Tuesday, March 29, 2005

He's the Top

The best English director whom the mainstream still hasn't heard of, and whom the American art-house keeps shrugging off, is the preternaturally prolific Michael Winterbottom, who turns 44 today. In the last ten years, Winterbottom has produced 13 full-length features, and most of them have been terrifically good. You have to reach back to Fassbinder—a hero to Winterbottom, by the way—to approximate that kind of track record. (Or maybe you don't, but I can't think of any rivals.)

Mike recently wrapped principal photography on his upcoming, appropriately tricksterish adaptation of the great 18th-century novel Tristram Shandy, which will hopefully upset literary purists as much as Tony Richardson's Tom Jones did in the early 1960s. Before we find out, there's obviously plenty of good-to-great Winterbottom to explore at the rental store. Go know!

  • Butterfly Kiss (1995) is a road movie about two women caught in a sort of sadomasochistic endgame, with Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction) as frenzied as she's ever been as the bondage-wearing, nerve-rattling serial killer in the couple. Sounds wildly over the top, and every once in a while it is, but there is an impressive emotional sincerity to the film, and the feeling of being a caught in a relationship you can't get out of is scarily well-evoked. This is thematically somewhere between Monster and Heavenly Creatures, and if it isn't quite their equal in quality, it's still not easily ignored.

  • As much as Butterfly Kiss intrigued me, I really got on the Winterbottom train with Jude (1996), his bracing adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. The essential coldness of the story has not been diminished, though the spirit, intelligence, and enormous charisma of Christohper Eccleston, Rachel Griffiths, and not-yet-a-star Kate Winslet warm the whole thing into something remarkably human and brilliantly accessible. One of the very best of the mid-90s costume dramas, in no small part care of cinematographer Eduardo Serra (The Wings of the Dove, Girl with a Pearl Earring).

  • Welcome to Sarajevo kind of got lost in December 1997, with Miramax leaning so heavily behind Good Will Hunting, but it should have helped Winterbottom cross over. The portrait of English and American journalists covering the standoffs and urban massacres of the Bosnian War is tense and evocative in the spirit of good Costa-Gavras. You do come to care about the characters, especially when Stephen Dillane's taciturn reporter makes a heroically illegal (and vaguely audience-pandering) attempt to smuggle a young Bosnian girl back to England as his child. Whatever its occasional limits, there's no arguing with the editing, the performances, or the well-earned sobriety of the piece.

  • Winterbottom does Hardy again in The Claim, although this time The Mayor of Casterbridge has been transplanted to a McCabe-era Pacific Northwest. Regular Winterbottom screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce does a splendid job both of adapting the novel and of particularizing it to its new context, and the acting by Peter Mullan, Sarah Polley, Nastassja Kinski, and where-did-he-go American Beauty alum Wes Bentley is excellent. (Even Milla Jovovich pans out in this film.) Laurels, however, are reserved for Michael Nyman's score and for cinematographer Alwin Küchler, a hero in the making who would return to Winterbottom's side for Code 46.

  • The Berlin Film Festival prize-winner In This World is both a typical and an atypical Winterbottom picture. Its non-actor cast of mostly displaced Afghanis strive for weeks to smuggle themselves to faraway Europe, with uneven results. Filmed in a heartbreaking series of close quarters, agonizing waits, brushes with disaster, and rays of hope, In This World cuts right to the heart of modern problems of asylum, fugitivity, and border-crossing as a means of staying alive. The music is occasionally sentimental, but the editing and the (non-)performances never are, plus the photography and the sound design are modestly scaled miracles. Maybe Winterbottom's best.

  • Released in the US last year to exactly no fanfare, Code 46 has a decent chance of a belated, Blade Runner-type cult following. Formally, it's a film at loose ends, to be sure, which is perfectly consistent with its story and themes. In the near future, tolerable life conditions are found only in the largest, best-fortified cities (echoes of In This World), emotions are downloadable and injectable like antibodies, and the normalized practice of human cloning leads to an epidemic problem of unconscious incest (echoes of Jude). Bear in mind, though, that "incest" isn't a bad synonym for the totally inbred self-absorption of our wealthiest cities and states—yes, even now. If you're a sci-fi fan, even on an occasional basis, you'll marvel at how fully (yet cheaply) Winterbottom and his crack visual team have invented a future. If you're a Samantha Morton fan, you'll remain one. This title is still on the New Releases shelf, right between Closer and Collateral. Stop ignoring it.

In my own Winterbottom adventures, I still have his modest pop success 24 Hour Party People to go, as well as Wonderland, which looks to be his stab at a Hannah and Her Sisters-style female dramedy. (Thanks, Tim!!) 9 Songs, released last year, was widely derided for its mind-boggling amounts of unsimulated sex between its actors, all in the service of not much story—but when it eventually makes its way to America, I'll give it a go. Winterbottom excels at films about journeys, even when they're only internal, which pretty much means that I'll follow him anywhere.

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Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Sure, Gabriel, Michell is dope, but when's his birthday?

Kidding. Thank goodness British cinema is actually in good enough shape these days that we can debate among various talents without being stuck with all the old names (Leigh, Loach, et al.) For anyone who didn't see it, Gabriel and I were both big fans of Michell's unheralded adaptation of Ian McEwan's Enduring Love.

1:17 AM, March 30, 2005  
Blogger Dr. S said...

I just relearned how to do html tags so that I can start italicizing things (I've been feeling deficient about this).

After my seminar last night, I watched Welcome to Sarajevo , which I liked a lot. What Bosnian films did you end up using in your class this semester?

7:01 PM, March 30, 2005  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@ Dr. S: We started with the Macedonian movie Before the Rain, which, frustratingly, is not yet out on DVD. Oscar nominee and Indie Spirit Award winner in '94 (well, '95, but for films released in '94).

Next we watched No Man's Land from Bosnia-Herzegovina, which won the Foreign-Film Oscar over Amélie in 2001. I'm not as wild about this one as about Rain or Sarajevo (which we watched third, along with some reading pages from Zlata's Diary), but they're all more than worth seeing.

I'm glad you liked Welcome to Sarajevo!

7:19 PM, March 30, 2005  
Blogger Dr. S said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:59 PM, March 30, 2005  
Blogger Dr. S said...

I think I tried to post a comment way back when you were doing the Bosnia unit but wasn't able to for some reason. I don't know whether you ran into Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde when you were researching for that unit; it's a piece of comix journalism that's pretty terrific, and very illuminating about the war. Also, my Fabulous Colleague Courtney Brkic (BERkitch) wrote a memoir, The Stone Fields, about her time working with the UN exhuming mass graves. In case you teach the class again. (Her short stories about the war, collected as Stillness, are also terrific.)

10:00 PM, March 30, 2005  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Cool! Teaching recommendations... I knew this blog was good for more than letting off steam and indulging celebrity obsession.

Really, these texts sound great. If y'all knew what I know—that "Dr. S" is the biggest MVP all-star teacher this side of the Mississippi—you'd take her at her word, too.

10:29 PM, March 30, 2005  
Blogger Jill said...

Who says there's only room for one? I myself happen to be a fan of long standing of much of the British Film Industry....I'd go so far as to worship the Holy Trinity of Winterbottom, Roger Michell, and Danny Boyle (The Beach notwithstanding). Of the three, I think Winterbottom has shown an extraordinary degree of versatility, and he's up to this point the best interpreter to film (if not literal adapter) of Thomas Hardy's bleak novels

10:07 AM, April 04, 2005  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Papa Midnite: Dear Frankie actually isn't by Danny Boyle; Millions is his film in current release. Though it goes to show I agree with your hesitancy about Boyle that I'm much more likely to see Dear Frankie than to see Millions (even though most reviewers would have it otherwise).

Depending on how widely we are construing "British" (ie., not just English), my favorite working director is Lynne Ramsay. Morvern Callar is my favorite new English-language film since The Thin Red Line.

12:56 AM, May 01, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more, especially after seeing "In This World" and "The Road to Guantanamo"...

10:51 AM, April 22, 2007  

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