Monday, December 27, 2010

My top 10 non-2010 movies of 2010

I saw more than 400 movies for the first time this year, probably only a little more than half of which were actually released in 2010. So as I did last year and the year before, I'm putting together a second top 10 list, aside from the more attention-getting one of my favorite new movies of the year (which you can see in the next Las Vegas Weekly). Here then is my list of the top 10 movies I saw for the first time in 2010 that came out in previous years.

1. Breakfast at Tiffany's (Blake Edwards, 1961) I actually got the chance to see this movie in a theater, as part of a vintage film series at one of the local Regal Cinemas. I didn't really have expectations either way -- mostly it was the most convenient movie in the series for me to go see with a friend -- but I was so surprised and delighted with how sophisticated, clever, stylish and moving this film is, with absolutely terrific performances from Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard. It's so casually complex about sexuality, coyly but clearly referring to the way its main characters trade sex for money and other benefits. And it effortlessly captures that excitement of being young and living in a city; it made me want to move to New York in 1961. Yes, Mickey Rooney plays a horribly racist Japanese caricature, and, yes, much of the explicitness of Truman Capote's novel has been toned down. It's still a fantastic movie, a wonderful romance and a shining example of the best of the time period.

2. The Letter (William Wyler, 1940) I watched 30-plus Bette Davis movies this year for a project that's still ongoing, so I could probably have made this list into my top 10 Bette Davis movies of 2010. The Letter certainly would have topped that list, but it places deservedly among all the movies I saw this year. It's a masterfully shot, expertly constructed noir with Davis at her devious best, playing a haughty plantation owner's wife defending herself from a murder charge. Wyler (working from a play by W. Somerset Maugham) weaves a complex story full of shady characters and shifting allegiances, and he uses the Malaysian setting effectively to portray the perils of colonization. Read more in my original post.

3. Rock N' Roll High School (Allan Arkush, 1979) There will eventually be a full piece on this movie, which I watched for a project that I am still working on. For now I will say that, like Breakfast at Tiffany's, this movie is very evocative of a certain time and place, although it's more of a generic time of life (high school) and location (the suburbs) than something concrete. It's just an infectiously fun movie about teenage rebellion and thinking that your favorite band is the most important thing in the world and having debilitating crushes on classmates, and it's set in this kind of stylized fantasy world that amplifies and personifies the extremes of teenage emotions. Plus, P.J. Soles is great as Riff Randell, and the Ramones rock, too.

4. The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges, 1942) I'm consistently amazed at the kind of weird, off-kilter storytelling Sturges was able to throw into Hollywood studio films in the 1940s. This movie subverts expectations at every turn, getting its leads (played wonderfully by Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea) together at the beginning, splitting them apart and then not forcing them to fall in love again but instead demonstrating how hard they work to keep each other happy. It's goofy and funny and never predictable, another demonstration of Sturges' boundless creativity. Read some more in my post about Claudette Colbert.

5. A Christmas Carol (Brian Desmond Hurst, 1951) Of all the Christmas movies I watched for my Christmas in July feature, a version of A Christmas Carol is pretty low on the list of what I would have expected to be my favorite. But this austere and surprisingly affecting version starring Alastair Sim is not only the best of the Dickens adaptations I watched, it's also the best of all the Christmas movies I wrote about. No matter how familiar you are with this story, you'll get something out of Sim's deeply felt performance as Scrooge, stripping away everything that has made the character into a cartoon over the years and showing him as a damaged, sad and pitiable man. Read more in my original post.

6. 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002) There's a full piece on this one forthcoming as well, with more on its manic visual style, self-referential writing and performances and giddy celebration of the Manchester music scene of the 1980s and '90s. Winterbottom is one of those directors whose greatest strength/weakness is working in pretty much every genre imaginable, but 24 Hour plays to his best instincts, with a funny, hyperactive lead performance from Steve Coogan and just the right balance of snark and reverence in regard to its subject, music impresario Tony Wilson.

7. The Little Foxes (William Wyler, 1941) Hey, it's another William Wyler-directed Bette Davis movie. Like The Letter, The Little Foxes features Davis as a gleefully nasty schemer, although in this movie she's just one of several unscrupulous characters, all part of a toxic Southern family in 1900. The writing, by Lillian Hellman based on her play, is complex and unconventional, and Wyler's direction makes the stage-based material into something dynamic and cinematic. Davis always excelled at playing characters who are compelling in their awfulness, and in The Little Foxes she digs into one of her best. Read more in my original post.

8. Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (Freddie Francis, 1970) I had no idea what to expect from this weird British cult horror movie when I volunteered to review its long-awaited DVD release. But it totally transfixed me with its surreal, unnerving take on the horror-movie staple of the demented family, and its complete lack of explanation or back story is chilling in the best way. Part sadistic horror movie, part social satire, the movie toys with its audience the same way its characters toy with their kidnapped victim. With creepy performances and a moody, evocative style, Girly really deserves a rediscovery now that it's on DVD. Read more in my DVD review.

9. Thirst (Park Chan-wook, 2009) When I saw Park's fanboy favorite Oldboy, I think I had heard too much hype, and I was impressed but not wowed. I came to Thirst without the same preconceptions, and I was drawn in much more effectively. The unconventional vampire story goes in all sorts of unexpected directions, and Park takes on over-the-top violence, severe crises of faith and all-consuming love with equal verve. The lead performances from Song Kang-ho and Kim Ok-bin are every bit as intense as the direction, and the whole movie has a manic sense of danger that never lets up. It's totally insane, in a good way.

10. That Evening Sun (Scott Teems, 2009) I probably would have had this on my 2009 best-of list if it had made it to Vegas theaters in time, but as it stands I didn't get a chance to see it until it opened here in February. It's a lovely little character study with a great (and rare) lead performance from Hal Holbrook, playing an irascible old farmer who refuses to leave his land even when his son leases it to a new family. Teems paints an evocative portrait of the South as a region poised between tradition and modernity, and Mia Wasikowksa, who had a hell of a year in 2010 (with both Alice in Wonderland and The Kids Are All Right), does nice supporting work as a teen who tentatively bonds with Holbrook's old coot. Read more in my review.

Honorable mentions: 13 Going On 30 (Gary Winick, 2004); The Catered Affair (Richard Brooks, 1956); Christmas Evil (Lewis Jackson, 1980); In This Our Life (John Huston, 1942)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Triskaidekaphilia: 13 Hours in a Warehouse

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

I watched 13 Hours in a Warehouse last week at Las Vegas' great Sci Fi Center, as part of a sadly under-attended double feature showcasing indie horror actress Rachel Grubb (whom I also interviewed). I skipped out on the second feature, Terror Overload, but I found 13 Hours fitfully entertaining and occasionally suspenseful, albeit far too clumsy to work consistently. For her part, Grubb is effectively creepy as one of three female ghosts who haunt an old warehouse where a gang of thieves is hiding out.

The acting by the leads could generously be called uneven, and early scenes in which the group sits around and trades pop-culture banter like third-rate Tarantino characters are pretty painful. The bluster never quite seems real, and it's hard to buy these guys as genuinely dangerous thugs. But when they start getting scared and turning on each other, the movie becomes a lot more believable, and the actors are able to pull off those emotions much more convincingly than they're able to sell writer-director Dav Kaufman's stilted dialogue. It helps that there is a genuinely spooky atmosphere to a lot of the scenes, thanks to the empty, run-down location and some simple but evocative camera work.

Kaufman uses a cool effect on the ghosts, making them flicker and stutter like poorly tracked images on old VHS tapes (which eventually figure into the back story). It's a unique and immediate way to convey otherworldliness (it owes something to The Ring, but is handled in a very different way). He frames one shot with tiny nooses in the foreground that circle the faces of the characters in the background, and generally uses his visuals to indicate the danger of what's going on without drawing too much attention to it. You don't expect subtlety in a movie like this, and I appreciated it. The plotting is too slapdash, the dialogue is too awkward, and the acting is too wooden. But the style makes up for some of that, which puts 13 Hours slightly ahead of a good number of its direct-to-DVD horror counterparts.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Heroes for Hire #1

I sort of lost track of writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning's Guardians of the Galaxy series, which seems to have morphed from an ongoing book into various miniseries that form part of a neverending Marvel cosmic crossover story. But for the time that it was running on its own, I found it pretty enjoyable, a solid old-school superhero team-up book with a variety of interesting characters and a range of ongoing subplots that were given time to develop. The only drawbacks were the ever-changing art teams and the necessity of reading several other series in order to keep up with some of the plot points (two of my biggest annoyances with mainstream superhero books overall).

Abnett and Lanning are back now with another similar book, Heroes for Hire, also arising out of a crossover event that I didn't read (Shadowland) and also featuring a large, fluid cast of B- and C-list characters, this time from the street-level section of the Marvel universe instead of the cosmic arena. The first issue jumps in with the kind of dynamic storytelling the duo brought to Guardians of the Galaxy, with the crossover having taken care of much of the back story and set-up (although it's perfectly clear what's going on even to those of us who haven't read the previous stories). It's not anything special -- the Falcon, Black Widow, Moon Knight and Elektra work to stop the smuggling of a new super-drug -- but it's action-packed and exciting, and it makes good use of the second-tier characters. It's similar in both its cast and its premise to Chuck Dixon's Marvel Knights series from a few years ago, which was an effective, unpretentious superhero series that never found the audience it deserved.

There's a twist ending involving team mastermind Misty Knight that hints at a larger story to come, and the art by Guardians veteran Brad Walker is clean and appealingly kinetic. I don't expect Abnett and Lanning to reinvent the superhero comic, but if they can keep telling these simple, direct stories and add some depth to oft-mistreated characters (and keep Walker around), then that's good enough for me. Just as long as the crossovers are kept to a minimum.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Bette Davis Month Bonus: The Scapegoat (1959)

Bette Davis played opposite herself twice, in 1946's A Stolen Life and 1964's Dead Ringer, both times appearing as a woman who took the place of her twin sister after that sister died. The Scapegoat, made five years before Dead Ringer, is another movie about a character impersonating someone to whom they bear an exact resemblance, although in this case it's Alec Guinness in the dual role, and Davis hamming it up as part of the supporting cast. She plays a morphine-addicted countess who appears in three scenes and is mostly bed-ridden, but she makes the most of the part, and is a catty, cackling contrast to the dry restraint of the rest of the movie.

Davis is practically comic relief given the somber tone of the rest of the movie, but the low-key approach works for this thriller based on a novel by Daphne Du Maurier (who wrote the source material for Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and The Birds). Guinness plays a depressed, lonely college professor who happens upon his exact double while vacationing in France. The double, an amoral nobleman, tricks the professor into taking on his life and then disappears, leaving the professor to pick up the pieces (which include Davis' overbearing mother). Guinness does a good job of conveying two different personalities in the double role, although he's playing just one part for most of the movie. Still, there are complexities to playing a character who is pretending to be another character (that you also play), and Guinness pulls those off well, too.

The story is a little slow, and the direction is a little too subdued, but overall The Scapegoat is a nice thriller with a satisfyingly ambiguous ending. It finds Davis in her scene-stealing supporting-role mode, although she's given prominent billing in the credits. Mainly she's here to liven things up a little and offer an amusing counterpoint to the buttoned-down Guinness. On that count, she succeeds, and the movie mostly does as well.