Backwards and Forwards: 2002
Film I Keep Trying to Adore: Through the 90s, Ralph Fiennes was to me what Sean Penn is/was to me in the 00s, and if you don't know what that means, you're obviously new to this site. So the idea of Fiennes hooking up with David Cronenberg, not only one of my favorite working directors but one uniquely well-matched to cerebral thesps, yielded shock waves of anticipation. Amy Taubin, easily my favorite publishing critic for quite a long spell, loved Spider so much at the Cannes Film Festival that she instantly promoted it to her list of top ten films of all time, and I haven't noticed that she has retrenched from that position. Lots of people I know are passionate about the film, and even experienced it as the occasion when Cronenberg's experiments with subjectivity, his exploration of constitutive melancholy, and his bracing knacks for framing and formal tension all came together most succinctly, hauntingly, and despondently. I can't say I have ever quite connected. Of course I bum-rushed the movie on opening night, only to experience my coolest first impression of a Cronenberg film since The Dead Zone. (I don't count M. Butterfly and would prefer if you didn't either.)
I felt similarly about Spider as I had about Almodóvar's All About My Motherwhich would actually be a great replacement title for Spider. That is, the "distillation" of several ideas, formal and thematic, that the filmmaker had been exploring for some time had, for me, the deleterious effect of rubbing down a lot of the edges and odd excesses that I most adored in his work. It had even pushed him, from my point of view, toward a worrying precipice of blatant overstatement. The webs, cracks, and zigzags all over the mise-en-scène, the triple-casting of Miranda Richardson, the gas motif, the transparently artificial sets and collapsed depth of field... all of it was handled with consummate proficiency, but the flip side of this, for me, was a certain lack of excitement. And rather than troubling the boundaries between the real and the solipsistic, as Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch do to such devastating effect, Spider is emphatically marked as at all times subjective, to such an extent that the stakes of what Spider did, remembers doing, didn't do, or fantasizes having done seemed significantly lowered. Many people had that reaction to Cronenberg's previous film, eXistenZ, but all of the weird gristle and unexpected humor of that movie allowed Cronenberg to connect with the audience in new ways, while still following his point to some pitiless extremes. Spider strikes me as similarly dogged, but not actually new. It doesn't even feel new to itself: what you get in the beginning, or at least what you intuit, is still what you're getting at the end. That said, it's hard not to admire on all technical grounds, and the edits and images have exerted more emotional power on my latest retry, earlier this month. As it happened, as critical enthusiasm intensified even further around A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, both of which I found even less subtle, I have grown more interested in Spider as a sort of pivot-point in Cronenberg's hypnotic body of work. I'll be due for another revisit in a few years, though the poor flick is probably doomed to be inadequate to the combined force of my initial hope and my now-desperate beggary that it make itself available to me as an object of love.
More Films I Might Have Underestimated: Nothing so dramatic to espouse about these others, but I've suspected for a while that Distant/Uzak has more going for it than I initially conceded, if only from the standpoint of framing and palette. Strangely for a queer-studies scholar, I really hate it when every other kind of conflict or problem in a movie has to be overcoded as a sexual hangup, so I got sour on City of God as it increasingly packaged the villain's multiple treacheries as doomed compensation for his sexual impotence. Boring, reductive, and, uh, boring. I already thought the film was a bit heedlessly sensationalizing of itself, but I could probably coach myself to be less actively, additionally annoyed by that particular trope. I liked The Man without a Past but have never understood why people who love it love it; when I'm in those positions, I wish I had a clearer memory of the movie to go on. The narrative distension and uneven performances in Minority Report and every single awful thing in Road to Perdition probably got in the way of my taking their formal achievements more seriously. I'll never be a full-on fan, but I'm curious, perhaps perversely in the case of the Mendes, to at least dip my toe one more time.
Films I Might Have Overestimated: I already demoted In America from its initial Top Ten placement once the sensual vibrancy and emotional immediacy of the film, on first impression, translated the second time as a kind of embarrassing naïveté with regard to plot, setting, and character. I still like the filmmaking and the acting, but it's impossible to cozy up completely to the film and its airbrushed sensibilities. I thought Full Frontal was quite a pip at the time but have never heard another positive word about it, and since I can barely remember the film, I'm curious to re-investigate. My assertion that Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is no better or worse than Nicole Holofcener's critically embraced Lovely & Amazing should perhaps have come at the severer expense of the latter picture than as an indulgent B'ing of the first, though I'm not going to lie, I did like a lot of the Ya-Ya performances (especially Judd's) and its candid, brassy playing to the rafters. 25th Hour is a bit goopier than I initially felt, and Edward Norton's narcissistic star persona seems even more smeared across the protagonist's arc: HELP me be less handsome! he implores. Please TRY! Still love Pepper, Cox, Hoffman, and Prieto's photography, though.
One Way or Another, I'm Curious to Re-Encounter: This is a rum bunch, but if you invited me to cherry-pick five movies from 2002 that on first introduction I half liked and half didn't, albeit to varying degrees, and which I can imagine reacting to in absolutely any way on second pass, I'd look for the graceless but powerful documentary Afghanistan Year 1380; the gorgeously scored and designed Punch-Drunk Love, which just fell apart for me in its strident and truncated final third; the potent but too bluntly miserabilist Lilja 4-ever; the almost fully imitative but nonetheless unexpected and intriguing Gerry; and the engagingly cock-eyed, annoyingly self-loving Divine Intervention.
Performances I'm Most Eager to Revisit: The rise of Kristen Stewart has probably ruined things for Agnes Bruckner, who's just enough of a lookalike, and with a similar screen persona, that at best, she'll be shuffling through Stewart's leavings for a few years to come. Still, Stewart has never been as interesting as were Bruckner and her predictably excellent scene partner David Strathairn in Blue Car, from Dead Girl director Karen Moncrieff. I was a little snoozy during The Quiet American and could have given Michael Caine a fairer shake; plus, I get irritated that every time he stars in a new picture, he insists that it's the best work he's ever done, but we're out of that off-putting PR moment now. I had plenty of problems with About Schmidt, many of them spread around the supporting cast, but I remember Jack Nicholson acquitting himself rather well, and would like to reassess just how good he is. Parker Posey got all the acting buzz from Personal Velocity, and she deserved a lot of it, but I remember Fairuza Balk being just as strong, and just as deft in flexing her usual typecasting. Eddie Griffin was rather a joy in Undercover Brother, a giddy blast of mall-movie oxygen that I'd be happy to pick back up for any number of reasons.
Top Ten Films Still to Catch from 2002:
1. Abouna (Chad), dir. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, from Tim's Top 100
2. Bloody Sunday (UK), dir. Paul Greengrass, before he officially ruled
3. The Politics of Fur (USA), dir. Laura Nix, updating Petra von Kant
4. 24 Hour Party People (UK), dir. Michael Winterbottom
5. Japón (Mexico), dir. Carlos Reygadas, his first time out
6. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (South Korea), dir. Park Chan-wook
7. K-19: The Widowmaker (USA), dir. Kathryn Bigelow
8. Madame Satã (Brazil), dir. Karim Ainouz, with Lázaro Ramos
9. Waiting for Happiness (Mauritania), dir. Abderrahmane Sissako
10. The Business of Fancydancing (USA), dir. Sherman Alexie
Runners-up: The Oscar-nommed documentary Balseros; Argentinean attention magnet El Bonaerense; Carnage, a trophy winner for Delphine Gleize; South Korea's Chihwaseon, co-winner of Best Director at Cannes; the noted Bangladeshi drama The Clay Bird; the dark cult comedy Death to Smoochy; the Bollywood juggernaut Devdas; Dog Soldiers, from Descentmeister Neil Marshall; Mumblecore kick-starter Funny Ha Ha; the film version of The Laramie Project; Susanne Bier's Dogme film Open Hearts; Thornton Wilder with urban style in OT: Our Town; well-reviewed street drama Paid in Full; John Malkovich getting his Highsmith on in Ripley's Game; Stevie, a strongly received documentary by Hoop Dreams helmer Steve James; the legendary David Gulpilil in Rolf de Heer's The Tracker; The Uncertainty Principle, from the indefatigable Manoel de Oliveira; Jia Zhangke again, this time for Unknown Pleasures; the drag king documentary Venus Boyz; and Women's Prison, a cousin of The Circle. Extra citation for David Lynch's web-based animated series DumbLand.
Labels: BwdFwd 00s