Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Backwards and Forwards: 2003

I was hoping that my oft-repeated lamentation about the overall quality of films in 2003, especially the ones that weren't holdovers from previous years, came down to having missed all the good stuff in micro-mini release. Certainly the Top Ten List down below highlights some costly aporia, but still, I was hoping my research would uncover more untapped troves in 2003 than turned out to be the case. Suggest away, if you can perceive what I'm still missing.

Films I Might Have Underestimated: Nathaniel is too good a friend to publicly call me out, but here it is: I had a narcolepsy problem during Oldboy, which we watched on DVD in my Hartford apartment two years after it bowed in South Korea and one year after Tarantino headed the Cannes jury at exactly the right time to hook it up with the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. "Wake up! I'm not suffering through this by myself!" Nathaniel admonished, amid my pathetic attempts to hide my snoozing. After one bottoms-up Mountain Dew, a drink that seemingly inspires Park Chan-wook's stylistic and narrative excitability as well as his unnatural color palette, I clocked back into the film, but not enough to understand what on earth I was supposed to do with all the sadism, compositional severity, and keyed-up performances. But Oldboy's critical reputation, to say nothing of my own depleted energies while watching, mean that I probably owe it a second shot, even if I'm waiting to see whether another Park film like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance convinces me that he and I will get along. (This year's tantalizing Thirst was exactly the PR pitch he needed in my life.)

What can I say? Sometimes even critics get weary. Hell, sometimes critics especially get weary, and not just when we're stuck in the middle of The Human Stain and Anything Else, the twin and irrecuperable nadirs of the year, for which I was mercilessly wide awake. I had dozing problems during two other heralded films, neither of which I tracked down until much later: Zatoîchi: The Blind Swordsman, the TIFF People's Choice Award winner, which used to make me feel guilty about my utter disaffection for it until Slumdog came along; and Samira Makhmalbaf's strange and unexpectedly seriocomic At Five in the Afternoon, which I'd been crazy to see for almost four years by the time I finally got my hands on a European DVD. Makhmalbaf, in my book, has got one of the highest batting averages going in world cinema; I handily prefer her work to her illustrious father's, and he's no slouch. Even though I started over with At Five, another prize-magnet at Cannes, until I felt more up to the task, I found the film pretty discombobulating. I harbor some hopes that it will hail me on a second rendezvous in a way that the first viewing and a half didn't. The only other films it's tempting to mention here are American Splendor, though I never believed the filmmakers really knew what to do with all the meta-levels in their ambitious script, much less why I was supposed to marvel at Pekar's "insights" into, for example, how long some people take in the grocery line, and The Fog of War, which struck me as innately hobbled by its decision to isolate McNamara's testimonies from any other comparative framework or contextualizing chorus of voices. But maybe, having accepted that that's the film Morris made, I would be more responsive to the undeniably engrossing facts of McNamara's recounting, and his fraught but deceptively frank way of letting them spill.

Films I Might Have Overestimated: Aleksandr Sokurov's Father and Son idealizes the male body in ways that would make even Tom Ford swoon, and after several features, it has become clear that I just like his distorted perspectives, teardrop lighting, and enigmatic imageplay. I don't think Father and Son got the kind of close look that it merited, but I'll admit that, rightly or wrongly, I would turn back to The Sun or Alexandra more quickly than I'd rush to check this one out a second time. Girl with a Pearl Earring inspired such visual and melodic awe, care of the breathtaking cinematographer Eduardo Serra and then-unknown composer Alexandre Desplat, and Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth contributed what I felt were their best performances up to that time (and, very likely, they still are). Essie Davis was an unsung standout as the enraged wife. All of its individual virtues still have a transfixing hold on my memory, but I once got a note from a reader asking whether the essential disposability of yet another middlebrow arthouse divertissement ought to put a cap on how high I was willing to grade, since it's almost impossible to imagine anyone leaving Girl with a Pearl Earring thinking new thoughts about cinema, or even thinking sustained thoughts about this particular movie. I think he had a point, and though I can't see a reason to go lower than a B+, given how much the film accomplishes, I do feel a little silly seeing it side-by-side with the great bulk of my B+ films.

Irresolvably Split Opinions: I saw Mystic River one night with friends, and had a pounding case of what we've all experienced at one time or another: trying to trick myself into Seeing The Masterpiece. It's like Magic Eye, for those of you who remember the 90s. If I stand over here, or put my nose really close, will I suddenly see the sublimity behind Tim Robbins' horrid performance and the logy speeches about vampires and werewolves, and the insane thread about Kevin Bacon's wife on the phone, and Eastwood's recurrent preoccupation with endangered kids? I went back to find out the next afternoon. I admit that amid the best flashes of Penn's work and the damp coldness of the light and the perfect handling of Emmy Rossum and her limitations, and the way Marcia Gay Harden sort of stumbles into a great performance at the end, I can sometimes Get It about Mystic River. But I'll never be able to go all the way, as is apparently true, too, of the visually shimmery and intriguingly structured but conceptually stunted Elephant, which I've tried three times. Those films both recruited lots of fans at Cannes, while everyone was beating up on The Brown Bunny, but I feel like that film has almost the exact same virtues and flaws as Elephant: an impressive, gossamer, even surprisingly affecting evocation of time, boredom, physical space, and creepy driftlessness in the first half, but then the filmmaker getting lost up the wormhole of his own preoccupations by the end. And when Gallo gets fascinated with himself, you rarely want to be around to see it. He's one of the few working filmmakers who's as arrogant and heedlessly exhibitionist as Nick Broomfield, but I have to say about Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, whatever its failures to extend the case past Broofield's earlier Aileen pic and its gross prioritization of Broomfield's journey over Aileen's circumstances, the interviews with her in jail are pretty much the dictionary definition of indelible. And it's not uninteresting, whether or not it's unwitting, to see Broomfield embody the queasy position of the friend-exploiter-rubbernecker as patently as he does.

Best Case for Trying Again: I went to see Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World expecting — well, I don't know what, since the film never promised to be a "standard" action-adventure pic, though it did lean awfully hard on thrills and spectacle in its ad campaign. I remember leaving with a deep appreciation for the sonic and visual evocation of the ship and for the Crowe-Bettany friendship, but if it hadn't sailed to the Cinematography Oscar, and then if Tim hadn't stumped for it so regularly and unreservedly these past few years, I never would have checked in on it again. And by golly if it isn't a paragon of a period piece, unfussy about itself despite brimming with era-specific images, objects, behaviors, and worldviews. And it is pretty rip-snorting adventure, with two fabulous star performances, and an impressive refusal of predictable narrative structure or Their Side/Our Side editorializing. A marvel. Thanks, Tim!

Performances I'm Most Eager to Revisit: Aside from Robert McNamara's in The Fog of War, the only turn I can really drum up any enthusiasm to revisit that I haven't seen a handful of times already is Benicio Del Toro's in 21 Grams. Having been drawn to Penn's work and the buzz around Watts during my first encounter with the movie, and then checking back in a couple years later to see if Watts really was as overbearing and undisciplined as I thought she was (and mostly, she was), I haven't really focused myself on Del Toro. More than once I've heard his work described as the overlooked jewel in an otherwise disappointing vehicle, and from what I do recall, and having realized in subsequent years that Del Toro has a wider range than I had imagined, I'm curious to go back.

What do you all think? If you're just writing to stick up for Watts, at least go easy on me, or don't use profanity, or don't throw acid on me.

Top Ten Films Still to Catch from 2003:
1. Los Angeles Plays Itself (USA), dir. Thom Andersen, a revered doc
2. Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Taiwan), dir. Tsai Ming-liang
3. The Best of Youth (Italy), dir. Marco Tullio Giordana
4. Bright Leaves (USA), dir. Ross McElwee, of Sherman's March fame
5. A Talking Picture (Portugal), dir. Manoel de Oliveira
6. The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Pt.1 (UK), dir. Peter Greenaway
7. My Architect (USA), dir. Nathaniel Kahn, about his famous father
8. Fear and Trembling (France), dir. Alain Corneau, with Sylvie Testud
9. The Story of Marie and Julien (France), dir. Jacques Rivette
10. The Same River Twice (USA), dir. Robb Moss, an aging-hippie doc

Runners-up: Abdel Kechiche's reputation-builder L'Esquive/Games of Love and Chance; James Cameron probing the Titanic once again for Ghosts of the Abyss; Cristoffer Boe's buzz magnet Reconstruction; Tilda Swinton tracking Michael Caine through The Statement; the sublimely reviewed doc Tom Dowd & the Language of Music; and Werner Herzog's documentary Wheel of Time. Surely, though, I should be thinking of more.



Blogger Sam Brooks said...

Another great write-up; though I can only really comment on Mystic River. Having studied this in high school (yeah, I know...) I find myself irrevocably against this film, but I can still recommend casting Laura Linney in a way that she hasn't been cast before or since. For an actressexual like myself, her moments near the end rank as the best in the entire film.

I would also like to recommend Hysterical Blindness which is Mira Nair's HBO film, starring Uma Thurman, Juliette Lewis and Gena Rowlands. I mostly recommend it for the performances by Thurman and Rowlands; the latter hasn't been this good since Unhook the Stars and I think it's the former's best performance not form a Tarantino film (depending on how enthusiastic you are about her work in Tape).

I also give Nair props for using Thurman's immense height in a film; there's a few scenes where she looks downright ungainly and it works. It seems an odd thing to note, but.. it makes sense.

1:54 AM, December 15, 2009  
Blogger Ed Howard said...

My favorite from this year is History of Marie and Julien, which was my first exposure to Rivette and remains a charming, enigmatic favorite, buoyed along by a typically great Emmanuelle Beart performance. So here's a vote to nudge that one up the to-see list.

Another one I'd HEARTILY recommend is Raoul Ruiz's Ce jour-la AKA That Day. It's an amazing film, a hilarious and strange dark comedy with a central performance by Elsa Zylberstein that's like nothing else I've ever seen. It's ridiculous, farcical, bloody and also probing, and Ruiz's eye for destabilizing compositions is unparalleled.

I'm surprised there's no mention, one way or the other, of All the Real Girls. I know Green divides critics quite a bit, but surely that was an important film this year. Personally I enjoyed it.

I'll also admit, at the risk of you disregarding everything else I have to say, that I like Anything Else. A lot. I think it's among Woody's best late-period films.

8:23 AM, December 15, 2009  
Blogger Bill C said...

Watts really is that bad in 21 GRAMS, and I revere her, in an occasionally unwholesome way. I think you did overestimate GwaPE, and I can't imagine a second viewing changing your mind about OLDBOY, although it appeals to me on a very primal level. The one of Park's you might groove on is LADY VENGEANCE. Don't waste your precious time on GHOSTS OF THE ABYSS.

Steve James' STEVIE was my #1 of '03; I'm sort of afraid to ask if you've seen it. Other than that, I can't find much missing from your "still to catch" tally.

12:19 PM, December 15, 2009  
Blogger Joe Reid said...

Nick, this post probably comes closest to my own feelings on Mystic River. I don't think it's a success, but I don't find myself hating it like many do. (But seriously, of all the threads from the source material they could have removed so as to beef up Linney's story so it makes sense, that Kevin Bacon subplot is the worst).

12:21 PM, December 15, 2009  
Blogger Tim said...

I'm going to second Ed on All the Real Girls, but what I really came to say is: see The Best of Youth now.

12:25 PM, December 15, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Brook: I like the Linney all the way up until the last scene, aka the Big Scene. Definitely a fan of casting against type. As for Hysterical Blindness, I have wanted to see that for a while, but my fear is that my antipathy for Uma and Mira might outweigh my ardor for Juliette and Gena. Thoughts?

@Ed: Thanks for the Ruiz recommendation. He's so prolific, one barely knows where to move once you've seen one or two of his, which is where I find myself. I liked All the Real Girl a good bit, but I haven't been feeling the hunger to check it out again. As with a lot of breakup movies, I almost find it more effective as a memory you occasionally revisit but don't actually re-experience. I've said this before, but my favorite thing about the movie was a comment Paul Schneider made at a press conference. Paraphrasing from memory, but I think this was pretty much it: "I was so happy that Patricia Clarkson was cast as my mother, because it automatically introduced a whole theme of incestuous desire of the son for his mother that wasn't in the script."

@Bill: I meant to include Stevie. I never have seen it, though I've long meant to.

@Joe: Wow! Hours go by, and suddenly, here everybody is. I'm not sure I need more Linney, and I actually think Mystic could do with being shorter, so let's just cut the Baconwife and not go back. (That sounds like I want to eliminate Kyra Sedgwick, and actually, I sort of hold that position as well.)

@Tim: Aye aye, sir! I just need to clear, what is it, two weeks from my schedule? The Best of Youth was just coming to Ithaca as I was leaving, and had recently left Hartford on the day I arrived. I lost it to the time warp of moving from country to city.

12:36 PM, December 15, 2009  
Blogger Lev Lewis said...

You're in for a treat with "Goodbye, Dragon Inn", which I just watched last night and loved. Although, I'm sure the quality of the film was raised by having just seen "Boat Trip" (don't ask) a few hours prior.

4:33 PM, December 15, 2009  
Blogger Sam Brooks said...

On Hysterical Blindness: It's a good film, but it stops short of being a great one. I think it's a bit too sentimental and glassy-eyed to real say anything signficiant or say much of value. It's an easy watch, relatively speaking, and I do think Uma is quite outstanding in it, bordering on overplaying it. However, it's the kind of overplaying that fits the role, so I think it suits.

10:31 PM, December 15, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Lev: I can only assume that watching almost anything after Boat Trip earns comparative-advantage points for the second film... but I am equally sure that Goodbye, Dragon Inn probably doesn't need them.

@Brook: Good enough. Usually, if Juliette is in it, I see it no matter what, so it's probably high time.

@Bill C.: Turns out Stevie had already hit TIFF and some other festivals by fall of '02, so I'm definitely taking the rec, but in a previous year. Again, just when 2003 tries to look better, it turns out that more of the good stuff is actually just spillover from the miraculous 2002!

12:05 AM, December 16, 2009  
Blogger Glenn said...

Hated Oldboy, looooved Zatoichi.

3:52 AM, December 21, 2009  

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