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Best Supporting Performances of 2009

January 30, 2010 2 comments

My list of the supporting performances that I loved in the year 2009.

MALE

1. Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds: There is nothing else I can say about this performance that hasn’t been said before. Waltz is brilliant as the evil, cunning Nazi Colonel Hans Landa. Tarantino created a truly memorable character on the page and it’s Waltz who brings Tarantino’s vision to life on-screen. He deserves all the awards coming his way. If you haven’t seen the film, go now! The opening twenty minutes of the film showcases Waltz at his most spellbinding.

2. Christian McKay as Orson Welles in Me and Orson Welles: Christian McKay’s portrayal of Orson Welles is the main reason to go and seek out this picture. The film itself is average, but it’s McKay’s performance that will make this film last long in your memory. McKay is able to perfectly capture the ego, talent and brilliance of the real Orson Welles. For an example of McKay’s brilliance, look at the long tracking shot of him walking into a radio station and totally taking control.

3. Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker in In the Loop: I just love watching Capaldi as the super foul-mouthed director of communications for the English prime minister. It is completely absorbing to watch him unleash blistering curse words against people. This man is always on the edge of having a blood vessel burst. The profanity flowing out of his mouth is delivered so smoothly it leaves you simultaneously shocked and bursting with laughter.

4. James Gandolfini as Carol in Where the Wild Things Are: This could be considered a controversial choice. Gandolfini is never physically seen on-screen, but that didn’t stop me from connecting with this performance. Gandolfini’s brilliant voice work completely made this tall creature a believable, unique character. His voice is full of anger, hate, joy, and it’s these emotions that connects him with film’s main character, Max. Who would have thought the Tony Soprano could so perfectly convey a sensitive side to this Wild Thing named Carol?

5. Fred Melamed as Sy Ableman in A Serious Man: The above photograph completely captures the brilliance of Fred Melamed as Sy Ableman. Even though Melamed is having sex with Larry’s wife, he couldn’t be nicer about it. He is both Larry’s antagonist and tries to be his best friend. It takes a great actor to capture the genuine sincerity and creepiness of Sy Ableman.

Honorable Mentions: Jake Gyllenhaal in Brothers, Anthony Mackie in The Hurt Locker, Michael Fassbender in Inglourious Basterds.

FEMALE

1. Mo’Nique as Mary in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire: Like my number one pick for best supporting actor, Christoph Waltz, Mo’Nique is almost certain to win the Oscar for best supporting actress. She is absolutely terrifying as the worst mom ever depicted on-screen. The words she throws against her daughter are as frightening as any fists she throws. Mo’Nique is able to create a character that we have some level of pity for by the end of the film.

2. Anna Kendrick as Natalie Keener in Up in the Air: Kendrick is really the heart of this film. On the surface you think her character is going to be a corporate lackey without a soul. As it turns out she does have a soul, and she is the reason for Clooney’s change in the film. Kendrick has great chemistry with Clooney and is not afraid to go head to head with him during their first confrontational meeting. It’s a great scene to watch.

3. Diane Kruger as Bridget von Hammersmark in Inglourious Basterds: Kruger is beautiful to watch on-screen as the German film star, turned British spy. The way the camera shoots her, only helps us believe that she really is this beautiful film star of the 1940’s. Kruger has all the charm of a movie star, but also the ruthlessness of a double agent. The scene where she meets up with Hans Landa during the movie premiere is a beauty to watch.

4. Marion Cotillard as Luisa in Nine: Cotillard is one talented actress and the best thing about the movie Nine. Cotillard is able to bring real depth and emotion to this role as a woman who has been cheated on. When she shows up on-screen, she is able to bring a sense of history to this character. This is something that none of the other actresses in Nine is able to do.

5. Vera Farmiga as Alex Goran in Up in the Air: Farmiga has always been an actress I enjoyed seeing ever since her work in 2006’s The Departed. In this role she now gets a chance to shine. She is sexy, strong and intelligent. Like Kendrick, she is able to go head to head with Clooney which creates a unique chemistry between the two. The scene where the two first meet in the hotel bar is one of the great scenes of the year.

Honorable Mentions: Catherine Keener in Where the Things Are, Olivia Williams in An Education

Best Lead Performances of 2009

January 25, 2010 1 comment

Here is my list of the best lead performances for the year 2009. The best supporting performances will come next.

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1. Jeremy Renner as Staff Sergeant William James in The Hurt Locker: As we watch Renner attempt to dismantle a bomb, we immediately understand that this is something he must do. He is drawn to it. This type of character, a man who doesn’t follow the rules, could have been played as a big badass type. Renner wisely doesn’t play this character that way. There is subtly and a quiet intensity in Renner’s performance. War is indeed a drug for him and his actions have serious consequences to his fellows soldiers. There is a great, honest moment at the end of the film where Renner quietly tells his baby son about the one thing he loves in life.

2. Colin Firth as George Falconer in A Single Man: This performance almost came in at number one. Firth is fantastic as a college professor suffering over the loss of his long time partner. What makes this role standout is not what Firth says, it’s what he doesn’t. He is able to convey a different range of emotions in just his slightest facial movement. The scene where he learns that his partner has been killed over a telephone call is a piece of great acting. He is a man who tries carefully to hide his feelings and in that one scene he finally lets it all out.

3. Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man: You feel a lot of sympathy for Michael Stuhlbarg’s Larry Gopnik, a Jewish college professor living in 1960’s Minnesota. His professional and personal life are in serious chaos. We feel an enormous amount of sympathy for the man because of Stuhlbarg. He doesn’t play Larry as a loser, but just as a normal man trying to lead a normal life. Stuhlbarg wisely never goes over the top here. You can always tell he is just on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Credit the Coen’s for finding humor in this man’s chaotic life.

4. George Clooney as Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air: 2009 was a great year for Clooney. In three films Clooney delivered very strong work. His strongest performance came in this film as a professional corporate down sizer. Clooney’s Bingham is a pro at firing people. He has it down to an art. What makes this performance work is that Clooney doesn’t rely solely on his charm. There is a real vulnerability that exposes a side to him we are not use to seeing. His great chemistry with co-stars Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga doesn’t hurt his performance either.

5. Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake in Crazy Heart: Bridges has always delivered strong work in every picture he’s been in for nearly forty years. He seems dead certain to win the Oscar for his role as Bad Blake. Some will say the Academy will give it him as a career achievement award which represents his entire body of work. Regardless of that, he would deserve it if he wins. What makes this character move beyond cliche is Bridges. Bridges is able to instill a real level of authenticity and vulnerability into this hard living country singer.

Honorable Mentions: Sam Rockwell in Moon, Sharlto Copley in District 9, Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orléans.

FEMALE

1. Carey Mulligan as Jenny Miller in An Education: Mulligan is simply mesmerizing to watch on the screen. You are witnessing a star being born with this performance. Mulligan’s performance has been compared to Audrey Hepburn and justifiably so. Some of the images of Mulligan on-screen are comparable to Hepburn in “Roman Holiday.” Jenny is a complex, intelligent young woman trying to find her way in life. She thinks she knows everything and is intelligent when compared to young ladies her own age. But she is still young and a bit naive. The troubles she goes through may end up hurting her, but we know she will end up stronger as a result. Mulligan was one of the great discoveries of 2009 for me. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for her.

2. Melanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus in Inglourious Basterds: Even though she may be considered a supporting performance, the film is essentially built around her character. Tarantino has crafted a strong memorable female heroine with Shosanna. Laurent is able to bring this character to life, as a brave and smart woman. If you want see Laurent at her best, look at the scene where she comes face to face with Hans Landa, the man responsible for her family’s death. She puts up a strong face throughout the meeting and when it’s finally over, she can’t help but break down in pure emotional heartbreak.

3. Tilda Swinton as Julia in Julia: Tilda Swinton is one brave actress. In this film she plays a character who is an out of control alcoholic. There is no vanity here, she lets all the ugliness of this character hang out. I was amazed watching her performance. The story focuses on Swinton kidnapping a friend’s son and holding him for ransom. She has no idea what she is doing and its riveting watching her completely make up this kidnap plan along the course of the film. Julia is a captivating character who always has us guessing what her true motivations are.

4. Gabourey Sidibe as Precious in Precious: Based on the novel Push by Sapphire: This is a sad, moving debut performance. Sidibe is fantastic as this poor, uneducated, abused African-American teenager living in 1980’s Harlem. You watch this role and swear that she must really be like this character. Despite all the trouble that Precious goes through, Sidibe is able to inject real humanity into this role. We care about her and want her to succeed in life. It’s a heartbreaking moment when she finally breaks down over all the hardships she has lived through.

5. Zoe Saldana as Neytiri in Avatar: Saldana’s performance is the heart and soul of Avatar. She is the reason we care about what happens to the Na’vi on the planet of Pandora. The fact that we don’t actually see her live human performance on-screen doesn’t hinder her ability to convey a range of feelings up on the screen. A close up of her Na’vi face has the same emotional impact as a close up of a human face.

Honorable Mentions: Penelope Cruz in Broken Embraces, Merly Streep in Julie & Julia.

A Cinematic Blinding

January 22, 2010 1 comment

I know I’m coming to “The Blind Side” very late. This film came out last year and was a huge box office hit. I had no plans to see it, but I caved in when Sandra Bullock started getting award attention for the film. Last week she won the Golden Globe for best actress in a drama. After seeing the film I have no idea why. This is a mediocre film which blinded me with its sentimental, cliché, boring tale.

The film, based on the book by Michael Lewis, recounts the true life story of Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) and her husband (Tim McGraw) taking in a poor, uneducated teenager, Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron). Eventually Oher becomes educated, becomes a great football player and becomes a real member of the Tuohy family. I’m not spoiling anything by giving away the plot of the film. We know where it’s going right from the start.

Sandra Bullock is entertaining and fun to watch playing this strong, good southern woman who takes in Oher and cares for him as one of her own children. The problem with Bullock’s performance is that her character doesn’t change at all. In one scene Bullock tells her friends that Oher is actually changing her life. The way she delivers it, right with a big dramatic pause, is laughable. Bullock doesn’t deserve any award attention for this film. It’s shocking that anyone is talking about her receiving an Oscar nomination for this performance.

With the film’s focus on Bullock, we never really get to know Michael Oher as a character. He is portrayed as a tall, simple, silent giant. That’s not a real character. Apparently all his troubles in life goes back to the moment where he was taken away from his drug addicted mother as a child. This may be true, but it comes across as an easy answer to Oher’s very troubled past. A.O. Scott  of the New York Times points out a good example when talking about how much of a blank character Oher is portrayed on-screen. Oher isn’t a very good football player at first, but when Bullock tells him to think of the team as members of her family, he magically becomes a great player. Oher scored very highly on protective instinct on some test he took in the past, so Bullock uses that to her advantage here. Scott says it is “as if the young man were a 300-pound robot she had reprogrammed with the flip of the switch.”

Writer-director John Lee Hancock aims this story to the masses. There is no room for any nuance in the film. There isn’t much room for any drama either. You would think bringing in a stranger into the Tuohy home would create some serious drama within this family. Nope. The family is so perfect, there boring to watch on-screen. There is a little bit of conflict involving the Tuohy’s daughter being teased at school because Oher is staying at their home. This is discussed in a conversation the girl has with Bullock, and then never brought up again. This perfect family also has to feature the cliché adorable young child, who is beyond annoying.

I can see why this picture is a success. It’s an uplifting true story that features a clean, perfect southern family. I can see how this could play to the middle of the country, who is not used to Hollywood portraying a family in such a perfect light. This film may have moved some people, it only moved me closer to the theatre exit.

2 Stars

Jeff Bridges is the life of Crazy Heart

January 19, 2010 Leave a comment

The minute that Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) steps out of his beat up old car you know everything about that character. He is tired, his pants belt unbuckled and he pours out a jug of his own urine. He’s lived quite the life. Jeff Bridges has always been one of our great actors, delivering solid work for nearly forty years. The many award nominations he’s received for this film is richly deserved.

The film, written and directed by Scott Cooper, stars Bridges as a once famous country singer named Bad Blake. His fame now gone, he is forced to play gigs in bars and bowling alleys. He is greeted by a handful of fans who are still loyal to his music. The only solace that Blake finds from playing these depressing gigs is in the bottle. For Blake, booze is like water. Blake is able to finds some hope for his future when he gets involved with a reporter, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. He finds more relief when a former pupil of his, played by Colin Farrell, offers him some help if Blake can write some new songs for him.

The story of a flawed man seeking redemption is one we have seen before. It’s the performance of Bridges that elevates the film beyond the familiar plot. Roger Ebert said it best when he states that Bridges makes us belive that Blake has lived this hard, difficult life. There is one great shot where we see him looking at bottles of booze in a store. He is broke and we see the temptation and desperation all in the way Bridges stares down those bottles of booze.

The country songs are great. The songs written by T-Bone Burnett and Ryan Bingham are catchy and entertaining. Bridges captures the performer in Bad Blake brilliantly. He may be drunk up on the stage, and running out to vomit, but he knows how to give his handful of devoted fans, a real show. There is some solid work from Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall, who shows up toward the later part of the film. Duvall’s presence reminds us of a similar role he played as a down-on-his luck country singer in the great”Tender Mercies.” Gyllenhaal doesn’t quite measure up next to Bridges. I don’t buy some of the decisions that her character makes in the film.

My problem with the film is the loose narrative. I felt there wasn’t enough of a dramatic pull in the film. It does sort of wonder along to its conclusion. Things are wrapped up far too nicely at the end for my taste, especially the issue of Blake’s alcoholism. This is a case where the performance is better than the film.

3 Stars

Here is a clip of Bridges performing one of the songs from the film called “The Weary Kind.”

Review Roundup: Brothers, A Single Man, Nine

January 4, 2010 2 comments

As 2009 was quickly coming to an end I made  an effort to catch up with some films before the year’s end. Here are some quick thoughts on 3 pictures I caught up with.

Brothers: Never judge a movie by the trailer. The trailer for Jim Sheridan’s “Brothers” was among one of the worst I saw this year. The trailer made the film come across like melodramatic trash. After hearing some good things about the picture I decided to give it a chance. This is a film that I think everybody should check out.

The film is based on the 2004 Danish film of the same name. The story focuses on Tobey Maguire, a marine who is presumed dead during a mission in Afghanistan. The loss of Maguire hits his family back home hard. As a result, Maguire’s wife, played by Natalie Portman, starts to grow emotionally close to Maguire’s ex-con brother, Jake Gyllenhaal. Things get complicated when Maguire returns back home. This is not a spoiler; the movie’s advertising reveals this.

Sheridan does a great job of creating a family dynamic that you can believe. We feel the pain that this family is going through. The film never dwells on over-the-top melodramatic moments. Don’t let the trailer fool you, there are some real nice quite moments in the film that let it breathe.

Maguire, Gyllenhaal, and Portman all deliver some of their finest work to date. Gyllenhaal is the best of the three. He’s entirely convincing as the black sheep of the family who tries to make things right by helping his brother’s family. There is a real nice scene between him and his father (Sam Shepard) in the kitchen where the silence speaks volumes about the problems the two have gone through. The actors deliver the emotional moments without going for big acting. However, Maguire towards the end of the film does dive into big acting. His buggy eyes were troublesome. This film was a real nice surprise. Check it out.

3 1/2 stars

A Single Man: This is an impressive directorial debut from fashion designer Tom Ford. Based on the 1960’s book of the same name, Colin Firth plays a middle-aged college professor living in 1962’s Los Angeles. He is suffering over the loss of his lover, played in flashbacks by Matthew Goode.

Firth is fantastic here. It’s hard for an actor to convey all sorts of feelings just through one’s face. Firth is able to pull this off perfectly. On the outside he is a proper Englishman, but there is a lot of hurt beneath the surface. The only time we get to see that mask torn down is when he gets the phone call telling him his partner is dead. He maintains his composure through the call, but after he hangs up, it collapses. No dialogue is necessary to convey the heartbreak he is going through.

Throughout the film we follow Firth as he encounters one of his students (Nicholas Hoult) who may have a thing for him. We also meet his former lover and friend, played by Julianne Moore, who does her best to comfort Firth. The two spend a drunken night thinking about the past and the future . I think Moore is good in the film as a British boozehound. Though, I’m not sure if she deserves the award talk surrounding her performance.

Ford has a great eye for visuals. Everything in the picture from the camera angles, the framing,and the music is all laid out perfectly on-screen. The meticulous nature of the film aesthetic is used to represent how Firth leads his life. While Firth keeps up a proper appearance, Ford uses the imagery to convey the desire that he feels toward the male form. The great cinematography by Eduard Grau perfectly captures the 1960’s. A great performance, and great visuals make this film one to see.

3 1/2 stars

Nine: I must admit that I was looking forward to this film. A film based on the great Fellini film “8 1/2,” starring the great Daniel Day-Lewis and a line up of talented actress, how could it miss? It does.

The film is a musical version of Federico Fellini’s classic “8 1/2.” The plot of the film is essentially the same as Fellini’s film, but just with some musical numbers thrown in. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Italian director Guido Contini. He is a a man facing deep troubles in his life. He is near ready to shoot a film, but without a script. The women in Guido’s life come in and out of the film as he confronts the professional and personal issues in his life.

This isn’t a very good musical. The songs are just plain bad. The only song that is memorable is “Be Italian.” The other song I did enjoy was one called “Cinema Italiano,” which is sung by Kate Hudson. There’s something catchy about the song, even though I admit it’s bad. It doesn’t help that the actors, except for Fergie, can’t sing at all. Penelope Cruz, playing Guido’s mistress, is horrible during her musical number. She is sexy to look at, but I don’t know what the fuck she is singing about. Even though the actors can’t sing, I did find some enjoyment in that.

I like what Roger Ebert said about the film’s quality of stars. He says though the film may be full of big stars, none of them are actual characters. The only one of the ladies who is actually able to create a character is Marion Cotillard. She is great as the betrayed wife of Guido. Cotillard is able to make us sympathize with her during her brief time on screen.

I found the musical numbers boring because the director Rob Marshall, never takes advantage of the cinematic medium he is working in. The film is based on a stage musical, so many of the films musical sequences are theatrical. But this isn’t the theatre. It’s tiresome to see numerous musical number take place on an actual stage. Lewis is good as Guido, but he’s a no better singer than some of the ladies. I was surprised that this film didn’t bring together all these actors together in one big musical number. The film doesn’t even try to replicate the famous harem scene from the original “8 1/2.” That was a big letdown. The opening and closing curtain calls of the film are well done. No singing is required by any of the leads during those moments. This is an interesting film, but a lot of potential was wasted.

2 1/2 stars