Welcome back to I Liked The Trailer Better’s belated Top Ten of 2009. This is Part 2: Revenge of the Stalin. It’s really too bad no Russian films made our lists, otherwise that might have been funny. Please read Part 1 if you haven’t already.
But to recap: Brian picked movies that may or may not exist. McFilmerstein picked films that made him cry. Menopause is really getting to him. McFilmerstein is Brian's father and cut off his hand. With the hand he still has, Brian is hanging off a cliff ready to tell you his top 5 movies. McFilmerstein is combing through his blackberry contacts to see what other names he can drop as this will be the determining factor in his remaining choices.
Okay, if you’ll remember, McFilmerstein's #6 was ADVENTURELAND.
BRIAN: Yay ADVENTURELAND! Ah, nostalgia for the 80’s… I did a lot of coke in grade school, that shit ain’t funny.
5. AVATAR. The movie doesn’t have much staying power – the story is too stale from repeated use and the characters don’t have any of the iconic presence of The Terminator or Ripley. I think I’m okay with that. It is a pure movie-going experience for the experience itself. The fact that the movie doesn’t live on in my head the way Frenchy McQuiet moments do isn’t a bad thing: this is a movie that demands to be experienced. The memory of it should only pale in comparison.
GOLAN: First of all, I’d like to commend you for finally selecting a film that was made for more than $18 and the remnants of a coat pocket. Now, you realize that putting this on your list will get you kicked out of the Cassavetes AV Club, right? Be careful – this one made some money, which may go against your sensibilities.
As for the flick, I’ve already spoken my piece about it in our last post (http://bit.ly/aFYbVu), but more than that, if you look back at our big AVATAR post, you’ll find a very thorough explanation of why it shouldn’t be this high on your list. That being said, with you choosing a big budget studio blockbuster for your top ten list, I guess beggars shouldn’t be choosers and I should just be happy you didn’t put an Iranian film about a rock as your #5.
Speaking of which…
5. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. “You probably heard we ain’t in the prisoner-takin’ business; we in the killin’ Nazi business. And cousin, business is a-boomin’.” Brad Pitt was utterly ridiculous in his role as Aldo Raine, as were most of the Basterds themselves. With the exception of the basement scene, this movie, for me, was about three people – Mélanie Laurent’s Shosanna Dreyfus, Academy Award-winner Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa (oops, did I spoil the surprise?) and Daniel Brühl’s Fredrick Zoller.
Before I get to all of them, though, I want to point out that this film should put all the naysayers to rest about whether or not Tarantino is the real thing. Like it or not, and many still don’t for whatever reason, he has now helmed RESERVOIR DOGS, PULP FICTION, JACKIE BROWN and KILL BILL, all of which go on the top ten lists of their respective years. And that’s forgetting about all the other fun projects he’s had a hand in – the script for TRUE ROMANCE, the best scene in FOUR ROOMS, NATURAL BORN KILLERS, FROM DUSK TIL DAWN, etc, etc.
He’s been around in our public consciousness as a filmmaker and as a generational voice for nearly 20 years and still seems fresh whenever he comes out with a movie. Actors still clamor to work with him, financiers still jump to bankroll his movies and studios still give him final cut.
Anyway, my point is that this movie should show those in doubt that he is just one of those guys that grabs a pen, churns out a script, gets behind the camera, and simply knocks it out of the park time after time. Sure, people will say that GRINDHOUSE ain’t that great, or some other such nonsense, but that’s like me talking up Billy Wilder (the best director of all-time for those of you not in the know) and having the response be, “Yeah, but IRMA LA DOUCE wasn’t the best movie ever.” Okay, but it’s still better than most for what it was trying to be! And so was GRINDHOUSE, so if that’s the best ammunition you have against QT, step off and stop being such a hater.
But, as usual, I digress, Waltz’s Landa was one of the best characters of the year performed by one of the best actors of the year. His emotional ups and downs, his genteel brutality, his grasp of seemingly every language under the sun made him so unique and interesting and just plain cool that I am now able to say a phrase I thought I never would: “My favorite character of the year was a Nazi!”
Laurent’s Dreyfus may seem simple, but she encompassed fear, regret, mourning, anger, shame and a thirst for revenge in ways that most actors can’t on their best day. The way her neck tensed up at just the right moments – almost imperceptible if you weren’t looking for it – revealed volumes about a character that could have been very stock.
The last guy, Brühl’s Zoller, was a surprise to me. I didn’t realize the depths that existed within the character until my second or third viewing, and they surprised the hell out of me. This guy who was branded a hero by the Nazis and reveled in and enjoyed his fame (or infamy) also hated that he had become a star by being a murderer. He understood the blood-lust the Nazi high command had and – despite his hatred for their ideals – knew that he had to embrace his label of favorite son in order to do better things in the future. And then, in the end, when push came to shove, after being unable to watch a filmic recreation of his own massacre of the American soldiers, he then succumbed to his murderous and violent nature when rejected by a woman! What a great representation of the struggle we all have within ourselves… cut me off and I may let it go because I’m a good person and maybe you didn’t do it on purpose… but if you cut me off and then flip me the bird to illustrate that you really did it deliberately, and I then see you later in a place where there are no witnesses… you may get a hurt brought down upon you that harkens back to biblical tales. Sweet.
Enough of this rambling. What’s your #4?
BRIAN: Funny you should ask.
4. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. Well, I’m not so sure he seems all that fresh with every new movie. Upon hearing that he was at work on a WWII movie that he was calling his masterpiece, I was incredibly curious to see how such a pulpy, movie geek would treat such heavy subject matter. I was sort of expecting, maybe hoping for, the maturation PT Anderson demonstrated when he did THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Nope, still the same pulpy filmmaker – WWII is little more than the backdrop of another revenge tale. Same shit, different time period. So we don’t get to witness a great filmmaker becoming better, but we do get a great filmmaker remaining great. No one can build the suspense in a conversation quite like him.
And other fans may attest to the film’s supposed deeper, subversive meaning. I don’t think I buy it. In fact, doing so only opens it up to more charges about how superficial or incomplete his message might be. Best to take it as a mere genre exercise, and here’s why: after the endless spate of self-serious Oscar bait attempting to memorialize the Holocaust, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS unwittingly offers a better alternative in coping with such unspeakable tragedy: trivializing it. And sometimes, that’s exactly why we go to the movies.
GOLAN: Wow! I really like that we’re kind of on the same page here, although I don’t totally agree with your assessment of the film. It would be like watching PULP FICTION and pretending that it didn’t have storylines that touched on redemption, or that there wasn’t a resurrection theme running throughout. I don’t know if we should give Tarantino all the credit, but to not give him any credit is, I think, a tad overboard. Anyway, I’m glad we liked the same movie.
4. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. I’ve talked a lot about this one in our other posts, but it bears repeating. Brilliant, moving, deep and affecting. Because I’ve already said so much, I’ll just point out that making a fantastical movie about non-human creatures that act very much like humans and then look to a human child to save them from their own humanity… whew! Never thought I’d see the day. When I first heard they were making this film, I was worried. How do you take a book that holds such great memories for me (and millions of others) and turn it into a feature-length movie? Is it by taking a big dump on the author’s chest, a la THE CAT IN THE HAT or THE GRINCH? Is it by being super faithful, and therefore, making something that never should have been made, a la BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA or CHARLOTTE’S WEB? Is it by throwing tons of money behind it and making it into such a spectacle that it doesn’t matter that it came from a book to begin with a la THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE or the new PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS: THE LIGHTNING THIEF? Or do you do something more subversive like taking said tome and turning it into something deep and different and interesting and awesome? Two movies I have not seen, FANTASTIC MR. FOX and CORALINE, apparently do just that, but I can’t imagine that they do it even half as well as Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze. ‘Nuff said. Moving on.
BRIAN: Despite the titular pulp in PULP FICTION, it’s a deeper film than INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. I’m not stripping Tarantino of any credit, I don’t think. The story itself has layers of complexity, but I think the meta-movie subversion that many fans attest to is overreaching in its interpretation.
As for WILD THINGS, yeah, I think it will be a watermark in film adaptation. It’s a great example of a screenwriter understanding the material beyond just the text, but uncovering the essence of a piece and extrapolating from that. It manages to be wildly interpretive while remaining respectful. As for your not being able to imagine FANTASTIC MR. FOX doing it half as well…
3. FANTASTIC MR. FOX. It does do it half as well, actually much more than half. It doesn’t have quite the level of difficulty that Eggers and Jonze had in adapting it, but Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach do just fine. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know exactly which parts belong to the original source, but I can absolutely recognize the fingerprints of Anderson and Baumbach all over the project. Their intelligence, understanding of family dynamic, and original humor are evident throughout.
Wes Anderson’s films are controlled and composed to the very last inch of the screen. Thus, a stop-motion animation film, in which every movement is painstakingly altered 24 frames per second, must be in some ways a perfection of his vision. With no room for accident, the film’s movie language is stripped to its etymological roots, laying bare the function of his go-to techniques. It’s just like the scene in the movie when the animals tap into their true potential when they recall what the scientific Latin name of their species is – this film is Wes Anderson’s imagination fully realized.
GOLAN: Wow. Can’t wait. Another one I have at home that I really have to get on. Also, I’ve already made it clear that I haven’t seen it yet, so thanks for ruining that scene where the animals tap into their true potential for me. By the way, Darth Vader is Luke’s father and Kevin Spacey is Keyser Soze. Dick.
3. UP IN THE AIR. If you’d ask me to make this list last month, this would have been my #1 of the year. Maybe even last week. But in the interim, I really started thinking about what affected me the most in cinema in 2009, and suddenly, certain things started to slide. It’s still phenomenal (as evidenced by being my #3 of the year), and I should make it clear that it dropped two slots by virtue of the other two films that have yet to be named being so good, not by this lacking anything. I know without even seeing your next two selections that this won’t make it anywhere near your top ten, and that’s okay. This is not a film for everyone.
Yes, I can fall back on the tried and true company line that this is a film that really is “of the moment,” but that’s not why it spoke to me. Despite touching on economic woes, the recession and all things layoff, this movie seemed timeless to me. How many of us have compartmentalized our lives, only to have something (or someone) rock us off our foundation? How many of us have believed ourselves to be happy, only to realize that we were, in fact, missing something fundamental and necessary? Tons of us! And probably tons more that haven’t had the revelation yet.
This movie hinges on a guy that is doing his best when the world is at its worst. That, as people are falling by his hand – lives ruined, family’s falling apart – he is chasing a goal that couldn’t be more frivolous and pathetic. He doesn’t even realize that the goal he’s chasing, while useless in the long run, is all about him leaving his mark on the world so that people knew he was actually there. Because he is desperate to make a connection. To have a lasting purpose.
I love the fact that he is oblivious to the fact that the new girl’s idea of firing people via iChat is just pushing the world further into his already-isolated corner, and that while he claims to revel in seclusion, he is desperate for the human contact he gets with the people he terminates, if only for a moment or two.
People have complained that the ending is ambiguous, leaving you with a sense of longing for a resolution, or that things in the film are a bit too calculated… To them I say two things – one, the name of the film should have given you a hint that it was not going to be handed to you wrapped in a neat little bow… and two, shut up. And yes, I'm talking to you.
BRIAN: Yeah! I take full credit in knocking this overpraised film off your top spot! For the uninitiated reader, see our previous exchanges about the film and you’ll see why. Or to summarize: You write above, “not a film for everyone.” I say that’s bullshit: the film was meant for everyone and therefore too afraid to offend anyone, playing it safe every step of the way.
That being said, it’s a good movie. It makes my “it was fine in 2009” list. Here are the others: (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, BRIGHT STAR, MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, HARRY POTTER 6, and UP. So there you go. Boy, I really hope none of these make your list. That would be a travesty.
2. THE WHITE RIBBON. Reducing this film to the thematic logline critics have been attaching it to – that it’s a look at the roots of Fascism – is a bit tricky. Sure, it very well might be, but Michael Haneke only lightly traces the causal relationship of the film’s events to the rise of the Nazi party. Instead, he presents circumstantial evidence, with the audience as jury to give their own verdict on the film’s events. The title refers to the ribbon tied around the preacher’s son’s bicep to remind him of his “purity” (and also tied to a bed post at night to prevent him from masturbating – did I mention it’s also a hilarious comedy?). It’s an allusion to the swastika arm band and the purity of race that identify the Nazi party – a lovely example of the understated foreshadowing of events that happen well after the movie’s setting is over.
GOLAN: The real travesty is that you include UP IN THE AIR and UP amongst your “fine in 2009” list. I think you may be in full-on anti-popularity mode here – it stars superstar George Clooney (and not as an animated character), therefore it can’t be in my top ten. It comes from movie juggernaut Disney, therefore even though it was clearly a masterpiece, it can’t be praised.
By the way, I think you couldn’t be more wrong about UP IN THE AIR being made for everyone. The fact that everyone (with a smattering of cynics here and there being the exception) seems to like it is not a weakness! As in his previous films (which should have been much more polarizing because of the potentially controversial subject matters), Reitman defies the odds and manages to cull together a film that works on all levels. To fault him for that would be like faulting Da Vinci for the Mona Lisa being too popular.
As for THE WHITE RIBBON… I know you love Haneke, and I know you love his lack of resolution, but here I found it pretty excruciating. There are very few filmmakers in the world today that can hit you over the head with an obvious message, while at the same time revealing nothing. Haneke is #1 when it comes to that. As usual, his characters are despicable – was there a sympathetic one in the bunch? I get that as bad things happen, we are more likely to become afraid and give over to the authorities. I get that our own rotten nature as people (and yes, I think that Haneke believes that we’re all horrible) leads us to allow a greater evil to take over… an evil that may have more power, but may also lead to – gasp – things like the Holocaust. Blah blah blah blah. This movie was fucking boring.
Speaking of movies that are the opposite of boring …
2. THE HURT LOCKER. What a film. Finally, someone cracks the “how to tell the Iraq War story onscreen” puzzle. By not addressing the politics of the situation and just making a movie about pure, unadulterated war! I know that this is the opposite of what you said when you named it #6 on your list (“The other Iraq war movies got knocked for either being too polemical or conveniently sidestepping the politics altogether. THE HURT LOCKER does neither. For a soldier in an all voluntary army, politics is not why we fight; instead, war is a drug.”).
As a former soldier myself, I can say that whether or not the service is voluntary is rarely the issue. Once you’re in it, you crave the excitement of something other than sitting around the barracks, or standing guard. I remember being excited about just shooting a gun in a firing range, because it seemed cool and dangerous, even in a controlled environment. It is a drug, and it always be one, no matter where or when in the world you are. Even if you hate it, even if you fear it, even if you don’t believe in the cause you’re fighting for, even if you can’t wait to get out and go back to your normal life, it is still a drug. And the more we become a society where first-person shooter games and paintball guns become a way of life, the more that drug will take hold. Half the people who join the army now do it, in addition to their other reasons, because it’s like living out a video game fantasy. And this movie is the quintessential version of that.
This movie could take place in any country, in any war, in any year. Hell, on any planet with any species. This is a movie that could even be remade by other countries as an indigenous story without having to alter so much as a word. The characters were people, not American soldiers. The disarming of each subsequent bomb akin to potentially deadly art. The outpouring of emotion, however manly and quiet, universal.
Plus, tension like I’ve never seen on screen. Kathryn Bigelow (who must have been born with very good genes) directs the hell out of this movie. If she doesn’t win best director this year, it will be another blight on the Academy’s record. Even people who don’t like this movie (and I don’t know many) were gripping their armrests in the theater as Jeremy Renner took off his flack jacket to get into that car.
I could go on and on about this flick, but I’ll just end with this… I’ve been thinking about this movie since I saw it. And I probably won’t stop anytime soon. It somehow manages to be both delicious junk food and healthy brain food all at once. And maybe it’s about time we learn, as a filmmaking community, to straddle that line a little more.
BRIAN: Oh, come on, if I was really guilty of faulting movies for their popularity, why did I like AVATAR more than you? Ditto THE DARK KNIGHT, which you bear some sort of personal resentment towards.
I will finally concede one point on UP IN THE AIR though: I can appreciate Reitman’s attempt at making the film as accessible as possible (if seen in the tradition of 40’s studio system movies), especially after hearing about the darker tone of the novel it was based on. He is taking purposeful steps in making the material more relatable, even if that means playing it safe throughout. It’s the exact same way America can appreciate Jay Leno.
I guess that was pretty passive aggressive. I feel good about it. Hey, you just compared the film to Mona Fucking Lisa; I figured I go the other way.
Resolving the mystery in THE WHITE RIBBON is not simply Haneke’s way of saying “Fuck you” to conventional audience expectations. It wouldn’t have made any sense to identify who the culprit of the violent acts was. His whole point is to suggest a social responsibility, not just an individual one. It would be like saying Adolf Hitler is the only man responsible for the atrocities of WWII, as if he were the devil incarnate. Furthermore, by doing so, he is not pinning the roots of evil on “the rotten nature” of humanity, but rather examining how evil can sprout from sequestered, innocuous settings. If anything, he sees the historically vilified people as victims here, not horrible perpetrators just following their inhumane instincts. And while there are some despicable characters, there are plenty of sympathetic figures in the movie – many Haneke followers and critics have noted the unexpected warmth of the film, surely not an emotion the director is known for. The romance between the narrator and his love interest is surprisingly sweet, as are several of the interactions between the kids and their siblings or parents. As for the film being fucking boring, I’ll admit – there really wasn’t enough locker room towel-snapping done with the titular white ribbon. Why didn’t the kids use the white ribbon to strangle their overbearing parents in their sleep? I can’t believe none of the characters figured out how to turn that white ribbon into a machine gun to blow up the bad guy with lasers.
HURT LOCKER! Great movie, but I should clarify the quote you misread. I’m saying that it doesn’t get political (which is what you’re also saying), but that it also doesn’t sidestep – or conveniently ignore – the politics the way a film like JARHEAD does, seeming more like an exercise in filmmaking than a movie about war. The way the film does this is by acknowledging the political vacuum of combat for these soldiers – when we get glimpses of their civilian life, it is decidedly apolitical, particularly in contrast to the crusaders they are fighting. Kathryn Bigelow has spoken about the distinction of this war being fought by, for the first time, an all volunteer army, and thus the motivation for these soldiers to enlist is central to the film’s thesis. There may be universalities shared among the soldiers of different wars, but I do think Bigelow is specifically drawing a character portrait of the American soldier in today’s wars. And that’s how, for me, she was able to finally crack the Iraq War film.
1. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. Fantasies primarily function as an escape – and there have been plenty of movies and books to explore this concept. This movie (much more so than the short book) exposes the limits of that function. The fantasy sequence is a product of Max’s imagination, and the filmmakers never forget that Max is a child. They could have opted to fabricate an Alice in Wonderland type narrative with characters and setpieces far more sophisticated than a child’s mind could ever dream up. While it would have arguably made for a more appealing movie, this would have been false. Instead, there are gaps and holes in the plot; the story turns on somewhat arbitrary events, as Max is likely making it up as it goes along (just like the rambling story he tells his mom in the beginning about the grown-up vampires biting into buildings).
Most importantly, the characters in the fantasy are half-formed in their identity and their motivation. They vaguely resemble the people in Max’s real life, and he fills in what he doesn’t understand about their motives with his own. A key process of child development is when the kid gains a more advanced form of empathy, able to understand others as well as himself. The “pretend” that Max is playing out in his head gives him a better understanding of the world. Thus, while the film surveys the limits of fantasy as escape, it also explores a different function of fantasy: working out the complexities of waking life. Fittingly, the film is always grounded in reality (as I’ve written in earlier posts, I’ve never seen a fantasy this tactile in its realization), and the fantasy never strays too far away from its inspiration. The reason Max’s journey must end is due to his inability to sustain that fantasy, but also: the kid got hungry. There’s a running motif of characters threatening to eat each other, perhaps a representation of his appetite. The last shot is of Max eating his dessert.
Spike Jonze’s goal was to capture the feeling of being a 9-year old. Given how adult audience members are reduced to tears by the end of it, I say he succeeded.
GOLAN: Not to beat a dead horse, but I still don’t think Reitman set out to make UP IN THE AIR accessible – the fact that it resonated for many different demographics speaks to his skill as a filmmaker. And yes, Mona Lisa was over the top. But, damn – Leno? That was below the belt!
As for THE WHITE RIBBON, I don’t disagree with most of what you’re saying. You actually are saying, more or less, what I said… but that doesn’t change the fact that I still found the film boring, as I do a lot of Haneke’s stuff. I can’t help it. A little machine gun laser masturbation bad guy towel-snap strangling might have helped! Next time I see Haneke, I’ll mention to him that you suggested it.
And I did indeed misread your quote on HURT LOCKER. A rare admission of fault, so savor it. In the end, it sounds like we’re on the same page. What a nice way to approach the end of this particular blog entry. With mutual appreciation (zing!). That being said, if Bigelow is going to claim that her thesis applies only to Iraq, my retort would be thus: Spoken like someone that’s never been in combat.
I have to admit I love that our respective number ones are both films that could easily have been mistaken for kid’s movies, but transcend categorization, affecting adults as well as children. Which brings me to…
1. UP. UP! UP UP UP UP! I’m going to keep this short, and just say that you need to see this movie. If you haven’t, you’re missing out. The opening sequence, almost entirely sans sound, aside from Michael Giacchino’s beautiful Oscar-winning score (oops – another spoiler!), in which we watch the courtship, romance, aging and eventual parting of Carl and Ellie is one of the most beautiful sequences I have ever seen committed to film.
Pete Docter and Bob Peterson have made what is quite possibly my favorite animated film of all-time. Admittedly, I have a strange list of favorite animated films (with THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE and MULAN at the top), but this one had such heart and soul and brains that it leaps into the top spot.
One of my favorite things about the flick is that there are so many elements that, admittedly, shouldn’t work together – an old widower making his house fly with helium balloons, a weird loner Asian boy scout, a maniacal octogenarian vying for glory, dogs that talk, a giant big colorful flightless bird – but damn if they not only work… they soar.
Beyond the awesome visuals (some of the best I’ve ever seen – you can really tell they went to South America to location scout), the great characters (when was the last time an old man with a walker was at the heart of a cartoon) and the amazing creativity (whoever thought up the interior of the Zeppelin deserves an Oscar for production design), this movie succeeds because of the genuinely heartwarming and touching story. I cannot tell you how many times I cried during this movie, but watching it in 3-D was made all the more difficult by me having to remove my special glasses to wipe my eyes every 10 minutes.
The movie doesn’t shy away from real fears, real issues or real sadness, which are all things that scare the hell out of studio executives. I credit this production team for going there. Over and over again.
When a talking dog brings you to tears just by being honest, you know you are watching a masterpiece.
P.S. When I walked out of the El Capitan Theater, the first thing I did was go next door and buy an UP hat, to display my support for the film. I think that may be why it got a Best Picture nomination. Thank you, Pixar. Keep up the good work.
[Editor’s note: And that’s it for I Liked The Trailer Better’s Top Ten List of 2009! What’d you think? Feel free to post your own top ten in the comments section. And check out their runners-up below. And don’t worry about who the editor was this time. Stop being petty.]
BRIAN: My runner-ups: HUMPDAY. Funny, honest, and daring. STILL WALKING. Modern-day Ozu (Japanesey McQuiet). PONYO. Round tummy. TWO LOVERS. Team Gwyneth. THE HEADLESS WOMAN. Lucretia Martel's follow-up to her masterpiece, The Holy Girl.
GOLAN: And here are mine in alphabetical order: (500) DAYS OF SUMMER. It made me smile. CRUDE. Great documentary from a great documentarian. THE HANGOVER. I like laughing. SIN NOMBRE. Team Cary. Straight up stunning work. Probably should have made my top ten. STATE OF PLAY. Totally underrated flick.