Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Best Films of the Aughts (70-79)

79. WALL-E - dir. Andrew Stanton (2008)

"Computer. Define 'dancing'."

78. Fish Tank - dir. Andrea Arnold (2009)

"You dance like a black. It's a compliment."

77. Reprise - dir. Joachim Trier (2008)

"We're supposed to write and read. And if we feel the urge we'll practice deviant, fetishistic sex with prostitutes."

76. Million Dollar Baby - dir. Clint Eastwood (2004)
"Mama, you take Mardell and JD and get home before I tell that lawyer there that you were so worried about your welfare you never signed those house papers like you were supposed to. So anytime I feel like it I can sell that house from under your fat, lazy, hillbilly ass. And if you ever come back, that's exactly what I'll do."

75. The Cell - dir. Tarsem Singh (2000)

"My World. My Rules."

Spotlight--74. Raising Victor Vargas - dir. Peter Sollett (2003)

"Listen. I'm a private person. What we do is between me and you. You still want this loving, right?"

Peter Sollett's jolting, vibrant and energetic tale of adolescent love and folly abounds with discovery nearly at every turn. Nearly every one of the principle players (with the exception of under-the-radar Indie queen Melonie Diaz) makes his or her feature film debut here. Peter Sollett announced himself as a powerful and interesting new cinematic voice. An aside: I have yet to watch his 2008 follow-up, the relatively high profile Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist. Should I?

At first glance, this would appear to be exactly the type of cinematic outing designed to bore the shit out of movie-watcher who complains about what is perceived to be the current trend of meandering, navel-gazing independent cinema, heralded as brilliant and cutting-edge by the flannel clad temp at your office (stay with me). I sympathize with this frustration, often siding with it. In my brief write-up of Winter's Bone, I talked about an air of human truth that's sometimes hard to pinpoint, but adds such richness to a great movie. There wasn't a moment of Raising Victor Vargas that felt false or playing to my very contrary, untested perceptions of twenty-first century life in the Lower East Side for these characters.

Victor Vargas (a fabulous Victor Rasuk) speaks the line quoted above. It is one of the first lines uttered in this film and it lets you know that you are in capable hands. Victor Vargas drips with a confident, slightly insular teenage male bravado that permeates everything from his words to his gestures. But what, if anything, is it masking? And why is Judy (Judy Marte), the wise girl he chases after seem more put off by Victor than any of the other boys in her neighborhood? Especially given that one young man candidly offers Judy anal sex in a manner that can only be described as less than chivalrous. These are questions that are answered by last frame. Victor is confident, yes. But the confidence he wears is something akin to a fancy pair of shoes worn by a newborn baby. Shiny and new, certainly. But Victor is still forming, still growing, still becoming himself and he may discover one day soon that his own self-perceived greatness may not fit the person he ultimately becomes. And Judy, for all of her womanly wisdom, for all of her desire to be anything but just another notch in the bedpost of one of the many boys who wish to bed her, really does like Victor. Sounds like your run-of-the-mill romantic comedy, doesn't it? Perhaps it does. But Raising Victor Vargas is anything but.

I spoke, very briefly, about Melonie Diaz. Like many of the actors in the film, she shares her character's first name. In a storyline that exists almost completely parallel to everything else in the film, Melonie (Judy's best friend) falls for one of Victor's chums, the sweet but somewhat cocky Harold (Kevin Rivera). Melonie and Harold's courtship is different than that of Victor and Judy. She is resistant and he is persistent, but not in the same ways and not for the same reasons. Melonie keeps what becomes a very deep, meaningful relationship with Harold a secret from Judy for most of the film. She is desperate to avoid Judy's judgmental stares and comments, not because they would influence her greatly, but because with a look in her eyes and a small gesture, Diaz lets you know that Melonie knows exactly how it's going to turn out and she's already kind of rolling her eyes. I've noticed this consistency in many of Melonie Diaz's performances. She seems naturally aplomb at playing that character who "gets it" just a little bit more than all the other characters around her, who are a a little slow on the uptake. It is a small performance that betrays how integral Diaz's watchfulness and knack for conveying teenage conflict is to the film.

While the Lower East Side of Manhattan has become somewhat of a gentrified hipster haven, that is not the Lower East Side presented in this film. That being the case, it's rife for poverty porn, but Peter Sollett wisely resists the urge to make this a story about a group of minority youths trapped by their circumstances. Or rather, he resists to urge to tell that tired story in the rote, pedestrian fashion that has become all too familiar. The neighborhood is replete with life and there is a youthful innocence and a playfulness that runs throughout Raising Victor Vargas. These are not wealthy people, but, like all young people, they live in and engage with their surroundings.

A key element that lets the viewer know that this is not a typical story of inner-city youths and strife is Victor's grandmother, Altagracia (played by Altagracia Guzman). She is hard on Victor, constantly demanding he set a good example for his younger brother and younger sister. She gifts the movie with soft, maternal humor that is steeped in obliviousness and a clinging to the old guard. At one point, she takes Victor down to social services, probably just to scare him, with the stated intention of turning him over to foster care as punishment for his wild ways and misbehavior. Why? Because she has caught Victor's brother Nino (Victor Rasuk's real life younger brother, Silvestre Rasuk) masturbating and she is almost certain he picked up this vile habit from Victor. Nino is far too sweet and innocent to have learned it elsewhere. Social services of course turns Altagracia away, stating that it is illegal to abandon children for no good reason. There is obviously a sweet humor in the sad ridiculousness of this situation. The subtext may also be that for all of his outlandish behavior, Victor is, at his core, a good kid. Furthermore, given the universe these characters inhabit, there are problems worse than masturbation where a teenage boy is concerned that Altagracia very well could be, but thankfully doesn't have to deal with.

In the end, Victor's conflicted relationship with his grandmother still remains, especially in a key scene near the end where the realities of his relationship with Judy are laid bare and everyone is forced to feel the way they feel. The last frame of the film doesn't offer an entirely tidy conclusion. But it's a lovely, subtle and graceful note to end on. One that doesn't lay out the paths of these characters for very long beyond the narrative, but also doesn't leave you unsatisfied. And in a film about teenage love and discovery (an honest one anyway) this is the truest way to leave it.

73. Zombieland - dir. Ruben Fleishcer (2009)

"You are like a like a giant cock-blocking robot. Like, developed in a secret fucking government lab."

72. Head-On - dir. Fatih Akin (2004)

"If you want to end your life, end it. You don't have to kill yourself to do that."

71. Inglourious Basterds - dir. Quentin Tarantino (2009)

"Not so fast, Willi. We only have a deal if we trust each other. A Mexican standoff ain't trust."

70. The Darjeeling Limited - dir. Wes Anderson (2007)

"I wonder if the three of us would have been friends in real life. Not as brothers, but as people."

Next: 60-69

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Best Films of the Aughts (80-89)

89. Wendy and Lucy - dir. Kelly Reichardt (2008)
"You can't get an address without an address. You can't get a job without a job."

88. Morvern Callar - dir. Lynne Ramsay (2002)

"Fuck work, Lanna. We can go wherever you like."

87. Mystic River - dir. Clint Eastwood (2003)

"Their daddy's a king. And a king knows what to do and does it. Even when it's hard. And their daddy will do whatever he has to for those he loves. And that's all that matters. Because everyone is weak, Jimmy. Everyone but us. We will never be weak. And you, you could rule this town. And after Jimmy, let's take the girls down to the parade. Katie would like that."

86. Match Point - dir. Woody Allen (2005)

"I never got along with her, but this is just tragic."

85. Moulin Rouge! - dir. Baz Luhrmann (20
"What's his type? Wilting flower? Bright and bubbly? Or smoldering temptress?"

84. Stevie - dir. Steve James (2002)

"You expect me to say something when my fiancee's sitting right here? So I can get in trouble with her? I know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em."

83. Vera Drake - dir. Mike Leigh (2004)

"That's not what I do dear. That's what you call it. But they need help. Who else they got to turn to? No one. I help them out."

82. Prodigal Sons - dir. Kimberly Reed (2009)

"I've told people about myself. They've stood up and walked out of the room, never to talk to me again. There's one sentence I can tell people that can make them never want to talk to me again."

Spotlight--81. My Life Without Me - dir. Isa
bel Coixet (2003)

"Hey my buddy, Penny. I'm not going to be at your birthday party, but there's nothing I'd like more in the whole, wide world. I bet Grandma's made a special birthday cake just for you with your name on it in big chocolate letters. Penny, I want you to know that the day you were born, I held you in my arms and that was the happiest day in my whole life. I was so happy I couldn't even speak. I just stroked your little feet and cried with happiness. Without you, I could have never found out that lions eat pancakes or that the bed could be a raft. Try and look after Patsy, okay? I know it's hard 'cause sometimes she makes you mad and everything. I know it's not easy being the big sister, but I know you can do it. Mommy sends you millions and millions of kisses."

What a deplorable, unpleasant and implausible premise Isabel Coixet's My Life Without Me begins on. Ann, a young woman in her early twenties (a fantastic Sarah Polley) who lives in a trailer with her unemployed husband and two young daughters discovers that her days our numbered. Stricken with ovarian cancer, she has two months to live. Rather than disclosing this information to her family, Ann decides not to burden them and instead records audio tapes for her daughters for each of their remaining birthdays until they turn eighteen and tapes for her husband as well. As if this character couldn't seem any more detestable and selfish, she also finds it prudent to sleep with another man (she's only ever slept with her husband) just to see what it's like. She meets Lee (Mark Ruffalo) and the two begin an affair. What a horrible person! Who on Earth would want to spend 100 minutes with this woman, watching her playing the admittedly shitty hand she's been dealt, doing the wrong thing at every turn. I'm not being facetious. I'm simply marveling at how the way I reacted to the premise of My Life Without Me was wholly different from my reaction to the film itself.

Isabel Coixet has crafted a lovely, airy and evocative piece of filmmaking. As abhorrent as the logline seems, it can also read as a setup for something much more maudlin, sanguine and Lifetime Movie of the Week than the result we are given. The subject matter is prickly and unpleasant. The film does not pretend that what Ann is doing is commendable and based on some kind of all-knowing altruism. Sarah Polley is a pitch perfect as Ann. She seems to have such a knack for internal psychology, something that not all actors can claim. The scene in which Ann first learns of her illness is played very interestingly, and it's quite thrilling to watch the choices Polley makes. She doesn't underplay the moment which, given the sedate nature of the narrative, would have felt at once obvious and forced. Nor does she blow it up into a big exercise where she can chew the scenery. She starts off with humor, then goes in for the kill like a shark in the water. "What the fuck is wrong with me?" she asks the doctor, an abrupt shift after cracking wise for a beat. Her face registers the shock and she conveys a woman who is collapsing in on herself. Between her performances here, in The Sweet Hereafter, hell, even in Splice, a film's determined to strip a mildly interesting premise of its sheen in service of a telling an incredibly lame, by-the-numbers thriller, Polley seems to pack an actorly wallop. Even going back as far her days on Road to Avonlea, she always presents a very subtle, intriguing maturity. I understand, on the most basic level, why Polley's ratio of high-profile roles, even in smaller character pieces, seems disproportionate to her talents as an actress. She seems quite loyally stationed in the Canadian film scene, so in a way, that limits the number of projects we'll see her in. She's pretty, but not breathtaking and some might even say that she has an otherwordliness about her fact (much like Samantha Morton, Emily Watson and even Tilda Swinton) that limits the number of roles casting directors are willing to imagine her inhabiting. And lastly, and most intangibly, she always seems to read as very prickly and complicated. But the fact that she is always so interesting to watch still causes me to selfishly want more of her. I'm not so naive as to imagine a Katherine Heigl level of visibility, but I wouldn't mind a Michelle Williams-style career from Sarah Polley.

This is by no means a perfect film. It sometimes meanders, though never in ways that are not compelling. Mark Ruffalo, who I mentioned in my write-up of You Can Count On Me does seem best at playing the selfish manchild, but it doesn't always serve the narrative. While fine here, he does contribute (maybe adversely) to the film's misanthropic nature, but it doesn't sink the film and I'm still not convinced, after several viewings, that Ruffalo was miscast. He serves as the perfect foil for Ann's husband, Don (Scott Speedman). Don is sweet, stupid and satisfied. There aren't many notes to play, but Speedman seems to understand the character perfectly. Imagine Ryan Gosling's Dean in Blue Valentine, with better hair, less beer in the morning and more baffled than openly hostile about his wife's emotional wanderlust. Interesting side note: My Life Without Me and Blue Valentine would make for a fascinating (albeit very depressing) double bill. Despite all of the aforementioned limitations, I found myself enthralled with My Life Without Me. The characters are observant and flawed. The dialogue is unfussy and believable. The same, I suppose, could be said of Isabel Coixet's more heralded 2008 offering Elegy, which I enjoyed well enough and would hardly recommend passing over on one's Netflix watch instantly queue. But there was a certain artifice and sheen about that film that left me admiring much, but ultimately feeling little by the last frame. I felt My life Without Me and I couldn't take my eyes off of it.

80. United 93 - dir. Paul Greengrass

"Hi mom, it's me... this really kind woman handed me the phone and told me to call you."

Next: 70-79

The Best Films of the Aughts (90-100)

Better late than never. Here are the top 100 films of the 2000s as determined by yours truly. Just a

100. You Can Count on Me - dir. Kenneth Lonergan (2000)

"I cleaned the whole fucking house just so it would look nice for you! I had no idea you were just broke again! I wish you'd just send me an invoice!

99. Crank - dirs. Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (2006)

"Don't talk to him like that! My boyfriend kills people!"

The Maid - dir. Sebastian Silva (2009)

"I've things to tell her too! You're just the maid!"

American Psycho - dir. Mary Harron (2000)

"I have all the characteristics of a human being: blood, flesh, skin, hair; but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion, except for greed and disgust. Something horrible is happening inside of me and I don't know why. My nightly bloodlust has overflown into my days. I feel lethal, on the verge of frenzy. I think my mask of sanity is about to slip."

Marie Antoinette - dir. Sofia Coppola (2006)

"Oh, you were not what was desired, but that makes you no less dear to me. A boy would have been the Son of France, but you, Marie Thérèse, shall be mine."

Kill Bill Vol. 1 - dir. Quentin Tarantino (2003)

"Your name is Buck. And you came here to fuck."

. Gone Baby Gone - dir. Ben Affleck (2007)

"When I was young, I once asked my priest how you can get to heaven and still protect yourself from all the evil in the world. He told me what God told his children: 'You are sheep among wolves. Be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.' "

The Piano Teacher - dir. Michael Haneke (2002)

"Schubert's dynamics range from scream to whisper, not loud to soft. Anarchy hardly seems your forte. Why not stick to Clementi?"

A Mighty Heart - dir. Michael Winterbottom (2007)

"I just wanted to say something to everybody. I want to, I want to thank you for all of your work and all of your effort and your kindness and I know how much you wanted to find and bring Danny home. You did not fail, you know? Danny's dead, but the kidnappers, their point is to terrorize people, right? I am not terrorized. And you can't be terrorized. I am very grateful to all of you. Very, very grateful. So thank you. So, please, let's eat."

Long Night's Journey Into
Day - dirs. Deborah Hoffmann and Frances Reid (2000)
*A documentary film about post-Apartheid South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the Amy Biehl murder. This film is currently unavailable to rent on Netflix, nor is the DVD available for purchase on Netflix. I can't offer up any other useful advice other than to seek it out.

Sideways - dir. Alexander Pa
yne (2004)
"I like to think about the life of wine. How it's a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the years the grapes were growing. How the sun was shining, if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes and if it's an old wine how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve. Like, if I opened a bottle of wine today, it would taste different than if I'd opened it on any other day. Because a bottle of wine is actually alive and it's constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is until it peaks--like your '61 and then it begins its steady, inevitable decline. And it tastes so fucking good."

Next: 89-80