Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The best movie of 2009 (so far, at least) .... flippin' sweet!

Before I get into all that, it's hard to tell who's the bigger winner with what's clearly the news of the day, Darren Aronofsky or us.

If I had to pick one, I'd say us, because along with being news that he's onto what should be a fascinating project, it hopefully means he's NOT making a remake of "Robocop." And if that's the first you're ever hearing of that, just pretend you never did, because hopefully now it will never happen.

Instead, the director of "The Wrestler" (one of my five favorite movies of 2008, along with "Let the Right One In," "Tell No One," "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Milk") is turning to competition of a different sort with something appropriately twisted called "Black Swan."

Actually, as I type this, it doesn't seem real, which seems just right: Natalie Portman is (almost) set to star in "a supernatural thriller set in the world of New York City ballet." Specifically, she'll play a veteran ballerina who finds herself locked in an intense rivalry with a fellow dancer who may or may not be just a figment of her imagination. Bring it on!

Here today, however, it's all about what I can firmly call, after stewing with it for a day or so, the best movie of 2009 (so far, at least.) Sure, "Star Trek" was as thoroughly fun as it was refreshing, and unlike many people, I thought "Watchmen" was a nearly flawless adaptation of Alan Moore's oddly great graphic novel, but the best flick I've seen so far is something on a far different scale, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's sublime baseball movie "Sugar."

Actually, what makes "Sugar" work so well is that it starts with baseball as a backdrop but then tackles something much more compelling: Life in modern America, and what it must look like to someone who's just arrived in our often bizarro world.

"Sugar" tells the story of Miguel "Sugar" Santos, a 19- (I think, but with Dominican players, of course, who knows?) year-old Dominican pitching prospect who's owned by a fictional Kansas City team and toiling with other prospects at what seems alternately like a summer camp or a prison yard - or maybe something in between, a summer camp that just happens to have guard towers.

From the outset, you get a strong sense of the movie's two strongest suits, it's natural - I'd go so far as to say "organic" - pacing, and the equally natural banter of the ballplayers and everyone they encounter in their new world.

Sugar, played with raw charm by Algeniz Perez Soto, catches the eye of a scout and eventually gets promoted all the way to AA minor league ball in Bridgeport, Iowa, which might as well have been Mars. At this point, the flick easily could have succumbed to either of two predictable and familiar courses, the fish-out-of-water story or the rah-rah sports flick, but instead it takes the best elements of each and pretty much turns them upside down.

Sugar is taken in by an elderly couple who are freakishly but never quite cartoonishly devoted to minor league baseball, which I sorely wish we still had here in Macon. During this stretch, the movie often finds it grace in quiet moments as Sugar adapts to his odd new world, and the best scene of all comes when he simply learns how to order breakfast in a restaurant.

And the games themselves, while they will seem real to anyone whose had the joy of watching minor league ball, are never pitched as anything more than that. Sure, they're important, but only as we see it through the eyes of Sugar and his fellow ballplayers in how they can advance their fledgling careers.

This game-by-game stretch can get a bit too methodical, but it deftly sets up the knuckle curve that is the third act, when Sugar's tale becomes one of the immigrant experience in America and, more importantly, of the power of rational adults to simply change their minds. I certainly won't spoil it by telling you how, but Sugar eventually ends up at the home of Yankee Stadium, and it just makes a cycle that perfectly fits this movie about baseball and much more.

With "Under the Same Moon," "Frozen River," "Sin Nombre," "The Visitor" and now "Sugar," immigration has quickly become my favorite sub-subject for movies, and it's not hard to see why. No other subject better invokes the peril of the human condition, and Boden and Fleck have captured this just right in a movie that I can't recommend you see soon enough (as to when that might be, however, who knows, because I think it's finished its theatrical run and I can't find a DVD release date in sight yet.)

And with that, I have to get ready for the job that still pays me just enough to get by in this odd place called America. Peace out.


Eric said...

Interesting, I loves me a good baseball movie. In fact i do not think there is a single baseball offering out there that I did not like. I will have to check out sugar.
When you get a second check out some Star Trek Fan stuff I have been lighting over at my blog. given the nature of the material I am still pretty proud of it.

Reel Fanatic said...

I'll certainly check it out very soon, Eric .. there's nothing I love more than avoiding work while I'm at work!

J. Marquis said...

Have you heard whatever happened to Aranofsky making "Flicker"?

Reel Fanatic said...

I don't know anything about that, Mr. Marquis .. the only thing I had heard before this was the "Robocop" garbage, so I'm just hopeful he's given up on that!

Mercurie said...

I've always enjoyed baseball movies, so I'll have to check out Sugar. And the news regarding Aronofsky is definitely good. Black Swan sounds a whole lot more interesting than a Robocop remake...

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