Sunday, November 22, 2009

Best of the Decade

You know that I adore lists. I like to make them and I enjoy comparing lists. Well, lists of the best films of the decade are starting to emerge and what I've learned is that I am getting out to see the most highly regarded films, but these lists have two major flaws. They overlook Asian cinema and tend to under-rate action cinema. But I thought I would include a link to Times (UK) Online's list of The 100 Best Films of the Decade. And here are the films that I've seen.

Now for the blatant omissions. In the last decade, Quentin Tarantino has released 4 feature films and none of them are on this list? Also, missing is Martin Scorsese. Personally, I would have to include Gang of New York and Kill Bill, vol. 1 and Inglorious Basterds.

Others that might have been included, O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), Ghost Dog (2000), Elephant (2003), Juno (2007), Up (2009), Amelie (2001), Billy Eliot (2000), Junebug (2005), Gosford Park (2001), Letters From Iwo Jima(2006), and A History of Violence.

Some of my favorites that are missing that are obviously underrated masterpieces that probably won't show up on anyone's list: Kinsey, I Heart Huckabees, Mysterious Skin, The Cooler, Brick, and Swimming Pool.

And where is the Asian cinema? Most of my favorites come from Hong Kong, Thailand, China, and Japan... how can Infernal Affairs (2002), Hero (2002), Last Life in the Universe (2003), Oldboy (2003), and Three Times (2005) not be on the list? Additionally, I would add Vital (2004), A Snake in June (2002), and Linda Linda Linda.

And where is Susanne Bier's amazing Brothers (2004), which hollywood is releasing a remake of in time for the oscars?

While I understand that no list can be perfect, but these are some pretty big omissions. But mostly these lists act as a reminder of the films that I didn't see. I've already rented Hou Hsio-hsien's The Flight of the Red Balloon to watch later today. Lists remind me of just how many movies there are in the world and how few of them I have actually seen. Please feel free to add your own overlooked classics of the last 10 years.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Playing Catch-up [part 1]

A Serious Man

I've fallen behind on writing about the films I'm seeing and I place the blame directly on Ethan and Joel Coen. It has been a good, long time since I've seen a film that I disliked so much that I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. Usually, I reserve this pleasure for films by Haneke and Lars Von Trier, but something about A Serious Man has seriously gotten under my skin and I'm having trouble shaking it.

Larry Gopnik's (Michael Stuhlbarg) life is unraveling. His wife is leaving him, a student is attempting to bribe him, his brother has moved in, he's getting calls demanding payment for a record subscription that he knows nothing about, and he is up for tenure. And Larry wants to know why these things are happening to him and is seeking council from the rabbi. In A Serious Man, Larry is under attack from all sides and needs to understand why. Perhaps my biggest problem with A Serious Man was a complete failure to find humor in this black comedy. This film seemed more like a morality tale, or tragedy, than a black comedy. Last year's Burn After Reading was equally dark, but induced laughter that I couldn’t find in A Serious Man. Not only didn’t I find anything about Larry Gopnik’s circumstances funny, but I’m wrestling with the message of this film.

Basically, it appears that all of Larry’s problems stem from his unwillingness to act. He protests throughout the movie that he has done nothing to deserve mistreatment by the universe at large, so why is God punishing him? This could easily be read as another telling of the story of Job; that Larry has in fact done nothing to incite God’s rage.

Or is he in fact being punished for his inaction? This might be what I find irritating about A Serious Man, is this notion that the majority of Larry Gopnick's problems stem from not doing anything. And I can see why Ethan and Joel might decide to run a character through the ringer for repeatedly coming up with perfectly rational reasons to not act on his whims, desires, or really anything, but I just didn't find it enjoyable to watch and often A Serious Man was uncomfortable. This might be because it left me with a nagging question. What does it mean in life to do something? And I found myself awake in the middle of the night more than once in the weeks after wondering if my life was not too dissimilar from Larry's. At least, I am aware of a few desires that I would dearly love to act on, but I can also compose a lengthy list of very good reasons not to. But really, the biggest thing that impedes me is the simple fact that is is so much easier to do nothing.

So I guess I cannot make any claims that A Serious Man was not provocative, just not as enjoyable as what I had hoped after seeing the trailer. In fact, the trailer may be a much more exciting piece of filmmaking than the movie.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Playing Catch-up [part 2]

So what does one do after seeing a movie that isn't any fun and makes one question their ability to read and critique cinema? Watch martial arts movies, silly. Living in Seattle has resulted in more access to great and diverse cinema, but one downside of seeing so much more cinema is that I frequently miss the films that I derive the most pleasure from watching. So I went to Scarecrow Video with a list of movies that I missed in the theaters, Ong Bak, Chocolate, and Fighter in preparation of Ong Bak 2 opening. And really, these movies were exactly what I expected.

Ong Bak
had the best martial arts sequences in a movie that is otherwise unremarkable. Thugs steal a sacred statue from the village which bring hard times until the sacred item is returned, so Ting (Tony Jaa) is sent to the big city to bring it back. But I was not watching Ong Bak for a compelling plot, but for awesome action and it delivered. The best part is the chase, which is embedded below, but there are plenty of incredible fight sequences that are astonishing and remind me of how I'm not living up to my physical potential.

Chocolate is another Thai martial arts film that stars the female martial artist, Jee Ja Yanin, as Zen. Chocolate was both frustrating and shockingly offensive. The plot was unnecessarily complex for an action film with Yakuza infringing upon Thai gang territory and a Thai woman having his child before he is forced out of Thailand. The child is autistic, but living next door to a Muey Thai school results in Zen becoming a master fighter without anyone realizing it and through only watching Muey Thai. So when mom becomes sick and needs money, the little girl demands payment of her mother's debts, taking out dozens of gang thugs at a time. Chocolate was not only incredible for being completely insensitive to physical and mental handicaps (i.e. there is even a fight between autistic Zen and a guy with turrets), but also features gangs of Thai Lady-boys as comic relief. This movie was special on so many levels, although, never dull. But sadly, Jee Ja Yanin is no Tony Jaa and the fight choreography was a far cry from the marvelous chase in Ong Bak or the works of Jackie Chan or Yuen Woo-Ping.

The other rental was the surprise gem of the group, the Danish film, Fighter (2007) about a Turkish girl who defies her parents to join a Kung Fu team. This is essentially a more realistic Bend it Like Beckham in which romance plays a very backseat role to a young woman learning to live in a culture with vastly different values than that of her family. Aicha (Semra Turan) is not the woman that her family believes her to be. They expect her to follow in her brother's footsteps and go to medical school and marry a Muslim. But Aicha is not a student and is barely scraping by in school. Her passion is the Kung Fu practice that she attends after school, but one day, Aicha is asked to join a co-ed competition fighting team. When her family learns of this, she is forbidden from fighting. But Aicha is always fighting in her life and it isn't long until she has returned to Kung Fu.

The risks posed to Aicha for just defying her father and continuing with martial arts and huge. Her act of defiance not only jepordizes her ability to find a future husband and her standing in her own family, but hurts all of the members of her family, threatening her older brothers upcoming traditional marriage and maybe even impacting her young sister's chances at future happiness. This film likely paints a realistic portrait of family life within an insular immigrant community and unlike Jess in Bend it Like Beckham, Aicha does not even dare to think of becoming romantically entangled with the boys that she practices with and quickly discourages relationships with them outside of the club. Just the thought of attempting to continue attending the practices and maybe attend a competition is all she can bring herself to dream of. And despite her precautions and careful planning, even just continuing in the martial arts threatens to destroy her reputation.

Fighter is a wonderful and empowering film that is strongly grounded in reality. This is my kind of chick-flick!

And finally, we attended Ong Bak 2 at a mostly empty screening at the Egyptian and I have very little to say about the movie. Again, the film showcased the talent of Tony Ja allowing him to demonstrate his unusual Thai marital arts techniques and even demonstrating the origins of Thai martial arts from native, African and Japanese influences. However, the movie wasn't even as enjoyable as the simplistic but fun Ong Bak. For the sequel, they forgot that the success of the original was due not only from the great martial arts choreography, but also from it being a light, and very entertaining movie.

Really, the only thing I took away from this sequel was a long list of questions about Thai culture and the desire for a traditional magical Thai tattoo.