Monday, December 28, 2009


As with my previous top ten list, my top documentary list is sure to omit many excellent films which I just did not see. There are many of these films that I had been told I must see, but I just didn’t. That being said, these are my stand-outs in no particular order.

Confessions of a Superhero (Matthew Ogens).
The poster for this film depicts Christopher Dennis, an actor posing as Superman on a therapist’s sofa. This is the perfect image for Confessions. Four struggling actors put on superhero costumes and hang out on Hollywood Boulevard posing for pictures with tourists for cash in between auditions. All four of these individuals are so well fleshed out that you share their broken (and in one case, realized) dreams. Hopeful and heartbreaking at the same time, Confessions shows that in the journey to realize our dreams, through self-delusion or hard work or both, we discover our blessings and true talents.

All We are Saying (Rosanna Arquette). Actress Arquette (8 Million Ways to Die) interviews many famous musicians about the creative process and the changing face of the music industry. What could be a lot of pretentious talking heads turns out to be a life-affirming examination of the passion involved in creating anything that is a piece of yourself.

Maxed Out (James Scurlock). Scurlock does an excellent job of translating his book of the same title to the big screen. An incisive and sobering look at the credit card / lending industry and its predatory practices on those with the most to lose. Maxed Out is a great companion piece to Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room and The Corporation, two other great docs this decade about the corporate malfeasances that have led to the mess we are in today.

Slasher (John Landis). Famed comedy and horror director Landis examines predatory behavior as well. This time it involves the used car business. The film follows Michael Bennett, a traveling ringmaster of festive “slasher” sales. Bennett, a genius at the art of valuing automobiles and closing the deal, provides a gateway into the manipulations inherent in these activities directed to those in the lower socio-economic circles. It shows how much and how little things have changed since The Maysle’s Salesman from 1968.

Hard Road Home (Macky Alston and Andrea Meller). No doc had the visceral impact on me than this one. HRH profiles the Exodus Transitional Community, a faith-based group of ex-convicts in Harlem who have banded together to provide job-placement for their peers. The struggles that lead to failures and victories are documented so effectively that you know these flawed heroes so well by film’s end. During the screening I attended, Julio Medina, the founder, was introduced and I felt overwhelmed by a heroism that one can rarely find in today’s world. Go to to learn more about this exceptional program.

Journeys with George (Alexandra Pelosi). There was such a plethora of political documentaries these past ten years that they sort of blended together. This one stood out by trumping wonkishness with personality. Before the new culture wars and before 9/11, Pelosi, a liberal photojournalist, palled around with George W. Bush on his campaign media tour in 1999. Although on opposite ends of the political spectrum they develop an awkward fondness for each other that cannot exist today in the red meat partisan wars drummed up to sell division and diversion. The relationship between the daughter of the right’s soon-to-be public enemy number one in the House and 43 himself, shown in a light that perhaps is his truest goofy persona (one that should have remained on the bus by the way) mirrors an uneasy harmony between the left and right which was reflected in the screening I attended in the capital of Texas with bigwigs from both parties cheering and heckling at different scenes. Those were the days.

Zombie Girl: The Movie (Justin Johnson, Aaron Marshall, and Erik Mauck). Zombie Girl documents twelve-year old Emily Hagen making her first film, Pathogen. To anyone who has ever set out on a dream project whether it be film, theater, music or anything else, this story can hit home like no other. Part filmmaking tutorial, part family relationship drama, part coming of age comedy, ZG is entertaining, informative and heartwarming. Winners of the Spirit of Slamdance Awards, the filmmakers have succeeded in the art of showing and not telling (or editorializing on) a story about real people creating an unreal world and all the difficulties that lie therein. With a wonderfully appropriate soundtrack that will stay with you as much as Emily and her family does. Side note: An interesting counterweight to this film is the doc Lost in La Mancha which painfully documents the travails of Terry Gilliam failing to realize his big-budget adaptation of Don Quixote.

Fog of War (Erroll Morris), Trials of Henry Kissinger (Eugene Jarecki), and Why We Fight (also Jarecki). These three documentaries are a not-so-unbiased but effective study of the lingering effects of decisions made that affected millions of lives. These films together provide an excellent mosaic of the history of our country, our military, and our leaders during a period of pre-assassination paranoia and later years of our nation’s cancer of hopelessness and despair. Whereas Michael Moore incites and divides, these films make their points with a studied dignity.

Life of Reilly (Frank Anderson and Barry Poltermann). A document of the stage play performed by Charles Nelson Reilly, not long before he passed away. Reilly, who most people would know as the sarcastic Greek chorus from Match Game and (to us Saturday morning geeks) Hoodoo from “Lidsville”, discusses his life in this funny, touching, and revealing dialogue interspersed with clips and photos. You have to see the film (or start googling) to discover what a rich, influential, and troubled life Reilly led. There is so much more to a famous life than what is just remembered and regurgitated.

Fish Kill Flea (Brian Cassidy, Aaron Hillis, Jennifer Loeber) and The Last Western (Chris Deaux). I disingenuously lump these two well-made docs together as they both reflect a lost era in today’s ever-changing world through a place suspended in time. The former a seventies-era supermall in upstate New York turned rag-tag flea market. The latter a Golden Era Western movie set turned into Pioneertown. Interviews and footage of the colorful inhabitants of these respective dinosaurs are sad, funny, and very American. In a changing American landscape.

Honorable Mentions:
Hell on Wheels (Bob Ray) Documenting the re-birth of the female Roller Derby in Austin Texas and the conflicts between the two upstart leagues. Painful and thrilling. Much like roller derby, I imagine.

Hell House (George Ratliffe) A Christian haunted house in North Texas suburbia. What could have been a cynical attempt to mock religion is frightening look at the lengths evangelism can take.

A Special screening of A President to Remember with filmmaker Robert Drew doing a q and a afterwards. The father of cinema verite in America (director of the revolutionary “Primary” in 1960 of which footage was used), Drew pieced together candid and incredibly revealing footage of the Kennedy White House. To see behind the scenes “home movies” of Camelot and then hear from the man behind the camera was too much excitement for this political junkie. A night to remember. An honor.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


My “Top Films of the Decade” list is very subjective for two reasons. First, I haven’t seen enough films over these past ten years to give a comprehensive and diverse overview. Second, the best films I’ve seen are revisited or new viewings of amazing films of the 60’s and 70’s. To compare apples to apples, I have three categories: Top American Studio films; Top Independent/Festival films; and Top Documentary Films. Here is my Studio list:

Note: Many of my Studio films were released as “independents” but if they include major star power, second generation power directors, or are produced through a mini-major boutique studio, they are considered studio films here.

Top Ten Hollywood Films (followed by the obligatory obsessive compulsive second top ten and my Scotty awards):

Sideways (Alexander Payne) Payne proves again that he is the closest director we have to the humanistic, literate character-driven comedies of the 70’s (see Hal Ashby). Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church create the Odd Couple of the new millennium in this film that speaks to everyone who has a dream, gave up on a dream, is in love with life and in love with misery. In other words, being an artist and being human.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black) Black’s directorial debut was the closest I felt to the sheer cinematic excitement I felt upon my first viewing of Raiders of the Lost Ark over thirty years ago. (And I told him so in the Driskill lobby.) Simply
thrills, great acting, hilarious and chilling surprises, insane premise, and surprises galore. Downey was born to play this role and Kilmer starts his grand stroll into excellent character acting.
Dogville (Lars Von Trier) Once again, pushing the envelopes of taste and propriety, Von Triers has created a world (literally) on a stage that shocks, reviles, amazes, and is the truest reflection of society, scarily. A much-needed whack in the head released in the buildup of the new culture wars.
Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff) This film spoke to me on so many levels….the nerd, the outcast, the comic book collector. In a strange world between modern grime and retro chic, this Ghost World is a funny and tender meditation on our obsession with the past and our uncertainty about our future (among many other things) in a politically correct world.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry). Jim Carrey in his best role and Kate Winslet at her most organic (save, maybe Holy Smoke) in this psychedelic tone poem with a socko soundtrack. What could be pretentious turns into a universal story about unrequited love. One of the best casts of the decade and a killer script by Spike Jonze.
Little Children (Todd Fields). Don’t be fooled by the subject matter. Based on the book by Tom Perotta, this adaptation adds to the themes, rather than diminishes them. A biting satire in the guise of a haunting melodrama, this is one of those films that takes you into a world for two hours and it feels like one. From the inspired spoken narration to the mesmerizing Oscar-nominated comeback performance by Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children pulls no punches in examining groupthink and mores in modern America suburbia.
Return to Me (Bonnie Hunt) Yes, my cynical ass has hated formula romantic comedies for some time…except this one. Written by, directed by, co-starring the Chicago wunderkind Hunt (my wife in another life, I’m sure), Return to Me is funny, sad, smart, heartwarming, sardonic and, even with a contrived premise, believable. And a Dean Martin soundtrack to boot. Rom-coms shouldn’t die off, they just need to be all made by Miss Hunt.
Lost in Translation (Sophia Coppolla). This is the part Bill Murray was destined to play and it resurrected his career into an Indiewood Icon. From the inspired setting in Tokyo and the show-biz in-jokes scattered throughout to the sexily sullen Scarlett Johansson and the appropriately ambiguous ending, Coppolla captures the angsts and longings of young and old. Beautifully shot and scored.
Monster’s Ball (Marc Foster) Much has been said about the lovemaking between Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton in this terrifying slice of southern gothic, but the real thrill lies in the brutally honest yet hopeful portrayal of race and class relations since Ashby’s “The Landlord”.
Watchmen (Zach Snyder) Save “Ironman” I haven’t jumped on the superhero bandwagon. But this film, based on Alan Moore’s graphic novel, is much, much more than an action film. It is Forrest Gump on an acid trip with Dr. Strangelove. The revisionist history and political satire are thankfully ramped up from the source, creating an over-long but satisfying study on what makes a hero in a world of anti-heroes.

Runners-Up (Next 10)

Bobby (Emilio Estevez). Through the music, settings, and costumes, this ensemble film about the few hours leading up to RFK’s assassination accurately reflects the shattered dreams of a confused America in 1968 witnessing Her third earth-shattering tragedy in five years time.
School of Rock (Richard Linklater) Much as Bonnie Hunt did with a formula revamp in “Return to Me”, Linklater proved that comedies about underdog kids overcoming adversity doesn’t have to pander to audiences through cheap sentimentality, crude gags, and cartoonish characterizations. This film is the closest he came to the original Bad News Bears.
Punch Drunk Love( Paul Thomas Anderson) Anderson figured out how to use Adam Sandler’s talents in this off-beat and delightfully uneven love story. Instead of playing his stuttering man-child with a temper for laughs, PT and Sandler created a complicated, tortured protagonist with some real anger issues…who falls in love. Everything from the act-changing visuals to the “Popeye” soundtrack add to one of the most bizarre love stories since Harold and Maude.
The Cooler (Wayne Kramer). Much as the Ocean’s Eleven remake tried to do, The Cooler,
with strikingly honest performances by William H. Macy and Maria Bello, portrays a Las Vegas that is dying and leaving behind its Rat Pack roots to wallow in corporate servitude.
Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marsten) With a beautifully realized star-turn by Catalina Sandino Moreno) this film is a chilling and hard-hitting exploration of the sordid lengths one must go through to escape a horrendous situation only to be in a new world of continued but slightly more hopeful depravity.
Reservation Road (Sam Mendes) Although slightly marred by Leo’s histrionics, Mendes’s best film since American Beauty is a journey into the past that peels the skin off of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and exposes the blood and guts of unrealized potential, dreams unanswered, torrid attachments, unsatisfied yearnings, and finally, the ultimate betrayal.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead ( Sidney Lumet) Lumet (“Network”, “Dog Day Afternoon”) still has it, resurrecting the edgy realistic tension of the best seventies crime thrillers (like Spike Lee’s “Inside Man”also did this decade).
Pursuit of Happyness (Garbriele Muccino). Surprisingly uncheesy, unpreachy story of hope with Will Smith in one of his best performances.
Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy). Another welcome throwback to seventies conspiracy porn, this feature (with the last on-screen performance of the great Sidney Pollack) is well-paced and smartly written with Tilda Swinton providing one of the best characterizations of the decade.
Art School Confidential (Terry Zwigoff) A second cousin to Ghost World, “Confidential” takes the hilarious mocking of the pretensions of the art world in the former and expands upon it.

Wild Card:
"Once" (John Carney) Not sure how to classify this one....foreign film, indie, musical, drama...whatever. Anyway, this Irish film was a beautiful narrative rendition of the relationship between two people. Effectively using songs (hard to do) to convey emotions and conflict. Sadly, I saw the leads, Glen Hansard and Marketa Iglova, perform at Stubb's and watching the worshipping fan-base swoon over the Swell Season, took away the melancholic underdog vibe of the film.

SCOTTY AWARDS for the decade:

Scene Stealer: Fred Willard in “Best in Show”
Funniest Woody Allen film: “Hollywood Ending”
Best Meet-Cute: Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei in “The Wrestler”
Better Than Ever Female: Marisa Tomei
Overall Female Performances: Kate Winslet
Most Consistently Good Female Performances: Laura Linney
William H. Macy Pinch Hitter Award: JK Simmons
Overall Male Performances: Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Better Than Ever Male: Josh Brolin
Consistently Good Male Performances: Tom Wilkinson
Biggest Disappointment: Men Who Stare at Goats
Best Justification to see sex and violence: History of Violence
Best First Five Minutes in the Biggest Unrealized Potential of a Film: “Idiocracy” (Mike Judge)
Biggest Loss: Robert Altman
Biggest Fraud on the Moviegoing Public: “The Terminal” (Steven Spielberg)
Most Eagerly Awaited and Most Easily Forgotten:
“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls” (also Spielberg)
Worst Trend: Torture Porn
Most enjoyable studio film I only saw ‘cuz it was shot locally: “Miss Congeniality” (Donald Petrie).
Guilty Pleasure: “Down with Love” (Peyton Reed)
Biggest emotional punch in the Stomach: “In America”(Jim Sheridan)
Best Western: “The Proposition” (John Hillcoat)
Best Western: Hotel
Worst Trend in Independent Films: Independent Films following an Independent Film Formula and sadly, succeeding (see “Napolean Dynamite”)
Most welcome and needed return of a genre: satire
(see “Thank You For Smoking”, “Bamboozled”, “War, Inc.” , “Pretty Persuasion”, “The TV Set”, and “Tropic Thunder”)
Straight to DVD special mentions: “Come Early Morning”, "The King", “Oh in Ohio”, “Pretty Persuasion”, “Diggers”.
Best neurotic return to indie filmmaking of yore: "Frownland"(Ronald Bronstein)
Favorite festival find not released on DVD: "Sexless" (Alex Holdridge)...Woody Allen meets Richard Linklater, a template for my dream project.
Favorite festival find released on DVD: "Easy Listening" (Pamela Corkey). This Boston-shot indie is a "Marty"-like story of love set in the 60's. Set in the world of elevator music, the film evokes the nostalgic feel of those Capitol Record album covers and the cool, almost hip but not quite feel of the era.

Stay Tuned for my indie and doc lists.