10 FAVORITES of 2009

Posted in JIMMY ON MOVIES: Thoughts on Films, The Folks Who Make Them, & Those Who Love Them, MOVIES TO REMEMBER: The ol' favorites that The Lunch Movie kids might have watched had the tradition continued... on December 31st, 2009 by Jim Delaney

I won’t presume to insist that this list is The Best of 2009, if for no other reason that there was so much that I missed in 2009. I really wanted to see big Hollywood movies like TERMINATOR: SALVATION, quieter indy movies like ADVENTURELAND, and foreign fun like O’HORTEN, but sometimes they fall through the cracks. Here are the ones that grabbed me:

10. HARRY POTTER & THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE, directed by David Yates. The HARRY’s had me wondering after the ho-hum GOBLET OF FIRE in 2005, but ORDER OF THE PHOENIX in 2007 gave me hope that they were back on track. They definitely were — HALF BLOOD PRINCE is so solidly conceived that I’d say you could enjoy it even if you’d never seen a HARRY movie. I can’t think of another film series where characters actually evolve to this degree from one installment to the next. This feeling of watching these kids grow up grounds the fantasy elements in something more real and poignant than most straight dramas can hope for.

9. PIG HUNT, directed by James Isaac. What’s the point of making one of these lists if you can’t include one guilty pleasure? A 3,000 lb giant monster wild pig isn’t enough to get you in the theater? How ’bout a cult of mostly nekkid completely stoned hippy chicks, and we’ll throw in Les Claypool as the leader of a chopper-ridin’ Bible quotin’ inbred family of hellions?! If GRINDHOUSE had been a triple-feature…

8. WHIP IT, directed by Drew Barrymore. I expected this movie to be fun and Ellen Page to be great, but I was not prepared for how well written it was, nor for how seamlessly Drew can toggle between family drama, teen hilarity and roller-rink mayhem. Page and the entire cast were committed to every funny, sad and angry note. John Hughes must be smiling from heaven.

7. INVICTUS, directed by Clint Eastwood. For all who say “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” I’d answer “Find someone who’s been makin’ ’em since they made ’em like they used to!” One of Clint’s great strengths as a director is that he trusts and encourages his cast, his crew, his composers, everyone to do their absolute best. Then he films it when they think they are still rehearsing. There is nothing sappy about making a movie with a message that “Yes we can all get along” when your story is about the intelligence and courage it takes to make the first steps toward the goal. …No pun intended. Seriously.

6. UP, Directed by Pete Docter & Bob Peterson. The opening ten minutes of UP contain some of the most luxuriously nuanced animation, in terms of character and location and tone, that Pixar has ever offered. And then they keep doing it! Coming to terms with Loss and Death have been staple themes of films aimed at children and families since OLD YELLER, but it is rare that they get it so right and still leave you smiling.

5. FOOD INC., directed by Robert Kenner. One might argue that this is more a piece of journalism than film-making. Maybe so. Kenner gets plenty of people on record discussing the pros and cons of many facets of a divisive issue. That is what a good journalist does; that is what FOOD, INC. interviewee Eric Schlosser did with his book FAST FOOD NATION. Kenner chose film as his medium, and the medium and the message are better for it.

4. FIVE MINUTES OF HEAVEN, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. A fire-breathing story of rage and redemption, with James Nesbitt and Liam Neeson at the top of their game. There is an intimacy so urgent that at times you swear you’re watching it on stage. As much as I dig it when a film meets and exceeds my expectations, I dig it even more when it doesn’t waste time showing off afterward, but rather keeps its pace and drives toward one unpredictable destination after another.

3. THE ROAD, directed by John Hillcoat. Just because THE ROAD takes place in the near future does not make it science fiction, anymore than the lack of robots or rayguns make it not science fiction. It is not only the most thought provoking and soul stirring “What If?” in years, it is with all due respect to the Coens, the most spot-on photographic rendering of Cormac McCarthy’s prose as we’ve yet seen.

2. THE HURT LOCKER, directed by Kathryn Bigelow. When my dad and I saw PLATOON, he said that every 20th century war gets one film that sums up the experiences that made that war unique from all others. Pondering this, we came up with ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT for WW1, BATTLEGROUND for WW2, THE STEEL HELMET for The Korean War, and PLATOON for Vietnam. I’m not going too far out on a limb to guess that THE HURT LOCKER will be that film for Iraq or The War On Terror. It casts aside politics and focuses sharply on men doing a job. Many films offer a single image that becomes a powerful anti-war statement. Few offer anything as crushing as Jeremy Renner standing alone in a grocery store aisle to remind us how little we are doing while these brave and crazy volunteers risk their lives on the other side of the world.

1. THE COVE, directed by Louie Psihoyos. In following former “Flipper” dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry on a quest to Taiji, Japan to expose the illegal slaughter of dolphins, THE COVE inadvertently ends up being the most intense social/political thriller of the year. It would be interesting to sit O’Barry in front of the camera and listen to him say “They wouldn’t let me inside to see how dolphins and other animals and fish are being treated,” but an element of doubt would remain. To answer that doubt, Psihoyos employs a battery of camera technology that would make the Myth Busters envious as he and Barry adapt to each challenge they encounter. What results is an impassioned story of redemption, and some of the most imaginative camera work of the year, all topped off by an ending that I will only describe as “unforgettable,” lest I say more and deprive you of the impact.

…and, ’cause what’s a Lunch Movie post without at AFTER THOUGHT, here’s something that I remembered in the wee hours of 1.1.10 and was embarrassed that I’d forgotten to include:

RED CLIFF, directed by John Woo. I dunno how closely they follow the 208 A.D. battle that RED CLIFF is based on, but it’s still a ride worth taking. I can’t recall a war movie in years where tactics were so vividly planned and discussed. Most movies these days throw a bunch of fighters together and give you 5 minutes of sloppy-edited gunfire. RED CLIFF’s naval battle finale goes on for 15+ minutes, but even before that you get to see the planning, and later what some characters do to improvise when parts of the battle plan fall apart. Witnessing the rationale behind tactical decisions may not appeal to the “action crowd,” but to anyone who takes the cost of war seriously, it’s pretty damn intense. Fear not, action crowd: a hand-to-hand battle about an hour in, you’ll recognize it by the Turtle Formation strategy, is one of the most jaw-dropping action sequences I’ve ever seen — and the movie isn’t even 1/2 done yet!


DEAD MAN (1995)

Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on December 31st, 2009 by Jim Delaney

From May 21, 2008

Written & Directed by Jim Jarmusch, scored by Neil Young, starring Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Gabriel Byrne, Billy Bob Thornton, Mili Avital, Alfred Molina, John Hurt, Iggy Pop in drag and Robert Mitchum in his final American feature.

William Blake (Depp) is lured from Cleveland, OH by the promise of a new job in an ol’ west town called Machine. He arrives to find his position has already been filled, and by the end of his first night, he is a fugitive for murder. An Indian named Nobody (Farmer) believes Blake to be the same William Blake as the poet, though he knows the poet to be dead. Nobody takes it on himself to protect Blake from pursuing bounty hunters until this living Blake can be properly dead, where he belongs.

DEAD MAN is a film that no one likes. They either love it or hate it. The one thing all agree on is that it is unique. Like the best of Jarmusch’s work, DEAD MAN is bizarre, and hilarious at times when you least expect it. Like the best of William Blake’s work, this film is bizarre, and spiritually profound at all times. Neil Young’s psychedelic score of guitar feedback and church organ, which would be utterly out of place in any other movie, fits DEAD MAN like a glove.

It’ll finish Wednesday.
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT from 12.31.09
My friend Jessica watched the vast majority of movies we rolled in the 2 years I worked with her. She is my idea of the perfect movie-goer — she quietly pays great attention, reserving her insightful questions and observations until the movie is over, or at least until Lunch was over. Jessica steps way outside of her comfort zone, eagerly watching movies about people who are very different from her, and never judging movies simply on the basis of some characters being people she would not want to hang out with. I love her wide-open-mindedness.

So I could not hold it against Jessica when she told me at the end of the first day of DEAD MAN that she would not be back to see how it finishes. She gave it the full 45-50 minutes, and while she acknowledged that she liked some of the black-n-white photography, she found the story too existentially lost. Even in her not wanting to see the rest, she raised a great point: you know from very early on that this movie will not end well for anybody. I suspect that if there was a glimmer of hope, Jessica would have stayed on, as she had with other family favorites like REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE and THE MOSQUITO COAST. I mean this all as a compliment to my friend’s lucid perspective.

I mean it as a compliment to DEAD MAN to say that watching it is like watching someone die. Most people would want to turn away. Judging by it’s box office returns, most people did turn away! It is a rare film that would aspire to capture that moment where you are truly past a point of no return, where the suspense comes not from If it will happen, but How?

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Posted in MOVIES TO REMEMBER: The ol' favorites that The Lunch Movie kids might have watched had the tradition continued... on December 20th, 2009 by Jim Delaney

Friday, December 9, 2009 at The Brattle Theater, Cambridge MA

Directed and co-written by Frank Capra, starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers and Gloria Graham.

It is convenient that The Brattle Theater offered IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE in the weekend right after I had seen Herzog’s THE BAD LIEUTENANT. This sequence enables me to stay on the topic of “movies I had strong hesitations about seeing.” For years I was way too impressed with my deep dark self to ever watch a movie with such a sappy title, never minding that I’d loved MIRACLE ON 34th STREET since I was old enough to barely begin wondering if Santa was real or not.

Wonderful Life, who are you kidding?! It did not matter if Mom or Dad loved it; it would take much more than that for me sit through a trip to Bedford Falls. When the challenge came in 1990, I was 20 years old in my senior year at Emerson College, so the deep dark (and pretentious) self was in overdrive. I was working at a Loews Theater in Copley Square, which is now sadly a Barney’s New York. We had three projectionists, all of whom taught film at local colleges and had made their own films. There was one fella named Phil who looked like Rasputin in Levis and an oil-stained t-shirt. Phil had earned the right to be as deep-n-dark as the rest of us students-by-day/ushers-by-night thought we were. If we mentioned Lucas, Phil would ask what we knew about Kurosawa; if we mentioned 2001 or CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, he would ask if we’d seen SOLARIS. It was this man who, when I mocked IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE simply for it’s title, informed me that he felt it was “one of the most important and purely American works of art in any medium that any artist has ever made.”

So I watched it. And I cried like a sap. Way before the end, and again at the end. And I have watched it at least once per year since then. In all those viewings, I have come to the conclusion that IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is not amazing for the tears and joy that it makes us all look forward to. Its greatness lies in the levels of hell that it puts poor ol’ George Bailey through before he earns that tearful ending. This is a man who just cannot catch a break. Every time things are going right, something will come along to ruin it. Hey George, you have Mary in a very interesting situation and needing her robe? Guess what, your father has fallen ill. Hey George, your brother Harry has returned from college to take over your job? His new wife and her father have other plans. You’re finally escaping Bedford Falls to see the world, and on your honeymoon no less? Not on October 29, 1928!

The story is brilliant in its precision, ratcheting up George’s hope in equal measure with his dashed expectations. The winning decision that Frank Capra makes as a director is that he stands back and lets Jimmy Stewart become George Bailey. Camera movement and editing are, for the most part, spare. When George learns that Harry will not be taking over his job as planned, we follow George for a searching moment as he approaches Harry’s new wife. There is a similar pause when George and Mary are about to leave for their honeymoon, when they witness a mob gathering outside the Bailey Building & Loan. Yet another comes after Clarence has granted George his wish, where Capra closes in tight on Stewart’s face as George surveys what his become of Bedford Falls in his absence. Stewart’s eyes deliver soliloquies of greater despair than anything that could have been written for him to say.

Capra also loads the film with other little gems like the shot above: rather than belaboring George’s skepticism about Clarence with excessive dialogue, Capra simply inserts a physical barrier into the shot. We had already seen the clothes line earlier to know that George and Clarence’s clothes were drying from their fall into the river. We do not need to see it in this shot, except that it works to sever a lost man from his own salvation.

When I was younger and uninformed, I had expected IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE to be a blissfully ignorant denial of the very same hardships I had yet to experience. It is in the film’s embracing and transcending life’s slings and arrows that it finds its power and glory. Even for those of us who can only aspire to the destination George reaches, we can all relate to the road he travels. Capra is on record as saying he got more mail regarding the fate of old man Potter than he did any other topic in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. What those letter writers missed was that Potter’s punishment is that he has to be Mr. Potter for the rest of his miserable life. George Bailey reminds us that those hallmarks of America’s Greatest Generation — tenacity, ingenuity and generosity — can be their own rewards. Thanks for the push, Phil.

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Posted in MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on December 13th, 2009 by Jim Delaney

Friday December 4, 2009 at the Landmark Kendall Sq. Cinema, Cambridge, MA

Directed by Werner Herzog, starring Nicholas Cage, Eva Mendes, Xzibit, Brad Dourif, Fairuza Balk and Vondie Curtis Hall.

I experienced some trepidation before seeing Werner Herzog’s … what shall we call it? Definitely not a sequel to Abel Ferrara’s BAD LIEUTENANT (1992), nor by Herzog’s account is it a remake, if only because he has never seen the earlier film. The term “re-imagining” has been batted around too often in the last decade, but that is what I was expected, possibly what I feared. What I was hoping for, and very nearly got, was a pure Herzog film.

The IMDB message boards for both Herzog’s and Ferrara’s versions offer multiple explanations of how this current film came to have the phrase “Bad Lieutenant” in the title. Most are probably false, and all are irrelevant. Had Herzog released his film as “Port of Call – New Orleans,” critics still would have mentioned Ferrara’s “Lieutenant” in their reviews, if only because both concern detectives addicted to drugs and gambling. Beyond that, they have little in common. Ferrara’s film ponders the Catholic doctrine of Forgiveness by challenging the audience with reprehensible characters on both sides of the law. It is vulgar and gritty and it makes you want to shower with bleach after you’ve seen it.

Herzog’s “Lieutenant” works more as a lampoon of the sort of film I was afraid this might turn out to be, with Nicholas Cage and the rest of a solid cast very much in on the gag. While investigating the murder of a family of Senegalese immigrants, the police come up with a list of suspects including a gangster named “G.” My eyes almost rolled out of my head when I heard this cliche, until Cage seemed to mirror my reaction as he briefed fellow officers. Was Lt. Terry McDonagh mocking G’s unoriginal nickname, or were Cage and Herzog mocking the conventions of a tired genre? I suspected the latter when McDonagh interrogates and elderly woman in a hilariously political incorrect riff on that traditional scene, but the ending really confirmed it for me. *** Spoiler Alert *** skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want part of the end ruined: the last time we see the police station, the scene is staged like a blatant parody of cop shows, with all the loose strands happily tied up with everything but a freeze-framed high 5.

Entertaining though this may be, it does not make for a pure Herzog movie. What does make it a pure Herzog movie, and what seems to have alienated many who prefer their cop movies from the “Lethal Weapon 4” mold, is his signature use of animals to reflect the randomness of nature and living. From a snake swimming through a flooded prison and a traffic accident caused by an alligator to a pair of iguanas whom only McDonagh can see, animals once again become symbols to be pondered and debated by nerds who love Herzog, or ignored and derided by those who prefer their movies literal and their morality messages spoon fed.

Maybe BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL – NEW ORLEANS should not have been called BAD LIEUTENANT, it’s mystery being so different from the earlier film. Maybe it should have been, since whether you love or hate either, both films turn the standard police drama inside out. But contrary to my initial reservations, there is no mistaking that this is a Werner Herzog movie.

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