redemptio en membrana

Seeking out Redemption in the Beautiful World of Film. or My Excuse to Write About Movies

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top 60 Films of the Decade

Why 60? Well, I don't really know. And yes, it has been so long since I have written here I wonder if anyone will read this. Nonetheless, I like lists way too much to resist this post.

I have been pondering my list of the best films of the decade for a while now, and it may just be complete. I still have a few '09 films yet to see, but am not too excited about any of them. I have seen so many lists pop up on the internet that I have to throw my hat in and pretend like people care about mine. I would love to hear anyone else's opinions of the best of the decade as well. It's funny how opinions change over time. One year a film could be your favorite, and 3 years later you are not that impressed by it (which happened a lot for me). Other films have grown better with time. Movies change as we change. I also wanted to make sure to include all types of films, especially the ones I usually leave out of "best of" lists like comedies. Why can't a movie like The Hangover get on a list like this?

So, anyway, here we are, the films that changed me:

60. Pan's Labyrinth
59. 25th Hour
58. Match Point
57. Monsters, Inc.
56. Brokeback Mountain
55. Borat
54. Memento
53. The King of Kong
52. Man on Wire
51. The Incredibles
50. Batman Begins
49. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
48. The Constant Gardener
47. Lost in Translation
46. Hero
45. Knocked Up
44. The Darjeeling Limited
43. Syriana
42. Hotel Rwanda
41. Spirited Away
40. Finding Forrester
39. The Fountain
38. Almost Famous
37. Shaun of the Dead
36. Inglourious Basterds
35. Gran Torino
34. Kingdom of Heaven: Director's Cut
33. Sunshine
32. The New World
31. The Motorcycle Diaries
30. District 9
29. Zodiac
28. Road to Perdition
27. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
26. Lady in the Water
25. Lars and the Real Girl
24. Gone Baby Gone
23. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
22. Synechdoche, New York
21. Grizzly Man
20. The Hurt Locker
19. The Village
18. Flags of our Fathers/Letters From Iwo Jima
17. Ocean's 11
16. City of God
15. The Hangover
14. Mystic River
13. Unbreakable
12. Anchorman
11. Black Hawk Down

and the top ten.................

10. Ratatouille

9. The Departed

8. Traffic

7. The Dark Knight

6. Munich

5. About Schmidt

4. The Bourne Identity/Supremacy/Ultimatum

3. No Country for Old Men

2. There Will Be Blood

1. Children of Men

And a few other awards I would like to add for the heck of it. The directorial achievement goes to Clint Eastwood, the acting award go to Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Top Ten 2008

Greetings. It has been far too long since I have written about any films. I have seen a few really great movies lately, and a lot of not so great ones. That being said, I felt it was finally time to put out my list of the best films of last year, only 6 months late. So here we go. These were the films that moved me, taught me how to see the world, and showed me truth and redemption. Or just made me laugh my butt off. It's not 10, it's 15, I can count, don't worry.

15. Traitor

14. Pineapple Express

13. Frost/Nixon

12. Man On Wire

11. Wall-E

10. Frozen River

9. Revolutionary Road

8. Blindness

7. Rachel Getting Married

6. The Wrestler

5. Doubt

4. Gran Torino

3. Slumdog Millionaire

2. Synechdoche, New York

1. The Dark Knight

Ta Da. Overall, not a great year, but not a slouch either. A solid year for great films.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Seven Pounds

Seven Pounds (Will Smith) follows the life of Ben Thomas, an IRS auditer who seems to enjoy stalking and judging people. Who is Ben Thomas, and why is he doing this? The film is filled with mystery. First we see Ben chewing out a blind steak salesman for being an overly nice virgin. Then we see him slam a nursing home manager's head into a window for not giving a dying lady a bath to get her to take her pills. Then we see him meet his best friend and remind him to fulfill his promise. What the heck is going on? We are left to wonder.

Ben believes that he has the power to change people's lives for the better. He acts like a mysterious angel, trying to decide who he is going to bless and who he is going to judge. Does any of us have the right to do that? Should we make decisions like that? Should these decisions be made completely impartially? What happens if you fall in love with someone you are trying to judge? Your opinion may change by the end of the film.
One aspect of the film that stuck out to me visually is the jellyfish. Early in the film we hear of Ben's childhood, and how he was told that the box jellyfish was the most dangerous animal in the world. Yet its beauty is astounding. The juxtaposition of the two drives the meaning of the film.

Seven Pounds was a beautiful story of....well, I don't want to ruin it. It makes it hard to write a review on a film whose meaning is completely tied up in the suprise ending. Let's just say that it was very enjoyable, beautifully done, and emotionally powerful without being cheesy.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Oscars 2009

The Oscars last night were very entertaining to watch. I hope all you film fans got a chance to see it. I loved it. It wasn't boring, it was creative, fun, and only had a few totally lame parts (like Bill Maher telling us our "little gods" were ruining the world, thanks Bill). And of course the right film won. There were a few surprises, like foreign film, but for the most part very predictable. Hooray for the Oscars!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler is about two people who are used by society as pieces of meat. But their bodies are wearing out, they are getting old, and in their professions (pro wrestling and stripping) you are too old very quickly.

Mickey Rourke plays Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a former WWF-style wrestler, one of the most popular and revered. He is now reduced to doing signings for the few random fans that might come to memorobilia shows, and doing really small reunion wrestling bouts. He is much past his prime, and works as a grocery store stocker during the week. And yes, he needs many many drugs to keep doing what he is doing, even for the measly sums he gets for wrestling now. Those drugs, including many steroids, as well as his body getting older, have lead to a heart attack. His doctor says he cannot wrestle anymore. What can he do now? He doesn't know anything else. He is poor and alone. His daughter doesn't want to be in his life because he wasn't when she was growing up. He has nothing. Except... his favorite stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei).

Cassidy is much like The Ram. She is getting old, and her body doesn't look as great as it used to. She is trying to raise a son all by herself, and she is starting to make quite a bit less money. Randy tries to see her outside the club, which is forbidden, and she wants nothing to do with that. Yet sometimes she does. They are both lonely, they both are losing everything they know, their livelihood, and they start to see that they may want each other.

One scene that stuck with me was when Randy invites a local kid over to play NES Wrestling, from the eighties. He is one of the characters, which is pretty cool for him and the neighborhood kids. They play, but then the kid leaves, says he wants to play Call of Duty 4, "it's pretty fun." That game came out last year, and is at the complete and utter opposite end of the video game spectrum in terms of quality, graphics, technology, etc. The film is almost a love song to the 80's, it feels like the 80's, but takes place now. It is the 80's after too many all-night benders. It is old, pathetic, endearing, and sad.

The ending of the film encapulates the whole movie, but I won't give it away. It shows the desperation, confusion, purpose, and loneliness of Randy. Every man needs a reason to get up in the morning, a purpose, a use in this life. This is one of the most prominent themes in film these days, and this could very well be one of the best.

Mickey Rourke deserves all the acclaim he is receiving, as well as the Oscar he will most likely win. He lives his performance because this film parellels his own life. He does many of the stunts himself (including cutting himself with a small razor in a match). It is a noble, gutsy, vulnerable, tragic, endearing and tremendous performance. This film is worth it for that reason alone. Yet, the story takes it to another level. It could even be a modern parable of our instant gratification society, and our desire for everything new, fit, clean, and strong. What happens after?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Doubt is an award-winning play that has been brought to the screen and directed by its writer John Patrick Shanley, something incredibly rare, quite an accomplishment. There is no doubt that the filmmaker got the writer's vision right, they are one in the same.

Doubt stars the two greatest living American actors, Meryl Streep, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, along with the wonderful Amy Adams, and newcomer Viola Davis. Each of these four have received Oscar nods for the film, by the way.
The film is a back and forth between Sister Aloysius (Streep) and Father Flynn (Hoffman), two workers at a Catholic church slash school. Sister Aloysius suspects Father Flynn of doing something inappropriate with an alter boy, as cliche as that sounds. They have many differences of opinion, as this is 1964 and things are beginning to change in this country. Sister Aloysius is all about tradition, discipline, and following the letter of the law. She wants to do the right thing, no matter what, and wants to punish wrongdoers. Father Flynn is all about embracing the change that is coming, focusing on compassion and kindness over justice and law. He wants to focus on love. Each of these ideas is important to God and His Church. How can you favor one over the other, should you, or can you do both?
Sister Aloysius had something against Father Flynn from the start, and has now found something that she can apparently use against him. Did he do that to this boy (who happens to be the only black kid in the school by the way)? Or is she merely conducting a witch hunt? In pursuing righteousness and condemning sin, do we draw closer to God, or are we drawn away from Him, trying instead to play God ourselves?

One powerful symbol in the film is wind. Sister Aloysius hates the wind, it is always causing things to get messed up and scattered. It causes pain (hurts one of the blind sisters) and is getting worse than it ever has. Father Flynn likes the wind, and sees it as something that brings good change. He keeps flowers in his Bible to remind him of spring, and spring only comes after the wind. Wind is a symbol for change. Is change good or bad for Christianity? If we change does that mean that truth changes? Doesn't that mean we didn't have it right before? Or do certain things need to change, even though God is unchanging? What should we change, if anything? It is a beautiful, stark symbol throughout the film.

Sister James (Adams) is an interesting character as well. She is the one we as an audience identify with the most. She is caught in the middle, trying to figure things out on her own, learning what it is like to follow God, to be a nun, and to deal with faith and doubt.
One thing I love about Doubt is its ability to take our stereotypes (overbearing nun, child-molester priest) and understand investigate that. There are real motivations behind these people, and maybe sometimes our stereotypes are completely wrong. *Spoiler Warning* I just have to talk about the ending and what I think it means. It is left inconclusive as to what actually happens and what the truth was. I love when films do that. But here is my theory. Father Flynn is gay, but he does not act out on it. He identifies with Donald Miller, the kid in question, because he is gay too. Therefore, Father Flynn wants to protect Donald, because he knows what it's like. That is also why he was scared Sister Aloysius knew something about his old post, him being gay. Yet, if he doesn't act out on it there is nothing wrong, There are many allusions to it throughout the movie (his fingernails, talk with boys about dances, sermons about tolerance, etc.). Just a theory. So Sister Aloysius was right that something was "wrong" with the Father, but didn't know the full extent, which is never fully divulged. There is my theory. The closing scene with the Sister is absolutely suprising and jarring, she finally lets her guard down and becomes real and shares her struggles and doubts. Meryl Streep is amazing.
Doubt is a beautifully written drama of morality, truth, compassion and judgment. It is perfectly acted and wonderfully shot, with an aura of depression but a light and hope hiding underneath.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Oscar Predictions 2008 and why I'm mad

Some years the Oscars get it right on, which has pretty much been the case the last three years in my opinion (which is always right). This year was the year they got it all wrong.

The best movie of the year is also the most popular, The Dark Knight. And the Oscars refuse to recognize a "super hero" movie and instead go with the same exact movies that they have always been drawn to, outside of the fantastic Slumdog Millionaire. The omission of The Dark Knight may go down as the worst Oscar snub ever. In addition, I can think of so many movies that were far more deserving than Milk (derivative biopic with beat-you-over-the-head political agenda) The Reader (obligatory holocaust movie) and Benjamin Button (bland crap). The nominees should have gone like this:

Slumdog Millionaire
The Dark Knight
Gran Torino
Revolutionary Road
The Wrestler or Wall-E or Frost/Nixon (the other one that at least sort of deserves to be there)

But we can't always get what we want. That is what the Oscars is all about, arguing your opinions. I have to play with the cards I have been dealt though, so here are my predictions:

Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire (should win)
Best Actor: Mickey Rourke (should win)
Best Actress: Kate Winslett (should win for Rev. Road, but haven't seen Reader yet)
Best Director: Danny Boyle (yeah!)
Best Supp. Actor: Heath (should win)
Best Supp. Actress: Amy Adams

And my two favorite categories are Best Original Screenplay, which will be Milk, but should be Wall-E, and Cinematography which will be The Dark Knight, but too little too late.

Okay, let the arguing begin.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Revolutionary Road

Kate and Leo back together again, but if you are looking for Titanic 2, you've come to the wrong place, thankfully.

Sam Mendes (Road to Perdition, American Beauty, Jarhead) directs this adaptation of the classic William Yates novel of the same name. It is the story of a couple, April and Frank Wheeler, and their journey in 1950's suburbia. It is a story of dreams, both broken and realized. A story of love and betrayal. A story of pain and more pain, and how people learn to live with society's assumptions and realities.

Frank and April meet when they are both young, ambitious, exciting, and adventurous. But they buy in to the new suburban ideal, if "only for a while." So they move out of the city, have kids, Frank gets a job he hates, April stays home, etc. etc. etc. They had originally decided they would only do this for a while, then "truly live." Their ideal is Paris, a city where "people really live." April finally decides that they need to actually live their dream, and Frank agrees, so they start telling people that they are going to up and move to France. They have two kids, but then April gets pregnant and this could spoil their plans, or not. Then Frank gets a promotion, is offered more money, and this could ruin their plans, or not. The rest of the story is where it gets interesting.

Each of these characters is buying in to this distant vision of greener pastures somewhere else, where people are truly alive, this ideal that cannot truly be grasped. But they are also struggling with this suburban ideal. They are torn between the two. The true answer to their problem of discontentment is to see the value they have around them, their kids, their marriage, and ultimately God (who they think is just a part of the suburban thing instead of a real being to have a relationship with). They are looking for something to satisfy them, each in different ways. They are looking in all the wrong places, as cliche as it sounds. And this starts to spiral out of control.

Revolutionary Road is also a great study of the struggles of marriage, and how those relationships fail. It is a painful thing to watch. They both feel trapped by this suburban thing, this boring life, and see marriage as a part of that. April especially wants to do anything to get out, she feels trapped, and she doesn't care who she hurts. She is the most heartwrenching example of a passive-aggresive home-wrecker I can remember. The home she wants to wreck is her own.

The irony of the film is that the only one who is not afraid to speak the truth about reality, about the way things really are, is labeled insane and sent to a mental health facility. He is only let out for a hour at a time to visit his family and friends. His name is John, and every scene that John appears in is a breath of fresh air, a welcome break from the charade. Thank God for someone who doesn't care about the social mores.

In the end Revolutionary Road is a beautifully written story of discontentment, and our search for love. The cinematography is pitch-perfect, along with the acting (in my humble opinion, we get career best performances from both Kate and Leo in this one. Kate is especially fantastic, and I hope she gets a little golden statue). And it all builds to an apropo conclusion, one that can be seen a mile away, but cannot be averted.

What are we taking our stock in, what is our fantasy? Suburbia? Paris? Security? Adventure? What should it be?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Gran Torino

There are rumors this will be Clint's last acting job, and if it is, I am completely satisfied. Yes, I would love to see this American great on screen again, but Gran Torino is a pitch-perfect ending to his career.

Clint also directs this picture, about a racist grumpy old man who gets thrown into the drama of his foreign neighbors' lives. We start with Walt Kowalski (Eastwood), a retired man who has just lost his wife, is completely disconnected from his annoyingly selfish kids, and lives in an older neighborhood that has been "overrun with Asians." He is almost the only white person left in his section of town, but he won't leave, he will just whine. He tells things like he sees them, which is very refreshing, even if we as the audience are appalled at what he says. He used to work on the line at the Ford factory for 50 years. This career included the highlight of putting the steering column in his '72 Gran Torino. But one fateful night Kowalski is forced to defend his dreaded next door neighbors, the Lors, who are Hmong (from Southeast Asia). The are being threatened by the Hmong gang, who is trying to recruit the Lors' son Thao (who Kowalski calls Toad). The gang ends up on Walt's lawn, which is bad, and Walt comes out with a gun and says "get of my lawn." Inadvertently, Kowalski has saved Thao for the time being, which is not really what Walt was intending He just wants to be left alone.

The rest of the film watches the interplay between the crotchety old white man and his Hmong neighbors. A friendship and respect grows, but it feels authentic, unlike most films. Walt doesn't stop with the racial slurs or revert to social niceties. He isn't afraid to speak his mind, especially about other people. And the fact is, sometimes that can be a very good thing (it is for Thao). Walt becomes a father figure to the fatherless Thao and eventually makes some pretty big decisions in his and his family's favor. He intervenes because he knows it is right, and he is old fashioned, he does what is right because it is right.

Walt is an admirable man, an old school man's man. He has flaws, he is very prejudiced and xenophobic. He judges people all the time. But he has no fear. He isn't caught up in being nice or polite (which is a common criticism of Christians). His interactions with people are authentic, he doens't take crap from anyone, and he has lived too long and seen to much to lie to himself or others. He has nothing to prove to anyone, he knows who he is.

The film is also quite hilarious and endearing (oh, I hate that term when it comes to movies, but here it fits). It is a searing character study of old school America and the changes that have happened and are happening in our society. It investigates right and wrong while transcending cultural lines, awkwardly at times. This is a nearly perfect film, and Clint succeeds again. Can he go wrong anymore? He even wrote an original song to end the film.

I don't want to give away the ending, but let's just say it is a fitting end to the film and possibly to one of the greatest acting careers of all-time, the ultimate man's man. Most all of Clints films (both acting and directing) deal with the myth of redemptive violence. Sometimes they buy in, and sometimes they don't. The climax of the film could not make a stronger statement in this regard. The very definition of strength, courage, and honor. Thank you again Mr. Eastwood.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Sometimes I find a movie that is pretty good, but not great. But so many other people are falling all over themselves in adoration for it. This makes me like the movie less, if only to spite other peoples' misplaced praise. Babel was like that two years ago, and Benjamin Button is that film for me this year.

Button is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but must have been changed quite a bit to fit our modern times. It was adapted for the screen by Eric Roth, who is also responsible for the most overrated film of all-time, Forrest Gump. David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac) directs the film, which stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. The story centers around Benjamin, a man born old who ages backwards, a very intriguing premise.

So what does it mean to be human? That is the essence of this film. Does the direction we age make us human, and if that changes, how do we change? If our body ages backward, does our mind? What about experience? How will people treat someone who looks old but acts young, and vise versa. What about age discrimination? What about love? What about romantic love, how would that work if you we so much older/younger than someone, yet the "same age." These are all great questions that the film delves into. In essence, Button examines the human condition.

The film is beautifully shot, with sort of a bleak undertone. The colors are beautiful and the feel fits the story well. The cinematography is great, the acting is nearly flawless in every regard, and the directing is fantastic. Yet the film doesn't grab the audience the way it should, and it all comes down to the writing. It felt like Forrest Gump 2. The story was cheesy, predictable and uninspired, truly tragic for a film that had so much potential.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

I had the opportunity to see this film at the Denver Film Festival this saturday. For those of you that live in the Denver area, I highly recommend the festival. This film was shown at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House downtown. It is a unique experience in and of itself.

The film takes place in Mumbai, a gigantic, sprawling metroplex in India. The main character, Jamal Malik, has grown up a "slumdog," a very poor orphan in a large city. The details of his life are rather horrific. When he is older he somehow falls into being on "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" He ends up winning a whole lot of money, but the authorities think he must have cheated. How could a slumdog know all these questions? The prejudice is pretty blatant.

British director Danny Boyle (Sunshine, 28 Days Later, Millions) brings us this modern day fairy-tale about love, fate, knowledge, and sacrifice. The storytelling device Boyle uses is brilliant. Jamal's past unfolds to us through the questions of the game show. We learn about how and why Jamal knows the answers. And we are confronted with the question of why Jamal knows the answers. Is it luck? Brilliance? Cheating? Or Fate? This is the central question to the film. And this forces us to confront our own views on life and what we believe about our future. In addition, the love story parallel is quite beautiful and touching, in a non-cheesy way (I have my "cheese-radar" on pretty high most of the time).

The cultural aspect of the film, and India itself, is enlightening. It helped me understand India from more of a first-person perspective (at least that one slice of India, Mumbai's slums). I was a little worried we would get some Bollywood crap, but that didn't happen until the credits (which was pretty obnoxious, but wasn't really part of the movie). The music was fantastic and added quite a bit to the story, especially the multitue of paralleling chase scenes. It seemed like Jamal was always running away, or running toward, something.

Slumdog Millionaire is a beautiful story, told in a unique and powerful way. It does help us to understand what makes us human, what makes us love. It confronts us with ideas of fate and intelligence. It looks beautiful. This film has been getting a boatload of Oscar buzz, and it is all well-deserved. When it is released here in Denver I encourage everyone to go experience this journey into a modern day fairy-tale.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


Master Clint Eastwood has another year with two major releases back to back (this film, and Gran Torino in December). Changeling stars Angelina Jolie as a single mother (Christine Collins) who loses her son. He is abducted in 1928 Los Angeles. Five months later Collins is told her boy was found. Yet she does not recognize this boy. What is going on? Is she crazy or are the police trying to cover up their ineptitude? This is a story of one parent's long, hard struggle with the realities of a harsh world.

This film is a gut-wrencher for parents especially, manifesting all of our worst fears. How would I cope with the disappearance of my son? I don't even want to think about it.

One thing that stuck out to me about the film is the character of Reverend Gustav Briegleb. He is a Presbyterian pastor who is fighting for justice against the oppression and corruption of the LAPD. The mixing of politics and religion is a great topic, especially now in the wake of the election. We as Christians should always fight for justice and truth, and here you have a spiritual leader willing to do that. Yet, he is not always perfect and does not always have perfect intentions. Yet he is a good man, and tries to bring about the things of God through his actions (reminding me of Karl Malden's character in On the Waterfront).

As with my last reviewed film, Blindness, Changeling has a wonderfully complex lead role for a woman, played fantastically by Angelina. So often female leads are one dimentional and stereotypical. Here you have a single mother with the strength to keep fighting and the hope that her son is alright. She loves deeply, yet struggles mightily against others and herself. The film is beautifully shot, with a grayish tint that helps add to the time-period. As a period piece in and of itself the detail is unfailing. The chilling journey that we take with Collins is one that will stick with us for a long time to come. Is it even possible for Clint to make a bad movie anymore?