Top Ten Thursdays: Best Films of 2011

I have always become irksome at the mention of it being a "truly great year" in movies at the Oscars.  Often this is simply not the case as has been evident in many of the previous years.  However, upon reflecting on the variety of excellent films I have seen this year I cannot help but adhere to this notion.  I have yet to see a large portion of this years top movies, but have been thoroughly impressed with what I have managed to view and have taken it upon myself to offer a list of my personal favorites from the year.  Again I have not seen some of the critically acclaimed pieces like Melancholia and Drive so that will make the list a little weird to some who read it.

10.) Source Code

A refreshing change of pace for science fiction films, Source Code is action packed and a thrill ride that spares no expense in its grandiosity.

Review Here

9.) Crazy, Stupid, Love

Crazy, Stupid, Love is star-studded and funny, a combination that seems rare in Hollywood these days.

Review Here

8.) The Beaver

This movie was all but ignored given its ridiculous plot and unpopular lead actor, but somehow the film came from way out in left field to be an amazing little film.

Review Here

7.) Super 8

An homage to early Spielberg, Super 8 is an intensely watchable movie that will have you remember all the magical moments of movie watching from childhood.

Review Here

6.) Hugo

In one magical swipe Martin Scorsese reminds viewers that everything we love about movies is owed almost entirely to two brothers and a oncoming train.

Review Here

5.) The Future

A personal favorite of my girlfriend, Miranda July's return to film is a bittersweet and poignant look at the existential woes of aging.

Review Here

4.) Contagion

 Probably one of the darker films this year, Contagion is a stark and uncompromising look at the possibilities of a global pandemic.

Review Here

3.) Moneyball

 Moneyball will probably be the last 2011 movie I see before the new year, but damn was it worth it.  Expect a review in the next few days.

Review Here

2.)  Midnight In Paris

 Midnight in Paris is the glorious return of Woody Allen to filmmaking and it is one of the most heartbreakingly nostalgic films of the past few years.

Review Here

1.) Tree Of Life

To try and explain this movie would be an injustice.  Just go watch it.

Rambling Here

Honorable Mention

Horrible Bosses
Pleasant People


I'd Imagine The World Was One Big Machine: Hugo (2011)

Prior to attending the screening of Martin Scorsese's Hugo I was incredibly wary about how much I would enjoy a film that placed heavy emphasis on its 3D elements.  I feared that given its concern with this "new" medium the story and artistic leanings of Scorsese would somehow be lost in the mix.  I was quite foolish to believe such things because not only was Hugo impressive, it was magical and now has me jonesing for another trip to watch a movie in 3D.  I am under no illusions about the passing fad that will become 3D movies, but as long as directors are offering artistically sound and narratively challenging movies, 3D will be enjoyable and respectable in my opinion.  Hugo is by all definitions an already great movie and the addition of the magic of three dimensions only adds to its enjoyability.  It is nice to see a director adhere to the advances of technology while also keeping his own personal styling to the film.  In essence, Hugo is as much an attempt by Scorsese to celebrate the amazing advances of cinema in the past few decades while also reminding viewers of how magical the medium of film has been for the past century.  Between the use of classic silent films and subtle references to classic movies, Hugo is a history lesson in all things cinematic and viewers will be better people for seeing the film.

Hugo follows the follies of a young thief named after the films title played respectably by Asa Butterfield.  Besides being a small time crook, Hugo also maintains the clocks in the train station he calls home.  He is doing so in replace of his uncle who has recently disappeared.  It is later revealed that Hugo resides in the train station because of his father's untimely death in a museum fire and has unwillingly been placed in the care of his drunkard uncle.  The only attachment Hugo has to anything of the past is though a small mechanical robot called an Automatron, which he steals pieces from in order to slowly rebuild the machine.  Unfortunately, given that the pieces are so specific he is only able to steal from the resident toy seller Georges (Ben Kingsley) who eventually catches him in the act and attempts to turn him into the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) who finds an unhealthy enjoyment in capturing orphans.  In the process of capturing Hugo, Georges also steals his notebook that contains his fathers notes on the Automatron.  Furious, Hugo follows Georges home to demand his notebook back only to be interrupted by his daughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) who explains that he must win Georges respect in order to gain back his notebook.  However, as Hugo undertakes this task he slowly fixes the Automatron until it is able to write its intended message, a drawing of a spaceship running into a moon.  Hugo is taken back, because the image is one he remembers his father telling him about, which fuels Hugo to discover the films origins.  This task is filled with obstacles, however, because as Hugo discovers Georges's past is far more complicated.  In fact, the film his father spoke of was indeed Voyage To The Moon and was directed by Georges Melies, who is the same Georges for which Hugo worked.  Hugo discovers that due to war and its disparaging affects, Georges retired from filmmaking and lost all access to his films, or so he thought.  With the help of film scholar Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg) Hugo and Isabelle show Voyage To The Moon to Georges and he is inspired to once again do good by his films.  In the process, Hugo discovers his place in the machine as a fixer of things both emotional and physical.  A rather sentimental closing for Scorsese, but one that is soundly emphasized by silent images of Melies works.

My previous film review discussed the nostalgia present in Midnight In Paris.  I would argue that Hugo serves as a counterpoint in that it focuses on sentimentality as it relates to filmmaking.  Scorsese, often an outspoken champion for film preservation, focuses on the issue of loosing great films to lack of interest or changing technological demands.  This is why the film, although 3D, relies heavily on filmic images considered antiquated by the casual moviegoer.  I, like most viewers, went into this film assuming large explosions and simple plot; however, Scorsese uses his platform wisely and incorporates the most magical moments of early cinema into his film which uses the highest achievements of technology available.  It is pure sentimentality at work, yet it is an earnest film in its sentimentality.  Instead of obnoxiously filling the film with old movie images, Scorsese places them subtly throughout the film, often paralleling them with their original image, whether it be Buster Keaton, The Lumiere Brothers or Georges Melies the image is purposeful and inspired.  It is arguably a new vision of Cinema Paradiso without the sole plot being centered on the cinema.  To Scorsese, the movies are the place where dreams exist and to him this originated with early cinema.  The sentimentality of Hugo is not here to remind us how great of a director Scorsese is, but instead to remind us that cinema has always been profoundly magical and this new advancement in technology owes everything to its century old predecessors.

This movie is stellar.  I cannot recommend it enough and would suggest viewing the film in 3D, particularly if you have yet to see a 3D movie.  It is grandiose and spectacular yet has moments of the gritty cinema verite of old school Scorsese and any cinephile will instantly appreciate the cohesion that exists in Hugo.  Not to mention you get to see silent films in 3D, which is pretty damn amazing.


J. Alfred Prufrock Is Like My Mantra: Midnight In Paris (2011)

Prior to viewing Midnight In Paris I was on the verge of discrediting the contemporary works of Woody Allen.  While he is certainly a comedic master and a fine filmmaker, I was beginning to believe that his films post 2000 were nothing more than increasingly senile diatribes that egregiously missed their mark.  This belief stood fast until I was about twenty or so minutes into Midnight In Paris and realized that Woody Allen was offering up something very intimate and sentimental that was artistically poignant while still adhering to the personal existentialism so key to classic Woody Allen films.  What this film offers is a bittersweet reflection by the aging director on both the beauty and tragedy of nostalgia and how such longing for the past only causes individuals to ignore their own present.  This ignorance towards the present is precisely what Allen's film focuses on, particularly as it relates to a person who finds himself becoming increasingly distant from his fiance and her peers.  Instead of focusing on the woes of aging, Allen creates an all-encompassing study of a often asked question.  That question being "Do I Belong Here?," and as Allen shows, through his film, the answer is rarely ever a simple one.

Midnight in Paris places it primary focus on Gil (Owen Wilson) a successful, but jaded, Hollywood screenwriter who has decided to pursue penning his own novel about a person who owns a nostalgia shop.  Gil is joined by his disapproving fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams) who dismisses Gil's ponderings in favor of wooing over her friends husband Paul (Michael Sheen).  While attempting to find inclusion within his wife's group of friends Gil realizes he is unwanted and takes up a tipsy trip through the streets of Paris.  While stopping to take a breather and recalculate his route home, Gil is approached by a twenties era car whose occupants demand he join them.  Reluctantly, Gil gets into the car to find people matching the cars look in their 1920's wardrobe and speech.  Through passing conversation, Gil realizes that he is in a car with F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and his wife Zelda (Alison Pill).  Bewildered Gil begins to verify whether or not he is truly residing in the world of 1920's Paris.  He eventually runs into Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) and others, even taking a moment to suggest a plot for a film to Luis Bunuel (Adrien de Van), which film buffs will recognize as The Exterminating Angel.  Through all this, Gil meets a woman named Adriana (Marion Cotillard) who he falls for instantly.  However, each morning Gil awakes to his real world in the present day seeking only to return to the Paris of the 1920's, while ignoring his crumbling engagement and the rather blatant infidelity of his wife.  Spurred on by the music of Cole Porter and the discovery of Adriana's journal in the present day, which mentions his exact words from a conversation the two shared the night before, Gil sets out to understand his own attachment to this other world of the past.  On one particular night, Gil follows Adriana on her own trip to France at the turn of the 19th century in which Adriana insists they stay.  It is only now that Gil realizes the flaws of his own nostalgic and illogical attachments to a time gone by and upon explaining his realization to Adriana, Gil returns to his time to end things with his fiance and wander the streets of Paris.  This ability to disconnect from the seemingly inextricable ties of nostalgia allow for Gil to meet a woman on the streets of Paris thus ending the film with the two of them walking the streets of Paris in a poetic and sweet closing shot.

I mentioned the sentimentality of this film in the opening sentences of this review.  I find it rather notable coming from a director like Woody Allen whose staunch pessimism has always found its way into his movies in the past.  Whether it be Annie Hall or Bananas Allen's films remind viewers that reality usually lets us down, and that all does not end well.  However, Midnight In Paris does not do these things, in fact, it does the opposite.  In this film the guy gets the girl, all be it a girl who appears only momentarily throughout the film and is not the one viewers expect.   More importantly, however, the character matures.  In all of the other Allen films I can recall, Allen's characters, often played by the director himself, never advance and often stick to their old ways arguing that putting themselves on the line would only prove hazardous.  In Midnight In Paris this is not the case, Gil absolutely puts himself out in the open for change.  After desperate flailing and a rather harsh taste of reality, Gil accepts his own place in society and advances forward as opposed to staying stagnantly in the present, an absolutely mature approach to narrative from Woody Allen.  Perhaps it is Allen's late age or love for old school movies, but if it were not for the occasional Freud inspired joke I would have had trouble placing this as a Woody Allen film and thought it more of a film Wes Anderson might make twenty years from now.  Regardless, Midnight In Paris is a sobering look at aging and the past and is a promising reminder of how truly prolific of a filmmaker Woody Allen can be, hopefully, we will see many more films of this nature from the director in the years to come.

This is an absolutely gorgeous film and one of the best of the year.  It is still making its way through the smaller theaters and there is no reason that you should not make it a goal of yours to see it before the New Year.  More importantly, remember, when in doubt, it is all a rhinoceros.


My Film World: The Criterion Cast

I will admit up front that I am behind the game in terms of podcasting.  I know that it has been a phenomenon for quite sometime and many established comedians, entertainers and journalists have their own weekly podcasts.  However, I have stumbled upon a particularly good film podcast that focuses specifically on films in The Criterion Collection.  As is probably apparent from many of my past blogs I am quite fond of The Criterion Collection, yet find myself lacking individuals to discuss the films with in depth.  Fortunately for me the folks over at The Criterion Cast provide such discussions.  Their weekly podcast focus on one film within the collection, while also talking about all news related to The Criterion Collection.  The discussions are often quite ponderous and always funny, incorporating film criticism and a deep respect for the art of making movies.  It is a small podcast, with a group of diehard fans and I thought it necessary to mention them on my blog.  More information is available at their website and podcasts are available for free in the Itunes store.  Download an episode, I am certain you will continue to download them well after the first listen.

 (The Criterion Cast's recent review of the 1964 film Robinson Crusoe on Mars is one of their best and funniest episodes to date.)


Top Ten Thursdays: Films Featured In This Years Blog

So as this year closes I felt my next to last Top Ten Thusday should revisit my favorite films I blogged about this year.  I watched quite a few films released this year as well and will save those for next week so anything on this list was made prior to 2011.  Instead of adding little snippets about the film I will simply attach the review for each film listed.

10.) Singin' In The Rain (1952)


9.) A Zed And Two Noughts


8.) The Naked Gun (1988)


7.) Down By Law (1986)


6.) Children of Paradise (1945)


5.) Paranormal Activity (2007)


4.) The Rules of the Game (1939)


3.) Nashville (1975)


2.) Last Year At Marienbad (1961)


1.) The Saddest Music In The World (2003)


Honorable Mention

The Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Pi (1998)
An Education (2009)


I Am No Cog; I Don't Even Like The Sound Of It: The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T (1953)

I am always surprised by some of the hidden film gems I have come across.  I recently picked up a rather impressive Stanley Kramer box set mostly for its inclusion of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and The Wild Ones, only to discover that one of the films included was a little know musical entitled The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.  I assumed it to be a run of the mill children's musical until I read the synopsis and realized that this film's script was the only one written by the great children's author Dr. Seuss.  Intrigue got the best of me and I decided to give this movie a whirl in my dvd player.  The awe came almost instantly, between the sweeping dance numbers, wacky Seuss inspired lexicon and the generally humorous plot everything about The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is enjoyable and well worth the time I spent watching the film.  It is a film that manages to study single parenthood with great fervor, while not losing its self in a sort of preachy self-awareness.  While many of the musical numbers are dubbed over and more than a few of the acting moments are dull, it is hard to hate on this film.  I would be much more inclined to include it in the realm of  Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or Mary Poppins as a fantastical technicolor musical that is both family friendly and incredibly watchable.  It is truly a shame not more is made of how excellent this film is in relation to its contemporaries.

Like anything involving Dr. Seuss one should expect crazy rhyming schemes and elaborate plot twists, but they should also expect simple, yet fully realized characters that interact seamlessly with their unconventional environment.  The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T certainly adheres to this notion by placing much of the film within a dream sequence.  The films opening shows a young boy, donning a baseball cap with a large yellow hand running wildly from what appear to be some sort of net wielding child catchers only to wake up from his nightmare to see a large piano.  This child Bart Collins (Tommy Rettig) has dozed off at yet another one of his piano lessons with the insolent Dr. Terwiliker (Hans Conreid) who is more concerned with keeping his prestigious image as a renowned piano tutor than befriending the young Bart.  Despite pleading with both his mother Helois (Mary Healy) and the local plumber August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes), affectionately known as Mr. Z, Bart is told that he must continue his training for a few more hours.  With a great deal of disdain Bart accepts his mothers demands and continues to play his piano, only to fall into another dream.  This time the dream is much more elaborate and relevant to Bart's previous conversations.  Bart is informed that he is trapped at the Terwiliker Institute for Boy's Piano, in which he will be held indefinitely pending an upcoming performance with 499 other boys, thus creating the 5,000 fingers mentioned in the movies title.  Finding no amusement in this realization, Bart sets out to find his mother, but is upset upon discovering that Dr. T has seduced her and caused her to act only in the interests of the institute.  Her duty to Dr. T is so severe that she has trouble even recognizing her own son.  Failing to win his own mother over, Bart pleas with Mr. Z, who, within Bart's dream, has been employed by Dr. T to build sinks for his institute at the rate of two thousand pastoolas a day.  Bart, with much effort, helps Mr. Z realize that Dr. T is simply taken advantage of his poverty and recruits him to help destroy the institute and Dr. T in the process.  After a series of dance and song numbers, including the nightmarishly dark "Elevator Song" Bart and Mr. Z are able to escape the evil clutches of Dr. T and, along with the other boys, make a complete mockery of Dr. T's conservatory thus ending his career.  Elated Bart awakes to his mom as well as Mr. Z talking.  Mentioning his dream, which included Mr. Z referring to Bart as his son, both Heloise and Mr. Z share a glance, which implies that they had not considered each other as romantic interests, but were only realizing the possibilities at the recent suggestion of Bart's dream.  Such an on the nose ending makes the film as much a work of Dr. Seuss as it is of Dr. Freud.

Another element of the work of Dr. Seuss is his incredibly astute social observations.  His books often carried heavy messages of the problems of conformity, prejudice and environmental abuse.  The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is certainly no different.  This film is absolutely about approaching the issues faced by a non-traditional family during the height of the nuclear family in the United States.  It is apparent that Bart's quest to destroy Dr. T is equal parts loathing for the piano as it is finding a place in an unreceptive world.  In a rather somber moment, Bart sings a song about the woes of being a child, because adults automatically assume him to be irrational and irrelevant.  This has real world relevance to Bart, given that nobody listens to his desires to pursue other hobbies such as fishing over being a pianist.  Dr. T ignores him in favor of his image, his mother ignores him because she is simply to exhausted from maintaining her domestic image and Mr. Z chooses not to side with Bart because as a plumber he has little if any social power and mobility.  What the film provides, via the Seuss script, is a study of the illogical performativity of Cold War America as seen through a child, right down to gender and class issues that place an aging and virulent piano teacher above an honest and respectable plumber.  The film also approaches the problem of widowhood in 1950's America.  It is subtle, but obvious that both Bart and his mom are pariahs given that no specific details about Bart's father are provided.  The only person who seems to accept the family is Mr. Z and it is not until Bart makes it apparent that he approves of Mr. Z's affections for his mom that it is alright and even then it is assumed only permissible within the confines of the Collins household.  The observations are copious, yet well placed and it is perhaps a prime example of Cold War cinema, if not, it is certainly the most overlooked.

I highly recommend checking this film out; it was slammed upon initial release, but has accrued a large cult following over the years.  If you decide to buy a copy I would suggest going with the Stanley Kramer Collection, because it comes with a bunch of other excellent titles, with this one being its shining star.


Top Ten Thursdays: Babies/Pregnancy in Film

So I am super elated!  My brother and his wife just gave birth to their first child and she is the cutest thing ever.  In honor of her birth I have decided to compose a quick and dirty list of my favorite baby and or pregnancy movies.  Surprisingly, I have not seen that many so this list will exclude a lot of obvious choices and for that I apologize.

10.) Citizen Ruth (1996)

Perhaps the most astute observation of the abortion debate to date, Citizen Ruth is an indie dark comedy that reminds viewers that personal opinions should not rule political discourse.

9.) Juno (2007)

Juno is easily the most quotable teenage pregnancy angst ridden comedy ever.

8.) Life As We Know It (2010)

This movie does not jump out as a great film based on its description, but it is quite good and well worth a viewing.

7.) Tree of Life (2011)

Minimal amounts of this film have to do with babies, but the parts that do are stunning.

6.) Knocked Up (2007)

Apatow's study on unplanned pregnancy completely revolutionized comedy for the 21st century.

5.) Baby Mama (2008)

Any questions about this high ranking can be directed to my past review on this hilarious film.

4.) Babies (2010)

An absolutely fascinating documentary, Babies studies the life of a new born in four distinctly different places in the world and reminds viewers that the gift of life is universal.

3.) Raising Arizona (1987)

Something about rocky underbits...

2.) Eraserhead (1977)

While the film is mostly about an abortion, David Lynch's early experimental film is as bizarre as it is personal.

1.) Rosmary's Baby (1968)

Rosemary's Baby is easily the creepiest birthing story to date.


Everyone Has A Song They Listen To On The Sly: Still Walking (2008)

I know I have made this statement on multiple occasions on my blog when I discuss Japanese films post 1960, but I cannot shy away from reemphasizing this now, the parallels between genre films of Japan and The United States are uncanny.  This is certainly the case with the 2008 family drama Still Walking, particularly in its study of the decaying of middle class traditions and the evaporation of the nuclear family ideal.  Arguably though, what separates Still Walking, and many other Japanese works of contemporary filmmaking, from its Western friends, is its attachment to the styling of the late Japanese masters, most notably Yasujiro Ozu.  It was only moments into this film before I realized the blatant similarities in mise-en-scene to Ozu, particularly in director Hirokazu Koreeda's staging the family as a public performance, as opposed to a private spectacle.  The conversations in this film, while dynamic, are undeniably deliberate and have the feeling of theatrics, which is understandable given that many of the films characters find themselves performing actions they believe "appropriate" as opposed to acting in the way they truly desire.  Yet, similar to Chinese director Wong Kar-Wai, Koreeda's film has an impermeable layer of reality that captures viewers into relating to the characters, even if they have little to nothing in common.  So, while I may say that the similarities to American cinema are uncanny, I would not hesitate to suggest that American independent cinema take a much needed cue from their Eastern contemporaries.

Still Walking, as noted above, is a film about family, particularly the distanced Yokoyama family that is still adjusting to the sting of a lost family member.  This family is led, unwillingly, by the aging doctor Kyohei (Yosio Harada) who is more concerned with clutching to his diminishing masculine identity than being hospitable to his children and wife Toshiko (Kirin Kichi) who often provides unwanted opinions about her childern's life decisions.  The remaining children consist of  daughter Chinami (You) and her seemingly mute husband Nobuo (Kazuya Takahashi) and son Ryota (Hirosha Abe) and his newly married wife Yukari (Yui Natsukawa).  Despite convening over the loss of a family member Chinami is preoccupied with claiming the house to herself in the face of her parents inevitable aging, while Ryota fights for his family to accept him as a son that is respectable compared to his deceased brother, while also trying to gain the family's approval of his wife who is a widowed mother.  This entire convoluted and ignored contention, like the food in the movie, is at the point of boiling over, until the family members begin to confess their issues with one another.  Slowly, with large amounts of patience and forgiveness, the family begins to realize the err in their ways and provide both acceptance and forgiveness to one another realizing that their own self-loathing and pain was not comparable to the acidic divisions it created amongst the whole.  In the end the family, including the extremely conservative Kyohei, realize that their lives are fleeting and to do anything but continue walking would be to live their lives and their lost family members life in vain.

This film is about the unspoken bonds of family, even those bonds that have become corroded by the divisions of failed communication.  The film is also very much about the power and problem of misappropriated tradition.  Still Walking is also very much about food.  It is a film about the power of performing family tradition as a focal point for unity, it is clear from the films opening scenes, to conversations about lunch and dinner, that even in the most dire of situations a group can meet and coalesce happily over a plate of food.  I am not terribly keen on food studies, or how they relate to film analysis, but I am aware that this field of study is becoming considerably prominent in academia.  I am not fully prepared to make an intense discussion about food studies as they relate to this film, but I am absolutely certain that it could be done, along with many of the films that made my Thanksgiving day Top Ten list.  Fortunately for me, I have a girlfriend who has taken a handful of classes in this subject and I plan to hound her about what family, food and performance really means.  Hopefully I can draw something deeper and more profound in the future on the subject, but for the time being I just find it intriguing that such a seemingly simple act like cooking, proves to be so necessary in assuring familial cohesion throughout Still Walking.  It is worth discussion, if only for how delicious all the food looks.

This is easily one of the best releases by Criterion in 2010 and a film I would never have watched were it not for its inclusion in the collection.  There are two reasons to pick up this amazing movie from the people over at Criterion: The first is for the brilliant film, and the second is for the recipes that are included in the supplemental book.


Story Of My Life. I Always Get The Fuzzy End Of The Lollipop: Some Like It Hot (1959)

Some Like It Hot is one of the sexiest, sultriest, silliest and zaniest movies ever released and is probably Marilyn Monroe's best performance aside from The Seven Year Itch.  As I get close to closing in on the last few films on the TIFF Essential 100 List, this was a film I was excited to see and ashamed to have never gotten around to watching.  My shame was well deserved because this black and white gem was phenomenal and served as yet another reminder to how excellent classic Hollywood filmmaking was, as well as a fine example of how to make a racy film without relying on nudity and crude humor as the base.  Some Like It Hot is brilliantly written and superbly cast and as I get closer to composing my list of filmic New Year's resolutions I am certain that I will be adding "Watch More Billy Wilder Movies" to my list, because he is becoming one of my favorite directors and I have only seen a very small fraction of his rather large collection of films.  If anything, Some Like It Hot is probably one of the pioneers of cross-dressing movies, if not its zenith.

The plot of Some Like It Hot is a well-known one in the vocabulary of film history.  Two musicians, the paranoid bass playing Jerry (Jack Lemmon) and suave saxophone playing Joe (Tony Curtis) assume the worst when they discover they are on their last leg of financial luck, only to become accidental witnesses at the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre.  In desperation and fear, Joe signs both Jerry and himself up to play with a traveling women's band.  While disapproving, Jerry begrudgingly agrees that it is their best course of action and the duo begin a new life as cross-dressing men.  The duo appears to be successful at their new lives and pass as women despite the critical, and oblivious, watchful eyes of the bands leaders Sweet Sue (Joan Shawlee) and her henchmen Beinstock (Dave Berry).  Both Joe and Jerry are fine with their new feminine lifestyle given that it assures their livelihood, but this changes when they both begin developing feelings for the band's lush violinist Sugar Kane Kowalcyk (Marilyn Monroe).  Sugar Kane who is also oblivious to the duo's maleness takes them to be newfound friends and becomes intimately close with the duo, sharing a nearly naked night of drunken debauchery with Jerry.  Upon the band's arrival to their next performance, Joe undertakes a new disguise as a rich son of a Shell Oil tycoon to win over Sugar Kane while Jerry unsuccessfully evades the advances of a rich suitor.  In a stroke of misfortune, the location of their performance is also the place for the meeting of the mob bosses, including the ones that Joe and Jerry witnessed murdering other mobsters.  In a final and hilarious confrontation, Joe and Jerry evade the mobsters while Joe convinces Sugar Kane to run away with him.  Jerry is stuck with his rich suitor, who agrees to provide for him even after Jerry's confession of being a man.  As I said earlier, a zanier movie does not exist.

There is always an interesting dilemma that occurs when films approach issues of gender passing.  When I say gender passing I do not mean transvestism, as would occur in a film like To Wong Fu...but what occurs in a film like White Chicks (which is a multi-leveled film about passing as another).  It involves normal people who use a different gender identity as a means to learn something about a person or group or to escape and hide form pursuers.  The dilemma I have noticed is that when men pass as women there is often an underlying sexual desire for a befriended female that arises.  In a film like Some Like It Hot, and so many others, women are portrayed as sexually oblivious and wild when outside of the male gaze.  This would not be problematic if so many of these films were made by women as a parody, unfortunately, this is not the case.  I am not terribly versed on films with women posing as men, but I am fairly certain that such frivolous sexual actions in males groups do not serve as scenes in these movies.  I could be wrong, but I still have a hunch.  It is not a terribly serious issue given the comedic nature of such a film, but it was something I thought worth noting.  If you have any feelings or counter examples to my observations, I would love to hear them.  Other than that, this film is absolutely perfect.

While the film is heavily narrative, it is still well shot and visually enthralling, making it an obvious bluray purchase, and for those of you who have already seen this, feel free to suggest other Billy Wilder movies to check out.


The Chair Is Not Gay, Obviously: Beginners (2010)

I recall having a conversation with a friend and filmmaker who discussed the issues of many indie comedies lacking a heartbeat.  He stated that while many films were visually stunning or narratively advanced they still lacked that life that separates a good indie film from its lesser competition.  Mike Mill's critically acclaimed and extremely personal film Beginners is an movie with a steady and very apparent heartbeat.  I can foresee this film becoming a timeless classic on the study of family and self-acceptance in the face of midlife existential malaise and I am also imagining that it is going to rake in nicely at whatever awards ceremonies it is involved.  This film along with Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture are bringing me back around to the world of independent cinema that I had ruled lost with the new millennium.  Beginners is a fresh, quirky and real study of life as one person experiences it and is a touching cinematic reminder of how fleeting a person's life can be and that they should live said life to the fullest with the fewest illusions possible.  I would be hard pressed to find a more bittersweet collage of images, than what Mill's offers in this film.

Beginners, though non-linear in its narrative, is a relatively simple story.  It begins with the thirty-eight year old Oliver (Ewan McGregor) packing the final belongings of his late fathers house.  This act alone leads him on a reflection of his own relationships with both of his deceased parents. The film, and Oliver's reflections, paint his mother Georiga (Mary Page Keller) out to be a depressed and drugged out woman whose relationship with her son and husband are distanced and meaningless, leading Georgia to act out in public to spite them both.  It would appear as though Georgia's actions are selfish and loathsome, until Oliver is told in another flashback with his aged father that he had, in fact, married Oliver's mother despite being gay.  This confession on the part of Oliver's father Hal (Christopher Plummer) leads Oliver to question everything he has understood about his life, including his own relationship with his dad.  Fortunately, for Oliver he is able to rekindle his relationship with his dying father purely out of providing support for him and accepting his lifestyle change as a desire that had lingered long before he arrived in the world.  Tragically, Hal does die and Oliver is left to clean up what remains, acts that range from dumping out his father large amount of medicine to caring for his telepathic dog.  Oliver seems content to graze through life unattached to those around him with only a dog as a companion, until he runs into a mute girl at a costume party who hits on him by writing notes.  This woman, Oliver discovers, is a French actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent) and her lack of voice is due solely to a case of laryngitis.  The two begin a head on collision of romance and therapy that leads the two down a confusing path of love and fear, which seems doomed for failure until a last minute change of heart makes Oliver realize that he cannot live his life in fear like his father did, because to do so would be to dismiss a chance a true love, even if such love is momentary.

This film is sweet and beautifully shot, but what is perhaps the most captivating element of the film is its ability to seriously deal with contemporary issues without loosing its artistic edge.  Beginners clearly has an agenda, particularly its concern with reminding viewers of the unfortunate struggles gay Americans face prior to the new millennium.  In freeze frames, Oliver reflects on notions of beauty, politics and family between two years, often using the 1950's and 1960's and a comparison to the year of 2003 in which the film is set.  Through this duality Mill's makes it quite clear that for a character like Hal to have been openly gay would have meant his public banishment and a life of solitude.  The fact, that he had to hide his own sexual desires until his last months alive are tragic and a character like Oliver helps viewers to comprehend how truly baffling such a ridiculous demand was for people living fifty years ago.  More than this though, the film is also a beautiful observation of the seemingly limitless boundaries of love.  As I noted earlier, the character of Georgia is painted rather bitterly and shown to be pathetically lost in her own world of ennui.  However, in a very touching scene Hal reminds Oliver that he loved his mother and she loved him, their being together was an act of friendship and loyalty.  She know of Hal's sexual preference, but agreed to marry him regardless, because she knew the social consequences if he were to remain unmarried.  This moment helps Oliver to comprehend much of his confused youth and he grows to respect his mother, as well as the obstacles his father continued to face even in his dying days.  Oliver also comes to realize that he cannot expect happiness to emerge through finding his father love, but instead in supporting his decisions while searching for his own source of happiness, a feat that appears to happen in the films closing shot.

This movie is magical and heartbreaking.  I am standing behind this as one of the best films in this award season and cannot recommend it enough.  Buy a copy and share it with those you care about.


Top Ten Thursdays: Japanese Films

One of my goals for the new year is to greatly increase the amount of Japanese films I view.  As it is right now I have seen a considerable amount of the classics, but could stand to see many more, particularly silent era Japanese cinema.  Regardless, I am offering a list of my ten favorite Japanese movies.  I will confess up front that this was a difficult list to compose.

10.) Audition (1999)

Thanks to a healthy push by Quentin Tarantino and an ever increasing cult following for the director Takashi Miikie, Audition is a infamous Japanese film that stretches the very limits of what one can consider viewable cinema.

9.) Battle Royale (1999)

Easily one of my favorite contemporary Japanese films, Battle Royale is an adaptation of a book by the same name, which follows a group of high school students who have been forced to kill each other in the name of entertainment.  The film is getting its first U.S. theatrical run in the coming year.  It should be exciting, if not morbid.

8.) Late Spring (1949) 

The works of Ozu set out to do one thing, and that is to break viewers hearts.  Late Spring, like so many of his works, follows a modern Japanese family as they face the crippling decay of their countries pre-war traditions.

7.) Patriotism (1966)

 The shortest film on this list at roughly twenty minutes, Patriotism was written and directed by Yukio Mishima who would later commit suicide in the name of political opposition in a manner that nearly parallels this short film.

6.) Kwaidan (1965)

Kwaidan is a series of short segments using popular Japanese ghost stories as its inspiration.  While the entire film is good, I would strongly recommend the short called Hoichi, The Earless.

5.) Jigoku (1960)

Roughly translating to Japanese Hell, Jigoku is perhaps the most exploitative Japanese film besides School of the Holy Beast.

4.) Ugetsu (1953)

Ugetsu is similar to Jigoku, in that it follows a character who travels through hell for a lost love.  This film is easily one of the most poetic ever made.

3.) Akira (1988)

This film keeps showing up on my top ten lists.  It is the pinnacle of Japanese animation.

2.) Godzilla (1954)

I know this is a different image than the original, however, Godzilla is not only one of the most important Japanese films ever, but one of the greatest viewing experiences a person can have.

1.) The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

I could have picked Seven Samurai...or any Kurosawa movie for that matter, but The Bad Sleep Well is my favorite, not only for its keen analysis of corruption in urban Japan, but also for its luxurious cinematography.

Honorable Mention

Seven Samurai (1954)
House (1977)
Vengeance Is Mine (1979)
Perfect Blue (1997)