Monday, December 22, 2008

Behind Every Door, Another B+

As you'll have noticed, if you keep track of the sidebar, I've been racing to catch up with 2008 releases that I missed in theaters but are now available on DVD, and just like every year, they reinforce what a falsehood it is that the fall is the best season for seeing movies. The best season for Oscarbait, maybe. And sure, there is fabulous stuff knocking around the multiplexes and the arthouses these days: The Wrestler, Milk, The Class, A Christmas Tale, Rachel Getting Married...

Still, in the last week or two, and adding to the early '08 marvels that I already absorbed in the theaters, I've seen a rash of really great springtime releases: the exciting and partially animated documentary Chicago 10, the plush and perverse costumer The Duchess of Langeais, the vividly filmed and acted criss-crossy drama The Edge of Heaven, and the serenely observant and occasionally cheeky Still Life. (Boy has the Venice Film Festival been on a terrific run these last few years!) Assuming that my six A-range movies from the year are all safe for my Top Ten List (and I'm basically only awaiting In Bruges and Benjamin Button before I sally forth with that thing...), this means that the competition in my mind for those last four slots is suddenly quite tight among the seventeen movies I've tagged with a B+ in the last year of commercial releases.

So, while I'm only fitfully on the web for the next few week, and while I'm cogitating about my list and second-guessing my allegiances, can you do me a favor? Make a short, punchy FYC statement about why any one of these movies does or doesn't deserve to qualify for the Top Ten ahead of one or more of the others. Does A Christmas Tale or Rachel Getting Married do better by its lively family dysfunction? Does Milk or The Class strike a more interesting balance between its documentary and imaginative impulses? Has Yella's elliptical sense of dread lingered better in your mind than WALL•E's measured sense of wonder? How about the afterlife of Burn After Reading's acrid comedy, or the muted, observational styles of Ballast and Flight of the Red Balloon? The dusty dreamworld of Alexandra, the nightmare chamber of Taxi to the Dark Side, the florid pop-up book of The Fall, or the rambunctious historical embellishments of Man on Wire or Chicago 10?

If you haven't seen one of these titles, rent it or buy a ticket, and file your impressions. I'm all ears, and nothing is a sure thing! I thought The Dark Knight was, but a second viewing bumped it down a notch. Alternatively, I've been known to decide that a "B" movie from earlier in the year has made a more potent impression on me than a whole flock of "B+"s, which is how Iraq in Fragments leapfrogged its way up at the last minute in 2006. So—sway me!



Blogger Sam Brooks said...

I'm going to put some weight behind two films I saw at the local film festival this year, although there is one film I secretly champion against the mediocre reviews it's received (My Blueberry Nights), and those two films are Yella and Flight of the Red Balloon.

The key link between both of these movies is that it features the best performance by their key lead actress, probably more notable for Binoche who has had a long line of middling to good performances. This is a huge benefit for me, because it happens that many of my 'top' movies feature strong female performances. (See my top five of last year: Lust, Caution; Away From Her; Secret Sunshine; The Home Song Stories; A Mighty Heart.)

I also feel that they're both character driven, which is a big boost for me as well. Now that you know why I love them, I'm gonna say why you should love them!

The Flight of the Red Balloon is a massive achievement visually; I would hesitate to call it Hou Hsiao-Hsien's best looking film, but it's definitely close. However, the best thing about the visuals is that they don't take away from the narrative or characters; you aren't drawn specifically to them and they support a strong story and even stronger characters. So kudos for that.

I also feel that it's one of the best films about childhood in quite some time, Hou captures an innocence and simpleness in Simon's life that isn't at all overly precious or idealized. At the same time, there's still a kind of magic that Hou presents that, for lack of a better phrase, makes me feel all fuzzy inside.

So, that's why I think you should love Flight of the Red Balloon. I could go on about more aspects I love; the calming image of the balloon, Binoche's performance and pretty much every shot, but you've seen it, so you already know how great those are.

Now, onto Yella. It doesn't feature the same kind of thrills or qualities as the previous film, and I think it's a slighter effort, but I still enjoy the film profusely. Getting my main thing out of the way; Nina Hoss is incredible in an almost telepathic performance which encompasses Yella's intelligence without making her into an archetype of a woman getting her own back. Can we get this German talent some more good roles, please?

To the director's, Christian Petzold's credit, he doesn't muddle his film up with overly complicated visuals and instead tells his story straight, which benefits his film so much more in the long run. As writer, he clearly knows that he's constructed a narrative and characters that don't need directorial tricks to make them seem substantial. (If only Patrick Stanley had the same knowledge...)

The thing I love about this film is how it hints at so many things; the conflict between East and West Germany, the fragility of the average civilian's life during this time, without being so didactic about it. Yella isn't jumping up and down yelling, "Hey! I'm a microcosm for this. Aren't I so incisive and daring?" Instead, it's merely pointing out, "Yes. I know I also mean this. Fill in the blanks yourselfs, intelligent viewers." It's a very nice touch and one that I think lesser films would have hammered into you.

Ultimately, I think the film captures a cynicism like I said, and although the narrative is strong; it's hardly fast paced or moving. Instead, the film lingers on slow burn, letting the viewer into the characters, particularly Yella, and getting them to empathize with their decisions and plights in a way that many other films, particularly thrillers, fail to do. There's ultimately more horror and suspense when you know the characters than when the story keeps throwing hurdles at them.

Ultimately, I feel like I'm giving Yella a lot of credit for not being a lot of things, but it's a consummate film in it's own right and I think therefore it is worthy of your Top Ten list.

And there you go! Enjoy, sir.

3:07 PM, December 22, 2008  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Delicious! A rich and wonderful comment in any case, but especially because I've had so few conversation partners about these two films, both of which I saw over a year ago at the 2007 Chicago Film Festival. Thanks a lot, Brooke—truly.

3:12 PM, December 22, 2008  
Blogger Dr. S said...

I saw your headline and was sure it was about grading! hah!

No, seriously: I'm so bummed that I can't comment because I haven't gotten to see any of these films BECAUSE THEY AREN'T HERE in my wide open rural place yet. I have high hopes about remedying my out-of-touchness somewhat while I'm away. Of course, I'm also hoping for a haircut--because I can't get that shit here, either. Heh!

9:28 PM, December 22, 2008  
Blogger Colin Low said...

Here's my vote against WALL•E, which (for me) felt too eager to be a mixture of precious and aesthetically ambitious to mine the deep veins of feeling that are the cornerstone of the best Pixar films -- which are, of course, the Toy Storys. In those movies, the narrative never lost track of its heroes' central drive to be found, remembered and appreciated. The complicated irony of it was that we fully understood why the humans treated toys as dispensable entertainment (as we do outside the theater), and yet we still felt guilty and sorry for these beings who lived only to bring pleasure to those who were bound to forget or replace them.

WALL•E is undoubtedly adorable -- possibly the closest Pixar hero to deserving his own cult of personality -- and the initial scenes of the movie seem to tread in the same fruitful direction as the Toy Story films. That wide cut to the skyscrapers of his centuries-long labours, that scroll through the wasteland to reveal his fallen peers: these implied that WALL•E's driving story would be about our callousness towards technology, our neglect of nonhuman sentence, and WALL•E's pervasive loneliness.

As the movie rolls on, though, it dawned upon me that the apocalyptic scenario was merely a gesture at making "great art". Every human that WALL•E bumps into reacts to him with a sense of slight surprise, even appreciation, and later unqualified adoration; it's like an affirmative-action tale for the cute underdog. Where's the disgusted recoil at seeing a rust bucket in their pristine world? Where's the cavalier treatment of robots, which they take for granted as emotionless servants? Nowhere to be found, replaced instead by an easily-swallowed satire of consumerism and environmentalism.

And let's not get started on WALL•E's loneliness, his need for companionship instantly assumed to be romantic rather than platonic, and which is misdirected into a creepy obsession to clasp his mechanical claws with another robot. And that robot just has to be a sleek, feminine-seeming, immensely powerful, effortlessly hovering, iPod-looking being (this in a supposedly anti-consumerist movie!). Why does he barely interact with anyone else, human or robot? Why is there no sense of fear or pathos as he rolls into the graveyard of WALL•E's and nonchalantly cannablises one for his tracks?

These are my major objections to WALL•E, and I hope that they might help in reconsidering this bastion of critical/cultural adoration. I'm just saddened that Pixar's nadir should be so roundly treated as its peak.

11:46 PM, December 22, 2008  
Blogger Colin Low said...

Oops! That's "nonhuman sentience", not "nonhuman sentence".

*smacks forehead*

11:47 PM, December 22, 2008  
Blogger Sam Brooks said...

Having viewed this movie a second time after my previous post, I feel a little bit greedy but still compelled to give a much needed push to the latest Coen effort; Burn After Reading; which I find to be my second favourite. I don't think they're going to top Fargo anytime ever.

The first time I saw it, I knew it was a good film that had no real noticeable flaws, but the second time I watched it I was astonished at how actually well made it is. Which is kind of a vague term, but all the cinematical elements come together better than they have in their other films which seem to have a double imperative for tricky and quirky visuals and tricky and quirky dialogue without achieving a real synergy between the two. Here they seem to have focussed on the dialogue a lot more and that's what I like.

However, when I left the cinema, I had a feeling that this movie was great, but I didn't quite know why. Sure, the dialogue was great, the plot hilarious, the acting outstanding (particularly in the case of Frances McDormand; the funniest performance of the year hands down); but what made it so great? Then I found out! There is no movie in 2008 that has entertained me more.

I'm sure there's a very deep and harsh indictment of the American intelligence system threaded throughout the film, and I'm not discounting that fact; but this film is just damned entertaining. And not just moment-by-moment entertaining; it sustains it's black comedy throughout the thankfully short running time. I'm not thankful it's short because it's bad, but because so many films overstay their welcome.

Ultimately, all I can say is that this movie entertained me a lot. One of my best of the year, hands down.

Also: There's a moment where Katy's (Tilda Swinton) lawyer tells her to wait a day, and she does this little movement with her head that is one of the most hilarious moments of acting this year.

Double also: Kudos for the Coens for using every actor to their height, especially Swinton. Can we see more comedy from her, please?

5:08 AM, December 23, 2008  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

Judging on my own grades I'm not giving anything away to say that RACHEL..., THE CLASS, and WALL•E will be on my own top ten list but i wanna save my write ups for my own lists!

so that's my totally useless FYC.

Rachel has so many naysayers--and is such a strange rorschach of things that don't have 100% correlation to the movie itself -- that I feel utterly justified in suggesting it will still be a talking point 10 years from now and will rise in critical esteem. Divisive movies, you know... they can age well.

i'm sure you know this but if you're debating... just do short write ups on each. Writing about movies invariably clarifies one's own feelings towards them and BINGO -- more pleasure for us (your words) and easier choices for you (having written them up)

9:13 AM, December 23, 2008  
Blogger tim r said...

Somewhat predictably I would push for the three of these I gave A minuses to -- The Fall, The Class and A Christmas Tale. None of them perfect, of course, and I won't rehash my enthusiasm for the Tarsem, but I think the Cantet combines rigorous verité instincts with sharp and probing sociology, and the Desplechin is such a rich feast of ensemble portraiture, whatever your (still undisclosed -- out with it!) area of misgiving.

Close to these for me is In Bruges, my favourite B+ of the year, give or take Milk and The Wrestler, and the kind of B+ that is proudly B+: it's not doing anything huge, but I think it does what it does incredibly well. I keep wondering if deserves an upgrade to A–, but then I backtrack and decide that this would be an insult to its throwaway joys, especially every line Farrell has involving the word "midgets". Possibly this is for me what Burn After Reading was for you -- a consistent source of big laughs, memorable dialogue, clever visuals, and unflagging energy, even if I worry you may find it a bit laddish and hectoring, and deduct points, as I have begun to do in all movies, for Tilda Swinton not being in it.

I enjoyed many of Burn's qualities, but I didn't get on with Pitt or McDormand, who own a pretty big section of the movie, and it all felt very pre-determined to me, and a touch ungenerous. Everyone has their own favourite type of Coen film and this just isn't mine -- but then I'm well aware that Lebowski isn't yours.

Oh, and you know I love Yella too, though I have it in my head as last year.

For me The Wrestler slots right alongside Milk at the top of this year's heavyweight Oscar-bait -- I find both terrific despite their slight obviousness. Do we really need everything in Randy's life to tumble down in such neat domino sequence? Isn't Milk working a bit hard to make Harvey the loveliest figurehead of community activism it possibly can? But this doesn't dent my love all that much -- they are both A minuses in waiting, for me, and I can't wait to give them another try. Love Mickey, LOVE Sean, and love the fact that Marisa (who I love) is no match for the opening riff of Sweet Child o' Mine. Love all that!

Seeing as Nat has just chimed in, I'll agree that Rachel is pretty smashing too, with my favourite ensemble acting this side of Desplechin, though I do think Jonathan Demme should have stopped being such a Bridezilla bitch and let someone else do the wedding planning. It was so his African wedding, not Rachel's.

I love him really.

9:45 AM, December 23, 2008  
Blogger Glenn Dunks said...

I can't really make much of an argument for Still Life since it's been nearly a year and a half since I saw it, but it still ruminates in my mind. Those images are "hauntingly beautiful" (as they say in pretentious circles) aren't they? That permanent haze and green hue.

And, well, at least you've had the chance to see most of these movies :(

7:43 AM, December 27, 2008  
Blogger Colin Low said...

Um, Nick, a belated question: Why isn't Erick Zonca's Julia under consideration for your Top Ten List? It's a 2008 release, you gave it an A- when you saw it at the Chicago Film Festival, and you dubbed Tilda Swinton's performance in it "electrifying".

8:41 PM, January 04, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Colin: Because it's only a 2008 release for y'all lucky devils in the U.K. I don't think an American distributor has touched Julia yet, or it would be very high indeed on my Top Ten List.

Same time, next year (one hopes!).

11:48 PM, January 04, 2009  

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