I still haven't gotten around to writing full reviews (it's been a very hectic last few weeks) for The Hangover or Up, but in brief, they are two of the most satisfying movies of the year, with Up being the best I've seen so far in 2009. Here's a quick run-down of those two, plus two more I caught up with over this past weekend. Oh, and do you hear those loud foot-steps in the distance? That'd be Optimus Prime and his boys. They're coming to kick every one's ass on Wednesday.
I saw The Hangover (A) for the second time yesterday and it was just as funny as the first viewing. It's just a simple idea, executed brilliantly (for what it sets out to do), with great chemistry from the three leads (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifinakis), and huge laughs from start to finish. The pacing is brisk and efficient, it's surprisingly well-shot for a comedy (Todd Philips and d.o.p. Lawrence Sher go 2:35:1 and the results are glossy), and each performance is perfectly calibrated to play off one another. It's the best comedy that Philips has directed thus far.
Up (A+) is the best film of the year for so many reasons that I'll probably have to delve into it in a longer review in the near future. But in brief, it's nothing short of a perfect family movie, with a surprising amount of emotional depth and adult-level sophistication. Much like last year's fantastic Wall*E, Up has moments of visual poetry and narrative power that you sometimes forget you're watching an animated movie. The 3-D technique on display in Up enhances both the story and the dizzying action sequences. The opening 10 minute montage is emotionally devastating and Chaplin-esque; so much is said with so little words, with the beautifully rendered visuals telling a rich story. I loved this movie. It represents yet another gold star for Pixar. Finding Nemo, Cars (to a slightly lesser extent), The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall*E, and now Up represent an unprecedented run for an animation studio. You'd have to go back to the golden years of animation at Disney to find a time when a team of artists and storytellers were knocking them out of the park with this sort of consistency and expertise.
You gotta love Steven Soderbergh. If he's not out shooting back to back Che Guevara biopics or a star-studded and glitzy Oceans caper, he's doing small, personal, and experimental work like Schizopolis, The Good German, or Bubble. His newest feature, The Girlfriend Experience (A-), is what blogger/critic Jeffrey Wells would call a "high thread-count" movie. Everything looks sexy and richly appointed and luxurious. Less than 80 minutes and shot with a cold, detached style befitting the subject matter, Soderbergh's film examines the life of an extremely high-end escort, who is involved in a series of relationships with different types of clients, as well as a real relationship with her boyfriend. By casting adult-film star Sasha Grey as the call-girl, Soderbergh toys with audience expectations, and surprisingly, gets a focused performance out of his lead actress. The movie isn't about sex as much as it is about power and money. The film is also about the juxtaposition of jobs and careers, as Grey's character Chelsea tries to advance her brand into new areas (a website, a clothing line) as her personal-trainer-boyfriend tries to launch a line of work-out clothing while also trying to advance up the corporate ladder at his gym. Soderbergh, acting as his own cinematographer, drapes the film in sleek lighting patterns, with his camera alternately taking on documentary like angles as well as highly stylized ones. Shot over the course of a month in late October and early November of 2008, the film feels extremely "of the moment," in that many characters obsess about the crashing stock market and the volatility of the money markets. The phrase "bail-out" is uttered more than once. The semi-improvised screenplay by Brian Koppleman and David Levien (Rounders, Oceans 13) is tight and the dialogue feels very real. All of the performances carry an air of authenticity. The Girlfriend Experience is a neat little movie that only someone like Soderbergh could have pulled off.
Very briefly, Sharon Maguire's overwrought yet underdeveloped melodrama Incendiary (C) was nothing more than yet another showcase for actress Michelle Williams, who again delivers an excellent performance; too bad the script wasn't sharper. Playing an adulterous wife/mother who's son and husband are killed in a suicide bombing in London, Williams (in a very clean British accent) gets to go through a variety of emotions in this low-budget British indie. There are some steamy sex scenes (with a very naked Williams again proving she's not afraid of on-screen nudity), some interesting political ideas, and Ewan McGreggor and Matthew McFayden both lend solid support. Maguire is a better director than writer; had the script been more fleshed out the movie would have been all the better for it.