakes and fish to imaginary lizards, the last of which makes for the film’s most absurdly hilarious scene when Terrance offhandedly complains “what the fuck are these iguanas doing on my coffee table?” to some fellow cops, as though it’s the most normal thing in the world.

Beyond these little touches, Herzog’s style here is relatively minimalist considering the material. This is all for the better, as his laissez-faire approach lets us sit back and really soak up the glorious insanity of Cage’s lead performance, which Matty Robinson of the Filmspotting podcast more than appropriately referred to as “a big bag of crazy.” Cage is in his full-on manic mode here, devouring scenery in a way that would have made Klaus Kinski proud. The guy gets a lot of grief, and he probably deserves most of it, but even I can admit that there is not one other actor in the world of such a high standing that would have been willing to tackle this kind of a role. For what it’s worth, there also might not be a single actor in Hollywood better at playing intoxicated, or at somehow ingratiating himself to the audience in the process. When Cage isn’t slurring his way through a scene, he’s bouncing off the walls like a madman and speaking in a rat-a-tat fashion that sounds like a mix of a 1920s news reporter and someone with a broken jaw. He switches between the two in a way that borders on confusing, but this mercurial quality is only one more part of what makes his delivery so fascinating. Still, Cage’s real achievement here, beyond affecting some really hilarious mannerisms and facial tics, is in the way he manages to make us believe in Terrance and root for him no matter how many despicable things he does. This is a guy who’s willing to pull guns on senior citizens and blatantly break the law in just about every way possible, but we still believe that there is a method to his more than considerable madness. That alone is an award-worthy achievement.

In the final analysis, this movie belongs more to Cage, whose performance alone is enough to warrant repeat viewings, than it does to Herzog. But Herzog still makes some truly wise decisions in his approach here. Unlike so many directors, he always knows exactly what kind of movie he’s making. He lets the material speak for itself, and beyond throwing in a few little Herzogian touches here and there, he’s not going out of his way to put too much of an authorial stamp on the film. This is disappointing at first, but then a bit comforting: if Herzog had filled The Bad Lieutenant with dwarfs, extended takes of chickens, or other evidence of his classic preoccupations, it would have been sure proof that he’d started to become a parody of himself. But he doesn’t. He’s restrained enough to let the movie’s strengths, particularly its bizarre brand of humor—this is, at its heart, comedy—be its biggest statement.

I’ll close with this: descriptions and reviews of this movie have all stressed just how over the top and insane it is. With this in mind, I was convinced going in that I would inevitably be a bit disappointed with the crazy factor of it, if only because it had been pushed so hard by every critic in the country. Suffice to say, The Bad Lieutenant manages to live up to the hype to be every bit it as mind-blowingly gonzo as you would hope it to be. And that just might be one of the most oddly significant achievements in any film this year.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Observe and Report (2009)

Jody Hill is a director who wholeheartedly doesn’t give a damn about whether his characters are likable. This stance was arguably the downfall of his first film, The Foot Fist Way, which heaped so much venom on its hero, a wannabe kung fu master, that it became downright tedious in its viciousness. Then came the excellent HBO TV series Eastbound and Down, on which Hill served as a writer and sometime director, which took a similar approach but added in equal amounts of pathos and a more experienced Danny McBride to help create one of the funniest egotists in recent TV memory. Observe and Report, which chronicles bipolar mall cop Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) in his struggle to get his life together and hunt down a serial flasher, is an amusingly uneven hodgepodge of Hill’s two previous projects. Its highs are soaring (in more ways than one, considering the different controlled substances characters ingest in heroic doses), but like its main character, it’s also got some serious issues.

The film has a great cast, especially Celia Watson as Ronnie’s perpetually drunk mom, and some seriously good set pieces, but tonally it’s all over the place. In the early running Hill and company are deliberately testing the limits of the audience’s threshold for dark humor (even the most hardcore comedies usually steer clear of characters slamming heroin and engaging in borderline date rape), and for a while, it’s all a bit too messy to be as funny as it should. But this is exactly the territory that Hill likes to deal in, so it’s almost not surprising that around the ¾ mark things get so ridiculous that the tone of the movie seems to swing back around the dial again to reach a level of absurdity that Will Ferrell would be proud to call his own. This shift is abrupt enough that it definitely drains the film of a lot of the off the wall creepy momentum it had early on. Still, jarring as it is, you are almost relieved that you finally get to laugh a bit. I would have preferred for Hill to have either made a unapologetically dark character study or an Anchorman-style comedy, but I can’t deny that some of the film’s most memorable moments are a mix of the two, and by the time Barnhardt faces off in hand-to-hand combat against a legion of angry cops led by Ray Liotta (!) while armed only with a flashlight, you sort of have to admit that Observe and Report has found a way to be both funny and completely amoral all at the same time. This might not be enough to keep every viewer engaged, as the critical uproar over the film showed, but even the movie’s detractors would probably admit that the players here are working with a fairly high degree of difficulty considering their intended audience. That, along with the fact that Hill has proven that he’s still not the least bit afraid of alienating half his viewers in any given scene, makes this a film that I have to admit I have an odd amount of respect for.