Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Backwards and Forwards: 2004



Film I Most Wonder If I Got Wrong: I'm not saying it was going to be easy: Gregg Araki was the New Queer Cinema director whose aesthetic I never attached to, even as I based a good deal of my professional life around studying his contemporaries; I have no idea why anyone hires Mary Lynn Rajskub, or why Elisabeth Shue has to look so Swankishly effortful everywhere outside of Leaving Las Vegas; and Joseph Gordon-Levitt has, for me, the same kind of premature "Great Actor" reputation and the same kind of on-screen self-regard that turns me off with Leonardo DiCaprio. But I have certainly cleared higher hurdles of taste or preconception before. All the same, Mysterious Skin just lost me, after the lyrical, Froot Loopy alien kitsch of the opening. Gordon-Levitt looked stiffly fixated on the surface of the character and the flaunting of bruised emotions, trying too hard to break type. I just never believed it, and the two strands of the story rarely held together for me. But I've been meaning to re-see the movie for a while, following the exhortations of several friends and a series of strong seminar and conference papers I've heard about Araki, his signatures, and this move in particular over the past two years. I was surprised at how put out I felt by Mysterious Skin at the time, and though I admittedly got cantankerous when it held on as a talking-piece for so long, my dislike for the film has never run deep. I was more annoyed than bored or repulsed, and that's the easiest kind of bad reaction to turn around.

Films I Might Have Underestimated: I saw My Summer of Love about a week after Mysterious Skin, and excepting my admiration for Natalie Press and some of the fairy-tale photography, I found this movie similarly guilty of working far too hard, and trying to provoke subtle responses with crude and transparent devices. Like Skin, it's held on to a very devoted set of fans, which to me is its own recommendation. Kim Ki-duk seems to have had an awfully abrupt rise and flameout as a target of Western critical adulation, though admittedly, some writers always felt he was an emperor with no clothes. 3-Iron is the film of his I would most like to re-test, because I recall being in rather a rush the first time I saw it, under pressure to return the rental or something, and it's impossible that a context like that would have worked in the favor of any film, much less one with those languorous, creepily dreamlike textures. Downfall I flat-out liked, but I have maintained such vivid recollections of the production design, the colors and the chill, the Ganz performance, and so many of the supporting players that I have wondered if it's even stronger than I gave it credit for. And no, this had nothing to do with all those YouTube lampoons, which I didn't know anything about until recently.

Films I Might Have Overestimated: I had the sensation of 2004 offering bounty after bounty, steadily, through the whole year. Even among summer blockbusters, I was surprised that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was so prankishly structured, with a sleek look and vital new characters like Sirius Black, and that Shrek 2 seemed somehow lighter, funnier, and less self-congratulatory than its predecessor. Still, I have never come anywhere close to either film again, and having disliked both franchises before these high points, I got right back to old habits. I ignored Shrek 3 and finally stopped bothering with the Harry Potter films after finding the fourth so tedious and the fifth so uninteresting. As it turns out, I just don't care about finding out what happens to those kids, in whatever medium, which has got me doubting whether Azkaban and Shrek 2 were really as grand as I felt initially, or if the cinemas of 2004 had just placed me into an exceptionally good mood. And since no commentary on Shrek is complete without a nod to Godard, I felt quite sure of adoring Notre musique in the late autumn, particularly but not only the opening movement in "Hell." But then I think: Native Americans in picturesque attire, stranded in a European city? Depressive girls played by wan actresses whom I immediately started confusing with each other? That vision of "Heaven"? Was the film really as strong as I thought? I've never tried to find out, but maybe you'll tell me.



One Way or Another, I Need Another Look at: At the end of this week, I'll get a look at Almodóvar's Broken Embraces, which has gotten even more of the "He's done all this before" reviews that he got in some quarters for Volver and before that for Bad Education. In other words, Bad Education and Volver have for many writers entered the canon of brilliant, distinctive Almodóvar to which the newest film is being unfavorably compared, despite their having been cold-shouldered in much the same way on their own initial release. If you're me, and with the sublime, fearless exception of Talk to Her, you have found all the Almodóvar films of the last decade to have more or less the same blend of inspiration, limitation, appeal, and self-recycling, then the stakes for each new debut are a little lower. So I probably feel about the same way as everybody else; I just mind less, or am less disappointed. But I would like to see Bad Education again, because there was a memorable nastiness, an overt snakiness to it that I haven't seen in his other movies after Live Flesh, and to me it's one of his most interesting sides.

Otherwise, Fatih Akin's Head On felt too histrionic to me at the time, and it might still, but I never forgot how striking the soundtrack and mix were, and how violent the colors and the performances, and I'd like another look-see, even if I cannot stand the excesses. Keane really tested my patience, but I realize even more in retrospect how much I appreciated the film's own bullishness about forcing an extended encounter with such a discomfiting character, and it's the most I've liked Amy Ryan or Abigail Breslin to date. Is the total recut by Steven Soderbergh, fascinatingly included on the DVD, better or worse or about the same? As for Kings and Queen I liked it quite a lot on DVD, on a laptop, but after sensing how grand A Christmas Tale, my first in-cinema Desplechin, sounded and felt on a huge screen, I might be more sensitive to the kind of force Kings and Queen probably attains when it looks as huge, physically, as its director's imagination and his restless spirit obviously are. Or, it might turn out to be colossally over-conceived and fussy and more than a little disorganized, which is my dawning worry about Desplechin's style, even before each film is even over, despite how euphorically I respond to them up to their midpoints.



Best Cases for Trying Again: Teaching can be the best reason to force a re-encounter with a text that you remember fondly or provocatively enough to want to show it to a class, but whose mysteries and difficulties you need to resolve for yourself, at least a little bit, before you try to mentor anyone else through them. The results were stellar with both Lucrecia Martel's The Holy Girl, which is just as tasty as can be once you've let go of the need for total, immediate grasp of character relationships, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady, with its utter reversal of personality and aesthetic halfway through. I had expected both films to be productive training grounds for new ways of looking and listening, and useful as intellectual challenges for my students and for me. Quite to my surprise, though, oth Holy Girl and Malady unfurled as remarkably direct emotional experiences. I couldn't have been happier, even if my students were rather more split!

Sad Case Against Trying Again: I tried something similar with Sally Potter's Yes, which unlike the Martel or the Apichatpong I had found sorely disappointing on first impression. The all-pentameter screenplay, the astringent explorations of public and private spaces, and the luminous presence of Joan Allen all had me expecting a better experience the second time 'round, but the project never recovers from its crushing atmosphere of affectation, and the film embodies nearly as many fuzzy, Orientalizing perceptions and dubious fantasies as it promises to dissect.



Performances I'm Most Eager to Revisit: For reasons I have already described, Sean Penn is unmissable in The Assassination of Richard Nixon, but let's hear it for Jack Thompson, too, who is the single least intimidated scene-partner that Penn has enjoyed in his last 10 years of screen acting, give or take Josh Brolin in Milk. All the living-legend discourse around Jeff Bridges these days, however strategically whipped up for his Crazy Heart campaign, has nonetheless given me a hankering to revisit The Door in the Floor, no matter how cranky the movie made me on first viewing. And while you're perusing that joint review, I'll go ahead and offer that Helen Mirren's work in The Clearing remains my favorite of her performances in the 00s. Jamie Foxx is an actor I've been tempted to write off until his surprisingly precise and evocative work in The Soloist; it's time to look back at Collateral and Breakin' All the Rules (Ray was my least favorite of his '04 turns) and remember what I found so exciting about him at the time. His namesake Jamie Bell hit an interesting early-career peak the same year in David Gordon Green's Undertow, and I learned a new name from Down to the Bone that I expect to be repeating and retyping with pleasure all through the next decade: Vera Farmiga.

Top Ten Films Still to Catch from 2004:
1. The Intruder (France), dir. Claire Denis, with Michel Subor
2. Moolaadé (Senegal), dir. Ousmane Sembene, with Fatoumata Coulibaly
3. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (USA), dir. Joe Berlinger
4. Exils (France), dir. Tony Gatlif, with Romain Duris, Lubna Azabal
5. Innocence (Belgium), dir. Lucile Hadzihalilovic, with Zoé Auclair
6. Or (My Treasure) (Israel), dir. Keren Yedaya, with Ronit Elkabetz
7. A Hole in My Heart (Sweden), dir. Lukas Moodysson
8. The Lizard (Iran), dir. Kamal Tabrizi, a smash comedy
9. Red Lights (France), dir. Cédric Kahn, with Carole Bouquet
10. Mr. 3000 (USA), dir. Charles Stone III, with Bernie Mac

Runners-up: The Chinese remake of A Letter from an Unknown Woman; Raymond Depardon's documentary 10th District Court; Ondi Timoner's music doc DiG!; the B-thriller Cellular; Kiwi drama In My Father's Den; The World, because I've been giving Jia the cold shoulder all decade; Somersault, with bright stars Abbie Cornish and Sam Worthington; Wild Side, Sébastian Lifshitz's follow-up to Come Undone; Mean Creek, where the kids are definitely not all right; Lebanon-set drama In the Battlefields; Hong Sang-soo's Woman Is the Future of Man; Tim-endorsed horse-racing doc The Last Victory; and Spike Lee's reputedly (ob)noxious She Hate Me. Extra credit if I can come up with a copy of Ken Jacobs's Star Spangled to Death.

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15 Comments:

Blogger Brook Brooks said...

Yet another great write-up! In My Father's Den is the only film I can really comment on, and it continues the sad state of NZ cinema. Which links into another comment about Vera Farmiga, who works much harder for her films than her films work for her, even in her best films like The Departed. And especially in The Vintner's Luck which has to be the worst film I've seen in quite a while, and yet Farmiga shines through with a slow-burning characterisation.

So, in conclusion, kind of; Vera Farmiga is the best.

12:22 AM, December 16, 2009  
Blogger David said...

Undertow is the film that I most wanted to return to, and when I did so in the context of a CompLit class about the literature of the global South, specifically during the weeks on the literature and film of the American South, it actually improved for me. It suddenly made more sense culturally. I had felt it was incredibly surfacey on first viewing, but there are elements of the story and suggestions of it being a sort of romanticized memory that genuinely resonated following my reading of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!. But.. I also want to love it so much that I fear I'm trying too hard to like it.

Also, I've always regarded Downfall as one of my favorite in-theater movie experiences, mostly because I was taken with how moved my father was (let's just say it was a pleasant surprise for him considering all the art films I would drag him to in high school). I felt like it was incredibly well-crafted and well-performed, and it was the first time I had ever seen a Holocaust film from the perspective of the Nazis. That alone really affected me, and ever since it's floated around the bottom of my top ten of 2005.

I'm curious: what did you think of Gael Garcia Bernal's performance in Bad Education?

1:28 AM, December 16, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Brook: Sad to hear about Vintner's Luck, though I suppose the quality of direction in both Whale Rider and North Country should have prepped me for news like this. One does always hope for the best, I suppose.

And yes, Vera Farmiga is the best. Check her out in Never Forever, a film almost nobody saw, and I only rented when it became clear that I need to absorb All Things Farmiga. (Though I admit this plan can backfire, as in Quid Pro Quo.)

@David: Absalom, Absalom! is so magisterial that I'd have residual positive feeling toward anything I looked at or read right after. I liked seeing DGG put some of his 70s-inspired ideas about cinematography into the service of a generic structure, instead of just making a more total about-face, as he seems to do in the 10 or 15 minutes of Pineapple Express that I could stand to watch.

As for GGB, I liked him in Bad Education, but I didn't love him. The shifting enigmas of the part seemed to elude him, and he looked a little shaken or graspy-at-straws at times. But, I'm not going to lie: I have probably been influenced, subsequently if not at the time, by all the reports that he wasn't ecstatic on the set, and that he wanted more psychological delving and less emphasis on his (impressive) surface. Either way, the performances I recollect more strongly are those of Fele Martínez, who gives GGB that astonishingly carnivorous look from the swimming pool, and Daniel Giménez Cacho, who plays the errant clergyman, or one of them. I seem to recall that at the time you were pretty wowed by GGB, no?

1:52 AM, December 16, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

P.S. A great story about Downfall. My dad was a sport about lots of arthouse outings, too, late in high school and then during visits home from college. I think he suffered just a little at The Age of Innoence but rebounded enthusiastically at The Remains of the Day. So let no one say all costume dramas are alike!

1:53 AM, December 16, 2009  
Blogger tim r said...

I could have sworn you'd seen Red Lights -- vaguely remember a B? Unless there's some film knocking around with the same title. Cracking stuff, anyway, with a note-perfect Jean-Pierre Darroussin performance and a pretty great Bouquet one into the bargain. For a while I thought Cédric Kahn was going to enter my top tier of favourite French directors -- you know, the Assayas/Desplechin/Cantet league -- but he seems to have dropped off the map somewhat. Still, check this one out, for sure.

Have a feeling you'd still like Azkaban -- it's the one HP instalment which works rather terrifically as a stand-alone movie -- but I'd love to know if you relented at all on Mysterious Skin. I see a lot of the movie's flaws, but still remember it as one of the bravest, most vivid and emotionally reaching movies of that year (and Araki is no kind of reference point for me either).

What Brook said about In My Father's Den. Lots of net curtains and staring out of first floor windows. Not to be bothered with.

3:50 AM, December 16, 2009  
Blogger David said...

@Nick: I believe I was wowed by Gael, but I haven't seen the movie in forever and I've often doubted my placing him in the top five male performances of that year. Although I still like his performance, in my memory it pales in comparison to Ivan Dobronravov (or however you spell that) as well as so many others, including some I left off of the list. Also, I think my regard for his performance had a little something to do with a rather enormous crush on Gael which actually helped to usher me out of the closet. But who knows.

It's certainly true that not all costume dramas are alike. The prime example for me is Howard's End, which is so completely alive, and it's reassuring to know that some film makers don't immediately assume costume dramas have to be self-serious and plodding.

@Tim: I agree about Mysterious Skin. It's not flawless by any means, but rarely have I been able to call a film "brave" and really mean it.

4:53 AM, December 16, 2009  
Blogger Ed Howard said...

Did I mention how much I love these writeups?

Yes, Notre musique really is that great, especially but not only that "Hell" opening sequence, which grew out of Godard's Histoire(s) du cinema aesthetic. The thing about Godard is that the silly and the sublime are utterly wrapped up in his work, so that Native Americans in stereotypical garb really does wind up working, somehow, when set off against the film's more serious spiritual and political elements. I think it's probably Godard's best film since the 80s.

I highly recommend Claire Denis' L'intrus, which I see atop your to-see list. It's her most difficult and obtuse film, but even if you don't get a thing about it — as I nearly didn't the first time I saw it — it's totally lovely and mysteriously haunting, and will likely draw you back to try and untangle its mysteries.

I've revisited both Undertow and Collateral in the past year (both for my Conversations series w/ Jason Bellamy) and found both holding up very well. The former is Green's best and most interesting film, in my opinion, a moody and referential fairy tale. The latter is a true masterpiece, with some of the most sumptuous night-time cinematography I've ever seen and an opening 15 minutes of such subtlety, emotion and grace that its impact continues to linger throughout the entire action movie plot that follows.

I can add Eric Rohmer's Triple Agent to the list of 2004 films to see. It's very different from most of his other work, in that it's both a period piece and a political thriller, about a pre-WW2 spy. So it's an unusual film for Rohmer, though in many ways he treats the subject similarly to his relationship films, with a lot of dense talk and a lot of subtext bubbling away just beneath the surface.

7:38 AM, December 16, 2009  
Blogger Bill C said...

The Soderbergh recut of KEANE is ghastly--inscrutable, really, plus it practically cuts Amy Ryan out of the picture--but it's also a vital lesson in syntax that I would make a mandatory part of any editing workshop. "Fascinating" is exactly the word.

I'd totally forgotten--make that repressed--the existence of A HOLE IN MY HEART. Damn you, Nick.

10:20 AM, December 16, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

So much fun!

@Tim: I never did see Red Lights, despite your enjoinders. It's always looked appealingly stylish, though. You'll be the first to hear when I take another chance on the Araki.

@David: The part about Gael helping to nudge you out of the closet is the part I remember. ;) And believe me, I don't expect the readers of this site to have the costume-drama aversion. I probably have residual frustration from how dismally Bright Star is being treated through awards season so far.

@Ed: It means a lot to hear you're enjoying these, and I'm glad to have two assurances that the weirdly overlooked Undertow still works as well as I'd remembered. I was supposed to advise a thesis a few hears ago on David Gordon Green, which didn't ultimately pan out, but I was eager at the time to explore all the through-lines, as well as the variations. This was pre-Pineapple. Great to hear about Notre musique, too; I expect it's the kind of movie you have to either be sitting in front of or have seen more than once to feel sure of how great it is. Great suggestion on Triple Agent.

@Bill: I know, I've never heard a kind word said about A Hole in My Heart, but it pertains to something I'm writing about in another project, and I'm curious why/how it's so infuriating to people, since I found Lilja 4ever less free of prurience and a kind of stifling determinism than a lot of its more ardent fans did.

A Keane without Amy Ryan isn't one I'm likely to want to see. Not that I'm such a wild fan of hers, but I think she's really strong in that part, and I love how it opens up the movie just ever so slightly.

@

1:25 PM, December 16, 2009  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

Y'all are crazy to doubt the power of GGB in Bad Education. He has that character, or multiple variations thereof, down. And he doesn't seem at all timid about diving into its deep end or being deep ended as it were [ahem] with comic lustiness. I think he's better than the movie and I like the movie just fine.

I recently did try to rewatch the Azkaban movie and outside of the movie theater, Cuaron's efforts to make it cinematic instead of pedestrian didn't come off nearly as well.

I'll never understand the global love for that uninspired series though I only hate the first two movies and think they've been largely OK or just this side of recommendable ever since Cuaron wrestled them away from Columbus.

5:48 PM, December 16, 2009  
Blogger Tim said...

I'm going to have to side with Nathaniel in re: GGB. I think he is the single element that makes me love Bad Education as a masterpiece even though it's so easy to pick at all its flaws.

Also, Nick, your catch-up list: I second Ed on The Intruder, and give my heartiest recommendation for Moolaadé which is- well, I shouldn't say for certain until I re-watch it next week. But it's way high up on my list of great films of the decade.

8:16 PM, December 16, 2009  
Blogger domgogo said...

Just watched Sommersault. it didn't win EVERY Australian Oscars for nothing. It's a good film.

9:15 PM, December 16, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Nathaniel and @Tim: All the more reason to get serious about revisiting Bad Education. If all goes according to plan, I'm hitting Broken Embraces tomorrow, so I'll have a fortuitous reason for reassessing Pedro.

@Tim: Moolaad&#233 was another one that, frustratingly, never came close to anywhere I was living, even though I'd been keyed up to see it since hearing about it in the Cannes journalism. The plus side of people being less avid than they should about seeing Sembene films is that repertory houses still like to screen them a lot, so I've been hoping to see it in 35mm at some point, though the one occasion I've had since '04 didn't work for my schedule.

@Domgogo: Great to hear this extra plug for Somersault!

11:31 PM, December 17, 2009  
Blogger Glenn said...

Red Lights is a much better French thriller than that one with Kristen Scott Thomas that was a much bigger hit a year or so ago.

3:50 AM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger CCW said...

Somersault is quite good. The whole teenage girl coming-of-age/sexual awakening storyline been done many times before, but this one took a refreshing "warts and all" approach. Considering how young they were (both in ages and careers), and the sexual and emotional explicitness of their roles, Cornish and Worthington are quite extraordinary.

4:58 PM, December 23, 2009  

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