Monday, January 25, 2010

My Top 10 Films of 2009

This list is tentative because I haven’t nearly finished seeing everything I wanted to see, or felt obligated to see, in 2009. For example, I have little doubt that if I had managed to see either The Cove or A Serious Man they would probably have bumped Up In The Air off the list. Likewise, I haven’t included anything I saw at Fantastic Fest (though I have included two in the honorable mentions section).

I’ll try and be brief here:

1. The Hurt Locker
Possibly the best war drama of the decade, The Hurt Locker follows an elite Explosive Ordinance Disposal team as they try to survive the last 38 days of their rotation in Baghdad. A taut action/suspense thriller, The Hurt Locker is one of the most realistic depictions of modern warfare ever filmed. Written by an embedded journalist and based on factual events, the film is brutal in its authenticity. Every inch of the costume fatigues are stiff with sweat and flies crawl over the eyelids of the actors. The gunfights and bomb defusal scenes are harrowing rather than exciting. Director Kathryn Bigelow (of Point Break fame, and James Cameron's ex) manages to create a film where imminent death seems to lurk in every blind corner and empty window.

Jeremy Renner’s tour-de-force performance as the intense and reckless Sergeant James carries the picture and deserves an Oscar nod. Chalk this up as the best film I saw in 2009, without any question, and one of the most suspenseful movies I've ever seen. It just won the Producer’s Guild of America Award for Best Picture, so consider it a dark horse for Best Picture at the Oscars. (Can you imagine the drama of James Cameron and his ex vying for Best Picture? It's a reason to watch the telecast in itself.) See it, see it, see it. Seriously, go now, it’s out on DVD, you can finish reading this post when you get back.

2. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Every five minutes of Werner Herzog’s dreamlike crime drama serves up another steaming mug of “Holy Crap I Can’t Believe I’m Seeing This.” Lieutenant Terrance McDonagh (Nicholas Cage) is the worst kind of bad cop—a drug addict, a thief, a compulsive gambler, a rapist—a demon prince in the hell that is post-Katrina New Orleans. Tasked with solving a multiple homicide, McDonagh tries to close one last case, even as he senses that this is his last circle around the drain before he finally succumbs to madness. Cage goes back to his indie roots with this film, playing the character so over-the-top that his crimes alternate between funny and horrifying. The levels of insanity here are tremendously deep, eventually he begins hallucinating iguanas crawling across crime scenes. See it if you have the stomach.

3. Watchmen
Though it only broke even at the box office, Zack Snyder’s art house superhero film was two and a half hours of cinematic dynamism. Though possibly too dense for the uninitiated, Snyder captured the same cosmological depth as the graphic novel, creating a world that seems more real than most of the places we visit at the movie theater. Best of all, Snyder chose not to talk down to the audience, sacrificing wider accessibility in return for a more active viewing style where audience members had to put together the pieces for themselves. It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen, and nothing we’ll ever see again. (PS: The Director’s Cut made notable improvements to the film.)

4. In The Loop
Developed from the British TV series The Thick of It, In The Loop sets itself up to be the Doctor Strangelove of the 2000s (or Naughts, or Aughts, or Naughty Aughts, or however, you want to style them) and it’s a testament to the film’s success that I’m actually considering whether that might be the case. Shot like a documentary, the film follows British Minister for International Development Simon Foster, who is swept up on the Washington warpath after departing from the party line in an interview, and stating that a proposed war in the Middle East is “unforseeable.” Bounced as a political pawn between Republicans, Democrats, irate constituents and his own country’s civil service employees, the hapless Foster sinks in way, way over his head in a town that manipulates everyone and forgives no one. Peter Capaldi gives the standout performance as Malcom Tucker, the Prime Minister’s Scottish “enforcer” who weaves chains of obscenities so intricate they’d make R. Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman blush. Don’t miss this one.

5. District 9
Thank you Neill Blomkamp, thank you for delivering an original, high-concept science fiction film that uses its fantastic setting to deal with real-world issues. This movie made me connect with the plight of South Africa under apartheid more than Invictus, which is no mean feat, since Invictus was a hell of a movie too. That’s what good sci-fi does though, it sneaks past your guard and sucker punches you. It approaches problems from a different angle and allows you to look on the world with fresh eyes. Added to that, we finally got to see some genuine Starship Troopers-style power armor! Dear Lord, I’ve been waiting ten years to see someone do that. Kudos, Neill Blomkamp, your giant robot suit beats James Cameron’s hands-down.

6. Inglourious Basterds
There’s been so much written about Inglourious Basterds that it’s hard to think of something original to say, though I find it telling that Tarantino’s madcap, highly inaccurate World War II epic is actually better than most period-accurate films about the War. As is standard for QT’s movies, Basterds isn’t really about the War itself, it’s about World War II films, and the culture that’s grown up around them.

While European films look on the War with a sense of melancholy, weaving narratives of desperate hardships and tragedies, American films often depict the war as a grand adventure, with tough American soldiers swooping in like comic book heroes to save Europe from Hitler’s tyranny. The real brilliance of Inglourious Basterds is that it fuses those two traditions, placing the gung-ho Aldo the Apache and his squad of larger-than-life commandos amongst characters from a holocaust drama. In doing so, he says a lot more about the War, and its cultural legacy, than most historical movies dream to.

7. Moon
Before Moon, I thought hard science fiction was a thing of the past. Well it’s back, and in a big way. The plot contains so many great surprises that I’ll restrain myself from explaining it other than this: Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is the lone crewman of an automatic mineral mining station on the lunar surface, harvesting Helium-3 to solve the Earth’s chronic energy crisis. Nearing the end of his three-year tour with only video communications from his wife and the station’s AI system GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) to keep him company, Sam begins bug out to see and hear things that aren’t there. Or are they?

Moon is a movie full of ideas with the feel of old hard sci-fi dramas like 2001 and Solaris. It even bogarts their look, using models instead of CGI for the lunar station and its moon rovers. The models actually make the lunar surface seem much more realistic, they’re not overly detailed, and by God, they have weight, unlike CGI objects, that always seem to defy gravity. I can’t tell you why Rockwell is such a joy in this, but believe me, he is. Can someone give this man an award please?

8. UP
Another movie that needs little introduction, UP is a delightful return to the pulp boy’s adventure stories I sucked down as a kid. Airships, lost ecosystems on sky-high plateaus, talking dogs, and giant silly birds—if that was the only thing this film had going for it, it would still be the best kid’s movie of 2009.

However, it also contains the most touching four-minute romance story I’ve ever seen. If you’re not borderline bawling by the end of the Elle and Carl montage, you need to take a Voight-Kampff test because you're surely a replicant. Disney Magic might make princesses into frogs and show us incredible musical numbers, but leave it to Pixar to create something so poignant from an everyday story. Who else would front end a children’s movie with something so meaningful? Who else could make us care about characters so intensely in under ten minutes that we're reduced to tears?

9. Avatar
Screw the haters, this is an incredible movie. Not the greatest script in the universe, but it gets the job done and is surprisingly adept at juggling the large cast of characters so that everyone has a purpose and clear character objectives. Is it a leap forward in filmmaking? Yes, very much so in a technical sense. As much as the average moviegoer likes to think anything is now possible with special effects, there are several things that are still elusive for CGI artists. James Cameron has now cleared one of the last and largest hurdles in special effects—the creation of animated characters that look convincingly real.

The problem is that our brains are so well-trained at recognizing what real beings of flesh and blood look like, it’s nearly impossible to fool us with any sort of artificial life, but Cameron at least makes us suspend that disbelief for awhile. The Na’vi have shifting irises, they have chests that move with breath, and they have muscles that bunch and slide underneath their skins. As an audience, we can tell them apart by facial features, an amazing feat, yet we’re so desensitized to cinema magic that the average moviegoer dismisses the amount of artistry that it took to create these wonderful creatures.

The environments too are a triumph of artistic concept, mixing the bioluminescence of the deep sea with the topography of a triple-canopy rainforest. If you saw Avatar and doubt that it was a leap forward, I want you to think about the last time you felt pity, or joy or any strong emotion at all for a photo-realistic digital creation. There’s a reason Lucas confined Jar-Jar to pratfalls.

10. Up In The Air
Make no mistake: this is a corporate horror film. Timely and diabolical, Up In The Air is a bleak, bitterly funny drama about how our personal relationships are increasingly defined by technology. The main action of the story, for example, centers around a man whose job makes him travel around the country to lay off unneeded workers. He’s good at his job, and often is able to let his subjects down easy, taking some of the stress out of the experience. He’s developed a system that works, until a newly-minted graduate comes along and convinces his boss that they could cut costs by firing workers remotely by webcam.

Many of the conversations during this film, especially the key emotional scenes, take place over cell phones, text messaging, or webcam. It’s a sort of eternal proxy battle between the three principal characters—in some scenes we almost feel as if they’re keeping their emotions locked down in person so that they can later spill them over the phone or by email. What hope is there for our society, now that we seem to be losing the ability to speak face-to-face? Are there things that social media was just not meant to do? Up In The Air has no answers to these questions, and maybe, as it suggests, there really are no answers. This is a hard movie to like. For all the admiration I had for it, I wouldn’t name it as one of my favorite movies of the year, but the amount of time I’ve spent thinking about it means it belongs on this list.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: The Fantastic Mr. Fox; Invictus, Mandrill (see review below), A Town Called Panic, Coraline, Private Eye (see review below).

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Hardboiled World of Detective Pulp Cover Art

A few weeks ago I found myself at a book shop in the Tenderloin, sifting through stacks of old pulp magazines. I was scouring the shelves for a vintage copy of Weird Tales, preferably with an HP Lovecraft story, and having no luck whatsoever. Spotting a set of archival drawers, I decided to delve into them, and was soon up to my elbows in paper dust from copies of Doc Savage and old Conan comics. When I pulled out the sixth drawer and waved away the cloud of dust particles, I saw them-- a stock of vintage Detective magazines.

I love old detective pulps. Yes, the stories in them are mostly awful if you're not reading Chandler or the like, and the bad quality of the paper means it's almost impossible to keep them in good condition as a collectable (the name "pulps" actually came from the rough, wood-pulp paper they were printed on) but detective pulps have one thing about them that's always incredible: the cover art.

See, back in the days when pulp fiction magazines were big, there were literally a dozen of them lined up on the newsstand. The authors themselves weren't usually enough of a draw to make a young boy or a bored industrial worker pick one mag over another, so the publishers wisely made it their focus to have the most wicked-cool cover art on the rack. The preferred themes for these covers were murder, pin-up girls, and a surprising twist in the same picture, a combination that proved endlessly fruitful in the artist's imaginations- it eventually reached a point when authors were asked to depict the covers, rather than the other way around. As the art developed, film noir made its mark on the covers, bringing its palette of shadows and blood to the print medium to create increasingly sensational images.

Eventually, as publishers tried to one-up each other with salacious and action-packed covers, the art became so over-the-top that it shaded into self-parody. For example, one mens magazine in the early 60's depicted Fidel Castro holding a bikini-clad girl at knifepoint while a musclebound CIA agent rushed to her rescue. As you'll see, there's some serious "found comedy" waiting on the covers of the pulps below.

Overcooked or not, pulp art is fantastic at visual storytelling. Each pulp cover is itself a self-contained story, a little violent tableaux that whets the appetite and hooks the viewer with unanswered questions. Silly as they are, it's almost impossible to look at one and not have a narrative leap to mind.

These three I bought were my favorites, think of them as spark plugs for the imagination:


Famous Detective Stories, February 1951, Featuring: Trigger-Happy Honey, and The Chortling Corpse

Believe it or not, scenes like the above that show the hero "ambushing" a goon sneaking up on him or her are common in pulp detective magazines. Of course, the hero's ambush plans are often so overly-elaborate that they're just as absurd as they are exciting.

Let's consider this: obviously our hero is a hard-boiled detective of some sort. Obviously he's been roughed up by a street hood or a gangster to make him drop a case- he managed to survive, but now he's in a wheelchair, broken arm in a sling, getting 24-hour bedside care from a nurse that looks suspiciously like Marilyn Monroe. He knew that the bastards were coming to finish the job, and somehow he managed to convince Nurse Monroe to wrap his broken right arm in plaster while still gripping his forty-five.

Then he waited.

I love everything about this cover. The horror on the nurse's face, the firing detective who looks like he's cursing the goon as he kills him, and especially the enormous muzzle flash coming out of the cast. Hell, with the size of that cast, he could have anything under there- a shotgun, a Tommy gun, even a Mega Man cannon. The fact that the hardcase detective has a blanket over his knees like a Southern granny is just icing on the cake.

Man I hope this scene is in the actual story.

Oh, and how about The Chortling Corpse as a title, huh?


G-Men Detective, September 1947, Featuring: The Kidnap Kills

The cover above is from one of a series of "G-Men" pulps that were popular during the 40's and 50's, which centered around FBI agents being good, flag-waving, upright Americans while outwitting bank robbers, smugglers, and people who believed that workers should control their own means of production.

This is a pretty standard pulp cover, if a highly intriguing one. Note how it establishes a story hook right off the bat: a man has been shot, and a woman was seen taking a packet of documents off his body, but she can't be identified. Who is this mysterious woman with excellent taste in shoes? What are these missing documents, and what makes them worth killing for? Who is this man? Is he an FBI agent? A consular officer? My God, if he's a consular officer, could those be diplomatic dispatches?! Secret codes?! Could this be the Russkie's first move?! Has the balloon finally gone up, leaving Berlin on the very brink of being ravaged by the Soviet horde?! Can Hoover's intrepid band of agents thwart the Red Menace in time?! Oh dear God I have to read this story!

This is a classic example of visual storytelling. Admit it: you want to read what's behind this cover. This single illustration suggests murder, intrigue, mystery, and a femme fatale, and all in the space of a single sheet of office paper.


Smashing Detective Stories, March 1951, Featuring: Smell Money, Smell Murder and Blonde and Bad

This is hands down my favorite of the bunch for its sheer ridiculousness. Here we see another "ambush" picture, but this time the hero isn't pretending to be hurt, she's pretending to be dead. That's some dedication, right there. What's even more intriguing about this picture is the fact that the victim doesn't seem to be carrying a gun at all- so what exactly is happening here? Did he try and kill her, and she's taking revenge on her would-be murderer?

Here's my stab at it: she was a too-trusting dame with a good heart and a bad taste in fellas. Against her better judgement, she took out a massive loan from the local loan shark to finance a business deal for her no-good boyfriend, who to no one's surprise, split for Atlantic City with a cocktail waitress and the suitcase full of cash. Suddenly she's being chased by a mob shylock with a monographed pair of brass knucks and an unforgiving demeanor. At the end of her rope, she gets an idea: she fakes her death and arranges an open-casket funeral, then waits for her weepy, regretful, no-good dirtbag ex-squeeze to come by and pay his final respects, then... Surprise, Darling!

But that still doesn't explain why she chose to be eulogized while wearing the sluttiest cocktail dress known to science. Honestly, the thing I love most about this cover is how ham-handedly it smashes together the themes of sex and death. Consider it: not only is a scantily-dressed fantasy pinup killing a man, she's doing so from inside a casket. Even before you factor in the irony that the pair have switched places-- the "dead" woman coming to life and the living mourner being killed--the picture already has a lot of accidental subtext to process. The warm and inviting look of the stained glass windows in the background make the whole thing even more surreal, like Easter Sunday in the Village of the Damned. Also notice the lady in the background sniffing into her handkerchief... I mean most funerals are awkward, but really.

A creative writing professor once told me that every great novel could be boiled down to sex and death. Based on this evidence, I postulate that Smell Money, Smell Murder, sold eighty-six trillion copies and won every Pulitzer for literature between 1951 and 1964.

What do you guys think? Do any of the covers above suggest an alternate narrative to you? Tell me in the comments!