Thursday, December 30, 2004

The Best Films of the Year

Of the movies I watched this year there are some that left a mark in my consciousness and have not faded from my memory.

It was a frenzied year marked by monumental epic films bombing monumentally as well in the ticket registers. It was the year that saw a couple of documentaries blaze through mainstream cinemas. A visionary filmmaker/actor's personal passion brought independent filmmaking into a raging victory that took the box office gates by millions of dollars. And there are genre movie busting through their formulaic origins and surprisingly transformed into critical and more importantly commercial hits.

There are also films that are personal and smaller in scope yet provided that knock-out power punch - that great emotional squeeze that strains and clutches the viewer in a procession of passionate outbursts of joy, guilt, pleasure, love, anguish, bewilderment, awe, lust and cinematic illumination.

What follows is my list of favorite films from the past year. It is a varied list ranging from the truly outstanding (read: universally adored) to the bizaare choiches that provided guilty pleasure to not so few cinema lovers.

1) The Motorcyle Diaries: Not really my original choice for best film of the year but the seeming gravity of its theme makes it one very important film. An affectionate homage to the great revolutionary Che Guevarra, the film chronicles that year in his life when he took the road with his friend and traveled across the South American continent to discover the beauty of its people and the countryside. This little trip would eventually serve as the most influencing journey of his life. The journey would stir a calling that would inspire him to pursue and dedicate his life towards the liberation of his poor and persecuted compatriots from the repugnant horrors of capitalist oppression and injustice. The film does not, however, go into his revolutionary days, instead, what is presented is a loving portrait of a man going through an exacting awakening in so young a life. The haunting images of traditional native Americans conjured by Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles and the gentle yet ferocious performance of its lead, "Y Tu Mama Tambien's" Gael Garcia Bernal give the film an ardent rein that never lets go.

2) The Aviator: Martin Scorsese will finally win the Oscar with his supremely brilliant film. He hits all the right marks in this soaring film about the flamboyant and eccentric life of legendary airplane builder and pioneer of independent filmmaking Howard Hughes. From the colorful '30s art deco set pieces to the bang-up musical score. From the kinetic camera work and splendid aerial photography to the grand visual effects. From the magnificent actors to the faultless editing and writing. All these were achieved in a film that is so charming and zestful the much touted nearly three hours running time don't feel like it at all.

3) Sideways: Ah, the ironic joy of melancholy as romanticized in this beautiful film. Alexander Payne has crafted a perfectly-tuned film about a couple of middle-aged buddies who take on a road trip across the wine valleys of northern California only to be confronted by painful realization about their lives and how badly they have lived it. This gem of a movie features a wonderful cast that blends along with the director's vision that great comedies are those that cater to the everyday follies of ordinary people and not the laugh-a-minute slapticks comedies have evolved into. Paul Giamatti leads a wonderful cast as a failed writer who has bottled up all his emotions he can no longer afford to set himself loose into the world and experience real happiness.

4) Vera Drake: Britain's Mike Leigh has directed this disturbing and involving drama with so much tenderness and insight that the viewer is left perplexed with an overwhelming emotion of sympathy and compassion for a character whose intentions are pure but whose acts morally questionable. The film is effectively lifted to greatness by the charming and heartbreaking turn of its lead, Imelda Staunton, whose portrayal of a '50s housewife. who so selflessly dabbles in abortion, is just so extraordinary you can't help but rise and applaud for her in the blank darkness of the cinema for a performance that is unquestionably the best of the year.

5) Friday Night Lights: The finest football movie i've ever seen. This film by part-time actor Peter Berg has that emotional blow rarely found in movies about sports. The raw and graphic football scimmages are masterfully assimilated with the special detailing of the personal lives of the central characters - their simple dreams and aspirations, fears and apprehensions. Based on real people and real events, this film chronicle remarkably tackles the subject matter and hits a solid touchdown.

6) The Passion of the Christ: That Mel Gibson would spend $35 million of his own money to fund this film is enough big reason to honor the man with a thunderous applause. But, no, he not only made the film, he made it so great and realistic that not only did he invite trouble he also opened the floodgates that indirectly swamped the hypocrisy of not so few people and reminded the world of the real essence of His sacrifice. Beautifully told and photographed, the film spotlights the last twelve hours of Jesus Christ's life on earth. His sufferings were viciously recreated it was so violent that every lash at Jesus brings a heart-wrenching pain of guilt in almost everyone's heart.

7) Closer: Mike Nichols has masterfully constructed this caustic tale of love, lust, deception and betrayal about four people who are fatefully brought together by the deceptive lure of love to form a roller-coaster of a love quadrangle. This film puts into focus the loftiness of commitments people so eagerly promise at the start of every relationships only to sink to the lowest of irrational rage when faced by the bitter truth of their partner's infidelities. Natalie Portman vibrantly bookends this convoluted and vicious tale as a stripper who doesn't completely reveal all of herself.

8) Spider-Man 2: Wow, this movie has all the elements of popcorn filmmaking and yet encompasses such a broad spectrum of emotions rarely found in movies based on cartoon characters. Sam Raimi has showcased a mastery of this thrilling genre with a telling sequel that reveals the flawed human side of a superhero who is confused and sorrowed on the sacrifices he gives to an impassive society and his forlorn longing for his beloved Mary Jane. This film also offers some of the best fight sequences and dazzling visual effects of the year. It also created one of the most original and sympathetic movie villains ever. In a year that saw the equally impressive "The Incredibles", the superhero action genre has finally evolved into a distinguished franchise.

9) House of Sand and Fog: This late 2003 release got into our town in early February and i thought it was one of the lamentable omissions from last year's Oscar field. This a powerful and disheartening drama involving the struggle of three lost characters over a property that represents the fulfillment of their dreams. One for the rebuilding of his family's life after an unceremonious overthrow from his own country. Another trying to reclaim a property that was her only link to a sane life she ever had. And another trying to put together a new life after he has sacrificed a marriage for that one love he has been longing for all his life. This terrible crossing of path leads to an emotional turmoil that ends in an unspeakable tragedy that leaves the audience helpless and devastated.

10) Fahrenheit 9/11: Michael Moore's searing documentary took the highest honors at this year's Cannes Festival and was one of the major point of debates during the hotly-contested American presidential elections. It is a daring documentary that attempts to present to the public how bad a president George Bush is. Using the September 11 tragedy as his springboard, Moore goes into a series of slanderous accusation and rampaging attacks against the president that at times come out funny but oftentimes outrageous. This powerful film lifted the documentary genre from the confines of arthouse cinemas into the marketplace of cineplexes.

There are films that i also really liked but could not be accomodated in my limited top ten list. There's "Ray", a sentimental biopic about the life of Ray Charles. There was also "Finding Neverland" - a tearjerker based on the life of Peter Pan creator, J.M. Barrie, "Napoleon Dynamite" - one of the most original and quirky films of the year, "Harold and Kumar go to White Castle" - a hilarious road movie that is so silly it made me laugh the hardest this year, "The Dreamers" - Bernardo Bertolucci's lyrical homage to French Cinema, Nick Cassavetes' "The Notebook " - a passionate love story that transcends the barrier of dementia, "Sky Captain and the World of Tommorow" - a movie made with special effects, its a credit to the actors for their effective turns given that they had to act amidst blue screens. And how can i forget the lavish visuals and stunning fight sequences of "House of Flying Daggers", Meryl Streep's menacing turn in Jonathan Demme's disturbing "The Manchurian Candidate" and Tom Cruise's maniacal assassin in "Collateral".

And i cannot end this without a caveat. Clint Eastwood's much-admired "Million Dollar Baby" has yet to be released in a theater near me. I also failed to catch "Maria Full of Grace" and "Bad Education.".


Sunday, December 26, 2004

The Aviator

In Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, Leonardo Di Caprio portrays Howard Hughes, the legendary builder of some of aviation's modern technologies and pioneer of Hollywood's independent filmmaking.

Hughes is a big dreamer who sees no limitation in what he can do. He produced the classic "Hell's Angel's" at such a massive cost unheard of in Hollywood not for personal aggrandizement but to enthuse the public at how wondrous flying can be.

He is a risk-taker who exposed his family's oil fortune to near bankruptcy just so he could finance his ambitious projects. He is a perfectionist who sees no cost in accomplishing his desired perfection. He is a playboy who romanced some of Hollywood's most glamorous women.

But, of all that he is, his phobic attacks and freakish fear of sickness and viral contamination limited him to a man whose irrational worries constrict him and brings about his personal falldown not uncommon in successful and over-achieving people.

Scorsese has crafted a fabulously perfect film. His marvelous and stunning film offers glorious storytelling that is filled with lavish visuals and inspired performances that certainly deserves all the critical accolades that it is receiving. His recreation of the chaotic filming of "Hell's Angels" and his decision to put it in the film's beginning effectively lifts the film off: while it earnestly introduces the viewer to the Howard Hughes character, it also sets of the entire film into a soaring filmmaking masterpiece.

Di Caprio's manic and confident swagger provides the film its very distinct performance. He is in almost every frame in the movie and he doesn't tire at all. He is most brilliant when Hughes spirals down into madness and locks himself up for weeks in his studio room.

Cate Blanchett channels the late great actress Katharine Hepburn with an amazing and graceful performance worthy of an Oscar nomination. Jude Law cameos as Errol Flynn and Kate Beckinsale does a vivacious Ava Gardner in this movie filled with real-life characters painted in not so reverent way but also never demeaning and critical.

In one of the film's tense and dramatic highlights, Hughes is summoned by the Senate to answer the allegations made by one corrupt senator that he was a war profiteer. Hughes rises to the occasion (remarkably, that is, because this took place just after he locked himself up for weeks) and defeats the senator who is reduced to answering questions on his integrity.

It was during this hearing that Hughes made the promise that if the collosal aircraft he was building doesn't fly, he wil leave America and never do business again. But, the plane does fly and along with it the film soars to staggering heights.

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Closer


There is a big revelation at the end of Closer that puts in perspective all the events that transpired in Mike Nichols' caustic tale of love, lust, betrayal, deception and the vagaries of easily told truths.

This film, adapted from a Tony-winning stage play, brings to screen four of the handsomest people working in Hollywood today.

Natalie Portman is Alice. She is a New York stripper who moves to London to mend her broken heart. An accident leads her to meet Dan (Jude Law), an obituary writer in a local newspaper. They easily take a liking of each other and live in apparent bliss for the next few months.

A year passes and come enters Anna (Julia Roberts) into their lives. She is the photographer commissioned to do Dan's cover jacket photographs for his new book detailing his love story with Alice. This series of photograph sessions and, at first, innocent flirting leads to a deeper relationship that hooks Dan and alienates Alice.

Dan's obsession with Anna triggers him to do extreme acts. In one of the films best written scenes, Dan logs into a cybersex webpage pretending to be Anna and indulges Larry (Clive Owen), a Dermatologist to come meet her in a local Aquarium. This innocent and lusty playfulness backfires as the real Anna falls in love with Larry and abandons Dan.

Alice, in all these events, remain in the shadows of Dan, faithful and trusting, loving and understanding.

This is a film that puts into focus how adults make a mockery of love and relationships. After Anna abandons Dan and marries Larry, the films spirals into a terrible series of betrayals and deceptions that ultimately leads to painful breakups and reconciliations.

This masterful love quadrangle is perfect in its triumphant evocation of how lovers tend to lose focus on gentle truths and sometimes demand painful honesty from their partners not to assuage their hurt feelings but to hurl back to the offending party the same pain their acts have caused them. It is very apparent here and so in real life that oftentimes people can easily promise their i-love-you's without taking the consequences of what they are inviting their partners into.

It is also significant to note that the professions of the characters here (that is the reason why i patiently jotted them down) reflect how they are in real life (it is not apparent though that they are able to grasp the ugly pictures they are painting of themselves). Anna is a photographer who was accused early on by another character of stealing her subjects life and using them for her own personal comfort. Larry is a dermatologist who is preoccupied on physical beauty but is hiding an ugly wrathful self. Dan is an obituarist whose main occupation is to write about the ideal lives he paints of his subjects which blurs his own beliefs and make him blind to the ideal life he actually has. Alice is a stripper who allows her patrons to disrobe her without letting them touch her. She goes naked, bares all her body but does she really open up everything about her? hmmm...

In the end, the revelation about Alice, the stripper, will finally unmask her and lovingly define her and puts a mean ending to this rollercoaster of a love quadrangle that doesn't end happily ever after for some.

And Isn't it a fact that in every love stories that begin there is always one person, the one abandoned and left behind, hurting in the background? But, how can one empathize with the character who so bravely declares his love for someone and yet carelessly not try to even know the real person he is supposedly in love with and when he is left abandoned, can the audience be blamed if they don't feel an ounce of sympathy - or for that matter the party who abandons him - for the sad predicament he put himself in?

Closer is one of the very best films of the year. All the actors do good here but special kudos goes to Natalie Portman who, while she vibrantly bookends this tale, despairingly shines as Alice. She acts so good that even when she goes naked the viewer is not a bit distracted. Clive Owen is also very effective in his role that is so easy to like and hate as swiftly as his chameleonic character changes from being nice to being vicious.

The haunting music used at the start and end was never more inspired while the writing witty and crisply naughty.


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Finding Neverland



Every fine movie has its moments of brilliance that strikes the audience and define the entire movie watching experience.

In Finding Neverland, it comes near the end as Kate Winslet's Sylvia lay dying, the play, inpired by her children, is performed right in her own living room. No eyes were dry during these ten extraordinary minutes.

Finding Neverland is a magical film about childhood and the insolent stubbornness of some adults in trying to discredit the lovely memories of how recklessly fun and carelessly exciting it is to be a child and instead live in drab and boring lives.

Johnny Depp is ebullient as J.M. Barrie, the famed playwright whose masterful work on Peter Pan made him a byword in children's literature. But many people who have watched countless incarnations of this delightful tale about the boy who refuses to grow up did not actually realize that it was based on a real child named Peter who, ironically, stopped believing in the whimsical joy of childhood after his father unexpectedly dies and his mother has taken ill.

This is director Marc Foster's follow-up to his 2002 dark film "Monster's Ball". The film is an elegant piece of filmmaking with incredibly great visualization that cleverly captures the rich imagination of writer Barrie and transports the audience through a fantastical ride to that place where children never grow up, Neverland.

As good a movie is however, there are instances when i felt it to be too slow for comfort. And the conflict between Barrie and his wife was presented as a matter of fact but not really fully explained. Yeah, there was a small confrontation between the couple but it didn't reveal much anything at all.

Depp clearly labored hard in coming up with his characterization and it was evident in his stirring performance, but his accent felt a little too artificial. Actors who do accents are only great when the accents help enliven their characters just like in the case of Cate Blanchett in "The Aviator" who does an extremely magnificent Katharine Hepburn - or for that matter any Meryl Streep performances from several movie seasons ago.

Kate Winslet, however, astound the viewer once again with her heartfelt performance of a suffering widow caring for her four children and pretending to be well when she was actually dying.

The film, notwithstanding its minor flaws, remain an entertaining and inspiring work.


House of Flying Daggers



House of Flying Daggers offers a sumptous display of Chinese martial arts done in an exhilarating ballet-like dances combined with colorful and flamboyant set decorations, meticulous costumes and breath-taking photography that captivates and hooks the viewer to an experience like no other.

Zhang Yimou, the director, has fashioned an intricate love triangle featuring Chinese cinema's current darling Zhang Ziyi (who just recently changed her name to Ziyi Zhang), Takeshi Kanisheru, one of Japan's biggest stars and Hongkong superstar Andy Lau.

Ziyi is Mei. She is a blind courtesan in the Peony Pavilion whose skillful dances regularly regales Jin (Kanisheru), an undercover policeman, who has been frequenting the pavilion in hopes of catching a member of the dreaded insurgent group House of Flying Daggers.

In one drunken binge, Jin tries to force himself into Mei only to be thwarted by the timely arrival of Leo (Lau), a Police Captain, who arrests Jin and in an attempt to weigh on the punishment for the alleged indecency of Mei, challenges her to play the Echo Game. This game will engage the blind Mei to follow the bouncing sound of the pea as it hits the drum and strike the exact spot with the weighted end of her long sleeve.

In a succession of spectacular sequences, Mei's true colors are revealed when she attempts to murder the Captain.

Mei is revealed to be the long-lost daughter of the leader of the Flying Daggers group. With this information, Jin and Leo hatches a plan to bait the group by allowing Mei to escape with Jin's assistance in hopes that she will lead them to the enemies' lair which will allow them to wage a surprise attack.

The story then shifts into the development of a love angle that seems innocent and ordinary at first but is later on revealed to be rooted in deception and treachery.

Yimou has crafted an exuberant and teriffic film that invites comparison to Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". But this film impressively stands out on its own and delivers one stunning action and dance sequences after another.

In the film's long-drawn climax featuring the three main protagonists, the viewer is treated to an extravaganza of hues and colors in brilliantly photographed scenes of an intense and affecting battle between two men for the love of a woman who lays dying in snow-covered plains.

Yimou is an old romantic whose previous works in "Raise the Red Lantern", "To Live", and "Not one Less" provide scathing criticism of the current Chinese Regime disguised in lavish imagery and tricky narrative that somewhat one can't help but imagine that perhaps this final battle for the love of one woman is another love song to the pre-revolution China and that the difficult choice that Mei is left with in the end is what Mother China had to undergo in order to transform herself into a country to be proud of once again?

But whatever his reasons are House of Flying Daggers is one great piece of cinema.

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Sunday, December 05, 2004

Sideways

Sideways is that kind of film that effectively captures the somber state of bottled melancholy. Not since Lost In Translation has there been a movie that draws a very fine line between laughters and tears. But, if I were to be asked to pick which one is better, I would pick Sideways anytime.

Sideways is supposed to be a comedy (and indeed it is!) but the emotions it conjure from its audience transcends the usual laugh-and-let-go comedy. The laughter it elicits somehow manages to linger in your mind and you find yourself eventually consumed with pity and sadness for the characters that you end up shedding tears (in my case, rather copiously) when you realize that you could just have been one of them.

Paul Giamatti is Miles. Miles is a would-be writer who can't get his novel published. He's a middle-aged something guy whose divorce two years before have left him heartbroken and incurably depressed. He goes on a wine-tasting trip in the wine valleys of Northern California with his best bud Jack (Thomas Haden Church, who won the National Board of Review award for best supporting actor) who is set to marry the week after.

This is a road trip like no other. Think of Rain Man, but on a lighter, more personal level. The trip is perfectly laid out with agendas ranging from golf games to wine-tasting and just plain getting drunk for a week. They meet Maya and Stephanie during one of their wine-tasting stops and Jack develops another agenda: To get himself laid before he takes the so-called plunge. Miles vehemently resists this development and wants to stick to the original plan. It is at this point that the characters start to unravel.

Miles is still stuck over his ex-wife Victoria who unknown to him has gotten married already. When he learns this from Jack, he goes on a classic childish fit of temper that seems very funny on the surface but when examined closer comes out very real and affecting. The crushing realization of what Miles feared becoming real is very distressing to watch. And credit to Paul Giamatti's excellent acting when he doesn't overact this scene when the temptations to do so is high given the hysterical scenario.

He then grudgingly accepts Jack's plan and they go on a bachelor trysts with the two ladies (who are taken for a ride they shortly will discover and regret.)

There is a scene on the porch between Miles and Maya (Virginia Madsen) that is agonizingly sweet and tentative. You can feel their lust for each other but you can sense that something is holding them back. This quiet dialogue would be punctuated later on by Miles' near-awakening as Maya describes what it is in wines that she likes most. Miles sees a reflection of him in Maya that he has not seen of himself in a long time due to the years of denial and forced depression that have invariably locked him in a dire state where the only way out is to take the cork out of that bottled emotions he has been keeping himself in and just like opening a vintage wine, enjoy the matured flavor that life offers and celebrate each moment like it is the moment.

In the coming weeks I am predicting that Sideways will get an ensemble acting nomination from the Screen Actors Guild. The Globes will award Paul Giamatti his best actor in a comedy, Thomas Haden Church will get nominated and the film will receive multiple Oscar nominations.

Superbly directed by Alexander Payne, this is one film that transcends its genre and evokes real emotions from its audience.


National Treasure


Nicolas Cage is back in action as Benjamin Franklin Gates (when a character has this name, movie expectations are further lowered) who is on a crusade to locate the hidden treasure left behind by the founding fathers of the United State of America.

Watching the plot unfold is like reading one of those Da Vinci Code rip-offs. In Gates’ search for the treasure he follows a series of trails that point to where the treasure is supposedly buried.

On the hunt also are Gates’ former teammates who as usual in a formulaic movie as this one turns sinister at the sight or just even thought of massive fortune. The film pretty much run in circles until finally the last clue is revealed. But because of the stupidity of the villain (actually, the screenwriter is to be blamed for this), the final scenes, revealing the treasure lacked the excitement it was building beginning from the start of the story.

Diane Kruger, she was Helen in the movie Troy, is the token female partner of Gates along with the token techno-whiz sidekick Justin Bartha.

Given all this and only if one suspends his incredulity and ride along with the story, the film seems fun and probably even thrilling.

One can only hope that when the Da Vinci Code novel is brought to the screen by Tom Hanks and company, they will not succumb to the same failures this film have in loads.

Alexander


Oliver stone have been bludgeoned and speared by critics over what they say is a colossal failure his film Alexander have been. Another critic even likened it to a B-movie. Ugh, that hurts.

It hurts because this film is somewhat a remarkable achievement. Its scope is epic. The photography, set decoration, costume and music are way above your average films. Even the acting is uniformly good especially Angelina Jolie’s deceiving Olympia and Colin Farrell’s headstrong yet insecure Alexander.

The major flaw is in the narrative. The lapses in editing is forgivable but difficult to overlook that it somehow distracts and gets in the way of cohesive story-telling. The film begins with Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins whose brilliance is less evident in a weak role) retelling to his scribes the exploits of Alexander forty years after his death.

Much of what is in the story have already been told in world history textbooks, Oliver Stone however, takes an extra route and delves into the psyche of the legendary conqueror and present him as a human being: his dreams of conquering the world; his bitter relationship with his mother and father; and the most controversial, his bisexuality.

Oliver Stone’s attempt to capture all these aspects of Alexander’s life and merge it along with his victorious campaigns against the Persian Empire and later on the warriors of India end up being complicated and confusing. It did not help either that Ptolemy would segue into the story and just blurt out condensed events significant to the next scene that the movie would jump into.

The film is not a a big a failure as Troy was. Whereas Troy was made to be commercially accessible and for which it failed; Alexander has all the mark of a great Oliver Stone film. The film was made with the director’s vision and he transformed it into a visually ravishing film (the Hanging Gardens of Babylon is truly magnificent).

Much of the fuss about the film was focused on the depiction of Alexander’s sexuality. To Stone's credit, this alone is enough evidence that he is still very much his own man. The director kept his vision intact and presented the movie the way he wanted to present it and eventually and perhaps unintentionally paralleling what Alexander did in his last campaign in India. As Alexander's vision of conquering the East ended up in failure so is Oliver Stone's


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