18 January 2012

FILM / Alan Waldman : A Look Back at My Favorite Films

James Gandolfini in the British film, In the Loop.

From 2003 to 2010:
Looking back at my favorite films

By Alan Waldman / The Rag Blog / January 18, 2012

[Last week we posted Alan Waldman's 10 Favorite Films of 2011, with his list headed by The Help, The King's Speech, and The Guard. Now Alan presents his favorites, by year, going back to 2003.]

  1. CITY ISLAND is a wonderful comedy drama about keeping secrets from your family. Andy Garcia, Julianna Margulies, Emily Mortimer, Alan Arkin, and three unknowns are absolutely terrific. The script is great—funny, insightful, surprising, sweet, offbeat, warm hearted and thoroughly enjoyable. It is a real treasure.
  2. INSIDE JOB (documentary) accomplishes the difficult task of making the labyrinthine financial crisis of 2008-2009 understandable -- and therefore infuriating. The film is smart, brilliantly edited and compelling. It includes succinct interviews with top financial insiders, politicians, journalists, and academics. Despite the seemingly dry subject matter, it never stalls out but keeps driving forward.
  3. IN THE LOOP (U.K.) is one of the most hilarious films of the decade. I recommend watching it with the English subtitles, because although it is in English, the jokes and funny insults come so fast and furiously that you sometimes have to back up and read them to catch everything. Scottish actor Peter Capaldi steals the film with his astonishing range of insults and wisecracks, but the fine American/British cast also includes James Gandolfini, Tom Hollander, Gina McKee, and some funny folks with whom we are unfamiliar. The plot deals with the efforts of British and American bureaucrats and officials to prevent their countries from going to war in the Middle East.

Christoph Waltz in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds.

  1. STATE OF PLAY is a terrific two-hour American remake of the even better British six-hour miniseries about murder, political corruption and journalism. The American film stars Helen Mirren, Josh Mostel, Ben Affleck, Russell Crowe, Jeff Daniels, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright Penn, and Jason Bateman. This is a smart, exciting, nicely detailed film, beautifully acted (in both versions), that is very timely and believable.
  2. INGLORIOUS BASTERDS is the most enjoyable Quentin Tarantino film in years. It is a surprising thriller about a group of American Jewish soldiers in Germany who are out to execute as many Nazis as they can. The plot has several exciting sequences, including a terrific (although historically inaccurate) sequence where they try to blow up a movie theater containing Hitler, Himmler, and Goering. Gripping, brilliantly executed and surprising. Brad Pitt plays the American group leader as a loony, bloodthirsty Southerner. Germany’s Christoph Waltz’s richly complex and compelling performance won him the Oscar.
  3. GOODBYE SOLO is an emotionally rich, superbly detailed human drama. A deeply depressed older man hires an African immigrant taxi driver to take him to the top of a North Carolina mountain, presumably so he can throw himself off to his death. An unlikely friendship develops between these two very opposite people. Although the cast is largely unknown, it is superb. A little gem.

  1. FROST/NIXON (U.K.) is a mind-blowing movie featuring Frank Langella as Nixon (nominated for an Oscar) and a great script by Peter Morgan (also Oscar-nominated). It tells the dramatic true story of how British talk show host David Frost, considered a lightweight, interviewed former president Richard Nixon for an eight-hour/four-night television broadcast in an attempt to get him to confess his crimes and apologize to the American people. For the first three talks, Nixon completely triumphs in this tense contest of wills, but before the fourth and final meeting Frost unexpectedly grows a set of testicles and stands up to him, with astonishing results.
  2. THE VISITOR In a great, Oscar-nominated performance, Richard Jenkins plays Walter, an obnoxious 62-year-old college prof who goes to NYC to attend a conference and finds two illegal aliens living in his rarely used Greenwich Village apartment. He develops a surprising, rich, and wonderful relationship with them. Then the plot takes a dramatic turn and moves into new territory whose demands deepen and enrich Walter’s character and humanity. This is a satisfying, intelligent, involving, and surprising work of art that is well worth your time.
  3. THE BAND’S VISIT (Israel) is a lovely, nuanced, funny, and touching film, full of wonderful characters. It tells of an eight-man Egyptian police band’s attempt to perform traditional music at a small Arab community in Israel. The band is mistakenly sent to an Israeli small town with a similar-sounding name. For 24 hours the band members interact with the Jewish Israelis they meet, and those encounters are surprising and enjoyable. Great writing, direction, and performing make this little sleeper a real treat.

Ulrich Mühe is an East German secret policeman in The Lives of Others.

  1. THE LIVES OF OTHERS (Germany) is a sensational 2006 film that I saw in 2007. It justifiably won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, as well as 58 other major awards in 10 countries. I found it riveting, intelligent, and brilliantly realized. It dramatizes the efforts of the East German secret police to spy on a popular playwright and his beautiful actress girlfriend. It has sensational character work, offers compelling plot elements and surprises, and holds you from beginning to end. This is a truly great film that will appeal to most people -- one that even subtitle-phobics should take a chance on.
  2. SICKO (documentary) Michael Moore’s searing indictment of the insurance industry’s endless, cruel, greedy assault on the U.S. healthcare system (and the millions of patients who are harmed by it) is a must-see. Besides being dramatic, informative, and involving, it has moments of high humor and irony.
  3. WAITRESS is a surprising, delightful, highly original film. It was written and directed by, and co-stars, brilliant Adrienne Shelley, who also composed the songs. It is both a wonderfully whimsical, sly romantic comedy and a scary marital drama, starring excellent Keri Russell as the pie-baking heroine. Andy Griffith is wonderful as a crotchety customer. This is such a fresh, charming, character-rich movie that few will be able to resist.

  1. THE HISTORY BOYS (U.K.) This extraordinary film, from the Tony-award-winning Broadway play, features the original West End and Broadway cast -- including the brilliant Richard Griffiths and wonderful Francis de la Tour. It is witty, dramatic, touching, funny, surprising, very intelligent, verbally dazzling, and bursting with ideas and insights. I experienced the full range of human emotions watching this one -- from tears, to surprise, to laughter, to cheers.
  2. THE QUEEN (U.K.) Helen Mirren won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Queen Elizabeth II in this powerful, beautifully written and produced movie. Mirren makes the queen human and likable. Michael Sheen is outstanding as Prime Minister Tony Blair. Brilliant British director Stephen Frears is at the top of his game here, bringing subtlety, humor, irony, keen observation, and a great honesty to a true story.
  3. VOLVER (Spain) One of genius Pedro Almodovar’s best films ever. A strong female cast features Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura. This story is rich, smart, tricky, sly, moving, and brilliantly assembled. This is a treat for everyone brave enough to read subtitles.
  4. AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH (documentary) A brilliant, chilling, mind-blowing, detailed, and highly persuasive documentary on how unchecked corporate greed is destroying our environment, weather, and health, and threatening human survival. Al Gore is wonderful in this -- regardless of your political persuasion -- as he explains why this has been the issue closest to his heart for decades. This is a movie that intelligent, concerned world citizens must not miss!

Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes in The Constant Gardener.

  1. THE CONSTANT GARDENER (U.K.) is a smart, brave, beautifully realized film of the John Le Carre novel that won 20 major awards, including a Best Actress Oscar for Rachel Weisz. It is a gripping thriller about a husband's (Ralph Fiennes) quest to discover how and why his wife was murdered in Kenya.
  2. MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (documentary) (France) is a thoroughly enjoyable, Oscar-winning documentary about Antarctic penguins and what they go through each year. Morgan Freeman's narration is terrific and the story is dramatic, visually stunning, and heartwarming.
  3. MUNICH is a great historical drama which earned five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director (Steven Spielberg) and Best Screenplay (Tony Kushner and Eric Roth). It dramatizes the efforts of Israeli agents to track down and murder all the Black September assassins. It is complex, surprising, pulse-pounding, and very intelligent.

  1. HOTEL RWANDA features a powerfully dramatic true story, two Oscar-nominated, great lead performances from Sophie Okonedo and Don Cheadle, a sensational script, and truly inspired direction. This one is not to be missed. Although it deals with a horribly violent historic period in Rwanda, it is not gratuitously graphic.
  2. A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT (France) combines the enormous talents of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and star Audrey Tatou (both dazzling in the marvelous 2001 film Amelie). This World War I mystery/love story/historical epic is touching, surprising, funny and visually stunning -- as Jeunet continues to stretch the visual possibilities of cinema again and again.
  3. MOTORCYCLE DIARIES (Brazil) is a masterful movie from Brazilian genius director Walter Salles that movingly captures the political awakening of young Che Guevara and a pal, who are out for babes and booze in a breathtaking trip through South America. The visuals in this one will blow you away. It is witty, touching, surprising, and wonderfully nuanced.

Chitwetel Ejiofor in Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things.

  1. THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS (Canada, in French) Denys Arcand’s examination of friendship, parent-child relationships, and the worries that beset one as life’s end approaches, is beautiful, brilliant, moving, funny, surprising, visually stunning, beautifully acted, and easily the most intelligent picture of the year. Virtually every scene of this enjoyable film is a little polished jewel.
  2. WINGED MIGRATION (France, in English) This Oscar-nominated documentary about flocks of beautiful birds flying over gorgeous corners of the earth, to delightful music and very little dialogue, is masterful. It evokes every human emotion, including laughter, tears, fear, surprise, and exhilaration. This is as close to flying as you will ever come. Don’t dismiss this as simply another dull nature film: this one is very emotionally and visually rich; everyone I have recommended it to so far has loved it.
  3. DIRTY PRETTY THINGS (U.K.) Stephen Frears’ gripping, highly original look at illegal workers in Britain is beautifully written, directed, and performed, while being an important social statement. This is the kind of movie I like best -- about sane people facing difficult challenges and dealing with them in fresh, unexpected ways.
  • See Alan Waldman's full lists of favorite films from 2011 and 2010 on The Rag Blog.

  • [Houston native Alan Waldman is a former editor at Honolulu Magazine and The Hollywood Reporter.]

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