Friday, February 25, 2011

Stephanie Huettner's tops [part two]

As promised two days ago, here is the rest of guest blogger Stephanie Huettner's tops in 2010.

#6 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 -- Stick your nose up at this series and this film if you want, but you're the one who is missing out (I'm looking at you, Vern Snackwell). I was ecstatic when I heard that the final book in the series of The Boy Who Lived would be getting a two-movie treatment. After seeing David Yates' brilliant and edgy first installment, I can't wait for the second. I wish I could post the “Snatchers Chase” through the forest, my favorite scene, but it isn't to be found anywhere except in the film at this point. So, go see it!

#5 Waking Sleeping Beauty -- This wonderful documentary played at SXSW 2010 and I was sadly unable to see it there. The subject matter, the revival of Disney animated films between 1984 and 1994, would be interesting no matter what. However, this goes beyond interesting and becomes an engaging, well-crafted, fascinating story of the history of Walt Disney Studios, a character study of the major players behind the scenes, and the events surrounding this special period of rebirth at the magic kingdom. After giving a general overview of the tradition of animated movies at Disney, the film smoothly segues to the early 80s, when hand- drawn animation was considered a dead art form and the studio's latest animated work, The Black Cauldron, came in over-budget and underperformed at the box office. From that point on, the focus is on the business, personnel and creative choices which led to the resurgence of animation in pop culture and to the creation of many classic films (including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King) in such a short time span. The movie itself is so tightly knit and well constructed, taking advantage not only of the ample press footage from over the years, but also a treasure trove of behind- the-scenes material made by people who worked at the studio. These home videos include such gems as a young and very strange Tim Burton working at his animation table to the entire animation staff re-enacting Apocalypse Now as they waited to hear whether they'd all been laid off. The editing is some of the best I've seen in any film this year and certainly much better than the average documentary. Rather than constantly cutting back to talking heads, the films introduces the main characters, and then identifies their voice for the rest of the film with an on-screen talk bubble. It manages to cram in so much information about so many things without losing the thread that it's absolutely mind-boggling. Waking Sleeping Beauty is a tribute to artists and their belief in the potential greatness of animation when there is true talent and dedication involved.

#4 How to Train Your Dragon -- Speaking of the potential greatness of animation, I get to my #4 film of the year. One of many breathtakingly beautiful shots in this movie is a simple transition shot. A flyover view of some rocky hilltops near the Viking village where the film is set. The care and detail on display in this one shot is representative of the entire film. A fellow film buff friend, whose main forte is horror, said that this is easily his favorite 3D film ever. While the bar may have been set low for 3D recently, this is one of the very few who have used 3D as more than a gimmick. Rather than have one or two shots wherein a dragon claw lunges out at the viewer, the filmmakers gave the setting a gorgeous depth. They also took the time to do this with their characters. Like last year's brilliant Coraline, this film expands on, and improves on, the book upon which it's based. I've read one of the Dragon books (written by Cressida Cowell) and found it cute and fun. The film, however, is that plus a whole lot more. The story centers on Hiccup, a young Viking who is small in stature and doesn't quite fit in with the rest of his tribe, who spend most of their time thinking about how to kill things. Their main focus is dragons, who are prone to stealing the village sheep and destroying their huts. Hiccup uses his blacksmithing skills and intellect to create a long-range sling shot which he employs to down a dragon during one of their raids. He intends to kill it later and bring it back to the village, proving himself a true Viking. When he finds the injured dragon in the woods, he is unable to complete the kill. Instead, he feels overwhelming compassion for the creature he has wounded so severely that it is now unable to fly more than a few feet at a time. He eventually decides that he will find a way to restore the dragon's flight and live in harmony with the creature. This may sound trite, but in the context of the film, it's a boy who is choosing to reject his people and social identity in order to help someone he's been taught to hate. A particularly moving sequence is when Hiccup takes the dragon, named Toothless, flying for the first time since his injury. They are both completely dependent on one another to fly successfully and have chosen to trust the other with their life. This sequence also features one of the best pieces of music from John Powell's amazing and moving score, which is rightfully up for an Academy Award. How to Train Your Dragon is a story of empathy, sacrifice and the courage to change. Toy Story 3 will obviously get the Oscar, but this movie won my heart.

#3 The Social Network -- It isn't really necessary to pile even more praise on top of this film, but it's every bit as good as it's been hyped up to be. The first scene is rocky, as Aaron Sorkin's unnaturally-paced, eye roll inducing dialogue throws the audience head first in to a world full of people with brilliant minds but dim personalities. The central character in this web is Mark Zuckerberg. He made his name and fortune with the titular idea (dubbed Facebook, if you hadn't heard) but is, according to the film and the book on which it's based, a social retard. As played by Jesse Eisenberg, he's one hell of a fascinating character. Eisenberg has long gotten the short shrift as an actor, despite turning in brilliant performances in films like Rodger Dodger and The Squid and the Whale. He is finally getting his due with this film, making a seemingly unlikeable person sympathetic. The scope of the film is of an insular world on a grand scale. Some critics compared it to Citizen Kane, and I think that's accurate insofar as it concerns a small core group of people who, through their actions or just through social connections, cast a wide net throughout the world. At a panel at the 2010 Austin Film Festival, Kenneth Turan cited The Social Network as the antidote to the onslaught of ridiculous, low-brow silliness that has flowed through the Hollywood pipeline this year. He professed a hope that this is a sign that Hollywood can still produce great, adult, complex movies. If not, at least we got this one.

#2 Roger's Pass -- This one is another festival favorite of mine. At the 2010 Austin Film Festival, which included heavy hitters like Black Swan and 127 Hours, this was my clear favorite. The endless string of cutesy indie flicks which proclaim they have heart and sincerity could learn a lot from this film. The film opens with an animated sequence which outlines the main character's upbringing and his relationship with various members of his family. While it's cute and funny, is not a superfluous bit of fluff for cheap laughs. Every character shown in this sequence is an important member of the ensemble. The film's log line is “Roger's Pass is a dramatic comedy about a disjointed family forced to come together under tragic circumstances and discover what really matters most.” That's enough plot explanation, as it isn't really the plot that matters most. The film reminds me of David Gordon Green's All the Real Girls. The two are not alike in tone or storyline, but they are both filled to the brim with great characters who all have a distinct personality. They also take a theme that has been done to death and manage to infuse it with life and originality. Both are also incredibly funny in an organic and genuine way. It's worth mentioning that most of the film's cast also worked in some capacity on the crew and that a few people play themselves. The passion, hard work and love that went in to the film are clearly felt and I recommend it to everyone who truly loves movies.

#1 Winter's Bone -- This film has been the easy favorite for me since March, when I saw it at SXSW. I was immediately drawn in by the opening music: a downbeat, low hymn to Missouri played over shots of two children playing in a wooded yard. Toys litter the porch and ground around the house, which is well-kept but rundown. These images are enough to let us know where we are and what life is like around here. The creation of this kind of instant atmosphere is extremely rare impressive. I will forgive a lot in a film if it manages to create good atmosphere. Luckily, there's not much to forgive in this film. The rundown house belongs to the Dolly family. The de-facto head of the family is 17-year-old Ree. She is played with quiet force by Jennifer Lawrence, whose ability to command the screen seems effortless. I learned from the post-screening Q&A that many of the film's actors, including the two children at the beginning, are locals. Lawrence and her professional co-stars (including Deadwood veterans John Hawkes and Garret Dillahunt) all do an impeccable job of blending in with the Ozark crowd. Within the first five minutes of the film, Ree is informed by the local Sheriff (Dillahunt) that her father, a notorious ne'er do well, has failed to show up for a court date. This doesn't surprise Ree. In fact, she accepts the news as if it is the least of her worries. Unfortunately, her father posted the house as bail, and if he isn't found by the end of the week, she and her younger siblings will be homeless. From this point on, the film is equal parts thriller, family drama, sociocultural study and detective story as Ree sets off to find out what has become of the Dolly patriarch. This need for answers leads her on a Homeric quest through her county, which comprises the whole of her world. The audience is taken on a tour of a part of the country which is rich in natural beauty, history and culture, but is economically deflated. The social system is a complex puzzle, which the screenplay (based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell) artfully navigates. Friends, and even family, whom it seems should jump to Ree's aid, often respond to her questions and pleas for information with apathy or even violence.Winter's Bone is an intense, brilliantly crafted, straightforward film which casts a strange and wondrous enchantment on the viewer.

1 comment:

Billy said...

Stephanie's pick of "Winter's Bone" as numero uno makes me smile. What a well done movie! The way she writes, her descriptions of the films and her opinions of them, is excellent and gets to the heart of each point she makes. Nice writing, good choices. An "A" for sure.