Thursday, December 17, 2009

Backwards and Forwards: 2005

Films I Might Have Underestimated: The second year in a row where I have a hang-up about a Joseph Gordon-Levitt movie, which means he's either choosing admirably risky and divisive projects or he just can't help getting on my nerves. Or both. I'm sure to try Mysterious Skin again before diving back into the arduous affectations of Brick, which is at least as "overwritten" as Juno but much less popular to pick on. Still, Rian Johnson has interesting ideas about cutting and scene structure, and it's worth learning from unapologetic experiments, even when we're not sure we loved them. It's also worth getting over the bridling distastefulness of the characters, story, and idiom of The Proposition and taking a stock a second time of how much mood Hillcoat, Cave, and that impressive (if uneven) cast are able to whip up. That said, 2005 is the happy year where the films I most wonder about underestimating were already heavy favorites of mine, bordering in retrospect on the truly stupendous: Michael Haneke's tough, taut, insinuating Caché, which I found a little arch and dogmatic in its political invocations, though that's never what I think about when I think about the film; and Ira Sachs's Sundance champ Forty Shades of Blue, which is as small, potent, personal, and precisely observed as most "surprise" or "unpopular" winners at major festivals.

Films I Might Have Overestimated: I thought Bee Season got a great Searching for Bobby Fischerish performance out of young Flora Cross, it nailed exactly what is arm-twisting and off-putting about Richard Gere, and it struck a resonant balance between visual fancy and emotional candor that a lot of "headspace" dramas and stories from children's perspectives attempt without achieving. The film got such a drubbing in most quarters that I've been reluctant to go back; I'd rather misremember and overly trust the movie, and thus remember a stirring experience, though I suppose I should trust the film more than I do. I have similar heebie-jeebies about Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, which tapped a dark, all-encompassing pandemonium as early as its opening scenes—exactly what the reboot had needed badly for six years. Right through to that memorably agonized childbirth, I finally found something to admire in the prequels, even if I might have admired too much. I usually feel pretty good about relinquishing expectations or pre-set opinions upon entering a movie, but I've already fessed up that I was so ready to groan through Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice that, engaging as the film absolutely is, I might have oversold it to myself.

One Way or Another, I Need Another Look at: Have you noticed how many Van Sant movies leave me grasping at straws, in one way or another? Last Days, with its howling riffs and crystalline meditation on the theme of Kurt Cobain, puzzled me in the best way. As had happened with his Psycho remake, a Van Sant film I had frankly expected to dislike turned out at or near the top of how I'd personally rank his work. I don't expect to discover that Last Days is even stronger, tougher, and lovelier than I thought, but I want to study it to see why this one works for me so much more than Idaho, Gerry, and Elephant do. Manderlay prompts a similar but reversed question: what explains why I loved Dogville so much but frankly hated its follow-up? Von Trier's thoughts about race and slavery seem palpably smugger and more tendentious than those about small-town insularity and free-ranging murderousness, and Howard + Dafoe + Glover is an easy trade down for me from Kidman + Caan + Bettany (unquestionably the unsung hero of Dogville). Still, is it really that much worse? I'd love to be wrong, but I'd equally love to feel surer of why I rejected it as strongly as I did. And I would like to see Serenity not with a stranger, and not with someone who asks me before the final credits have even started rolling, "So what did you think?" I had a whale of a time with this one, without having seen so much as a frame of Firefly, and it seems equally likely to be a renewable pleasure, a minor masterwork of the genre, or a modest vehicle that was never built to last. I suspect I know what the internet thinks, but tell me anyway.

Recently Came to Light: On two strong tips from Tim, I rented the abstract documentary-essay Black Sun, in which a violently blinded artist recalls the circumstances of his assault and the ways in which his perceptual and mental life have changed as a result, and Aleksandr Sokurov's The Sun, a characteristically oneiric but disarmingly wry fiction about the figurehead Japanese emperor Hirohito in the final days of World War II. The first offers a bruiser of an anecdote and some transfixing ideas about what to show the audience while Montalembert evokes the extremely compromised ways in which he "sees" today. At 70 minutes, it felt a smidge over-extended, and some of the matches of images to testimony feel arbitrary, occasionally even rather crudely forced. But there's a lot here for a lot of audiences, especially those who want more than anything else from a documentary a tale they'll never forget. For its part, The Sun struck me as a victim of a patently low budget, leading to some astonishingly cruddy lighting in some scenes, considering this is Sokurov. Just as palpable is how speculative these notions are of imperial living conditions and "Japanese psychology," if such a concept is allowable. But as it goes on, the aesthetic shows unexpected muscle, and the interpersonal problems created by Hirohito's implacable awkwardness as well as the metaphysical quandary of his deified status turn out to be tremendously thought-provoking. Even more unexpectedly, they have strong aspects of humor, and carry a considerable force of feeling. Issey Ogata's central performance, which is so unusual in its mannerisms, so busy and yet so self-effacing, is never less than a marvel. Shame it took four years to open Stateside, but at least it's finally here.

Best Cases for Trying Again: No will be surprised to hear that Spielberg's art still has nothing in common with Sokurov's, but Munich still pushes the bounds of dramatic historiography in its own ways: nervy, paranoid, barely containing its own vengefulness. I could tell those things on first sight, but I still felt distracted by having to peel away the scenes that didn't work, like a truly risible scene of nightmarish, hair-tossing sex. On second visit, the leaner, meaner, defiantly weird movie inside Munich was even more evident, and more impressive. Syriana was such a self-serious and undemonstrative affair, dry or impassive in so many places where a little warmth or fury might have humanized it, that I wouldn't have returned if my dad and my brother had been able to agree on a different film. Frankly, I was curious if I'd grasp some plot connections more clearly this time, and that I did, but Siddig's, Clooney's, and Damon's performances all deepened on second look, and the soundworld of the movie came alive. There were more touches like that masterful, off-the-tripod low angle on Clooney, just as the bomb explodes. A solid piece of work, that one.

Sad Case Against Trying Again: Rent has the exact opposite virtues of Munich or Syriana: there's not nearly enough that's off-kilter, ambitious, politically schooled, or well-crafted about it. What it does have, in spades, is a cast that radiates its profound excitement as well as its earnest humility to be working in the service of a piece they obviously believe in. That kind of uncynical, committed pleasure is rare to find in any movie, and seeing it as a middle film between the smoothed-out and trophy-minded Walk the Line and the annoyingly inorganic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I grasped onto Rent's exuberance, its musicality, even its mile-wide streak of naïveté as a kind of early-winter lifeline. But watching it a second time, the balloon definitely deflates. Infelicities in virtually every department are harder to ignore, though "Santa Fe," "Will I?" and Jesse L. Martin's whole performance remain show-stoppers. I still bawl at the end (having never seen the stage show), but I feel a little sillier about it. And like Margaret Cho watching David Carradine in Kung Fu and screaming, "That guy's not Chinese!" I can't help watching Rent and thinking, "That's not New York!" I mean, that's not even real snow, not even acceptable fake snow, much less is it New effing York.

Performances I'm Most Eager to Revisit: Daniel Day-Lewis graces us so seldom, and rarely works with so few Method barriers between us and the character, that The Ballad of Jack and Rose, in which he is predictably excellent, ought to have attracted more attention. If it weren't for his criminally undervalued John Procter in The Crucible, it would easily be his least appreciated performance. Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello keep things interesting through repeated dives into A History of Violence, even as the graphic, structural, and thematic architectures lose a bit of mystique. Having paid due tribute to Terrence Howard, my pick for that year's Best Actor Oscar, I'd like to hit Hustle & Flow with an eye firmly trained on Taraji P. Henson. Annette Bening surely regrets the trophies for which she became ineligible when Mrs. Harris moved to TV, but more people saw it on HBO than would ever see it at a Landmark or a Cineplex Odeon, and I'm about ready for a repeat trip. And Tommy Lee Jones is just a dream in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada though, as I've said, he barely got thanked for going to such mad, craggy, wily, and worrying trouble.

Top Ten Films Still to Catch from 2005:
1. The Wayward Cloud (Taiwan), dir. Tsai Ming-liang, with some melons
2. The Aggressives (USA), dir. Daniel Peddle, a black drag-king doc
3. Regular Lovers (France), dir. Philippe Garrel, with Louis Garrel
4. U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha (South Africa), dir. Mark Dornford-May
5. Mutual Appreciation (USA), dir. Andrew Bujalski
6. Conversations with Other Women (USA), dir. Hans Canosa
7. The Puffy Chair (USA), dirs. Jay and Mark Duplass
8. The Devil and Daniel Johnston (USA), dir. Jeff Feuerzeig
9. Mary (USA), dir. Abel Ferrara, with La Binoche and La Cotillard
10. Breakfast on Pluto (Ireland), dir. Neil Jordan, with Cillian Murphy

Runners-up: The gay-themed Israeli-Palestinian documentary Zero Degrees of Separation; Ramin Bahrani getting revved up with Man Push Cart; the Sri Lankan drama The Forsaken Land, a trophy winner at Cannes; Park Chan-wook sounding as imposing as ever with Sympathy for Lady Vengeance; James Marsh's The King, with Gael García Bernal and William Hurt; the divorce documentary 51 Birch Street, filmed from the son's perspective; German awards magnet Sophie Scholl: The Final Days; the comedy blockbuster Wedding Crashers; the popcorn thriller The Skeleton Key; Chinese prizewinner Shanghai Dreams; the ballistic Georgian suspenser 13 Tzameti; Giovanna Mezzogiorno, doing her pushed-to-the-edge bit, but apparently as well as she's ever done it, in Don't Tell; and, for Tilda completism, Thumbsucker



Blogger Sam Brooks said...

I'm consistently surprised by the wide range of films that you've seen! I DVRed Mrs. Harris based on the presence of Annette Bening, and also out of genuine curiosity for Ellen Burstyn's Emmy nomination. I found myself enjoying it, and also loving Bening's performance in it; but also finding myself in complete awe of Cloris Leachman in it. Her reading of: "People let you know they're human when they show you their flaws.", which is, admittedly a clunky line, has stayed with me since I watched it.

As a disciple of Wong Kar-Wai, I have to ask how you respond to 2046, if at all? It's my favourite of his films, albeit barely, and I find myself revisiting it often and getting more from it (and different things from it) every time. A trio of brilliant performances by actresses also helps for me.

3:07 AM, December 17, 2009  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

If I recall you don't like 2046, right, Nick?

I've never seen MRS. HARRIS which is insane given my feelings about The Bening.

I can't get around Brick's affectations though I have no trouble at all warming up to Gordon-Levitt in just about anything.

and I still weep that you don't love A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE which is the only film that year that got to me as much as Brokeback Mountain did. I wonder how you'd feel about it if you didn't have such a thing for Cronenberg? None of us watch movies in a vacuum but I can't help thinking about the "what if"s because it's so very distinctive when lined up with anything in its year (and book end years too) and the acting is unimproveable i think, spot on for the movies style, issues, and operating layers.

7:32 AM, December 17, 2009  
Blogger Joe Reid said...

I'm an enthusiastic fan of Brick, which will be apparent once I finally (finally!) get my own year-end project off the ground. But it's definitely one where I can see why people wouldn't like it. For me, there's such a strong commitment to the gimmickry -- no apologies, no winking -- that I'm swept up in Johnson's utter confidence. There's a strong muscle to his filmmaking there (and one which makes me even more impressed at the light touch I found in The Brothers Bloom; he's a filmmaker with quite a few clubs at his disposal).

8:05 AM, December 17, 2009  
Blogger Joe Reid said...

Sorry, there was supposed to be a "but" there:

There's a strong muscle to the filmmaking, BUT I'm not surprised people felt worn out...or put off by how often it flexed.

(Let no one say I don't use every part of the metaphor.)

8:08 AM, December 17, 2009  
Blogger Ed Howard said...

Great stuff as usual. I love Caché as well, Haneke's best film thus far. Also, I'm so glad to hear someone else mention Black Sun, a very sadly overlooked film that's absolutely stunning in its effect. The core story is obviously interesting enough on its own, but what really makes the film so thrilling is how inventive Gary Tarn is in exploring different types of imagery and different ways of exploring this story.

I'll put in a random recommendation, if you haven't seen it already, for The Wild Blue Yonder, which finds Werner Herzog in weird documentary/sci-fi hybrid mode, and it's a bizarre and not entirely successful film but undoubtedly a fascinating one anyway. The underwater imagery in particular is stunning, and it boasts one of the best soundtracks I've ever heard, with cellist Ernst Reijseger in collaboration with a Sardinian choir and a Sengelese vocalist. Gorgeous, haunting music, unlike anything else.

11:00 AM, December 17, 2009  
Blogger Bill C said...

I gotta tip my hat to THE KING. It is a deeply silly movie, one that you're mentally MST3K'ing as you watch it, and yet it is terrifically resonant in ways I cannot quite articulate. Because almost every artistic decision they made was precisely the wrong one, from the casting of Bernal as William Hurt's biological son to Laura Harring as a prim, wholesome minister's wife (she's actually terrific), it has the uniquely exploitative pull of a sideshow. I have a feeling a second visit would really convert me to whatever it's doing, which seems to be trying to tell a story that formally mimics the sociopathy of its main character.

11:18 AM, December 17, 2009  
Blogger Tim said...

So... have you not seen any Tsai Ming-Liang films? Don't start with The Wayward Cloud, is my only piece of advice.

Joe exactly sums up my feelings on Brick, saving me from having to defend it, but I do want to put some love out their for The Proposition, which I think has a pretty damn strong cast all told, and I'd love to know who specifically you're thinking of when you say "uneven". But even if just for the music and the imagery, t

Last Days is easily my least favorite entry in the Death Trilogy, while I love Gerry more than anything else Van Sant has ever done. Go figure.

1:16 PM, December 17, 2009  
Blogger Tim said...

"this would be a favorite of mine" to close out the second paragraph. No idea what happened there.

1:17 PM, December 17, 2009  
Blogger Catherine said...

I wouldn't bother with Breakfast on Pluto, if I were you. Cillian Murphy is capable, but a little one-note, the film as a whole is annoyingly episodic and bitty, and it's all exasperatingly light-hearted about IRA bombings and other weighty topics. There's not just a whole lot there to chew on.

6:02 PM, December 17, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

I'm so behind!

@Brook: You can read a few of my retrospective thoughts on 2046 here.

@Nathaniel: I liked it more the second time, but perhaps still not as much as you did. I don't really get Gong Li anymore, that's for sure, and I tried this one, Eros, Geisha, and Zhou Yu's Train all in the same season.

@Joe: I'll look forward to that trip back into Brick. But can I admit that I have a hard time associating the phrase "light touch" with The Brothers Bloom? It felt like Johnson wanted to nail me to my seat with all of his STYLE. Which sometimes was fine, and sometimes... jeepers. And Adrien Brody was just insufferable in it.

@Ed: The Wild Blue Yonder is a great recommendation. As for Black Sun: I agree in spirit, and often in point of fact... but sometimes, didn't the image-sound match seem a little odd? Why so much of that Mayan masking ritual, for example? (For a mordantly comic spin on a loosely comparable experience, I recommend Jim Knipfel's memoir Slackjaw.)

@Bill: Exactly the kind of pitch for The King that's liable to goad me into renting it. Thanks!

@Tim: I loved I Don't Want to Sleep Alone and had a great time at Face, even though it felt a little too long and self-repeating, even for someone who'd seen so little of the repertoire. I thought Winstone and especially Watson were terrific in The Proposition, but Danny Huston was only a little less overbearing than usual, and Guy Pearce just seems kind of stranded in so many of his roles: mealier than a matin&#233e idol, but not quite technical enough to work as a character actor. Which is pretty much what I thought about him here.

What didja dislike about Last Days?

@Catherine: I've definitely heard those critiques from many quarters, but given what I study and the superficial proximity to Velvet Goldmine, it feels like a real mistake to keep ignoring the film outright. Thanks for the fair warning, though!

11:40 PM, December 17, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just saw Mysterious Skin. The only thing I knew about the movie was that, according to Guy Lodge, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was great in it.

It was a wasted opportunity! It could have been great. I visited Rotten Tomatoes and I was surprised to find out that most critics liked it! So, I'm posting here because you get me. I don't know if we didn't like it for the same reasons but for me it was a mix of awkward lines, some questionable performances (Gordon-Levitt was good) and things that made no sense.

9:37 PM, December 20, 2009  
Blogger Glenn said...

Of the films you haven't seen uCarmen has a vibrancy that really reverberates once you've seen the final few scenes. The film can feel like a chore at times, but it feels worth it by the end.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is very good, actually. And I say that as a definite non-fan of Oldboy.

3:46 AM, December 21, 2009  

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