Thursday, February 26, 2009

White Elephants on Parade

In spite of the diminished amount of activity on his site over the past year, Muriels voter and SLH bud Ben Lim will nonetheless be running his much-beloved White Elephant Blogathon again this spring for the third consecutive year. I had a blast doing this last year, and I'm happy to take part again.

So go to Ben's site, check out the rules and regs, and if this sounds like fun (editor's note: it is) shoot Ben an e-Mail no later than Saturday. And pray, pray, pray that you're not assigned the movie I submitted. Bwahahahahaha...

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Golden Muriel for Best Picture, 2008

Whoops! Let's try this again...

WALL*E (269 points/24 votes)

"’It's a robot love story’, says my one friend. A robot love story? That sounds awful. But it's Pixar and the reviews are good, so the girlfriend and I decide to give it a chance. Even at the late show, the theatre is packed with screaming little bacteria traps. The first four trailers are loud, obnoxious animated films with talking penguins that seem like the perfect torture weapon for a cinephile.

“Suddenly this doesn't seem like such a good idea.

“Finally, the film starts and the little kids are quiet. There's a robot rolling around a barren wasteland, crushing trash into little cubes. Only, he's spending more time looking at shiny things than working, kind of like a bird that puts foil in his nest. And bloody hell, this is a good film. A very, very good film, maybe even a great one.

“One of the first things I notice is how the folks at Pixar, led by Andrew Stanton, focus on the smallest of details to flesh out this post-apocalyptic world. Visually, the film is a feast, crammed with bits of dust and scuff marks and smudges and a plethora of things that, at points, make you wonder if maybe this isn't animated after all. The shots of space, in particular, are stunning.

“But all the artiface and craftsmanship is worthless if it doesn't support a worthwhile story, and story (that robot love story) is WALL*E's strength. The robot love story is deceptively simple, basically the same love story we've seen since Shakespeare, but Stanton finds ways to make it feel fresh. Maybe it's the robots. Maybe it's the ecological message. Maybe it's Wall*e's puppy dog eyes (and man, those eyes kill me). Honestly I'm not sure.

“Rather then speding a lot of space here saying what Andrew Dignan has already said so well about this great film, what I would like to do is take a minute to talk about that robot love story.

“When Wall*e meets Eve, at their "meet cute", Eve asks Wall*e for his directive. He doesn't really know what that is, but it doesn't take him very long to find one. Eve becomes his directive. He becomes solely devoted to her, to helping her, to being with her, to saving her, to (most importantly) holding her hand. And not to belittle his intelligence- because clearly he's a pretty inquisitive little robot- but it's almost as if he's oblivious to everything else. Or maybe that's a perfect representation of what it's like to be in love, just two people existing in a world all their own. His devotion, his single-minded focus, is what makes this such a compelling story. The fate of all humanity hangs in the balance, but none of that even registers to Wall*e. All that matters is that Eve needs his help. In one of the film's saddest moments, he even loses his memory trying to rescue her. You can't find a stronger love than that. In a room full of transfixed little DNA samples, I almost broke down and cried.

“And, I don't know, maybe it's those puppy dog eyes, maybe it's the sequence where Wall*e cares for a comatose Eve with the same tenderness that so many people show when their spouse is unresponsive in a hospital, or maybe it's just that this is one of the first pure love stories I've seen since falling in love myself, but to me, WALL*E is one of the greatest love stories ever put on film. It's so far superior to every other film this year, I considered leaving the rest of the spots on my ballot blank.” ~ Lucas McNelly

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Muriels: Best Picture, 2nd Place

Rachel Getting Married (230 points/23 votes)

“In Rachel Getting Married, director Jonathan Demme's compassion shines through in a way that even good directors' films rarely do. Everything here contributes to a miserable-wonderful-electric state of being. Demme's misguided Charade remake, The Truth About Charlie, used the French New Wave as an experiment and a fashion statement, but in Rachel Getting Married the visual devices have a point – an urgency. The camera is desperate, searching, we feel life eluding the characters, the good times half-forgotten and giving way to the bad before they've been properly savored. The picture explodes in bursts of energy and music; it doubles in the way Kael wrote of Something Wild doubling. This new Demme picture merges the ideal qualities of a young and old filmmaker – a younger filmmaker's curiosity and need to get it all out with an older filmmaker's consideration and humanity. Rachel Getting Married is the film you find yourself fantasizing about as you watch your fiftieth coming of age romantic roundelay – an honorable formula picture – a picture that uses formula not out of cynicism or laziness, but as a springboard for something less tangible – an emotional blow-out, an instinctive trance-out, a bliss that closer resembles a beloved pop album.

“Demme employs something currently vogue again: the hand-held, slightly over-exposed, constantly in motion camera, and takes it further than most filmmakers seem willing. Many current filmmakers use a self-conscious diet vérité style as license to deny us poetry. Demme still gives us poetry, in the pauses and the interludes, in the in-jokes and the speeches, in the bursts of patter that tell us little in the words, but a lot in the delivery, and in the music that never ceases. Demme trusts you to find his poetry – a trick of a lamp, a woman standing over a pool, a gaze from a swing, that others would base their entire films around. Rachel Getting Married has many painful-squishy moments (admittedly too many – a few are too trumped for tears), but we don't come away from it feeling mauled as we do with many other critically acclaimed pictures released this time of year. Demme isn't interested in bleak chic – his obsession with the everyday clickety-clicks of life won't allow for it.

“The first two-thirds of Rachel Getting Married comprise one of the best films of its kind in years and the best Jonathan Demme picture since The Silence of the Lambs. The last third, in which all proper pretense of script is discarded, is the best Demme picture since Something Wild (still his masterpiece). Demme, as Stop Making Sense and Neil Young: Heart of Gold demonstrated, understands how music affects us, how it medicates us, and how it materializes our heartbreak in a way that no other art quite does. It has something to do with the portability of music, it follows us, comments on us, allows us to comment on ourselves, and allows us to move to it and communicate and cleanse ourselves. The third act of Rachel Getting Married is an unusually long chronicling of the wedding, of characters we've met casting themselves head first into the celebration – cajoling and drinking and reaching for catharsis. This last act has the warmth and grace of Heart of Gold as well as the wild-wooly tone of Something Wild – we're watching a physical, cinematic recap of the well-staged but more conventional stuff of the first hour – we're seeing the characters at their truest and their most rehearsed in equal measure, we're seeing how people respond to weddings, how they flirt with giving in to the illusion of renewed possibility – that all the clichés of love and life are true." ~ Chuck Bowen

Muriels: Best Picture, 3rd Place

Synecdoche, New York (189 points/16 votes)

“Charlie Kaufman made his directing debut this year - and you'd have thought it would make more of a splash. I'm not surprised by the mid-sixties rating the movie has been getting on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic: the movie is difficult, in some respects hard to like, and it's definitely possible to make a case against it. But what surprises me is how little discussion there's been, either pro or con, when there is so much to delve into.

“In his previous scripts, Kaufman placed outlandish concepts in a fundamentally recognizable world. His movies were very, very strange, but never that hard to follow: while they could be analysed at length, they weren't that difficult to understand on a basic plot level. With Synecdoche, NY, Kaufman doesn't just take a leap into a new profession (and, might I add, does so with admirable success), but this time he also dares to jump away from reality without a parachute. Once more he starts out in a recognizable world, but he then lets this world slowly unravel around his protagonist, and he ventures so far in his exploration of death and decay that he goes beyond the point where it can be put together again.

“Is Synecdoche, NY a failure? It depends. It's not a perfect film, no: it's messy, some sequences don't work at all, and while I would argue it is very funny, the movie leaves you feeling empty, confused, and exhausted. But it's ironic that a film which argues convincingly that any artistic project with Cotard's ambitions is doomed to fail, almost manages to achieve all those ambitions itself anyway. It is about mortality, about how futile the search for purpose is, it is about love and loss and how alien our bodies can seem from time to time, it is a film that demonstrates that synecdoche works, that you can tell a universal story by focusing on a very specific one. Maybe this movie affects me just because (some of) Cotard's obsessions and neuroses resonate with me, but I'm betting they will with anyone who has ever tried to create anything worthwhile - whether they're as fascinated by big boobs and green poop as Cotard is or not.

“I've seen Synecdoche, NY twice now. I can't quite say I love it - it's too Ourobousian for that, too inward oriented to allow for an emotion such as love. But I wasn't bored for a single second either time, and I'll certainly revisit it often. Not to "figure it out", as if there is a simple solution to this puzzle, a mystery to be solved. But to be surprised by all the details, and to get lost in the maze that is Charlie Kaufman's brain: a place that's probably scary to live in, but a thrill to visit every once in a while.” ~ Hedwig Van Driel

Muriels: Best Picture, 4th Place

The Wrestler (180 points/17 votes)

“In The Wrestler, Randy the "Ram" is a former Wrestling superstar who lives in a trailer park and makes his money off of weekend shows. He is a fallen star of yesteryear but instead of harping on a man attempting to recapture his glory days, Darren Aronofsky reveals an often bittersweet tale of a man who does not know how to live. There is a great emphasis on the Ram's body, how it endures, and eventually breaks down. His tolerance for pain seems both astronomical and careless, his eventual physical demise is not surprising. What is truly heartbreaking, and what makes this film so personal, is the fact that while Randy can handle and rationalize his physical torment, any sort of emotional pain is unbearable for him. Wrestling is his escape from the responsibilities of being a loving human being, and his attempts to reconcile with his daughter, is ruined by his own subconscious sabotage.

“His story is mirrored by that of Cassidy, a stripper who is past her prime. Both of their careers are tied to their bodies, and how they effectively sell them to make a living. Normal society looks down upon both of their careers, though for different reasons, and both characters struggle with the isolation and rigid expectations that come with it. Cassidy, however, is able to live beyond her career, and is a loving mother. In separating her job from her personal life, she is able to handle the real world with far more rationality than Ram. Though obviously pained by the idea that her body is no longer a feasible means of gaining a living, she has another life waiting for her, one that she is ready to embrace. This parallel also reveals gender issues relating to the human body, how Cassidy's career is cut short earlier than Ram's, and the derogatory nature of some of the patrons. The fact that her career is also based on selling sex, while Ram's on violence, is also very revealing.

“Above all else, what makes The Wrestler such a poignant film is the sincere portrait of characters not unlike ourselves, people who are lonely and lost, searching for acceptance and love, but never quite sure how to act and react to the world around them.” ~ Justine Smith

Muriels: Best Picture, 5th Place

The Dark Knight (179 points/17 votes)

“A confession: while it's gratifying that, for the first time since 1982, the biggest movie of the year is also my favorite, I honestly don't know what else there is to say at this point. Either you liked it and I'd be telling you things you already know, or you didn't and you're probably sick of hearing about it. So I'll just say that, after waiting in a line that stretched around the multiplex (something one almost never experiences anymore), wondering what could possibly live up to the deafening hype The Dark Knight generated in the weeks leading up to its release and finally, as the lights dimmed, seeing that stunningly disorienting opening shot (accompanied by that now-famous atonal hum) sent a shiver down my spine. It was the realization that The Dark Knight would actually deliver the kind of thrilling, unpredictable experience that summer blockbusters often promise but rarely deliver. And for two-and-a-half wild, nerveracking hours, it lives up to its promise - visually breathtaking, thematically complex, and anchored by a performance for the ages, The Dark Knight is an unforgettable pop masterpiece.” ~ Andrew Bemis

Muriels: An Announcement

Good evening, everyone. I hope you’re all enjoying this countdown to tonight’s announcement of the winner of this year’s final Muriel Award, the Golden Muriel for Best Picture. But before we announce the 2008 “nominees,” I’ve got an announcement.

Effective tonight, following the final awards announcement, I will be stepping down as the administrator of the Muriel Awards, because of personal reasons.

Now, before you get worried, let me assure you that everything is fine with me. I’m happy in my personal relationships (especially with my lovely girlfriend), and I consider myself fortunate to be in a relatively stable job.

The issue is one of time. Namely, I don’t have a whole lot of it. At the beginning of January, I began taking college courses again, in the hope of getting a better education in business. I suppose the idealist in me hopes to be part of the solution to our current economic crisis rather than part of the problem. So now, between my current full-time job, the paid writing I do for Screengrab, my studies, the occasional trip to the movies, and of course Angela, my schedule is tight enough. But the demands required to run the Muriels are time-consuming, and I just don’t have the time to continue to do it.

But have no fear- I’ve been grooming a successor all lined up. Beginning this upcoming year, the Muriels head honcho will be none other than my old pal Steven Carlson. Ever since we ruminated on the idea of starting up some online movie awards over dinner between sections of Out 1 back in December 2006, I’ve considered Steven to be a valuable member of the Muriels voting body. This year, Steven has graciously volunteered his time and efforts to help with the official site, and next year he’ll be running the show. I’m confident that in his hands the Muriels will continue to be a force for good in the sometimes dicey world of online film criticism.

So to all you Muriels voters, whether it’s your first year or you’ve been with us from the beginning, I’d like to thank you for your participation in the Muriels. Without each of you, none of this would have been possible. Whether you’ve contributed written pieces, designed images, plugged the Muriels on your sites, or simply voted, your participation has allowed this to become what it is today. I appreciate everything you’ve done for the Muriels and for me, and I hope you will extend Steven the same courtesy next year.

Next year, I’ll continue to be involved in the Muriels, but as a voter and, as needed, an advisor to Steven and the others in charge. Until then, I hope you all will stay in touch with me, whether it’s here, on Screengrab, on Twitter, or via e-Mail. I look forward to seeing what the future has in store for the Muriels, and I’m proud I could have played some part in it.

Muriels: Best Picture, 6th Place

Man on Wire (133 points/13 votes)

“James Marsh's Man on Wire is a documentary that, thanks to some gripping black-and-white recreations, often plays like the best caper film you've never seen. At the film's center is the enigmatic Philippe Petit, a French tightrope walker who in 1974 somehow managed to gain access to the World Trade Center in New York City and perform a spellbinding high-wire act between the twin towers. Employing engaging interviews with Petit and his accomplices, Marsh first reveals the personality and motivation behind Petit's passion for wire-walking and then tells the story of his most ambitious feat to date. It's an entertaining story, one told with an eye for the cinematic and a definite sense of wonder.” ~ Scott W. Black

Muriels: Best Picture, 7th Place

In Bruges (120 points/13 votes)

“The Bruges of In Bruges is an in-betweeny kind of place, unstuck in space and time. First of all, it's in Belgium, which is neither Holland nor France, and that's all it isn't to some people. On the one hand, Bruges is renowned as the best-preserved Medieval town in Belgium, apparently, which is getting fairly specific -- a fairy tale historical vision of towers and canals and cathedrals and other old buildings. On the other, it's the very model of a modern major tourist town, overrun by corpulent Ugly Americans and even uglier self-righteous Canadians -- the perfect location for shooting a nightmarish Dutch film about a midget. And the perfect hiding place, then, for a pair of Irish hit men waiting for things to cool down after their last job. Their instructions are to go there, stay put, and wait.

"In Bruges -- great title, the preposition suggesting a state of being, not just a geographical location -- marks the auspicious directorial debut of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh (see 2008 Muriel Award for Best Cinematic Breakthrough), author of The Pillowman, a bleak black psycho-comedy about child abuse, serial murder, torture and religion, set in the interrogation chambers of an unnamed police state. Think Becket, Kafka and the Brothers Grimm. (He's added Lonely Planet to the mix for his first feature film.) I habitually refer to In Bruges as a comedy, because it is -- which is not to say that it isn't shot through with pain, profanity, cruelty, violence and tragedy. In Bruges has it all.

“To say McDonagh's film is clearly the work of a gifted writer in love with his mother tongue (the shapes and rhythms of the language are composed and played with the precision of a cantata) is not to slight its equally impressive command of direction, performance, cinematography, editing... hell, moviemaking. The ongoing philosophical duels/duets between Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell) are hysterical and heartbreaking, but who would have expected a man of the theater to craft some of the best-directed action, suspense and party sequences of the year, as well?

“This movie blows me away every time I see it, and I think I've seen it three or four times now. The tightness of it, the attention to detail, and the way it gets better and deeper and funnier every time, remind me of the Coen Bros.' work (and not just because they share a composer, the magnificent Carter Burwell). In Bruges plays like a great album (remember albums?) that can be experienced repeatedly without losing its freshness. It's effin' beautiful.” ~ Jim Emerson

Muriels: Best Picture, 8th Place

A Christmas Tale (119 points/12 votes)

A Christmas Tale is my favorite film of last year, and yet I find that I have a very hard time convincing people to see it. The title suggests either Dickens to a certain crowd or ‘You’re gonna shoot your eye out, kid’ to others; I’m sure plenty have sense memory recall of The Family Stone or Stepmom and find that the concept of a family drama set around a Christmas at home with the parents is something they don’t want to stomach. Desplechin doesn’t so much subvert this genre as embrace it while scraping away the sentimental treacle that usually soft-pedals the drama into a feel-good glow. He has also made a film that is very much in the spirit of Christmas: with second chances, self-sacrifice and even familial joy as some of the major themes touched upon in the film. Of course, there’s a lot more than that to offer here; so much that I was pleasantly surprised by how much more depth I got from it on second viewing.

“The second viewing was a revelation in many ways. First, it was an emotional breakthrough for me with the film as I first received it with an engaged by non-emotional reaction but the second viewing was an emotional rollercoaster for me, with some of the sub-plots striking me so hard that I had trouble composing myself for a long passage at the middle of the film. The second viewing also helped me discover a thematic thread tipped off by the several allusions to Vertigo (the shot in the museum and several soundtrack cues are either directly from Herrmann’s score for Vertigo or are close appropriations of that great score).

“These allusions allowed me to mediate on one of the richest thematic through lines from both films, which is the idea of change being forced upon a character by someone driven by a death. In Vertigo, Scottie changes Judy Barton into Madeleine Elster because of his obsession with Elster and was himself changed during the opening sequence where he accidentally allowed a cop to fall from to his death. Likewise in A Christmas Tale, we have a childhood death in the prologue that inspires the way all of the characters behave and the roles that they take within the family. The death has caused Henry to be a screw-up con man, caused his sister Elizabeth (who blames Henry for the death of the unseen older brother) to banish him from the family, causing his eventual attempt at redemption and leading to the marriage of the youngest son, which we discover was a bit of charity from his elder sibling and cousin.

“The intersecting character dynamics are a bit hard to wrap your head around at times in A Christmas Tale and I’m sure the gifts of the film will continue to give with further viewings. It is a complicated work and emotionally exhausting, but Desplechin’s work is masterful at keeping all the balls in the air and enticing you to follow him even as he veers off into strange flights of fancy and plot or character threads that dead-end, like Devos’s character Faunia which is a charming and charismatic creation that is allowed to slip through our fingers and disappears from the film way before you want to let her go (Desplechin cleverly makes her Jewish to explain why she is not allowed to participate in the second half of the film). I still slightly prefer Kings & Queen to the more controlled A Christmas Tale but I think it is safe to say that Arnaud Desplechin is the most exciting filmmaker working right now.” ~ Jason Overbeck

Muriels: Best Picture, 9th Place

Burn After Reading (103 points/11 votes)

“When I settled into my theater seat to watch Burn After Reading, and the lights dimmed and the light struck the screen and the music came on, my heart sank. I was in the wrong theater. I had to be. The music, a rapid pulse rate of a score, was telling me I was watching something very serious, and the electronic clicky-clack printout-style credits only bore that out. Clearly, I somehow misread the sign in the theater and wandered into the Don Cheadle thriller, Traitor.

“Well, no. It turns out that's just the first joke in the Coen Brothers' masterful comedy, but it's a joke that tells you everything you need to know about the film. It's the music the characters themselves would use to score the movie of their lives, the music they hear in their heads as they go about their myopic, insignificant, yet deadly serious business. It's spy music, the music of a genre that's about nation-rending secrets, double-crosses and murder -- which does in fact describe Burn After Reading, except that the nation-rending secrets only exist in the imaginations of dunderheaded Hardbodies instructors Linda and Chad, the double-crosses are about infidelity, and the murders are either accidental or out of drunken, impotent rage. The Coens are known for their screenplays that flout typical structure, throwing out such niceties as protagonists and clean act breaks in favor of setting off a narrative bomb -- in this case, Osbourne Cox quitting his job -- and watching the resulting shock wave take its course. (What made No Country For Old Men such a kick in the head was that it looked like a classical narrative and then, oops, oh wait, it's not.)

“But this screenplay, as good as it is, would be dead in the water without the actors to find the right tone, and boy, this lineup hits 'em out the park -- even Jeffrey DeMunn, an actor who I know as That Guy Who's Terrible in All Those Stephen King Movies, is absolutely perfect in his brief scene as Linda's doctor. But the MVP here is Brad Pitt. His Chad is a vain, goofy meathead who may as well be as the film's mascot. His scene with John Malkovich's Osbourne is, for me, the highlight -- an intellectual doorknob using half-remembered memories of spy movies (listening to that music in his head!) in an attempt to blackmail a guy who knows how the real world works. ‘Appearances can be deceptive,’ says Chad, his eyes ludicrously narrowed in an attempt to look cunning. The irony is that everything looks exactly as it is -- Chad's an idiot, the info on the disc is useless, spouses are obviously cheating on each other -- but everyone is so caught up in their fantasies that they can't see it.

“Yet, what makes this the best movie of the year is not how funny it is (it's hilarious), but ultimately how sad it is. Nearly all Coen Brothers films are about the deluded, self-important and destructive species known as the human race, but this is the only one that seems to truly lament those qualities. There are a lot of memorable ‘face moments’ in the film -- Linda's doctor appointment, Harry's shocked expression in the park, and of course, Chad's last smile -- but for me, the one that sums it up is the look of longing and regret on Ted's face as he shares a drink with Linda. He's the one guy who recognizes the folly of everything around him, but (as an ex-priest) has lost faith in humanity. Against his better judgment, he goes along with the idiocy, and ends up on the chopping block. “ ~ Kent M. Beeson

Muriels: Best Picture, 10th Place

Happy-Go-Lucky (99 points/10 votes)

“’Optimism as a rebellious act.’

“My friend, fellow film critic (and fellow Muriel voter) Sean Burns, dropped those five words in a Twitter post after he saw Happy-Go-Lucky, and I’ll be damned if he didn’t hit the nail on the head on that one. (It’s one of many things he has said that I wished I said first.)

“While Miramax foolishly marketed the movie as a light-hearted, free-spirited, quirky comedy (great movie that it is, it has to have the worst art-house movie trailer of 2008), Happy-Go-Lucky is deceptively subversive. It’s also startlingly, culturally relevant. As the threat of a Great Depression looms over our collective consciousness, this portrait of a British woman keeping a positive outlook in an increasingly cynical culture is even more of a much-needed, inspiring story of underdog perseverance than beloved audience favorite Slumdog Millionaire.

“After taking us down the rabbit hole of working-class misery and despair many times in his movies, writer-director Mike Leigh pulls a 180 and serves up the story of Poppy (Sally Hawkins), an aptly-named, almost-childlike primary schoolteacher who virtually lives to put a smile on everyone’s face. Of course, some people (including the person writing this) find that sort of thing annoying. And when we first see her, cheerfully riding her bicycle around the London streets, popping into a bookstore and awkwardly attempting to strike up a conversation with the sullen clerk behind the counter, we start to wonder if we’ll find her annoying, too.

“However, as the movie pushes forward, we begin to view Poppy’s continually chipper, neuroses-free brand of sunshine as her most enviable trait. As Poppy’s friends and co-workers occupy themselves with trivial grievances that keep them comfortably pissed, Poppy remains an unbreakable source of positive energy, undeterred by the slightest bit of negativity. She may look like a flaky kook, covered in loud, gaudy wardrobe that’s as bright and showy as she is, but she’s one of the most unflappable, strong-willed characters I’ve seen in a movie recently.

“Needless to say, Poppy’s sunny disposition gets challenged throughout, whether it’s getting her bike stolen (‘I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye,’ she mutters) or briefly handling back pain (from too much trampoline-jumping) or dealing with a angry, racist, anti-social driving instructor (a snarling Eddie Marsan) who later becomes her stalker. But even when she drops her loopy facade and gets serious for a couple of moments (Hawkins does a marvelous job showing that this consistently cheeky character does indeed have layers), she immediately gets right back on her glass-half-full path.

“As always in a Mike Leigh movie, the cast is uniformly superb, working together as an well-oiled unit and tossing witty lines back-and-forth to each other as if they’ve all known one another for ages. It will forever baffle me how the Oscars failed to nominate Hawkins for Best Actress (or, for that matter, Alexis Zegerman for Best Supporting Actress, for her wonderful turn as Poppy’s sarcastic flatmate/best friend). But then again, she did play the antithesis of an Oscar-worthy role. She didn’t play a character with drug problems or money problems or a deep, dark secret or an axe to grind. She wasn’t a wrathful nun or a truth-seeking single mom or an illiterate Nazi cougar.

“No, she just played somebody who’s content with her life. And while that may not sound like anything special, she certainly showed that’s the most powerful thing a person can be these days.” ~ Craig D. Lindsey

Muriels: Best Picture, 12th Place

Milk (90 points/11 votes)

"Released in the wake of Proposition 8, it's hard to separate Milk from the context in which it was released, but someday, when the injustice of Prop 8 is long gone, the film should still be remembered as a high point in Van Sant's always interesting but severely flawed body of work. The experimental nature of much of Van Sant's work has always left me torn. While I love his aesthetic adventurousness, I've found his formal experimentation in films like Elephant and Last Days to be self indulgent and ineffective.

Milk is a straightforward story and, thankfully, Van Sant presents it that way with the confidence of a very mature filmmaker. The film hits all the milestones in his life and it does so at a brisk pace with the aid of stylistic flourishes that seem to be informed by Van Sant's experimental tendencies. Expertly weaving together still images, archival footage, and a wide variety of film stocks, the film is bursting at the seams with the joyous rhythms and textures befitting any film about a movement based on love. The flawless filmmaking is further enhanced by a terrific ensemble performance. Sean Penn is fantastic as Harvey Milk and Josh Brolin, James Franco, and Emile Hirsch all do more than enough to pull their weight.

“Instead of a sentimental, preachy biopic, Van Sant has given us a powerful film that celebrates the hard work and passion of people who fight for what they believe in. Easily the best film of the year, it's a spectacular work of art that should inspire people and offer a beacon of hope for anybody who cares about something." ~ Benjamin Lim

Muriels: Best Picture, 14th Place

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (68 points/7 votes)

“Woody Allen went to London, and came back with two rather gloomy, pessimistic movies about fate and doom. He went to Barcelona, and - like Vicky and Cristina - he apparently got so intoxicated by the Spanish way of life that he made this lovely little distraction. Vicky Cristina Barcelona: the commaless title already sounds jaunty, and Allen's made a movie here that's light without being weightless, and that, by the very incidental nature of its plot, manages to make resonate more than his essays on destiny do.

“Most of all, though, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a great homage to one of my favorite films of all time: Jules et Jim. Granted, the analogies in basic plot are rather sketchy: both films may start from the same premise (Jules et Jim are two friends, one serious, one not, who fall for a beautiful, temperamental woman, Catherine; Vicky and Cristina are two friends, one serious, one not, who fall for a very sexy, temperamental artist, Juan Antonio), but after that the plots diverge significantly. It's the mood of the film though, the spirit, which immediately reminds you of the Truffaut film, and the narrator especially makes the connection hard to miss.

“Yes: that narration. Many people seem to have their problems with it, and on a surface level, I can understand that. It keeps you at a distance, after all, makes sure we remain observers and never become too deeply involved. However, it's too easy to yell something about movies being about showing, not telling, and to denounce the voice-over as a crutch: not only does the narrator dryly (and often humorously) save us all unnecessary exposition and get us right into the action, but - like the narrator in Jules et Jim - he makes us aware of how universal the story is, and how recognizable. He peels away the surface, and reveals that these characters are ust like us.

“Vicky, scared of trying anything that might compromise the future she imagines for herself, Cristina, who longs for passion and an artistic life, without knowing if she can ever be content: they offer polarly opposite views towards love, but I imagine everyone can identify at least a bit with both attitudes. They may be carefully crafted constructs, designed to illustrate a point rather than to be fully-rounded, ‘real’ characters, but Allen is a shrewd enough observer of humans and human interactions that the narrator's observations sometimes strike uncomfortably close to home. As for Juan Antonio and Maria Elena: they're meant as foils rather than characters in their own right, but Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz infuse them with so much warmth and passion you don't even notice how little we are told about their state of mind.

“Vicky and Cristina leave Barcelona. Changed - but too little to matter. It's admirable that Allen decided NOT to go for a grand, theatrical resolution (although he teases us with it) and dares to acknowledge that, sometimes, events that in the moment feel important and highly (melo-)dramatic can, in the end, be just like a summer in Spain: filled with sunlight and beautiful sights, wine-induced bliss and romantic entanglements, but ultimately just an interlude, a diversion. Postcards in a scrapbook, and a few bittersweet memories. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have tickets for Barcelona to book.” ~ Hedwig Van Driel

Muriels: Best Picture, 15th Place

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (67 points/7 votes)

"One of the primary reasons why I love 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days - not the easiest of films to love - is that it defies so many expectations. When you hear someone talk about a 'Romanian abortion movie' you'll probably develop a sudden interest in doing your taxes, maybe finding a boiling pot in need of watching, but this is no drab film about drab people justified by a self-important artsy ‘message'. Instead, it's a tightly controlled but passionate wail, a protest against the indignities and absurdities of everyday life, not just under Communist totalitarianism, but anywhere that a person has to deal with clueless roommates, boring dinner party guests, obnoxious desk clerks.

"4 Months is also probably the most gripping, suspenseful thriller that I saw all year, climaxing in a scene of pure, existential horror; a blacker-than-black comedy with jokes so dry they hurt; and one of the most precisely crafted directorial achievements of the year, with director Cristian Mungiu demonstrating total control and precision in our viewing experience, tempered by an unsparing, but generous, vision of humanity. It's a complete experience: a smart, honest, perceptive film that also manages to be competely gripping and entertaining - although not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach." ~ Jeff McMahon

Muriels: Best Picture, 18th Place

Slumdog Millionaire (52 points/5 votes)

“The second time I saw Slumdog Millionaire, I was struck by this exchange between Jamal and Latika:

Jamal, scoffing as he sees Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? on the television: Why does everyone love this program?
Latika: It's a chance to escape, isn't it? Walk into someone else's life for a moment.

“As simple as it sounds, I find it much more than just a metaphor for the enthusiastic reception the film has received from critics and audiences. That opportunity to ‘walk into someone else's life’ is the essence of the story, layered with rich social insights and woven together with vividly beautiful colors and characters. Slumdog Millionaire was the most breathtaking and meaningful tapestry displayed on screen this year, and it reaffirmed my faith that there are still untapped wells of creativity to discover in the evolving art form of film.

“Misunderstood on some levels and rightfully criticized on others, it's a fantastic fairy tale improbably rooted in the jarring reality of contemporary India. While there may be legitimate concerns related to the casting of impoverished non-actors (concerns which, incidentally, didn't seem to be raised with films like City of God or even Gandhi), there should perhaps be just as much worry about the fact that many Westerners somewhat ethnocentrically think love, joy, hope, determination, beauty and success are not accurate representations of the slum dwellers of Mumbai. If the film has taught us anything, it is to see India in a new light - and appreciate that these elements of culture are universally shared.” ~ Daniel Getahun

Muriels: Best Picture, 25th Place

Speed Racer (43 points/4 votes)

“What do movies as disparate as It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra; 1947), The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (Billy Wilder; 1970), The Thing (John Carpenter; 1982) and Blade Runner (Ridley Scott; also 1982) have in common? On the surface, not much. However, each of these visually resplendent pictures was a flop at the box-office and years later came to be regarded as either among their celebrated directors’ best, most personal films or, in the case of Blade Runner, so stylistically influential that it can be said to have changed the way futurism in cinematic science fiction has been realized ever since. To that list of recognized classics I volunteer to add the unjustly maligned, often willfully misunderstood, and completely enthralling Speed Racer, my unashamed pick for the best movie of 2008. This is a movie of shimmering poetry, shifting, gliding perspectives and a velocity that pulsates with meaning and feeling, a movie so far ahead of the curve of the general audience (and levels of tolerance for its disorienting and radical visual grammar) that it might take at least 20 years, and a wave of failed, Wachowski-tinged pyrotechnical movie piracy, for it to be able to take its rightful place as a landmark of personal filmmaking in the blockbuster mode.

“Oddly enough, it was seeing Jean-Luc Godard’s similarly irreverent pop culture mash-up Pierrot le fou on the big screen a month or so before Speed Racer bowed that best prepared me for what the Wachowskis had in store for those few of low expectations who passed through the opening-day turnstiles. Like Godard, the Wachowskis integrate their pop-culture-soaked point of view on the material into the very skeleton of the filmmaking itself; each cut, either jarring or graphically continuous, adds a degree of emotion that can blindside a viewer with its candy-coated beauty (I’m thinking of a single cut from the blue flames of a crash that has taken his brother’s life to a mournful shot of Speed sobbing silently in his mother’s arms, his bedroom cloaked in shadow) or with a flurry of gasp-inducing disorientation. Any of the movie’s spectacular, gravity-defying race scenes qualify for such a description, but the movie’s triumph is that it has infused its entire visual approach with the same intensity, and the result is not nausea, as has been widely reported, but instead a kind of transporting, transcendent euphoria.

“The eccentric visual unity coursing through the movie’s fuel-injected veins is kept humming and vibrating by the Wachowskis’ go-for-broke bravery, and each new sequence seems to up the ante on the directors’ breathtaking comic audacity. The movie to come is hinted at during a beautiful sequence early on in which a young Speed spies Trixie for the first time. Lost in puppy-love reverie, the backgrounds of both their medium close-ups bleed together in a swirling loss of focus that at first looks like Popsicles melting in Panavision, then effortlessly morphs into flowers and pixels of light that take the shape of free-floating hearts. Speed up-ends his go-cart in a row of bushes and, dazed, looks up at the supernaturally blue sky, his field of vision invaded by an cockeyed angel of elementary-school loveliness—Trixie invades the frame upside-down, as seen from Speed’s point of view, and as my friend Matthew Kiernan said, the movie announces its intention to show you the world from a fresh perspective with the promise of revealing new things within your field of vision you may not have been able to see before. And there is so much to see and hear and thrill to in Speed Racer that six viewings (and counting) have not been nearly enough. (Barely a blip in theaters, the film has found its destiny as a spectacular treat on Blu-ray and HDTV, where it looks better than it ever did theatrically, with the possible exception of its IMAX incarnation.)

“I remember coming home from the opening night screening of Speed Racer and excitedly e-mailing a friend—“I don’t know what you thought of this movie, but I loved it, and I can’t stop thinking about it.” He wrote me back the next day, thrilled that I too saw the same movie he did, and we spent the summer re-experiencing it as often as we could, together and with others we hoped would soon become converts. A few days later, in a long piece in which I attempted to put my own reaction into words (and answer the movie’s many critical naysayers), I wrote: “What’s authentically awesome about Speed Racer is the way it nimbly accesses the emotions buried within a blockbuster package and uses the digital medium not only to excite the senses but to come to an understanding, in the rush of excitement in our brain waves and in our follicles as the goose bumps rise, of why we should be reacting at all. This is, to me the mark of a work of pop art. The CGI technology which by now has become so mundane and deadly in other filmmaking contexts is invigorated, made as masterful as Speed Racer himself hurling down the track, spinning and doing gravity-defying loops. Speed’s mom waxes rhapsodic about her son’s ability as a driver and tells him, `It’s inspiring and beautiful, everything art should be.’ Dare I say the same about Speed Racer? I dare. It's the movie of the year for me so far.” Nine months have passed, and no new release I saw since then swept me away like this unlikely explosion of pop cinema did. Twenty years from now I suspect I will no longer be one of the only ones who look at the Wachowski Brothers’ singular achievement as a new classic, but if that scenario somehow fails to materialize, well, there is some comfort in knowing that the landscape of movie history is and always has been littered with films that have escaped the mixed blessings of mass acceptance. And I’ll always have Speed Racer.” ~ Dennis Cozzalio

Muriels: Best Picture, 28th Place

Silent Light (39 points/3 votes)

“Carlos Reygadas's Silent Light has been talked about as though it's a major change of pace for the talented Mexican auteur. This stance is frankly nonsense. There's little stylistically in Silent Light that hasn't already been a part of Reygadas's repertoire. The only thing that's different is that Carlos has finally made the smart move he should have made from film one: He's cast his lot with recognizable human beings.

“That's the thing: his particular idiom - the ascetic rigor of Bresson interwoven into the grandiose melodrama of Griffith - demands simplicity. His project, thus far, has been an attempt to highlight the potential poetry of the mundane, and while his previous works have had isolated moments of beauty, there's very little mundanity to be found while in the company of teenage hookers or disemboweled horse corpses. The true progress of Silent Light, then, is the paring-away of the awkward sensationalism that marred Japon and Battle in Heaven. What is left behind is less "interesting" but far more pure and true.

“It's this purity that gives the film its force. From its justly-celebrated opening shot, in which a sunrise is elevated through patient duration and expressive framing into something like the creation of the world, Reygadas is clearly striving to express a larger truth. The choice of milieu (a Mennonite community) is all too appropriate; in its quieter 'everyday life' moments, such as the lengthy sequence where a group of children are being bathed in a river by their parents or the delicate, crushing scene near the beginning where the family's patriarch silently breaks down in tears at the breakfast table, the careful pacing and beautifully austere craftsmanship Reygadas brings to the table gives Silent Light an air of the sacred. In this context, the more extravagant, overtly melodramatic touches (a lens-flare explosion at the moment of a kiss, a revelation of infidelity in the midst of a torrential rainstorm) feel like ruptures in the natural order of things. The emotional impact is overwhelming.

“And did I mention how stinking gorgeous this thing is? Every shot is composed with a painterly grace and burnished until the glow leaps off the screen and buries itself in your corneas. It's an extraordinary film, a fulfillment of the promise that Reygadas has displayed prior to now. If it's revelatory, it's only in the sense that it's revealing what we should have seen coming all along. The sun rises, the sun sets and we see the miraculous hiding inside the everyday. All is grace.” ~ Steven Carlson

Muriels: Best Picture, 30th Place (tie)

Che (34 points/3 votes)

“Steven Soderbergh’s Che represents the type of uncompromising ambition that always results in heated debate. The fact that Che has polarized audiences since its ‘roadshow’ release in mid December is a testament to its unusual and provocative nature, not only because the subject is a polarizing historical figure, but because the movie itself is a rebellious coup de cinema that dismisses traditional narrative at nearly every turn. Soderbergh and writer Peter Buchman have constructed a film about military campaign and guerilla warfare rather than a detailed account of Guevara’s life and back-story. Part I covers the revolution in Cuba, while Part II deals strictly with Che’s failure in Bolivia. The events are portrayed as non-politically and objectively as possible for what they are, though the exclusion of certain atrocities will certainly inspire debate as to whether the film has a hidden agenda. There’s no doubt Soderbergh’s ambitious presentation is certainly asking a lot from its audience at 4 1/2 hours, but is the film really too detached from any emotional basis? Is it pretentious to take an objective, distant stance on one of the most controversial figures of the 20th Century?

“Soderbergh’s neutral standpoint won’t change anyone's view of Guevara - what you bring to the theater will determine how you feel about the character portrayed on screen. The film isn’t pro-Che or anti-Che, it’s simply a straightforward reenactment of two campaigns with opposite results. Some critics have brought up comparisons to Rossellini’s work, though I think the closest stylistic connection is to Costa-Gavras (Z) or Francesco Rosi (Salvatore Giuliano). Soderbergh’s direction reflects the same attention to detail, the same naturalistic approach to the performances and events. His answer to the sweeping, epic cinemascope glory of Cuba’s Part I is the claustrophobic, suffocating feeling of 1.85:1 photography as the Bolivian campaign becomes dirtier and deadlier in Part II. It’s a daring move, one that could have gone terribly wrong under the direction of a lesser filmmaker. But because of Soderbergh’s masterful craftsmanship and the subtle, contemplative lead performance by Benecio Del Toro (and the excellent supporting work by the rest of the cast), the experience feels real and immediate, provocative and challenging. What would be the point of making it any other way?” ~ Ari Dassa

Muriels: Best Picture, 30th Place (tie)

Still Life (34 points/3 votes)

“What kind of departure does Still Life mark for Jia Zhangke? Like his previous films, Still Life uses a schizophrenic political landscape to foreground his disillusioned, lost protagonists. In addition, Jia's deadpan visuals, lingering on medium shots, framing his characters in front of immense decay or economic growth, remain intact. Still Life, however, seems like a quantum leap, as its director's tendencies have finally found a subject and created characters which properly balance each other, while keeping his political obstinance intact.

Still Life is also less abrasive than his previous features, which is assisted by his perpetually somber two leads, both searching for their past lovers in the soon-to-be-leveled outskirts of Fengjie. "The World", the previous film by Jia, used a hyper-loaded political metaphor, famous world monuments packed into a single theme park in Beijing, as his backdrop: in essence, the work was done. The fantastical, deep-focused wonders which serve as the backdrops in Still Life are suggestive and lyrical, serving both political and poetic purpose. It is this, more than anything, which allows the offbeat structure of the film to succeed.

“Even more remarkable are the sci-fi elements, UFOs linking the two lead characters, buildings taking off into space or crumbling to the ground, that serve as the needed link between the visual cruxes of the film: nonfiction material as grounding and fiction as expansively epic. In the end, the sci-fi moments bring the film to elevated heights, which rewards so wonderfully in the final shot. Truly, few films this decade have meant more to me than Still Life.” ~ Michael Lieberman

Muriels: Best Picture, 35th Place

Reprise (32 points/3 votes)

Reprise, the debut film from Norwegian Writer/Director Joachim Trier, tells the story of two young writers who submit their debut novels on the same day then travel significantly different paths to literary success. Trier himself described Reprise as ‘a scrapbook film,’ and that proves to be an accurate description as right from the opening frame the film uses still photographs, a narrator and an experimental but effective past, present, future present storytelling structure that never fully defines reality from fantasy or reminiscence. Trier’s narrative approach seems intent on challenging viewer’s perceptions. This is perhaps best seen in a particularly potent sequence where one of the young authors tries to recreate a perfect trip to Paris with his now estranged girlfriend that blends the two experiences together with images from both trips overlaid with similarly blurred conversations and rambling thoughts from inside the character’s heads.

“I was consistently impressed by the film’s ability to balance some very heavy subject matter (bi-polar disease, suicide) with the kind of knowing humor that would be necessary for people in such situations to move past these darker issues and continue on with their lives. Reprise utilizes a fairly large cast of young, mostly unprofessional actors who feel right at home in these parts and their comfort level is a big part of why this film works as well as it does. The film closes on an open ended note of optimism that feels neither corny nor contrived, leaving the viewer with glimpses of what the future may hold for these very relatable characters. Vibrant, inventive and resonant - Reprise was for me the rare film that was able to accurately capture a moment in time but remain relevant and infinitely re-watchable because of its honest portrayals and boundless creativity.” ~ Bryan Whitefield (click Bryan's name for his interview with director Joachim Trier)

Muriels: the Best Picture countdown begins!

Well Muriels fans, the day you’ve been waiting for has finally arrived- the day when the winner of this year’s Golden Muriel for Best Picture will be revealed to a salivating public. But before that happens, I’d like continue a Muriels tradition which I began last year, in which I recognize some of the voters’ favorite films that didn’t win the top prize. So all this afternoon and extending into the evening, I’ll be posting a piece on a film every half hour, complete with commentary written by one of our esteemed Muriels voters. Nearly all of this afternoon’s films was ranked as the year’s best by at least one voter, so there’s plenty of passion on display in this afternoon’s announcements, even if their overall placement wasn’t especially strong. The announcement of our Top 10 vote-getters will begin at 5 PM today, leading up to the announcement of our five top movies- our “nominees”, as it were, just after 8:00. So keep checking in here today. Who knows, there may be some surprises in store…

But first, Michael Lieberman, one of our resident experimental film lovers, offers some thoughts on one of the year’s most acclaimed films. This one was a favorite of several of our voters- myself included- but, alas, didn’t meet the eligibility requirements for Best Picture due to its running time. Nonetheless, it’s well worth seeking out once it hits DVD this spring. Take it away, Mike:

“Though ineligible for the Muriels, John Gianvito's Profit motive and the whispering wind is one of the most memorable political documents of the Bush years and the best documentary released in 2008. Cataloguing grave stones of those who stood up for the oppressed, as well as including the locations of horrendous, racist massacres, Profit motive is not at all didactic, though like the films of Straub and Huillet, the rigid formal tendencies become reassuring. If anything, the landscapes surrounding the graves and encompassing the former battle sites give peace and urgency to these dormant, rotting landmarks. The ending, wholly inspiring and motivating, gives the present day its much deserved place in history: the wind is at our backs.” ~ Michael Lieberman

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Best Lead Performance (Male), 2008

Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler (210 points/28 votes)

“Much of the “comeback” hype that has surrounded Mickey Rourke’s performance in The Wrestler has focused on his Rourke’s “wilderness years”- the period of lazy performances in long-forgotten dreck that followed his much-ballyhooed fall from grace. To hear the way these folks tell it, you’d think that Rourke had been holed up in an apartment playing with his dogs and drinking Mad Dog straight from the bottle ever since his abortive attempt at a boxing career came to an end. But look closer and you’ll see that, when it comes to Rourke’s resurrection as a performer of note, the writing’s been on the wall for some time now. The former leading man began taking supporting roles roughly a decade ago, first in films made by old friends (Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker), and later by young turks who fondly remembered his glory days. In the process, he’s become one of Hollywood’s most interesting character actors. It’s hard to imagine anyone else taking that one-scene role in The Pledge and making it sing quite the way Rourke did. Hell, Spun was damn near unwatchable but for Rourke’s presence. By the time he ran away with Sin City as Frank Miller’s gentle giant Marv, it was clear that Rourke was once again ready for prime time.

“More than just about any other movie made this year, The Wrestler is unimaginable with its leading man. The film is such a perfect combination of actor and role that it’s hard to believe anyone- much less Nicolas Cage, of all people- was considered for the part. And yet, to chalk the success of the performance (and by extension, the film) up to ideal casting doesn’t seem fair. Yes, on the surface Randy’s life bears a resemblance to Rourke’s lean years- an ex-golden boy reduced to doing paycheck work while continuing to plug away in a business that has seemingly lost its use for him. But while the audience’s goodwill for Rourke is informed in part by the knowledge of his career, the way he effortlessly carries the film on his shoulders is a testament to his talent.

“Oddly enough, to create a performance that feels so natural to the film, it required an almost awe-inspiring commitment on Rourke’s part to make it work. This commitment goes beyond his antics in the ring, aided as they undoubtedly were by stunt doubles and makeup effects. Both off the mat and on, Rourke is completely lacking in vanity- even when Randy has to look the part for the fans (bleached hair, tan, shaven armpits, etc.), Rourke isn’t afraid to get ugly. Randy is a man past his sell-by date, living in the past not merely as a way to stave off his own advancing years, but also because he lacks the skills and wherewithal to do anything but wrestle. In the ring, he can play the role of a star- albeit an aging has-been of a star- but outside he’s your basic, run-of-the-mill screwup, unable to even keep a job at a grocery store.

“It’s rare to see an actor as emotionally naked as Rourke is in The Wrestler. But while this comes through his big Oscar-y moments, it’s also unmistakable even in the small touches with which Rourke peppers his performance. Just look at the way his fingers tremble when he pulls the razor blade from his taped-up arms so he can cut himself during the match with Necrobutcher, the pained resignation he brings to the scene after he lets his daughter down yet again, or even the delicacy with which he approaches Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, also excellent), the stripper for whom he pines. Even the way he uneasily dons a pair of reading glasses to read a medicine bottle seems exactly right. With hundreds of touches like this, Rourke creates one of the year’s most unforgettable characters, and in the process gives a performance for the ages.” ~ Paul Clark

"In a year filled with breakthrough performances by actors such as Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight) and Colin Farrell (In Bruges), the best and most surprising of the year was Mickey Rourke's portrayal of Randy "The Ram" Robinson in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler. While his chunky body and its unnatural tan are pitch perfect nods to the cartoony world of professional wrestling, there's nothing over-the-top about his performance. In laying bare the soul of a battered warrior who knows his time is nearly up, Rourke has also dug deep and unleashed some personal demons in a manner so profound that it's both marvelous and often difficult to watch.

“Despite the oft-cited parallels between the lives of Rourke and The Ram, the genius of Rourke in this film is the result of more than just being perfect for the role. He brings just the right amount of sensitivity and emotional vulnerability to round out The Ram's crumbling macho persona. In his scenes with Marissa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood he drops glimpses of the charm that made The Ram so popular but at the same time we see that he's ultimately just a pathetic mess. We want to root for him but we know it's of little use even though he does his best to insist otherwise.

“It's not too long into the movie before you stop wondering what happened to Rourke's face since 9 1/2 Weeks and instead accept the craggy visage of The Ram as the result of a lifetime of physical and emotional suffering. As the man behind the face that had been through so much, Rourke took a largely unremarkable film upon his lumpy shoulders and elevated it to amongst the year's best. Whereas The Ram's career came to an end, this film suggests quite adamantly that Rourke still has more left in his tank beyond this: the finest performance of the year." ~ Benjamin Lim

Sean Penn, Milk (167/26)
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Synecdoche, New York (81/15)
Richard Jenkins, The Visitor (67/12)
Benicio Del Toro, Che (67/11)

Click here for complete results

Muriels Addendum #4- Also-rans (Performances- Part 2)

Not much more can be said about Sean Penn. “One of the greatest actors of this generation…” “Brilliant performance follows brilliant performance…” “An Academy darling with one Oscar under his belt and more sure to follow…” Rather than play that game and risk sounding redundant, I’d like to pinpoint a single moment in Milk that encapsulates Penn’s performance: Dan White, angry and psychotic, sneaks a gun into San Francisco City Hall, pulls Harvey Milk into an office, and shoots him, point blank. Milk drops to his knees in front of the window, and then he dies.

The scene teeters on a knife’s edge, easy to overplay (a temptation Penn has succumbed to in the past) but equally easy to underplay. Penn manages, with one simple word repeated over and over – “No, no, no…” – to find the perfect balance. It isn’t just that Milk doesn’t want to die, although that is certainly the case. That one word, brimming with ache and longing, is also a mournful requiem for the rights and liberties of the disenfranchised; Milk knows that more than just his body will perish when those bullets tear through him. Penn captures all of that within the span of seconds, a single word and a few startled jerks the only tools he chooses to pull out of his actor’s bag. It is one of the most heartbreaking moments of any film in 2008.

Sean Penn is brilliant in Milk, and it is one of the greatest – if not the greatest – performance of his career. Hyperbole? Perhaps. But can you still call it hyperbole if it’s all true? ~ Evan Derrick

“As an actress, Penelope Cruz could probably coast on her accent and exotic good looks, but in Vicky Cristina Barcelona she digs into her role and transforms a potential stereotype into something fuller and more nuanced. Introduced half way into the film, her Maria Elena at first appears to be the familiar hot-blooded Mediterranean, but for Cruz this is just a springboard.

“Over the next 45 minutes, she fleshes out the character. One minute she's vulnerable and the next she's dangerous. Tough and tender, crazy and enlightened; Cruz is all these things and she shifts seamlessly between them just as she bounces effortlessly from Spanish to English. In the process she reveals her character to be multi-layered, mutable and more than a little bit unhinged. In humanizing Maria Elena, Cruz makes her more sympathetic and she elevates her from simple plot complication to equal player. Maria Elena is volatile, but her emotions are grounded in reality and believable.

“A film as light on its feet as Vicky Cristina Barcelona requires a subtle gift for comedy and here Cruz excels. She moves smoothly from high drama to offhand humor and she has a knack for delivering funny lines as though her character doesn't know they're amusing. It's a touch that keeps the film purring along easily. It never appears to strain too hard and neither does the actress.

“Her performance is all the more interesting when compared to her purer, more innocent and restrained character in Elegy, also from 2008. In that film, she brought a fantasy ideal of womanhood to life but Marina Elena is almost the opposite. She's a dark reflection, embodying the dangers of unrestrained passion and Cruz pulls them both off with ease and skill.

“In a film that leans heavily on the charms of its actors, each member of the cast serves a purpose and they're all terrific, but it falls to Penelope to provide the spark of energy that ultimately brings Woody Allen's charming confection to life. Though many of her finest performances have gone unseen by large segments of the English speaking audience, here finally she gets to show a wider audience what she's capable of.

“If that's not enough for you, well, she's also smoking hot.” ~ Craig Kennedy

Michelle Williams has been terrific for the last few years; almost to the point where I have started to take her for granted in movies. This year at Cannes two movies premiered that showed that Williams still had a lot of surprises to offer as a both beautiful, neurotic actress in Synecdoche, New York and as a woman on the verge of a financial breakdown in Wendy and Lucy, which I think is her best work to date. Williams seems to have perfectly sized up the tonal qualities of both films with her performances, finding the difficult key that both directors are trying to achieve. In Wendy and Lucy this means finding a balance between neo-realism and melodrama without standing out from the naturalism that Reichardt is opting for by casting mostly unfamiliar actors in the supporting roles and filming on location. Williams feels like she belongs among these actors and this grungy location; with an appropriately unwashed appearance and an unflattering haircut that looks like she could have given herself while standing at a mirror in a rest stop bathroom. It is a performance that comes across very truthful and authentic and it helps ground a film that could otherwise seem overtly manipulative. It is also a work that builds into a crescendo with her muted nonchalance turning into devastating agony by the end. ~ Jason Overbeck

“Most of Doubt takes place on a rickety stage where some talented, not especially well-cast actors play a theatrically orchestrated game of "Did he or didn't he?" which the writer-director John Patrick Shanley seems to think will pass for dramatic ambiguity. In her one scene as Mrs. Miller, Viola Davis bursts in on this orderly house of cards like a typhoon that blows the shutters off the doors. Meryl Streep's Sister Witchy-Poo thinks that Mrs. Miller needs to be told that something awful may be going on with her son, and Mrs. Miller shuts her up, and lights up the movie, by doing her quiet best to make it plain that there's nothing she could learn about her son that would surprise her, and that she's learned to live with whatever that might be--just please, please, don't make things any harder by trying to fix them. Once she's gone, the movie can get back to twiddling its thumbs, but for a while there it had someone in its midst who knows that there's something outside the pasteboard Catholic school, something thats called life, and it's a hot mess.

“People who've stumbled out of Doubt wondering where this actress has been all their lives have been fobbed off with the explanation that Davis, who won a Tony in 2001 for her work in August Wilson's King Hedley II, is "primarily a stage actress," but that's no reason to let Hollywood and the movie press off the hook for the fact that Davis, forty-three, is just beginning to build a film career for herself. By all rights she should have been off and running since the fall of 2002, when she gave standout performances in very different supporting roles in three different big movies: Todd Haynes's Far from Heaven, Denzel Washington's Antwone Fisher, and Steven Soderbergh's Solaris. (Soderbergh, a man who knows a good thing when he sees it, first used her in Out of Sight and then brought her back for Traffic as well as Solaris; she also had an uncredited role in the Soderbergh-produced Syriana.) In Solaris, she had the kind of part that makes instant character stars: she was the level-headed, plainspoken member of a cast that otherwise consisted of a lovesick depressive hero, the figment of his romantic imagination, and Jermey Davies. But Solaris bombed at the box office and was critically underappreciated, and the studio flak's decided they had better things to do come awards season than take to the streets banging pots and pans to get Davis the consideration she'd earned. She got it this year, though the best news about her Oscar nomination is that it may translate into some attention coming her way when her next movie, State of Play, opens in April. If she can keep up the momentum, Viola Davis's talent may just end up not being wasted by the movies. ~ Phil Nugent

“It's weird that someone as talented and distinctive-looking as Samantha Morton has been, simultaneously, so invisible to me. Her most notable roles tend to be people just left of center: the mute girl of Sweet & Lowdown, the druggie wife of Jesus' Son, the precognitive woman-child of Minority Report, the opaque protagonist named Morvern Callar. Yet, each time I see her, while I'm wowed by her performance, once the film ends I completely forget who she is, as if mind-wiped by a Man in Black. Perusing her resumé, it seems like playing a "normal" is even worse -- she was Ian Curtis' wife in Control? Really? She was the most famous person in that film, and I don't remember seeing "Samantha Morton" at all.

“Those days have finally ended. In Synecdoche, New York, she plays Hazel, the box office ticket taker who, memorably, lives in a house that's perpetually on fire. It's a strange, confounding image, but apt -- fire is commonly a symbol for energy and life, and Hazel is the closest thing to a lifeforce in the movie, her healthy fleshiness in direct contrast to Caden Cotard's disease-ridden (or is it?) body and his wife's angularity. On paper, the character probably looks a bit flat. Our first impression of her -- a sexy girl-next-door who wants to seduce her employer away from his wife out of genuine kindness and desire -- reads like a nebbishy writer's fantasy, while the solipsistic focus on Caden's universe reduces all other characters to comets that pass by every decade or so. Hazel is no exception, arriving in Caden's orbit when she's most available to him. But Morton adds the necessary dimension -- there's a heap of desperation and loneliness behind the flirty, sex kitten exterior, and Morton's performance always feels lived in, even with all the time-jumping and less-than-stellar old age makeup. Morton guides us through Hazel's life in the brief moments we get to see of it, showing us the path of a woman who starts a little naive and little hopeful and ends up worn and wiser, acclimated to life's disappointments, but finding (I think) the meaning in fulfilling Caden's lifework that seems to elude him. It's a terrific performance, the realest thing in a movie that pisses on the idea of reality, and one that I won't soon forget.” ~ Kent M. Beeson

Much was made of Taiwanese director Hou's outsider take on a famous French children's tale, but Flight of the Red Balloon completely hangs on the spirited performance of Juliette Binoche, much of which flies in the face of the director's notoriously deliberate technique. She plays Suzanne, a performer in a puppet troupe, who juggles the chaos of her imperfect family life with her creative passion, mixing the compassion of motherhood with booming theatricality. Consider the fact that Binoche supposedly concocted all of her own dialogue -- I blame the overarching influence of one Judd Apatow -- and one can't help but be amazed by how her naturally mannered she appears. While Flight of the Red Balloon would certainly be accurately described as a slow-moving foreign film, it's also continually amazing how this textured performance has thus far been overlooked by film awards, as it's one of Binoche's best in a solid career. ~ Patrick Williamson

“Since I am an African-American (or “Obama-American,” as I like to call myself these days), I’m going to overlook that Paul Clark called on me specifically to write a few paragraphs about Robert Downey, Jr.’s performance in Tropic Thunder. After all, he’s my top Muriel pick for Best Supporting Performance, Male. Perhaps Paul thought it would finally make those fearful, timid folk, still too afraid to admit they liked the performance in public, finally come out in the open when they see that, yes, a black dude liked it too!

“While there are colleagues of mine who prefer Tom Cruise’s foul-mouthed, bald-headed studio head Les Grossman as the movie’s most enjoyably over-the-top performance, Downey remains Thunder’s most valuable, outrageous asset. He may be playing the intensely Method, bad-boy Aussie actor Kirk Lazurus, but he spends most of the movie in blackface, sounding like an old blues singer, as Sergeant Lincoln Osiris. It’s a role that’s as brazenly ridiculous as it is potentially offensive. Both Downey and Lazurus constantly walk that fine line between making a fool out of himself and making a fool out of us. (Thankfully, co-star/director Ben Stiller throws in Brandon T. Jackson, as closeted rap star-turned-thespian Alpa Chino, to remind him — and the audience — of his jackassery whenever he starts inching towards the latter.)

“What’s most shocking is that Downey landed an Oscar nomination for this role, since the thing he’s truly mocking is the same thing that gets actors Oscar nods year after year. Really, Downey’s performance slams the obsessive-compulsive egotism that takes over when actors forget that what they’re doing is simply playing dress-up. When they begin to view acting not as an art, a craft or even a job, but an obsession, getting a role just right to the point where they’re willing to forget who they are in the process. (Hell, if you need more proof of how an actor can literally lose his mind while trying to nail a performance, I got two words for you: Christian Bale.)
“In the end, Downey goes to bold, buffoonish extremes to expose how easily, and willingly, actors can lose themselves in order to vainly achieve that A-list, award-snatching acclaim. And while it appears that most of my people weren’t offended by the blackface, I’m pretty sure most of Hollywood’s acting elite wants to put their feet all up in his ass.” ~ Craig D. Lindsey

Friday, February 20, 2009

Best Lead Performance (Female), 2008

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married (170 points/24 votes)
“Kym, a possibly reformed drinker and drugger, is so busy defending herself to herself in front of others that she misses the beauty of everything we're admiring. We're in Kym's head from the start. We share her panic, her self-fulfilling fear of drowning in embarrassment and inferiority. Jenny Lumet's flawed, pat script has brought the great Jonathan Demme from the 1980s back to fictional films - Rachel Getting Married is undeniably a fantasy, but it's the fantasy of family life that Kym, and many others, feels is always just around the corner, or behind the cabinet – eluding her and them.

“With Kym, Anne Hathaway has been given the part that many self-conscious young starlets attempt every year to varying degrees of success. Hathaway, from The Princess Diaries to Havoc to Brokeback Mountain to The Devil Wears Prada, clearly wants to be a great actress, perhaps too clearly, but she isn't – not yet. Hathaway's roles strike me more as experiments than calculations, leaps into something she hopes approximates brilliance of effect, but she's always nice, slight, and too studied. I root for Hathaway, but she never quite pulls it off, and she has an unfortunate tendency to lose scenes to her co-stars. Kym, however, plays into Hathaway's qualities: the eagerness to please, the not-quite-channeled talent, the delicate, sometimes ghostly beauty, and it's the surprising parallel between role and star that gives Kym bite. Kym is a scriptwriter's device, and she has a lousy, needless, skeleton in the closet, but Hathaway's unexpected empathy sidesteps the stunt. The actress's palpable, human hunger drives the character's hungers to places of real need.

“Kym is potentially the kind of role that's too obviously ready-made for awards for my comfort, but that is the trick. Hathaway's performance is a performance within a performance, a show-boater - a ready-made Oscar winner - that's masking the sort of trembling frailty that few actresses, of any age, are willing to plumb – Kym is a real Joker. The performance of the film is the under-looked supporting work of Rosemarie DeWitt, but even her role, while not as showy as Hathaway's, at least commands conventional empathy; Hathaway is the veiled nucleus of Rachel Getting Married - she must hold a funny, messy, humane film - the best of 2008 - together while seemingly threatening to tear it apart, for that, she more than deserves Best Actress.” ~ Chuck Bowen

“Who would have thought the star of The Princess Diaries and Ella Enchanted had this performance in her? It's not unheard of for a child star who came to fame as an "America's sweetheart" type to tackle edgier material in making the transition to adult roles (Jodie Foster springs to mind), but it's still a little startling to see just how willing Hathaway is toss aside any concerns of likability in the role of Kym, sister of the bride in Rachel Getting Married. Intelligent yet neurotic, vulnerable yet self-absorbed to the exclusion of all other considerations, spewing sarcasm fueled by a cocktail of perceived hurts and resentments, she's the worst thing that could happen to a girl on her wedding day. When I say I had to watch her toast to the bride and groom with my fingers over my eyes, it's definitely meant as a compliment to the actress who brought one of the most vivid characters of 2008 to life.” ~ Scott Von Doviak

Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky (149/22)
Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy (93/14)
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road (82/14)
Meryl Streep, Doubt (60/10)

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