Thursday, December 31, 2009

End-of-Decade, End-of-Year, Best Blah-Blah-Blah Listapalooza Post

Well, not only is the end of the year upon us, but the end of a decade - the first that this not-so-new-any-more millennium had to offer. Seeing as how this is the very last day of the whole kit and kaboodle, now's as ideal a time as ever for me to post my personal favorite films of both 2009 and the 2000s overall (I'm still not quite sure how to refer to this decade - the zeroes? The noughts? The two-thousands? Ugh, certainly not that last one).

I'll start off with my top ten favorite films (so, not necessarily the best) of 2009. There are still some that I have yet to see (Fantastic Mr. Fox, The White Ribbon, Avatar, Moon and Antichrist being a few), but of the ones I did see, I picked these ten, in ascending order (though the order isn't necessarily carved in stone).

Marc's Top Ten Films of 2009

10) Freeter's Distress (Hiroki Iwabuchi)

Technically, this is a 2007 release, but since no one in North America really had a chance to see it before Chris MaGee and Jasper Sharp brought it over to Toronto for the first annual Shinsedai Cinema Festival this past summer, it definitely qualifies for me as a 2009 film. I saw many great Japanese independent films this year thanks to Shinsedai (among them Yoshihiro Ito's collection of imaginative shorts, collectively titled Vortex & Others, Yasutomo Chikuma's Now I..., Touru Hano's noirish Thunderfish and Masahide Ichii's Naked of Defenses), but there was something about this stark, honest effort that made me choose it above the others for this list. Shot with a simple camcorder, it chronicles Hiroki Iwabuchi's experiences and adventures as a part-timer constantly on the brink of poverty. This is easily one of the strongest examples of personal, first-person filmmaking I've seen, and I hope it brings Iwabuchi-san better luck in the future.

9) Up (Pete Docter, Bob Peterson)

Yup, it's all true: Pixar has hit another home run with Up. While not as strong as some of their previous efforts, it still certainly exceeds expectations for a simple kid's movie. Now, I'd hesitate to proclaim it as "high art," like some other folks have done. After all, let's not kid ourselves - a well-made children's film is still a children's film with all the limitations of the genre, and shouldn't be compared with other, more legitimate "art films" like, say, There Will Be Blood or Caché (a matter discussed by Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard over at The House Next Door). Don't even try it. Worlds of difference separate them. But what Up and the other Pixar triumphs do, they do very, very well. The opening sequence of Up is just as touching and beautiful as everyone says, and it alone will keep me very interested in what the Pixar dream factory will come up with next.

8) Star Trek (J.J. Abrams)

As with Christopher Nolan's Batman films, it was so good to have a childhood franchise mature along with me. Rewriting the rule book in a way that seems to have pleased even the most rabid of Trekkies, J.J. Abrams has successfully brought the fun back to Star Trek. He has done justice to the original characters and actors with a well-chosen crop of fresh faces (with Karl Urban clearly stealing the show like a bandit) and injected plenty of action and adventure in just the right way. Plus, the flick looks gorgeous - phasers, starships, monsters and lens flares (yep, lens flares, probably exceeding the amount Paul Thomas Anderson used in Punch-Drunk Love) all virtually pop off the screen. Job well done.

7) (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb)

It was so nice to see a light-hearted yet brutally honest film about relationships. Marc Webb's debut film is very much of the same spirit as Truffaut's delightful humanist dramas, not needing to look any further than the web of daily life and ordinary people to tell a good story in a fun, stylish manner. For me, this film might be better than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in that it tackles the same subject matter with a similar, non-linear structure, but without requiring the contrivance of a mind-erasure company. I still like Eternal Sunshine a lot, but this one earns extra points in my book for just diving in and approaching the subject head on. Oh yes, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are excellent.

6) Up in the Air (Jason Reitman)

A very mature piece of work from Jason Reitman. Extremely relevant, it serves as a well-articulated call to consider what should be truly cherished in your life. George Clooney's commitment-dodging, self-made philosopher Ryan Bingham makes for one interesting protagonist who embarks on a gradual, episodic process of reevaluation and renewal. Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick are both great to watch in their respective roles, as are J.K. Simmons, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Bateman, Danny McBride and Melanie Lynskey in their smaller parts. Very sincere, and more fresh and original than some may expect going in.

5) Visage (Tsai Ming-liang)

Easily the most rewardingly mystifying film on this list. This one I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival, so it hasn't really gotten a wide North American release yet...but I'll be waiting patiently until it does, and is released on DVD afterwards. Meditating on death, time, the French New Wave, filmmaking, sexuality, myths and so much more, Tsai Ming-liang's latest is opaque, difficult and often bizarre, but I can't get it out of my head. It's a riddle that I long to revisit and ponder very soon in the future; a cinematic poem of snow, darkness and space.

4) Micmacs à tire-larigot (Jean-Pierre Jeunet)

Another film I previously saw at TIFF and still has yet to be distributed across North America. You can read my glowing review of it here, but I'll repeat that this is yet another of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's satisfying cinematic treats. Colorful, funny, creative and highly entertaining, it seems to work in all the ways one would expect from the director of Amélie and Delicatessen.

3) A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen)

After the minor work (but, I think, unjustly underrated) Burn After Reading, the Coen brothers made yet another solid film. Not as wall-to-wall entertaining as The Big Lebowski (but really, what is?) or accessible as Fargo, A Serious Man keeps some of the ambiguous spirit of No Country for Old Men, but in a completely different story. Michael Stuhlbarg's physics professor Larry Gopnik is forced to deal with one spot of bad luck after another while vainly searching for understanding and guidance (most memorably from three very different rabbis). A Midwestern fable loosely based on the Book of Job, it certainly warrants repeated viewings.

2) The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)

As many are saying, this is possibly the best Iraq war film made yet, precisely because its main focus isn't the war or its politics, but the people who are caught in the center of it all. Jeremy Renner is compelling to watch as a hotshot adrenaline junkie bomb defuser who gets caught up in one white-knuckle, edge-of-your-seat sequence after another. That's the secret of The Hurt Locker's success: not only is it insightful and important, but it's also damned entertaining to boot.

1) Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)

After years of rumors and anticipation, Quentin Tarantino finally delivered his long-gestating World War II movie. But it's not quite the movie everyone was expecting. While it contains a fair amount of action, it doesn't feature the massive, epic battles I was originally envisioning, opting instead for a series of expertly devised, deliciously executed lessons in screen suspense. Also, I'm pretty sure nobody was expecting anything like Christoph Waltz, who makes a villain for the ages with his Colonel Hans Landa. Ultimately, this film is of the same breed as Kill Bill in Tarantino's filmography: both are focused on nothing less than delivering a rollicking good story, rummaging through a vast tool box of cinematic devices with visible glee, serving up character after fascinating character, revelling in the various cultures (Japanese, Chinese, French, German, British) and films that make up Quentin's distinct, exhilarating movie-verse. Without a doubt, this one will be getting many repeated viewings over the course of the new year. Rock on, Tarantino.

Now, here is The Big One: my favorite films of the 2000s. Some may look at this list and write me off as a lunatic for not including a Pixar film or In the Mood for Love, but I don't care. I did consider both for my list of finalists (In the Mood is easily one of Wong Kar-Wai's most perfect films, and I simply adore Ratatouille), but these picks consist of films that lingered in my head the most and struck me as the most well-rounded, well-made and emotionally resonant films I saw this decade. Again, the order isn't absolutely fixed, and could very easily change a little bit depending on my mood on any given day...except for my number-one pick, which remains absolute.

Read 'em and weep/cheer/agree/disagree:

Marc's Top Ten Films of the 2000s

10) No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)

There's no doubt that the Coens' Cormac McCarthy adaptation is an eloquent, handsomely crafted exploration of corruption and the unstoppable force of human evil. But I found this film to be a little too tidy, its messages a little too clearly decipherable within the tale - almost as if the finished film came with a little tag that read, "Shelve under M for Masterpiece." This sense of cold calculation is the reason why it's only number 10 here, but the excellent performances from Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson and, yes, Javier Bardem and its dark, powerful vision at least guaranteed it a spot here somewhere.

9) Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000)

Made at the very start of the new millennium, Edward Yang's superb three-hour family drama has persisted thus far as one of its best - and will probably remain as such for some time to come. Sadly, it turned out to be his swan song when he passed away in 2007, but he still remains one of Taiwan's most highly acclaimed filmmakers. I love Yi Yi for the calm, quiet way in which it handles the personal crises and challenges of its characters, whether they're reconnecting with old loves, trying to forge bonds with new ones, dealing with painful revelations, upholding friendships or simply showing people what they miss out on every day with only a camera. In addition to its profound insights and powerful yet controlled emotional content, the film also provides an insightful look at city life, with the bright, urban spaces of Taipei front and center (though Tokyo makes a welcome guest appearance).

8) The Tracey Fragments (Bruce McDonald, 2007)

A clever, innovative coming-of-age film that manages to be stylistically revolutionary AND deeply moving? And Canadian (more precisely, English-Canadian)? It's got a place here. This amazing film hasn't really received the amount of praise or even attention that I believe it deserves - and that's truly a crime. For with its complex multi-frame techniques that provides such an intimate look into the mind of Tracey Berkowitz (Ellen Page in her best role yet), The Tracey Fragments pushes the medium of film to a new level, telling a story with images in a way that has never really been seen before - or since, really. The various combinations of shots and the many ways in which they appear on the screen (different patterns, quick and slow cuts, vast and limited numbers, thematic linkages and clashes) give a taste of the creative possibilities and poetic effectiveness of such methods. For more of my thoughts on this bold new branch of filmmaking, do check out my original review for The Tracey Fragments here and the one for Edmund Yeo's similarly stylized film Kingyo here.

7) Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)

One of the finest fantasy films ever made, Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth is just about perfect. From the gorgeous colors and design of its worlds to the double-pronged story of a little girl's imagination during the fascist era of 1940s Spain, it just casts a spell over you, seizing your attention with expert skill. Smartly, del Toro keeps things a smidge ambiguous regarding the girl's adventures with fairies and monsters, never directly linking them with the goings-on of the real world and its ugly bursts of violence, but instead linking the two areas thematically and symbolically. While giving the eyes and the mind plenty to feast on, Pan's Labyrinth still leaves room for its viewers to dream, ponder and speculate, which is what makes it so wise, seductive and bloody good.

6) Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)

I know we've come to expect great things from David Fincher, but this one simply took the cake. Doing so much more than recreating the actual events of the Zodiac case that rocked San Francisco in the 1960s and '70s, Zodiac guides us through its intricacies and details in such a way that you want to discover the truth just as much as Jake Gyllenhaal's Robert Graysmith. Be it through the lens of journalism or police work, Fincher effectively illustrates the allure of investigation, of discovering the facts and uncovering the truth. It makes the process of dry research as suspenseful as the quest for the Holy Grail, and certainly did much to rekindle my taste for mystery stories. This one's brains easily outweigh The Curious Case of Benjamin Button's heart.

5) The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)

It's perfectly safe to say that Wes Anderson hasn't made a bad film yet. True, I haven't had the pleasure of seeing Fantastic Mr. Fox yet, but I'm more than willing to trust that it's just as good as people are saying it is. And while The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is definitely his weakest effort to date, I wouldn't write it off as a complete failure. My favorite of his tends to go back and forth between Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. The former has a ton of heart, wonderful characters and a wicked sense of humor, but in terms of artistic maturity and the scope of Anderson's unique, highly fashionable vision, Tenenbaums emerges as the more accomplished film. It is exactly as long as it should be, and is trimmed, tailored and fine-tuned in all the right places. It is extremely witty and provides plenty to marvel at on its surface, but contains a sincere emotional core beneath it all. Of the many "Best of the Decade" lists I've seen so far, this is the Anderson that keeps popping up. That's because it is the quintessential Anderson film, serving as both a mascot for everything Wes-Andersonian, and a solid testament to his talent.

4) Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)

Amélie is every bit as magical and special as people say it is. I myself was actually promised that when my buddy Shaun loaned it to me a few years back - and boy was he right. Balancing Jean-Pierre Jeunet's wacky, delirious sensibility with a plot plucked straight from the New Wave (the Parisian love story is far more grounded in reality than the post-apocalyptic dystopias Jeunet cooked up with Marc Caro in Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children), Amélie is the very definition of a modern-day fairy tale. It introduced the adorable Audrey Tautou to the world and showcases a slew of quirky characters who fill out the mousy young waitress' world. Not least of all, the film comes packed with stories and treasures, delving into the delights of childhood, everyday life and love with truckloads of style. Visually, stylistically, narratively, emotionally, Amélie is wonderful.

3) Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003-4)

Kill Bill occupies quite a special place in my heart. I first saw the tantalizing teaser trailer for it and, a short time later, Vol. 1 when I was first beginning to think of movies as more than just movies. It was around when Apocalypse Now first blew my mind, and I was gradually discovering the films of Stanley Kubrick. I was starting to recognize directors as artists, with their own unique tastes, styles and attitudes. When I saw the above trailer, I recognized the name Tarantino, and had certainly heard of his films, but had never really discovered him or them fully. So I sought out Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, promptly fell in love with them, then saw Kill Bill: Vol. 1, which exploded like an overstuffed pinata all over my little brain. I couldn't have hoped for a better crash course in style, technique, genre and cinematic storytelling than that particular film. What's more, even though I had certainly seen my share of screen violence at that point, there was something different about that which was contained in Vol. 1. It was sneaky and hard-hitting, and felt dangerous to behold. The opening fight between the Bride and Vernita Green, the bloody animé sequence, the House of Blue Leaves - all brutal, unapologetic, cunningly planned assaults on both you and the characters. Though Vol. 2 isn't as entertaining as Vol. 1, it serves as a fitting second half to Tarantino's epic tale, and when considered as one film, they are nothing short of a masterpiece.

2) Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)

Park Chan-wook is easily one of my favorite filmmakers of the Noughts. Every time I think I have my favorite film of his definitively picked out, I am reminded of his other ones. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is so uncompromisingly bleak and poetic - but what about the compelling mystery-turned-friendship fable of Joint Security Area? Or the decadence of Lady Vengeance? But just as The Royal Tenenbaums sticks out as Wes Anderson's finest work, Oldboy does the same as Park's. It is just so incredibly well done, balancing a thriller's lure with a classic tale of revenge, fantastic stylistic flourishes and moments of genuine emotional poignancy. Oh Dae-su's quest of vengeance is heartbreaking and scary to behold, and it's not even the only one in motion throughout the whole film. Awesomely cool, wicked smart and moving all in one package: what more do you need?

1) There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

Hands down THE masterpiece of the millennium thus far. I remember a time when Paul Thomas Anderson said that he would never be able to top Magnolia, and I, a fully-fledged member of the Magnolia fan club, agreed with him. And then he made There Will Be Blood. Wow. This is a movie I saw four times in the theatre - including once when I was in Paris, of all places, just because I wanted to see it again. There are so many things contained within this story of oil, greed, religion and family. There is the fascinating individual at its heart, Daniel Plainview, and the simply amazing job Daniel Day-Lewis does bringing him to life. There are the many messages about family bonds that it communicates in ways both apparent and subtle. There is the steady, bubbling torrent of emotion that builds up throughout the whole thing, released at certain key moments in terrifying bursts of blood and thunder. And then there is the way in which it is all pulled off: with patience and restraint, never showing any more than what needs to be shown. The cinematography assembles a careful palette of oily blacks, dull browns, fiery orange glows and the rich sheen of polished wood. Jonny Greenwood's music gives voice to the dark, twisted psyche of Plainview and offers a silent film score-like commentary on the events of the film with, in all the right places, appropriate gusto, jarring abrasiveness and immeasurable sadness. The film, quite simply, tells the story of a man who is driven by his ambitions and methodical strategies, mapping it out in linear fashion from his origins and following him point by hard-won point along his climb upwards all the way to the well-furnished mansion he has built around himself. Offering a hypnotic vision of capitalism's rise in America and a character study like no other, There Will Be Blood is artistic brilliance itself.

Happy New Year (and Decade) everyone.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Directory of World Cinema: Japan

Hello all. I hope the holiday season has been treating everyone well.

In about two and a half months, Intellect Books will be releasing the maiden volume in a new series of books that is very much of the same culture-sampling spirit as this blog: the Directory of World Cinema. Each book will look at a different area of world cinema, providing reviews and essays from a variety of scholars and writers.

The first book, which will be hitting shelves on February 15th, 2010, will be the Japan volume, edited by John Berra. I'm pretty excited about it - partly because I contributed a few reviews myself, as did my Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow colleagues Bob Turnbull and Matthew Hardstaff. But besides that, it's a pretty comprehensive guide with a nice layout and plenty of material on the main areas and key films and figures of Japanese cinema (one of my favorite pieces that I've read so far is John's essay on Takeshi Kitano's Achilles and the Tortoise, which he presents as the "Film of the Year"). But don't take my word for it - you can download the entire book in a PDF file right here.

If you like what you see and want an actual copy of the book, here are the book's listings for and Happy reading!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Micmacs à tire-larigot (2009)

Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Country: France

Previously posted at Row Three.

After a lengthy hiatus, Micmacs à tire-larigot marks a refreshing return for Jean-Pierre Jeunet, one of French cinema’s most consistently fascinating filmmakers. He first dazzled audiences alongside partner-in-crime Marc Caro with a slew of shorts, the beloved dark comedy Delicatessen and the fairy tale The City of Lost Children, then took a detour through Hollywood with Alien: Resurrection before delivering the one-and-only Amélie and A Very Long Engagement, which manages to be at once a sweeping romance, potent anti-war piece and splendidly Gothic mystery worthy of comparison to Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s novels. Now, devotees of his fantasy-laced work can safely add Micmacs, which screened at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, to his ever-growing résumé of cinematic triumphs.

Comedic actor Dany Boon (Bievenue chez les Ch’tis, Joyeux Noël) stars as endearing hero Bazil, whose father is killed when he steps on a landmine in Morocco. Many years later, a chance incident ends with him receiving a bullet in his skull that doesn’t kill him, but threatens the possibility of death at any moment. Rendered homeless by the accident, Bazil decides to seek vengeance against the two arms manufacturers responsible for the fateful mine and bullet, soon acquiring assistance in the form of a surrogate family of oddballs. They include Julie Ferrier as a talented contortionist, Omar Sy as an avid collector of expressions, Jean-Pierre Marielle as a veteran con man, Marie-Julie Baup as resident brainiac Calculette, Michel Crémadès as a gnomish inventor and familiar Jeunet collaborators Yolande Moreau and Dominique Pinon as, respectively, the group’s cook and a human cannonball record-holder.

Micmacs’ prologue contains the same sober tone and golden color scheme of Engagement, but from there, with the witty appearance of a title card reading “The End” and the flip of a coin, the film takes off on a deliriously funny and incredibly inventive joy ride. With help from his frequent co-writer Guillaume Laurent and an ingenious army of artists and technicians, Jeunet constructs yet another of his magpie nests of oddities and wonders, this one resembling a feature-length episode of Mission: Impossible as seen through the funhouse mirror of his imagination. As in Amélie and Engagement, the camera journeys through Paris with visible affection, highlighting a traveler’s must-visit list of locations like the Moulin Rouge, Pont de Bir-Hakeim (the bridge prominently featured in Last Tango in Paris and many other films) and distinctive St. Christopher’s hostel situated alongside the Bassin de la Villette. However, during the Q&A session after the TIFF screening, Jeunet said that after having made three films set in Paris, he was “done” with the city and would like to choose a different one for his next project, with San Francisco, where his wife hails from, being a possible contender (though one audience member enthusiastically shouted “Toronto!”).

Micmacs bears many of the elements that make its director’s work so unique and well-loved: his trademark cartoonish humor; frank approach to sex and violence; reverence of nostalgia and childlike sense of wonder and joy. When Bazil is taken to his new friends’ home, the film arrives at the perfect Jeunet setting: a junkyard filled with forgotten relics that are rediscovered and assembled into marvelous contraptions. But besides Jeunet himself, the filmmaker whose work Micmacs most brings to mind is Jacques Tati. Like the Monsieur Hulot creator’s commentary on modern alienation in films like Playtime and Trafic, the film’s sharp, satirical attack on the arms trade employs comedy as a means of social critique. The sleek, antiseptic homes of the fat cat weapons tycoons (André Dussollier and Nicolas Marié) are updated versions of the one at the center of Mon Oncle. There are the numerous gags littered throughout the film, some of which involving a clapper-activated fireplace, the microphone repeatedly lowered down its chimney (at one point allowing Jeunet to indulge himself with a sly reference to Delicatessen), a stream of urine pouring from behind a small dog and the tycoons’ individual methods of eating shrimp. Finally, there are the small, quiet moments that Tati would’ve smiled at in approval, like the nice little scene between Bazil and a serving lady that plays out like one from a silent comedy. Yet it isn’t all fun and games, as the film dutifully allots some attention to the real-world issue of war- and weapons-related tragedies and the careless entities responsible for them.

However, even as Micmacs ventures into serious territory, it remains packed with delights from beginning to end. The elaborate schemes, cons and plans of sabotage carried out by the team of misfits are the stuff of a first-rate caper movie. As usual, Jeunet keeps the stylistic flourishes coming strong, including great little animated segments that illustrate the random questions Bazil forces himself to ponder whenever his bullet-addled brain acts up. Cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata provides a flood of lush colors and striking images such as the one showing blood trickling down a recently-shot, wide-eyed Bazil’s face. There are these plus countless other things ripe for discovery, including the funniest Travis Bickle impersonation since Vincent Cassel hammed it up in front of a mirror in La Haine.

Micmacs à tire-larigot is currently playing in France and will be released in the UK on February 26th, 2010. While the official release date for Canada is still currently undetermined (though Sony Pictures Classics has acquired it for U.S. and Latin American distribution), hopefully audiences won’t have to wait too long to dig into the latest feast to come out of Monsieur Jeunet’s kitchen.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Hello everyone. I'm here to let you all know about a recent development for the author of this humble little blog: I have been very generously invited to serve as a contributor for the film site Row Three. Essentially, I'll be writing the same kinds of pieces that I've been posting on this site. For notable pieces (e.g. full reviews), I'll cross-publish them here after they've appeared on Row Three, but I'll still put in an original post here every now and then.

So that's what's happening at the moment, among many other things this busy December. Click the link above to check out Row Three, and don't forget that I'll still be regularly contributing to the one and only Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow!

Stay tuned for my Top Ten Films of the 2000s list!