2009 Glennies, Part 5: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2009)

#11: Avatar



(written/directed by James Cameron)

Last year, I cheated my Top 10 list a bit because a numbering error in Word caused me to accidentally type an extra description. This year, I’ve opted to include James Cameron’s Avatar for a wholly different reason. You can read my full review of the film, in which I fully acknowledge a number of serious plot, character, and storytelling problems with this film. By any of these measures, Avatar was not worthy of my Top 10. And yet, I am compelled to include it, because I had an absolutely marvelous time with this film. My first viewing was on a miniscule screen, from a seat crammed into the right front section of the auditorium, but I still couldn’t take my eyes off a single frame. This film is a grand and wondrous spectacle. Even as piracy, obnoxious advertising, and a constant barrage of texting diminish and devalue the theatrical film experience, James Cameron has given us a new reason to adore it. And beyond that, the film has proven provocative enough to spawn some of the most in-depth and fascinating film writing I’ve ever seen in print or online. Avatar absolutely piles on its message, but whether you love it or hate it, you will certainly have something to talk about afterward.

#10: The Boys Are Back



(directed by Scott Hicks, screenplay by Allan Cubitt, novel by Simon Carr)

Scott Hicks’ The Boys Are Back accomplished something remarkable… It managed to take a rather somber premise – a husband and father dealing with his wife’s untimely death – and turn it into a downright cheerful film. The film is shot in Hicks’ native Adelaide, Australia, and Greig Fraser’s cinematography (complimented by Hal Lindes’ delightful score) give this film an absolutely gorgeous backdrop. The film excels in its tone and pacing. It deals with some weighty issues, but the story moves right along when it needs to, and never veers too far into somber territory without coming back to show us something genuinely delightful. This variable emotional curve could easily have come off as jarring, bipolar, and seemingly not serious enough for the film’s subject matter, but it manages to avoid these problems. The result is a joyous portrait of family and fatherhood, featuring a trio of strong performances from Clive Owen and his cinematic sons.

#9: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince



(directed by David Yates, screenplay by Steve Kloves, novel by J.K. Rowling)

When I first read J.K. Rowling’s sixth Harry Potter book, I thought it was a fascinating middle chapter, but easily the least cinematic in the franchise. I held a similar view of the fifth book, so imagine my surprise in 2007 when director David Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg turned it into one of the best films in the franchise. And with the sixth film, Yates and returning HP screenwriter Steve Kloves have done it again.

I will throw in a caveat… This is definitely not a film for newcomers to the franchise. It’s crammed with back story and setup for the final chapters. It relies on an existing interest in and affection for the characters, their relationships, and a rich and elaborate world that deftly raise the stakes for this entry. And yet, this is one of the film’s most persistent strengths. We’ve watched these kids grow up in the joyous halls of Hogwarts, but this time around, the school feels strangely empty and somber. DP Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography makes the grounds look absolutely gorgeous, and provide a brilliant “underwater” look for the film’s many flashback sequences (I was quite pleased to see the Academy take notice). Nicholas Hooper’s score is hauntingly beautiful at times, but keeps the same cheery flourishes that I so enjoyed from the fifth film (particularly the Weasley twins’ theme).

I already singled out Jim Broadbent’s fantastic supporting role, but there were too many strong performances in this film to even mention. The character work and storytelling were effective, and the adaptation showed remarkable restraint in omitting an entire battle sequence from the end of the film. In print, this sequence always played like a lighter version of the next book’s final battle (minor spoiler – there’s a final battle), and cutting it out of the film was definitely the right choice.

#8: Up



(written/directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson)

The latest Disney/Pixar film from Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc) definitely fell prey to what I would call “WALL-E syndrome” – the first half hour is absolutely the best part of the film. It tells the poignant love story of childhood sweethearts Carl and Ellie Fredricksen in a matter of minutes, and is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking montages I’ve ever seen put to film. It is also a taut piece of visual storytelling, effectively conveying such weighty adult issues as infertility and broken dreams with only the briefest of glimpses and zero dialogue. By the time we meet Ed Asner’s cantankerous old man, he is thoroughly endearing, and finds an excellent partner in crime in Russell (Jordan Nagai), a Wilderness Explorer who is just the right blend of cute and annoying. The ensuing adventure film is immensely fun, and features the hilarious motif of a talking dog with the intelligence and personality of…a dog (with a great voice performance by co-writer/director Bob Peterson). Up certainly takes place in a heightened reality, but it tells a very down-to-earth and touching story.

#7: Adventureland



(written/directed by Greg Mottola)

As I said in my original review, Greg Mottola’s Adventureland defied my expectations on every level. I went in expecting a comedy akin to Superbad – and the film’s marketing certainly encouraged this image of the film. Instead, I was presented with a mature, poignant drama that presented a brilliant portrait of the twentysomething post-college experience, and the sudden, reluctant thrust into adulthood.

The film boasts some brilliant performances… Jesse Eisenberg plays a great everyman, and was just shy of my Top 5 for Best Actor. Ryan Reynolds and Kristen Stewart were both surprisingly effective (each of them having lowered my expectations at some point), and Martin Starr – whom I’ve adored since “Freaks and Geeks” – continues to show his prowess here.

Adventureland is both an effective coming-of-age tale and a touching romance, whose conciliatory message (“You can’t just avoid all the people you’ve screwed up with!”) will likely resonate as much with this generation as it did in the 1980s, when a young Greg Mottola was working at the real Adventureland. Whether this indicates the film’s timelessness or simply Mottola’s understanding of modern twentysomethings, the result is well worth seeing.

#6: Coraline



(written for the screen and directed by Henry Selick, novel by Neil Gaiman)

The best use of 3D animation I’ve seen this year was not in James Cameron’s Avatar, but in Henry Selick’s stop-motion adaptation of Coraline, a children’s novel by Neil Gaiman. Equal parts Nightmare Before Christmas and Alice in Wonderland, this film is a fantastically creepy exploration of a child’s desire to escape boredom. The voice cast is enjoyable, with effective performances by Dakota Fanning and Teri Hatcher, and a fantastic use of Keith David as a talking cat. The plot does get a bit too much like a video game in the third act (use your special scope, go here, retrieve one item from each location, BOSS FIGHT!), but it balances this with an absolutely stunning mixture of stop motion and CG animation as the fantasy world starts to crumble – and I’d be hard pressed to tell you where one stops and the other begins. Everyone has a film from their childhood that is as beloved as it is nightmare-inducing. Coraline absolutely deserves the title for today’s kids.

#5: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs



(written for the screen and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, novel by Judi and Ron Barrett)

Sony Pictures Animation has only made a few films, they got off to a fantastic start with Gil Kenan’s 2006 film Monster House. Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs had an atrocious marketing campaign, and hardly looked like it would be a worthy followup. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be the best comedy of the year.

Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) is a crackpot inventor whose latest invention is a machine that can turn water into food. The science in this film is very much in the Calvin and Hobbes aesthetic – immensely fun and borderline magical. The character design is deliberately cartoonish, in stark contrast to the rest of the animation, which looks gorgeous and practically photorealistic. The film’s North Atlantic island locale feels every bit like a real place, from its initial shroud of gloomy gray mist to its eventual golden glow amid a shower of falling cheeseburgers. The weather and atmospheric effects are incredible, and the food looks delicious.

This is a screwball comedy driven by a non-stop barrage of surprisingly thoughtful gags. The casting is fantastic, with great performances by Hader, Anna Faris, Andy Samberg, James Caan, and even Mr. freaking T (whose character actually sports an inverse mohawk). This supports some very believable relationships and effective character work. The film even tackles the implications and consequences of a society steeped in overconsumption, but keeps this to a very basic level. It’s one of many ways the film shows respect for its audience, kids and adults alike. The running gags all pay off fantastically, lending the film extremely well to repeat viewings.

This is about as preachy as I’ll get during my top 10… This is a film for everyone. It’s the best character-driven animation since The Incredibles, and one of my all-time favorite comedies. See this movie!

#4: Moon



(directed by Duncan Jones, written by Nathan Parker, story by Duncan Jones)

I’ll keep this one brief, since I’ve already raved about Sam Rockwell’s performance, and this is basically his one-man show (you can check out my full review here). Duncan Jones’ Moon does a lot with very little, creating a compelling moon base environment on a downright meager budget. It’s helped along by an absolutely beautiful score (I have yet to hear a Mansell score I haven’t loved). It’s a fantastic character piece, and a welcome return to true sci-fi. Check it out if you love big ideas.

#3: The Hurt Locker



(directed by Kathryn Bigelow, written by Mark Boal)

Kathryn Bigelow’sThe Hurt Locker doesn’t exactly have a conventional plot, but feels rather like a series of carefully constructed action set-pieces. Nonetheless, it is an incredibly effective thriller, owing largely to the action direction – that sense of spatial relationships that is that is absent from so many action films today. From my original review:

Every scene in this film is well established, and the audience always has an excellent sense of what’s going on. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) dons his protective suit (a relative misnomer) and marches through the blazing sun toward his objective. Civilians watch from every surrounding building, and bustle through the adjacent streets and alleys. The soldiers behind him take cover behind a Humvee and survey the crowd. Anyone with a cell phone could be trying to detonate the bomb. And all the while, the audience understands exactly where everything is in relation to everything else. And when all hell breaks loose, they can still understand what’s going on.

The rest of the film’s effectiveness is due to the three leads. Renner, Mackie, and Geraghty are just fantastic, and present a fascinating psychological profile of these characters, even as the film’s plot and dialogue exhibit utter contempt for anyone trying to analyze them. The film’s greatest strength is in crafting a palpable sense of urgency and danger – when it’s over, you’ll have to forcibly pry yourself loose from the edge of your seat.

#2: Up in the Air



(directed by Jason Reitman, screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, novel by Walter Kirn)

Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air bears a few similarities to Reitman’s last bit of corporate satire, Thank You For Smoking (including another great soundtrack), but has a much more somber tone. In my original review, I called it a brilliant and timely character piece, and I can’t stress this point enough. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a doubly fascinating character, between his constant air travel and his job as a professional hatchet-man. This may be the best performance of Clooney’s career, amid a trio of fantastic acting. The film takes a great number of risks, but stops just short of spreading its characters too thin. What’s more, it contains some of the richest dialogue and most effective scenes I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this year. And while it may be timely, this does nothing to diminish its rewatch value (three times and counting for me).

#1: Inglourious Basterds



(written/directed by Quentin Tarantino)

This film’s brilliantly deceptive trailer made it look like the Basterds (and their commander’s awful and hilarious scenery-chewing) would be the stars of the show. While I actually ended up liking Brad Pitt’s performance in the end, the Basterds feel more like a backdrop for the main revenge plot, which featured powerhouse performances from costars Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent, and Diane Kruger.

In my original review, I noted some minor similarities to Bryan Singer’s 2008 World War II film, Valkyrie. In that film’s insistence upon historical accuracy, it demanded a great deal of its audience – namely, to root for a plot whose failure was a matter of historical record. With Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino makes no such demands on the audience. He doesn’t strain or even test your historical knowledge. He simply asks you to live in his world for a while.

And what a world it is. A world of fantastic performances and increasingly tense 15-minute dialogue scenes. These scenes stop just short of being self-indulgent, and ultimately, Tarantino earns every moment in this film. It feels like a teaser for a much larger story, and yet we are still privy to enough brilliantly crafted character moments that it simultaneously feels complete.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Anvil! The Story of Anvil (fantastic documentary by Sacha Gervasi – omitted because I only just saw it)
  • In the Loop (directed by Armando Ianucci, written by Jesse Armstrong)
  • Drag Me To Hell (directed by Sam Raimi, written by Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi)
  • The House of the Devil (written/directed by Ti West)
  • The Brothers Bloom (written/directed by Rian Johnson)
  • Trick ‘r Treat (written/directed by Michael Dougherty)
  • District 9 (directed by Neill Blomkamp, written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell)
  • (500) Days of Summer (directed by Marc Webb, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber)
  • Observe and Report (written/directed by Jody Hill)
  • Star Trek (directed by J.J. Abrams, written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci)

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.

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2009 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actress

#5: Mélanie Laurent – Shosanna Dreyfus, Inglourious Basterds

Mélanie Laurent in "Inglourious Basterds"

Mélanie Laurent’s character were scarcely even mentioned in the American marketing for this film, so I was quite surprised when her subplot became the most compelling one in the film. Following the deaths of her family at the hands of the SS, Shosanna bides her time incognito as the owner of a Parisian cinema, and plots revenge. As I mentioned in my original review, Shosanna is a familiar character, seemingly drawn from the same well as The Bride from Kill Bill, but Laurent ably makes this character her own, combining a quietly sorrowful demeanor with an unflinching vendetta.

Shosanna is also part of an entirely one-sided “romantic” subplot with a German soldier (Daniel Bruhl)… While his advances aren’t terribly entertaining, her constant rebuffing is occasionally comedic, but mostly downright chilling (“I suggest you try Vichy”). There is also a remarkable scene between Laurent and Christoph Waltz, in which they sit in a Parisian restaurant and eat strudel. As Shosanna faces the SS Colonel, she manages to rein in her terror until he steps out, at which point she immediately starts hyperventilating. Laurent’s performance is ruthless – like so many others in this film – but also quite vulnerable. She brings just the right balance to keep Shosanna sympathetic, even as she commits atrocities on par with the very people she wants to kill. It is a fantastic performance to round out an almost entirely strong cast (I’m lookin at you, Eli Roth), and is certainly one of the most memorable this year.

#4: Zoë Saldaña – Neytiri, Avatar


Zoë Saldaña performance capture in "Avatar"

Zoë Saldaña in "Avatar"This is a performance I really have to take James Cameron’s word on. The various forays into CG characters over the past decade have definitely started to blur the line between animation and live-action, but they were still mostly in the realm of bodily motion capture, with complex facial expressions significantly enhanced in post-production by teams of skilled animators. But while Andy Serkis’ performances as Gollum in Lord of the Rings were not eligible for an acting Oscar, they were a leap forward from the likes of Jar Jar Binks, and Avatar is certainly the next such leap. According to Cameron, the characters in this film were created using performance capture techniques that recorded every nuance of the actor’s performance. Every tic of a facial muscle…every movement of the eyes… They were all made by the real actors. If this is really the case, it is entirely possible that future performances in this vein will be eligible for acting awards. And I would certainly hand one out to Zoë Saldaña.

Neytiri, the Na’vi princess, is just about the only sympathetic (or fully realized) character in this film, and Saldaña plays her with an some surprisingly animalistic ferocity (even baring her teeth and hissing a few times). While the visual spectacle of this film was enough to ensure that I was rapt with attention, it was with Saldaña’s character that I made the greatest emotional connection. She is almost certainly responsible for how well the romance played on-screen, and in light of the complex production process, achieving any believable chemistry could not have been an easy feat.

#3: Anna Kendrick – Natalie Keener, Up in the Air

Anna Kendrick in "Up in the Air"

From my original review:

Natalie is a fascinating character – the consummate young career gal, ruthless and cynical, but with a very human side, full of all the self-imposed deadlines and anxiety about her future that all twenty-somethings tend to have. Anna Kendrick, who I’d only seen previously in a small and ineffectual role in the Twilight films, gives a masterful performance as Natalie, and is surely one of the actresses I’ll be watching for in the future.

This is a performance that grew on me each time I saw the film. The interplay between Natalie and her colleague Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is simply fantastic. Kendrick plays the character with both a fierce determination and a striking vulnerability, utterly immune to Ryan’s charms (and soundly mocking him for his rhetoric). As their road trip of job terminations goes on, it all becomes more and more personal for Natalie, and Kendrick’s performance completely brings this transformation to life.

#2: Charlotte Gainsbourg – She, Antichrist

Still for Lars von Trier's "Antichrist".

This is a haunting performance in a strange and thoroughly disturbing film. Charlotte Gainsbourg plays the unnamed wife of a couple grieving alone in the woods. Through this unsettling and bewildering performance, Gainsbourg effectively conveys how broken and terrified this character has become. The interplay with her husband (Willem Dafoe) effectively illustrates the disjointed and counterproductive state of their present relationship. Gainsbourg’s performance is utterly fearless, and she maintains it even as her character becomes a paragon of the film’s unrelenting misogyny (“A woman crying is a woman scheming…”). Frankly, I would have a hard time recommending this film to anyone, but if I did, it would be solely because of this performance, which is one of the most effective and frightening I’ve ever seen.

#1: Zooey Deschanel – Summer Finn, (500) Days of Summer

Zooey Deschanel in "500 Days of Summer"

From my original review:

Zooey Deschanel…steals this film. To put it bluntly, this is a character that the audience could easily have ended up despising. And while the character of Summer is mostly well-written, the characterization and non-linear progression of the story demand a great deal from Deschanel. And it is her performance that just manages to make the character sympathetic.

As Tom reflects on his relationship, many of his scenes with Summer are cast in a different light through subsequent flashbacks. On the second run through, the film’s editing calls attention to the slightest glance of the eyes, or twinge of the cheek muscles, or the most minor apathetic tone of voice… In each of these microexpressions, Deschanel’s performance is masterfully subtle. And throughout the film, she brings all the mystery, likeability, and sensuality that the character demands, but couples it with a subtle undertone of cold, mature pragmatism. She manages to force the audience through nearly the same process as Tom, despite our advantages of an outside perspective and sardonic narrator to keep us objective..

Honorable Mentions:

  • Ellen Page as Bliss Cavender in Whip It
  • Rachel Weisz as Penelope in The Brothers Bloom
  • Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther in Orphan
  • Emma Watson as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.

2009 Glennies, Part 1: Best Supporting Actor

#5: Ryan Reynolds – Mike Connell, Adventureland

Ryan Reynolds in "Adventureland"

From my original review:
I must also give praise to Ryan Reynolds. Here is an actor whose work is consistently entertaining, but offers the same one-note, sociopathic, likeable douchebag performance in every film he’s in…

Reynolds returns in this film as that character, aged 10 years, saddled with a dead-end job and an unhappy marriage. And yet he manages to convey the truly pitiable nature of such a character. His antics and doubletalk no longer seem charming here. His underhanded and lecherous conduct comes off as sad, creepy, and immature for a man of his age. Reynolds does a fine job of portraying all the ugliness and truth of this character without any of the signature likeability that he brings to his other roles.

#4: Jackie Earle Haley – Walter Kovacs/Rorschach, Watchmen

Jackie Earle Haley in "Watchmen"

I am quite fascinated by geekdom and alternate history, but I must admit, I was not too excited by this film. Zack Snyder delivered a long, grueling, mixed bag of a film that seemed to split even the most die-hard fans of the graphic novel (and I do not count myself among them) right down the middle. But if there’s one thing it effectively conveyed, it’s that the only people who would voluntarily become superheroes are those with severe social or mental issues.

And so we meet Rorschach, the unrepentant, masked psychopath played to absolute perfection by Jackie Earle Haley. Like I said last year, there’s just something great about a well-played psychopath. Haley took what could have been a one-note, gruff-talking slasher and imbued him with some fascinating personality, giving the finest comic performance I’ve seen since Heath Ledger’s Joker.

#3: Denis Menochet – Perrier LaPadite, Inglourious Basterds

Denis Menochet in "Inglourious Basterds"

Denis Menochet only appears in one scene of this film, but it was a doozy (see Viola Davis from last year). He plays the French dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite, who is suspected by the SS of harboring a Jewish family. What ensues is a masterful interrogation scene between LaPadite and the SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). As with many other scenes in this film, the tension gradually increases as the scene goes on. LaPadite is a physically imposing man, but he has everything to lose, and Menochet lays all of his vulnerability bare as Landa closes in on the truth. Menochet deserves every bit as much credit as Waltz for how well this scene played, and it is certainly one of the most memorable in the film.

#2: Jim Broadbent – Prof. Horace Slughorn, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Jim Broadbent in "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"

David Yates brings another strong entry to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise, and Jim Broadbent is the finest example yet of the franchise’s reliably strong casting. Like so many of Rowling’s characters, Horace Slughorn is a well-written blend of familiar tropes – a grand old wizard, a collector of the ambitious and famous, a well-meaning man with a terrible secret – but also greater than the sum of his parts. Broadbent’s performance is absolutely delightful in many scenes, and downright somber in others. When his secret is inevitably revealed (as cinematic secrets must be), we are treated to a heartbreaking soliloquy in which Slughorn reminisces about Harry Potter’s dead mother, who was one of his favorite students. This scene features some of the best acting in the film by both Broadbent and Daniel Radcliffe, and is almost certainly the film’s emotional climax.

#1: Christoph Waltz – SS Col. Hans Landa, Inglourious Basterds

Christoph Waltz in "Inglourious Basterds"

From my original review:

The finest acting in the film is that of Christoph Waltz as SS Colonel Landa. He somehow manages to combine an outwardly cheerful demeanor with such simmering, underlying menace that each of his scenes will have you on the edge of your seat. [Quentin] Tarantino’s strength has always been in crafting lengthy scenes of gradually increasing tension amid seemingly innocuous dialogue, in which the question is not whether the scene will end badly; the question is “how badly” and “for whom?”. Waltz’s performance works masterfully within this framework; whether interrogating a dairy farmer under suspicion for harboring Jews, or conversing over Parisian strudel with a potential enemy, Waltz’ every facial tic gradually reveals his true intentions, as he leads the conversation exactly where he wants it to go. He is one of Tarantino’s most complex and well-crafted characters, and Waltz plays the part immaculately.

In addition to a fantastic performance of a complex character, Waltz seemlessly flitted back and forth between onscreen languages. We’ve seen plenty of cinematic polyglots before, but what separates Waltz from, say, Jennifer Garner, is that he sounds as much at home in one language as another. Without him, this film could not have been the same… Indeed, it might not have even been made. Tarantino has praised Waltz publicly for making this film possible, and he will quite deservedly be remembered for playing one of the finest villains of all time.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Martin Starr as Joel in Adventureland
  • Sam Worthington as Marcus Wright in Terminator Salvation
  • Michael Fassbender as Lt. Archie Hicox in Inglourious Basterds
  • Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar in Invictus

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.

Tarantino’s World – “Inglourious Basterds”

inglourious-basterds-poster
Click to check out the trailer.

Bryan Singer’s 2008 World War II film Valkyrie demanded a great deal from its audience. It told the tale of a group of plotters who were willing to risk their lives and commit treason against their fatherland to bring about the end of an unrepentantly evil regime. It told their story in the guise of a thriller, despite the film’s ending being a matter of historical record. And it asked us to root for this company of heroes even knowing that their plot would fail.

Quentin Tarantino’s latest outing, Inglourious Basterds, makes no such demands on the audience. He doesn’t strain or even test your historical knowledge. He simply asks you to live in his world for a while. And apart from the uniforms, World War II iconography, and an encyclopedic knowledge of 30s and 40s cinema, this film takes place largely in a fantasy world.

Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is the leader of the Basterds, a group of Jewish-American soldiers who will sneak behind enemy lines to kill (and scalp) as many Nazis as they can. The title and trailer would have us believe this is what the film is about, but this is not an origin story. The Basterds are merely a backdrop to a broader tale of revenge. As the Basterds plot to destroy the Nazi leadership, Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), a French Jewish girl, bides her time incognito as the owner of a Parisian cinema, and plots revenge for the murder of her family at the hands of the SS. Also in the mix is Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a beautiful turncoat German film starlet, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a German sniper and war hero-cum-actor, and SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), known colloquially as “The Jew Hunter”.

This is easily Tarantino’s most ambitious film. More than half of the dialogue is in subtitled French or German, and the labyrinthine plot is scarcely contained in the film’s 2 1/2 hour runtime. The film feels like a teaser for a much larger story, and yet we are still privy to enough brilliantly crafted character moments that it feels complete.

The finest acting in the film is that of Christoph Waltz as SS Colonel Landa. He somehow manages to combine an outwardly cheerful demeanor with such simmering, underlying menace that each of his scenes will have you on the edge of your seat. Tarantino’s strength has always been in crafting lengthy scenes of gradually increasing tension amid seemingly innocuous dialogue, in which the question is not whether the scene will end badly; the question is “how badly” and “for whom?”. Waltz’s performance works masterfully within this framework; whether interrogating a dairy farmer under suspicion for harboring Jews, or conversing over Parisian strudel with a potential enemy, Waltz’ every facial tic gradually reveals his true intentions, as he leads the conversation exactly where he wants it to go. He is one of Tarantino’s most complex and well-crafted characters, and Waltz plays the part immaculately.

Also noteworthy is Mélanie Laurent. Shosanna is a familiar character, seemingly drawn from the same well as The Bride from Kill Bill. Nonetheless, Laurent ably combines a quietly sorrowful demeanor with an unflinching desire for revenge. Denis Menochet gives a strong performance in an early interrogation scene, and Diane Kruger does a fine job as the fictitious German film starlet. If there’s one thing Cate Blanchett taught me as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator , it’s that I’m seldom disappointed by actresses playing actresses.

Which brings me…to Brad Pitt. When I first saw the trailer for this film, I thought that Pitt could ruin this film for me. He seemed woefully miscast as the Dirty Dozen-esque leader of the Basterds. And if Lt. Raine and the Basterds had more screen-time, that may well have been the case. But somehow, Pitt pulls it off.

He plays the character so brazenly over-the-top that it quickly becomes evident that this is not a character that is looking for anyone’s approval. Lt. Raine has come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass have fun and kill Nazis, and maybe speak some unapologetically bad Italian along the way. He is essentially a cartoon character. He has a scar across his neck from having his throat slit at some point in the past, which is never explained, but one can assume he has Chuck Norris-like longevity.

Many of the other Basterds are similarly cartoonish, although I don’t have much to say about their performances, given that they have so little screentime. Tarantino brings in such unassuming young actors as B.J. Novak (“The Office”) and Samm Levine (“Freaks and Geeks”) and invites us to watch as they graphically scalp dead Germans.

inglourious_basterds_eli_roth_mHe also brings in Eli Roth, and I must confess, I’m having a hard time figuring out why Roth is in this film. He plays Sgt. Donny Donowitz, known to the Germans as “The Bear Jew”, owing presumably to his appeal to a very specific subset of the gay community, and his propensity for beating Nazis to death with a baseball bat. The part was originally conceived for Adam Sandler, but rather than lament what might have been, I’ll simply speak to Roth’s performance. His delivery of dialogue, most of which he simply screams at the camera, is easily the worst in the film. He might well have ruined his scenes if not for the fact that he so looks the part of the Bear Jew. Roth may not be a strong actor, but he certainly can pull off a terrifying “bloodlust face”. And what’s more, he looks like he could kill me even without the bat. So with that in mind, I’ll simply say that Roth is a talented horror director, and he should probably stick to that from now on.

Inglourious Basterds is, like many of Tarantino’s films, an unrelenting depiction of brutality. Both the Basterds’ and Shosanna are unforgiving in their determination to wipe out the Nazis (“a Nat-see ain’t got no humanity!” barks Lt. Raine), and the parallels to the Nazis’ own brutality are almost certainly deliberate. The film does not seek to pardon anyone, but it does seem determined to simultaneously reveal both the humanity and brutality of all participants in war – and how the desire for revenge can lead people to commit previously unconscionable atrocities. And how in the end, no matter which side you’re on, all you want to do is go home, take off your uniform, and try to forget it ever happened.

“But that doesn’t sit well with me”, says Lt. Raine, as he gleefully carves a swastika into a German soldier’s forehead. “You know,” he says, turning to Private Utivich, who has just finished scalping yet another Nazi, “This might just be my masterpiece.”

FilmWonk rating: 9 out of 10

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unused-basterds-poster
(unused poster for the film – click to read more about it)