For many years, prior to the Oscar nominations, the boy from Mattoon and his friend Tim have put on their Ebert t-shirts and run down their personal best movies the year. It's cute. Sometimes I chime in. My list is below.
10. Sprinkles the Llama Comes A-Courtin'
Children's movies always tend to get overlooked for the big awards, but they make everyone's Top 10 list anyway. Mine is no different, as I found Danish director Sprong Spurgenvisk's plucky little llama fable enchanting and heartbreaking. Amazingly, the entire film was shot with a handheld camera, using crude Chinese zoetrope animation done on a Post-it notepad with eyeliner pencil. "How twee," you might say, but those of you who know Spurgenvisk's earlier work (raise your hands, Memories of Memory Books fans) are well aware that he is a master of pathos. Even when some of his characters are entirely made out of clothes pins and wood glue (Noa-Hee, the Upright Indian Princess) or old matchbooks (Sunday Cruise to Yarmie's), his patience as a director gives the audience the chance to feel something, even if they aren't entirely sure what his crude visualizations represent. Bravo, old man. Or as Sprinkles would say, "Spray down the clam pan, mammy!"
9. My Brown Parachute
Of the 25-minute sky-diving sequence, brilliant longtime stuntman Hal Ringwell said he'd never been more terrified shooting a scene. "I've never been more terrified shooting a scene," Ringwell told Interview magazine, I think. That should give you some idea of how realistic the fight scenes were in director Barnaby Stanson Silvin's high-flying environmental thriller. The storyline seems thin at first: old paper-pushing EPA officer Trip Gansfort, played with youthful aplomb by theater heavyweight Isaac Von Tisdale, has a hunch about a possible plot to dump raw sewage over some beaver-filled wetlands in Roanoke, Va. And when Gansfort gets a hunch, he follows it, authority be damned, especially once he learns that these environmental terrorists have a highly sophisticated plan to hijack an acrobatic airshow crew. Gansfort gets the usual static from the higher-ups, but soon he realizes this goose chase is not as wild as most goose chases tend to be. From there, it's all parachutes and dry-gulches packed into 97 minutes of full-throttle, green-friendly hijinks.
Poor Lucy Fandango. Born with a right arm 56 inches longer than her left, she endures not only the usual adolescent turbulence of 14-year-old girls but also the unique challenges posed by her bizarre condition: broken fingers from constantly stepping on them; shoulder dislocation each time she tries to answer a question in class; the added expense of custom-made cable-knit sweaters. Though she is extremely bright and pretty, her anaconda of a right arm prevents her from enjoying life to the fullest—or so she thinks. As you find out during this inspired take on the old girl-with-long-arm-does-good theme, played with conviction by newcomer Rainy Lane Morrissey, Lucy can make anyone smile ... in a snap. I never knew that two fingertips being pressed together at rapid speed could somehow pull off a note-perfect rendition of Vivaldi's "Le quattro stagioni," but, my stars, it can.
7. Blister in the Fun
Here's a neat little rockumentary about a Violent Femmes cover band called "Strident Thames" and their quest not for stardom, but for meaning in a mundane existence in a suburb of Pierre, S.D. We meet 53-year-old Michael "Gordon Gano" Bonarelli, a real estate broker by day; 49-year-old Logan "Brian Ritchie" Rawlton, a plumber; 38-year-old Shep "Victor DeLorenzo" Mulgahy, a farmhand; and 81-year-old Guy "Guy Hoffman" Hoffman, a stone-deaf retired army mechanic, who is only in the band because he shares a name with the Femmes' last drummer. There are many touching moments captured by famed Japanese documentarian Hiro Yokinotazawisushi (Spring Flower Bloom Time; Cloudy Clouds), who in Blister explores his usual themes of doppelgänger and auto care, but there are also some palpably depressing scenes. The biggest downer comes when the themes merge, and Michael Bonarelli spots Ethan Hawke at a local car wash. He runs home to get him one of the band's cassette tapes, but returns to see the car pulling away after a hand wax, whereupon he realizes that the man behind the wheel is not Hawke, but in fact a goateed lookalike. "I just thought we had a break coming," Michael says into the camera, shaking his head and placing a Listerine breath strip in his mouth. Then a patented Yokinotazawisushi close-up: "Let me go on," he sighs. Stirring.
6. The Granola Boys
"Pull off the tan socks and let's start this bubble bath, professor." Oh my how I love that line, even if Joey Granola's famous cow-tipping mantra has become a too-popular refrain around college campuses these days. Let's give screenwriter Caleb Carnegie credit for some other gems, too, though, since his genius should be recognized beyond your local Beer Pong U. My personal favorite is when Hatty Granola decides his backyard swing is not properly assembled, and he shouts, "Dial back the lightning ye damn fine mules!" And there are so many more. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should just give the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay to Carnegie right now.
5. The Pear Rapist
Hello, quasi-fictional biopic on a kite-surfing contemporary artist. Overdone? Sure. But ignore your skepticism and lose yourself in the dark, dark world of The Pear Rapist either by yourself or with your oldest living relative. It will change you. It's a sly little sleight-of-hand done by first-time director Nigel F., who has done for abstract skinned-fruit photography what Flum Brainard did for ballooning.
4. Take Me to the Outhouse Again, Ol' Sean Brubaker
Once again we saw a small studio (Ocelot) trotting out a musical during the holidays in the hopes that the film gets some chump reviewer to fall hopelessly in love with it before awards season. Guilty as charged. I couldn't resist a little toe-tapping to the tunes of Sean Brubaker's slap-happy outhouse construction crew. The messy end of the "test run" scene did make me a little queasy, but the bluegrass trills added by Bonko Maguire during "Plop, Plop Over the Mountain Top" made it completely worthwhile. (Where has Maguire been, by the way? We missed you, Bonko.) And kudos to the lone female member of the crew, Lorna, Brubaker's romantic interest, played by Ingrid Begmal. I can't imagine how long that love scene in the outhouse took, but I'm betting Begmal's chiropractor can probably afford to buy himself some new bed shams, if you know what I mean.
3. Quienes Mas Nostradamus, Mi Tio?
I've always been a fan of Latin American filmmaker Harry Palermo's work, and I never thought he'd be able to replicate the deft handheld camerawork in his masterpiece, Tiempo, Tiempo, Tiempo, Hatchet. And, truth be told, he hasn't done that with Nostradamus, but he hasn't regressed, either. We have a nameless young hero, a dusty lamp, and a stop watch. We also have a bottle of Tabasco sauce, a fountain pen, and an old scrapbook filled with leaves. But we also find The Boy carrying on over the missing burlap sack of tangelos and his dying uncle. Quienes mas? indeed.
In my lifetime there have been three great science fiction movies: Adam Z, The Hole in the Star, and, Starscape Nimsus: The Beginning. I wasn't expecting controversial French blaxploitation director Luc Je Doc to eclipse all of them, but he did. Where Je Doc was heavy-handed in Le Negro Petit, he pulled back in Dvarkojuin. Where he stumbled in Le Negro Avec, he found his footing in Dvarkojuin. Where he offered in Je Me Sens Si Seul, Negro, as many critics said, "extreme nihilist Je Doc," he opened up completely in Dvarkojuin. Perhaps the alien race of Blutitium people found on planet Dvarkojuin were the only ones capable of liberating this auteur's true genius.
1. The Help
Great, great movie.