'Not Quite Hollywood'
'Not Quite Hollywood'
Credit: Magnolia Films

Runners-Up 2008: #1 - "Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!"

1. "Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!"

There is no such thing as a guilty pleasure.  Not in my world.  I just don't believe in that phrase, and in fact, it suggests to me an insecurity about what other people think of your opinion.  I'm not guilty about the films that give me pleasure.  I see so many films every year that when I like one, I like it.  Period.  Spending time worrying about whether it's a "guilty pleasure" or not seems silly.  I have a real affinity for exploitation trash, and at its best, I think the pleasures it offers are as substantive as the most slickly-produced Hollywood "prestige picture," and in many cases, more so.

When I sat down to watch Mark Hartley's absolutely amazing "Not Quite Hollywood," I was expecting a bunch of good clips from Australian exploitation films, and little else.  Instead, what I got was a reminder of why I was first drawn to the idea of filmmaking in the first place, the raw energy of it, the desire to muscle these ideas in my head up onto a movie screen using brute force.  More than anything I can remember seeing recently, "NQH" is absolutely drunk on sheer love of moviemaking.  You watch the stuntmen in this film and the insane things they did for various filmmakers, and it's a wonder anyone survived the '70s in Australia.  There's a reason "Mad Max" and "The Road Warrior" happened there... they are tied inexorably to the overall environment in which everyone was making movies.  Where else would you find those roads and those stuntmen and that sort of abandon?

It's fascinating to watch the evolution of the Australian film industry from the early early days to what it is now, and how many of the major A-list players got their start making this sort of no-budget madness.  More than that, though, there's a sensibility that evolved that is absolutely still present in the work of, say, Baz Luhrmann or George Miller, although it's obviously evolved somewhat.  I admire the fact that none of these people feel any guilt about their own work in the past.  No one interviewed here seems to feel like these are the movies they'd rather forget.  They seem to (rightfully) feel real pride over what they did, and they should.  Hartley's film should kick off a new appreciation of the variety and the wit of Ozploitation, and I hope people go digging to uncover as many of these movies for home video as they can.

One experience I had recently sums up just how much the people who made these films still look fondly on the work they did.  When I was coming back from London, I was flying business class, and I ended up in a middle section on this Air France jumbo jet, along with a couple.  They were all lovey-dovey, obviously more interested in each other than anything else going on, and I did my best to tune them out.  I had my laptop open, and I was writing a few reviews while I was watching a film.  When dinner service began, I took my headphones off, and the woman sitting next to me asked about the reviews.  I explained that I write about films, and we started talking about movies.  Just general stuff at first, but then she told me how she used to be in films, years ago.  She said she was married to John Denver for a while, and she'd ended up more involved in music than anything, but at the start of her career, she'd made several films in Australia.  She said she'd been in John Duigan's first film and did I know who he was?  Of course.  I told her that Australian film had been on my mind recently because of this great documentary I saw, and before I could tell her the title, she said, "Oh, I'm in that."

"You're in 'Not Quite Hollywood'?"

"Yes.  They interviewed me for it, and one of my movies is in there."

"Oh, that's awesome.  Which film?"

"Do you remember the movie called 'Fair Game'?" she asked.

And without meaning to, I loudly blurted, "OHMYGOD YOU WERE THE NAKED CHICK TIED TO THE FRONT OF THE CAR!"

Ignoring her fiancee's puzzled look, she exclaimed, "YEAH! THAT WAS ME!"

And seriously... not a moment of hesitation.  Cassandra Delaney (I had to figure it out later, since I didn't catch her name on the plane) was as proud of the film sitting on that airplane 20 years after it came out as she was of it when it was released, I'm sure, and she's right.  With the way video works now, these films are still brand-new to a lot of viewers, and guys like Mark Hartley are doing their part to give them a second life that they so richly deserve.  In terms of pure joy, this film ranks second only to "The Good The Bad And The Weird" for me in 2008, and I hope you all check the movie out when Magnolia Films rolls it out in the spring of 2009.

 

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'Martyrs'
'Martyrs'
Credit: The Weinstein Company

Runners-Up 2008: #2 - "Martyrs"

2. "Martyrs"

So far, if you've seen any of my work as a writer, it's been a horror film.  One of three.  And I've written volumes about why I think horror is not only a genre worth the same respect as any other, but it's actually one where you can say more or address subjects in a way that you might otherwise never dare.  Horror, in the right filmmaker's hands, is art that pushes you to a visceral response, so you feel something.  That rush.  That's what sends horror junkies back to the theaters, searching for the real red stuff.

"Martyrs" is a film that will most likely piss you off.  It is a film that pushes buttons, a film that is filled with imagery so extreme that you can barely look at it.  If you've been following French horror over the last few years, it's really become a force to be reckoned with.  There's a real scene happening over there now, something in the air, and people are making some really impresssive genre-benders.  It would be possilbe to describe a sequence of "Martyrs" as torture-based.  But I think there are people who will tune out when this film's real heart of darkness is laid bare, and they won't watch any further.  That's a shame, because what follows is not a tale designed to titillate, but instead to offer one of the most perverse displays of God's hand in man's affairs since "Breaking The Waves" rang some bells.  Pascal Laugier is a huge talent.  If you want to read an interview with him about this film and about his next movie, a bigger budget Hollywood remake of "Hellraiser," check out an interview regular contributor The Northlander just submitted at Ain't It Cool News.

I thought "Martyrs" started intense, but eventually became more sad, personal, heartbreaking.  The film opens with two young women breaking into a home, just as a family is finishing breakfast, and the two girls take the house over and then everything goes totallybatshthaywire, and lots of terrible terrible things happen, and that's like fifteen minutes of the movie or so.  And after an assault like that, you're just sort of rocked.  And then a lot more horrible things happen, and you have to work out what exactly is happening, and once you do, Laugier suddenly games you.  Hard.  And then the film finally gets just plain ugly.

And yet in that, there is light.  In the twists of this film, I think Laugier works towards something great, something that gives the film a purpose to the awful, merely by raising the question:  can there be any real purpose to suffering?  Can that ever be a good thing?  Laugier's answer is bold and original, and immediately after seeing it, I had to have an hour-long conversation about what I thought it meant with someone who read the film differently.  And as we talked about it, we realized we were really wrestling with these ideas.  It wasn't just a horror film designed to shock and then be done... this one lingers.

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Kat Dennings in 'Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist'
Kat Dennings in 'Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist'
Credit: Sony Pictures

Runners-Up 2008: #3 - "Nick And Norah's Infinite Playlist"

3. "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist"

I'm as shocked as you are.  This wasn't a film I caught when it originally opened, and I almost put it off completely.  I think part of what happened is that this got blasted by a lot of people who were checking it out just before Toronto as part of the festival line-up, and it got dismissed out of hand with such wrath that I let it color my opinion of the film before I laid my own eyes on it. One of these days, I'll learn not to let other people tell me whether or not a film is worthwhile.

The teen romance is a genre that typically turns out to be facile and surface and, frankly, dull as dirt, but every now and then, someone turns out a variation on the basic form that practically sings, and "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," despite that wretched title, is just such a film.  Part of that is because Michael Cera and Kat Dennings both manage to project such a likeable, approachable intelligence in their roles that you end up really rooting for these kids to get it right, and part of it is the low-key approach to storytelling.  Lorene Scafaria, working from a novel by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan, has managed to avoid cliche and give some real insight and humanity to all the kids in the film, not just one or two leads.  Peter Sollett, whose earlier film "Raising Victor Vargas" also managed to play very real, never turns this into a commercial for the soundtrack, instead choosing to pay attention to the small moments, the little interplay that makes you believe these two people are really starting to fall for each other.  It's simple work, and because there's nothing flashy about it, it's easy to undervalue what he does, but that would be a mistake.

And as much as I like the film as a whole, there's one performance here that I want to spotlight because I was so impressed by it, both in conception and in terms of how it's realized.  Ari Graynor's role as Caroline, Norah's best friend, could have easily been an embarassment.  There are few things worse than someone playing drunk and doing it badly.  But Graynor goes beyond just playing drunk to absolutely nail her role, the girl who always has to be in crisis, always has to be a mess, and who needs to know that her friend will be there to catch her and make her apologies and hold her hair when she's sick.  I knew people like her, people who didn't just drink, but who drank to excess every single time because they love to have an excuse when they lose control.  Hell, I was that person for a while in my early 20s.  And Graynor makes it funny and sad and pathetic and vulnerable and, ultimately, just plain human.  "Nick And Norah" is keenly observed, and although I'm not 20 and looking for love, I remember what it felt like, and every frame of this one rang true for me.

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Frank Langella in 'Frost/Nixon'
Frank Langella in 'Frost/Nixon'
Credit: Universal Pictures

Runners-Up 2008: #4 - "Frost/Nixon"

4. "Frost/Nixon"

I don't think Ron Howard's dramatization of the events that took place around the landmark televised interviews that aired in is 100% accurate, nor do I care if it is.  I think it's impeccably staged, though, and I think it's the best overall piece of filmcraft that Howard's ever put together.  I'am fascinated not only by Richard Nixon, but in the various attempts people have made to bring him to the screen.  I think there have been some great interpretations so far, like Altman's "Secret Honor" or Stone's "Nixon," but for my money, Frank Langella just claimed the title as "best film version of Nixon ever."  He captures the arrogance, the intelligence, and the profound, nearly-crushing sadness of the man, and he doesn't resort to an impression to do it.  Instead, he adopts the right mannerisms to suggest Nixon rather than trying to recreate him exactly.  It's impressive work, even if the rest of the film didn't connect.

But it does.  In fact, the rest of the film is probably the single best thing Ron Howard's ever directed.  Peter Morgan's a hell of a smart writer, and in adapting his own play to the bigscreen, he's done tremendous work at making it cinematic.  It helps that Howard hired a great cast, including Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Toby Jones, and Sam Rockwell, to fill out some of the supporting roles.  Ultimately, though, it all comes down to Michael Sheen's Frost sitting face-to-face with Langella's Nixon, and if those two don't engage... if there are no fireworks between them... then the film fails.  And thankfully, there are fireworks to spare.  They've got sensational chemistry, and I'm starting to really warm up to Sheen as an actor.  I think he's so subtle that I didn't get it at first, but the more I watch, the more I see a really grounded, intelligent performer who makes fascinating choices in each role.

I do think the film speaks to our own problems with the Presidency right now, but I don't believe that the only relevance it has is contemporary.  It's important to really understand someone like Nixon because he is, in many ways, the personification of American politics.  He did great things, but he was so personally motivated and so wrapped up in the game of it that he didn't seem to care if what he did was right or wrong.  And considering how much damage he did to the office of the President, something he so obviously revered and coveted, maybe he should have considered the long game a little more.  It's a shame that this is Nixon's legacy, the thing he feared the most, but at least as we re-examine it, we get something this good as a result.

 

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Last Minute Sundance Addition

From the press release just sent out:

"Park City, UT -- December 29, 2008-Sundance Institute announced today the addition of THE WINNING SEASON to the films screening at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival in the out-of-competition Premieres section. THE WINNING SEASON will have its world premiere on Monday, January 19 at 8:30 p.m. at the Library Center Theatre in Park City. The 25th Sundance Film Festival runs January 15-25, 2009 in Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden, and Sundance, Utah. A complete list of the films is available at Sundance Institute's website at www.sundance.org/festival.

Directed by Jim Strouse (Lonesome Jim, Grace is Gone), The Winning Season stars Sam Rockwell as an adult misfit brought on to coach his local girl's high school basketball team. Cast: Emma Roberts, Rob Corddry, Shareeka Epps and Emily Rios.

"We are thrilled to welcome back to the Festival Jim Strouse who once again displays his talent for storytelling in this superbly witty film," said Geoffrey Gilmore, Director, Sundance Film Festival. "The Winning Season is a completely gratifying cinematic drama marked by sharp dialogue and perfectly toned performances."

For the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, 118 feature-length films were selected including 91 world premieres, 16 North American premieres and 5 U.S. premieres representing 21 countries with 42 first-time filmmakers, including 28 in the non-competition categories. These films were selected from 3,661 feature film submissions composed of 1,905 U.S. and 1,756 international feature-length films."

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'Diva'
'Diva'

My DVD Shelf: Diva

Jean-Jacques Beineix was Luc Besson before Luc Besson was, and "Diva" is the reason.

When I visited the set of "Sherlock Holmes" in London recently, one of the things I was most excited by was the opportunity to meet cinematographer Philippe Rousselot.  And again... "Diva" is the reason.

It's strange how this film's reputation really hasn't sustained over the years.  When it came out, it was a sort of phenomenon, and the ripples it sent through the commercial world were unmissable.  People ripped this movie off.  A lot.  And once you see this, you'll see what I mean about Besson... I'd argue that his film "Leon" is a sort of direct reaction to what he must have loved when he first saw this one.  It's amazing that "Diva" was a debut feature, and what's even more amazing is how little impact Beineix has had since.  His only other film to really register internationally was "Betty Blue," and he's dropped off the map completely at this point.  I hadn't seen "Diva" in many years, so when The Miriam Collection put it out, it was a nice opportunity to revisit the picture and see if it still seems cool after all this time.

And the answer is absolutely.  This is not a particularly deep picture.  Beineix is too busy just getting drunk on the potential of filmmaking itself to bother saying much.  That's okay, though, because the film offers up visual and aural pleasures at every turn.  Working (loosely) from a novel by Daniel Odier, Beineix tells the story of Jules (Frederic Andrei), a bike messenger in Paris who is absolutely infatuated with an American opera singer named Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelminia Fernandez).  She's notorious because she absolutely refuses to allow any recordings to be made of her live performances.  She believes that an audience has to be there, in person, to truly understand what it is that she does, and that any recording would only diminish her work.  Jules doesn't care.  He's so in love with her voice that he follows her on tour from performance to performance and now, finally, he's taken the ultimate step of bootlegging one of her concerts.  That's where the film opens, and the tape he makes leads him down a rabbit hole into a very, very strange adventure.  Seems there are some unscrupulous businessmen from Tokyo who want his bootleg so they can blackmail Cynthia into a recording contract, promising to release the bootleg if she says no.  But another tape ends up in the mix, too, when a woman being chased by some goons drops a tape into the storage compartment on Jules's scooter.  That tape features evidence that could put away a corrupt police commissioner who traffics in white slavery.  Jules ends up on the run, assisted by a crazy cute little Vietnamese girl named Alba (the dangerous 14-year-old Thuy An Luu) and her mentor/boyfriend, a philosopher/fixer named Gorodish (Richard Bohringer), and the entire thing unfolds with this wild sense of style that absolutely must have had an impact on guys like Michael Mann and... well... pretty much everyone who directed anything for MTV in the '80s.  The loopy visuals, the soaring opera, the oh-so-French attitude... it's a heady cocktail, and absolutely holds up as a New New Wave classic.

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Hulu's Got Milk!

I'm crushin' on Hulu so bad these days.  I love it as a way of watching a full series of TV episodes, but more and more right now, they're putting full films up, and their selection so far has been really strong.

I quite liked Van Sant's "Milk" this year.  It may not have made my final list, but it's a really rewarding film overall.  One of the reasons it didn't quite knock me on my ass is because of how much I already love "The Times Of Harvey Milk," a documentary that I feel represents the best of what documentaries are capable of in general.

And now, thanks to Hulu, you can see if you agree with me or not.

 

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The Morning Read (12.29.08)

Oh, it's slooooooooooooooow out there right now.

Makes sense, of course.  The year's over for most people, and everyone n town's looking forward to Sundance.  As a result, there's not a lot of new material out there aside from year end lists, which you can find everywhere.

Over at Ain't It Cool, Vern wrote what may be his very first script review ever, and it makes perfect sense.  Stallone's "The Expendables" is gearing up to shoot soon, and Vern's got a ton of details about what we might expect from it when it's released.

"This is a movie where a team of 5 can take on an army of 100, where armed men still sometimes engage in martial arts and fisticuffs, where many, many things blow up, where occasionally a character might have something sarcastic to say during combat. In other words, a good old fashioned action movie. An endangered species."

Quint's been busting ass, as normal, with his AMAD column.  He recently announced that the column's coming to an end soon, which is a bummer, but in the meantime, he did a Daryl Duke double-feature of "The Silent Partner" and "Payday."  Glad to see he liked one, sorry to see he didn't like the other.  I love both those underseen little films.

One of my favorite sites is The Art Of The Title, which is all about opening and closing title sequences in movies.  Their latest entry is about "Edward Scissorhands," and it's stunning.

"There's a sophisticated fairy tale for you."

Devin Faraci on CHUD?  Totally insane.  Nice guy, but he's obviously cracked.  He just embarked on a quest to review every episode of "Star Trek: The Original Series" and all seven films with the original cast, all before the new JJ Abrams take on the property hits theaters in May.  That's a crazy amount of writing on top of all his other obligations, but Devin's inner Trekkie seems to be ready for the challenge.

His intro is up already, as is his first review.  If you click either of those links, just know one thing:  you are a nerd.  I clicked both.

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'Hammer'
'Hammer'
Credit: Independent Film Circuit

My DVD Shelf: The Hammer

Director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld seems to be conspicuously absent fom all the promotional materials for "The Hammer," including the DVD cover.  Adam Carolla, star of LA's morning drivetime show on 97.1 FM and host of "The Man Show" and MTV's "Loveline", is the one who is front and center, and if you listen to Adam talk about the film on his show, it sounds like a real labor of love on his part, and something that is pretty much all "his."

I guess I feel bad for Herman-Wurmfeld, who also directed "Kissing Jessica Stein" and some very funny "Stella" episodes.  I'm not sure if "The Facts Of Life Reunion" is the low point of his resume or the best thing ever, but whatever the case, he deserves some credit for making "The Hammer" work.  This is one of those "Rocky"-esque underdog stories that we've seen fifty million times at this point.  This variation is about a forty year old construction worker who gets a shot at the Olympic trials for the U.S. boxing team, the exact dream he gave up chasing when he was younger.

The film works for many of the same reasons the first "Rocky" worked, although definitely not to the same degree.  There's a genuine, grimy, low-rent feel to things, so Jerry Ferro (Carolla) and his desperation ring true.  "Rocky" worked because he really did seem like a loser for the first half of that film, and Jerry Ferro's the same way.  Carolla has an easy charisma that carries the film.  He's unflappable.  The love story is perfunctory, and there's no real doubt how things are going to wrap up, but it works because of Carolla's charm.  He obviously believed in the film, paying money out of his own pocket to four-wall it for theatrical release, but in the end, a film like this has its best shot at connecting with people on home video, and I suspect it will have a fairly long life as people take a chance on it and word of mouth spreads.

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'Speed Racer'
'Speed Racer'
Credit: Warner Bros.

Runners-Up 2008: #5 (Tie) - "U2-3D" and "Speed Racer"

#5. (TIE)  "U2-3D" and "Speed Racer"

Yeah, that's right.  I said it.

These two films are tied for most times I saw anything in the theater all year long.  I would have seen U2-3D ten more times if I could have.  It's just incredible on the biggest screen you can find showing it.  It is the single most effective use of 3D that I've ever seen.  Watching the film in a great digital house is NOT like being in the best seat in the house.  No... instead, watching the film is like being in a seat that no one could ever sit in, a seat that took you personally swooping in over the crowd, up close on the stage, overhead, in the front row... there is one moment in the middle of the film where Bono plays right to the camera, close up, and what makes it remarkable is that it's the only time he really plays right into it.  It's so intimate in the middle of this spectacle that it's a little shocking.

I remember seeing U2 in Atlanta for the Unforgettable Fire tour.  And at that point, they weren't a mammoth commercial force.  They were still gathering steam.  And the show at the Omni was packed, but it felt small, intimate.  Like they were playing for you.  That, of course, is what makes anyone's favorite band their favorite band... that personal connection where you feel like that is the music you were listening to everything else to get to.  I've seen them over and over since then, all the way through the last big swing through the States.  But in all that time, I've never seen a U2 show like the presentation of this particular set of concerts in Buenos Aires.  Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington did spectacular work in shooting and then building these shows into one powerful visual experience.  I don't think I'll be owning a suitable home video version of this for many, many years, so I guess I'm left hoping it will play during slow seasons at digital IMAX houses near me.

And I wouldn't complain if the same thing happened to "Speed Racer".  The IMAX screenings I went to of this film are my favorite non-festival theatrical experiences this year.  "Speed Racer" doesn't make my top ten because of some screenplay issues, but they could have pretty easily been solved with a quick 20 minute trim after Speed's first visit to Royalton's offices.  Just have Speed say no there.  Back to the racing.  Movie solved.  Otherwise, I think this is the best live-action kid's film since "Babe: Pig In The City."  It has its heart in the right place in terms of family, and the Racer family emerge as the most improbably well-realized movie family of the year.

And did I mention the racing?  Cause, um, holy shit.  The racing.  Say what you will about the crazy cartoon reality of the film (I think it's entrancing and pop-art beautiful), but the pace of the action stuff is impeccable.  If you can't sense a real control of rhythm and tension in the way the races of "Speed Racer" are constructed, then I'm not sure we speak the same language of "action filmmaking."  The Wachowskis redeemed themselves completely as far as I'm concerned, after the flopsweat of the "Matrix" sequels.  And even if "Speed Racer" didn't make a dime, it exists, and the BluRay version's pretty sweet.

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