2010 / Anton Corbijn > An action-packed trailer for The American destroyed the film’s buzz on opening weekend. Filmgoers expecting George Clooney to be a James Bond-for-hire came out deeply disappointed when Corbijn chose to channel Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï and Fred Zinnemann’s The Day of the Jackal instead. On the surface, a slowly-paced thriller, but in actuality, the film works as a metaphor for many of us: We strive to excel at our craft of choice in order to find solace in our lives. Often, that comes in the form of a significant other, but sometimes circumstances force the two to be mutually exclusive. While it’s a seemingly obvious theme, it’s Corbijn’s photographic eye that compels us to remain transfixed on “Jack” and his intentions. A man of few words (which may shock those wanting Clooney’s usual gregarious on-screen presence), there’s a kind of obtuse seriousness that actually enhances the character’s mystique. Additionally, the salacious Violante Placido works perfectly as the forbidden fruit who sets the story into motion. Uneasy at times, The American is a rewarding adventure for the patient. And while it won’t necessarily teach any of us anything new, there’s enough emotional resonance to warrant a viewing.
2010 / Darren Aronofsky > The original script for Black Swan played out like a detective story, but Aronofsky is better than that. He didn’t want to approach paranoia driven by perfection in conventional plot techniques, especially after having made his directorial breakthrough on the topic in Pi. What he does here is more contained than his previous efforts, showing a kind of maturation: The first hour of the film works as a set-up (with incidental horror cues that create just the right amount of tension), and then he lets the game loose. The last third of the film builds in an incredible crescendo that culminates in Natalie Portman’s finest performance since Closer. Like Giulietta Masina’s face told a thousand stories at the end of Nights in Cabiria, Portman is able to evoke the motions of a transformation simply by looking into the camera. Overall, it’s a solid, controlled effort hampered by some shallow characterizations (such as Mila Kunis’s character as a cliched foil) that puts an unfair burden of the film’s success on its finale.
2010 / Oliver Stone > The subject matter of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is inherently filled with political biases. So, imagine my surprise when Stone’s exploration of the financial crisis was considerably more restrained than expected from a man who’s chums with Hugo Chavez.
The film is unapologetically glossy: Everything from the cab drivers to how the markets work are polarized caricatures, but thankfully, the “bad guys” are kept specific. It ends up being more of a discussion of how society is at fault for the mess than specific Wall Street gurus. But as respectable this approach may be from Stone, it’s simply not a good film. Too much sentimentality, too many easy character reversals. Motivations are missing, and we eventually stop caring because of the many plotlines. Worst of all, Carey Mulligan is wasted on a two-dimensional supporting role where she’s basically told to switch on a smile, and then switch off to a tear.
2010 / Will Gluck > Easy A is effectively a star vehicle for Emma Stone. She presents herself with just the right aura of the girl next door fantasy without crossing over to blatant Pussycat Girls territory to keep the film in the realm of possibility for the average teenager. But as enjoyable as her performance is, the script constantly tries—and fails—to break cliches, then relents to being generic. Still, Stone is the only reason you watch this. Her charisma will carry her far, far away from Superbad.
2009 / Sam Taylor-Wood > What’s most impressive about conceptual artist Taylor-Wood’s directorial debut is her ability to take the celebrity out of a teenage John Lennon. By the end of the film, his relationship with his family is of greater interest than his impending tales of success (though the hints are all over the place). Aaron Johnson, notable in the U.S. for his lead role in Kick-Ass, actually gets to show off his acting chops with a highly emotive portrayal of Lennon that’s hopefully indicative of better things to come. Also of note is the rich yet low-key performance by Kristin Scott Thomas who, having been neglected by the Academy for I’ve Loved You So Long, may actually get a much deserved nod.
2010 / Derrick Borte > Conceptually, The Joneses is a brilliant satire with considerable contemporary relevance. However, its execution is surprisingly mundane and predictable to the point where it turns into a formulaic romantic dramedy. Worse yet may be its inherent hypocrisy of pitching products in the guise of being anti-consumerist, though that’s a sin that could have been excused if the lessons of excess the film was trying to impart were doled out efficiently. But instead, the manner is so hackneyed that it ends up being a somewhat uninspiring mess.
1966 / Guy Hamilton > It’s hard to believe the follow-up to The Ipcress File had the same cinematographer: The original had carefully constructed camera angles that contributed to the storytelling, but here Otto Heller’s camerawork feels generic and secondary. Also troubling is the change of mood: Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer is still shuffling through the bureaucracy to do his counter-espionage duties but our focuses constantly shift until we realize the plot is a bit too clever for itself. We don’t get attached to any characters, and we don’t really care much when we find out who the bad guys are (especially since the motives feel muddled). Oddly enough, Hamilton made Funeral in Berlin after Goldfinger, which feels problematic because Palmer’s character is closer to Bond here than in the original.
1965 / Sidney J. Furie > Kind of a pity that most people will know Michael Caine for being Batman’s butler rather than the sublime counter-espionage agent Harry Palmer. The Ipcress File finds a middle ground between bitterness of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and the flashiness of James Bond in creating a calculated experience with a certain suave demeanor. Palmer doesn’t ask for his Martini to be shaken but instead is adept at cooking a meal for two and solving some mysteries while he’s at it. If you’ve never experienced Caine in his heyday, the Palmer series is apparently tops, though I’ll reserve further judgment until I get around to watching Funeral in Berlin.
2010 / Harald Zwart > Call it The Karate Kid or as it would have been more aptly titled The Kung Fu Kid, the fact remains that Jaden Smith’s genetically passed-on charm and charisma doesn’t make up for his near-farcical martial arts techniques (especially in comparison to many of the young Chinese actors). But if we can excuse that, the film works as a modern immigration tale: How do young Americans, especially a minority, moving to China come of age? Christopher Murphey’s screenplay has enough twists on genre conventions to justify the remake, though it fails to take advantage of deeper intercultural understanding by simply glossing over most conflicts.
1975 / Sydney Pollack > An elegantly composed spy thriller centered around Robert Redford who accidentally stumbles upon a topical secret while working at a CIA think tank. For those who appreciate a slower pace and a healthy dose of paranoia, Three Days of the Condor is fitting and satisfying and works as a complementary piece to The Parallax View.