A bounteous year for U.S. releases was followed by a notably tepid one, but I hung in there where I could. I'm not going to lie: most of the hot action for me was on DVD or, less and less, on video. But when something did finally break the doldrums at the cinemas, I was all the more gratified... and these breakthroughs often took unusual forms.
Jan 12, Universal Mall 16, Detroit, MI
I don't completely speak from a position of thorough knowledge, but I'm tempted to say it anyway: you know you're in Detroit when the movie is already a total call-and-response affair well before the girls sitting in front of you launch into a booty-shaking dance, standing in front of their seats, about a half-hour into the film. And then all of it, the movie and the dance, come to a screeching halt once someone in the audience starts aiming the red-dot laser-sight from some kind of automatic firearm on the screen, and making it dance around the image. Different patrons expressed (loudly) their annoyance and their exuberant amusement, but only one reciprocated with his own dancing laser-sight, which is when the cops showed up. I don't know what I would have thought if all of this had happened at a screening of The Hours or something, but somehow it all served as tonally consistent context for Jackass: The Movie. Though I shouldn't short-shrift another key element of the tonal and sonic environment, which was me, laughing so hard I was practically screaming and crying. The wasabi snooters, the trampoline-assisted jump right into an active ceiling fan, the scatological exploits at the home-expo store. Call me a sucker for coked-out frat-boy senseless situationist theater; I would never have pegged myself this way, but the proof was in the pudding, or maybe in the alligator pit. Either way, I gobbled this whole thing up, and kept laughing for a good half-hour after Jackass was over. The policemen seemed less delighted, but then, they didn't actually get to see any of the movie.
Jan 17, Cinemapolis, Ithaca, NY
Unbowed by the clench of early winter and the onset of Dr. S's medically puzzling and completely uncharacteristic symptoms of grosse fatigue, she and I settled down for a double-barreled evening of historical trauma, checking in on Phillip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence at 7:15 and suiting up immediately for Roman Polanski's somber, eerily glassy Holocaust drama The Pianist. Whether we were banking on some kind of homeopathic gambit to cure The Good Doctor's misery through exposure to further and greater misery is unclear; why we both remember it as such a remarkably good time shared between friends is equally mysterious. If living in a small city in the frozen north is sometimes a calisthenic training-ground for how to spin positives out of negatives, we clearly passed that test on this particular evening. And we got at least one great movie out of it; Rabbit-Proof Fence has a difficult time translating the shocking eugenic protocols it narrates into a specifically compelling film, but The Pianist I remember as totally bracing, both despite and because of its incongruous elegance.
Apr 16, 18, and 22, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
For reasons I described in the last entry, I was a full-blown Morvern Callar junkie by the time that picture rolled into Ithaca for four bookings in the span of a week at the campus repertory house. I attended three of them. I kept running into friends who said, "Oh, I thought you already saw this. In fact, I thought you were the person who told me about it." Welcome to how I roll, people. Especially when the film is this galvanizing. Absolutely nothing about it dulled, even by the fourth viewing: not Morton's slow, low-angle, Lee Hazlewood stride into the grocery store, not the pulverizing techno sound-mix at the red-filtered rave, not the dispassionate chipperness of cutting up and burying a body, not the English publishers' garrulous excitement over the "distinctly female voice" of Morvern's novel (ahem), not the final cut with its trick effect of the cinema speakers appearing to fritz out.
May 20, Hoyts Pyramid Mall 10, Lansing, NY
Even though writing a gleeful excoriation of a movie can often be a cathartic act or, let's be honest, an indulgently pleasurable one, I almost never arrive to movies hoping that they will be bad. Even if they're kitschy beyond measure, I want them to be good kitsch. I'm not one of those people who goes to see Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen harboring a dream of walking out feeling giddily superior, ticking off all of its glaring incompetencies. But given how much I loathed The Matrix and how doleful I became about its swiftly and strongly accumulated cultural power, I should probably admit that a large part of me wanted the sequels to backfire, to expose what I already saw as both conceptually threadbare and dangerously antihuman about the first film. I wasn't irrecuperably saturated with this desire; I would have been pleased, though deeply shocked, if The Matrix Reloaded had implied that the formal geniuses and rich wits who made Bound really had shown back up to work. And in truth, I savored some of the earliest visual effects, and even more so the wisp of a concluding possibility that the franchise might suddenly whip all the way 'round to critiquing Neo's naïve and narcissistic attachments to Trinity, above and despite his hokey, salvific obligations to The Whole Entire World. Granted, you had to know the movies wouldn't have the guts to really go there. I'll admit, though, that as gratified as I was by the profound extent to which the Matrix-happy millions turned so vociferously against the sequels (despite my continued insistence that most of the same flaws are present in the initial film), I was pretty taken aback by just how vehement this reversal of affective fortune was. I had settled in for an opening-afternoon matinée just ready to arm myself against a predictable Round 2 of mutually surly arguments with Matrix disciples. I left feeling pretty vindicated that the burden of proof was no longer on me, and blown sideways by just how much the sold-out audience so obviously hated the film. If anything, I think Reloaded is the most interesting installment in the series, which is the nicest thing (and also, all right, one of the most damning things) that I've ever said about a movie I rated as a D. Where everyone else was grousing and trudging out of their seats, or just hunching within them, inertly furious and disappointed, I practically skipped all the way home.
Aug 27, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
I had seen Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans once before, on video, but seeing Sunrise just a few years later, and as properly projected, I not only felt that it was an even greater movie than I had recognized, but that it's the kind of movie that almost inherently makes you more sensitive to film artistry. It's impossible to watch almost any Murnau picture, and certainly this one, and not think about how much its emotions and its story derive from qualities of light, postures of the actors, variance of rhythm and aesthetic influences, degrees of closeness to and distance from the characters, qualities of warmth and damp, of tone and texture... so many of the formal criteria that plays very little acknowledged role in the way many people watch and talk about movies. Sunrise is so generous with sympathetic feeling that the intertitles sometimes melt on screen, commiserating with The Man and The Wife. The lighting feels not just gorgeous but actually tender, gentle. The movie's humor, like its sexuality, is delimited but very powerful. I recognized its achievements on video, but I really felt them in the cinema.
Sep 8, Sep 15, Sep 22, and Sep 29, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
Directed by Dorothy Arzner is the name of a very famous and important study that Judith Mayne wrote about the very butch, very exceptional female filmmaker working at the heart of the Hollywood narrative factory in the 20s, 30s, and early 40s. It was also the name of a series that the UCLA Film & Television Archive assembled and toured after restoring a half-dozen of Arzner's least-seen works (a status that encompasses most of her films.) I started with Sarah and Son, already on my radar as a Best Actress nomination vehicle for Ruth Chatterton in the 1929-30 derby, but the Claudette Colbert-Fredric March vehicle Honor Among Lovers was even better, as was the soused comedy-turned-melodrama Merrily We Go to Hell, starring Sylvia Sidney and March again, and a major money-earner in 1932. I was generally less enamored with Working Girls, the film I gather Arzner devotées are supposed to love (and the direct beneficiary of a private gift from Jodie Foster toward completion of the film's preservation). Still, individually and collectively, the whole series shed fascinating life on a landmark figure but nonetheless an elusive one in Hollywood history. Judith Mayne happened to be in town that same week presenting some of her more recent work on Claire Denis, so she popped in to the Working Girls screening to offer some more comments. The unfussy sexiness of these movies, the generously showcased performances by the female leads, the very different charismas and virtuosities that March displays in Honor and Hell, and the amiable concision of these tales were all completely bewitching. Though no progress has yet been made with the oft-rumored DVD box-set of these restored pictures, the patina of rarity that accrued to them and to my extremely good fortune at seeing them has made the memory all the more precious.
Oct 3, Cornell Cinema (Uris), Ithaca, NY
One of the few major-market nations in the world where the September 11-themed omnibus film 11'09"01 barely got released was the United States. I am constantly astonished by how much coruscating violence gets sluiced into theaters every weekend, only for distributors and media outlets to balk at how it's "too soon" to support any major film about the war, or about the al-Qaeda attacks, or whatever. Since when are moviegoers so thin-skinned? Isn't this the same logic that keeps all the soldiers' funerals and the footage of Iraqi suffering off of TV? Anyway, it was hard enough to find 11'09"01 in a theater, even without the killingly tepid critical buzz that had surrounded it in those specialty publications that had deigned to cover it, after its bow at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival on the one-year anniversary of the events. Go figure that despite all of this, and despite my usual (and surely understandable) skepticism about omnibus films, this turned out to be my favorite release of the year: both because the enraged, maudlin, or discombobulated qualities of the weakest entries (Lelouch's, Chahine's, Nair's, and Penn's) offer such a fair time-capsule of hot, destabilizing emotions still surrounding 9/11 in the ensuing year, and because the strongest fragments (Makhmalbaf's, Loach's, Ouedraogo's, Imamura's, and González Iñárritu's) rank among the best short films I saw though the decade. Seeing such a diversity of perspectives among such a diversity of audience members was an invigorating, unsettling, and somehow an ethically stimulating act. Somehow we withstood the stark confrontations of González Iñárritu's devastating mix of last-minute phone messages and violent, volcanic demolition, and we shot looks at each other to understand whatever Imamura is trying to tell us through the ostensibly emblematic figure of a man who eats rats and belly-crawls like a snake.
Oct 11, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
I have less to say about Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary, except that it marked by introduction to Guy Maddin, whose simultaneously antiquarian and fervidly unusual aesthetic seemed so stimulating and promising before it began to seem so relentless and intractable from project to project. I rarely go near his work anymore, as much as I liked Cowards Bend the Knee, but Dracula, despite massively overstating its metaphors of racist Orientalism and the figuration of the vampire, is nonetheless an entrancing experience. The dancing enthralls, the sharp lines and kitschy shadows achieve a rude, impressive force on screen, and Tara Birtwhistle is rather affecting in her role as Lucy. Certainly one of those evenings where I felt I was seeing something on screen like nothing I had seen before.
Oct 13, Hoyts Pyramid Mall 10, Lansing, NY
One of those insensible double-features I sometimes cobble together, out of scheduling necessity or convenience, but also because I enjoy the sheer perversity. Diane Lane seemed so happy with that running spigot of water at the end of Under the Tuscan Sun, but imagine if she'd tracked down that shithead ex-husband of hers while poured into a gold and black tracksuit, holding a Kill Bill, Vol. 1 Hattori Hanzō firmly in hand. There's a mashup I'd have liked to see. And in truth, I think Diane Lane, who is obviously one tough cookie no matter how many Nights in Rodanthes she tries to trick us with, would have been a genius re-casting choice for The Bride. Seeing a slightly older, slightly more womanly woman in the part would have sold me on the whole post-peak, post-maternal, gal-with-a-storied-past character conception in a way that gets totally lost for this viewer via the hopeless Uma, a semi-smugly obliging doll in what I might call the decade's most overrated performance, though it improves some in Vol. 2. Oh come on, you knew I was going to say it. Anyway, I'm glad I had the foresight not to screen Sun and Bill in the opposite order.
Oct 29, Hoyts Pyramid Mall 10, Lansing, NY
I wasn't the only person who thought 2003 had been pretty sparse for homegrown narratives, so when Rich, one of the co-owners of the downtown arthouses, called me about making a date to go see School of Rock, which he claimed to have laughed all the way through on the previous evening, I thought, Why not? Rich often got enormous kicks out of skits and scenes and jokes that I couldn't quite make out, but School of Rock didn't break that way, given Jack Black's one perfectly managed performance and Linklater's dab hand with the motley crew of kids playing his pupils. Sweet and scabrous, a lifechanging-teacher movie with none of the syrup, and very funny, at laughing-gas levels. I don't even want to watch it again, just in case it turns out I had to be there, even though I strongly suspect it holds up. And I still think Black was robbed of an Oscar, much less a nomination.
Nov 8, Sony Lincoln Square, New York, NY
Moving Derek down to New York City with a couple of friends. I drove down with the gal in the couple, and Derek was in the moving truck with the guy. When we got off at a rest-stop, each pair of us looked at the other like, "I know more about you than I used to, but I'm not saying what." After arriving and unpacking, Kim and I left Derek and Joe to themselves and went to see In the Cut in midtown Manhattan. Derek's decision to move certainly made even more sense to me, once I realized this is a city where a critically poo-pooed movie by Jane Campion is still packing in a sellout audience three weeks into its run. My kind of town. Kim and I couldn't sit together because of the crowd, but we both thought the movie was pretty stupendous (the photography, the editing, the lead performances, the darkly nervous energy of her New York), even if it was also obviously flawed (everything with Meg Ryan and her student, most of everything related to the actual detection plot). I felt basically the same way when I saw it again for kicks in Los Angeles, two weeks later. Now, of course, Campion is a cause célèbre again for a lot of people, but I'll take all of that even more seriously when she makes another non-period piece and more people than a core group of acolytes find nice things to say about it. I've seen a lot of varying depth of field and exaggerated telephoto lensing in recent movies, and every time I wonder, exactly how many people in Hollywood saw In the Cut and stole from it than ever seem to admit it?
Dec 7, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
To Be and To Have (Être et avoir), my favorite kind of documentary: the kind that subsists on long, observant immersion in the lives of its subjects, thereby communicating an articulate and impression-making feel for the rhythms and tensions of the way these people live. Totally lulling, though not at all boring, at the hectic end of an academic term. A poignant portrait of the slowness of learning, when so many teacher-centered movies can't wait to profess the boundless leaps of knowledge that students (purportedly) achieve under the tutelage of some high-octane mentor. For the very same reasons, To Be and To Have furnishes a ringing tribute to the virtues of hard-won patience and soft-spoken authority. I have almost never gone wrong recommending this film, which was partially responsible for reigniting my commitment to seeing more documentaries.
Dec 8, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
I had thought for a long time that Holiday was not available on home video, but perhaps I only thought this because when my family bought our first VCR when I was 14, I couldn't find a copy anywhere, so I equated its elusiveness with non-existence. If you're wondering what I could possibly mean, please make the effort to think back to the pre-internet years, if indeed you ever experienced them. And while you're thinking back, let's tip our hats again to the lustrousness of studio-era black and white photography when it's projected on a large screen from a well-nurtured print by people who know what they're doing. In a filmgoing year that had already been so strongly shaped by the Arzner program, Holiday became in many ways the definitive cinema experience I had in 2003, despite the fact that it looks like the kind of talky, pensive comedy that would feel exquisitely at home on Turner Classic Movies, over dinner, or dessert, or breakfast. I immediately wondered where it had been all my life, especially given the years of that life I had devoted to Katharine Hepburn, but I'm so glad I was able to experience it for the first time in radiant 35mm. And in this movie, the radiance feels lunar, not solar: Cary Grant, in what to me is his best performance, communicates a really authentic sense of resisting, with some annoyance, the ubiquitous insistence that he needs to "grow up" into somebody else's vision of "adult" living. I love Grant for pulling off this character arc with maturity and soft-pedaled indignation, without playing an overgrown child, and I love Hepburn (and director George Cukor) for seeing how her character's fragile, atypical sadness would do more for Grant and for the story than any antic pantomime of Life-Saving Attractiveness, which might have killed the film. The supporting cast is full of riches, and for me, the whole evening had the best kind of time-out-of-joint quality, like I had won a direct audience with an exquisite object that most people only read about in books. Still under the impression that the movie was unavailable for any other form of viewing, I had the extra albeit false privilege of treasuring the memory as one does of a live performance. Maybe that's why even after I spotted the VHS a few months later, and now that I own the DVD that debuted a few years ago, I haven't been back to watch it. I prefer the sense of fleeting perfection and glorious evanescence.
Dec 25, Paris Theatre, New York, NY
One more glory before the year was outjust in the nick of time, frankly, and on Christmas Day no less, which Derek and I spent walking around Central Park before ending at an evening show of Robert Altman's delicate, sinuous, quietly colorful The Company. Our first Christmas Day movie. The Paris is a single-auditorium theater on West 58th street, with a huge screen that curves just a bit at the edges. I had never been in it before, and though I still haven't been to a proper IMAX movie, in my mind, and in my rewritten mental cosmos where Robert Altman pictures would show in IMAX houses, the effect would be like this: beautiful bodies, sculpted moves, gorgeously simple shots of weather and admin meetings, people breathing in and out of their supple human communities, crashing on the floor of each other's apartments and sharing simple, romantic omelets in the morning. All of it larger than life. The screen stands tall and subtly encircles you like a hug.
Dec 27, Landmark Hillcrest and AMC Mission Valley 20, San Diego, CA
MLA again, and having learned the ropes the year before, I decided just to add a whole extra day to my travel itinerary before my obligations to the conference began. I walked about two and a half miles to a Landmark theatre, a chain I will always love based on my formative years in the Kendall Square Cinema in Boston, and I haunted the place through consecutive showings of The Barbarian Invasions (some good stuff in there, but it's nearly as over-weening as the protagonist), then The Cooler (seriously?), and then In America (a shimmery arcade splash of color, motion, and light upon first viewing, with particularly expert work from Paddy Considine and the Bolger girls, who were exactly the actors who didn't get nominated for Oscars). Apparently still hungry, I took a taxi to some kind of outdoor mall to see Big Fish, just barely entering its national release. Or at least that's what I thought; MLA, even before it has properly begun, can really cut you off from any credible sense of what's truly transpiring in the outside world. In America, then, was really the only keeper in the bunch for me, and even that movie cooled a bit from my perspective after a second look-see. But we all know this, right? Sometimes, the quality just doesn't matter. Setting aside the prospect of a full day of gluttonous indulgencewas it someone else I just accused of being "over-weening"?sometimes just one movie, any movie, in a new city, any city, is just the balm you need. I was a complete and absolute stranger, but when I'm at Landmark, I'm never in a strange land.
Key VHS/DVD Encounters from 2003 (Chronological):
Donnie Darko (review), The Band Wagon, Top Hat, Caged, Pennies from Heaven (review), Mephisto, High Heels, The Red Shoes, Come and Get It, Mother and Son, What Have I Done to Deserve This?, Gummo, The Lady Eve, My Life to Live (Vivre sa vie), The Lady Vanishes, Mommie Dearest, The Thin Man, Flesh, The Watermelon Woman, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, War Requiem, Intolerance, Libeled Lady, Blue, Fat City, Love Is the Devil: A Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon, and 7th Heaven (review)
Labels: End of 00s