Saturday, September 4, 2010

But where's the heart, Mr Nolan?

Inception is a house of cards. A dazzling house of cards, to be sure. But still, at any given moment, only a breath away from collapsing under its own terrible weight. I admired the craft in this film, I am in awe of its technical achievements and I genuflect in reverence to the originality and sheer ambition of this movie. But I have been moved more by a twenty second life-insurance commercial on television. And more intellectually engaged by the crystalline clarity of a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. 

Inception arrived in theaters this summer already canonized as the most important thing to happen to cinema this year.

At a time when every film steps within our perimeter of awareness with disclosure of every detail of its plot, Inception arrived on the scene with resolute opaqueness. They were not going to tell you what the film was about, and if that was going to ruin its marketing prospects, then so be it. The secrecy around the film became its marketing. I for one, was thrilled to bits. We are told by folks who create film trailers these days that people like to know exactly what they are going to see in a movie. It is the reason behind the longevity of McDonald's we are informed: people like the comfort of going to eat something whose taste is precisely known to them. This has always seemed to me like a barrel of steaming horse manure. How many times at the theater have I watched a trailer in which the entire premise of the movie, seemingly through the last act, is laid out in front of me, and I have remarked "Why don't they just screen the entire damn film while they are at it". So I was silly giddy to hear that Christopher Nolan was not putting up with any of that, and that the smallest detail of his latest film was being guarded with Fort Knox-like security. On this basis alone, I was already in awe of this film, because it seemed to have pulled off the unthinkable: creating excitement about a film, by not telling anything about it! Inception had me at hello. 

I remember that only a few days before its official release, the studio allowed their marketing campaign to let it be known to the general public that the main character of the film is able to enter into the dreams of others. And even hearing about that little piece sounded to me like a violation, like being allowed to watch somebody's personal home video. Why did they have to do that, I wondered. 

And then I saw the film, and the unbearable irony of it depressed me: they should have never bothered. Even if Nolan had released the full script of the film on his Facebook page a year ahead of the release, he needn't have worried: nobody would have understood it. And I say that only half-jokingly. In fact, more than a month after the film's release, there is still rampant discourse on what the various parts of the film exactly mean, and what the end signifies. 

During my viewing, as I tried to keep up with the film, it appeared at many points as if I was myself grasping hands around the film to keep it from crashing down into a thousand little pieces. What lofty ambitions this script has. The sort that you know someone has spent a lifetime fine-tuning, going back to it again and again, at different points, and layering on more. The sort of master-script that has been somebody's obsession their whole life. And as my brain was trying to process it all together, the unwieldiness of it all finally got exhausting. Where the movie should have soared, taking off from what it had built so far, it instead got sticky and tangled, unable to take flight from the excessive details of the very world it had created. 

M.C. Escher, Relativity, 1953
Is that world, sticky and all, impressive? Yes, of course. Would I recommend this film? In a heart-beat. Because this film has, purely from a visual and aesthetic perspective, scenes that are plainly unlike anything we have seen before on celluloid. Scenes that will make your jaw drop in amazement. The extended version of the scene shown in every preview of the film - of the street in Paris that begins to seemingly fold upon itself and then perfectly clasp (like ouroborus, the serpent swallowing its own tail) is a thing of wonderment. There is a portion in the last third of the film where things escape the laws of gravity altogether, and the choreography of the actors and objects in those scenes approaches the operatic in its grandeur. The film creates its own universe and its own language, and its own strange detached rhythm. No stranger to playing with the scale of time (since his debut film, Memento), Nolan again experiments with the spooling of time, not just linearly backward and forward, but this time also in multiple separate dimensions. There is a scene (clearly inspired by Escher's paintings that contradict rules of visual perception) of a staircase going around itself endlessly that must have been a pain to create. How can a person watch this and not be impressed? 

But all this, to what avail? I am unashamed of my love of cerebral cinema. But even so, the excesses of Inception wore my mind into a state of apathy. Amidst all the mind-blowing extraordariness of the film, I found a coldness underneath, something that prevented me from caring about these characters and their brain-melting predicaments. Unable to engage my mind, or connect with my heart, the film became toward the end, grating. 

And it seems a bit of a lost opportunity. Based on what I had observed in the early part of the film, I was hoping that the second half would be about endlessly clever puzzles that would need to be solved. The promise of the earlier Escherian scene of the infinitely looping staircase, had me poised to experience the sort of labyrinthine puzzles, both visual and mental, that would elevate the cleverness of the film to another level. Instead what does the last half-hour of the film entail? A standard issue chase in a snow-bound landscape in which the bad guys with guns are running after the good guys. This is the natural evolution of a film that starts with almost incomprehensible cleverness? 

The cast of the film is beyond blame. After the success of The Dark Knight, when Christopher Nolan calls, most actors will drop whatever they are doing and line up to be in his film. How else to explain the three scenes in which Michael Caine shows up. Leonardo di Caprio works hard and is expectedly reliable in a role that is unsettlingly similar to his character in Shutter Island his other movie release this year. Marion Cotillard does her best to blunt the shrillness built into the part she portrays; this is after all a character given the terribly literal name of  'Mal' (as one reviewer inquired, was 'Crazy Woman' taken?). Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon Levitt, and Cillian Murphy do not have much to chew on, but are more than capable. And Tom Hardy steps out with a career-making role. These are all actors of strong marrow. 

The best analogy I can provide to my experience with Inception is a family trip I took a few years ago to visit, for the first time, the State Parks in Utah and Arizona. Upon arrival, with much anticipation, at the Grand Canyon, I was distressed to find it strangely underwhelming. Yes, it was impressive and almost unimaginably huge, but at the end of the day, only a very large pit. Certainly I could appreciate it, but as much as I tried, it failed to speak to me. Compare that to Zion National Park, our next stop, where the rock formations were so majestic, I could have heard angels singing. I am not one to routinely seek spirituality in the outdoors, but Zion, to my utter surprise became close to a religious experience. I had a similar experience with Bryce Canyon that is only a fraction of the size of the Grand Canyon. Who knows what moves us in life, what trips up hidden circuits within us to light up. But when it happens, it is one of the best things about being human. I love the movies because more than any other art form, they have a higher rate of enabling this connection within one's self that triggers a lighting up. 

I realize this is lofty, but this is what I was reminded of while watching Inception. I was impressed, but left cold. Christopher Nolan, obviously one of the more talented film-makers working today, has been successful in the past with making films that have a strong emotional undertow. His last film, The Dark Knight, based on a static comic-book source (Batman) had audiences deeply invested in the outcome of as artificial a character as the Joker. That film, has scenes of crushing emotional weight; the one where the protagonist is forced to choose between saving the life of Gordon (his friend) or Rachel (his girlfriend) stings even now. It is not easy to take comic book characters and invest in them the sort of emotional ballast that devastates audiences. So this time around, why did Nolan fail to invest any emotional heft to the characters in Inception? If he had spent a portion of the energy he did on the script, to granting some sense of dimension to the characters, this would have been a stellar film. As it is, it is more than a little odd that the characters in Inception are surprisingly sporting in accepting the stunningly bizarre things happening to - and - around them. They seem to move on with the next strange twist in the plot with barely a casual shrug of the shoulders. 

As Pixar has been teaching us for the past several years in a row, it is not what we see, but rather what we feel, that ultimately matters most in a film.  Inception could use a pointer. 

Sunday, April 18, 2010

When Does An Actor Go Too Far?

Have you ever watched a movie where you actually felt sorry for an actor? Not because they had the misfortune to be in a dreadful film. But because they have committed so much to their role, that they have crossed an imaginary line. It is difficult to define this line, but you know it when you see it. You know it, when you say to yourself during a film, "no matter how immersed they are in their role, no actor should have to go through this" or "no person should have to do this on camera". All good actors go the distance, giving themselves emotionally and physically to the demands of a film.  But is there some such thing as going too far?

These thoughts ran through my mind as I watched the film 'Antichrist' last weekend. The film stars Charlotte Gainsbourgh, the redoubtable French actress of hardy cinematic stock (she is the daughter of actress Jane Birkin and screenwriter Serge Gainsbourgh) who has incidentally also sold a fair number of music CDs as a singer of some merit.  And she is asked in this film to do things that are, frankly, unspeakable. To see her in this film is to realize, how deep and far into the woods an actor can go, following in step behind the director. Yes, we all know that the actor of gumption is meant to be an empty vessel, a blank slate, devoid of all vanity, all inhibition, and willing and able to enact whatever the director asks of him/her. But I ask this question again, is there room to place a limit on where an actor can or should go? When does an actor tell himself, I just cannot go to that place? Charlotte Gainsbourgh's scenes in this movie are so exhaustingly enervating, both emotionally and physically, that after one is done feeling sorry for her, one's regard for her bravery starts to gradually accumulate -  for unequivocally demonstrating that she knows no limits as an actor. When it comes to movies, I am not weak of heart, or prone to the slightest prudery, but the extreme performances of the two lead actors in this film (Gainsbourgh and Willem Dafoe) shook me. Lars von Trier, the director of 'Antichrist' has acknowledged that he made this film during a period of extreme personal depression. But does this justify what he demanded of these actors? I believe this question lies at the crux of the polarization between avid defenders of this film and those who are outraged by it.

Charlotte Gainsbourgh in a publicity still from 'Antichrist'
The history of cinema is studded with examples of performers, male and female, who have reached that elusive ether-bound realm of acting that is immediately eternal; performances that are uniformly regarded as classic. But what of those actors who dive into the deep-end, holding hands with the director, with nary a fear of whether they would make it back to the surface? Gainsbourgh (and Dafoe's) performances in 'Antichrist' (which I would score 9 out of 10 on the 'How Far Did They Go' scale) got me to thinking about other movies where I have noticed actors going far, very far, and thought I would list them here.

Speaking of Lars von Trier, Emily Watson in another film directed by Trier, 'Breaking The Waves', also created a bold, heart-breakingly raw and honest character that remains memorable for all who have seen the movie (which announced her immediately to the world as an actor to watch out for). Her portrayal is so stark, that it is altogether exempt from the audience's judgment, and this is almost impossible to do in films. A great measure of her achievement here is that it is difficult to decide if the character she portrays is someone approximating saintliness or is simply a person who is not entirely mentally sound (I would give her a 7 on the 'How Far Did They Go' scale).

Any inquiry into the limits that actors have crossed on camera would have to consider Monica Bellucci in the French film 'Irreversible' (an easy score of 9 out of 10 on the scale). Directed by Gaspar Noe, and running backwards in time, the film begins with the gruesome consequences resulting from the very real trauma faced by a young couple, and ends with the idyllic times from when the two first met. In the middle of this film is a single seemingly unbroken 9 minute shot, where Monica Bellucci's character gets accosted in a Paris subway underpass late in the night, and gets raped and brutally beaten. Unlike other movies, the camera gets unbearably close to the violence, and by making the viewer watch this event enact in real time, makes them complicit in what is occurring on screen. I had to look away from the screen through much of this because it was simply unwatchable; this movie was labeled the most walked-out film of 2003 for good reason. That someone as well regarded as Monica Bellucci would participate in this film is a measure of how fearless an actor can be. I will not pretend to understand what sort of an experience this may be for an actor, but I have wondered if it may actually be freeing to know that you are capable of doing something so emotionally and physically extreme.

Another French film that registers high on the scale (again, a 9) is 'Ma Mere' (My Mother); it stars the dauntless Isabelle Huppert and Louis Garrel, both no strangers to wandering off the beaten track when it comes to acting. I will only leave you with a brief outline of the film and have you recognize why these actors belong in this discussion. The movie, based on a controversial novel, is about a young man who (after the death of his father) begins to start spending time with his mother who holds an extremely fluid opinion of morality. As he is exposed by his mother to her hedonistic lifestyle, his relationship with her and the friends she spends her time with, takes increasingly dark turns. Huppert brings dignity to a role that calls for absolute disregard to any sense of norm, and Garrel gamely goes with this movie to places that films seldom visit.

All of this would make it seem that it is only European actors who cross the line with full abandon in the name of their craft. But many American films too have asked actors for their pound of flesh and received it in more than equal measure. Christian Bale's deliriously unhinged and guileless take on materialism in the eighties, in 'American Psycho' directed by Mary Harmon, scores high (7 out of 10). Also, Bale's physical transformation in The Machinist, unseen by me, is often brought up as an example of an actor's commitment gone wild. Tom Hanks famously went through a similar physical transformation in 'Cast Away', but while his performance was outstanding in the film - he wordlessly kept viewers riveted for more than an hour in the middle of the film - his acting was too conventional, in my opinion, to qualify for being on the list of actors who have gone too far. Robert DeNiro similarly is often cited in 'Raging Bull' for his unrecognizably effective physical transformation, but again, I am not sure that I would consider that he crossed that imaginary line into going too far in that movie. So who did actually cross the line? Definitely Harvey Keitel in the Abel Ferrara directed original 'Bad Lieutenant', in which Keitel leaps anchorless into a sea of depravity. It takes courage to play someone so loathsome; repulsive is not a trait most actors seek when looking for roles (score 5 out of 10).

Amongst American female actors, Jennifer Connelly's drug-fueled, free-falling descent in 'Requiem For A Dream' sticks in the memory almost a decade after the release of the film, with the last scene of the movie defining the "no actor should have to go through this" moment (score 8 out of 10). Also, Chloe Sevigny started her career portraying dangerous/creepy lapses in early teen (mis)behavior; 'Gummo' and 'The Brown Bunny' earned plenty of notoriety, but nothing she has done surpasses the gutsy abandon with which she defined the shocking moral sting at the end of 'Kids', her first film (score 6 out of 10). Bernardo Bertolucci's 1990 film, 'The Sheltering Sky' gave Debra Winger, an uninhibited actor from the start of her career, a chance to completely unravel in portraying the despair and slowly settling insanity of the character; I recall wondering as to why Winger would allow herself to come so emotionally and physically unhinged for the sake of a movie (score 6 out of 10). Amongst more contemporary female actors, Ashley Judd in 'Bug' and Anne Hathaway in 'Havoc' (score 5 out of 10, for both) have made it abundantly clear that there is not much that they will shy from in the service of the role at hand; it is obvious that they are here for the real thing, and not to serve as Hollywood wallpaper. And how about Ewan McGregor, who seems peerless amongst contemporary male actors in being almost recklessly game in complying with pretty much any and all manner of demands from the roles he takes on. His commitment to crossing every line there is, is particularly evident in Peter Greenaway's 'The Pillow Book', where his character goes through physical and emotional turmoils of unthinkable variety (score 7 out of 10). [Greenaway, by the way, has probably made more consistently outrageous demands from his actors, than any other director].

So these are the great warriors of the cinema screen, the ones who have earned the right to say that they can do anything for their craft. Viewers sometimes see this level of extreme malleability from an actor as a lack of discipline or self-respect even; I have only great admiration for them.

I am sure there are tens of other actors who deserve mention here. That is what the comments section of the blog is for; I could use some reminding of those I have missed.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Goodbye Solo ***1/2

The first scene of "Goodbye Solo" lays out the basic premise of the movie. During a routine drive, a cab driver is asked by a frequent passenger if he can book a ride ten days later to be driven to a location from which the passenger is almost assuredly planning to commit suicide.

Although there are umpteen ways that a film can be constructed from this premise (a thriller, a Hollywood weepie, or a psychological mind-bender come to mind), this movie has no interest in indulging in cinematic conventions. The film tracks the lives of these two individuals over those days, as the cab driver tries to convince the man to not go through with his plans. That is it. And while this may not make you want to rush out to rent this film (although I would urge you to), you may want to jot down the name of this movie on a piece of a paper for that day when you are in the mood for a meditative, introspective experience.

How many films have you seen where the primary relationship is between a young immigrant cabbie and a hard-lived, burnt-around-the-edges, old man? Oh, but the richness of these two characters.

This film takes an objective eye to these two individuals and does not let up. And it is the specific details which emerge that matter. The cab-driver (the titular 'Solo') is a young Senegalese man trying to make a living in small-town North Carolina. He is the sort of person who has a way with people: friendly to a fault even with strangers, guileless, alarmingly happy at all times, and capable of talking a mile a minute. As a black immigrant, if he is aware that his feet rest on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder in America, he does not seem to mind it at all. He works his night job with honesty and humor, and is trying to support his family which includes his Mexican-American spouse and her intelligent and poised teen daughter (presumably from a prior marriage). Their first child together is on its way. Solo works in his spare time to study to qualify for becoming a flight attendant. He is pushing upward for a better life -  exhausted yes, but never without a game smile on his face. So that is the cab driver, but what of the other character? The other character is somewhat of a cipher, for the audience as well as for Solo. He is a grizzled, old, Southern man, who harbors an avid aversion to human interaction. But even then, why is he giving the appearance that he is getting ready to take his own life? Is this what draws Solo to this old man, the desire to solve the mystery of what would lead a man to contemplate suicide? Or is Solo, as involved as he is with his own life, simply forced to encroach in the world of the older man to stop him from going through with his plans. The old man is as gnarled and obstinate as might be seen in a movie; alcohol and cigarettes are the closest he has to anything he is dependent on in life. Here is a man who simply wants to be left to spend his life on his own terms. Yes, he likes to go to the movies once in a while, and succumbs to the most marginal thawing when asked to spend some time with Solo's family, but beyond that, he remains confoundingly impenetrable to Solo.

This is a movie that might frustrate a particular type of viewer as a film in which nothing happens. To others, this will be one of the most unaffected, close to the ground portraits of human behavior committed to film. We seldom see this level of fidelity to the incomprehensible aspects of human nature, including what remains resolutely blurry about it, portrayed in a movie. In how far it goes, it reminded me of Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" released a few years ago. While Eastwood's film is showier and more conventional in its treatment of the material, both movies deal with an uncommon relationship between two characters, one of whom learns to accede to a fundamental choice exercised by the other, as vehemently unacceptable as it seems.

I saw the depiction of the cab-driver in 'Goodbye Solo' and could not separate actor from character. This must be one of the more difficult roles to play; if it were not for the genuine warmth of this actor (Souleymane Sy Savane), the portrayal of an endlessly congenial man would slide a hundred ways into caricature, or just plain annoyance. And Red West who plays the older man, has an unquestionably weathered demeanor about him, and it appears as if he agreed to let someone film his own life. It is not faint praise to say that a movie has found lead actors who make a scripted film seem like documentary.

The film is written and directed by the thirty-something Ramin Bahrani [whose previous well-received films 'Man Push Cart' and 'Chop Shop' are unseen by me] and he appears to be influenced by italian neorealism. Described in Wikipedia as a style of film characterized by stories set amongst the poor and working class, filmed on location, frequently using nonprofessional actors, this definition could be another way to describe 'Goodbye Solo'. There is a rigorous commitment to austerity in the making of this film. It reminded me in its purity, of last year's "Wendy and Lucy", starring Michelle Williams and directed by Kelly Reichardt.  If you leave conventional movie-going expectations at the door, 'Goodbye Solo' will be a wholly unique, and yes, fulfilling movie-watching experience.

Roger Ebert wrote in his review of this film that "wherever you live, when this movie opens, it will be the best film in town". Who am I to argue.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Oscar Reaction

So the Oscars were handed out last night.  While acknowledging a late upswing in support of The Hurt Locker, I had predicted that Avatar would win for Best Picture. And for once in my life, I am so glad to be wrong.  I am thrilled that The Hurt Locker won for Best Movie of the year. A happy convergence of Those Who Deserve and Those Who Get. By jove, they got it right! 

So of course, there will be those who will complain about how the Oscar voters are yet again completely out of touch with general public opinion. How the voters aways reward dark independent movies that nobody has heard of, let alone seen. How the voters are ivy-tower snoots who are only willing to grant riches to elitist, high-brow movies that Joe Public would never enjoy. And so forth. To all of those people, I have only one thing to say. Please just go watch The Hurt Locker. If the experience does not change your mind, by all means protest, but I seriously doubt you will after seeing the film. 

The Hurt Locker won not because it was a war movie. Or because it was tailor-made to engage the pretentious elite. Or because there was an active movement to snub the popular vote for Avatar. It won simply because it was truly the best of the ten movies nominated this year. 

And this was not a film that was made with the explicit intention to tow the intelligentsia vote. Brooks Barnes reports in the New York Times today that that "On (The Hurt Locker's) opening weekend in two theaters in New York, screenwriter, Mark Boal — now an Oscar winner — stood on street corners with his teenage nephew handing out free tickets to passersby with the idea that if they could stack the house, perhaps the theater owners would book it for another week." It struggled for its existence, and for distribution, from the start. And in less than a year, it won 'Best Picture'. If this isn't a Cinderella story I don't know what is. This was not a prestigious art-house film that came with a built-in viewer demographic. At a time when nobody wanted to spend their hard-earned ten dollars on watching a movie about the war, this film slowly built its reputation by word of mouth. Even as there has been no precedent for a commercially successful Iraq war movie in the past several years, The Hurt Locker got made because the film-makers were passionate about their story and needed to tell it. Here is a good blog entry on this topic: 

What I liked about this Oscars telecast: 
  • The expansion of the Best Movie nominees to ten films instead of five
  • The verbal recognition of Best Lead Actor (Male and Female) nominees by their own colleagues and in their own words. In a way, this was like giving a prize to every nominee, to  provide public acknowledgment of their work by their peers. Very classy. 
  • The extra time spent on all four of the acting categories which involved a return to showing film clips for each of the nominees.
  • Sandra Bullock's acceptance speech. Few things are more endearing than graciousness, and she was very gracious. Also the acceptance speech by Michael Giacchino, who won for Best Score (for 'Up'); when most other winners spent precious time on endless names of people they would like to thank (even when the Academy now allows winners to do so in a separate acceptance speech for the press after their win), Giacchino took time to ask kids who were being told that what they were doing was a waste of time "to get out there and do it; it is NOT a waste of time". A truly inspiring moment in a ceremony that was often uninspired.
  • Kathryn Bigelow's (what seemed like genuine) surprise at becoming the first woman to win a Best Director trophy. 

What I disliked about this Oscars telecast:
  • The art deco set for the stage, which seemed to limit the possibilities for what could be done on the stage instead of enhancing them.
  • That the hosts, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin were merely adequate. I had hoped for comedic genius from those two, and got something that was content with being just a tad better than mediocre. In their defense, I did laugh a lot at the 'damn Helen Mirren' joke. 
  • The tediously long dance montage set to the Best Musical Score nominations. Would it not have been better to spend the time instead on a short, crisp compilation of best nominated song performances?
  • That Quentin Tarantino had to be content with a single win (Best Supporting Actor) for this movie, and that he did not receive the Best Original Screenplay prize.
That is enough ink spent on the Oscars, I think! There are more important things in the world to be worried about. 

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Those Who Deserve and Those Who Get

The Oscars will be handed out soon. And like most things in life there will be a deviation between those who deserve to win and those who actually do.

Speculators have expectedly used a lot of ink picking winners. The usual mud-slinging has occurred, though not as much as in previous years.  The apposite amount of grandstanding has transpired at talkshows and in trade magazines. Most individuals though, are a bit fatigued by what seems like an unusually long awards show season, culminating with the mother lode of them all, the Academy Awards on March 7th.

Only a fool would argue that the awards are handed out purely based on merit. All sorts of other things play into a win, but I am not here to wax on about the terrible injustice of it all. Every year, the New York Times publishes “Who Should Win” and “Who Will Win” picks for each of the top Oscar categories. I have always liked those, and decided to post my own version of the same.

Best Picture »
The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
A Serious Man
Up in the Air
This is the biggest category, and also the trickiest to predict this year. Unlike some previous years, there has not been a consistent front-runner in this category in the months since the nominations. I am a fan of the newly expanded 10 slots in this category, simply because additional (or any) recognition never hurt a movie. At some point, ‘Up In The Air’, ‘Avatar’ and ‘The Hurt Locker’ have all been considered certain wins in this category. But at this late stage, it is down to ‘Avatar’ and ‘The Hurt Locker’. Do you award the big, loud, (most ever) commercially successful, overwhelmingly popular film, “Avatar” or the small, independent, but truly great movie, “The Hurt Locker”? Early on,"The Hurt Locker" had been the critics’ darling, and for the right reasons too. But then the visual splendor of ‘Avatar’ blew away ticket-buyers around the planet, and it became the juggernaut to beat, and for a while in the past month it appeared that nothing could unseat the sheer might of James Cameron’s space-age, green epic. But then, in the last stretch, the pendulum appears to have started swinging back in favor of "The Hurt Locker”, I suspect because the film industry voters are resisting being told what to do, and are probably going with their hearts. If this will come to pass, hurray!
Who Should Win: “The Hurt Locker”
Who Will Win: “Avatar” (although, I really hope I am wrong here).

Best Director »
James Cameron, Avatar
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Lee Daniels, Precious
Jason Reitman, Up In The Air
This race was going to parallel that for the Best Picture. However there has been a consensus lately that Kathryn Bigelow will win this one. Perhaps for the wrong reasons. Bigelow is only the fourth woman to be nominated for Best Director, and if she gets the prize, she will be, shockingly the first woman to do so. Who can deny the drama inherent in seeing this happen. Plus there is the added juiciness with her being the ex-wife of James Cameron, and one cannot make up this sort of television-ready drama: the ex-wife reigns over the celebrated husband. But these are all irrelevant. Bigelow deserves to win not because of her gender or who she was married to. She does, because without question, her accomplishment as the director for "The Hurt Locker" far exceeds all others on the nominated list.
Who Should Win: Kathryn Bigelow, “The Hurt Locker”, with a tip of the hat to Quentin Tarantino
Who Will Win: Kathryn Bigelow, “The Hurt Locker”

Best Actor, Male, in a Leading Role »
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up In the Air
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
            Disclaimer: I have not seen Colin Firth in “A Single Man”.
There is general agreement that Bridges will win this. I do not feel strongly about any of the nominees in this category, although I would grant that Jeff Bridges has gone uncelebrated for a long time now. He should have won for "The Big Lebowski" years ago, and to see him in "Crazy Heart" is to acknowledge the height of what a vanity-free performance should look like. Also his singing in the movie is truly remarkable, so I will be happy to see him grab that statuette. However, for my money, Jeremy Renner created the most memorable, nuanced and unforgettable male character in a movie last year.
Who Should Win: Jeremy Renner, “The Hurt Locker”
Who Will Win: Jeff Bridges, “Crazy Heart”

Best Actor, Female, in a Leading Role »
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
Meryl Streep, Julie and Julia
            Disclaimer: I have not seen Helen Mirren in “The Last Station”
If there were justice in the world, this trophy would be Carey Mulligan’s to keep. Her performance in the lovely “An Education” is a revelation. But who does not want to see Sandra Bullock being acknowledged for the second (even more successful) inning of her career, and to hear her speak from the Oscar podium. You might as well start practicing how you are going to gush about her acceptance speech at the water cooler at work the next day.
Who Should Win: Carey Mulligan, “An Education”
Who Will Win: Sandra Bullock, “The Blind Side”

Best Actor, Male, in a Supporting Role »
Matt Damon, Invictus
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
            Disclaimer: I have not seen "The Last Station".
They could have mailed the Oscar to Christoph Waltz’s home last week, his win is so certain. And I would not be one to begrudge it; he came out of nowhere and his performance still towers over the others in this category. But for me, it is Woody Harrelson who has a slight edge, because of an unexpectedly subdued, hard-won and emotional performance in the grossly underrated “The Messenger”.
Who Should Win: Woody Harrelson, “The Messenger”, with a tip of the hat to Christoph Waltz
Who Will Win: Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”

Best Actor, Female in a Supporting Role »
Penélope Cruz, Nine
Vera Farmiga, Up In The Air
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart
Anna Kendrick, Up In The Air
Mo’Nique, Precious
            Disclaimer: I have not seen Penelope Cruz in “Nine”
They could have mailed Mo’nique the Oscar statuette last week in the same dispatch as Christoph Waltz. There will be no bigger upset during the ceremony than if Mo’nique’s name is not called out as a winner. For me though, her performance was too showy, and her character never crossed the line from heinous to something approaching sympathy, or even comprehension. On the other hand, I just cannot think of another actor portraying Vera Farmiga's character in "Up In The Air".
Who Should Win: Vera Farmiga, “Up In The Air”
Who Will Win: Monique, “Precious”

Original Screenplay »
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
The Messenger
A Serious Man
Who Should Win: Inglourious Basterds
Who Will Win: Inglourious Basterds

Adapted Screenplay »
District 9
An Education
In the Loop
Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
Up in the Air
            Disclaimer: I have not seen “In The Loop”
Who Should Win: An Education
Who Will Win: Up In The Air

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The 'Moviewallas' Cometh

Faithful readers of this blog (all six of you), you can now get one dimension closer. You can now listen online. The Moviewallas are here.

My friends, Kathy, Rashmi, Joe and I have been watching movies together off and on for years now. And on a few occasions, in the midst of a healthy debate about the movie afterward, remarked that we should record our conversations. And then laughed off the idea. Well, one Sunday morning a few weeks ago, Joe took matters in his very capable hands and put together everything that would be needed to record our first podcast! He independently came up with a logo, a jingle and a charter for our podcasts. He even purchased a good-quality microphone and before we knew it, we were sitting around a table and chatting about movies. And posting them online at It was decided that Rashmi, Joe and I would be the 'Moviewallas', the ones who are associated with movies. We agreed that we would stop doing this the minute it became a chore. And here we are - having recorded ten episodes already.

Since that Sunday morning, when we recorded our first discussion - of the movie Up In The Air, I must confess it has been a lot of fun. We have the unbelievably good fortune to have Joe at hand who is not only an astute film discussant, but also a savvy techno-wizard. It is easy for Rashmi and I to babble on about movies when Joe does all of the difficult things (such as the recording, editing, post-production and posting of the finished product online, not to mention the shownotes and posting of trailers of the movies we review). Quite simply our podcasts would not be possible without him. 

You can listen to the podcasts at the website (, or download them on iTunes. So far, our episodes include: 

Episode 1   Up In The Air
Episode 2   Avatar
Episode 3   Desert Island Movies
Episode 4   Precious
Episode 5   2010 Oscar Nominations
Episode 6   Oscars and Burgers? 
Episode 7   The Blind Side
Episode 8   Top Five Romantic Comedies
Episode 9   Julie and Julia
Episode 10  A Serious Man

Most podcasts are 10-15 minutes long.

Give the podcasts a try. And please provide feedback to us (too long? too obscure? too whatever); nothing would make us happier. You can leave your comments at the Discussion Forum at or on Twitter or as comments to this blog. We are laughing ourselves silly and thoroughly enjoying recording these podcasts. And we are also learning as we go. But we want to know what others think of them, so won't you please drop us a line to let us know if we are on the right track? 

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Best of 2009: Oddities

Here are some (mostly odd) distinctions earned by films in 2009

Best opening credits: Up In The Air
Best movie poster: Cold Souls
Best reboot of a franchiseStar Trek
Best ensemble cast: Inglorious Basterds
Best Tarantino homage film: Kaminey
Best reason to not let your kids travel to Europe alone: Taken
Best visual transformation: Mariah Carey in Precious
Best CGI: Sam Worthington's atrophied legs in Avatar
Best unexpectedly good singer: Colin Farrell, Crazy Heart
Best expectedly good singer: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Best single unbroken shot in a movie: the painful discussion between Ben Foster and Samantha Morton in The Messenger
Best tiger in a movie: The Hangover
Best fox in a movie: Fantastic Mr Fox
Best bird in a movie: Kevin in Up
Funniest nude scene in a movie: The Proposal
Best animated movie with a nude scene: Coraline
Most uncomfortable sex scene in a movie: Watchmen (Malin Akerman/Patrick Wilson)
Most comfortable sex scene in a movie: 500 Days of Summer (Zooey Deschanel/Joseph Gordon Levitt)
Most destructive movie campaigning by an actor: Joaquin Pheonix for Two Lovers
Most unlikable supporting characters in a movie: Away We Go
Most hard-working actor, male: Woody Harrelson (The Messenger, Zombieland, 2012); George Clooney (Men Who Stare at Goats, Fantastic Mr Fox, Up In The Air)
Most hard-working actor, female: Meryl Streep (Julie and Julia, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Its Complicated)
Most defamatory movie for McDonald's (since Super-Size Me): Precious
Most unintentionally bad timing in a movie: scene in Men Who Stare At Goats of a crazed soldier who opens fire at an army base
Smartest movie with aliens: District Nine
Softest movie with aliens: Avatar

I intend to come back and continue to populate this list as I remember more oddities from movies seen in 2009. Please feel free to comment with your own additions!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Best Of 2009: Performances

Here are film actors (alphabetically listed) who have earned their paychecks in 2009. And then some.

Actor, Male
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Ben Foster, The Messenger
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Joseph Gordon Levitt, 500 Days of Summer
Ranbir Kapoor, Wake Up Sid
Shahid Kapur, Kaminey
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Actor, Female
Amy Adams, Julie and Julia
Zooey Deschanel, 500 Days of Summer
Melanie Laurent, Inglorious Basterds
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Konkana Sen Sharma, Wake Up Sid
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
Meryl Streep, Julie and Julia

Supporting Actor, Male
Jeff Bridges, Men Who Stare At Goats
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker
Alfred Molina, An Education
Brad Pitt, Inglorious Basterds
Ryan Reynolds, Adventureland
Peter Sarsgaard, An Education
Christoph Waltz, Inglorious Basterds

Supporting Actor, Female
Vera Farmiga, Up In The Air
Samantha Morton, The Messenger
Paula Patton, Precious
Kristen Stewart, Adventureland
Emma Thompson, An Education

The Best of 2009: Television

I would like to think that I do not watch a lot of television (don't we all?). But I could be wrong. In the past year, I have stopped watching live television. I record my favorite shows on DVR and then catch up on them whenever schedule permits. Hence I cannot profess to have even superficially sampled everything this is offered on most television channels. My selection below of the best of television in the past year is therefore highly biased and based on restrictive sampling. For example, since I do not subscribe to any of the premium channels, I have not seen much of the supposed higher-quality shows (Big Love, True Blood, Dexter, The United States of Tara, The Tudors etc.) to be able to form an opinion about them. Also, I have taken the high road and not included guilty pleasures on this list, because.....well, I feel guilty about them.

The one thing that unites all of the shows on this list is the only thing that ultimately matters: great writing. 

1. Modern Family
This show is graced with the trifecta of great writing, perfect acting, and the most elusive of all, being of the moment. What sets it apart is that it is refreshingly free of cynicism; it chooses to be unashamedly sentimental. Even as it laughs at the foibles of each of the characters in the three related families it covers, it also has genuine affection for each of them. When I was watching this show last week, I paused the taping to take a phone call; upon returning I actually felt sad to see that there were only ten more minutes remaining in the episode. This is always a test of a good show. And Ty Burrell must be the funniest man on television right now; somebody get him an award already. The show started only in late 2009, but it already feels comfortably familiar. 

2. 30 Rock
There is nobody I respect more on television these days than Tina Fey. I do not know if she has secretly found the secret to having forty eight hours in a day, but she is churning out the most creative, consistently high-quality content on television right now. Ten years from now, this show will be considered genius. And boy, is it funny or what. I came into '30 Rock' late, but am now a devoted fan of its rapid-fire, blink-and-you-will-miss-it, comedic style. It gets away with taking names, and calling out on what is wrong in popular media right now. It may look simple, but each episode is impossibly tightly crafted. If you are not watching this show you are missing out on spending thirty delicious minutes inside the head of the sharpest mind on the boob tube right now.

3. How I Met Your Mother
This show has been quietly defining excellence on television for the past four years. You will not find a bad episode of this show. Two dimensions more clever than "Friends", this show covers the lives of five thirty-somethings trying to have a go at relationships. It plays within the conventions of the sitcom in that the characters talk like no one we know, but when what they are saying is this funny, why complain? Watch this show back to back for two hours and the experience will easily best any romantic comedy playing in the cinemas. The acting from all of the leads is outstanding, but Neil Patrick Harris steals the show. I do not know the last names of the main characters of most television shows, but I do for this one. 

4. The New Adventures of Old Christine
I am surprised this show has not been pulled off the air yet. Not because it is terrible; quite the contrary. But because it gets away with some remarkably strong criticism of the far right. Maybe that is one advantage to a show that is not watched by too many...fewer people protesting. If it had higher ratings, "The New Adventures of Old Christine" would be on the target bullseye of many a conservative pundit. I like the fact that Julia Louis-Dreyfus' character on the show goes all out with being flawed, and the actress is refreshingly free from vanity in inhabiting this role, warts and all. Besides any show that has Wanda Sykes and Louis-Dreyfus is automatically insured against mediocrity. Funny stuff, here. 

5. Better Off Ted
I want to seek out the writers on this show and personally shake hands with them to congratulate them for the scripts. Once you get into the rhythms of 'Better Off Ted', it is hard to stop laughing. Like a distant cousin of '30 Rock', this show too goes gleefully into the surreal. Anybody who has been a part of a corporate environment will be smiling at how wickedly the show satirizes that milieu. It would be unfair to single out Portia De Rossi's corporate boss as the star of the show since she gets the best lines in every episode, but her delivery of the lines is flawless. And Lem and Phil, the two goofy scientists on the show, are maybe the most original and adorable characters on television right now. Just the sight of them puts a smile on my face. This may be the most criminally unwatched show on your TV screen. 

6. Men Of A Certain Age
Like 'Modern Family' and 'Better Off Ted', this show started in 2009 but I feel at home with it already. Unlike the shows above, this one is not a ha-ha funny piece of television. Rather it plumbs some rather dark territory in circling around the lives of three male friends in their forties, who are all dealing poorly in one way or another with where their lives have brought them. Ray Romano, who has already contributed to classic television with 'Everybody Loves Raymond' goes for something more hard-lived and rough around the edges with his next foray into episodic television. Because the show is in no mood for pat resolutions, or ascribing easy heroism to any of the lead characters, it is one of the few shows on network television that manages to be surprisingly gloomy (and a little angry), which aptly matches the current economic and cultural climate. Romano, bless his heart, has no intention of sugar-coating things on this show, and by the very adult treatment of the material here, may be on to creating something approaching significant relevance for our times. If the show stays on the air, that is. Start praying. 

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Best of 2009: Music

Nothing separates people as much as their taste in music. For a person you do not know well, it is still easy to speculate on their taste in say, movies. But music is another matter. Unpredictable, but still, musical tastes usually say a lot about a person. 

It was difficult for me to come up with my list of the best music of 2009. So I made it simple, I went with the twenty songs that I have played the most on my iPod recently, and then ordered them according to my current affinity for each song. The top five are definitely my current favorites, and are getting the most mileage out of me. Here is the full list:
  1. Rain – Mika (The Boy Who Knew Too Much)
  2. Running Away – Sacha Sacket (Hermitage EP)
  3. How You Survived The War – The Weepies (Hideaway)
  4. Circle – Sugarland (Live On The Inside)
  5. I See You – Mika (The Boy Who Knew Too Much)
  6. Hai Junoon – Pritam (‘New York’ soundtrack)
  7. They Bring Me To You – Joshua Radin (Simple Times)
  8. Kaminee Meri Arzoo – Sukhwinder Singh (‘Kaminey’ soundtrack)
  9. Where I Stood – Missy Higgins (On A Clear Night)
  10. Give It Away – Quincy Coleman (Also Known As Mary)
  11. Whatcha Say – Jason DeRulo (Whatcha Say EP)
  12. Knock You Down – Keri Hilson, Kanye West, Ne-Yo (In A Perfect World)
  13. Fireflies – OwlCity (Ocean Eyes)
  14. Happy – Leona Lewis (Echo)
  15. One Foot Boy – Mika (The Boy Who Knew Too Much)
  16. Say What You Mean - Chris Ayer (Don’t Go Back To Sleep)
  17. Echo – Gorrilla Zoe (Don’t Feed Da Animals)
  18. Don’t Stay – Laura Izibor (Let The Truth Be Told)
  19. If You’re Out There – John Legend (Evolver)
  20. Northern Skies – Dido (Safe Trip Home)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Best of 2009: Movies

The past year was uncommonly good for movies. For me, at least. Good is the year, when you have to worry about which movies to remove from your ‘Best Of’ list instead of struggling to find worthy ones to fill the slots. For an unapologetic list maker such as myself this is a great time of the year, because I get to indulge in all sorts of Best of This, and Best of That lists.

Before I provide my thoroughly biased and completely unscientific list of the better movies of 2009, a few notes first.

A movie did not make it on to this list just because it was visually the most amazing thing I saw committed to celluloid this year (that would be ‘Avatar’). Also, strangely, a movie did not make it on to this list just because it was the smartest, most cerebrally engaging film I saw (that would be ‘Up In The Air’).  The principal criterion for a movie to make it on this list was, simply, that it moved me. And I do not mean this in the sense that it necessarily made me sad. Every movie on this list connected with me at a fundamental level and displaced something in my emotional build at the time I was watching it. In small way or large. Roger Ebert calls this ‘elevation’ - when a movie resonates with you and elicits a strong, personal, emotional response. It is the reason I go to the cinemas.

Also, I believe that these sorts of lists are silly and wholly non-transferable. By definition, my list is predicated by my life-experiences, my political and ethical beliefs, and my station in life at the current time. And by how my brain neurons are connected to be pleased by some things and not by others. None of these would apply to another human being. I sincerely hope that this list does not match what you might have come up with. Then you can tell me so, and nothing gives me more pleasure than to argue about movie lists.

With that long preamble, forthwith is my list:

1. The Hurt Locker
It was an easy decision to place this movie first on the list. This is the best action movie in a long time, maybe the decade. I just have not had such a visceral experience seeing any other movie this year. It has been more than twenty years, since when I watched “Aliens” on a rainy day in India, that I have felt this claustrophobic in a movie theater. The Hurt Locker has scenes so intense, and suspense so unbearable, that it took all my resolve to keep from walking out of the theater. The story of a specialized bomb-detonation unit in Iraq, this movie gets everything right. Watching it was like a slap to the face that left me wondering in amazement – and gratitude - that movies still retain the power to do this to us. This film also belongs in that rarefied cadre of movies that are about one thing but manage to be about everything else – reflecting the universe through the experience of a few. If I could spend my time accosting strangers on the street and begging them to see The Hurt Locker, I would.

2. Three Idiots
I laughed and I cried. Seems simple enough, right? But think about how many movies you have seen for which you can make this simple claim. Chaplin films perhaps, perhaps some early classics, but it remains a slim category. Released in the last two weeks of the year ('3 Idiots' is only now gathering steam) this movie easily catapulted itself toward the top of the list. It represents the best in current Indian cinema. Describing the life of students at one of India's prestigious Engineering colleges (where students are boarded on premises during their studies), and their fates post-graduation, the movie employs (the currently trendy) disjointed chronology to tell its story. But what inspired treatment of the material this is! From the witty dialog (which sometimes gleefully tips into the uncharacteristically vulgar), to the acting, to the script, it all comes together rather wonderfully. The movie is by no means perfect however; it goes completely over the top in a few places (a baby being delivered during a storm! With instruction over a webcam!), seems a bit too eager to please, indulges in contrivances (the female love interest turns out to be the College Dean's daughter!) and you can see the end coming an hour before it actually arrives. But it works. Kudos also to this film for driving home its messages so successfully without preaching. The movie is a triumph for all concerned. 

3. 500 Days of Summer
This is a smart, witty, romantic film. I saw it and melted hopelessly in submission to its cleverness. Ladies and Gentlemen, this, is how you do it. There is enough creativity and heart here for three movies. Effortlessly funny, and sincere, it has connected with audiences, I think, because it is laser sharp in its realistic depiction of the ebbs and flow of early love, and what follows afterward. What to make, the movie asks, of a relationship where one expects so much more from it than another? The two leads of the movie (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel) are so winning that they are not, for a moment, anything less than fully believable. Much has been made of the intentionally scattered chronology in the movie, but that ultimately remains a gimmick; this movie would have been just as effective were it told linearly in time. Charting the step-by-step development of a relationship between two very specific characters, this movie walked first into my brain, and then, the heart.

4.     Inglorious Basterds
This was the most memorable movie of the year for me; scene for scene, much of the movie still reels in my mind months after seeing it. Call it what you will: indulgent, revisionist, overly talky...but it is difficult to say that the movie falls short of being fully entertaining. The story of a group of American men brought together to militantly fight back the Nazi intercuts with that of the opportunity presented to a Jewish girl to exact vendetta for the death of her family at the hands of a brilliantly devious Nazi colonel. This does not exactly sound like giddy entertainment. But it is. Directing with everything he has in his toolbox, (and he’s got a lot), Quentin Tarantino breaks cardinal rules of the film book with relish here. Every expectation is cleverly circumvented. Christoph Waltz, who plays the Nazi colonel with an impossible balance of grace and evil has an assured lock on the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. The film is cleanly violent. More than half its dialog is subtitled. But who cares when it is this much fun. A superbly plotted episode late in the movie that transpires in a tavern alone is worth the price of admission. Yes, this is genius.

5.     Wake Up Sid
There are some movies that you connect with unexpectedly, and it almost seems like voodoo. Movies that are not on anybody else’s Best Of list. But they resonate deeply and with high fidelity with something within you. I relish such movies like a gift; I offer ‘Wake Up, Sid’. The movie represents the emergence of a hard-earned maturity in Indian cinema. At once, truthful, fun, and fully satisfying, this film is the story of a young man from a rich family who slowly begins to find his place in the world. While this expectedly leads to a realization of his own failings, the film altogether avoids the trappings of the standard character arc to demonstrate this. The caliber of acting, particularly from the main leads, is stellar. Every person in the universe of this film, from the smallest character to the leads, is fully realized and allowed to have their own voice. How refreshing to be able to say this, finally. Here is an Indian movie, thank the stars, with the willingness to abandon the weary formulas of traditional Bollywood for good and all - while still telling a worthy, robust story. If anyone complains about the sorry state of Indian cinema right now, it is gratifying that there are so many films released in 2009 that I can point to in defence of a counter-argument. Few would be stronger than ‘Wake Up Sid’.

6.     Up
The folks at Pixar knock another one clear out of the park, and ‘Up’ reaches higher in the skies than most of the previous Pixar entries. In refusing to cater to children as the primary audience, and choosing to infuse the film with a deep underlying sadness, the movie hits paydirt. It is not exactly original (I see inspirations from many other movies), and there are a few uneven parts. But it all comes together beautifully, particularly in a much talked about ten minute montage early in the movie that sets a new bar for economy in effective story-telling. If you are not devastated by the emotional wallop of those scenes, your heart may have been irreversibly calcified. There are many who have complained that the movie is too sad, and not appropriate for children. But really, what better way for a child to learn about personal loss than from a perceptive, heartfelt movie.

[What a wondrous year this has been for animated and children’s films. Along with "Up", "The Fantastic Mr Fox”, “Coraline”, and “Ponyo" can proudly sit on any list of the best movies of the year. And I have not even seen “Where The Wild Things Are” or “The Princess and The Frog”.]

7.     The Hangover
Who says that the lowbrow cannot be high entertainment? The putrid alley is as good a place as any to find humor, and yes, insight. I started laughing at the start of this film and just did not stop. The basic premise of the movie is clever – trying to reconstruct the events transpired over a night of debauchery in Las Vegas that none of the participants have any recollection of. What I liked about this film was that it dared to be as raunchy as it wanted, without apologies (or the market/studio-driven push to deliver a sanitized PG-13 film). As the movie progressed, I kept waiting for that first misstep, the first sacrifice made to a character to get a cheap laugh, and then sat up with delight realizing that this may actually not happen in this film. Doing good comedy is hard, and few films deliver on this promise. May their tribe increase.

8.     The Messenger
There is a scene in the movie “The Messenger” where two US Army personnel (played by Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster) walk up to the front yard of a woman’s (played by Samantha Morton) home to inform her that her soldier husband has been killed in Iraq. She guesses the news before they can say much, takes a few moments to look calmly in the distance, and then turns around to the men and says “This must be so hard for you”. The unexpected turn of the scene devastated me. This is a grim movie, but also one of the year’s most honest and rewarding. It is the story of two men whose job it is to inform families of the death of a son/daughter/spouse in combat (and hence the title), and features several such wrenching scenes. That the movie never gets gratuitous in the handing of these scenes is a testament to the maturity of the script, and the direction. One of the two men (Harrelson) is a seasoned informant; the other is being trained for this function. These are not cookie-cutter characters, and the script does not allow any easy outs for the two tortured individuals the men portray. Like the best movies about war, “The Messenger” will support your own political beliefs, no matter where you stand on the spectrum. It also has hands down, the best acting I have seen this year. I will lose my faith in cinema if Woody Harrelson, and Samantha Morton in particular, are not recognized for their terrific, beautifully toned performances in this film.

9.     Invictus
Last year, after watching ‘Gran Torino’, I said that I wanted to be like Clint Eastwood when I grew up. ‘Invictus’ this year is further proof of that sentiment. I don’t know how he does it, but here is Eastwood again with an equally effective film. I am frankly surprised that Eastwood is not celebrated more; how many other 79 year old film makers do we know who are delivering new high-quality films once, sometimes twice, a year. And these are films remarkable in the diversity of their tone and subject matter (his 2010 release will be a supernatural thriller). Invictus is loosely based on real-life events surrounding the early days of Nelson Mandela’s presidency in South Africa, and his stubborn push to support the then floundering (and predominantly white) national rugby team to a seemingly impossible win in the 1995 World Cup - in an effort to heal raw racial tensions in the country. Yes, it is a sports movie at the end, and how many of those have we seen already? But by picking this story, Eastwood makes the outcome matter. There has been criticism that Mandela’s portrayal in this movie verges on the saintly; but I saw it as just inspiring. I don’t know how else to say it, but this film is suffused with a sense of (well-earned) goodness. How daunting for an actor to portray a much beloved world personality who is still alive. Morgan Freeman is up to it. He plays Mandela as a man comfortable with blurring the line between being good and getting a few opportune things done at the same time. This movie is a fine example of Roger Ebert’s belief that what moves us most in the movies is not the very tragic, but rather it is individuals doing good in spite of themselves and their circumstances.

10.  Departures (Okuribito)
The winner of last year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar (unseen by most at the time) this Japanese film is clear from the start about its intent to emotionally manipulate the audience. But that does not take away from its effectiveness. A recently fired cellist from Tokyo moves back to his hometown village with his wife. Since being unemployed he cannot seem to be able to find his feet, and frustrated, he answers a cryptic newspaper job offering under the title “Departures” presuming it is for a travel agency. It turns out it is for employment at a place where the dead are prepared for burial. Against his instincts - and judgment - he takes on the job at the funeral home and begins to get trained in the proper Japanese rituals for preparing the bodies of the recently deceased. If this sounds morbid, it is not. There is actually much humor in this film. There is something be learned from the observation of families who have recently lost a loved one. Ashamed to tell his wife about his true vocation, the protagonist nevertheless builds a tenuous trust with the owner of the funeral home and his daughter, which drives the plot for the remainder of the film. This is not a subtle movie, and some of the treatment is heavy-handed. But the film is sincere, and the potency of its message of tolerance is undeniable. Funny, yet affecting, this is the kind of movie that I can recommend without worry to anyone.

Movies that could just as easily been on the Top Ten list:
Adventureland, District 9, Duplicity, An Education, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Kaminey, Love Aaj Kal (Love, Today and Yesterday), Star Trek, Up In The Air

Movies that could make it to the list but are unseen by me (yet):
Moon, Where The Wild Things Are.

Outstanding movies caught at film festivals in 2009:
Bombay Summer, Bunny And The Bull, Deliver Us From Evil, I Killed My Mother, Karma Calling, Phobidilia, Shades Of Ray.

So let the events begin. Don't be shy to let me know how wrong I have been with this list!