Tag: academy awards

Zero Dark Thirty


Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Two years after the September 11 attacks in New York City, Maya (Jessica Chastain), an officer of the CIA, is sent to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan to work with another officer, Dan (Jason Clarke), who is charge of interrogating Ammar (Reda Kateb), suspected to be connected to important Saudi terrorists. Torturing the detainee when he fails to cooperate, Dan and Maya eventually hear about a man named Abu Ahmed. Ammar claims that Abu Ahmed is a courier for Osama bin Laden. Other men who are questioned under similar conditions confirm this. Over the years, Maya devotes her life tracking this piece of information which inevitably leads to the killing of bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, “Zero Dark Thirty” has received a lot of censure for supposedly endorsing torture by means of extracting information. This is most unfortunate because some of the bad press have convinced many not to see a quiet but incredibly thrilling film about a great manhunt that has lasted over a decade. As a film, not a collection of hard facts, “Zero Dark Thirty” commands elegance in characterization and construction of tension from gradual heat to a boil.

It is understandable that most will find themselves exasperated during the first half. Nothing much happens. At least not on the surface. And that is exactly what I liked about it. A recurring theme is the fact that gathering reliable and valid intelligence takes time. We are so used to amphetamine-fueled action movies involving the CIA and other government groups finding out all there is to know about everything and everyone in a matter of minutes that when something like this comes along, some of us do not know what to make of it. Plenty of names and technical terms bounce around our eardrums that all of them sound the same eventually. It is easy not to care until something goes boom!

The sudden bursts of violence break the slow stream of questions, muffled hopes, and quiet disappointments. One of the most chilling scenes, at least for me, is the bombing that takes place in a hotel. After the explosion and smoke starts to blend with dust, there is no score to suggest that something exciting is happening. No, music would have masked the tragedy that has happened. There are only screams of pain, disoriented people shuffling about and trying to get on their feet, a collective fear and confusion. Because it looks and feels so real, I found myself shaking and wanting to detach from the material but could not do so. I craved to know what will happen next.

Two women characters are given the chance to shine. There is Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), an officer in the embassy who we suspect might butt heads with Maya. She believes that money is so persuasive that even those who seem like they will never break from their ideologies will be enticed in the least. Her relationship with Maya is taken into an unexpected direction. Meanwhile, Chastain plays her character with the most convincing intelligence mixed with sophistication, resolve melded with obsession, and courage to push and demand others not to partake in a state of quiescence. Chastain’s scenes with Kyle Chandler, playing a CIA station chief, contain the right amount of balance between animosity and respect. When details get confusing, it is helpful that she is there to serve as our compass. Due to the nature of her job, it is necessary that she knows she is always right.

“Zero Dark Thirty” can be too cold at times given its procedural nature but this does not lessen the material’s power in any way. On the contrary, I respected the focus and vision from behind the lens like the raid scene shot in heavy darkness on purpose to prevent us from seeing anything concrete. In a way, it can be taken as the antithesis of a commercial action picture that glorifies violence where we are forced to see every chunk of tissue flying into the air.

Beasts of the Southern Wild


Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father (Dwight Henry) live in a place called “The Bathtub,” nicknamed for the area’s tendency to flood when a storm and other natural disasters strike. Located south of the levee, their community is separated from modern society but this is not to suggest that their culture is less than. On the contrary, despite the poverty around them, they are a proud people with a knack for survival. While Hushpuppy and Wink have a fight due to the former causing a fire, huge chunks of ice in the Arctic, which happen encase giant prehistoric animals, melt and collapse. Aurochs tend to demolish everything that happens to be on their way and so the Louisiana bayou is under threat.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” based on the screenplay by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin, is the kind of picture that our culture should be hungry for because it meshes reality and fantasy in such a way that is engaging, challenging, and worthwhile. If someone from a thousand years from now takes the time to watch this movie, I imagine that person being transported to the in-folds of time and dreams, a similar feeling that takes over my entire system each time I am engulfed in the imagination and ambition of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The celebration of life is the overarching theme that permeates through the collective lives of the bayou residents. Within the first ten minutes, it immerses us in life, from a crowd of excited people celebrating in the streets while fireworks brighten the dark skies, babies crying for attention, down to the manner in which the chickens cluck every other step and freshly caught crabs skitter about on their alien environment. Flooding us with a myriad of images so alive, it attempts to break down some of our notions about people living in squalor, mainly that they are unhappy and therefore must be pitied.

At the same time, the film is not afraid to deliver the unflinching reality of what it means to be economically marginalized. We watch Wink and Hushpuppy go about their usual days and wonder how they can subsist on what they have–or don’t have. When it rains, for instance, they do not even have a proper roof to keep all of the water out of their home. Further, the walls are so thin, the thunder sounds like a lion’s roar that is only a few feet away. When it is dark, close-ups are used more often to draw us into looking at their physicality and reading their conflicting thoughts through the emotions that have surfaced on their faces. Likewise, the wide shots are utilized wisely, usually in the daytime, in order to give us an idea of what the characters have to work with. And it isn’t much.

Under Benh Zeitlin’s careful direction, the symbolism in the film does not overpower the flow and rhythm of the story being told. For instance, the flood could have been so dramatized that at one point the focus might have shifted to the disaster instead of a six-year-old trying to make sense of what is going on. Instead, Hushpuppy wakes up one morning and mostly everything is submerged accompanied by an eerie quietness. It reminded me of my childhood growing up in the typhoon-magnet Philippines. A storm would rage overnight and when I woke up, I would step on my patio and notice that the streets would be blanketed by cream-colored water with current so powerful, moderately-sized trees would be carried downstream as if they were made out of plastic toys.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” based on Lucy Alibar’s play, offers something unique to the table and it is understandable why some might be at a loss on why it is special. Because our film culture, currently, is so inundated with the familiar, I think a lot of us have learned to expect less. I hope young people as well as future filmmakers will see this, be inspired, and follow by example: that it’s perfectly okay to color outside the lines, use nail polish instead of crayons, or perhaps tear up the pages altogether and make a collage instead.

Hugo


Hugo (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lived in the walls of a train station with two jobs: winding the clocks that enabled the station to run smoothly and collecting pieces of machines required to fix an automaton that his father (Jude Law) left him before he died. Our young hero believed that the apparatus held a message from his father. But when a toy stand owner (Ben Kingsley) caught Hugo for stealing, his notebook, which contained instructions on how to properly fix the automaton, was confiscated. Based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, the film had a firm handle on its visual effects by constructing a world so convincing, the opening shot in which the camera daringly explored the depth of space using 3D technology was completely mesmerizing. My eyes were fixed on the middle of the screen and I felt like the camera’s straight trajectory could go on for miles without sacrificing a pixel of its crispness. The strength of the picture relied on many consistently controlled visual trickery without coming off as too gimmicky. One excellent example was when we followed Hugo in the murky underground levels of the station, up a helix staircase, through giant machineries dancing in perfect rhythm, up until our protagonist stopped to admire the view of the Eiffel Tower. Eventually, though, the picture had to focus on the story which was mixed bag. On one hand, I cared about Hugo. He was a kind person, a bit mousy and reticent, with a prodigious talent for fixing machines. Even though he had to steal things like food, we were on his side because his motivations were clear. We wanted to know the message hidden in the automaton and hoped that it would lead to Hugo no longer having to scavenge, as a rat would, on a daily basis. With the help of Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), the toy stand owner’s goddaughter who craved a bit of adventure, the duo dove into an investigation about the message of the automaton and how the two of them were connected. Their research forced them to cross paths with the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), always on the lookout for homeless children to send to the orphanage. It was enjoyable to watch because as Hugo and Isabelle moved from one area to another, the special and visual effects worked on the background which underlined the magic of their journey. On the other hand, the picture had a lesson about film preservation. While I support the idea of protecting old movies from wear and destruction, I found it to be too cloying. Since the issues that the latter half of the picture brought up were so important, Hugo’s story felt small in comparison. While the images were still sophisticated and pleasurable, especially for cinephiles who love old movies, I wanted to know more about the boy and how he planned to move on from the train station if things didn’t work out as he hoped. The character called Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), a librarian, was greatly underused. He seemed to have developed an interest in Hugo, maybe as a protégé or a son, but the scenes the two had together felt underwritten. Based on the screenplay by John Logan and directed by Martin Scorsese, “Hugo,” like the automaton it featured, looked fantastic but the inside didn’t feel complete. It worked as a sensory experience but not an emotional or cerebral one. A mark of a great film touches more than one camp.

Patton


Patton (1970)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The film started off with General George Patton Jr. (George C. Scott) delivering a speech about war and the importance of winning being embedded in the American culture with the gigantic United States flag on the background. It was probably one of the most patriotic scenes I’ve seen portrayed on screen, but at the same time I felt that the picture was making fun of itself. The scene aimed to establish our main character: He was intimidating because he was obsessed with discipline and excellence. His reputation as being one of the feared generals, especially by the Nazis, was well-earned because he was an uncompromising man. Fear sometimes generates respect. The film was beautifully shot. In war pictures, I find it uncommon that I notice the environment because, to me, at least with the more recent war movies I’ve seen, the environ is simply a template where we get to see bombs exploding like there’s no tomorrow. But in “Patton,” I found the second scene outstanding because it featured a peaceful landscape in the Arabian desert where American soldiers’ bodies laid lifeless as Arabian people stole the soldiers’ clothes and other belongings. Again, there was the theme of duality. On one hand, it was sad to see those dead and rotting soliders. On the other hand, we could look at the Arabian people and see that looting was their chance for survival because they obviously didn’t have much. The film is different than other war movies. With “Patton,” we don’t follow any soldier in the battlefield or realize any of his personal struggles. It simply followed the general during his glory days as he tried to compete against British Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery (Michael Bates), attempted to outsmart German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (Karl Michael Vogler), his probation because he slapped a soldier around for complaining about being afraid of the sounds of war, up until he regained his footing in the military. Throughout his journey, we learned so much about him such as his passion for poetry and penchant for history. The latter was his strength but at the same time it was his weakness. His enemies who didn’t know much about history often lost but those who were knowledgeable thought Patton was predictable and almost pretentious. Naturally, his strongest enemies were the ones who were just as smart as him. No one can argue against Patton’s biggest weakness being his mouth. He had no filter; he didn’t think he needed one so he was prone to saying the most inappropriate things during the most inopportune time. “Patton,” directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and partly written by Francis Ford Coppola, won seven Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Actor) not only because of its epic scale but also because of its small details that made this biopic all the more personal.

Gladiator


Gladiator (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★

When the emperor of Rome (Richard Harris) was murderered by his own son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), Maximus (Russell Crowe), general of the Roman empire, wanted to honor the dying man’s wishes by helping the empire turn into a republic again. This didn’t sit well Commodus because he craved for power and wanted to prove that he would be a great ruler by leading a dictatorship. The first time I saw this film, I wasn’t impressed with it. I thought the story was all over the place, the characters were simplified for the sake of being commercial, and there were a handful of glaring idioms that did not fit for its time (it was set in year 180). While I think that those flaws are still applicable, I found myself liking the movie the second time around for two reasons: this role being one of Crowe’s more moving performances and the intense action sequences. Without a doubt, the picture relied too much on the battles in the colosseum to generate some sort of tension. However, it was effective because we like the characters fighting for their lives such as the friends/fellow slave-turned-gladiators (Djimon Hounsou, Ralf Moeller) who Maximus met along his journey. I caught myself voicing out my thoughts such as “Hurry up and get up!” and “Watch out for that tiger!” No matter how much I tried, there was no way I could have kept quiet because I just had to release some of the stress I felt at the time. I also enjoyed watching Oliver Reed as the man who owned the gladiators; I found his past interesting and I wished the film had explored him more because he could have been a strong foil for Maximus. The scenes they had together were powerful because they respected each other but at the same time they didn’t want too be friendly because, after all, one was “owned” by another. Another relationship worth exploring was between the late emperor and Maximus. They treated each other like father and son but it felt too superficial, too planned. Commodus would walk in on them and feel jealous and unloved. But what else? “Gladiator,” directed by Ridley Scott, was loved by many because everything was grand and it wore its emotions on its sleeve. However, I’m still not convinced that it is Best Picture material because it often chose the obvious over the subtle path too frequently. For a sword-and-sandals epic with a two-and-a-half hour running time, while the action scenes were highly entertaining, there was no excuse for a lack of depth involving most if not all the characters. Therefore, as a revenge picture, it didn’t quite reach its potential.

The Color Purple


The Color Purple (1985)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Based on Alice Walker’s novel and directed by Steven Spielberg, “The Color Purple” stars Whoopi Goldberg as Celie Johnson who endured years of suffering in the hands of a very abusive husband (Danny Glover). Celie lost everyone she loved–her son, daughter and sister (Akosua Busia)–and since she was so used to being treated as less than human, she learned to shut herself down and live as though she was a ghost. But when her husband’s kind mistress (Margaret Avery) came into her life, Celie learned to not hide her smile and then everything else fell into place. Most importantly, she learned to fight for her freedom. Watching the lead character struggle physically and emotionally touched me in so many ways to the point where I wanted to cry or yell or scream for her. I admired her because she was so strong–she didn’t break when everyone else told her that she was useless, ugly, unloved, and dumb. She took all of it because she had nowhere else to go. I liked that although the picture was primarily Celie’s story, it was also about the bond between strong women. The bond between Celie and her sister was so powerful and I loved watching them interact, especially the scene when Celie’s sister taught her how to read. It was a huge catharsis when Celie realized that her sister had been writing to her for years but she never received any of it. The bond between Celie and Shug–the mistress–was just as heartbreaking, notably the scenes when Shug would give Celie a boost of self-esteem. There was also a bond between Celie and Sofia (Oprah Winfrey), a strong charismatic woman who everybody wanted to talk to and get to know. Celie looked up to the three women not only because they were strong but also because they were free. The film didn’t take any shortcuts. It tackled the complex issues head-on whether it was about sexuality, race, gender and societal norms. Even “evil” characters like the husband were not one-dimensional. One of the many lines that stood out to me was “Even sinners have souls, too.” Despite the picture being two hours and thirty minutes long, I thought its pacing was exemplary. The passing of the years as the characters we came to love (and hate) growing considerably older was painful to see because one minute they were at their primes and the next they were shriveled up and almost defeated. I think it’s a shame that this picture was nominated for eleven Oscars but did not win a single one. I’m at a loss because the performances were all excellent, the soundtrack tugged at my heartstrings, the cinematography was absolutely breathtaking, and the writing was multidimensional.

A Single Man


A Single Man (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Tom Ford’s first feature film “A Single Man” embodied beauty from the inside out. Colin Firth plays an English professor who recently lost his partner (Matthew Goode) for sixteen years and is contemplating suicide. We get to observe what he does by himself from the moment he wakes up and how he interacts with others, such as his long time friend (Julianne Moore) next door, a Spanish stranger (Jon Kortajarena) and a student (Nicholas Hoult) who shows interest in him. We also got a chance to hear his self-deprecating thoughts and see tender fragments of the past when his lover was still alive. I love how this film felt more European than American. When it comes to its aesthetics, I was mesmerized by how everything seemed to glow due to the perfect lighting, how the wardrobes (with perfect creases at just the right spots) perfectly reflected the era, how the close-ups of the actors’ faces gave us information beyond what was said, and how the presence (and absence) music highlighted the emotional rollercoaster that the lead chaarcter was going through. Firth was simply electric. I totally forgot that I was watching him because I’ve never really seen this side of him before. I’ve seen him excel in romantic comedies but never have I seen him so controlled, so sad and so conflicted. There were times when tears started welling up in my eyes because I completely sympathized with what he was going through. Not only did he lose the person he loved as much as he loved himself (or maybe more), he lost a sense of security. At one point in the film, he lectured to his class about fear and it said so much about his own psychology. Goode was so charming, it was easy to see why Firth was so in love him. Moore was also sublime as an aging woman who still had feelings for Firth but had to control herself because she knew about his lifestyle. The way she hid the pain from her husband leaving her and her son not caring about her by immersing herself in alcohol and make-up was quite moving. I also loved Hoult as the student who saw profound sadness in his professor. (Admittedly, I thought his American accent was a bit off but maybe it was because I was so used to hearing his real accent in “Skins.”) His swagger was just so appealing to me; I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Lastly, the appearance of Kortajarena shocked me in so many ways because I was used to seeing him in high fashion photographs. Even though he wasn’t in the movie much, an acting career is a possible road for him. Ford highly impressed me because this was his first time directing a full feature film. The complexity in which he balanced the picture’s emotions and looks really drew me in–a quality that is sometimes absent even with the most experienced directors. I’ll definitely be on the look out for Ford’s next project. “A Single Man” is an ambitious film with tremendous and sometimes lowkey performances. It may not be the best film of the year but it certainly is one of the finest.

Up in the Air


Up in the Air (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Jason Reitman directed this tale about Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) whose job is to fly to various cities across America and fire people who work for different corporations. Ryan enjoys being constantly on the move, collecting frequent flyer miles, and values the isolation and sense of pride that comes with his work. His way of life and mindset are challenged on two fronts: when he met a woman version of himself named Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) and a plucky twentysomething named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) who wants to revolutionize the way the company works. That is, instead of firing people face-to-face, she argues the corporation can save a lot of money by firing people via a computer. Ryan then has to balance his budding romance with Alex as well as helping Natalie realize that there is a real value in having the courage and putting in the time to actually face the people to tell them that they have lost their jobs. In a grim American economy, I thought this film could not have arrived at a more perfect time because not only did it have a real sense of drama, it had a sense of humor, intelligence, and heart when it comes to the lead characters as well as to those who are recently unemployed.

I thought the director’s decision to actually put real-life people in front of the camera to express how they felt when they got fired was a wonderful idea. It felt that much more real and heartbreaking. Instead of a movie featuring a corporate person (the bully) and the person being fired (the bullied), which is one-dimensional, there was a certain sense of understanding between the two camps even though the people who were being fired were angry and sad when they heard the terrible news. I enjoyed the conversations between Clooney and Kendrick because they were so different. There was real humor when it came to the generational gap, their outlook on marriage and how to deal with people. I’m very happy with the fact that the movie did not result to Clooney being the teacher and Kendrick being the student. They actually learned from each other even though neither of them was a picture of perfection. Even though they were very different, I felt a certain level of respect between them. I also loved the one conversion that Farmiga and Kendrick had concerning what they wanted in a man. That conversation has got to be one of my favorite scenes in the entire film because, in essence, it’s the same kind of question that my friends and I try to answer. It got me thinking about what I really want in a partner ten years from now instead of just focusing on my wants for the present. It also got me thinking about whether I really want to be married. Before watching the film, I thought I knew my answer but now I’m more unsure. I don’t consider that a bad thing at all because the picture really challenged the way I saw certain aspects in being a committed relationship. I saw myself in each of the characters so I was invested throughout.

“Up in the Air” is an ambitious film with great writing and heartfelt performances. Even though the film is essentially a comedy (some unfairly label it as a romantic comedy), it really is about the big questions we have about our life, where it was, where it is now and where it is going. It’s not the kind of movie that tries to be quirky just to feel different. In fact, it follows some of the same structured formula of Hollywood filmmaking. But the material is so rich to the point where it didn’t matter. It felt natural so I thought the characters didn’t feel like they were just characters in a movie. When I look back on the movies that came out in 2009, “Up in the Air” is really one of those pictures that really got it right in terms of reflecting real life.

Cabaret


Cabaret (1972)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It’s very uncommon for me to be interested in musicals so it took a little bit of effort for me to finally decide to watch “Cabaret.” I wish I could have seen it sooner because it was fantastic. I loved Liza Minnelli as an entertainer in a cabaret who had a dream of becoming a famous actress before the Nazis took hold of Germany. She was spunky, edgy, funny, self-deprecating, and a little bit vain; but despite her bold personality, she was a damaged character who yearned to be genuinely loved–not merely for her stage persona–but her real self, something that she was still striving to get from her father. I also found Michael York as a British writer who taught English on the side to be fascinating. At first glance I thought he was the typical leading man who was supposed to come in and sweep the leading lady off her feet, but he, too, had his own problems such as his anxiety of getting into a relationship with women. Was he a heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, or simply a man who had taken a vow of celibacy? I desperately wanted to know. Minnelli and York’s character quickly got along and the film started off pretty light. However, as the film went on and a rich man (Helmut Griem) entered their lives, the dynamics between the two changed and the film became a little darker with each passing scene. I thought the film’s ability to balance between character development and commentaries about the relationship between the decadence inside the club and the reality outside was special because most musicals that I’ve seen do not even come close to reaching such a dramatic weight. The songs, in a way, were sort of the background but they were far from secondary because the musical numbers often connected the horrific events that were unfolding and the personal battles that each character had to face. Watching “Cabaret,” directed by Bob Fosse, was really quite compelling and I couldn’t take my eyes (and my ears) off the screen. I think it deserved winning the eight Oscars it received because it was as complex or perhaps more so than, say, a typical “dramatic” Oscar-bait movie. Watching the film made me want to visit a Kit Kat Klub–cross-dressers, cigars, androgyny, debauchery and all. I’ll be on the lookout for more dark musicals like “Cabaret.”

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire


Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★

I find it an uncommon experience to watch a movie that really gets involved with my emotions, but it’s rare that I watch a movie that has the ability to completely transport me in its reality. Directed by Lee Daniels, “Precious” tells the story of an pregnant, obese, illiterate African-American teenager (Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe) who has grown accustomed to the physical and emotional abuse inflicted by her mother (Mo’Nique) and how she eventually found strength inside of her to stand up and take her life in a positive direction. A few people who genuinely took interest in Precious were Paula Patton as the school teacher, Mariah Carey as one of the people who works for the welfare system, and Lenny Kravitz as a male nurse who took care of her after she had her second baby.

I have to admit that I choose to ignore or even actively stay away from people like Precious, partly due to fear since she came from a terrible neighborhood and partly due to how she presented herself: very quiet yet volatile and someone that seemed like she had no interest in taking care of herself. That stereotype that I often rely on doesn’t come consciously to me anymore and it was nice, through watching this film, to be reminded that despite physical appearances, everyone has a surprising (and even touching) story to tell, a story that transcends all the stigma and the pain that a person shows and hides. Even though the subject matter of this film was depressing, it found enough moments to insert not just amusing lines and moments but actual hopes and dreams of the lead character’s. Such scenes illustrated that although Precious didn’t like herself (when she looks in the mirror, she sees a completely different person–Caucasian, skinny, happy), she wanted to break out from her violent living environment and ultimately be loved for who she is and what she has to offer.

I thought the scenes of physical abuse from her father were done in a sensitive and insightful way. Instead of actually showing us the act, I admired how the picture chose to dissociate itself from the scene as when Precious would dissociate herself from the experience and think shiny, happy thoughts. From what I learned in Psychology, rape victims, especially those people who were raped ever since they were children, dissociate their minds from their bodies as a defense mechanism. So I thought the film’s craft was spot-on. Mo’Nique’s character was beyond cruel but just when I thought she was a complete monster, the movie shows us that she does indeed have a heart. It’s just that she became angry and bitter over the years because of how she interpreted certain events and how she saw certain realities. Again, I saw this through a psychological lens so her reaction made sense to me even though I do not agree with the way transfered all her frustration and anger (that should have been directed to her husband and herself) to her only daughter. Mo’Nique has been getting a lot of strong Oscar buzz for Best Actress and I believe she should be nominated because out of the many movies I’ve seen in 2009, her performance stands out by a mile.

The reason why I consider “Precious” one of the strongest movies of 2009 is because, despite its gloomy premise, it’s ultimately a very inspiring story about a seemingly hopeless girl from Harlem who chose to break the chains of abuse and find an alternative path so that she could grow as a person and maybe even reach her potential. This is a great film to show to kids from the poorer neighborhoods because it might give them enough courage to speak out and discover a role model that they might not have in their respective homes. It’s been a while since I saw people actually crying in the movies and people talking about it right when we were walking out of the theaters. Even though I saw this film alone (For some reason, I almost always watch the best films of the year by myself), I felt connected with the world and wanting to embrace everyone in it.

Unforgiven


Unforgiven (1992)
★★★★ / ★★★★

I’ve always wondered about this classic western about three men (Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Jaimz Woolvett) who decided to hunt down two other men who cut up a woman’s face (Anna Levine) for the price of $1000, but I was always reluctant to see it because the western genre is my least favorite. I’m glad to have finally given it the chance it more than deserved because it absolutely blew me away. Every scene felt like a crucial piece of the puzzle in order to understand why certain things were happening and why certain things must happen. I truly identified with Eastwood as a man who used to be a drunk and a killer because every fiber of his being was fighting his inner demons regarding the people he killed for no good reason. In every frame, I felt the fierce passion in his eyes, the wounded soul in his voice and the subtleties of his body movements; it made me believe that he really was a changed man. But eventually, it was nice to see why he did not want to be that kind of person anymore, not just because he now had a family, saw the error of his ways, and wanted to set a good example, but because that person really was engulfed in such darkness whose sole motivation was to kill. All of the supporting actors were exemplary such as the villanous authority of the town played by Gene Hackman, the leader of the prostitutes played by Frances Fisher, and the kid who was so enthusiastic about killling even though he had myopia (Woolvett). Although this was a western film, I was surprised because it was very anti-violence. Even though there were shooting involved, a requisite in most western pictures, the thesis of having no honor in killing was always at the forefront. I never thought I would ever be interested in watching more western films, but after seeing “Unforgiven,” perhaps I just might. This film will definitely set the standard of my eventual foray into westerns. I can honestly say that this deserved its Best Picture and Best Director win at the Oscars because despite the film looking a bit dated, the emotions are still raw and quite timeless. Complexity within its deceitful simplicity is this film’s forté and it succeeds in every single way. That’s a rarity.

Inglourious Basterds


Inglourious Basterds (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Those who believe that Quentin Tarantino (“Resevoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill,” “Death Proof”) is slowly losing his touch when it comes to filmmaking and storytelling should watch this film. “Inglourious Basterds” essentially covers three groups of characters: Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his men’s (Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, B.J. Novak, Omar Doom) quest to hunt, scalp, and kill Nazis; the intimidating Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, a Nazi hunter who prefers to be categorized as a detective more than anything else and who happens to speak English, French, Italian, and German which proves to be quite useful; and Mélanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus, who survived Waltz’ massacre three years ago and had plans of her own, along with her trusted friend Marcel (Jacky Ido), to avenge her family. Divided into five sublime chapters, at first the characters had nothing to do with each other. But as the picture went on they all collided, had very entertaining conversations and bloody violence, just as one could expect from a Tarantino motion picture.

I was surprised with how quickly the movie paced itself, considering that I needed to use the bathroom during the first thirty minutes. (I gulped down a lot of soda during the previews.) I couldn’t help but get so engaged with the dialogue because in some lines, the characters attach some sort of threat into their words or tone to the point where it made me feel like I was in the same room with them. Although this was a World War II picture to begin with, it became so much more than that. In the second half, it became about a project about the love for the cinema and using that as a template to put these very intense characters under one roof. What I noticed about this movie was that with each major character, Tarantino moved the camera to match the person’s idiosyncracies and intentions. Therefore, it became more than just a World War II picture with necessary violence. It became a personal character study where the characters became tangled in the intricacies of politics, bureaucracies, and their own morals (sometimes lack thereof). The way Tarantino played with the movie’s tone greatly impressed me (as I was in his other films). One minute I just feel like hiding behind my hands because either something very violent was about to happen or a character knew something the other character did not know and was about to get caught; the next minute I found myself laughing so hard (due to the comedy or relief, it was often difficult to tell) because a character did or said something hilarious.

I can definitely understand why the American mainstream could be disappointed with this movie. For one, pretty much half of the movie had subtitles. (I love subtitled films. Sometimes, I even watch movies spoken in English with subtitles.) They could find it challenging to read and pay attention to the images at the same time. Second, with its 153-minute running time, the audiences were asked to sit through extended dialogues with (from some blogger reviews I’ve read) “very little payoffs that only happened toward the end of each chapter”). As a person who loves long movies, I cannot disagree more because the payoffs happen as the lines were being said. It was the subtleties in each intonation and movement that really made this film that much better than typical summer movie flicks. It was intelligent, had great sense of build-up, very tense, and brutal. So, for me, those kinds of arguments that people brought up were simply a matter of acquired taste. Hey, I didn’t start off loving foreign films and long movies either. It took some time and when it finally clicked, my moviegoing experience became that much more rewarding.

I strongly believe that “Inglourious Basterds” is one of the best movies of summer 2009 (if not the best). The performances are top-notch, especially from Christoph Waltz who is already getting Oscar buzz (and deservedly so), the pacing was done skillfully, and best of all, it knew how and when to have fun. If it had taken itself too seriously, it probably would not have been as enjoyable, it would have simply been violent and heartless. I’m already looking forward to Tarantino’s next project.

Frost/Nixon


Frost/Nixon (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★

I’m not going to judge this film with regards to whether or not it followed real life (which it didn’t in some parts) because it was based on a play by Peter Morgan. Michael Sheen stars as David Frost, a British television host who one day decides that he’s going to interview Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). Of course, that decision isn’t as easy as it sounds because he has to have the right amount of funds, gather the right people for research and risk his entire career. The drama prior to the scenes before the interviews was really effective because it solidifies the idea that Frost will be utterly finished if the people do not get what they want from Nixon: remorse with regards to his actions while being the President of the United States, admittance that he did participate in a number of cover-ups and that he did, in fact, abuse his power while leading the country. Sheen was very effective as Frost because even though he’s outgoing, charismatic and enthusiastic enough to tackle such a political issue, we feel for him whenever he is pushed in a corner like a mouse because he simply lacks the experience of interviewing a person of Nixon’s caliber. Langella was quite impressive as well. At first I was skeptical on why he was nominated for Best Actor but after watching this picture, I knew that he deserved it. He may not look like Nixon but he convinced me that he was powerful, intimidating and extremely intelligent. I loved those scenes when he would play mind games with Sheen; though those scenes were really serious, I felt that Langella was having a great time as an actor. To feel that resonance while also being invested in what was happening on screen, to me, means the mark of a great actor. Aside from the two leads, I also enjoyed watching Kevin Bacon as Jack Brennan, Sam Rockwell as James Reston, Jr. and Rebecca Hall as Caroline Cushing. Directed by Ron Howard, “Frost/Nixon” is a classic David vs. Goliath story. Although I was a blown away by the script because of its sharpness and wit, I was more impressed with its efficiency as it tackled the important questions while painting complex characters worthy of in-depth analysis. I’m glad this was nominated for Best Picture in 2008.

The French Connection


The French Connection (1971)
★★★ / ★★★★

Inspired by a true story, “The French Connection” stars Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy Russo, a bad cop and a good cop, respectively. The two try to capture a French drug lord named Alain Charnier played by Fernando Rey. Hackman and Scheider consistently collide against each other because they have different ways of dealing with situations. I found this film to be really focused because right off the bat the audiences get to see how Hackman’s character is like: racist, having violent tendencies and not caring about anything else as long as a result is produced at the end of the day. Scheider is pretty much the complete opposite so it was interesting to see the partners’ dynamics in disparate situations of varying level of danger. This film won several Oscars including one for Best Picture so my expectations were really high prior to watching it. Although most people’s arguments when asked to explain why they didn’t enjoy the film was that the plot and the look of the film was dated, my problem with it was its abrupt ending. Just when things were getting really good, the credits started rolling and I was left in the dust. I was simply hungry for more. I had no problem that the movie looked dated because I’m used to seeing older films so that line of argument is a matter of acquired taste. I believe this film must be appreciated because a lot of movies that came after it used “The French Connection” as their template. The most infamous scene in this picture was when Hackman’s character tried to chase after a train. It was really exciting even though it didn’t use a lot of visual and special effects because the concept was rooted in the whole good-guy-must-capture-bad-guy schema. I also enjoyed the fact that there were many silent moments in the film where the images did most of the talking. William Friedkin, the director, was always aware that he was making an astute film for intelligent people so he didn’t result to spelling everything out in order to get a point across. Perhaps with repeated viewings I’ll love this film more and more but I don’t consider it as a great film after watching it for the first time (although it came close).