Sunday, December 13, 2009

Backwards and Forwards: 2001

One of my favorite things about having a web-based platform for reviewing is that I have easy chances to air mea culpas and retrospective misgivings. Are any of the major print critics doing this, or even other on-liners? I love reading this kind of thing, so pass the word if you see (or write) something similar.

Films I Might Have Underestimated: I don't have a 2001 release nagging at my critical conscience the way Yi yi does from 2000, but I sometimes wish I had more to say about my lukewarm reaction to Ghost World than the fact that Thora Birch's disastrously coarse performance and Enid's whiny preoccupations kept me at a giant distance from the movie, which never expressed as idiosyncratic or illuminating a worldview as the filmmaking seemed to think that it did. I have been back through The Royal Tenenbaums a second time, and I have a hard time navigating the drop-off between the explosion of winsome detail in the opening-act character intros and what strikes me as the under-exploitation of all of those character and narrative possibilities in the subsequent, slightly rote story about Unreliable Dad. And I just can't imagine if I were Danny Glover, looking at what everyone else got to do compared to what I got to do. But my favorite scenes (Hackman lying back and forth to Huston about whether or not he is dying, Paltrow quizzing her father on her middle name) still haven't eased my doubts that the movie is doing more work than I sometimes give it credit for. I hated the Berlin champ Intimacy but wasn't really clocking Alwin Küchler's typically extraordinary photography. I got sourer and sourer over the course of The Pledge, partially because Chris Menges's lensing seemed so zoomy, exploitative, and excitable, but Nicholson's performance and predicament still linger. Both of the "Millennium" movies, Millennium Mambo and Millennium Actress, were tough sits for me when they finally bowed in the U.S. two years later, but the longueurs of the former and the crowdedness of the latter probably merit second glimpses. The very definition of "tough sit" for me was the endlessly but, I thought, pointlessly dithery Waking Life. I know a lot of folks are awfully loyal, though.

Film I Might Have Overestimated: Certainly the least typical entry on my original Top Ten list, though I have since demoted it, was Tim Blake Nelson's O, whose power and ferocity completely took me by surprise, well surpassing what I had expected from its Othello-in-high-school premise. O's rape of Desi and the final suicide are pretty indelible memories for me, but I still might have oversold the whole just a tad.

I Don't Even Know Where I Stand: I never liked Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down as much as its ardent defenders did, including those who voted it a surprising pair of Oscars, but nor was I as politically angered as some over its handling of the Somalian characters in particular and of the general ideology behind the whole altercation. It's probably the 2001 release over which I still feel the most restless. I hit Training Day as soon as it bowed, which means I wasn't watching through my Oscar goggles or worrying too much about Denzel playing an unconscionable demon in order to finally cop a leading-man trophy. I thought the whole film had an elegantly shot but palpably scuzzy electricity to it, but opinions have been so split over the years that it's probably due for a second look. And so much of my enjoyment was bound up in its B-movie verve that I wonder how it will feel after drawing such unexpected attention from the mainstream. By all rights, Monsters, Inc. probably belongs in the "Films I Might Have Underestimated" rubric, since I dogged it out with a C–, but I was exceedingly uncharmed by the characters and their designs, and the whole enterprise seemed so marred by visual and narrative frenetics, in a way that has irked me in other Pixar movies, though never to this extent. I'm really not sure I'm all that permeable to being talked up. But maybe.

Performances I'm Most Eager to Revisit: I was as moved as many were by Aurélien Recoing in Time Out/L'emploi du temps, and I'm surprised he never really resurfaced on the international-distribution market, though he evidently works quite a bit in France. I'd enjoy a second study of his work, as I would of Nicholson's in The Pledge. Three of my favorite ensembles of the year were in The Anniversary Party (reviewed here), Lucrecia Martel's La Ciénaga, and best of all in Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter's Lawless Heart, a wonderfully tender and affecting drama that does unusually well by its multi-strand story construction. I met Hunter while in the UK last year and had such a tremendous time talking with him that I really ought to have cozied up to the movie a second time by now.

Films I Already Re-Investigated: Sad to say, but 2001 is where I already bottomed out in my mid-summer attempt to get moving on these decade retrospectives. Not, however, before checking back in with the excitingly eccentric biopic Ali, my darling Late Marriage, and the sublimely transporting Spirited Away. The last two didn't land in the U.S. until 2002, but they're gems no matter when you saw them.

Was It Even Worth It?: I thought I had some kind of cultural obligation to see Zoolander, one of those come-from-behind box-office runts that everyone around me seems to quote incessantly. But almost all of the jokes were so belabored that, except for Milla Jovovich's imposing fashionista, I couldn't find anything to latch onto.

Top Ten Films Still to Catch from 2001:
1. What Time Is It There? (Taiwan), dir. Tsai Ming-liang
2. Lagaan (India), dir. Ashutosh Gowariker, with Aamir Khan
3. Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (Japan), dir. Shōhei Imamura
4. Baby Boy (USA), dir. John Singleton, with Tyrese and Taraji
5. ABC Africa (Iran), dir. Abbas Kiarostami, in documentary mode
6. All About Lily Chou-Chou (Japan), dir. Shunji Iwai
7. Under the Skin of the City (Iran), dir. Rakhshan Bani Etemad
8. Freddy Got Fingered (USA), dir. Tom Green, and yep, I'm serious
9. Life with Judy Garland (Canada/USA), dir. Robert Allan Ackerman
10. Life and Debt (USA/Jamaica), dir. Stephanie Black

Runners-up: Ryan Gosling's calling card The Believer; trans cinema cause célèbre By Hook or by Crook; Guillermo del Toro probing the darker sides of his schtick in The Devil's Backbone; Ulrich Seidl's unpleasant sounding Dog Days; Godard's late career flashpoint In Praise of Love; Jeepers Creepers, if only for the famed opening sequence; Karmen Geï, a Senegalese reworking of the Carmen story; Oscar champ Nowhere in Africa; Rain, on which Sylvia and Sunshine Cleaning director Christine Jeffs made her name; Todd Solondz's Storytelling, since I'm virtually alone in loving Palindromes; Va savoir by Jacques Rivette, an indispensable auteur whom I've somehow mostly ignored; Larry Fessenden's Wendigo, a pet film of Walter Chaw's, which is good enough for me, especially with Patty Clarkson in the mix; and Wet Hot American Summer, which I trust to be more fun than Zoolander.



Blogger Babs Johnson said...

"I thought I had some kind of cultural obligation to see Zoolander, one of those come-from-behind box-office runts that everyone around me seems to quote incessantly."

Including Tilda Swinton! When she was in the press room at the Oscars she said that winning had been a "reverse Zoolander moment" for her...

I wish you and Tilda were both doing decade retrospectives, side by side...

2:30 AM, December 13, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

That was absolutely the comment that drove me over the edge. I had to know what she meant! Having now seen the movie, I still don't quite understand what she meant. Does she mean she was as freaked out to win as Derek Zoolander is freaked out to lose to Hans, in the opening? The movie didn't ultimately help me feel any closer to Tilda, which is a shame.

2:42 AM, December 13, 2009  
Blogger Babs Johnson said...

Hah! I think I remember her following up on that by saying that she thought someone else's name had been called (in the Zoolander tradition of hearing the wrong name) and that it slowly dawned on her that she had won.

3:02 AM, December 13, 2009  
Blogger Robert Hamer said...

Freddy Got Fingered? Please, no! Life is too short.

4:18 PM, December 13, 2009  
Blogger Sam Brooks said...

Millennium Actress! After all this worship of Pixar and Miyazaki (though deserved), I love to see this little film mentioned ANYWHERE on the internet. One of the things I respect most about it is that it could have been live action, albeit with a massive budget, but they chose to make it in animation. Aside from that though, I think it was a beautifully animated film which gets to me more every time.

I also love a film that really doesn't think we need to understand every point, so long as we get what the film wants us to get; this film more than any other film in the aughts tracks the awkward and tentative relationships between fan and star, star and character, and star and person.

And despite all that, the best moment in the film is still where Chiyoko runs through her past, her film's past and everything in the film. I can't even describe what it makes me feel. But it makes me feel SOMETHING.

4:41 PM, December 13, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Robert: I had a student who wrote such a great paper about Freddy Got Fingered that I can't deny a strong urge to see the film, toward which I had never been otherwise compelled.

@Brook: A fantastic defense of the film, which I saw under truly inauspicious circumstances. You can't be enervated and pressed for time and watch something that is that densely layered and high-velocity, and still hope to have a fully open experience of the film. You've made me even more eager to return to it.

5:08 PM, December 13, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having seen Late Marriage twice now, I feel safe to say that I just don't understand what everyone sees in it. I didn't hate it but I really didn't like it either, at all. I found the course it took excedingly strange and the scene with Zaza and his Dad in the restroom at the end just made me feel confused and uncomfortable. I give the film a C- (and that's mostly for Ronit Elkabetz' great performance).

10:58 PM, December 13, 2009  
Blogger Daniel Smith said...

On your to-see list, I'd suggest Frank Pierson's Conspiracy. It was an HBO film, pretty much set in real time, about the Wannsee Conference. It's a fascinating piece, one that would probably be a total bore if not executed properly. But Pierson's direction is, for the most part excellent, and the ensemble is easily one of the best of the decade. (Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci--neither of whom I have much patience for--have never been better, as far as I'm conderned.) It didn't quite hit my top ten of 2001, but it came close.

When you get to 2006 in a few days, I'll make sure to recommend what I consider one of the greatest movies ever made, and one I've made my personal mission to spread the word on.

7:58 PM, December 14, 2009  
Blogger Glenn Dunks said...

I liked Storytelling, but not Palindromes. Make of that what you will.

9:05 PM, December 14, 2009  
Blogger CCW said...

Nick, sorry, this is a little off-topic, but after reading that you've yet to see Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, a few questions popped into my head that I've been wanting to ask you for the longest time. What is your opinion of Judy Davis as an actress? And, particularly, what do you make of her collaborations with Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, High Tide)? Also, what's your view of Armstrong as a director? I know you really liked Oscar and Lucinda, but how about some of her other films (like Mrs. Soffel, Fires Within, The Last Days of Chez Nous)?

4:17 PM, December 17, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Daniel: An interesting rec for a movie I barely remember hearing about, as a non-subscriber to cable TV. I'll keep it in mind, though I find HBO's movies to usually lag well behind the reputations of their series. Viz. The Gathering Storm. Can't wait to hear that 2006 recommendation!

@Glenn: Well, if you want to throw a party for people who hated Palindromes, expect to have a huge crowd at your house.

@CCW: It's just devastating to admit, but I haven't seen much of Armstrong's work, including My Brilliant Career or High Tide. I basically like her take on Little Women, despite Sarandon, and I remember wishing that Chez Nous felt a little more substantial; I barely remember but let's be clear that 17 or 18 is probably the wrong age to be watching a film that's such a mellow dissection of middle age. At least, I think that was the case for me.

11:25 PM, December 17, 2009  
Blogger CCW said...

@Nick: Yes, I found Chez Nous quite a mixed bag, but likable nonetheless. That's a film I'd like to revisit. I've yet to see any of her shorts or documentaries, or Charlotte Gray or Death Defying Acts, for that matter. I don't hold out much hope for Acts, but I'm hoping Gray will confound my expectations, particularly in the areas of Blanchett's and Beebe's contributions. The less said about Fires Within the better; I'm surprised Armstrong didn't venture into "Alan Smithee" territory given that film was taken away from her in post-production. I enjoyed Starstruck, Mrs. Soffel, Oscar and Lucinda, Little Women and My Brilliant Career, but wasn't completely blown away by any of them. High Tide is the one film that works for me on all levels and that I completely love. I think it's (of what I've seen) Armstrong's and Davis' best work.

8:27 PM, December 18, 2009  

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