Sunday, January 31, 2010 

My Top Five Favorite Movie Couples of 2009

5. Oskar & Eli
Kåre Hedebrant & Lina Leandersson
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008) dir. Tomas Alfredson

Oskar: How old are you?

Eli: Twelve...more or less. What about you?

Oskar: Twelve years, eight months and nine days. What do you mean "more or less"? When’s your birthday? Are you really twelve?

Eli: Yes. It’s just I’ve been twelve for a very long time.

Based on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel of the same name, Låt den rätte komma in (Lindqvist also penned the screenplay which, unfortunately but understandably leaves out many of the more controversial elements of the source material), movies like this one make me thankful that vampire mythos and the inherent romance element that inevitably intertwines itself into the narrative isn’t confined to sensationalist or overly-angst-y American ideals, like HBO’s breakout hit “True Blood” or the increasing but inexplicable craze over Stephanie Meyers’ “Twilight” novels and subsequent movie franchise.

Here, the year is 1982 and the setting is a small snowy Stockholm suburb called Blackeberg where our protagonist, 12-year old Oskar (a very blonde, very pale and extremely gaunt Kåre Hedebrant) lives with a seemingly doting mother, who has divorced his alcoholic father. Routinely humiliated at school by bullies, Oskar is a bright but quiet child who is fascinated with death and forensics, keeping a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about crime and murders but who himself is not even remotely violent, to the point where he won’t even strike back at the tormentors who harass him almost daily. That is, until he meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), a fellow 12-year old girl and kindred spirit of sorts who overhears Oskar outside on their rusty playground, acting out his imaginary revenge with a small pocket knife. Eli has just moved in next door with her guardian Hakan, is never seen during daylight hours, seems unaffected by the bitter cold and quite frankly, always looks a little sickly and even dirty.

As their strange friendship blossoms, it becomes evident to Oskar that Eli is a vampire but to her surprise, he isn’t afraid of her. In fact, after a life of loneliness, isolation and solitude, she is his only friend. But with Eli and Hakan’s arrival comes a series of murders, which leads to whispers and paranoia amongst the town’s locals. Whether or not this is a straight ahead vampire/horror movie, a simple and subtle boy-meets-girl story or an understated coming-of-age tale is left to the viewer. A case can be made for all three but I personally prefer to think that, given the ending (a finale that would otherwise be judged as gory and extreme if it wasn’t so touching and sweet that you almost want to cheer), it is ultimately a pensive and deliberately paced yarn about how a vampire cursed with eternal life comes to, by total happenstance, recruit a new familiar (companion or servant who guards her during the day) with all of those other elements thrown in for good measure.

4. Burt & Verona
John Krasinski & Maya Rudolph
AWAY WE GO (2009) dir. Sam Mendes

Verona: Yeah, you’re right. It’s unfair that she can’t have a baby. And that bad parents still get to be parents. And good parents die when their daughters are in college. So what? Look, all we can do is be good for this one baby. We don’t have control over much else.

Unmarried long-time couple Verona De Tessant (SNL’s Maya Rudolph) and Burt Farlander (John Krasinski of NBC’s “The Office”) are two long-distance freelance writers who discover in a hilarious opening sequence (and one that deftly shows what banter would be like between two people who write for a living) that Verona is, unexpectedly, with child. When they share the news with Burt’s parents (Verona’s parents are deceased), in hopes that they’ll be willing and helpful grandparents, they are surprised to learn that the elder Farlanders have already made plans to move to Antwerp, Belgium...a month before the baby is even due. With nothing tying them to the place they currently live any longer, Burt and Verona set off on a cross-country trip to visit relatives and old acquaintances in an attempt to find somewhere suitable for them to start their new family and finally establish some much-needed roots.

However, this is not a road movie (Burt and Verona fly and take trains as well as drive). It’s an incredibly sincere and reserved romance helmed by Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) from an oft-times funny screenplay by real-life couple Dave Eggers (the well-known satirist makes his screenwriting debut here) and novelist Vendela Vida (which, I’m sure, accounts for the effortless chemistry between the fictional Burt and Verona). From Arizona to Wisconsin to Canada to Florida, Burt and Verona catch back up with their wildly and hilariously dysfunctional friends and family, none of them quite providing the right support system or environment in which they want to raise their newborn. In their turns especially, Allison Janney and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s encounters (in Phoenix and Madison, respectively) with Burt and Verona are an absolute riot: Janney as a loud-mouthed and mentally abusive mom/wife and Gyllenhaal as a New Age free-spirited hippie, Earth mother-type. The more realistic and sobering moments come from visits with Burt’s brother in Miami, whose wife has left him to raise their daughter alone and a trip to Montreal reconnecting them with college friends (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey) who, for as happy as they seem, heartbreakingly, cannot conceive.

I’m not sure who thought the pairing of Krasinski and Rudolph as the leads (especially considering both are pretty much famous for their supporting work) would be a wise idea but the casting director deserves a pat on the back and a hefty raise. Krasinski is the infinitely likeable, sweet and thoughtful everyman he has portrayed so well for many years now as Jim on “The Office” but who knew that Rudolph could be so soulful and mesmerizing, conveying so much yet saying so little? She’s a true revelation. Together, they are magical. They are quite the quirky duo, not because of any outstanding idiosyncrasies but because they are a movie couple who are very much completely, totally and genuinely in love; there is never a moment where we feel as though they might EVER fall apart or break up. They are utterly believable and perfectly matched.

3. Sang-hyun & Tae-ju
Song Kang-ho & Kim Ok-vin
THIRST (2009) dir. Park Chan-wook

Priest Sang-hyun: I wanted to live with you forever and ever. Together again in Hell then.

Park Chan-wook. His Vengeance Trilogy. If you're not familiar already, get there.

His stab at the eternally popular vampire romance, Thirst revolves around Catholic priest and frequent hospital volunteer, Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) so selfless that he submits himself to experimentation that necessitates he be subjected to the near-guaranteed fatal Emmanuel Virus in hopes of helping the scientists get closer to manufacturing a vaccine. He, of course, succumbs to the disease but after a blood transfusion makes what can only be described as a miraculous recovery. The transfusion and tainted blood used therein somehow results in Sang eventually discovering that he has become an undead creature of the night complete with all the traditional drawbacks. Immediately, his entire world is thrust into turbulent upheaval. Not only is he overcome with an insatiable bloodlust but if he refuses to feed, the effects of the EV virus begin to resurface and he suffers immeasurably (the EV virus takes you out in pretty gruesome way). A terrible pickle for a man of the cloth to be in, to say the least. And blood isn't the only thing he begins to lust after...

Performing his routine priestly duties at the local hospital, Sang is reunited with a childhood friend, Kang-woo, a sickly mama's boy and his wife, the initially timid and sheepish Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin). In secret, Sang and Tae-ju quickly devlop and consumate their slow-burning mutual crush then resolve to eliminate her spouse from the equation (this plot point being based very loosely on the novel Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola) and escape the abuse and apparent omniscience of Tae-ju's overbearing mother-in-law. The story takes a number of odd and darkly comedic turns from there, none of which I want to spoil. Ok-vin, sexy but not quite all there, is the real find here and the performance to watch. A former beauty queen in her native South Korea, who figured she'd have this sort of range? Her transformation from kookily docile and reluctantly subservient housewife to overwhelmingly confident, remorseless and ruthlessly efficient murderess is a treat to witness and a joy to behold. I once wrote of their relationship:

"This is about as dysfunctional a relationship as you're likely to see this side of Secretary, Punch Drunk Love, True Romance, Natural Born Killers and The Shape of Things combined. Toss in the quandary of a man of the cloth being forced to kill not only to satisfy his uncontrollable and newfound bloodlust but to keep a very ugly and fatal disease at bay and you've got the recipe for quite the quirky and shocking "vampire" movie. And all of that is before you add the complications that murder, cover-ups and an already-disturbed secret lover who suddenly develops a God complex tends to cause."

2. Ryan & Alex
George Clooney & Vera Farmiga
UP IN THE AIR (2009) dir. Jason Reitman

Natalie: How does it not cross your mind that you might want a future with someone? You’re an asshole. Don’t you think it’s worth giving her a chance? A chance at something real. Can you stop condescending for one second or is that one of the principles of your bullshit philosophy? The isolation, the traveling…is that supposed to be charming? It’s a cocoon of self-banishment. Screw you. You have set up a way of life that basically makes it impossible for you to have any kind of human connection. And now this woman comes along and somehow runs the gauntlet of your ridiculous life choice, comes out on the other end smiling just so you can call her ‘casual’? *I* need to grow up? You’re a 12-year old!

The one word you see in nearly every review used to describe Up in the Air (adapted from Walter Kirn's 2001 novel of the same name) is "timely." Upon first viewing, it is bound to resonate but not just because of today's global financial meltdown and the current economic climate. For me personally, it's because of my age and where I am in my life, the benefit of having a variety of life-changing experiences and a different outlook on how not only people and the world-at-large works but my relationships with them as well. Make no mistake, Up in the Air is as much about human interaction and detachment as it is about corporate layoffs and the many people such events affect. More than any other pair I've described previously, I probably relate to Ryan and Alex the most. Their dilemmas are my own, their attitudes are immediately familiar and the way in which they go about relating to one another instantly strikes a chord.

Only Jason Reitman's third feature (Thank You For Smoking and Juno being the first two), Up in the Air's central character, Ryan Bingham (who might come off as completely unlikeable if he weren't portrayed by the unmistakably suave and debonair George Clooney) loves his job. Or maybe he doesn't love it. But he's great at it and he does love the fact that it requires him to be everywhere except for his one bedroom "home" in Omaha, Nebraska, an idea that he visibly abhors ("Make no mistake, moving is living," he preaches during one of his seminars, a secondary gig of his). On the road or in the air in excess of 270 days a year, it is Ryan's duty to terminate employees when their own bosses lack either the time, inclination or simply the courage to do so themselves. Following him around, at first, his life doesn't seem all that bad: luxurious hotel rooms, his meals and cars paid for and he accumulates an obscene amount of frequent flyer miles and preferred customer perks at a sickeningly alarming rate. Things look up even more when Ryan meets his female mirror image in a hotel VIP lounge one evening in the form of Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow corporate traveler who has no qualms about being Ryan's "casual" lover as they hook up all over the country whenever time and geographic location permits. "I'm the girl you don't have to worry about. Think of me as yourself...but with a vagina," she intimates at one point. I'd like to think that to most men, that's music. They're not necessarily in love or even looking for that in one another, but it is a mature and controlled sort of lust that perhaps only the over-30 crowd wouldn't have difficulty understanding.

But just when we settle into what Ryan does for a living and he gets us comfortable with his life and his personal philosophies, (not to mention his total no-strings-attached "relationship" with Alex) he's called back to home base in Omaha and informed that his very own job might be in jeopardy. At least, in its current state. Thanks to a hand-raising Harvard graduate and new efficiency expert named Natalie Keener (Twilight's Anna Kendrick, who right away exudes a too-smart-for-her-own-good smarminess and stuck-up prissiness), Ryan's firm has decided, on her suggestion, to eviscerate their travel expenses by eighty-five percent by grounding their employees and having them do their firings via video conferencing. This decision couldn't come at a worse time for Ryan who not only has a good thing going with his new friend Alex but is achingly close to reaching a mysterious traveling milestone that he desperately wants achieve. He appeals to his boss (Jason Bateman) by citing Natalie's inexperience and unfamiliarity with what it is they do for a living so an accord is reached: Ryan is allowed to stay on the road a little longer...but only long enough to show Natalie the ropes. Ryan makes it very clear that he vehemently opposes the idea of firing by "iChat" but what he doesn't seem to realize is that his own selfish "life choice" shuts the very people who should be most important to him out of his life and denies them the dignity he's so adamant about protecting and giving others in very much the same way. When he finally comes to this realization and decides he needs and wants this connection, the movie takes an interesting and believe it or not, unexpected detour.

Kendrick, not surprisingly, earned herself a Best Supporting Actress nod at this year's Academy Awards, effectively portraying a seemingly confident go-getter but who ultimately shows herself to be riddled with self-doubt and who has a lot more heart and is more easily affected than she would like to let on. With her cold, emotionless and matter-of-fact delivery Natalie sees everything in black and white (her diatribe about her ideal mate and where she thought she'd be in life at 23-years old is priceless), is eager and smart but soon reveals herself to be every bit of her youthful 23 years and about as insecure and naive as someone that age can be. Who I can't get over, though, is Vera Farmiga (who is also nominated for Best Supporting Actress). After years of having seen nothing special about her in The Departed, Joshua and Orphan (but, of course, I thought little neophyte ingenue Isabelle Fuhrman acted circles around everyone in that...), I can't get her classy performance out of my head. Not a conventional beauty by any stretch of the imagination, she still manages to be a ravishingly sophisticated and drop dead sexy woman who wrings more from my heart with her knowing glances and shrugs, sage wit, worldly observations and an air of earned self-confidence than ten Angelina Jolies and Megan Foxes could with their over-inflated lips and other assorted body parts. To say that she's simply "beautiful" in this performance gives the word "beauty" too much credit.

1. Tom & Summer
Joseph Gordon-Levitt & Zooey Deschanel
(500) DAYS OF SUMMER (2009) dir. Marc Webb

Narrator: As he listened, Tom began to realize that these stories weren't routinely told. These were stories one had to earn. He could feel the wall coming down. He wondered if anyone else had made it this far. Which is why the next six words changed everything:

Summer: I've never told anybody that before.

When I first saw (500) Days of Summer I thought the following moment would sum up Tom and Summer's relationship (and maybe even a few of my own):

Summer (innocently coming to a troubling realization): All we do is argue...

Tom (instantly indignant): THAT. IS. BULLSHIT!!!

But upon further retrospection, the scene that most accurately depicts these two (and once again, perhaps any relationship) is when Tom is invited to Summer's house for a party. The screen splits into two when he arrives, one side showing Tom's 'expectations' and the other, 'reality.' And at no point do they ever perfectly align. Such are relationships, such is life. I wish we could all look back at our own experiences with the benefit of such a tool. I think most of us would be very surprised at what we saw. Tom's problem is that he, unfortunately, lacked the ability to make the separation.

The film feature debut for music video director Marc Webb, (500) Days of Summer gives us a shuffled timeline of nearly eighteen months in the relationship of Tom Hagen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an aspiring architect who currently works writing greeting cards and the new administrative assistant at his job, Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). We are told from the start that while it is a classic story of "boy meets girl" that "it is not a love story." In fact, the first day we're shown is Day 488, the day that Summer and Tom break up, so we know from the onset that their relationship is ultimately doomed. What we don't know is how they got there. And even though we know the eventual destination, we still root for them the entire journey anyway.

Gordon-Levitt (Brick, Mysterious Skin and The Lookout) is a hopeless romantic. If I had to compare him to an animal, it would undoubtedly be a puppy: emotionally enthusiastic and "all-in" but once whipped, he's wounded and hurt. But not to the point where he hates his master and can't be won back with the smallest amount of attention. It's these personality traits that make his irrational obession with Summer the worst of ideas. Summer is his polar opposite. She doesn't believe in love and doesn't want anything even remotely resembling a serious relationship. She's eccentric, a little spacey and lives in the moment. The movie even dedicates a short montage of flashbacks and supporting data in an attempt to, unsuccessfully, explain the phenomenon of Summer's logic-defying appeal. How they manage to pair up, in and of itself, actually defies logic but pair up they do. And one could say that Summer strings Tom along, fully aware of how he feels about her but I suppose the case can be made that Tom is equally responsible because he also knows Summer's stance from the very beginning. But he, of course, ignores it and tries, through the sheer force of his will and determination, to change her mind and make Summer feel for him what he feels for her. As we already know, it doesn't work.

While this movie does employ its fair share of funny gimmicks and slick camera trickery (the musical number, complete with an animated bird set to Hall & Oates after Tom and Summer's first night of intimacy springs to mind, as well as Tom imagining himself as the star of a depressing black-and-white French New Wave extistentialist movie after their breakup), the jumping around and back-and-forth through time isn't one of them. It's a device that more or less acts as a meditation on how fallible the human memory is. Repeat viewings will show that because this tale is told from Tom's point of view that things aren't always as they seem and not always quite as he remembers them. Many apparently happy moments and events he recalls fondly are an illusion or rather, he ignores what's really going in favor of what he wants to see. That might be why we don't see Deschanel's mysterious character fleshed-out as much as we'd like or fully understand Summer's subtle changes. This is why her punch-in-the-gut revelation to Tom regarding the nature of their relationship on that park bench near the end is so bewildering; we, like Tom, never see it coming.

They say it's better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. After seeing this you, along with Tom, will understand why. There's a lesson to be learned in the losing.