Blogs > Cinematic for the People

A sometimes snarky, mostly reverent look at the movies from a die-hard fan who came of age during the Tarantino era but is fully aware that filmmaking didn't begin with Pulp Fiction — it just took a pretty awesome detour there along the way.
From the multiplex to the art house to the grindhouse — and of course, the home theater, too — you'll find it all covered here.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

This month: Nick's picks for the best of the 00s

After a long hiatus from blogging, I’ve decided to return with probably the most ambitious (and totally pigheaded) thing you’re ever likely to see here at good ol’ Cinematic for the People: a 50-film list of my picks for the best of the past decade.

Had I planned way ahead of time to put one of these together? Honestly, nope. Heck, it wasn’t even until I saw the first “Best of the 00s” list appear on a film review site a couple of months back that it dawned on me this decade was ending at all (what can I say, I’ve been pretty busy). Ten years used to seem like a pretty long time, but man, it feels like just yesterday that I was contemplating Y2K and telling anybody who’d listen how good Fight Club was. And now here we are, ten years into the millennium that Stanley Kubrick predicted would begin with humanity’s first contact with an alien intelligence (I’m still pretty bummed that that didn’t happen), and all I can think is…

… Damn, I’ve seen a lot of movies since 2000.

So, since everyone else seems to be throwing together lists of their favorite films of the “oughts” – check out a few here and here – I thought maybe I should take a stab at it, as well. Not only does it give me a chance to recall the movie moments that have wowed me over the last ten years, but it’s also a great opportunity to show some love for a lot of films that probably didn’t appear on a lot of other folks’ lists.

Let that second thing serve as a bit of a disclaimer: some of my picks are surely going to piss you off. If you’ve stopped by this blog before, you know that my taste in film is all over the place – I’m equally enamored with well-made Hollywood blockbusters as I am with stately foreign films and audacious indie efforts, and while I like a lot of the same filmmakers as the majority of critics do, I tend to gravitate toward the “underdog” movies of their respective careers (I can feel the hate already for the Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Spielberg films that land highest on my list).

But, as I’ve said before, the best part about making lists like this – and, really, the only reason why I’d ever do one – is that inevitably get people thinking about what films they’ve appreciated and why they loved them. My opinion is my opinion, it’s no more valid than anyone else’s, and the only reason I’m putting it out there is that I hope it inspires some argument, some agreement, maybe some anger, and – fingers crossed – at least a little bit of discussion. Feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me ( with your picks, your thoughts, or whatever else you want to say.

Check back in a couple of days for picks #50 through #41; I’ll be rolling out the rest over the next couple of weeks.

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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

If this doesn't make your day...

More substantial blogging to come, soon (I promise...). But this, I just had to share:

It's yet another bit of proof for Scalia's General Theory of Walken Relativity:

Anything + Christopher Walken = Awesome.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The VHS era lives on... Sort of.

Well, this certainly brought back memories.

The site linked above, which I first came across thanks to indie film guru Bill Cunningham's excellent Pulp 2.0 blog, is a huge repository of VHS box art from the golden age of the now-extinct home video format. Having spent an inordinate amount of time trolling the shelves of video rental joints when I was a kid, I’ve seen – in real life – quite a few of the 2,600+ boxes that the site has on display. Of course, in most cases I can’t claim to have seen the actual movies these boxes once housed, but as was usually the case back then, the films could rarely live up to their awesome (or awesomely cheesy) cover art anyway.

I guess that’s what I miss most about the VHS era (because, hey, even I can’t make myself get all nostalgic about rewinding). Nowadays, anyone with even the most rudimentary Photoshop skills can slap together a pretty professional-looking piece of DVD box art; back when videotapes ruled the world, however, indie distributors had to work a whole lot harder to make their flicks stand out on store shelves amidst all the recognizable Hollywood fare. The box art was what sold the movie – and even if the movie was a 75-minute crapfest shot for 40 bucks in somebody’s backyard, an eye-catching hand-painted cover (or, at very least, one displaying some strategically placed cleavage) could make it seem just as appealing to potential viewers as the latest Schwarzenegger flick.*

Of course, if you peruse the site, you’ll see some truly atrocious attempts at artwork along with all the good stuff. But nevertheless I think today’s independent filmmakers and distributors can learn a lot from these relics of the “Be Kind, Rewind” days. Now that we can market our films online through a variety of channels, we need to take full advantage of the media at our disposal – a great-looking MySpace page, for example, packed with slick-looking graphic design and visual elements that grab the viewer from the get-go (even if that entails little more than strategically placed cleavage) will really help your self-produced bargain-basement epic reach viewers that might normally only go for the professionally marketed major-studio stuff. I’m not exactly suggesting that the internet is like one huge, globe-spanning video store – it’ll never be quite that much fun – but as a filmmaker trying to get your work seen by the masses, it still couldn’t hurt to think of it that way.

*Yes, kids, the governor of California was once an actor in the movies. How his incredible work in the searing crime drama Kindergarten Cop was not recognized by the Academy I’ll never know.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

This exists...

... And I'm not quite sure how I feel about it.

(I'll spare you the obligatory Richard Gere joke.)

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Friday, February 13, 2009

A first look at QT's 'Inglourious Basterds'

It’s no secret that I’m a huge admirer of Quentin Tarantino’s films, to the point where I generally avoid the subject in public – lest I come off as some kind of obsessive drooling fanboy who tosses aside all critical objectivity every time someone says word one about QT.

But, since the teaser trailer for Tarantino’s latest, the Dirty Dozen-style WWII adventure Inglourious Basterds, was released earlier this week, please allow me to toss aside all critical objectivity and come off as some kind of obsessive drooling fanboy for just a moment:


Okay, rational Nick is back now. And rational Nick remembers that he found QT’s last film, the half of Grindhouse known as Death Proof, deeply disappointing on a whole lot of levels (not so Robert Rodriguez’s half, the delightfully disgusting zombie epic Planet Terror, which I loved). So even a guy like me has to take the hype for Inglourious Basterds with a grain of salt, despite how exciting this well-put-together teaser trailer may be. I’m not saying that QT has lost his mojo or anything – heck, a lot of folks really liked Death Proof – but the war-film genre is untested territory for him, and already there’s been a low rumble of complaining from fans on the web who aren’t quite buying Brad Pitt’s “I want my scalps” bit from the trailer.

But I’m confident that Tarantino will surprise us all once again with Basterds, just as he did with the Kill Bills – a pair of films I wasn’t entirely sold on when I first read about them, but have come to appreciate just as much as all his others.

A few assorted things about the trailer:

1. This flick looks violent. Like, seriously violent. I know over-the-top bloodletting has been a staple of QT’s cinema from the grue-spattered opening of Reservoir Dogs onward, but something in this trailer makes me think that Inglourious Basterds is going to significantly up the ante even for him. Aside from Pitt’s character’s “disemboweled, dismembered, and disfigured” speech – which elicits a sick little smile from co-star Eli Roth – we also get a baseball-bat-to-the-head bit that’s tough enough to watch even in TV-sanitized form, a character charging through a building with minigun blazing, a guy with a swastika carved into his forehead (yowch!), and so on. Some will argue that stylishly horrific violence is all QT had going for him in the first place, but I strongly disagree – and I hope that this film offsets its nastiness with humor, intelligence, and personality just as skillfully as his earlier films did.

2. The teaser trailer offers only a few quick glimpses of Melanie Laurent’s character, a Jewish girl who has fled from the Nazis, even though her role is supposedly a pretty big piece of the overall story. I’m really interested to see what Tarantino does with this character, since it seems as if she appeared rather late in Basterds’ very, very long development cycle. If anybody can successfully shoehorn a hard-boiled heroine into an otherwise testosterone-drenched Dirty Dozen/Magnificent Seven-type setup, it’s Tarantino, and his knack for crafting memorable female characters (The Bride, Jackie Brown, Mia Wallace, etc.) bodes well for Laurent’s contribution to the film.

3. That Hitler thing at the end is really, really corny. If that’s the payoff to something, I hope whatever it is is very well set up.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

At long last, the Best Films of 2008...

A month late and, as always, several dollars short, I humbly present to you my list of the best movies from a year that’s already beginning to feel like ancient history – you know, the kind of history that Indiana Jones used to be interested in before the day he blasted off in an enchanted nuke-proof refrigerator and crash-landed in a second-rate knockoff of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (actually, I liked Crystal Skull, but don’t be shocked that it didn’t make this list).

One caveat: I still, regrettably, have not seen one or two films that I may at some point need to retroactively add. One was Gran Torino, which I probably couldn’t be all that objective about anyway, bearing in mind how awesome I consider Clint Eastwood’s politics, his personality, and the way he says “Get off my lawn” in the trailer. Another is Rachel Getting Married, which looks like a terrific film that I nevertheless didn’t feel quite up to seeing since I attended way more than my usual quota of actual weddings in 2008 (all of which, unlike that movie, were thankfully drama-free aside from one poor groom’s minor wardrobe malfunction).

But anyway, without further ado, here are my picks for the ten movies I appreciated the most last year. Feel free to debate, dispute, agree with, or respond with a hearty “meh” to them, and in the meantime I’ll get an early start to seeing the best of 2009, so maybe you’ll have next year’s list in a much more timely fashion.

10. The Dark Knight

Though a bit more convoluted than any superhero movie (or crime drama) really needs to be, The Dark Knight still overwhelmingly succeeds in its ambition to ground larger-than-life comic book action in a psychologically complex and physically believable universe. With a morally troubled hero (best-ever Bruce Wayne Christian Bale), a mesmerizingly soulless villain (Heath Ledger’s Joker), and a series of inventive and hard-hitting setpieces fleshing out their inevitable collision course – the opening bank robbery, the furiously kinetic vehicle chase, the Joker’s interrogation, etc. – director Christopher Nolan delivers blockbuster thrills without compromising his dark, complex, and operatic vision of good and evil in Gotham City. Ledger can’t be given enough credit for his contribution; his Joker is set to join Norman Bates and Hannibal Lector as one of the most memorable screen villains of all time.

9. Revolutionary Road

Director Sam Mendes explored suburban malaise with more wit and warmth in his debut, American Beauty, but Revolutionary Road is an admirable film in its own right, a dark and tragic period piece about a likable 50s-era married couple (Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio) who come to realize just how badly they’ve lied to themselves and each other in their pursuit of the so-called American Dream. It’s a masterfully directed, photographed, and acted film about the breakdown of a marriage – not due to a lack of love, but rather because of a lack of choices and of the courage to make the right ones. Michael Shannon gives one of the year’s best supporting performances as an unhinged yet oddly perceptive neighbor; Mendes, meanwhile, suffuses the entire film with heartbreak and raw emotion, proving once again that Hollywood “prestige pics” need not be dry, bloodless affairs.

8. Burn After Reading

The Coen Brothers’ latest certainly wasn’t the haunting apocalyptic dirge that was last year’s Best Picture-winning No Country for Old Men, but it still managed to showcase the sibling moviemaking duo in near-perfect form. A low-stakes comedic spy thriller poking fun at the ineffectuality of D.C.’s “intelligence” community, Burn After Reading features a trademark twisty Coen plot, a handful of hapless characters in way over their heads (portrayed by an excellent and totally game cast that includes George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, and Coens regular Frances McDormand), and one big, bloody surprise that’ll leave you dumbstruck. Funny as hell, cleverly orchestrated, and unflinchingly cynical, Burn After Reading is not the “minor” Coens effort that it’s been made out to be – personally, I think these guys just keep getting better at what they do.

7. Let the Right One In

Horror films don’t get much better than this chilling Swedish import, which – like a great Gothic novel – is as concerned with love, longing, and loss as it is with terror and bloodshed. The simple but gut-wrenching story centers on a meek 12-year-old boy (Kare Hedebrant) who reaches out to the shy, strangely daylight-averse girl (Lina Leandersson) who lives next door. She, of course, turns out to be a vampire, which casts a decidedly dark shadow over the puppy-love developing between them; the film revels in contrasting the innocence of childhood romance with the gruesome goings-on that are this genre’s stock in trade. It’s a horror movie with a heart, both scary and sad, and director Tomas Alfredson conjures up some truly haunting and frightening images along the way – some of them on the level of The Exorcist or The Shining.

6. The Fall

Little-seen and nearly unreleased in America – at least until filmmakers David Fincher and Spike Jonze lobbied to get it distributed – The Fall is an unparalleled visual tour-de-force made even more incredible by the fact that its otherworldly vistas and eye-popping compositions were created without the use of CGI. Shot on locations spanning 18 different countries, director Tarsem Singh’s abstract fairy tale about a colorful band of heroes is boosted by an affecting frame story about the friendship between an ailing movie stuntman (Lee Pace) and an innocent, precocious little girl (newcomer Catinca Untaru). The film is a dazzling tribute to the human imagination, but no imagination shines brighter here than Singh’s – his arresting, dreamlike images, which combine stunning real-world settings with old-fashioned camera trickery, elaborate costumes, and painterly production design, are this year’s best argument for seeing films on the big screen.

5. Australia

Overblown? Certainly. Melodramatic? Absolutely. Entertaining? Thoroughly. Director Baz Luhrman, maybe the greatest cinematic showman of his generation, rediscovered the kind of sweeping crowd-pleaser that Hollywood has long forgotten how to make with this visually spectacular, action-packed, and unabashedly old-fashioned valentine to the Land of Oz. The unfortunately maligned film is Gone with the Wind meets Red River with a hearty helping of kangaroos, billabongs, and Aborigine mysticism thrown into the mix, with charismatic performances from authentic-Aussie leads Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman and enough widescreen spectacle for a dozen movies. Audiences may not have flocked to it – people don’t seem to enjoy being entertained at the movies anymore – but I savored every extravagant, sentimental, histrionic minute of (and it ran for an awful lot of minutes). One complaint: how come the bad guy is the only one wielding a boomerang?

4. Milk

Sean Penn’s incredible performance in the title role is just one of the elements that make director Gus Van Sant’s profile of gay rights crusader and eventual San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk such a powerful movie experience. Less a straight-up biopic than a ground-level view of democracy in action, Milk ranks with the best American political films ever made because it so effectively portrays Milk’s passionate fight to secure political representation for the gay community as a life-and-death struggle – which, in the days when openly gay people could be arrested simply for visiting a bar, is undoubtedly what it was. A terrific supporting cast, a wealth of period detail, and smart, heartfelt writing from rookie scribe Dustin Lance Black seal the deal. This is easily Van Sant’s best film since Good Will Hunting, and possibly his best, period.

3. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Earnest yet edgy, effects-driven but heart-tuggingly humane, Benjamin Button is a very unique tale exceedingly well-told by director David Fincher, writer Eric Roth, and star Brad Pitt, who gets the most fascinating acting workout of his entire career. As the title character, who was somehow born as an old man and is aging backward in time – growing younger as everyone around him grows old – Pitt lends believability and gravity to Ben, whose awkwardness blossoms into a wide-eyed lust for life even as he discovers that he can’t live or love quite like everybody else can. Cate Blanchett is radiant as the woman who becomes his childhood friend, his lover, and finally his caretaker; their romance is unlike any you’ve ever seen in a movie. Fincher’s rock-solid sense of visual craftsmanship is on display again, as well, aided by special effects so utterly convincing you’ll almost immediately stop noticing they’re effects at all.

2. In Bruges

Mis-marketed as a bullet-riddled black comedy in the vein of Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie, the feature film debut of playwright Martin McDonagh is actually a weighty and surprisingly serious morality play about guilt, sin, and the possibility – or impossibility – of redemption. Not that there aren’t several hilarious exchanges between Colin Farrell’s foul-mouthed, wet-behind-the-ears contract killer, his good-natured mentor Brendan Gleeson, and the assorted tourists and townies they encounter while hiding out in the quaintly boring title city, but In Bruges still travels a dark road toward one of the most powerful endings in recent memory. Though a relative newcomer to the cinema with only one (albeit Oscar-nominated) short film under his belt, McDonagh has an obvious gift for pacing, and delivers emotional sucker-punches with great skill. Plus, in Farrell, Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, and the great Peter Dinklage, he’s found a flawless ensemble to deliver all his whip-crack dialogue.

1. The Wrestler

The year’s best performance anchors its best film, a gritty and uncompromising underdog story about an “old broken down piece of meat” – Mickey Rourke’s far-past-his-prime professional wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson – making one last go at recapturing his fame, reconnecting with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), and romancing a sympathetic but untouchable stripper/single mom (Marisa Tomei). I hesitate to call any film “perfect”, but so many things are right about Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler that it’s an adjective I can’t help but trot out – the fly-on-the-wall handheld cinematography is perfect, the gruesome behind-the-scenes detail of the low-rent pro wrestling world is perfect, the spare and true-sounding dialogue is perfect, etc. And then, of course, there’s Rourke, who seems to channel every bit of pain and hunger and regret he’s ever felt – or maybe even just imagined – into his role as “The Ram”, a guy we don’t just care about but come to love, flaws and all, by the time the film reaches its beautifully understated final shot. It’s the performance of a lifetime, and the movie doesn’t let it down one bit.

And now, just for the hell of it, a few honorable mentions:

Iron Man
Sort of the anti-Dark Knight, this freewheeling and often laugh-out-loud funny Marvel comics adaptation entirely ditches doom and gloom in favor of relentless wisecracking and gee-whiz flying ‘n fighting sequences that really do feel as if they’ve been ripped from the pages of a comic book. It maybe could have used a bit more action, but Robert Downey, Jr. keeps things fresh and furiously entertaining throughout with his witty, energetic take on billionaire industrialist/iron-clad crimefighter Tony Stark.

Despite its persistent and heavy-handed satire of consumerism – which borders uncomfortably on sermonizing – Pixar’s much-praised tale of robots in love still managed to be the most endearingly romantic movie of 2008, and its nuts-and-bolts hero might be the most lovable character the studio has created to date. The usual Pixar ingenuity abounds in both the visuals and the storytelling; it’s pretty amazing that the two main characters can’t really speak, yet we understand and sympathize with them completely.

Synecdoche, New York
As with most viewers of mind-bending screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, I was deeply confounded by the existential puzzle that was Synecdoche, New York, but I really hope that some day it’ll all make perfect sense. Either way, its themes of aging, loneliness, and insecurity still resonated with me, and the film feels as if it will get better with every subsequent viewing – especially since the less you worry about figuring it all out, the more you can appreciate its unique visual style and the performances of the year’s best ensemble cast, from star Phillip Seymour Hoffman on down.

Tropic Thunder
The funniest movie of 2008: A broad and ballsy satire of Hollywood egos and my beloved action genre in particular. Robert Downey, Jr. may have stolen the show with his white-guy-playing-white-guy-playing-black-guy act, but Ben Stiller’s “Simple Jack”, Danny McBride’s mulleted pyrotechnics expert, and Jack Black as a junkie actor who’d do anything – anything – to score his next fix all generated more than their share of big laughs, as well.

Slumdog Millionaire
I think the critics were a bit too quick to heap praise on this Mumbai-set melodrama – its premise is a little hard to swallow, and its whiz-bang visual approach to life in the slums was used to much better effect in the now seven-year-old Brazilian film City of God. But still, Slumdog is endlessly energetic and entertaining, with winning performances all around and a poignant story of love and brotherhood hiding just beneath the surface of its occasionally too-contrived setup. Danny Boyle is surely one of the most eclectic and versatile directors working today.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Coming soon in 2009: My Best-of-2008 List

Another year over, another few hundred movies sat through, and yet, still no definitive opinions from this blogger on which ones I’ll be most excited to see again. You might ask, what gives, Nick? Have you lost your desire to weigh in on what’s good and what sucks? Did you suddenly decide that year-end Top 10 lists are beneath you? Were you so overwhelmed by the warm and fuzzy glow of Slumdog Millionaire that all other movies ceased to have any meaning to you?

The answer to all those questions is no (and for the record, I thought Slumdog was entertaining but a little overrated). The simple reason I haven’t made a ten-best list yet is that I still haven’t been able to see a few films that I think have a good chance of making it – namely, Gran Torino, The Wrestler, and Revolutionary Road – and I’d hate to have to leave them out just so I could be on time with my list. And, trust me, folks, I certainly would have caught those movies already if not for the studios’ unfair and patently ridiculous awards-season “limited release” strategy explained in this New York Times story. But, rather than continue my complaining, I’m just going to look forward to seeing some new work from three of my favorite filmmakers as it finally makes its way to Connecticut theaters in the next few weeks.

And then, it’s time to make a list that few people want and nobody needs, but I’m going to have a freaking awesome time putting together. Looking forward to it already.

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