Doug Cummings has been in no hurry to post his annotated lists of the best of 2009 and the decade, but the wait's been worth it. His #10 on the '09 list is just now opening in some cities: Tomm Moore's The Secret of the Kells is "one of the most visually inventive and compelling animated features I've seen. Evoking the feel of illustrated manuscripts and having fun with its medieval two-dimensional representations of space, it recounts the turbulent history of the Celtic tome that many consider Ireland's greatest artistic accomplishment."
"Nobody, and I mean absolutely nobody, was prepared for the [Oscar] nomination [for Best Animated Feature] of The Secret of Kells, a dazzling, not to mention utterly charming, hand-drawn fable about a 12-year-old boy's adventures in early medieval Ireland," writes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, who finds it to be a "haunting blend of history, fairy tale and pure invention."
More from NKCarter (Filmwell), Drew McWeeney (Hitfix), Lisa Rosman (IFC), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York), Nick Schager (Slant), AO Scott (New York Times, where Melena Ryzik has background on the film's making) and Ella Taylor (Voice).
"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has already inspired a pair of probing films, each delicious in its own way — the Dennis Potter-scripted Dreamchild (1985) and Jan Švankmajer's herky-jerky Alice (1988) — so perhaps it's greedy to expect another film-maker to conjure miracles from the same text." Ryan Gilbey in the New Statesman: "Even so, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, needlessly shot in 3D, is a crushing disappointment. It exposes the director at his lowest ebb, artistically speaking, since the double non-whammy of Planet of the Apes and Big Fish at the start of the Noughties. An apparent wealth of funds and technology has resulted in a fantasy drained of the fantastic; the wonder is how so little of what makes this director special could have reached the screen. Only a fool would go to a Tim Burton film for elegantly tailored storytelling, but now even the visuals are off-the-peg."
But New York's David Edelstein finds it "wonderful. Taking his cues from John Tenniel's famous illustrations, Burton indulges his delight in disproportion... After standing in long lines at MoMA for fleeting glimpses of his adolescent doodles, I swore not to succumb to mindless Burton worship. But it's hard to be undazzled by the way he mingles the circus and the sepulchre, the Magic Kingdom and the mausoleum."
"The movie is not just three-dimensional but blatantly programmatic," writes J Hoberman in the Voice. "As scripted by Linda Woolverton (whose previous credits include Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King), Alice is a straightforward allegory of female actualization."
The film premiered last week in London, and I gathered the first round of impressions here. More this week from Chris Barsanti (PopMatters), Adam Batty, Peter Bradshaw (Guardian), Richard Corliss (Time), Manohla Dargis (NYT), Alonso Duralde (Queer Sighted), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), Ed Gonzalez (Slant), Tim Grierson (Under the Radar), David Gritten (Telegraph), Robert Horton (Herald), Jonathan Kiefer (Faster Times), Shawn Levy (Oregonian), James Marsh (Twitch), Jenni Miller (Cinematical), Lisa Mullen (Sight & Sound), Michelle Orange (Movieline), Keith Phipps (AV Club), Anthony Quinn (Independent), James Rocchi (MSN Movies), Dana Stevens (Slate), Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times), Keith Uhlich (TONY), Armond White (New York Press) and Stephanie Zacharek (Salon).
Interviews with Burton: Mr Beaks (AICN), Karina Longworth (LA Weekly) and Sharon Steel (TONY). Mark Salisbury talks with Mad Hatter Johnny Depp for Time Out London. Interviews with Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the Red Queen: Andrew Billen (London Times) and Geoff Boucher (LAT). Interviews with Michael Sheen, the White Rabbit: Amos Barshad (Vulture), Marc Lee (Telegraph) and Yvonne Villarreal (LAT).
Time Out New York picks "Tim Burton's six creepiest comic moments," while, for the Daily Beast, Nicole LaPorte "traces [Alice's] evolution from Victorian know-it-all to 50s princess to JonBenét clone."
"Much critical scholarship on Carroll and his literary peers has focused on the biographical," writes Seth Lerer in Slate. "Jenny Woolf's new book, The Mystery of Lewis Carroll, sticks to this tradition. Her goal is to find the 'real man' behind the literary feints, the professional facades, and the puzzling photographs."
"It's unfair, perhaps, but inevitable that every cop movie made post-Wire draws comparison to the now-legendary HBO series, just as it's unfair and inevitable that every one of them falls short," writes Lisa Rosman for IFC. "So some of why Brooklyn's Finest, about three Brownsville cops at the end of their respective ropes, fails is to no fault of its own. The high stakes necessitated by a two-hour film — the quickly ratcheted-up tension; the large caliber confrontations; the big names brought in to achieve serious funding [Richard Gere, Ethan Hawke, Don Cheadle, Wesley Snipes] — can feel tinny and unearned in a genre that requires great understatement and even greater humbleness to avoid devolving into a bramble of histrionics and laughable postures. That said, the most egregious sins committed in Training Day director Antoine Fuqua's newest are specific to the film itself."
"Particular scenes are not always entirely credible," concedes the NYT's AO Scott, "but the sheer charismatic force of much of the acting keeps you in the movie."
More from Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), Aaron Hillis (TONY), Robert Horton (Herald), Matt Prigge (Philadelphia Weekly), Nathan Rabin (AV Club), Andrew Schenker (Slant), Eric D Snider (Cinematical), Armond White (NYP) and Robert Wilonsky (Voice). Kyle Ryan interviews Lili Taylor for the AV Club, Steven Zeitchik profiles Snipes for the LAT and David Poland has a video interview with Fuqua.
"Harlem Aria, a follow-your-dreams fable of surpassing sentimentality, opens with the words 'Once upon a time' and closes by noting that the hero's destiny 'has not yet been written,'" notes Jeannette Catsoulis in the NYT. "In between, the tale of Anton (Gabriel Casseus), a slow-witted laundry worker, unfolds with the speed and treacliness of molasses rolling uphill." More from Aaron Hillis (TONY), Joseph Jon Lanthier (Slant) and Andrew Schenker (Voice). For Filmmaker, Brandon Harris talks with director Bill Jennings.
IN THE UK
"When is a documentary not a documentary?" Manohla Dargis asked last month in the NYT. "That question hovered in the freezing air at the recent Sundance Film Festival, where documentaries are often justly celebrated, and which this year made room for a few movies that had uneasily found a place in the gray zone between fact and fiction. After watching Exit Through the Gift Shop, an entertaining feature about an unlikely street artist that was said to have been made by Banksy, the mysterious British street artist and world-class prankster, audiences were left wondering: Was this a documentary? A goof? A movie as performance art? Or something different?"
"The simplest reading is that this is a straight documentary about the world of street art as seen through the eyes of the hanger-on turned art success story Thierry Guetta, aka Mr Brainwash or MBW," suggests Wendy Ide in the London Times as the film opens in the UK today. "It's possible, however, that what the film actually documents is one of the most daring art hoaxes ever perpetrated, a joke at the considerable expense of those who rushed to commodify an art form that was always meant to be about free expression, free to all. Whether or not you take it at face value, this is a hugely entertaining movie, a fascinating record of an influential art movement infused with a suitably anarchic spirit."
More from Peter Bradshaw (Guardian), Dave Calhoun (Time Out London) and Tim Robey (Telegraph). First impressions and background from Sundance: Kaleem Aftab (Independent), Ty Burr (Boston Globe), David Fear (TONY), John Horn and Chris Lee (LAT), Jeremy Kay (Guardian), Kevin Kelly (Cinematical), Justin Lowe (Hollywood Reporter), Andrew O'Hehir (Salon), Nathan Rabin (AV Club) and Alison Willmore (IFC). Online viewing. Banksy creates a cover for the Sunday Times magazine.
"Mia Hanson-Løve has made an outstanding, undemonstrative family drama based on troubled film producer Humbert Balsan, who took his own life in 2005," writes Peter Bradshaw in his 5-out-of-5-star review of The Father of My Children for the Guardian. More from Dave Calhoun in Time Out London, where David Jenkins interviews Hansen-Løve. Earlier David Phelps from Cannes and reviews from Toronto.
LOOKING AHEAD: MARCH 12
"Set in Baghdad in the chaotic early days of the American occupation, Green Zone dramatizes the fruitless hunt for weapons of mass destruction and climaxes on the first night of full-blown insurgency in Iraq," writes Robert Mackey in the New York Times. "And the film isn't shy about its politics. Green Zone is not an apolitical view of soldiers struggling to survive a grinding war, but a conspiracy thriller that directly addresses the possibility that the war might have been a huge scam, and a botched one at that." And there's an accompanying interview with director Paul Greengrass; John Horn talks with him, too, for the LAT.
"Greengrass brings the frenetic, run-and-gun style with which he utterly transformed the movie thriller in the Jason Bourne series to a different kind of thriller, one with a sharper political edge," writes Kirk Honeycutt in the Hollywood Reporter. Matt Damon, "in motion the entire movie, acts as a magnet, drawing every detail of the story and its character into his orbit. Although there might be a touch of naivete to his character's determination to ferret out the truth, there is a Jimmy Stewart aspect, too. He positively will not let anyone, no matter where he belongs in the chain of command or how far "off the reservation" his character drifts, stand in the way of the truth.... It's a remarkable film."
"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was, of course, adapted from the first volume in the trilogy of bestselling crime novels by the late Stieg Larsson," writes Paul Matwychuk. "It's a book that feels old-fashioned and cutting-edge at the same time — you could see Sidney Lumet making this movie, but you can also imagine the material appealing to someone like David Fincher. In fact, the film was directed by Niels Arden Oplev... With its classical widescreen framing, subdued colour palette, and subtle air of paranoia, Oplev's direction suggests a Scandinavian version of Alan J Pakula — an ideal choice."
"To read the 1,802 pages of the Swedish crime novelist Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy is to be told that, for all their perceived virtue, the institutions of social democracy are a farce," writes Ian MacDougall in n+1. "In Larsson's books, American readers will find the Sweden they expect: the welfare-state comforts, Volvo security, and Ikea practicality for which the country is known. But they will also find a country they didn't expect. In this Sweden, the country's well-polished façade belies a broken apparatus of government whose rusty flywheels are little more than the playthings of crooks.... These are Larsson's twin themes: the failure of the welfare state to do right by its people and the failure of men to do right by women."
The Runaways, featuring Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie and Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett, also opens in a couple of weeks. Artforum contributing editor John Kelsey: "It can't be an accident that the two leading Runaways are also stars of the popular Twilight series. (Stewart is, of course, Bella Swan; Fanning plays Jane in the New Moon sequel.) Goth's fantasy is to freeze youth forever in a virginal-corpse pose. Stewart and Fanning's kiss, which lasts only a few PG seconds on-screen, proves that even in the depths of manipulation and destruction, innocence can be preserved. Stewart is the boyish vampire in black, Fanning a pure, blonde soul trapped inside the rock commodity. Together they produce the emo jeune fille, the eternally adolescent self expressing the existential pathos of its own packaging. The product really does have a soul: It is sensitive and androgynous and mourns itself as we consume it."