Jason Reitman scored big with his sophomore effort, about a brainy teenage girl who finds herself pregnant and decides to give the baby up for adoption. Ellen Page put herself on the map with her performance as Juno, delivering screenwriter Diablo Cody's quirky nerdspeak convincingly and naturally. Not many actresses would be able to make this dialogue work, but Page weaves it right into the character so we're able to identify with her. The film is full of wonderful and engaging supporting performances, such as J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney as Juno's father and stepmother. Both characters are gruff and brutally frank but still supportive and loving, and it's refreshing to see such realistic parent characters in a film. Their relationship with Juno is just as you'd expect a healthy one to be under the circumstances. The other two major characters are the intended adoptive parents, played by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner. Garner's character is played as slightly neurotic and uptight, while Bateman's cool charisma and affinity for alternative rock naturally draws Juno to him. As the film wears on the dynamic between her and the adoptive parents changes very unexpectedly. Juno is a splendid mix of quirky comedy and light drama - a real triumph for Reitman and co.
4. Across the Universe
What an unusual film this is. Director Julie Taymor and screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais managed to build an entire story around the music of The Beatles, using rich, beautifully surrealistic visuals and pretty well-fleshed out characters. Set in the 60s, the story concerns Jude (one of many characters named after Beatles songs), a young man from Liverpool who seeks his fortune in America, and befriends a college dropout named Max and Max's sister Lucy. The three of them move to Greenwich Village and live out all the typical late 60s adventures, getting involved in music, art, drugs, and anti-war protests. Apart from the amazing computer-enhanced visual effects, what struck me about the film was the unrestrained love of The Beatles' music with which the film was assembled. These new versions of their songs are both faithful and completely original, maintaining the spirit of the originals without at all just being soundalike recordings. The songs lyrics are also used to drive the story, as though they were written specifically for the film. The two renditions that immediately stick out for me are "With a Little Help from My Friends," used in a scene where Jude, Max and their pals go on an all-night drinking bender; and "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," used both to illustrate certain characters' romantic infatuation with other characters, and Max's draft board examination. The latter reinterprets the lyrics quite cleverly to make them fit the scene. All in all, Across the Universe is a real treat for any Beatles fan, containing striking reimaginings of their classic songs but also rife with visual inventiveness and characters that manage to avoid being stock. Check this one out.
3. No Country for Old Men
The Coen Brothers add another benchmark to their portfolio with this faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Neo-Western thriller. Josh Brolin stars as the protagonist Llewellyn Moss, who by chance happens upon a drug deal gone wrong with no survivors and snares a satchel filled with cash. Unbeknownst to him, the architect of the drug deal has sent a hitman named Anton Chigurh to retrive the money. Chigurh is played as a merciless wraith of a killing machine by Javier Bardem, in a fearsome Oscar-winning performance. The character of Chigurh is deceptively complex, both chilling and uncomfortably funny at times. This is one of the all-time great film villains. Much of the film is a brutally suspenseful cat-and-mouse game between these two characters, but just a step behind them is a local Sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones, who supplies the audience point of view in a world gone completely insane. The Jones character helps us try to understand the action; to try and make sense of the senseless. The story plays out in sudden and astonishing ways, setting this film apart from its genre and reminding us that The Coens are unequivocally master filmmakers.
2. There Will Be Blood
In Daniel Plainview, There Will Be Blood's hateful protagonist, Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis have created one of the most fascinating and memorable characters in cinema history. Plainview is a turn-of-the-century oil man who slowly builds an empire in the southwest. He is a manipulative, unscrupulous businessman who uses his adopted son to help establish trust with the townspeople he intends to bilk for their oil-rich land. Day-Lewis once again transforms into his character, making Plainview a rancorous, violent fiend. At the center of There Will Be Blood is a power struggle between Plainview and one of the townspeople of Little Boston, CA: a young preacher named Eli Sunday, whose drive to attract converts to his church rivals Plainview's own ambition to amass his fortune. In an odd way these two characters battle for the soul of the town, but it's clear neither of them is very honest or likable. It's soulless business vs. corrupt religion, and the filmmakers skillfully demonize both. The structure of this film almost seems like an homage to Stanley Kubrick, with long wordless passages at the outset establishing mood and environment, and introspective characters who play their hands close to the vest. But Paul Thomas Anderson as always makes this film a distinctive work of his own, loosely adapting Upton Sinclair's novel Oil! There Will Be Blood is one of the most original films of the past twenty years and is carried by a truly tour de force performance. For both Anderson and Day-Lewis, despite their amazing respective bodies of work, this is likely to be the film by which each is most remembered and revered.
1. Rescue Dawn
Legendary German director Werner Herzog delivers the best film of his long career with Rescue Dawn, the true story of German-American Vietnam pilot Dieter Dengler whose plane was shot down near Laos in 1966, leading to his capture and imprisonment. Dengler spent months in a camp with little food before finally escaping through the jungle. Christian Bale once again altered his physical appearance for the role, shedding significant weight to play the near-starved pilot. Bale adds another spectacular performance to his already impressive career, struggling to maintain a sense of hope and determination in a seemingly impossible plight. Other standouts include Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies as other American soldiers with whom Dengler is imprisoned. Both characters have spent ungodly amounts of time in the prison camp and are clinging tenuously to their last strands of sanity, while Dengler attempts to remain optimistic and engineer their escape. Herzog as usual makes use of real locations in order to immerse the audience in the story. The film was shot in the Thai jungle which enhances its authenticity and allows us to fully appreciate the oppressiveness of the setting, while simultaneously providing a staggeringly picturesque backdrop. Herzog's films strive for palpable realism - this is a director whom, while shooting his film Fitzcarraldo, actually had his crew drag a 320-ton steamship over a hill from one waterway to another - and with Rescue Dawn we are plunged into the worst hell on earth as we suffer along with Dieter, experiencing his disorientation, his dread, his isolation, and ultimately his triumph.
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