So, it’s been an interesting first half of the moviegoing year. There’s been a decent number of fantastic movies, most of them surprises or lesser-known movies (which, actually, is a serious problem no matter how many cinephiles like championing shit you’ve never heard of). The last eight months were also the best shot you’ll have this year of seeing a wicked-awesome flick, but more on that in this very insightful hyperlink. Right now…
THE TOP 10 MOVIES GOING INTO THE (USUALLY) ROBUST FALL SEASON
1. “Inglourious Basterds” (Quentin Tarantino)
A bunch of people are gonna’ see “Inglourious Basterds,” and a surefire contingent of them are going to complain that it’s “too talky.”
You would think this sort of shit would have ended after people said the same thing about “Death Proof.” But it hasn’t. And it won’t. Not until Quentin Tarantino stops hopscotching around genres with vastly different audiences like Stanley Kubrick on Ritalin. It’s pretty interesting how this works, actually. Everyone has seen “Pulp Fiction,” and 90 percent of the people who saw that movie liked it. But then Tarantino started deconstructing specific genres (the kung fu film ["Kill Bill"], the slasher flick ["Death Proof"], the caper movie ["Jackie Brown"]), and most of those genres have a dedicated audience, and they’re, like, murderously protective of those genres even when most of the crap they watch tends to be just that… crap.
Then Tarantino comes along and gets his characters talking. And they just sort of talk… and talk… and talk. Meanwhile, the genre fanatics are waiting for genre shit to happen. If it’s a slasher flick, they want heads to roll. A kung fu flick? Crazy-ass swordfights. A war film like “Inglourious Basterds?” Each act should climax with a battle sequence.
Tarantino, however, smartly builds the story as a slow burn to a wonderfully indulgent eruption involving the destruction of the Nazi high command. It couldn’t be more satisfying.
2. “Up” (Pete Docter, Bob Peterson)
“Up” almost made me cry like a baby, which is a feat because I make it my purpose not to cry in movie theaters. At the end of the day, it has everything you could want in a movie, and this is something Pixar has discovered how to do quite well — make broad masterpieces, basically. It’s a shame these things are animated because if they’re weren’t, this thing would win Best Picture at the Oscars. “Up” has action sequences that seemed like they’re wonderfully ripped from Spielberg’s “Raiders” playbook. The main character, Carl Fredricksen, voiced by Ed Asner, carries more warm, romantic sadness than any character I’ve ever seen. An 8-minute, silent montage that traverses his decades-long relationship with his dead wife nearly killed me. Then it turns into this hilarious buddy action comedy.
If “Inglourious Basterds” wasn’t so much damn fun, “Up” would take the cake on this list. I can’t imagine anyone sitting down to watch this thing and walking away less than uplifted.
3. “Sin Nombre” (Cary Fukunaga)
Wash away all the gorgeous cinematography, all the Spanish subtitles, the hyper-authentic Mexican gangsters and its obvious concern with present immigration issues. At its core, “Sin Nombre” is a genre movie, a chase thriller. In fact, if you broke it down to its parts, you could reassemble it as a standard, American chase flick except it would probably take place in a car rather than on a train.
Because, honestly, this movie is for anyone who likes taut, edge-of-your-seat, sick shit.
There ain’t no recognizable actors in this. A redemptive teenage boy tries to leave the venerable MS-13 gang in Mexico by way of killing two of his partners on top of a train. A young Central American girl is also on that train, and she’s been riding it with family and friends for several hundred miles. Obviously, they’re both headed north for the United States. They spend the rest of the movie fleeing MS-13 members who wait for them at every train stop. Will the young couple hook up? Will they get to the States or will the gang catch them and hack them with huge fucking machetes until they die?
Pretty simple story. And it’s awesome.
4. “Summer Hours” (Olivier Assayas)
When filmmakers break every basic filmic storytelling rule in the book, the results tend to be, at best, interesting or just pretty good. “Summer Hours” is a very notable exception because this movie is probably a masterpiece and easily Assayas’ best. There’s very little conflict save for the internal debates of one character, and it’s very much an ensemble drama. A French family discusses the disintegration of their mother’s estate. Their mother is the niece of a long-dead, classic, Parisian painter, and the home is filled with pieces he painted or was given by other notable, French artists. Therefore, the estate is valuable monetarily and to the French government, which wants to preserve its cultural heritage.
But the estate is also important to family members who grew up there. A less honest movie would devise different conflicts between family members. They’d fight over the pieces and the past. “Summer Hours” doesn’t do that. Each character must come to terms with the fact that time passes, eras and lives come to an end, people must move on. At the end of the movie, the pieces of art beautifully represent why we value stuff in the first place: They are landmarks to our best and worst memories, and like the people who keep them, they have their own stories. “Summer Hours” is a gorgeously photographed, subtly acted masterpiece.
5. “Goodbye Solo” (Ramin Bahrani)
If we’re handing out Oscars now (which is a terrible phrase because they’re never handing out Oscars when people say that), save one for Souleymane Sy Savane, the West African star of “Goodbye Solo.” He’s the only guy you’re going to see on the silver screen this year who makes you feel like you’re a dark, useless and terrible hate tank of a person by comparison, but you can’t help but adore him anyway. Savane plays Solo, an immigrant cab driver in Winston-Salem, N.C., who tries to help an elderly man who gets in his cab one night, hands him a wad of cash and tells him in several weeks he’s going to ask him to drive him one way to Blowing Rock where it is assumed the only thing he could possibly hope to do is commit suicide.
For the whole movie, Solo has a pure agenda to save the old man, William, played wonderfully by Red West. He befriends him and charms/elbows his way into William’s life, looking for a way in. As Solo, nearly everything Savane says makes you smile. He’s an extraordinary guy who seems charming and goofy when he hits on women in a way that makes other guys seem like scuzzy pricks. Everyone likes him, and he has no ulterior motives. He is a purely nice person, and you rarely see characters like that in movies — at least not honest ones.
“Goodbye Solo” must be one of the warmest movies ever made where one of the main characters, quite literally, has a death wish.
6. “District 9″ (Neill Blomkamp)
A.O. Scott nailed this movie on the head in his New York Times review a few weeks back. The vast majority of alien movies — if not all of them — are centrally about the same question: If aliens came to Earth, what would they do to us?
“District 9″ asks the inverse question: What the fuck would we do to them?
Pretty crappy stuff, apparently.
According to Blomkamp, we’d stuff them into festering camps where they’d wallow in poverty. Then we’d have to move them into the country after the city folk tired of their presence. “District 9″ also has one of the best protagonists I’ve ever seen in an action movie: Wikus Van De Merwe portrayed, quite possibly, in an Oscar-nom-worthy performance by Sharlto Copley. Van De Merwe is an insufferable corporate bureaucrat in charge of moving the aliens to their new camp in exurban Johannesburg. Over the course of the movie, he becomes a champion for aliens once his DNA accidentally mixes with theirs. His transformation from a sniveling, disengaged wimp into a pro-alien warrior is probably one of the the most bad-ass and satisfying things you’ll see this year. A great, great action movie with real heart, and when the movie ended I practically sucker-punched the Asian girl sitting next to me in a moment of unrestrained anticipation of the sequel.
7. “Observe and Report” (Jody Hill)
An compressed excerpt from my review: It’s hard to deny the significance of what filmmaker Jody Hill is building, starting with “The Foot Fist Way” in 2006 to the HBO television series “Eastbound & Down” this year and “Observe and Report” now. “Observe and Report” is shot across the bow of every comedic filmmaker working right now, including Judd Apatow, one of the men responsible for Hill’s breakout success. (Apatow, Will Ferrell and Adam McKay were among the first somebodys to see “Foot Fist Way” and champion the film after its Sundance debut in 2006.)
Hill is showing the rest of them were comedy can go and what it’s ignored. He cited “Taxi Driver” as an influence. Now, how many studio comedies have you watched where a director cited a classic, urban tragedy as source material? I can’t exactly think of any. I can’t even name similar movies. Maybe “Bad Santa,” but that only tricks you into thinking it’s purely dyspeptic. It’s actually a sweet movie. I’d also compare “Observe and Report” to “Punch-Drunk Love” — if “Punch-Drunk Love” ended with Adam Sandler’s character, Barry Egan, losing the girl and murdering a neighbor in a fit of rage.
8. “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” (Sacha Gervasi)
Souleymane Sy Savane may deserve an Oscar nomination for being one of the sweetest men in the history of human beings, but if Steve “Lips” Kudlow was a fictional character rather than the actual person and lead singer of the Canadian metal band “Anvil,” he’d give Savane a run for his money. Because at the end of the day, as most human beings kiss their dreams goodbye somewhere around their late 20s/early 30s, Kudlow and best friend and Anvil drummer Robb Reiner kept going, job security be damned. This documentary finds them 20 or 30 years later after their 15 minutes of fame in the early ’80s opening for bands like Bon Jovi and Whitesnake at Japanese rock festivals. “Anvil” is about metal music, but it’s also about big, big things like friendship, loyalty… even self-delusion maybe.
You might recognize Gervasi as the writer of the Spielbergian crowd-pleaser “The Terminal.” As it turns out, Gervasi was a British fan of “Anvil’s” and, for some time, a roadie. He decided to do the documentary after discovering the band was still going 20 years after he left them. So he wrote and directed this cinematic love letter, and it’s probably the most inspiring documentary I’ve seen. Pouya Dianat cried a little when he saw it too.
9. “(500) Days of Summer” (Marc Davis)
A compressed excerpt of my review: I had hoped “(500) Days of Summer” would be insufferable due to the fact it seemed made for the same annoying audience that deeply embraced “Garden State.” I dismissed “Garden State” on first viewing as an annoying piece of style over substance (even if Natalie Portman’s performance was so cute it basically tractor-beamed the crap out of every male who saw it). After watching it three or four times, however, I began to like it. But it’s really just an impressive aberration that should be credited only to Portman and Zach Braff’s chancy, controlled direction. The movie opened in mid-July (as did “(500) Days”). Fox Searchlight also distributed it.
This cannot be coincidental. These guys believe they have another “Garden State” in “(500) Days,” and they’re hoping to recreate that success. (ED NOTE: Unfortunately, it’s now clear they did not recreate that success possibly due to Natalie Portman’s absence from the film.)
But what they’ve got is better and potentially more popular. (ED NOTE: I couldn’t have been more wrong.) Marc Webb, a recovering music video director who helmed the movie, neatly slathers on his own visual style in a way that serves character and story and works to enhance the movie in ways “Garden State” never or rarely did. It isn’t showy for the sake of it. It’s an above-average romantic comedy that’s occasionally insightful, very funny and a joy to watch.
10. “That Evening Sun” (Scott Teems)
Curmudgeon movies tend to bore me, but I defy anyone to call “That Evening Sun” boring. It’s like if the Coen Brothers did their own “Grumpy Old Men” movie except they made it about one grumpy old man played by the incomparable Hal Holbrook. His character, Abner Meecham, plays an old man whose son places him in a retirement home. Upset with the arrangement, Abner up and leaves one day only to find his house has been sold to a younger father from a family — the Choats — he despises, so he sets up in the guest house a few yards away and refuses to leave. He then ignites a deadly serious battle of wits between he and the man (named Alonzo Choat played by a very grungy Ray McKinnon).
“That Evening Sun” was also adapted and directed by Scott Teems, an Atlanta boy. Lilburn more specifically. The movie premiered to rave reviews at SXSW, but it had its homecoming at the Atlanta Film Festival. It’s a movie with a wide tonal range… dramatic and funny… tragic and sad. It goes to a lot of different places, but it’s a rock-solid movie, gorgeously shot and acted. “That Evening Sun” hasn’t secured distribution yet, but the filmmakers have said on the movie’s Facebook page that that announcement is coming soon. If you want to see one of Holbrook’s finest performances, don’t miss “That Evening Sun.” It’s also probably the best movie I’ve seen directed by someone from this area too.