Last night it was me and the old liberal Jewish brigade at the NY Times film club preview screening of J. Edgar, the new Clint Eastwood film starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the most powerful law enforcement figure in American History. Despite my pleas for most movies to trim the fat, this movie chronicles a 48 year FBI career, spanning eight presidents in an even two hours. And it feels too lean. The movie is certainly not bad, which would be nearly impossible given DiCaprio and Eastwood’s credentials. But it just isn’t the great movie I hoped it would be.
DiCaprio will certainly get an Oscar nomination for his performance, but unlike his Oscar performance in Blood Diamond, which I still think is his best, this is really an obvious Oscar grab. His portrayal of Hoover spans five decades so there is makeup, and fat suits and an accent and odd speaking cadence. In fact old Hoover looks like present day Jack Nicholson. It all spells Oscar nomination. Plus throw in the Brokeback Mountain element involving J Edgar’s long-standing relationship with his second in command, Clyde Tolson, played by Armie Hammer, known for playing the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network (I still think he deserved a nomination more than any actor in that film) and the odds of a DiCaprio nomination stand at 99%.
As much as I liked Hammer in The Social Network, something felt off with his performance in this movie. First off, in the older scenes, it appears all the efforts in good makeup were directed to DiCaprio. His older Hoover looks natural, but the old version of Tolson bears a resemblance to Dan Aykroyd in the 90s “comedy” Nothing But Trouble. Secondly, Hammer channels the same affluent air that combines smugness and decency that he carried so well in The Social Network, but in more emotional scenes with DiCaprio he appeared a bit awkward.
Of course one of the most intriguing elements of a story of a man who spent his life collecting secrets to blackmail people in power is that he had lifestyle that clearly could have been problematic for him. And yet it never seemed so much of an issue besides one emotional fight. The cowboys in Brokeback Mountain had more problems than Hoover, according to this film. That may have been the case, but it is hard to believe. The film does its best to portray the relationship as a long standing, powerful bond, but without a lot of the details of the relationship it is hard to feel as invested in it as you are supposed to.
What the movie does really well from a historical perspective is show why Hoover was both a vital figure in law enforcement development (his early encouragement of using science in police work, getting the FBI significant power, etc.) and such a villainous figure as well (his secret files that he used to blackmail political figures, his inflation of his own hands on legacy in apprehending criminals, and a particularly awful phone call to Bobby Kennedy).
And just one issue with Eastwood – why is the movie so fu*king dark? I don’t know if that is for film critics who will say, “the dark tones of the film evoke the shadiness of Hoover,” or “the film’s dark style helps draw out the classic eras it evokes,” or some other stuff, but I would have preferred a few more lights on set.
I enjoy biographies and I like biopics. And other than Lord of The Ring films, they are the only genre of film where I gladly watch long movies, as long as they provide a full picture of the subject’s life. That is why Malcolm X may be my favorite biopic. J Edgar hits on many of the significant pieces of Hoover’s professional life and gives the viewer a decent outline of his personal life. But in the end I would have preferred a bigger and more detailed film that could have delivered a fuller look at both sides of Hoover.
I thought this year was a really good year for movies, despite the garbage that was listed on this site yesterday. Before getting to the top 10 movies of 2009 (and the decade) here are some special (mostly positive) awards for movies in 2009.
Most Surprisingly Good Movies (in no particular order)
1)This Is it– Thoroughly enjoyed the concert (rehearsal) documentary about Michael Jackson. Great music and a worthy tribute to the fallen icon and aficionado of play dates with tweens.
2) Taken– The Liam Neeson film is a perfect example of how a movie that has no ambition, only one star and a simple plot can still deliver if it just tries to do the simple things well. And the scene where he shoots his friend’s wife to show that he means business was one of the best this year.
3) Crank 2– Either the most ingenious quasi-spoof of action movies ever or just a ridiculously entertaining goof. Either way I had no idea that I would enjoy this movie as much as I did. It now validates Jason Statham’s work visa to me, though his films have only grossed slightly more than my YouTube videos.
4) Drag Me To Hell – This Movie almost made the top 10. Funny, creepy, gross, and all on purpose. A good, but not great movie. However, there were very few movies I enjoyed more than this one.
The Any Given Sunday Award For Most Disappointing Movie Based On Awesome Trailer
Watchmen. Blue genitals and a waste of time is all I remember from this movie. The trailer, however, was perfection.
The Two Towers Award For Great Trailer That Delivered Great Movie
Nothing. But The Men Who Stare At Goats was my favorite trailer of the year and the movie was solid, but still did not meet expectations.
2009 Honorable Mention (A/K/A The Unpaid Guestspot of Movie Awards)
Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Two Lovers, Food Inc., State of Play
2009 Top Ten Movies
10) (tie) Sugar, The Messenger
Sugar is the story of a Dominican immigrant seeking to become a baseball star. Came out early this year to rave reviews, but has long been forgotten. Anyone who is a baseball fan or interested in the immigrant experience should see this. Or just hang out by Yankee Stadium.
The Messenger is the best war movie this year. It is about two soldiers who report to next of kin of the loss of loved ones. The things people do for work in this economy. Really strong and simple movie.
9)Capitalism: A Love Story.
This movie is a reminder that America used to be a place where a middle class person could thrive (middle class meaning one blue collar job with could salary and benefits, not $5 million dollars or less like John McCain seemed to think). Now thanks to a selfish, never too rich mindset the wealth is more concentrated at the top than ever before. Sadly for working Americans and Michael Moore, America is one big casino and the house always wins.
8) 500 Days of Summer
The fact that Music and Lyrics was my favorite romantic comedy before this movie came out (yes I have seen Love Actually, but have not seen When Harry Met Sally yet – gasp!) may diminish my credibility in this genre, but I am probably not the only person telling you how great this movie is. Funny, heartfelt and thoroughly enjoyable. And the lesson of the film couldn’t be more optimistic: if you find yourself in a relationship with a cu-t, don’t worry because eventually you may go out with Derek Jeter’s girlfriend.
The selection most likely to anger people. First, yes I thought it was funnier than Borat. Second, the best opening of any film since The Dark Knight. As the techno music began blaring and the words “black guys” and “taint” flashed on screen I could not stop laughing. For many the film was too crude. Other complaints I heard was that Borat had a point in showing some ignorance in funny ways, whereas this just went for cheap laughs. Probably true. Perhaps it was easier to embrace a character who was exposing racism and sexism and, most flagrantly, anti-Semitism in Borat and feel good about laughing than in Bruno, where you are just laughing at the absurdity of a gay character’s libido on steroids. My advice to the self-righteous – take the champagne bottle out of your ass and watch Bruno pour some champagne out of his boyfriend’s.
6) Precious Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire
Fat, pregnant by her father (again – fool me once shame on him, fool you twice… shame on him again in this rare exception to that saying), illiterate and Mariah Carey as your social worker. And I thought being a comedian was tough. This movie is a powerhouse and Mo’nique’s performance is one of my three favorite this year (Christopher Waltz in Inglorious Basterds and Paul Rudd in I Love You Man being the other two). And I would like this movie to win Best Adapted Screenplay so that Sapphire, who probably negotiated the self-indulgent title has to hear the dumbest phrase ever uttered at an awards show: The winner is Precious Based on The Novel Push By Sapphire Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire.
The opening to this movie may be the most touching sequence in movies this year. It is just another great movie from Pixar. Normally stories of old men hanging out with young fat kids is awkward (think Herbert the Pervert and Chris Griffin from Family Guy as one such pairing), but this movie is nothing of the sort. Plus it has a talking golden retriever, which will always get support from me.
4) Inglorious Basterds
Christopher Waltz was amazing, but surprising to me was how good Brad Pitt was. A funny, intense, enjoyable movie about Nazis and the Jews that hunted them. It was also a welcome relief from the usual parade of mediocre, maudlin films about the Holocaust that are raised to critical praise because of the subject matter. After Schindler’s List I think Hollywood could have just waited for this one . After all slavery has had what, Roots and Amistad? I think 6 Holocaust movies come out last year alone. But I digress. Basterds is awesome (and my favorite Tarantino film – that is what I think, but I am also writing it because I want to anger those who worship at the altar of Pulp Fiction).
3) Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs
Even more than Bruno, this choice is likely to bring on some WTFs. I did not even want to see this movie, but then reviews kept talking about how much fun it was. The biggest shock of the year for me was this movie. It was hysterical from start to finish. It was like the humor of Family Guy, but not as crude or easy. I flirted with putting this #1, but the last two choices, upon reflection, were the two best movies of the year.
2) Up In The Air
I am tired of the “this is the movie that defines our times” type quotes, but besides that this is a great movie. George Clooney’s best (unlike his win for Syriana, no complaints if he gets Best Actor) and a movie that is so good that I cannot exactly explain why it is so good. Perhaps it is because it is a movie that defines our times… oops.
1) District 9
The most original movie I have seen in a long time. The biggest crime of the Oscars could be if Avatar gets a best picture nomination and this does not (if they only feel like honoring once sci-fi-ish film). Since it is #1 I don’t think it needs any explaining, other than the fact that it comes out on DVD today so you should rent it if you have not seen it.
TOP TEN MOVIES OF THE DECADE
10) School Of Rock – Along with The Wrestler, no movie has matched an actor better this decade than Jack Black and SOR.
9) The Departed – I hate the Boston accent, but that was the only thing I hated about this movie.
8) Eastern Promises– Russian mob in London and the best fight scene in any movie ever. Sorry Bourne Ultimatum. You were second.
7) Million Dollar Baby – The only movie that made me cry this decade (joining E.T., Glory and Dead Poets’ Society on the career list). Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank all at their best.
6) Traffic – A decade later the violence in Mexico is worse and the liberal pot smokers who abhor the violence of war or the treatment of chickens that are not free-range, but still help fund the cartels that propagate massive bloodshed in and around the border. This movie would go under the category of wake up calls unheeded. Great movie.
5) Finding Nemo– My favorite movie from the most consistently great movie studio.
4)4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days – I am not a big foreign film guy, but this was so intense and so good I regretted not speaking (Romanian if my recollection is correct) the language because even checking the subtitles was too much attention away from the acting.
3) The Dark Knight – I have never seen a movie in the theaters more than this one. And it’s not even close. Die Hard, The Matrix and The Dark Knight are the three films that changed and elevated action movies higher than any others in the last 20 years. To me, it was even more impressive to take action, the way Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger did, and turn it into art.
2) The Lord Of The Rings – Because of The Godfather III’s mediocrity this is the greatest trilogy of all time. Shut up Star Wars people. (and if I had to pick just one – The Two Towers).
1) United 93 – I have only seen two perfect movies in my lifetime. One was Amadeus, my favorite movie of all time. The other was United 93. I am not saying it is my favorite movie of all time; it would be hard to make that claim about a film focused on 9/11. But the realism, the intensity, the respectful rendering of an incredibly sensitive subject and the overall product was second to none this decade for me. In a sad way I guess it is fitting that the decade’s defining event yielded the decade’s best movie. Besides, a movie about our collective self-indulgence and self absorption called Twitter v. 3.05 would not be nearly as riveting.