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So far, 2009 is shaping up to be a decent year for movies, I think. There’s already been some great films released, and Oscar season is getting started. I recently watched I Love You, Man and Away We Go, which had been two of my most anticipated movies from earlier in the year. Both we great, and it got me thinking that 2009 seems to have been an exceptionally good year for comedies. Maybe it’s because I haven’t seen as many dramas, but so far seven out of my top ten favourite movies of the year are comedies. Of course, not every comedy was good. For every Away We Go there’s a Confessions of a Shopaholic. But I’ve seen some fantastic comedies with some very strong performances. I thought I’d share some of my favourite comedic performances of the year. Since I think comedies are always criminally underrepresented in the awards season, I’ll give my two cents on who I think is deserving of nominations, and who actually has a chance. I might update this list as awards season gets closer, and as I see more movies from 2009.
Oh, and since I only seem to get comments on the posts where I encourage them, be sure to leave comments on which choices you agree/disagree with, and your own opinions on your favourite comedies of 2009!
Meryl Streep – Julie & Julia
Meryl Streep can do no wrong (well, except maybe Mamma Mia…), and she’s given some great comedic performances this decade (Adaptation and The Devil Wears Prada both gave her Oscar nominations). Her performance as legendary chef Julia Child was delightful (though the movie as a whole was just decent). She had the voice, the body language, and the spirit down pat.
Award Season Prospects: This is the only performance on the list that’s guaranteed to get an Oscar nomination, and she just might win the whole thing.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt – (500) Days of Summer
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of my favourite young actors, and I was excited to see him return to his comedy roots after all of the heavy movies he’s made this decade. His comedic timing is brilliant, and at times, he’s pretty hilarious here. This is not a typical romantic comedy, and Levitt elevates his performance so far beyond the usual acting in those types of movies. It’s a subtle performance, but the genuine warmth and feeling that he brings to this role is unusual.
Award Season Prospects: Based on what I’ve seen this year, I think he’s worthy of an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. But that category is always overstuffed, so I’d be shocked if he got one. A Golden Globe nomination is possible, but sadly, still a bit of a stretch.
Maya Rudolph – Away We Go
Most people know her from her great comedic work on Saturday Night Live, and I was really surprised by how good Maya Rudolph was in Sam Mendes’ Away We Go. It’s considered a comedy, but there are a lot of scenes (especially in the latter half of the film) that are entirely dramatic. My mom said she found the film depressing, but I disagree. And I think a lot of that has to do with Rudolph’s vibrant performance. Her character is pregnant, and both worried and excited for the future. I thought Rudolph gave a very genuinely likeable and optimistic performance.
Award Season Prospects: I think a Golden Globe nomination is possible.
Amy Adams – Sunshine Cleaning
With two Oscar nominations already under her belt, obviously Amy Adams is a fantastic actress. She’s got a great screen presence in every movie that she’s in, and Sunshine Cleaning is no exception. It’s a comedy, but there isn’t a ton of laugh-out-loud kind of laughs. It’s just not that kind of movie. But Adams does a great job with the subtle humour, and the human drama that the role calls for. She was good in Julie and Julia as well, but this is the more interesting role and performance.
Award Season Prospects: Sunshine Cleaning was under the radar, and got somewhat mixed reviews (though I loved it). I think that Adams is worthy of a Golden Globe nomination, but it may or may not happen.
Emily Blunt – Sunshine Cleaning
Starting off as the more comedic character in Sunshine Cleaning, Emily Blunt played the mix between comedy and drama perfectly. Something about her screen presence is magnetic. Blunt had a few scenes that really showed off her acting skills (everyone talks about the “tressling” scene), as well as a bunch that allowed her to be sarcastic and curmudgeonly, which she does very well. She’s great in those roles that blur the line between humour and drama (The Devil Wears Prada, The Jane Austen Book Club)
Award Season Prospects: I’m not sure if her performance qualifies as lead or supporting, but I’m not sure if her chances are great, either way. I’d love to see her get some kind of nomination for her work here, though.
Zach Galifianakis – The Hangover
Oh, God. I can’t even think of this performance without giggling a little. There were so many hilarious moments in The Hangover courtesy of Mr. Galifianakis. I like Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms a lot, too, but this guy stole the show. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t know much about Galifiankis, I’m sure you’re a bit puzzled by all the fuss. To which I say, go see The Hangover.
Award Season Prospects: Hey, remember when Robert Downey Jr. got an Oscar nomination for wearing blackface last year?
Jesse Eisenberg – Adventureland
Oddly, this is only the second ugliest t-shirt that appears on this list. Anyways, some people call Jesse Eisenberg the poor-man’s Michael Cera. But I think that he’s some alternate version of Michael Cera who is capable of conveying genuine emotion. Don’t get me wrong. I love Michael Cera, but I was really impressed by the earnest, sweet performance that Eisenberg gave here. He’s still funny and awkward, but there was just something very real about his performance, like he wasn’t constantly worried about being clever and funny.
Award Season Prospects: Not great. It’s not the kind of performance that usually gets recognized, sadly.
Paul Rudd – I Love You, Man
I’ve been a fan of Paul Rudd for a while now. I first noticed him on Friends, and then I went back and loved him in Clueless. So after a string of iffy movies and supporting roles, I was glad to see him starting to get the leads in major comedies. Role Models was a lot of fun, and he topped it with this year’s I Love You, Man. He is so incredibly awkward (“Slappa da Beeaaaass!”) as Peter, a man with no male friends, but so charming, too. There’s something about Paul Rudd that you just want to root for.
Award Season Prospects: Hilarious performance, but just not award-worthy.
Chris Messina – Away We Go
Alright, so it’s a really small role and not even an especially comedic performance, but I just wanted to talk about how impressed I was by Chris Messina in Away We Go. The movie is split into different parts, and when Burt and Verona travel to Montreal, they meet up with Messina’s character, who Burt went to college with. He has a great monologue, and Messina delivers it perfectly. His character starts off as seeming like a laid-back guy, but as we learn more about his and his wife’s circumstances, his character takes an unexpected turn. It’s a really understated performance, but that whole section in Montreal was my favourite part of the movie, partly thanks to Messina’s performance.
Award Season Prospects: Not a chance.
Zac Efron – 17 Again
I’m probably not helping my case by choosing a photo from the most shamelessly pandering scene in the whole movie. But whatever, I thought Zac Efron actually did a good job. He proved on SNL that he has comedic talent (I loved the “I AM YOUR MOTHER!!!” sketch. Anyone who can keep a straight face through that earns my respect). I’m not a fan of the whole High School Musical franchise (though there was an unintentionally awesome scene in the third movie where Efron breaks into the school at night and basketballs start raining down upon him. ANYWAYS.), but I thought he made this otherwise iffy movie a lot funnier (well, him and Thomas Lennon).
Award Season Prospects: Ha.
Comedies from 2009 That Look God-awful, and I Vow Never to Watch:
- Ghosts of Girlfriends Past
- Bride Wars
- The Pink Panther 2
- Dance Flick
- Miss March
- I Love You, Beth Cooper
- All About Steve
- My Life in Ruins
- Imagine That
- Post Grad
- The Ugly Truth
Comedies from 2009 of Interest That I Still Need to See:
The Brothers Bloom
It’s Complicated (upcoming)
Pirate Radio (upcoming)
A Serious Man
Up in the Air (upcoming)
World’s Greatest Dad
A few weeks back, I talked about my thoughts on one of the hottest new shows of the season, Glee. I said that I don’t usually watch new shows from the get-go, but I’ve actually latched onto two so far this season. When Community premiered on NBC in September, I tuned in because of Joel McHale. For those of you not familiar with him, McHale has been the host of The Soup, a hilarious cable show which rips apart other TV shows, for a few years now. It’s nice to see McHale getting some acting work. He’s very charismatic (the ladies really, really seem to love him), and I wasn’t surprised by his sharp sense of humour in the Community pilot. What did surprise me was how good everything else about the show was.
The premise of the show is that Jeff (McHale) is a lawyer sent back to community college after his degree turns out to be from the country Columbia, rather than the school. When trying to impress the hot girl in his Spanish class, Britta (Gillian Jacobs), Jeff offers to tutor her in Spanish (though he can’t speak the language, either). She assembles a group made up of their ragtag classmates to bring along to the study session, and bonds form between them all, whether Jeff likes it or not. It seemed like a premise that might be a bit limited or get repetitive, but so far they’re doing a nice job of focussing on different characters, and the unique relationships that they have.
Community just aired its sixth episode tonight, and it’s keeping up the momentum that the unusually strong pilot hinted at. It’s not as even or consistently hilarious as a show like Arrested Development, but it has a great offbeat style to its humour. Like 30 Rock, a lot of the jokes aren’t immediately funny, and it takes a minute to piece them together. But the show doesn’t wait for you to catch up. It just barrels on to the next joke. That’s a good thing, because that means Community has a very fast-paced, clever tone.
McHale is the king of deadpan, and he’s really funny here. Chevy Chase actually isn’t given all that much to do, but his clueless-old-guy shtick is still pretty funny. Danny Pudi is definitely relied on for a lot of the show’s bizarre humour, and he plays the possibly-mentally-challenged-guy role really well. Donald Glover (Troy), Alison Brie (Annie), and Jim Rash (Dean Pelton) also have had some nice moments so far. The show is similar to Glee in that it follows an unlikely group of misfits, and it has an offbeat style of humour. I always like both of those traits, so I’m really enjoying these two shows so far. Community seems like it might be too clever and quirky to have a mass appeal, but hopefully it won’t fall by the wayside like a lot of quality TV tends to.
For my “Introduction to Cinema Studies” course, we watched Fritz Kiersch’s Tuff Turf today. It seemed like an odd choice, to me. I didn’t know that the 80′s Teen Melodrama was such a respected genre in cinematic academia, but apparently it is. Anyways, it was probably one of the more ridiculous movies I’ve seen, but it was also one of the most purely enjoyable ones, too. People say that they watch shows like The O.C. and Gossip Girl because they’re so overdramatic that they’re funny, but this movie is a thousand times more entertaining than anything on those shows.
James Spader plays Morgan, a new kid in town who immediately finds himself at odds with the local tough guys (yes, similarities to Rebel Without a Cause run rampant). He does manage to make one new friend in Jimmy (played by “Robert Downey”!), and also conveniently wins over the heart of Frankie (Kim Richards), who is dating Nick, the leader of the local gang. Despite repeated threats and lashings from Nick and his gang, Morgan can’t leave well enough alone, and it all (of course) ends with a good ol’ fashioned showdown.
It’s pretty hilarious to see James Spader playing such a tough guy here, but he does a decent job. He swaggers around and looks attractive, but I couldn’t help but think of his current middle-aged persona and appearance while I was watching the movie. Meanwhile, Robert Downey Jr. doesn’t seem to have changed at all over the past 24 years, and his charm is already in full swing here, despite the fact that this is one of his first roles (Weird Science, which I still need to see, came out late that year.). Though it’s a somewhat small role, he’s given a few great one-liners that he delivers with his classic Downey wryness.
The dialogue is laughably bad at times, and Tuff Turf is quite dated. Other similar films of the time, such as Say Anything, hold up much better now, because there’s a timeless quality about them that this film lacks. There’s a reason why this movie is not nearly as well known as some of the other big 80′s teen flicks. But I really have no other way to describe this movie besides “fun”. The plot is supposedly serious, but I would not describe this as a “downer” in any way.
We were watching it in class under the guise of its “unique cinematography”. But I could tell that most people were just having a blast watching it, and I heard lots of laughter both at purposely and unintentionally hilarious parts. One of those unintentionally funny scenes comes when Morgan sits himself down at a piano at the local country club and earnestly serenades Frankie in front of a large audience (though I have no idea if Spader was actually singing or not). Obviously, not everything here works. But I found myself getting sucked into the film, and actually kind of caring what happened to these characters. The plot is very over-the-top, but if you’re looking for a cheesy, overdramatic teen movie, then you’re likely to have a good time watching Tuff Turf.
In Matthew Ryan Hoge’s The United States of Leland, Ryan Gosling plays Leland P. Fitzgerald, a detached 16 year-old from a well off home, who is accused of murder. Within the first few minutes of the movie, Leland shows up at a juvenile detention centre, and we are introduced to his parents, and the family of the victim. As the movie progresses, we learn Leland’s back story. We meet his father (played by the always despicable Kevin Spacey), learn about his relationship with his ex-girlfriend (Jena Malone), and delve into the lives of the two families shattered by Leland’s arrest. Yet we’re still uncertain whether or not Leland actually committed the horrific act for quite some time. He strikes up a relationship with Pearl Madison, a teacher at the detention centre (Don Cheadle), who is looking to use Leland’s story to further his writing career. Leland’s troubled life begins to reveal itself, as do those of the very flawed supporting characters. The movie builds to a shocking climax, and that final act, along with the rest of the movie, is likely to give you a lot to think about.
The conversations between Leland and Pearl at the detention center are really the crux of this movie. Leland offers insight into his worldview, and questions Pearl’s own with startling clarity. And in these scenes, Gosling definitely holds his own with Cheadle, which is no small feat. Gosling delivers his words in a disjointed, flat style, and it fits with Leland’s character perfectly; he’s totally believable as this troubled young man. This film was made a few years before The Notebook or Half Nelson, but Gosling’s skill was just as sharp then as it is now.
The rest of the stellar cast does a nice job playing their own integral little parts in the story. Some people would vehemently disagree, but I thought Chris Klein stood out amongst the younger members of the supporting cast. Klein gets a lot of hate online (especially now, with his poorly handled hair loss and apparently laughable work in Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li), but I think he deserves more credit. He played his role well in Election, and though his character here, Allen, initially seems like a similar all-American lovable goon, it’s actually a much more complex role. Some critics have said that the film could have delved into Allen’s story a little more, but I think that we got a good sense of who he was based on a few key details. One of my favourite parts of the film (and it’s an admittedly bizarre moment to latch onto) is near the end, when Allen is setting off to do something that will change the entire direction of the story. We don’t know what Allen’s planning to do, but he’s visibly nervous as he gets out of his car. At the last minute before leaving it, he remembers to scoot back and make sure that the car door is locked. When you find out what he’s planning to do next, checking the door handle seems like a ridiculous thing for Allen to be thinking about. But I think that one tiny action says so much about his character, and makes the next scene even more shocking in comparison to the person that we see him as. If I had to choose a weak link in the cast, I’d say it’s Jena Malone. I liked her in Donnie Darko and Saved!, but I’m not buying her in “badass” roles like this one, or 2007′s The Go-Getter. You would think that a teenage junkie character would at least be colourful, but she’s actually pretty dull.
The United States of Leland is not a perfect movie, by any means. Many have complained about the abundance of side-plots and minor characters. I didn’t mind movies with a lot of characters and storylines that all intertwine, but I did find that these multiple storylines did distract from The United States of Leland‘s focus at times. While the overall structure of the film was a bit dicey at times, I thought the movie brought up a lot of interesting questions about morality and life. If you like Holden Caulfield’s stream-of-consciousness observation in The Catcher in the Rye, you’ll probably like Leland’s bleak worldview. I did find myself relating to a lot of his observations, but the lengths that he took his ideas to be rather twisted at times. I liked this, because even if I didn’t agree with some of the really outrageous things he was saying, it still felt authentic as to how this guy would see the world, and there was enough truth in his ideas for most people to relate to on some level.
Despite its flaws, I still thought this was a really good movie. I thought a lot about this movie a lot in the days after I watched it, and I still think about some of the ideas and issues that it brings up months after watching it. Probably the only other movie I’ve watched recently that made me think this much was Requiem for a Dream. Not everyone is going to like this movie. It’s relatively dark (though it’s nothing compared to Requiem), but I think that it’s an interesting film, and I was surprised by how much I liked it. I watched it mainly for Ryan Gosling’s performance, but I ended up getting a lot more out of it.
Alright. So I’m starting to get a bit sick of writing and reading about the same movies all the time – especially when we’re talking about current movies. Yes, There Will Be Blood and The Dark Knight are amazing movies. But to make things a little more interesting, I’ve decided to start reviewing less well-known movies. Here’s my review for the 2007 indie film, Wristcutters: A Love Story.
Wristcutters: A Love Story examines the idea of purgatory for those who have attempted suicide. After slashing his wrists, Zia (Patrick Fugit) finds himself in a place that is much like earth, but merely a little more bleak and depressing. In the afterlife, he meets up with a self-destructive musician, and a girl, Mikal, who claims she is there by mistake. When Zia hears that his ex-girlfriend has also killed herself, the trio goes on a road trip in hopes of finding her. When they stumble across a mystical campsite run by a thespian (Tom Waits), things in the movie really take a turn for the weirder. Will Arnett even pops up in a really bizarre (and wildly miscast) role before the film finally finds a way to come to a satisfying conclusion.
Wristcutters is a thought-provoking, interesting film, but it suffers a bit from the odd, plot-heavy second half. I feel that the human interest slant of the film’s beginning was its stronger suit. One of the best scenes of the film takes place when Zia goes to dinner at his musician friend’s house, and discovers that his friend’s mother, father, and younger brother have also “offed” themselves, and they are all now living as a (sort of) happy family in this semi-Hell. This kind of black humour runs rampant through the entire film, and many scenes are genuinely funny. The aforementioned “love story” aspect is also very cute, and helps to lighten up the slightly cumbersome second half.
Though Patrick Fugit plays a character that is similar to his work in Almost Famous, I think Fugit does a great job here. Zia is very likeable, but also a bit of a sap, and Fugit probably plays a loveable fish-out-of-water better than any other actor his age. His wry delivery suits the film’s black humour, and I have to give Fugit a lot of credit for making grim subject matter unexpectedly fun. Strong supporting performances make the absurd story seem believable, as does the beautiful cinematography. The shots of the stark, depressing “American” landscape manage to be off-putting and beautiful at the same time.
The film itself is rather contradictory, and it seems like that’s its purpose. Suicide is shown in a very vivid way (we see exactly how many of the characters wound up in purgatory), yet the whole thing seems a little bit humorous, and almost beautiful. That’s not to say that the film glorifies suicide, but it takes a stance on it that’s both light-hearted and bleak, and manages to pull it off. The storyline about cult-ish religious fanaticism has been done to death (no pun intended), so that aspect seems less fresh, despite the fact that the film is examining it from the other side of the mortality line.
Wristcutters is not a perfect film, but it has so many positive attributes that a dud character here or there (sorry, Will Arnett. You’re still awesome.) and a bit of plot trouble doesn’t hold it back too much. The film’s really unique feel, along with great performances, make Wristcutters a must-see for anyone who enjoys offbeat movies, or who is just sick of the blandness that Hollywood usually offers up.
20. Beyond – Dinosaur Jr.
Dinosaur Jr.’s 2007 comeback initially seemed to be under the radar, but then Beyond (the band’s first album in ten years) was met with great critical acclaim. It seems as the guys managed to please their original fans, and gain new ones, with their fuzzy anthems. The songs are great, and Beyond kind of picks up where Bug left off.
19. Ashtray Rock – Joel Plaskett Emergency
Joel Plaskett’s another one of those well-kept Canadian secrets. His band’s 2007 disc, Ashtray Rock, made the short list for the annual Polaris Prize, only to lose out to Patrick Watson (he lost to Fucked Up this year). There’s lots of fun to be found on Ashtray Rock, as well as some genuinely lovely moments, like the shimmering “The Glorious Life”.
18. Icky Thump – The White Stripes
I’m not really sure what to make of this album. I’m a huge White Stripes fan, but I’m still not able to connect with Icky Thump the way that I can with all of their other albums. It has some great songs (“Effect and Cause” is my favourite), but I think it just seems too calculated to me. But anything put out by the White Stripes is still better than most of the other music around.
17. Into the Wild – Eddie Vedder
Based on a lot of exasperating technicalities, Eddie Vedder’s soundtrack for the 2007 film, Into the Wild was not nominated for either of the songwriting Academy Awards. This collection of the songs that he wrote for the film (with a few instrumental tracks) is really lovely. It’s much more tender than anything Pearl Jam has done. You can decide if that’s a good thing or not.
16. A Weekend in the City – Bloc Party
I’m not really sure how one would classify this music, but whatever it is, I really like it. I’m not a big expert on Bloc Party, but when I first heard A Weekend in the City (their sophomore effort), I was immediately drawn to their sound. Their first album (which I’m yet to hear) seems to be more beloved among fans, but I’m not sure how they could be disappointed with this.
15. Welcome to the Night Sky – Wintersleep
Halifax, Nova Scotia makes its second appearance on this list in the form of Wintersleep. These guys had something of a hit with their first single off this album, “Weighty Ghost”. I was surprised to hear how much their style varies (“Oblivion” sounds like some especially good Interpol), and I think the entire album is really solid.
14. The Story – Brandi Carlisle
Apparently, Brandi Carlisle’s voice has been compared to Thom Yorke. I have listened to her music specifically trying to pick out the resemblance, but I don’t get it at all. But nonetheless, her music is great in its own right. Her songs are heartfelt and searing, and I think that it’s the emotion (which this album has heaps of) that is Carlise’s strongest suit.
13. The Stage Names – Okkervil River
This is one album on here that I just recently got around to listening to, and it caught my attention right away. I guess Okkervil River has a classically “indie” kind of sound, but I like it. Their songs are so impeccably written, and it seems like they have a lasting quality to them.
12. Cease to Begin – Band of Horses
This is where I began to have a lot of trouble putting the rest of the list in order. These twelve albums are all great, and I could probably justify putting any of them at the top spot. Cease to Begin has kind of an ethereal, slightly haunting sound that I really liked. There are lots of great songs to be found, including “Cigarettes, Wedding Bands”.
11. We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank – Modest Mouse
This album probably could have cracked the top five if they’d shaved a few songs off the track listing, since I’m generally biased towards shorter albums. But there are definitely some great songs on here, and I really like the addition of Johnny Marr on guitar. The Shins’ James Mercer also does some great guest vocals on a few tracks (most notably on “Missed the Boat”).
10. Era Vulgaris – Queens of the Stone Age
Queens of the Stone Age are one of the most popular hard rock bands to emerge in the new millennium, and Era Vulgaris is a great example of why this is the case. It may not have a hit as catchy as “No One Knows”, but the whole album is a fantastic mix of hard rock and solid songwriting. Josh Homme has one of the best voices in rock, too.
9. Easy Tiger – Ryan Adams
Ryan Adams is undoubtedly one of the most prolific songwriters around, and he kept up with his album-per-year standard with Easy Tiger. It’s probably one of his most consistent and listenable solo albums to date. I also think that “Two” and “Halloweenhead” are two incredible additions to Adams’ already impressive catalogue.
8. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga – Spoon
No one writes a pop song quite like Spoon. The first single off Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, “The Underdog”, was one of my favourite songs of ’07. The album has a bit of a Beatles influence to it, in a very enjoyable way. Even if I’m in a terrible mood, this album is likely to make me smile.
7. In Rainbows – Radiohead
Kid A and Hail to the Thief lost me a bit with their heavy electronic influence, so I was glad to hear that In Rainbows was (somewhat) of a return to their earlier sound, circa The Bends. I think this is probably their fourth best album. And when the band I’m talking about is Radiohead, that’s no small feat.
6. Wincing the Night Away – The Shins
The Shins released their third stellar album of the decade with Wincing the Night Away. “Phantom Limb” and “Australia” are two tracks that jumped out at me immediately, but the rest of the album soon grew on me in a big way. It’s too hard to pick my favourite Shins record. I’ll say it’s a three-way tie for first place.
5. Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace – Foo Fighters
The Foo Fighters are constantly proving that they’re so much better than the “post-grunge” label that lazy critics slap onto them. Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace has some fantastic, catchy hits, and hidden gems like “Summer’s End” and “Stranger Things Have Happened”. It’s some of their best work yet. Grohl seem to just get better with age.
4. Cassadaga – Bright Eyes
2007 may have been a bad year for Conor Oberst’s hair, but it was a perfectly wonderful time for his music. Oberst decided to embrace his country roots by taking a pilgrimage to…Florida? Seriously, though, Cassadaga is a great album, and it’s nice to see Bright Eyes expand their sound. There are lots of brilliant songs here, but I think that “Classic Cars” is my favourite.
3. New Wave – Against Me!
These Florida punks got a lot of flak for “selling-out” with New Wave, but it also gained them a lot of new fans (like yours truly). I’ve gone back, and I really like their older stuff too, but I think that New Wave is their masterpiece, so far. New Wave pretty much had a permanent spot in my CD player during late 2007/early 2008, and I connected to it in a way that I rarely do with new albums.
2. Neon Bible – Arcade Fire
2004′s Funeral earned Arcade Fire major acclaim, but I much prefer their follow-up, Neon Bible. The thing that I like most about this album is the atmosphere that they created. Each song has a specific feel to it, but the whole album is amazingly cohesive. “Intervention” is easily one of the best songs of the decade, and every song on the album feels like it serves a specific purpose.
1. Boxer – The National
How could this band possibly have released a better album than Against Me! and the Arcade Fire? It’s hard to explain, but it feels like everything came together perfectly on Boxer. The songs are aching and sombre, and Matt Berninger’s voice suits the mood beautifully. In a time when singles and ringtones are measures of success, I have so much respect for a band that can make an entire album that is this amazing.
I wasn’t planning to write about this today. I wasn’t really planning to write about anything, actually. I have a couple of entries waiting patiently to be finished. But I just stumbled across a blog review of 2004′s The United States of Leland, and it kind of inspired me, in a weird way.
I’m not going to post the link to this blog, because I don’t want to embarrass the writer, or insult them. Because there really wasn’t anything wrong with this young writer’s review. It was just very, very earnest. And it kind of got me thinking. I saw The United States of Leland a few months ago, and I really liked it. I actually connected to it in somewhat similar ways that this blogger did. I’m eighteen (seventeen when I saw it), which I think is past the height of teen angst. For me, I think finishing high school is kind of equal to finishing feeling sorry for your teenage self. I was pretty miserable in high school. I just want to say this to anyone who might be reading this and having a shitty time in high school: It gets better. I’m in university now, and even though I may not be making a ton of friends or feeling totally at home, I just love that it’s not high school. Occasionally, I’ll be sitting in class, and I’ll hear a couple of idiots sitting behind me and making fun of the professor, and even though I might want to punch them in the head, I almost don’t mind. Because at least it’s not like that all the time, like it was in high school. But anyways, the point is, I think my teen angst peaked in grade ten or eleven, and I’m just relieved that the end of my teen years is in sight.
During grade ten and eleven, I felt so disconnected. It was all of those emotions that self-proclaimed “misfits” feel. Yet I’m pretty sure that I expressed these feelings in the same way that every outsider has for decades before me. And I’m positive that many future generations of losers like me will think the same thoughts, listen to the same music, and watch the same movies. You know the stuff that I’m talking about. I have multiple journals filled with insufferable ranting. I would probably die of embarrassment if anyone read those journals, but it was such a big part of my life, I can’t imagine that I’ll ever get rid of those hundreds of incriminating pages.
I spent two solid years (I’m going to say 2006 and 2007) listening to Nirvana obsessively. I don’t think that my parents saw Kurt Cobain as a great role model (especially compared to former celebrity crushes of mine, which included Taylor Hanson and Michael J. Fox), but I, like every other weird teenager, basked in his poor hygiene, nonsense lyrics, and general brooding. Throw in an assortment of other 90′s alt-mopers, and you’ve pretty much got my first three years of high school. And don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m “beyond” any of that stuff now. I still think Nirvana’s great, and I have to pat my fifteen-year-old self on the back for discovering Jeff Buckley. But I don’t put as much stock into it as I used to, I guess. Part of me is a little sad about that. It was kind of nice to feel so passionately about something. But I think I have a little bit more perspective on it all now (I realize that I sound horribly pretentious right now).
A band like Nirvana is great, but they’re job is to sell records. If Kurt Cobain really didn’t want the spotlight, they never would’ve gotten past the Bleach days. I’d read the criticism about him when I was younger, and I’d dismiss it. When I would read articles saying that Kurt Cobain constructed his whole persona and played up the “voice of a generation” label by making all these purposely “meaningful” statements in interviews, I’d be disgusted and think that the writer just didn’t understand what he was all about. That I was the only one who truly understood what he was trying to say. I haven’t become one of those jaded critics yet, but I think that I can see it all more clearly for what it is. Or rather, maybe I can see it less clearly, but more correctly. I didn’t know Kurt Cobain personally, nor did the vast majority of those writers. So how are we supposed to know what he was really like? I think it’s great to get into a band’s music so much, but to worship a musician whose entire public persona has been both built and warped by the media isn’t going to accomplish much. I couldn’t connect to the people my age at school, so I latched onto this famous guy (a dead one, at that) just to feel some kind of connection to another person. But at this point, someone like Kurt Cobain isn’t really a person any more, as far as fans see him. I think that only a teenager can have that kind of profoundly fucked up connection.
And as far as books go, my two favourites were The Catcher in the Rye and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Actually, they probably still are my favourites. They capture what it’s like to be a teenager so well, and I think that’s why there are just as many people who hate them as there are who love them. They’re honest, but in the most obvious ways possible. It’s the same with cinematic angstfests like Donnie Darko, Rebel Without a Cause, Edward Scissorhands, and even Juno. I think that Juno’s relationship with Jason Bateman’s character, Mark, is one of the most brilliantly realistically portrayals of how a teenager sees the world. She sees Mark how she wants him to be. It’s horribly naive, and of course the rest of the world (including Mark) sees it differently, but it’s also wonderfully innocent.
I’m a couple of years too old to really latch onto some of the most recent trends, like the Twilight (though I have read all four books…) and Paramore (though their song “Hallelujah” is pretty catchy…) but I’m not too old to understand why they’re popular. It’s a thing that only teenagers can understand. Teenagers all feel so misunderstood, yet we all seem to latch onto the same things to reflect our supposed alienation from the rest of the world. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, yet it seems to be perfectly reasonable at the time. I mean, maybe that’s why I’m sitting here typing a thousand words about essentially nothing. It’s that kind of desperate attempt to connect to something in any kind of abstract way that seemed to pretty much define my life from the age of 13 to 17. But I think I’m finally starting to feel a little bit more comfortable in my skin. That’s not to say that I’m some kind of truly unique person, but I’m starting to realize that that’s alright.
It’s time to get excited, because the release of the highly anticipated Where the Wild Things Are is just around the corner. As if the captivating trailer and heart-warming childhood nostalgia weren’t enough to get me there, it’s directed by one of my absolute favourite directors, Spike Jonze. For someone who’s only previously directed two full-length films, Jonze has quite an impressive body of work. One could not make a proper list of groundbreaking music videos without multiple Jonze entries, if you ask me. He’s also behind some of the few truly inventive TV commercials out there, and he gave the amazing Charlie Kaufman a forum to share his writing skills with the world.
In anticipation of Where the Wild Things Are, I’ve decided to take a look at Spike Jonze’s already impressive career. This isn’t a comprehensive guide – it’s just some of my favourite work he’s done. And hopefully I’ll be able to give a little insight into why his work has inspired me so much.
Being John Malkovich
Written by: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: John Cusak, Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, and John Malkovich
After directing many seminal 90′s music videos (his sheer output alone in 1994 is impressive), Jonze got his first chance to try his hand at a full-length feature with Being John Malkovich. The movie has a bizarre premise about a portal that allows civilians to crawl into the mind of actor John Malkovich (playing himself in a brilliantly twisted performance). Of course, everything goes haywire. John Cusak plays a struggling puppeteer married to a considerably less glamorous Cameron Diaz. Everything about this film is inventive and a marvel to watch. Kaufman’s script is brilliant, and unexpectedly accessible (a trait that he would later dismiss with 2008′s Synecdoche, New York, his directorial debut. But that’s a different discussion.) Jonze’s vision is so clear, and he executes the concept flawlessly. Even though the movie is kooky and unconventional, it’s told in a disarmingly honest way. Both Jonze and Kaufman earned Academy Award nominations for their work here (as did Catherine Keener, for a supporting role), and what better way to start your film career than with a Best Director nomination?
Written by: Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep, and Chris Cooper
Jonze and Kaufman’s second project together was 2002′s Adaptation. Once again showing his love of blurring fiction and reality, Jonze’s film is about a writer named Charlie Kaufman, and his struggle to adapt a non-fiction book about orchids into a dynamic screenplay. Susan Orlean and her book exist in real life. Charlie Kaufman exists. His twin brother, Donald, does not. Nicholas Cage plays dual roles as Charlie and Donald, and I love how the film takes that concept of the twins all the way (I believe Donald Kaufman was the first fictional person to be nominated for an Academy Award.) Being John Malkovich is a cinematic feat, because of its inventive concept, and the world that Jonze created. But I think that I actually enjoyed Adaptation. more. It’s incredibly funny. Kaufman’s script is so sharp, and Jonze’s direction matches the tone perfectly. It’s a much more understated film (well, until it hits its wonderfully ironic third act), but it still has so much of Jonze’s signature off-kilter charm. In a film dominated by fantastic performances (all three leads were nominated for an Oscar, with Cooper winning Best Supporting Actor), it could be easy to coast on their charisma alone. But Jonze is just as much a part of this film as they are. Every scene is infused with his voice, without it dominating. His films are stylish, but the direction doesn’t take over. It’s sarcastic and biting, just like much of Jonze’s work, but still so much fun.
Where the Wild Things Are
Written by: Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers
Starring: Max Records, Catherine Keener, and voices of James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano, Forrest Whitaker, and Paul Dano
To be honest, I don’t actually know a whole lot about this film. I’ve watched the trailer a few times, and I know basically what it’s about. But I’m trying not to build my expectations too ridiculously high. The fact that it’s co-written by Dave Eggers is reason enough to be excited. His beloved 2000 memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was inventive, and much more enjoyable than one might expect, given the potentially grim subject matter (Eggers parents both died within months of each other, and as a young adult, he was left to essentially raise his considerably younger brother). I hope that this movie won’t suffer from the hype surrounding it, and hopefully audiences and their very high expectations won’t be let down.
The Music Videos
I am by no means an expert on Jonze’s music video career. There are still plenty that I haven’t seen, but these are just a few of his works that have really caught my attention. I tried to give an overview of the span of his career, somewhat chronologically.
Weezer – “Buddy Holly” (1994)
This is perhaps one of Spike Jonze’s best known and most beloved works. The members of Weezer perform at choice Happy Days hangout, Arnold’s, and they’ve been seamlessly inserted into old footage from the show. They interact with Joanie and Fonzie, and flirt with the girls – pissing Ritchie Cunningham off in the process. The concept is foolproof, and Jonze executes the video perfectly to give it the right look and feel. The Weezer guys have a lot of fun hamming it up. But in a song about Buddy Holly, why isn’t Rivers wearing his own famous, Holly-esque specs?
Beastie Boys – “Sabotage” (1994)
Another one of Jonze’s classic videos came from 1994. This time, it’s an ode to old cop TV shows. The results are hilarious, and pretty epic, too. If any band knows how to not take themselves too seriously, it’s the Beastie Boys. They look like they’re having so much fun here. The editing is really quite amazing, and Jonze’s direction keeps the video fast-paced and fun. Some might say that Jonze’s work is respected in spite of its goofiness, but I think his light-hearted touch is exactly why he succeeds.
Wax – “California” (1995)
This is definitely more conceptual than Jonze’s more popular works (it’s also the image on the cover of the DVD boxed set of his work…it’s on my Christmas list.) Not a lot happens, but the whole video is weirdly captivating. The visual is so simple, but beautiful, in a stark kind of way.
Bjork – “It’s Oh So Quiet” (1995)
Here, Spike Jonze takes a rather inaccessible artist, and creates a video that’s lovely and fun, but still very artistic. I think the video captures the general whimsy that seems so come along with Bjork’s persona. And I’ve recently realized that no one does a seemingly impromptu dance number quite like Spike Jonze (“Praise You” music video features a similar theme). That seems a little odd, but considering that he got his start with skateboarding videos, I guess it makes sense that he is so naturally drawn to movement. Perhaps Feist’s famous “1234″ video took a cue from Jonze’s work here?
Fatboy Slim – “Weapon of Choice” (2000)
It’s three minutes of Christopher Walken dancing and flying around. If this doesn’t make you smile, you don’t deserve to be watching a Spike Jonze video. I especially like the scene with the mirrors. And the part where he gets in the elevator, and waits until it opens to resume dancing, is classic. It’s all so well done.
Weezer – “Island in the Sun” (Version 2) (2002)
Alright, maybe I can forgive you for not smiling at the Christopher Walken video. Maybe. But if this doesn’t make you feel all warm insdie, then I hate to break it to you, but you have no soul. Just in case Bjork and Christopher Walken weren’t cuddly enough for you, why not take a moment to admire puppies chasing a baby chimpanzee? Even Rivers Cuomo’s occasionally curmudgeonly heart has been warmed, clearly. Oh, and I feel like an idiot saying this, considering the plethora of baby animals running around, but how adorable is Weezer’s guitar player?
Phantom Planet – Big Brat (2003)
Spike Jonze’s music video output has dropped off since 2000 (for obvious reasons), but clearly he hasn’t lost his touch. Phantom Planet is probably best known for their song “California” (aka the theme song to The O.C., just in case you’re over the age of 25), but this is actually a pretty cool song, and an even cooler video. It starts out as a laid-back hangout video, and then turns into a make-shift zombie production. Zombies always go over well, and it’s a blast watching them come up with creative, low-budget ways to make blood and organs.
Kanye West – “Flashing Lights” (2007)
I first saw this video just a few days ago. My first reaction was something along the lines of “…”, but as I thought about it more over the course of a few hours and days, I realised that it had a weird kind of impact on me. It’s deceptively simple, and the ending is really jarring (I know everyone hates Kanye now, because he – once again – confirmed that he was a dick during this year’s annual VMA water cooler moment, but I doubt Taylor Swift would wish that upon him). I think that this will probably hold up well over time, and be yet another entry in Jonze’s cannon of groundbreaking videos.
These are just a couple of ads that helped Jonze to receive a nomination for the “Outstanding Achievement in Commercials in 2005″ award from the Directors Guild of America. They’ve definately got his signature style and humour.
Ikea Ad – Lamp
Gap Ad – “Pardon Our Dust”
The multi-talented Jonze has also worked as an actor in films like Three Kings. He was a creator and executive producer of the MTV hit show, Jackass, and helped to produce both of the movies. He was an executive producer for the documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad, and helped to produce Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York. He also has several short films to his name, and multiple alter egos (including “Spike Jonze”. Believe it or not, that was not, in fact, his birth name. Try Adam Spiegel).
With the upcoming release of Where The Whild Things Are, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City is hosting a 10-day event to honour his work. In a fascinating piece in the New York Times published last month, they note that the costume department for Wild Things was larger than the entire crew of Being John Malkovich. It’s obviously his biggest piece yet. At the age of 39, Jonze’s accomplishments are quite impressive, and it looks like Where The Wild Things Are is only going to bring him more recognition.
I saw the Canadian film One Week a couple of months ago, and I thought I’d share a review that I wrote up after watching it:
No one can accuse this movie of hiding its Canadian roots. All of the maple leafs, “world’s largest” landmarks, and Tim Horton’s roll-up-the-rim coffee cups will look very, very familiar to anyone who’s ever set foot in our great nation. And while serving double duty as a Canadian travel brochure, One Week also manages to tell an emotional, captivating story.
The set-up is fairly simple. Joshua Jackson (of Dawson’s Creek “fame”) plays Ben, a suppressed English teacher who is told that he’s dying from cancer, and has only a 10% chance of survival. Before he becomes a “patient”, Ben is determined to have an adventure. He buys a second-hand motorcycle, heads west, and nearly gives his fiancé, Sam, an aneurysm in the process. Self-discovery, unexpectedly meaningful encounters, and beautiful landscapes ensue.
From the backdrop to the music to the cast, everything about One Week is incredibly Canadian. This is no Hollywood blockbuster. And in this case, that’s a really good thing. Example of Canadian-ness: Gord Downie has a small but vital role as one of the many fascinating people Ben meets on his journey (and he shows his acting chops, giving an unexpectedly touching performance). Even though I may be a little biased towards any movie that features Joel Plaskett as a busker, I thought One Week was an all-around good movie.
Some may cringe at the idea of narrative voice over and “dream sequences”, but I felt they worked nicely here towards the film’s off-beat appeal. These slightly screwy diversions didn’t always completely work, but many – including one featuring a postmodern victory dance – added a lot of personality to what could have been a generic story.
The cinematography is lovely, of course, and the scenery plays just as crucial of a part as anything else. Though not geographically practical, it would have been nice to see Ben explore the east coast. But the shots of Northern Ontario and the prairies were really breathtaking.
Jackson does a nice job, too. The film wouldn’t have worked without his total commitment to the role. There are not a lot of big, emotional scenes, despite Ben’s condition (which is a good thing – it makes for more impact when we do get to see the barriers come down), but Jackson portrays the introverted suffering of this young man well.
This is a movie with humour, truth, and real human drama. One Week feels authentically Canadian, and just plain authentic.
It’s official. I’m a hypocrite.
I think it’s lame when people have the entire Spice Girls discography on their ipods. I’m all for nostalgia, but I guess I take my music a bit too seriously. I loved The Backstreet Boys and The Spice Girls just as much as the next person when I was eight, but come on. It’s time to move on.
Oh, wait. I’m the one currently listening to “This Time Around” by Hanson.
Let me explain. I was listening to some of Tinted Windows’ (featuring Taylor Hanson on lead vocals) music, since I’m working on an upcoming post about “supergroups”. The song “Messing With My Head” kind of caught my attention for its catchy, Hanson-esque vibe. So then I decided to casually investigate Hanson’s MySpace. They’re still trying to be taken seriously as a legitimate band (good luck with that) so there wasn’t much of their older stuff posted. But I did find myself blasting “This Time Around” and “Penny and Me”. And the weird thing is, I’m not that embarrassed about it. I’ve kept a few of my 90′s pop CDs because I couldn’t bear to part with them, but I don’t actually listen to them. And I don’t like any of the new boybands, like the Jonas Brothers (Brunette Hanson?) But for some reason I’ve got a soft spot for Hanson. I know they’re all married and have a gaggle of Hanson Jrs running around now, but they’re still fun. And I kind of legitimately like some of their songs. I faced derision from my older cousins back when I was eight for liking them. I wonder what they would think now…
Hanson circa 1997 with acoustic “Mmmbop” (because apparently it’s necessary to go acoustic so we can catch all of the subtleties of this one…)
(Wow, my cousin was right. Taylor really did like a girl. And I love the woman at the beginning of the video, by the way.)
Newer Hanson (alright, it’s a little lame, but I love this song anyways):