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Category: December 2009

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With best-of-decade lists, critics reveal tastes, preferences, a touch of amnesia

December 30, 2009 |  2:29 pm

We've come to that point on the calendar when everyone and their nephew assembles best-of-year lists -- and, more ambitiously/pretentiously this year, best-of-decade lists.

Most rankings, usually arrived at after weeks of debate and argument, aim to shorthand the period just passed, all for people who don't have the time or inclination to sift through hundreds of movies (or movie descriptions). But in the true spirit of we-read-them-so-you-don't-have-to, we decided to do one better: compile and study the best of the best-of-the-decade lists. (We're helpful that way.)

There_will_be_blood_ver4 What we uncovered was telling. Once you get beyond the lists' more expected elements -- "There Will Be Blood" on about one-third of them, etc. -- a number of interesting patterns reveal themselves. Of the approximately dozen lists we surveyed (from entities as varied as the New York Post, At the Movies, the Onion and the New Yorker), nearly 60% of the slots went to movies released in the second half of the decade. It's a period when studios downgraded the number -- and, arguably, the overall quality -- of movies they released.

Were executives just that much better at cherry-picking the good ones these last five years? Or were critics a little more likely to forget the period when a "face book" was another word you vaguely knew from college? (For the Los Angeles Times' critics own views on the decade -- in essay form -- check out Kenneth Turan's take on the filmmakers who proved the exception to this decade's mediocre rule, and Betsy Sharkey's piece about the refraction of race through the lens of 2000's cinema.)

An amnesiac force did seem to help some films, as a few movies that drew the back of some critics' hands when they were released got the velvet glove this time around. Two films in particular -- the summer of 2001 man-or-machine meditation "A.I" (with a stirring shot of the World Trade Center hundreds of years into the future) and the little-seen Spike Lee post-9/11 movie "25th Hour" (2002) -- ended up on or at the top of many lists.

Both are worthy choices (the former holds up particularly well as an exploration of a moment when robots supplant humans, chillingly futuristic without the taint of implausibility). But it's curious how much more beloved these films seem to be in retrospect, and one can only wonder if the specter of 9/11 is at much a factor in their selection as is anything that appeared on the screen.

Tenenbaums There were some other eyebrow-raisers -- At the Movies' A.O. Scott including "Where the Wild Things Are" on his top five (you can watch the "At the Movies" choices in the video above) and the New York Post's Lou Lumenick naming "The Royal Tenenbaums" as his best movie of the decade.  And it was notable that among the critics' dozen or choices for the No. 1 movie of the past 10  years, only two ("Blood" and the third "Lord of the Rings") were even nominated by the academy for best picture. (Critics instead went with the media darlings and the underappreciated foreign entries -- think "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Cache" -- making one wonder how the Oscars would look if the academy ever decided to do what they'll never do and form a critics branch.)

But perhaps the most curious wrinkle is that the movies that were the most widely liked didn't seem to be the ones that were the best-liked. Metacritic found that its two highest scores this decade went to the Guillermo del Toro coming-of-age fantasy "Pan's Labyrinth" and the Romanian abortion drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days." Yet each movie made only one of the dozen lists we reviewed. Sometimes it's better to be loved by a few than praised by many.

As for the most salient question -- which critic had the best best-of-the-decade list -- we spent hours poring over this question (well, an hour) and the honor has to go to the Times of London, which showed an irresistibly British, damn-the-torpedoes sensibility when it audaciously (if self-consciously) included two Jason Bourne movies, "Casino Royale" and that bastion of cinematic excellence, the South Park caper "Team America: World Police" in its final 10. Contrarian trend-setters or people simply afflicted with a bout of amnesia? The argument continues.

-- Steven Zeitchik

Video: "At the Movies"/Buena Vista Television

Martin Scorsese and Michael Govan to share stage and talk film future at LACMA

December 29, 2009 |  1:47 pm


This past summer, filmmaker Martin Scorsese swooped in at the eleventh hour to help save the weekend film program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which was in jeopardy of being shuttered.

While local film aficionados had mobilized to fight the possible closure, it was Scorsese's open letter to LACMA, published in The Times in August, that put a spotlight on the issue.

Now, in the spirit of detente, Scorsese will appear at the museum next month, according to our sister blog Culture Monster. On Jan. 20 at 7:30 p.m. in LACMA's Bing Theater, the director will join museum director Michael Govan in a public conversation about the role of film at museums. 

The event, which will cost $10 for LACMA members and $12 for the general public, "will touch on the importance of film preservation and the key role that film should play in a museum or cultural institution," the museum said in a statement.

Scorsese's letter prompted the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. to donate $75,000 to save the film program, and Time Warner Cable and Ovation TV donated an additional $75,000 that will allow the program to run until the end of June (the HFPA, which hosts the Golden Globes, will be giving Scorsese its lifetime achievement award on Jan. 17).

But the future of the LACMA film program remains to be seen. Govan, who is seeking to increase the program's annual budget by about $150,000 and raise a $5-million endowment, met with Scorsese at the director's home this summer to discuss how the filmmaker could help find potential donors in Hollywood.

No word yet on whether or not Scorsese himself will reach for his hip and contribute to the efforts, though he's long been an advocate for film preservation. In 1990, he and nine other filmmakers, including Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg, joined forces to form The Film Foundation, which helps to preserve and restore archives of old films.

-- Amy Kaufman

Photo: Martin Scorsese. Credit Lionel Cironneau/Associated Press 

Will Northwest Flight 253 hero take flight in Hollywood?

December 29, 2009 | 10:44 am


Last week the world was introduced to Jasper Schuringa, the 32-year-old Dutchman who helped stop a suspected terrorist from igniting an explosive device on Northwest Airlines Flight 253. He made headlines after helping the cabin crew subdue 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallah, who allegedly tried (and failed) to detonate a plastic bomb as the plane prepared to land in Detroit. Other passengers then applauded Schuringa as he walked back to his seat, according to a CNN report.

But before last week, the formerly unknown hero had spent the last few years seeking a different kind of fame: as a filmmaker.

We wanted to find out more about Schuringa's film credits and wondered whether last week's incident might raise his profile in Hollywood. Schuringa isn't a registered member of the Director's Guild of America, but we did find him on IMDB, where he is listed as a crew member on two small films.

Most recently, he served as an assistant director on "Teed Off Too," a 2006 National Lampoon film that captures hidden-camera pranks pulled on unsuspecting golfers. In 2004, he was the first assistant director on "The Significance of Seventeen," a film about a man trying to figure out the importance of numbers as they relate to a moment when he is fated to meet a woman.

Although it remains to be seen whether Schuringa's act of heroism will do anything for his career behind the camera, he certainly seems to be getting the hang of playing hardball with the media.

In the meantime, here's Schuringa being interviewed on CNN:

-- Amy Kaufman

Photo: Northwest Airlines Flight 253. Credit: J.P. Karas / Associated Press

Robert Duvall will tilt windmills with Terry Gilliam

December 23, 2009 |  4:35 pm

Robert Duvall The indestructible Robert Duvall went to the end of the world this year with “The Road” and also contributed a memorable supporting role in “Crazy Heart” (a film he also produced). What’s on deck for the six-time Oscar nominee? The actor filled us in “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” the on-again off-again Terry Gilliam film that now will feature Duvall in the title role. 

“I’m supposed to work with Terry Gilliam," he said. "He wants me to play Don Quixote in his next movie. The movie was derailed, what, about eight years ago, but now it’s a different film. I don’t know why he approached me. He said he saw me play a Cuban barber in [the 1993 movie “Wrestling Ernest Hemingway”] with Richard Harris and he remembered it and thought I would be good in the lead part of this movie. It’s a different tack; it’s about a small guy from a little village, he’s a shoemaker, and they take him to Spain to play Don Quixote while they’re shooting a television commercial. It’s interesting. To get money in these times to do anything is extremely difficult.”

Few film projects have suffered financial woes as infamously as Gilliam's satire of the Cervantes classic. The production got underway in 2000, but after a series of mishaps and setbacks, it imploded. The 2002 documentary "Lost in La Mancha" painfully recorded that implosion (and, as it happens, featured a narration by "Crazy Heart" star Jeff Bridges). Gilliam returned to the venture early this year by rewriting the script.

Duvall said that none of the troubled history matters now and that he is enthused to work with a filmmaker who could create movies as singular as "Brazil," "Twelve Monkeys" and "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus."  

"He’s unique in his talent. Jeff has worked with him and very successfully. They did ‘The Fisher King,’ and it was the best of Gilliam’s movies, I thought. So I’m excited. It’s going to happen, but they haven’t got the other guy yet, the Sancho Panza, who they want to be an Anglo. Colin Farrell turned them down. I don’t know why. He took ‘Crazy Heart’ and turned this one down? I don’t get that."

 -- Geoff Boucher

Photo: Robert Duvall at the 59th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in 2007. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

Sharkey on Film: James Franco and Sundance fever

December 23, 2009 |  4:24 pm


For all you Franco-philes out there...

Caught James Franco hosting "Saturday Night Live" over the weekend and it put me in a Sundance frame of mind. Why, you ask? Simple. His movie "Howl" hits on the first day of the film festival, Jan. 21. Franco stars as famed cultural provocateur Allen Ginsberg, whose poem "Howl" was at the center of an obscenity trial years ago.

"Howl's" writer-directors, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, have long made hot topics and history their mainline as the creative team on 1995's "The Celluloid Closet," about cinema's portrayal of gays, and as the producers of "Sex in '69," a documentary about the sexual revolution, among others.

Now back to "Howl" and the subject of obscenity. Just wondering what the film will be rated...

But until then, here's Franco's monologue from "SNL."

  -- Betsy Sharkey

Photo of James Franco from the trailer for "Pineapple Express" from Columbia Pictures

Is 'I see you' 2009's 'I drink your milkshake'?

December 23, 2009 |  4:16 pm

Each year, a select few movie lines vie for entry into the pantheon of immortal film dialogue -- the kind of random but inescapable catchphrases you hear commentators shouting out on “Sports Center” or coworkers mimicking at the office Christmas party. “Call it, friend-o.” “Go ahead, make my day.” “Show me the money!” Daniel Day-Lewis’ gasket-busting, dairy-imbibing taunt from 2007’s “There Will Be Blood." 

Our nomination for this year: “I see you." The phrase can be heard throughout “Avatar,” uttered time and again by the Na’vi (the film's nature-loving, spiritually attuned, 11-foot-tall, Smurf-hued panther people). 

To put “I see you” in its proper context, a primer on its usage is in order.

In “Avatar's" self-contained universe, you might urgently whisper “I see you” to, say, some giant predatory animal whose guts you have just splayed across the jungle floor. Or to a frisky alien princess (Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri character) with whom you would like to “mate.”

Vague and deliberately open-ended, “I see you” is meant to convey the Na’vis’ oneness with nature and deep connection with the spiritual realm. But that won’t stop the line from winding up on T-shirts for sale at a mall near you any minute.

It's not the only contender for aphorism of the year. Another dark horse entry comes courtesy of Lars von Trier’s art house horror flick “Antichrist.”

During a surreal scene in which Willem Dafoe’s anguished character is shown stumbling through the woods, he chances upon a fox busying itself with a macabre task: devouring its own flesh. The beast suddenly stops and tosses its head back. Then it growls another of the year’s catchphrases: “Chaos reigns.”

“Antichrist’s” U.S. distributor, IFC Films, reportedly tried to cash in on an early outpouring of fanboy goodwill toward “Chaos reigns” by making the phrase part of the movie’s ad campaign. As Variety succinctly said about the line: “Chaos reigns. And buzz abounds.”

-- Chris Lee

Jason Reitman gets in touch with his feminine side

December 23, 2009 |  4:09 pm

Reitman Jason Reitman humanized a tobacco lobbyist in "Thank You for Smoking" and a corporate hatchet man in "Up in the Air." Now,  he’s turning to an equally charged subject: Joyce Maynard, the author who as a teenager had an affair with J.D. Salinger and then created a furor when she wrote about it 20 years later.

Reitman’s next movie isn’t about Maynard herself, but it is based on her novel "Labor Day," and the director is already feeling the heat from being associated with a scarlet woman of letters.

To Reitman, Maynard's critics are a little nuts. "From my perspective, it is like, really, you hold an 18-year-old girl responsible for being seduced by a 53-year-old published novelist?  I mean, what freak world do I live in here?" he says  (Reitman, who sat down with us last month to talk about “Up in the Air,” also thinks Roman Polanski’s defenders are cracked. "He ...  drugged a 13-year old girl!")

“Labor Day” tells of a single mother who, along with her son, is held hostage by an escaped convict.

Reitman, who’s also contemplating directing a script from “Rachel Getting Married” writer Jenny Lumet, is actually getting in touch with his feminine side. "I want to tell original stories, " he says. "And there are more  stories about women that have not been told.”

-- Rachel Abramowitz

Photo: Jason Reitman. Credit: Dale Robinette / DreamWorks Studios

Kenneth Turan

December 22, 2009 |  7:00 pm

Kenneth Turan is film critic for the Los Angeles Times.

Betsy Sharkey

December 22, 2009 |  6:58 pm

Los Angeles Times film critic Betsy Sharkey has never been short on opinions, particularly when it comes to movies. A veteran journalist, she has been tracking the creative ebb and flow of entertainment for years, writing for publications as diverse as The New York Times, GQ, US and TV Guide before joining the Times in 1998. In the years since, she has run the newspaper’s TV, film and pop music coverage before turning her full attention to film criticism. She has also collaborated with Oscar winning actress Faye Dunaway (“Network,” “Chinatown”), writing her memoir “Looking for Gatsby” in 1995, and with Oscar winner Marlee Matlin (“Children of a Lesser God”), on her autobiography, “I’ll Scream Later,” in 2008. After earning a Master of Science in Communications Theory from Texas Christian University, she began her career at The Dallas Morning News, and was on team covering the 1982 Braniff Airlines bankruptcy, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer.

Chris Lee

December 22, 2009 |  6:55 pm

An entertainment reporter for The Times since 2005, native Angeleno Chris Lee has interviewed a constellation of major movie stars and filmmakers; he *lives* Hollywood so you don't have to. A graduate of Columbia University’s School of Journalism and former staff writer for Premiere magazine, his work has appeared in such publications as Vibe, Salon, Details, Black Book and Entertainment Weekly (and, as well, has been plagiarized in The Sunday Tribune of Ireland and The Trinidad Guardian). Chris also writes for The Times' Pop & Hiss and Hero Complex blogs. Let him infotain you. Follow Chris on Twitter @__ChrisLee.


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