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Friday, January 29, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Things I Learned From The Last Decade of Film

#5: If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball
Self-explanatory, really, and an excellent life lesson.

#4: Every couple of years someone will declare that the Musical is back
Some of my favourite films are musicals, but I've pretty much accepted that the genre is basically dead. Every couple of years it will sputter back to life for a moment but then just as quickly it will fade away. How about this for a rule: the musical cannot be officially declared "back" until there are at least three musical hits a year for three consecutive years.

#3: A promising career can be ruined in the blink of an eye
Hey, remember when Lindsay Lohan was poised to become a bona fide movie star? One of, perhaps, limited abilities but likeable enough to draw a sizeable audience? Well, from 1998 until 2004, that's exactly what she was. And then, about a minute and a half after Mean Girls came out, it all started to go downhill. The jury's still out on whether she'll prove to be a Tatum O'Neil or a Drew Barrymore.

#2: I... just don't get it
Maybe I'm just getting old (God I'm only 27!), but I kind of don't get why some newer stars are considered "hot." I mean, Robert Pattinson, Zac Effron and Megan Fox all look to me like they've climbed out of the uncanny valley. Put any of them next to a wax figure of themselves, and I doubt I'd know the difference.

#1: There is virtually no situation in life in which a quote from Anchorman cannot be appropriately applied
... and any situation that proves to be the exception to this rule is a situation I don't ever want to find myself in. Stay classy, internet.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Canadian Film Review: The Decline of the American Empire (1986)

* * *

Director: Denys Arcand
Starring: Remy Girard, Dorothee Barryman, Louise Portal, Pierre Curzi, Yves Jacques, Dominique Michel, Daniel Briere, Genevieve Rioux

The characters in Denys Arcand's The Decline of the American Empire spend a lot of time talking. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen an Arcand film, particularly The Barbarian Invasions, which is a sequel to this one. For the characters in this film - all of whom are university professors or the romantic partners of university professors - the best thing about doing something is being able to talk about it afterwards. Fortunately, they're all good talkers.

The film begins with a group of men gathered at a house by a lake and a group of women at a spa. Both groups talk relentlessly about sex and you get the sense that what each individual has done/experienced is far less important than their ability to verbally one-up everyone else as they extol witticisms and bons mots at every turn. The men are Remy (Remy Girard), Pierre (Pierre Curzi), Claude (Yves Jacques) and Allain (Daniel Briere). The women are Louise (Dorothee Barryman), Dominique (Dominique Michel), Diane (Louise Portal), and Danielle (Genevieve Rioux). When the two groups finally come together at the lake house, they look almost like two rival gangs about to face off. However, as the story takes its turns, we realize that alliances have been formed less according to gender and more according to intellectual status.

Louise is Remy's wife. Unlike the other members of the group she is not an "intellectual," per say, and there is a certain degree to which it seems like everyone else is humoring her. The way that they react to her is ultimately not that different from the way they react to Diane's brutish lover Mario (Gabriel Arcand), which is to say with polite indifference. Things come to a head when Louise offers an opinion on an interview that Dominique has done with Diane and Dominique casually reveals that she's slept with Remy. Later Dominique confesses to Allain that she wanted to hurt Louise, though she can't really justify why. Louise, though likeable and firmly enconsed in the group thanks to her long marriage to Remy, is still something of an intruder, an honorary but not a real member of the club.

The heart of the film is, I think, in the scenes between Remy and Louise after she realizes that she's been deluding herself. In the earliest scenes Remy happily recounts stories of his affairs to the guys, while Louise naively discusses her marriage with Dominique and Diane - both of whom have had affairs with Remy. It is telling that in the moment when Remy absolutely should speak - Louise, in fact, begs him to - he finds that he cannot. He would rather do anything than talk at that moment because this is not the kind of talking he likes to do. The characters, for the most part, seem to have intellectualized sex to a point where the act itself is isolated in time and space and unconnected to the relationships and people around them. To be confronted with someone like Louise, who believes that things matter and have consequences, is something that Remy just can't handle.

It would be easy to write The Decline of the American Empire off as a Big Chill style movie, but it manages to be more than just the tropes that it uses as its jumping off points. The characters are distinct and interesting and their conversations are entertaining. The script is tight, revealing the characters' personalities and the nuances of their relationships with each other in small doses that allow the story to bloom before us. I think that The Barbarian Invasions is the better of the two films, but both offer rich character studies that are only deepened when viewed together.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Best Years of Our Lives: 1999

It's been a while since I highlighted an excellent year in film and now seems like a good time for it after a rather disappointing year at the movies in 2009. This time I'll be looking at 1999, a particularly rich cinematic year, though you might not know it from the nominees for Best Picture:

American Beauty: a film that I like but that I have a few issues with

The Cider House Rules: a decent movie, exactly the kind of middle of the road picture that the Academy tends to favour

The Green Mile: a movie that didn't leave much of an impression on me, but that a lot of other people seem to love

The Insider: Russell Crowe's breakthrough film which, I must confess, I have never gotten around to seeing

The Sixth Sense: the populist choice, a film that doesn't quite hold up ten years later - though, in fairness, that's due largely to the number of times it's been parodied and riffed on since its release.

None of these are bad movies (I'm making an assumption about The Insider, of course), but when you consider some of the absolutely extraordinary work that came out in 1999, it's hard not to think of the Academy's picks as a watered down version of the year's best. Some of the other films that came out that year:

Being John Malkovich: a personal favourite of mine and the film that really announced Charlie Kaufman as a writer (and now director) to watch out for. Not content to rest on the laurels of a mind bending, cleverly written screenplay, the film also boasts several great performances, including one from John Malkovich himself, who proves to be a really good sport.

Boys Don't Cry: Kimberley Pierce's brutal but also sensitive depiction of the life and death of Brandon Teena made a star of Hilary Swank and solidified Chloe Sevigny's place as an indie It Girl. It's a terrific, haunting film.

Dogma: Kevin Smith's best film. He's fond of saying that his work is built on a foundation of "dick and fart jokes," but this one proves that he runs a lot deeper intellectually. In his tale of fallen angels, he manages to be subversive and challenging without ever forgetting to be funny.

Fight Club: David Fincher's robust meditation on manhood in the 20th century sparked a lot of controversy when it first came out but has stood the test of time. It features one of Brad Pitt's most interesting performances and is arguably Fincher's best work to date.

Magnolia: A friend once described this movie as "all climax" and I can think of no better way to characterize it. Paul Thomas Anderson's follow-up to Boogie Nights is a whirlwind of a movie with energy to spare. It will leave you breathless.

Office Space: Has any film ever more accurately captured the spirit (if not necessarily the reality) of working in an office? It's one of the best comedies to come out of the 90s.

Sweet and Lowdown: Ever since the early 90s, Woody Allen has been notoriously hit and miss. This film, featuring Oscar nominated performances from Sean Penn and Samantha Morton, is most definitely a hit and I count it as one of my favourite Allen flicks.

Three Kings: A great film about one of the least cinematically depicted wars of the 20th Century (the first Gulf War). Its exploration of wartime morality still resonates deeply today and the fact that it received absolutely no love from the Academy (not even for its truly great editing) underscores how off the ball they were that year.

Titus: I had to see this one a couple of times before I was really able to get a handle on its strange beauty. Julie Taymor's take on Shakespeare's play is a visual masterpiece.

The War Zone: A very dark and underrated film directed by Tim Roth. Its story of a family trying to keep its secrets suppressed nearly reaches the proportions of Greek Tragedy.


Foreign films released in 1999 were also particularly good and include:

All About My Mother: Pedro Almodovar's love letter to women, which took home the prize for Best Foreign Langauge Film and helped launch Penelope Cruz's stateside career.

Audition: I've actually never been able to make it all the way to the end of this film. Some day, however, I hope to work myself up to it because I truly admire what Takashi Miike accomplishes in the parts that I've seen.

Romance: Catherine Breillat's notorious, boundary pushing film is one of my favourites ever, let alone of 1999. It's a challenging and occassionally hard to watch movie, but also completely unforgettable.

Run, Lola, Run: Perhaps the only film from 1999 that's more high-energy than Magnolia. Tom Tykwer's three times a charm story is still highly watchable and enjoyable today.

Other Notable Films:

Dick: Frank Langella got an Oscar nomination last year for his portrayal of Richard Nixon, but for my money Dan Hedaya will always be the definitive Tricky Dick. This hilarious and criminally underseen movie about uncoding the secrets of Watergate is a smart and sharp comedy.

Eyes Wide Shut: The great Stanley Kubrick's last film is perhaps more notable for the behind the scenes story than for its actual content. It's an uneven film, but also intriguing.

Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace: For a certain segment of Star Wars fans, the release of this movie was the best thing ever. For others, it was the worst. A bloated and racially problematic film, it nevertheless grossed about a kagillion dollars.

The Talented Mr. Ripley: An underrated movie, if you ask me. Based on the novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, this exploration of the shifting possibilities of identity is engaging and engrossing.

So, what's your favourite film from 1999 - and have I left anything out?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Review: A Foreign Affair (1948)

* * * 1/2

Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Marlene Dietrich, Jean Arthur, John Lund

A Foreign Affair is one of my favourite Billy Wilder films, but it's surprisingly hard to get hold of. Thank God it shows up on TCM every once in a while. A romantic comedy, a post-war drama, occassionally a musical - this one's got it all. If you're a Wilder fan or a Dietrich fan, this is definitely a film you'll want to seek out if you haven't seen it already.

The story takes place in post-war Berlin and concerns a love triangle between a visiting Congresswoman, a U.S. Army Captain, and a former Nazi mistress. The Congresswoman is Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur), who is prim and proper and determined to take people to task for the activities that tend to be the offshoots of reconstruction after war, such as black market bartering and relationships between foreign servicemen and local women that are founded on a kind of tacit prostitution. She's scandalized at every turn by what she sees around her and by the efforts of the people in charge to gloss over it rather than deal with it. Since her time in Berlin is limited she can't clean up the entire American zone, but she becomes determined to set at least one thing right by bringing Erika von Schluetow (Marlene Dietrich) to justice.

Erika is a singer in one of the underground clubs and is rumored to have been the mistress of at least one high ranking Nazi official. Thus far she has managed to elude the process of de-Nazification and a mandatory stretch in a work camp thanks largely to John Pringle (John Lund), a US Army Captain who offers her protection and provides her with some small luxuries in exchange for her favours. He does what he can to hinder Phoebe's progress in bringing Erika down and, in the process, falls in love with her. She falls in love with him, too, and starts to loosen up a little but even after Erika does Phoebe a favour by keeping US authorities from finding out that she was arrested as part of a raid in one of those clubs, Phoebe is determined to do what she sees as the right thing.

The screenplay by Charles Brackett and Richard Breen is sharp, mixing in a lot of humor while also staying on point. The story is not presented as black and white and acknowledges that in times of war, certain codes of morality tend to be suspended. Phoebe is presented as "good," but she's also presented as being a bit naive and a little too rigidly moralistic. Erika, while not "good," exactly, isn't presented as a villain either. In one of my favourite movie speeches ever, she explains her position to Phoebe:
We've all become animals with exactly one instinct left. Self-preservation. Now take me, Miss Frost. Bombed out a dozen times, everything caved in and pulled out from under me. My country, my possessions, my beliefs... yet somehow I kept going. Months and months in air raid shelters, crammed in with five thousand other people. I kept going. What do you think it was like to be a woman in this town when the Russians first swept in? I kept going.

She's a survivor. The things that she has done to survive - both while the Nazis were in power and after the Allied victory - haven't always been pretty, but she's still there, still going forward. As for John, he's done things that are questionable but, as he points out to Phoebe, it's not so easy to pull the breaks after spending years going full speed ahead to attain victory. You can't just flip a switch and go back to playing by ordinary rules. Wilder and the writers give these characters complexities that aren't always afforded to characters in romantic comedies, allowing them to seem less like "types" and more like "people."

As far as the actors go, they deliver exactly what you would expect of them. Arthur is good as the stick in the mud who slowly learns the let loose, and her facial expressions and body language whenever Phoebe is supposed to be shocked and appalled by something are excellent. She has fair chemistry with Lund, who has that roguish charm down pat. The show is stolen, of course, by Dietrich who manages to look glamorous even while brushing her teeth in a crumbling apartment. This is one of my favourite Dietrich performances and Wilder plays to all of her strengths here, allowing her to shine like a diamond in the rough. The film itself, though fairly light in spirit, nevertheless hits on certain truths about the hardships of postwar reconstruction that give it depth. People like Erika, Phoebe and John exist in places torn apart by war (though in reality they likely don't end up as happy) and some of the arial footage that opens the film is actual documentary footage of bombed out Berlin at the close of the war, giving the film a dose of realism to balance out the elements of pure movie escapism. I honestly can't recommend it more.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Review: Broken Embraces

* * * *

Director: Pedro Almodovar
Starring: Penelope Cruz

All artists are influenced by those who came before them. Some fold these influences deep into their art while others happily celebrate it at the surface. Pedro Almodovar is of the latter school as is exuberantly and abundantly apparent in his latest film Broken Embraces. Beautiful looking and wonderfully crafted, the film is like a love letter not just to the directors whose work Almodovar admires, but to his frequent collaborator Penelope Cruz as well. With Broken Embraces taking its place alongside Talk To Her, Bad Education and Volver, Almodovar brings to a close a decade a filmmaking that any director would admire.

Like many of Almodovar’s films, this one jumps back and forth in time. The story is recounted to us by Harry Caine (Lluis Homar), a writer who, before losing his sight, was a film director by the name of Mateo Blanco. After an unsettling encounter with a man named Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano), who wants to hire Harry to write a screenplay for him, Harry tells his friend Diego (Tamar Novas) about the last time he and Ray X met. In flashbacks we meet Harry when he was still Mateo, preparing to direct a film called “Girls and Suitcases” (loosely based on Almodovar’s own Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). The film is to be a departure for him, a comedy after a series of dramas, and one day Lena (Penelope Cruz) shows up at his office hoping to audition for the lead role. The audition doesn’t go well, but Mateo is drawn to Lena and gives her the part. For years she has been the mistress of Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez), who agrees to finance the film as a means of keeping tabs on Lena and ensuring that she won’t leave him. As part of his plan he dispatches his son, Ernesto Jr. (who will later become Ray X) to be his eyes on the set, ostensibly as the maker of a making-of documentary on the film.

Inevitably Mateo and Lena fall in love. Every night Ernesto watches the footage his son has shot on set, hiring a lip reader to tell him what Mateo and Lena are saying when they’re out of range. These scenes, which expose the intensity of Ernesto’s obsession with Lena, also reveal to us how thoroughly he sees her as an object rather than a person. When she walks in on him watching the latest “secret” footage of her and recites in person what she’s saying to the camera, he would rather watch her onscreen than turn around and watch her live and in the flesh. What is happening onscreen represents his worst fears but it also represents something that he can control – he can pause it, rewind it, erase it and, most important of all, it stays where it is. The images onscreen are mirages that he can make disappear at will – or so he would like to believe.

Almodovar makes allusions to several other films in this one including Belle de Jour (an alias that Lena uses is Severine, the name of the main character in Bunuel’s film) and Peeping Tom, a film about a man who videotapes his murder victims. The man with the camera in this case is Ernesto Jr., but rather than killing people as he films them, he ends up saving someone while filming them. Almodovar also borrows from Vertigo in several ways, most obviously in a shot of Mateo running down a flight of stairs and also in the naming of Lena, short for Madelena (the object of obsession in Hitchcock’s film is named Madeleine). Thematically it also has a lot in common with the earlier film in that both are about one character trying to make another into what he wants them to be. The architect in this scenario is Ernesto Sr., but Lena is not the only Madeleine figure, though she is the most obvious. He plays a similar game with his son, who is gay but finds himself enacting a pattern of compulsory heterosexuality set out by his father which leaves him miserable and full of hate for the older man. Mateo, too, is a Madeleine figure in that Ernesto Sr.’s actions serve to rob him of his identity, necessitating the permanent creation of Harry Caine as a personality rather than just an alias.

Broken Embraces marks the fourth feature film collaboration between Almodovar and Cruz and though it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Volver (which admittedly set the bar very high) it’s still one of the best films in either of their filmographies. Almodovar’s adoration of Cruz is always apparent – I don’t think she’s ever more lovingly photographed than in his films – and her best performances are the ones guided by his direction. Here he gives her a character whose identity is always shifting and she excels, cycling through Lena’s personas with ease and giving us multiple variations on a single character. Her sensuous, subtle performance is the perfect centrepiece for the story, making it easy to understand why the men in her life are so totally consumed with her. The performance is the jewel in the crown that is the film.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Actresses Due For Comebacks

#5: Gwyneth Paltrow

As a person I think she's impossibly pretentious, but I nevertheless have to admit that she's a skilled actress. Hey, I can't totally hate the person who brought Margot Tenenbaum to life, can I? Now, it might be odd to classify someone who was in one of the most profitable films of 2008 as being due for a "comeback," but to be honest I didn't even know she was in Iron Man when it was being released, she figured so little in the promotion and marketting of it.

#4: Bridget Fonda

Dudes, what ever happened to Bridget Fonda? She started out the 90s strong with Single White Female, Singles and Point of No Return and ended the decade with Jackie Brown and A Simple Plan and then seemed to drop off the face of the earth. Come back, Bridget!

#3: Elisabeth Shue

Is it my appreciation for her work in Leaving Las Vegas that makes me include her? No. It's all about Adventures In Babysitting and, to a lesser extent, Soapdish. Plus, she was hilarious playing a version of herself in Hamlet 2. Deserving of a comeback? Yes. However, the fact that IMDB lists something called "Piranha 3-D" as one of her upcoming projects doesn't make me feel too hopeful.

#2: Kirsten Dunst

Hey, remember when Kirsten Dunst was the young actress and was in everything? That wasn't so bad, was it? Don't we all have fond memories of Interview with the Vampire, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Dick and Bring It On? I know I do. Now that the Spider Man series has hit a creative speedbump and is going in a different direction, she needs a vehicle.

#1: Renee Zellweger

The Supporting Actress cruse strikes again. Prior to winning an Oscar for Cold Mountain there was Chicago, Bridget Jones's Diary, Jerry Maguire, One True Thing and Nurse Betty. Since Cold Mountain there's been Cinderella Man, Miss Potter, New In Town and My One and Only. She deserves better than that, doesn't she?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity (2002)

* * *

Director: Mina Shum
Starring: Sandra Oh

Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity is one of those films that you've seen before, in one form or another. Its story - which involves a single mother, her precocious child and that child's plan to alleviate her mother's loneliness by finding her a romantic partner - is not particularly original, so it's fortunate that the film is charming enough that you're willing to overlook this fact. With the help of some nicely rendered performances, Mina Shum's romantic comedy/drama is definitely worth a look.

The precocious child in question is 12-year-old Mindy Ho (Valerie Tian). Aware that her mother (Sandra Oh) is having financial difficulties and worried about her lack of a social life, Mindy decides to kill two birds with one stone by finding her mother a husband. To go about this, Mindy makes use of some Taoist magic that, quite naturally, goes horribly awry, affecting the lives of other people rather than her mother. As a result of Mindy's machinations, a butcher wins the lottery and a security guard loses his job - on the surface one event seems like a positive, the other a negative, but both have essentially the same effect in that they force both men to look inward at aspects of their lives that they would rather not have to acknowledge. Though the magical aspect is necessary to the film's premise, it seems much more interested in looking at how people react to events and how those reactions are textured and informed by other things such as family relationships, religion, etc., than in magic itself. Magic here is used simply as a point of entry for character study.

Mindy's experiments with magic also create romantic complications. She wants to make a love connection between her mother and her co-worker Alvin (Russel Yuen), but her spells get all mixed up, resulting in infatuation in the wrong people and creating a lot of confusion and hilarity. A lot of what happens in the story you can predict from a mile away, but it's handled so well that that hardly seems to matter as you're watching it. There's nothing wrong with being a genre film if the effort and care is put in to making the product as excellent an example of that genre as this one ends up being.

Though the story is spread out amongst several characters whose storylines ultimately converge, it rests for the most part on young Tian's shoulders. Kids in movies geared towards adults tend to walk a fine line - an inch this way or that could push a child from "adorable" to "annoying" - and Tian has a good handle on her character. She has an easy, believable chemistry with Oh, who is at something of a disadvantage in that she's the story's straight man, the grounded force around which chaos swirls. It's easy, at first glance, to overlook her performance but after it's all over, hers is the one that you really remember.

Shum keeps the film moving at a nice pace and takes the time to truly develop her characters. The story itself is fairly light fare, but the attention she pays to the smaller details, to the nuances of the various relationships at play, give it a degree of depth. Though there are several darker, more dramatic moments in the film, it's ultimately very funny and overall quite delightful.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Review: The Lovely Bones (2009)

* * 1/2

Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Saorise Ronan, Stanley Tucci, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz

With the crash and burn that was one-time hopeful Amelia's release now a distant memory, it seems that The Lovely Bones has officially usurped the title of Awards Season Punching Bag. There has to be one every year. Is it deserving of the amount of vitriol it seems to have inspired? No, but in a sense I can understand where all that is coming from because it's such a mixed bag of a film. Parts of it are absolutely glorious and others just don't work at all - I can't remember the last time I left a film feeling so divided about it.

The Lovely Bones tells the story of Susie Salmon (Saorise Ronan), who at 14 is raped and murdered. The film works its way up to that event, first taking time to establish the relationships that will be severed and damaged by her loss. Although there are some underlying tensions in her family - her parents (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz) love each other but have grown apart, and Susie is in the midst of that particularly dramatic stage of adolescence defined largely by awkwardness and unprovoked hostility (I remember it well) - it's a close knit group and, in a general way, happy.

One evening Susie walks home alone and is lured into a trap by Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci), one of her neighbors, and never seen again. Her father becomes obsessed with tracking down various leads, some of which he's invented; her mother deals with it by not dealing with it at all; her grandmother (Susan Sarandon) tries to breathe life back into the household; and her sister Lindsay (Rose McIver) becomes increasingly suspicious about Mr. Harvey's behavior. Meanwhile, from a place in between heaven and earth, Susie watches over them and in some instances tries to guide them towards the truth about her murder.

I should preface this by saying that I've never read The Lovely Bones, but from what I understand it's more an exploration of how the Salmon family deals with their grief rather than a thriller about bringing a killer to justice, which is what the film version is more than anything else. In certain respects it works as a thriller - the scene in which Lindsay breaks into Harvey's house is particularly taut and effective - but, at the same time, it shifts the story's focus, taking it away from the victim and giving it to the killer. I think that that's the primary reason why the scenes in the in-between place fail to resonate as deeply as they should. Of course, there's also the fact that the afterlife is made to look like a glossy, candy colored, CGI explosion, but I think that this visual aesthetic could have worked if the story was constructed differently. One of my favourite scenes actually takes place in that CGI paradise as Susie watches a series of ships in bottles (like the ones she used to make with her father) crash against each other and the rocks of the shore. However, as beautifully realized as the imagery in the scene is, it's ultimately not very meaningful because by reducing Susie to a glorified secondary character, the film leaves itself with nothing to anchor the story.

The film is at its strongest in the build up to Susie's death, as it focuses on the dynamics of the Salmon family. When it moves away from this and, essentially, splits into two narratives - Susie is heaven, the family and her killer on earth - it ceases to be cohesive and instead becomes a series of set pieces. Some of these pieces do work, but others fail and the lack of any real grounding in the story results in something that's kind of soulless - ironic, given the premise.

In the end, I think that The Lovely Bones is a noble failure. The performances are strong (Tucci seems to be getting the most notice but I thought Wahlberg was really great as well) and the film itself is occassionally brilliant, but Jackson's vision of this story is too muddled. Too often it feels false and hollow - Susie's version of heaven might be accurate to her, but Jackson certainly didn't make me believe in it - and just doesn't connect with the audience.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review: A Single Man (2009)

* * * 1/2

Director: Tom Ford
Starring: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode

A Single Man is perhaps the most elegant film to come out of 2009. Beautifully photographed (I honestly can't emphasize that enough) and sensitively told, it follows a day in the life of George Falconer (Colin Firth), an English professor mourning the loss of his partner of 16 years as the rest of the world panics over the Cuban Missile Crisis. With the help of solid performances from Colin Firth and Julianne Moore, Tom Ford's directorial debut demonstrates a lot of promise.

George's goal is simple: just make it to the end of the day. Eight months ago he lost Jim (Matthew Goode) in a car accident and now his life is reduced to a series of empty rituals. It is his intention to make this his final day on earth and he spends it tying up loose ends by emptying out his safe deposit box, cleaning out his office, and spending one final evening with his friend Charley (Julianne Moore), a boozy divorcée who, like him, is a British transplant. He writes notes to the people he'll be leaving behind, he lays out the suit he wishes to be buried in, and he tries to find the best way to stage the scene to leave behind the least amount of mess, resulting in a darkly funny scene with a sleeping bag.

Throughout the day George is haunted by memories of Jim, both good and bad. The worst comes in the form of a scene in which George finds out, over the phone, that Jim has been killed and that he's not welcome at the funeral. "It's for family only," Jim's cousin explains after revealing that Jim's parents didn't even want to inform George of the loss. The undercurrent of this conversation will be revisited later in a conversation with Charley who, despite her affection for George and her knowledge of how much Jim meant to him, tacitly states that the relationship wasn't "real." The film is never heavy handed in the way that it deals with the repulsive unfairness of society's treatment of gays and lesbians, which makes the story all the more effective. More devastating than Jim's family's treatment of George is George's quiet acceptance of it and, similarly, Charley's statement is all the more cutting because she actually knew George and Jim as a couple and knows how deeply George was and continues to be affected by the loss, but still acts as if it was some passing phase, a minor interruption on his way to resuming a "normal" life, perhaps with her. This isn't just a matter of him not being accepted; it's that they don't take him seriously as a thinking, feeling human being because of his sexuality.

Visually, A Single Man is stunning - it should come as no surprise that Ford has an eye for composing beautiful shots. Sometimes, perhaps, the film over-emphasizes the visual aspect and starts to drift dangerously towards seeming more like a perfume ad than a film, but it still never looks less than exquisite. My favourite visual trope here is the way a scene will begin with kind of a washed out look and then flush suddenly with color at a key moment. I really hope that the Oscars recognize Eduard Grau's work as cinematographer come nomination day because he demonstrates a great deal of versatility in just this one film.

Come Oscar nomination day I also hope (and at this point fully expect) to see Firth's beautiful, subtle performance recognized. It is, by necessity, a performance of great restraint. George is hiding in plain sight, putting on a mask so that he can meet the world without encountering harassment or violence in return. Consider the way that Ford shows George putting on his suit in the morning, piece by piece as if he's putting on armour and preparing for battle. What we're seeing is George preparing to play the role of "George." Firth's performance - in addition to Moore's, which is also quite good - gives the film that extra push to make it more than an exercise in putting together a series of pretty shots. Truth be told, as much as I liked A Single Man and as confident as Ford's direction is, he ultimately isn't really skilled enough as a director to get very deep below the surface of the story (and the story itself is sometimes a bit lacking - the ending, especially, left me cold) and a lot of heavy lifting is left to the actors. Still, it's a strong effort and a truly gorgeous piece of work.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Great Last Scenes: There Will Be Blood

Year: 2007
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Great Because...: Four words: I. Drink. Your. Milkshake. Need I say more?

Daniel Plainview is not a good man. With his ruthless determination and the tunnel vision that allows him to run over anything and anyone in his path (including his son), he represents an ugly, distorted version of the American dream, a dream diminished here to simple, unadulterated greed. The money he makes does not even make him happy; he is arguably at his most miserable at the film's end, when entombed in his cavernous mansion. After definitively cutting ties with his now grown son by revealing to him, in the most brutal way possible, that he was informally adopted, Plainview is perfectly set for that last great fall, the comeuppance that he so surely deserves. And yet...

There Will Be Blood isn't that kind of movie. Usually when the protagonist emerges triumphant, a story can end on a hopeful note; here the triumph of the protagonist is just more evidence of the film's inherent cynicism. The victory of a man like Plainview, so gluttonously selfish, is an omen of destruction in a larger context, a warning against laissez faire capitalism (a prescient warning, given the state of things just over two years later). With his vast wealth to back him up, Plainview, now as twisted physically as he is mentally and more animal than human, no longer has to pretend to play nice with his rivals. Indeed, realistically, he no longer has rivals, just minor annoyances, one of whom is Eli Sunday.

Eli comes to Plainview believing that he has the upper hand - the ability to sell him land that hasn't yet been drilled on. Plainview lets him make his pitch, forces him to renounce God and then, in what is perhaps the only moment of genuine happiness Plainview experiences in the film, informs him that in fact he has nothing to sell. Because Plainview owns all the land around the plot Eli is offering, the drilling has already occured. Not content simply to crush Eli's desperate plan, Plainview then literally crushes Eli, bludgeoning him to death with a bowling pin. The brilliance of the scene, however, is not in this incredible act of violence but in the way that Plainview's butler casually enters the scene followed by Plainview's declaration: "I'm finished." There's an underlying sense of entitlement to all this, from the way that Plainview took it upon himself to take the oil to the casual way that the murder is acknowledged. He's so rich that no one can touch him; he's priced himself out of the boundaries that dictate the lives of others. What he's done is essentially a metaphor for the corrupt side of capitalism which allows the rich to continue getting richer while the poor simply bleed out.

The final minutes of There Will Be Blood are some of the finest in Daniel Day-Lewis' career. His interpretation of Plainview's particular madness, from the way that he knaws at his meat and literally salivates over figuratively chewing Eli up, the little jig he dances as he demonstrates his triumph, and finally the way he chases Eli through the bowling alley, is exhilarating to watch. It's a brilliant performance in an absolutely brilliant film.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Screen Detectives

#5: Jeff Bailey (Out of the Past)

When I think of Robert Mitchum, I tend to think of his bad guy characters, like the ones he played in Cape Fear and Night of the Hunter; but he was just as great playing the good guy. Bailey is everything you'd want in a detetive: tough, smart of mind and smart of mouth, and just about as cool as it gets.

#4: Victoria "V.I." Warshawski (V.I. Warshawski)

Kathleen Turner is one nifty broad and she was never niftier than as no nonsense Private Eye V.I. Warshawski. The film was originally envisioned as the first in a franchise but a less than stellar box office take put an end to that, which is a shame because Turner really brings it in the role.

#3: J.J. "Jake" Gittes (Chinatown)

A Depression era detective in a story defined by '70s era cynacism, Gittes has a tough row to hoe. Where detectives from movies made in the 1930s usually got to enjoy the upper hand and have the last laugh, Gittes gets to be abused, confused and left devastated in the film's finale. Still, it's a fantastic character and one of the very best performances of Jack Nicholson's career.

#2: Nick Charles (The Thin Man series)

So charming, so clever, no wonder the character made it through six successful films. Alongside his equally charming and clever wife, Nick boozes, wisecracks, and puts the clues together like no one's business. Together William Powell and Myrna Loy set the standard for romantic repartee.

#1: Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon)

Bogart is, of course, the man and it's easy to see how his role as Sam Spade finally launched him into stardom. Spade is tough as nails and quick on his feet, as mildly incompentant henchman Wilmer and slick conman Joel Cairo find out time and again. He's also hilariously unsentimental as proven by his final exchange with Brigid O'Shaughnessy: "If you're a good girl you'll be out in twenty years. I'll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I'll always remember you."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Water (2005)

* * *

Director: Deepa Mehta
Starring: Sarala Kariyawasam, Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray

Whatever your feelings about Deepa Mehta's politics - and she has some pretty fierce critics on both the right side and the left side of the political spectrum - it's hard to argue that her films don't resonate. If they didn't, they wouldn't provoke such intense feelings. With Water, the final chapter in her Elements Trilogy which also includes Fire amd Earth, Mehta explores, as she often does, the position of women within society, looking specifically this time at the position of widowed women in India during the British Raj.

The story's focus is on Chuyia (Sarala Kariyawasam) who, at eight years old, has already been married off (though she hasn't started living as a wife yet) and is now widowed. In keeping with orthodox Hindu tradition, she is sent to live at a widow's ashram where she will spend the rest of her life atoning for the sins of her past which caused her husband's death. This sounds like forced logic and it is, as a character explains later in the film that widows ashrams have less to do with religion than with economics. Without a husband to support her, a widow becomes a burden to the family and so to relieve that burden, she's sent away under the guise of performing a religious necessicity.

The ashram is run by Madhumati (Manorama), who rules with an iron fist and is friends with a transvestite pimp, Gulabi (Raghuvir Yadav) who helps her prositute Kalyani (Lisa Ray), one of the other widows. The story is split between Chuyia's difficult adjustment to life at the ashram and Kalyani's experiences as a prostitute and her budding (and, of course, doomed) relationship with Narayan (John Abraham), a follower of Gandhi. The fallout from that forbidden relationship has harsh consequences for everyone, including Chuyia in the film's devastating finale.

The story of how Water managed to get made is epic in and of itself. In 2000 Mehta, a lightning rod for controversy ever since Fire, met with hostility from right wing elements in India over the subject matter of her new film. Protestors destroyed sets, permits for location shooting were withdrawn and she was eventually forced to move the production to Sri Lanka, where she had to film under a false title and with a new cast in order to complete it. Given how critical her films are of cultural traditions and mores, particularly as they relate to women, it's not difficult to understand why she attracts controversy even if the sheer level of hositlity directed towards her is ridiculously excessive and probably has the opposite effect than her detractors intend, in that it just brings more attention to the work they'd like to see suppressed. At the same time, however, she also has critics on the other side who argue that her narratives simplify the complex politics of post-colonial India and present women as passive victims needing to be saved.

Personally, speaking specifically of Water and bearing in mind that my knowledge of India's history and politics is scanty at best, I think the criticism of her female characters as passive is a bit shortsighted. The story takes place in 1938 under colonial rule and deals with a community adhering strictly to religious rules and traditions - that's pretty much a recipe for female disenfranchisement. Given that context, it's surprising how active some of the female characters actually are. Kalyani may have been forced into prostitution but when she decides to stop because she's fallen in love with Narayan, she does so and walks away from the ashram knowing that she has the power because they need her (for the economic support she brings) more than she needs them. Similarly, Shankuntala (Seema Biswas), one of the other widows, while devoutly religious is also very strong and not one to be triffled with. She is the one who ultimately rescues Chuyia, even if a great deal of damage has already been done at that point. While the women are all victims in one way or another (be it of abuse or of a socio-political system that deprives them of rights), I don't see this as a narrative about victimization. Rather, I see it as a narrative about women taking steps towards empowerment and agency, no matter how small those steps ultimately are.

Stepping away from the larger issues that the film deals with, I think the main reason that it resonates so clearly is because of the time Mehta takes to develop the relationships between the characters. I saw Water for the first time in 2005 and before watching it again recently, a scene that always stood out for me is one between Chuyia and Shankuntala wherin the latter asks how she looks and the former, in the blunt way of a child, states simply "old." The look on Shanktuntala's face at this response, the way that it expresses hurt and also perhaps jealousy because of the way Chuyia admires Kalyani's beauty, has always stuck with me. Scenes like that one make the film more than a political manifesto and allow it to become an actual story with characters you come to care about. It isn't Mehta's strongest work (I'm rather partial to Earth), but its value as a work of art is greater than any controversy it might attract.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Review: It's Complicated (2009)

* * *

Director: Nancy Meyers
Starring: Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin

I went into It's Complicated knowing that it wasn't going to be "great cinema." I knew this because I'm familiar with some of Nancy Meyers' previous work and because the trailers made it pretty clear that it wasn't really aspiring to be "great," as such. I went to it anyway, though, because it looked harmless enough and it fits neatly into a category of films I liked to call "movies I can see with my mom." Tarantino and Scorsese? No. Fluffy romcoms and ornate period pieces? Yes. While the story is as predictable as I thought it would be, I enjoyed this one a lot more than I was expecting to.

So here's the deal: Jane (Meryl Streep) and Jake (Alec Baldwin) have been divorced for ten years. They have three grown children, one of whom is about to graduate from college, and Jake is remarried to Agnes (Lake Bell), a much younger woman with a precocious five-year old son. In New York for the graduation, Jane and Jake have a little too much to drink and sleep together. It's a revelation for him, the best thing that's happened to him in years, but her take on it is much different. For one thing, she's now in the position of being "the other woman," which sort of turns her world on its head, and she's also in the very uncomfortable position of leaving herself open to having her heart broken once more by Jake.

Back in California, she and Jake continue their affair but she also starts taking tentative steps towards a relationship with Adam (Steve Martin), the architect working on the addition to her house. Adam and Jake are polar opposites and it's clear to anyone with a lick of common sense that Adam is the guy she should go for but, of course, the heart is rarely so sensible. To make things even more complicated, Jane and Jake's future son-in-law, Harley (John Krasinski) has discovered their affair and takes great pains to help keep it hidden.

The lion's share of the story is devoted to Jane's affair with Jake which, while it provides a great deal of the comedy in the film (Baldwin is seriously on fire in this role), also kind of holds the film back. When Jane and Adam share scenes and discuss the pain of their respective divorces, the difficulty of moving on, and the shock at finding that you're still capable of finding that you like someone, you realize what this movie could have been. It could have been about adults behaving and talking like adults, about two people still smarting from the pain and disappointment of their divorces taking a second chance with each other. It could have had depth, it could have been a contender, but it settles for being a lighthearted, Sunday afternoon diversion kind of film. As films like that go, this one's pretty good, but you can't help but wonder what it might have achieved if penned by a better writer.

I have kind of a love-hate relationship with Meyers in that for everything about her films that I like, there's something that I dislike just as much. For example, I like that she makes films in which the protagonists are older women who are still seen as sexually viable (Streep here, Diane Keaton in Something's Gotta Give), but I dislike that she always seems to go for the easiest possible joke and that often it's at the expense of the same protagonist that the film claims to be celebrating (in fairness, I found this considerably more glaring in Something's Gotta Give than I do here). I also dislike that the films are marketed as being about ordinary women with ordinary problems when in fact those women are living lives that are economically unrelatable to most people. I don't want to get into a big rant about that though, so moving on...

Although the story doesn't run particularly deep, Streep does manage to wring a few moments of poignancy out of her role. When the last of her children moves out of the house at the beginning of the film, or when she walks through her house turning out the lights after being stood up by Jake, you can sense her loneliness and her need to simply be acknowledged by someone in her life, which makes it all the more insane when she declines a date with dependable, thoughtful Adam so that she can have a clandestine meeting with Jake. On the other hand, you can sort of understand why she does this since Baldwin is at the top of his game as Jake and Martin isn't really given enough to do as Adam to make him anything more than "the nice guy." Honestly, the movie is so completely for Jake that I'm kind of surprised that his last scene wasn't where it ended (and slightly disappointed since the shot of him and Jane sitting together on a bench would have made for an excellent callback to the final scene of The Graduate, which Jake and Jane watch with their kids earlier in the film).

For all its flaws, It's Complicated is the kind of film you can enjoy if you go into it in the right spirit. It isn't high art but it definitely has its moments and now that we're entering the January dumping ground for new releases, it's a pretty good choice at the multiplex.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Review: Away We Go (2009)

* * *

Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph

I avoided Away We Go when it was in theaters because I kept hearing words like "smug," "self-absorbed," and "hipster" associated with it. I wish I'd given it a chance anyway because I liked it a lot even though I agree with some of the criticisms about it and its characters. I guess basically what I appreciated about this one is that it's about two smart people who genuinely seem to love and respect each other and it isn't until you actually see that in one film that you realize how seldom you see it in others.

Meet Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph), a long-term couple in their early 30s still living like they did when they were in college ("We have a cardboard window," she points out to him in one scene as evidence that they aren't quite on track in terms of this whole grown up thing). When they find out that they're going to have a baby and that his parents (played all too briefly by Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels) - whom they were counting on to lend a hand once the baby is born - are moving to Europe, they decide to pack up too and set out on an odyssey to find the best place to raise their child.

During the course of their journey, Burt and Verona spend time with family, friends and acquaintances who run the gamut from realistic to caricature. The caricatures are Verona's old boss Lily (Allison Janney), who thinks that she's a fun drunk and might one day be set straight by her less than amused family, and Burt's old friend Ellen (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who now goes by LN and is generally a humorless and judgmental ultra-liberal. Too much time is spent with these characters and not enough with the ones that feel most authentic, such as Verona's sister Grace (Carmen Ejogo) and Burt's brother (Paul Schneider), which is perhaps the film's most glaring problem. Burt and Verona do seem a bit smug in their dealings with Lily and LN but, admit it, if you were in a room with either of them wouldn't you feel smug too?

Away We Go is a departure for director Sam Mendes and everything seems much more relaxed here than in his other films. I'm sure that after making something as tightly-wound and serious as Revolutionary Road making something relatively light like Away We Go probably seemed like a nice break. I think that he handles the material well, moving the story at a good pace and not letting Burt and Verona get too navel-gazey, but as I said before too much time is allotted to the wrong supporting characters. Those characters may be funny, but the broad strokes used to draw them keep the film from attaining the depth it obviously desires and occassionally attains in other scenes.

As the leads, Krasinski and Rudolph are both excellent. Known for their comedic roles (Krasinksi on The Office, Rudolph on Saturday Night Live), the two handle the serious stuff very well and the final few scenes between their characters are so expertly rendered that you feel inclined to forgive the film its flaws and unanswered questions (such as, how is that two people who can't replace their cardboard window with glass have enough money to do all this travelling?). They play off each other easily and, even though this film didn't exactly set the box office on fire, I hope they get the chance to work together again in the future.

Although there are aspects to Away We Go that I think are a bit weak, the good ultimately far outweighs the bad here. As I said before, the way that the relationship between the leads is characterized by love and support is refreshing in light of how romantic relationships in most movies these days are portrayed. As a slight aside to wrap things up, I would like to state now for the record that I totally want to see a sequel in which he follow Burt's parents to Europe. Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels - how could it go wrong?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Top 10 Films of 2009

And now the most important list you'll read all... day. All in all I was kind of underwhelmed by what 2009 had to offer, but I suppose we're still feeling the aftershocks of the WGA strike. Anyway, here they are, my top 10 of 2009:

#10: The Road

A haunting and intense film that I haven't been able to stop thinking about since seeing it. It seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle where awards are concerned, but I think it'll stand the test of time a lot better than some of the year's more acclaimed films.

#9: Pontypool

A stark, stripped down monster movie about a community undone by a virus spread through the English language. Stephen McHattie is great in the lead role as a DJ trying to piece together the horror occurring outside from the (relative) safety of his booth.

#8: Inglorious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino's latest rewrites the rules about war movies and entertains from beginning to end. Per usual, his casting is spot on and the film features two of my favourite performances of the year courtesy of the much recognized Christoph Waltz and the criminally under appreciated Melanie Laurent.

#7: Bright Star

Jane Campion's beautiful (visually and narratively) movie about John Keats' relationship with Fannie Brawne deserves a lot more attention that it's received. Same goes for Abbie Cornish's wonderful, nuanced performance as Brawne.

#6: Precious

One of the more divisive films of the last year, this saga of a life of poverty and abuse is sometimes hard to watch. What makes it really worth it is the extraordinary performances of the cast. Mo'Nique and Gabourey Sidibe are almost assured of getting Oscar nominations and part of me kind of hopes that Mariah Carey gets one too, since she appears to be showing up drunk to every award ceremony lately.

#5: (500) Days of Summer

This is not a love story, but it is one of the great films about unrequited love. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel render charming and effective performances, alternating easily between the comedy and the drama of their characters' brief relationship.

#4: Polytechnique

A stark, powerful film about one of the greatest tragedies in Canadian history. Available in both English and French versions, the importance of this film cannot be underestimated. It's a great tribute to 14 women senselessly murdered simply for being women.

#3: An Education

A star is born in Carey Mulligan, playing a girl wise beyond her years in some respects, but hopelessly naive in others. Directed by Lone Scherfig from a screenplay adapted by Nick Hornby, An Education is clever, well-paced and often delightful.

#2: Moon

Why isn't Sam Rockwell a bigger star? If there was ever any doubt that he deserves it, his dual performances in Moon ought to put it to rest. This wonderful tribute to 1960s and 70s era science fiction is one of the best films of the last decade, let alone the last year.

#1: The Hurt Locker

Without question, the best movie of 2009. Kathryn Bigelow's war drama is a winner on every level, with the performances of Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty being of particular note. War movies don't get much better than this.

Kreativ Blogger Awards

Many thanks to The Film Forager for bestowing this award upon me and for the all too kind words she wrote about my blog. The rules of this award are as follows:

1. Thank the person who nominated you for this award.
2. Copy the logo and place it on your blog.
3. Link to the person who nominated you for this award.
4. Name 7 things about yourself that people might find interesting.
5. Nominate 7 Kreativ Bloggers.
6. Post links to the 7 blogs you nominate.
7. Leave a comment on each of the blogs letting them know they have been nominated.

1-3 done and now, ugh, onto #4. Let me preface this by saying that I'm not particularly interesting so feel free to skip over these next 7 items:

(1) I have a B.A. in English with a minor in Film Studies. Suddenly this whole blog thing is makin' a lot more sense, eh?

(2) In addition to blogging here, I also contribute to Culturazzi, a one-stop shop for articles and reviews of various forms of art.

(3) I have a scar in the middle of my forehead from when I had chickenpox. My brother also has a chickenpox scar and it's in almost exactly the same place. Creepy, huh?

(4) My birthday is Christmas Eve. That's pretty much where the similarities between me and Jesus end.

(5) I used to work at a dry cleaners and once had a ten minute conversation with a guy about our ability to get... fluids out of his blankets. It was the most remarkable conversation I've ever had, mostly because he kept repeating, "I've just gotta get the cum out of these blankets." (He had people coming to stay with him, you see...)

(6) I'm oddly fascinated (and, of course, appalled) by the Real Housewives series and their very liberal definition of the word "housewife."

(7) I'm very concerned for the welfare of that dog from The Road.

And now the best part, naming 7 other bloggers for the award. So, here they are, 7 blogs I think are particularly worthy of notice in alphabetical order:

Bitchin Film Reviews: Blake's reviews are, well, bitchin'. Very well written and encompassing a wide range of genres. Blake's reviews have been known to determine whether or not I'll see a movie that I've been on the fence about.

Cinemascope: Some people can do with 100 words what others can't do with 1000. The reviews at Cinemascope are succinct, but their brevity shouldn't be mistaken for lack of insight. It's a great source for reviews of all kinds of films from all over the world.

The Cultural Post: I'm a big fan of Ahn Khoi Do's work, particularly his dedication to bringing awareness to Canadian films and TV shows. He's got great taste in movies and quite often his reviews inspire me to put a film on my "to view" list

Final Cut: If you like reviews but want more than that, Final Cut is the place for you. A nice mix of reviews, news and lists, plus the filmgeek draws attention to posts from other blogs that she finds interesting. There's a little something for everyone with this particular blog.

M. Carter @ The Movies: A blog I've only recently become aware of but it is awesome. The reviews are very well-written and insightful. She's currently at #19 in her Top 100 countdown, so hurry on over and get caught up.

The Movie Ness: A wide range of really great reviews from a writer who clearly has a great passion for cinema. Vanessa and I may have disagreed when it came to Nine, but by and large we tend to be on the same page and her reviews always bring to my attention something that I hadn't previously thought of.

Stop The Planet of the Apes I Want To Get Off: How could a blog with a name like that not be utterly enjoyable? I am especially fond of the monkey ratings system. The Hat reviews all kinds of movies, but his reviews of science fiction films are particularly great.

Okay, 4-6 done, now off to complete #7. Thanks once again to Alex!

Top 10 Foreign Films of 2008

Since it takes a while for films from overseas to get to my particular corner of the world, I thought that this year I would do two year-end top 10s, one for films from 2009 (which I'll post later today), and one for the foreign films from 2008 that I didn't get to see until 2009. So, here they are, the ten foreign films from 2008 that I came to love the most in 2009:

#10: Tell No One (France)

I could watch this film from Guillaume Canet over and over again. In fact, I liked it so much that it inspired me to go out and read the book (which is also quite good). Tell No One is already set for an American remake, not unlike another film on my list.

#9: Lorna's Silence (Belgium)

The Dardenne brothers are two of the most interesting filmmakers working today, as this quiet and affecting drama proves. Filmed in a simple, unfussy way, its impact is nevertheless great.

#8: The Class (France)

One of the most acclaimed films of 2008, this documentary-like movie gets beneath the skin and stays with you. A year in the life of a high school class, with all its ups and downs and the sometimes complicated relationship between teacher and students - the story itself isn't new, but Laurent Cantet's take on it is.

#7: Seraphine (France)

A biopic that gets it right. This film about the life of the painter Seraphine de Senlis is brilliant and heartbreaking as it explores the agony and the ecstasy of the artist.

#6: Il Divo (Italy)

One of the most energetic films I saw all year, Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo barely gives you time to catch your breath. I don't know how much of it is actually true, but this story about the political life of Giulio Andreotti keeps you so exhilarated that truth doesn't even matter.

#5: A Christmas Tale (France)

Douglas Coupland wrote a novel called All Families Are Psychotic. Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale proves that some are more psychotic than others. Part drama, part comedy, part character study, this film is endlessly rewarding.

#4: Let The Right One In (Sweden)

Forget the sparkly vampires of Twilight, this adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel is the great vampire movie of the 2000s. A rivetting and atmospheric film with two great performances at its centre, its American remake (due in theaters later this year) has a lot to live up to.

#3: Gomorra (Italy)

An instant classic in the crime genre. In a city ruled by crime in every area, no one is safe and no one is entirely clean. One of the saddest scenes I saw all year was that of Gomorra's two teenagers play acting at being mobsters and paying the ultimate price.

#2: Waltz With Bashir (Israel)

This beautiful and groundbreaking film blurs the lines between fiction and documentary. As war films go, it's one of the most powerful I've ever seen and also one of the most visually arresting.

#1: Hunger (Ireland)

A film of almost unbearable intensity. Exploring the hardship and degredation of Irish political prisoners under Margaret Thatcher's rule, Steve McQueen's debut film is simply amazing.