Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Decade's Best: #1-#10

My breath catches a little to realize what a bittersweet conclusion this represents for the countdown: Grizzly Man is the only member of the Top 10 to premiere as late as 2005, and you have to slide down to #18 to see anything that premiered any later. I'm suddenly left with the feeling, espoused by Bill Chambers in an earlier comment thread, that the decade has manifested a real law of diminishing returns. Granted, we are not inhabiting a desert at the moment. My forthcoming Top 10 of 2009 would look quite different if I could incorporate some festival titles from the past year or two that haven't quite achieved their Stateside commercial bow. They're films to look forward to, for sure, but are they enough to countervail the sense that we've seen fewer and fewer masterworks as the decade has evolved?

It's probably wiser to realize that I've had more time to let my feelings about movies like Dancer in the Dark, Morvern Callar, and Amores perros marinate for a longer period of time, and that after a few more years, a Lazarescu or an INLAND EMPIRE or even a Synecdoche or Hurt Locker could move up to those positions. Plus, it just seems incontrovertibly true that the artworks you embrace when you're newest and freshest to the form become more intimate favorites than later acquaintances. The decks may thus be stacked in favor of titles from the 90s and early 00s, often for reasons evoked in the Remembering series.

But also: these are ten astonishing movies, so it's a little strange for me to second-guess what any of them would be doing at the top of a decade review, or to feel remotely bad about it, no matter what other movies or moments in the decade they wind up displacing to lower rungs. It's a great note on which to end the decade and the year... and meanwhile, I hope you've enjoyed this very rare month of daily activity on Nick's Flick Picks. I'm so grateful that you read and participate, and I wish you all a tremendous 2010!


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Decade's Best: #11-#20

Whether you hear Lionel & Diana or Luther & Mariah when I say these soothing words, it's all about endless love by the time we've climbed this high in my Best of the 00s Countdown.

Even in a week that keeps forcing me into carpy, dyspeptic grumpiness—because some holiday classics just aren't as good as I had expected, and some current holiday releases are inestimably worse, and even some tried-and-allegedly-true mainstays of the American cinematic canon, whether screened alone or in auspicious company, strike me as sturdy but deeply flawed, although most people disagree—I'll always have some films to revisit in an adoring way, just like Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris.

From Korea to the Yukon, from Pakistan to London, from Romania to Iran, from North Carolina to, um, Virginia, and on one occasion in eleven different nations at once, the world is a better place with moviemakers like these working at the top of their game, having this much to show us, and this much to say.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Decade's Best: #21-#30, and One Switcheroo

Even though these movies inspire me profoundly, I admit I'd been running low on inspiration for these posts. It's been so tempting just to toss the whole rest of the list onto the site ever since the first day, since I had it all written and formatted. Maybe I'm just worried that we're getting closer and closer to the point where the choices will be more predictable, if you've been following along with my yearly Best lists. I hate to bore you!

But, due credit to the value of waiting: I just caught The Hurt Locker again in its small theatrical re-release, and damn if the movie isn't even better than I thought it was. So, at the possible risk of heedlessness, I've had to promote it from its former position at #42. You'll see it again this time around, and oddly, it has the effect of bumping down to #31 the movie that otherwise would have been my #1 film for 2009. A real race to the finish line between those two. I've heard from a few of you who already fear that Hurt Locker is overrated, and I understand the inelegance both of changing the list after it's already started unfurling and of trying to form a coherent assessment of a virtually brand-new film, side by side with movies I've adored for almost a full decade. But there we have it. I really think Bigelow's film has durability and depth, and I'd feel even more wrong about keeping it lower than my gut feels is right. Chime in as you will!

Otherwise, I've been especially gratified by the folks who have reported that you're queuing and renting titles you'd never heard of, based on these posts. (I'm doing the same thing, based on other lists I'm reading elsewhere.) Though I know a lot of people who are even more documentary-obsessed than I am, it sounds like the nonfiction titles on my roster have been the freshest discoveries for a lot of you. So, happy to serve! There are two more doozies here in the high 20s.


Monday, December 28, 2009

The Decade's Best: #31-#40

This next grouping of ten shows me something about my own tastes, underlining how gripped I always am by films that worry the relationship between an individual, whether exceptional or unexceptional, and some personal or social collectivity to which they ostensibly belong. Maybe because that kind of drama can inhere inside any shot (who to frame, and who to leave out?), and keeps playing out at every expanding level of the film, I feel like I have an unusual lot to think about when a film engages that quandary in an inspired or unusual way. #40, #39, and #38 are all about collective endeavors, but the concert, the classroom, and the quest also proffer revealing lenses for perceiving the specific agents working at the heart of the action. After that, the bonds become even more elliptical: an unbelievable assertion and the scary desire to accept it, despite the distemper of a surrounding family; a resolute but quickly overwhelmed girl involved in a corrupt traffic; a marooned group, possibly standing in for the whole globe; the elliptical relations inside a hotel that is also a home; the dual but not simply opposed pull of one individual into a criminal life and an artistic calling; an individual who disperses into multiple avatars in different eras; and a pair of boisterous chums who are barely ready to examine their own bond, much less to realize there's a whole nation surrounding them, and it's more than a backdrop for their exuberant jaunts, though the film is gracious enough to welcome us into that exuberance.

And now, we will test my individuality against your collective will! How are you feeling about this group? The responses on all the earlier days have been a real kick to receive and to answer.


Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Decade's Best: #41-#50

Heading into the top half of the list, with three famously scarlet-haired actresses giving the performances many consider their greatest work. I demur on Julianne, with respect to her first collaboration with the same director, and it's too soon to tell about Tilda, but could anyone argue otherwise about Julia? Except with the "scarlet" part: her most famous hair color, but bottle-born.

Anyway, keep reading for boxing blues, boys who aren't boys, bomb defusers, strikers, psychos, cops, and robbers.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Decade's Best: #51-#60

Happy Boxing Day to all my people in the Commonwealth! We were a no-gift household this Christmas, but the presents just keep on coming on Nick's Flick Picks, where the next batch of the decade's best includes a whopping four documentaries. Love them now, non-fiction enthusiasts, because I've just noticed that there are none in the bracket to be posted tomorrow. And for those of you keeping up with the world-tour aspect of this list, one of the entries comprises a 'round-the-world journey of its own, though it hardly inspires its viewers to duplicate the experience. In fact, give or take the odd English estate and one bucolic hamlet in upstate New York, this group is pretty replete with places you might be loath to venture, geographically, sexually, and psychologically. But hang in there as best you can. The films more than repay your willingness to follow along.


Friday, December 25, 2009

The Decade's Best: #61-#70

Animation. Adaptation. Resurrection. Cannes sensations. Oscar winners. Up and comers. Old masters. Lots going on in the next bracket of ten, as we wend our way around Poland, France, Greece, San Francisco, Montana, Vienna, Australia, the Tex-Mex border, two trips to Japan, and one inside the ring.

And for those of you to whom it matters, merry Christmas! All I want from Santa is more good movies in the 10s.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Decade's Best: #71-#80

Just like last time, a new filmmaker crashes the list with not one but two titles, and this time it's somebody that no one had even heard of till 2000 rolled around. Also, though it's unlikely to faze anyone else, I'm excited to have two films in this bracket that I never imagined would wind up on a list like this when I first saw them—one that I thought was perfectly fine but not much more than that (it's at #78), and one that I practically hated, even though I respected its proficiency. In that case, you won't have any trouble figuring out which title I have in mind.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Decade's Best: #81-#90

In which gallery art and non-fiction filmmaking both make heavy inroads into this feature, and an unexpected figure emerges as the first double-listed filmmaker on the list.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Decade's Best: #91-#100

Well, now that I've gotten all that truculence out of my system, I feel better already. Though surely this has just as much to do with what you must have known was coming: my third and final series for December, an illustrated flyover of my 100 favorite movies from the decade now concluding.

Throughout December, I have reminisced about my fondest in-cinema memories of the 00s and catalogued the films that I am most eager to encounter or revisit. Sure, I longed to catch up on everything that eluded me earlier, and to reassess films for which I suspect, auspiciously or ominously, my first appraisal might have missed the mark. But this goal was hopeless and, I think, unhealthy: it's good to have things to look forward to, and lingering prospects for reacquaintance. It's silly to treat the end of any year as a now-or-never deadline for artistic enrichment. Besides, the 100 films I have collected here, whatever I omitted through neglect or misjudgment, are as thrilling a time-capsule as I could ever want of a decade's ecstatic pleasures.

Here goes with the first ten films, working as you surely guessed from the bottom of the list to the top. It already makes for an exhausting trip, hurtling from Boston to Korea to Mexico City to Australia to Africa to the American Midwest, twice over, to say nothing of our tour stops in Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell. Thank goodness that particular journey is organized in the opposite sequence, but don't get complacent. We've got zombies on our tail.

(And by the way, as we hit the road, tip me off whether you're digging the mosaic-style presentation of the main page, with frames, or if you're more of a non-frames person. I've structured each page so that the frames should be easily accommodated on any screen with display dimensions of 1024 x 768 or higher, but I do love my readers with the smaller monitors.)


Monday, December 21, 2009

How the Grinch Quit the Oscars

Isn't The Hurt Locker spectacular? Aren't you elated that it exists, and that it's been heralded so loudly by so many of the year-end critics' groups? I notice it's been quietly re-booked into one downtown Chicago multiplex, and I cannot wait to see it again.

And I'm so pleased to have something nice to say in this post. Please don't forget that I started on a sunny note. Because it wasn't easy to find.

With about ten days left to go in 2009, I only have five planned theatrical rendezvous remaining with the year's commercially released features. I don't much care about seeing Sherlock Holmes, though I hear it's fun, and Screen Media Films, whoever that is, seems insuperably challenged at getting The Private Lives of Pippa Lee into Chicago. Which does not, from friends' accounts overseas, sound like a tremendous loss, though I'm still curious.

That leaves Crazy Heart, The Last Station, The Lovely Bones, Nine, and The White Ribbon. Formal elements and performances in all five films promise to make them worth seeing, though the middle group feels intensely dubious. Reports by people I trust and the films' own advertising campaigns give me trouble imagining any of them except The White Ribbon hanging in there as projects that, six or twelve months from now, I'll be remembering clearly and fondly. Go figure that Ribbon is also the title that faces the biggest uphill climb getting any attention from Oscar, much less the multiple nominations that most or all of the others seem able to expect.

But that wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for a bigger problem. By my estimation, the newly expanded Best Picture derby has these 20 movies jockeying for a spot: Avatar, The Blind Side, Bright Star, District 9, An Education, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Invictus, Julie & Julia, The Last Station, The Lovely Bones, The Messenger, Nine, Precious, A Serious Man, A Single Man, Star Trek, Up, and Up in the Air.

I gave only five of those movies a grade higher than a C+, even though more than half the 2009 releases that I saw scored above that particular bar; and come on, I'm not even counting highbrow festival screenings, and it's hardly as though I stay out of the malls and multiplexes, monastically holing myself up in some Sharunas Bartas retrospective at the edge of town. The Hurt Locker, which I find to be unquestionably the best of these films, is an object of almost universal adulation, so bully for me, for you, for Summit, and for Kathryn Bigelow. Bright Star, my B+, has missed all the precursors so far by such a wide margin that it barely belongs in this list of persistent contenders. That leaves three B's, for The Messenger, aesthetically modest but full of integrity, against which the odds are stacked in any contest "higher" than Best Supporting Actor; Precious, whose many prepossessing virtues I found to be limned with reasons for social and aesthetic concern; and Up, which I barely think about, and consider firmly in the middle-to-low range of Pixar's accomplishments.

Screening out, temporarily, the three movies I haven't seen, this means that 60% of the pack was roundly underwhelming—and this, coming directly off a year where I liked one Best Picture nominee, my second-favorite was rather generously scored at a B–, one was thuddingly mediocre, and two were dementedly horrendous.

Apart from The Hurt Locker's precursor success and the high likelihood of seeing a woman (and Kathryn Bigelow specifically) winning Best Director, there are only two things that don't depress me about this year's award season. One is the expansion of the Best Picture field, which should have raised the likelihood of at least a few more decent movies getting the visibility and advertising boost of a top-shelf Oscar nod, but has at least made the sport of predicting more interesting up to this point (more on that later). The other is Mo'Nique's refusal to play the campaigning game, at least not in a straightforward way, which if/when she wins for Precious has the potential to set an inspiring precedent for letting quality of work, rather than vehemence of desire and scale of self-advertising, determine the eventual Oscar winner. This would entail a huge victory for actors, who ought to be able to prioritize their creative work over their own grossly expensive and almost inevitably canned gabbing about it, and also a victory for us, since the ubiquitous obsessions with horse-racing and self-perpetuating publicity are threatening to overwhelm what almost anyone has to say about the actual movies. And yet people have been giving her shit about it for months! For God's sake, why?

The way I see it, given all of the above, and since, in addition, from my perspective...

Avatar is embarrassingly self-fetishizing of a world it forgets to fully explore or even make us curious about, is full of the same old alien-planet crap (jump off the waterfall just in time! big weepy death scene for the last person who deserves one! hide in the tree-roots just inches away from the beastie's teeth!), and, despite being by the director of Aliens, is remarkably blithe about concluding that the best way to cast the film's lot with the Na'Vi is to foist an increasing number of Paul Haggis lines into the mouths of Stephen Lang and Giovanni Ribisi and to authorize all sorts of grisly close-up deaths for all the troops, because we're not supposed to care when they get pulverized and garroted, because we don't like the policies of the people they work for, even though the "heroes" also work for these people;

The Blind Side has some charming work from Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw, and it's at least less self-serious than its more somber cousin The Green Mile, but is in most ways unspeakable;

District 9 is excitingly eccentric and superbly acted by its lead, but makes a notably careless botch of a faux-documentary conceit that it doesn't even need, and has a vicious anti-black African streak a mile wide, despite styling itself as a critique of Apartheid;

An Education, indifferently shot and gruesomely scored, has no inclination or ability whatsoever to imagine that its lead character should be complicated for us by her active role in her own fate, and prefers to make her an unfathomably winsome gamine, allowing her to lecture just about everyone around her at some point in the film, including that hambone Alfred Molina;

Fantastic Mr. Fox devises an engaging, ruddy, excitingly textured style of animation but only to convey the same kind of promising but quickly stalled narrative, featuring (as ever) too many characters, that Wes Anderson is always trying to pull over with increasingly dim results, and in this outing, he is not at all helped by the ever-urbane, paradigmatically ironical George Clooney, who apparently isn't clocking how hard the adapted script has asked us to accept that at heart Mr. Fox is a wild animal;

Inglourious Basterds had me reeling out of the theater so furious about its patent unevenness as a formal and narrative construction, its naked bloodlust, and its arrogation of "Jewish vengeance" as some kind of ennobling closet for its own point-blank overkills that I never finished the long screed I was drafting against the movie... even though I have to concede that there's an excitement and a deep debatability to Tarantino's project and his imagination that I can't detect in almost any of these other films, and which is in some ways to be commended;

Invictus is so literal-minded that it takes Mandela's plan at absolute face value, that this rugby game really is uniting a nation, and then lazily backseats the more interesting facets in Freeman's characterization as well as everything else that he might be witnessing at this unprecedented juncture in history—in fact backseats everything so that we can watch the damn rugby in what feels like real time, give or take the usual passel of amateur-hour supporting performances in an Eastwood film, plus some off-puttingly jerry-rigged suspense involving an airplane pilot;

Julie & Julia is a fun night at the theater but hardly what you'd want to submit to even your most lenient filmmaking teacher for grading, and it pushes even the wonderful Meryl into some embarrassing semaphores, especially about all the children she wishes she could have but can't (oh, hold me!);

A Serious Man zeroes in with relish on the odiousness of almost everyone in the protagonist's life, lights him as pitilessly as possible (which still can't compete with how the movie treats its women or its nonwhite characters), and tries to shape this bitty, sour, disjointed narrative into a coherent film by invoking shaky allusions to Job as well as three chapter-marked visits to three rabbis, each of them written at a level profoundly below what we should expect from the Coens, although they're at least frustrating and clichéd in three separate ways;

A Single Man has the brilliant idea of so transparently flagging its infatuation with Wong Kar-wai, Pedro Almodóvar, Mad Men, etc., that we can't help but clock Tom Ford's gigantic failures to come anywhere near the formal strength and psychological penetration of the texts he emulates, and it not only rehashes a dated gay fable that would have smelled musty even 20 years ago in The Celluloid Closet, it pivots on a lame, doe-eyed, half-baked, risibly written teacher-student flirtation that absolutely everyone would deservedly be pouncing on, for political as well as dramatic and aesthetic reasons, if the participants were a man and a girl;

Star Trek, even making exceptions for Zachary Quinto and Bruce Greenwood, has a wan and inconsistent cast, a terrible opening followed by a boy's-rebellion sequence that's even worse, a whole lot of gobbledygook in the script to "explain" a narrative that still doesn't make a whole lot of sense (and wouldn't need to, if people would just shut up about it), a bunch of gum about Simon Pegg getting stuck inside a pipe or something, and a 10- or 15-minute commitment toward revising Uhura into a "stronger" character for 2009 audiences, only to make sure she gets nothing to do through the rest of the movie except dress like a stewardess from View from the Top; and

Up in the Air, beyond its unnecessarily cruddy cinematography and its garish overdirection of the bafflingly lauded Anna Kendrick, makes a smug show from the (extremely compacted) opening montage to the (sadly sketchy) closing song of being "relevant" to and "in touch" with the current recession, before bolting to get away from anything plausibly topical, or anything unseemly about the Clooney character and his rationalizations about firing people "with dignity," or anything specific to his ethics and self-consciousness as a white-collar hangman, so as to re-code him as a witty, typecasted bachelor who has to be convinced like 1,000 other movie protagonists that the only acceptable way to live is as a member of a romantic heterosexual couple... so that he can be saved from his insultingly emphatic White Soulless Apartment and, hopefully, cued to live a little bit more like the optimistic, sad-eyed, but irreproachably "real" people that you can only find in places like Wisconsin (and when it doesn't work out—oh, hold me!);

... then consequently I am officially signing off for the rest of this awards season from writing any Golden Globe predictions or recaps, any SAG-related features, or any Oscar nomination predictions or follow-ups, and also from contributing to any blogathon entries or any more podcast conversations or other enterprises about what's going on with all of these dispiriting movies and their jostlings for unearned position. I got in on Nathaniel's second podcast of the season last week, before Avatar brought me crashing down (and I get a big on-air rant about Up in the Air), and I definitely encourage you to listen to it. Nathaniel, Katey, and Joe are, as always, a joy to talk to when I detach myself from my feelings about the films in play, and if you like these movies so much more than I do that you're eager to keep tracing their fortunes, there's no better company in which to keep reading the tea leaves.

But from now on, I am boycotting. I will still watch the Oscars, no doubt with some eagerness, and if Bigelow or Sidibe or their films do pull out the win, I'll want to celebrate that. I'll still do the Best Actress write-up, since my ongoing and historical interest in that category remains exciting to me. But that's it.

Maybe the incredible bitterness that hit me after Up in the Air and Avatar will eventually relieve itself, and this will only be a one-year hiatus from publicly caring about Oscar. Maybe I'm just firing myself from this particular position, so that I can go build an empire or whatever bullshit Ryan Bingham would tell me—with dignity!—that I am now free to do, having renounced any coverage of this year's Academy Awards.

For now, I am throwing (almost) everything Oscar-related out of the backpack that is my life. I have other things to do, even on this blog. For instance, all through this month, I have loved shining a light on so many other movies and personal memories of the cinema, and I want to keep doing that. From my own perspective, there's no way I would relinquish any of that joy so as to deduce more energetically how AMPAS will or will not make a further cock-up out of the limited, dispiriting mound of studio-, publicist-, and advertiser-selected options that they now have in front of them. It's not quite Christmas, but consider that my New Year's Resolution.

So anyway. Back to the movies.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Backwards and Forwards: 2008

Films I Might Have Underestimated: There is such a thing as an overstuffed package, but is there really a problem with too much of a good thing? I doubt I can be persuaded that A Christmas Tale is a perfect film, with Amalric starting to spin familiar variations on his Desplechin persona and the curlicues and digressions not in every case augmenting the overall evocation of a family in warm disarray. But is it just because Christmas is once again drawing near, or because the new Criterion disc looks so spiffy, or because I still can't figure out why the theater was so empty when I saw it that I find myself feeling defensive on behalf of this movie? Only one way to find out, really. I still feel that Waltz with Bashir would have benefited from a more diaphanous, less hard-looking style of animation, since Folman's chosen aesthetic occasionally looked a bit thick and clumsy and didn't always jell with his overall thesis about the lapidary, palimpsestic qualities of memory. But I might need to take a second spin at engaging with the movie he made, instead of the alternate one I was unspooling in my mind, and not worry so much that I dislike the cut to "reality" at the end. Among 2008 releases that didn't show up theatrically in the U.S. till this year, I still don't think Sugar is as much of an eye-opener as Boden and Fleck's Half Nelson, but it's a sturdy, poetic, and similarly non-judgmental piece of work. I have been pleased to see it cropping up on prominent year-end lists like that published by the American Film Institute, after its theatrical run proved so quiet, and I'm primed for a second taste, knowing that the middle third won't necessarily stack up against the first and last. With five A–'s and fourteen B+'s awarded this year, I needed to include one of my B's for a Top 20 of 2009 list that someone recently requested, and it didn't take me any time at all to opt for Sugar.

Films I Might Have Overestimated: Something about the Dardennes' Lorna's Silence felt to me as though the revered brothers were at last feeling their way separately through each narrative and psychological beat of the story, rather than holding throughout to an aesthetic structure that speaks more holistically to the spiritual or sociological truths they have already mapped onto the entire tale, which is how I felt about L'Enfant and, even more so, about The Son. I felt much closer in this case to a worldview and a moment-to-moment experience that approximated Lorna's, even though the movie doesn't literally inhabit the perspective of its main figure any more than the others do. That's why I gave Lorna my highest grade for any Dardennes movie, but then I keep reading lots of other folks who found this to be a kind of plateau film for them, perpetuating without advancing their style, if not an actual step down. Different strokes, perhaps, or maybe I really am missing some boat. I'm certainly intrigued to go look, though it still says something that Lorna is the film that has finally motivated me to look back at all their features in sequence. Otherwise, for reasons I discussed in the comments thread for the 2006 entry, I'm a believer in the coolly received 007 outing Quantum of Solace, though I recognize some problems getting it off the ground, and the shortcomings in romantic exploits and narrative coherence.

One Way or Another, I Need Another Look at: I saw Quantum of Solace as part of my giddy trip to London, and a combination of festival delirium and tourist's excitability could have fed into my sanguine reaction. The same factors have nagged away at my tepid response to James Gray's Two Lovers, a film that has finally succeeded in rallying parts of the American blogosphere to Gray's cause. I have the problem here that others have with Lorna: I feel like it's a diluted and limited version of what Gray has done to sharper effect elsewhere. Still, I'm so glad to see his fortunes tick up after all the weird ignoring or even condescension about We Own the Night and The Yards that I'll take another whirl at it, even on the off chance that I like it better. As for Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy, I have to admit that it typifies a style and a stratum of independent moviemaking that I want to endorse, more than a specific movie that I feel able to get too worked up about. I don't know how to say this without sounding like I'm critiquing Michelle Williams's looks, which really isn't the kind of thing I go in for, but as an expressive tool, I just find her face really hard to form a connection to onscreen. In close-up, she has a kind of fistlike quality to me: it doesn't give much, and it seems almost designed to keep an impenetrable grip on whatever it's holding back. I wanted either a genuine non-actor in the part or a slightly nimbler character actress, though I've never had any epiphany in deciding who this would be. The structuring "hum" really got to me, and a few of the key storybeats felt disappointingly predictable, even on the verge of stock. Still, I'm keen to rally behind legitimately non-Hollywood voices, and as a snapshot of a region and a resourceful but roundly outflanked way to live your life, Wendy and Lucy sure makes an impression.

Women in the Director's Chair: What everyone said at Cannes in 2009 has generally characterized my reaction to most of the last two years in filmmaking: I'm excited to be hearing from these artists again, but in almost all cases, these aren't the particular films I'll really want to remember them for. Claire Denis's 35 Shots of Rum certainly bears out her oft-cited inspiration by Japanese domestic dramas, radiating a kind of tact and simplicity and an unfussy, over-the-shoulder grasp on all her characters that would be the envy of many auteurs. But it has one of the blandest scores of any of her movies, so much so that it actually cheapened the movie for me, and she has certainly enabled her ambitions toward "succinct restraint" by devising characters who don't say much and whose conflicts and relationships feel a little boiled-down. As a peephole into city living in a culturally hybridized age, it can't get anywhere close to I Can't Sleep, but the final shot is both a lovely gesture in itself and a kind of retrospective emblem for Denis's whole attempt at metonymic, oblique access into elliptical states of feeling. I'm eager to re-experience the whole film with that final impression as a kind of stylistic touchstone.

Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman finally found its way to American screens near the end of this year, and though one of my favorite things about Martel is how much she challenges herself and her audience by obfuscating character relations and identities, The Headless Woman risks pushing that unorthodox tendency into unproductive mannerism. How many shots from behind her protagonist's head or just over her shoulder is Martel going to give us? Part of why this works in La Ciénaga and The Holy Girl is that while she never effaces the strongly marked perspectives in her shots, she also isn't flaunting or fetishizing her refusal to get closer or go simpler, and I think that's what Headless Woman too often does. That the main character is probably the least nuanced and the most prone to a purely metaphorical or ideological reading in Martel's three-film canon doesn't help. Thank goodness, then, that however mannered or not, her marshaling of image, sound, narrative, montage, and mystery are all so rigorous and distinctive that you're bound to have a suggestive experience, and a wondrous relief from the rote storytelling of so many other movies—even if this one doesn't prove commensurate with the expectations the auteur has so rapidly established for her work. Or maybe I just need a second impression. Certainly lots of critics passed from indifference to enthusiasm after the film had settled for a while.

Awaiting Distribution: Here are two festival titles that will be at least two years old by the time a broader audience ever sees them, but the wait will be more than worth it. First Run Features will distribute the documentary Prodigal Sons in select cities this spring, and better news is hard to imagine. So many autobiographical, in medias res documentaries have the Tarnation or Capturing the Friedmans problem of seeming to get off on one's own exhibitionism, or relishing the clammy, tragic, unpreventable failings of one's own loved ones. Prodigal Sons has got a true-life narrative to beat the band, and it wends into some dark areas. Still, that's far from the whole story, and anyway, what's exciting isn't just the courage and candor that director Kimberly Reed brings to this documentation of her own life, her older brother's, and their surrounding family's, but the unexpected resonances she explores among the various subjects on which these journeys all turn: adoption, heredity, gender identity, family loyalty, regional stereotyping, mental health, global celebrity, and the duel between love and danger. It's the funniest, warmest possible movie to build around a saga with so many volatile depths, and it's much more polished and rigorously self-editing than these kinds of self-examining pieces usually are, particularly from first-time feature directors. I truly don't want to divulge the narrative levels and turns for those who haven't seen it, but when Nathaniel and I bought tickets last spring, I thought I was seeing an LGBT feature, and he thought he was seeing a movie about classic Hollywood, and we briefly wondered whether we'd bought tickets to different films with the same title. But no, we were both right. And the film is even more right.

Meanwhile, the top prizewinner at that festival was the Deagol Brothers' Make-Out with Violence, which had some narrative kinks and other limits to work out, but which nonetheless clears at least three enormous hurdles, with notable grace: it saturates the soundtrack with song cues, but feels neither self-indulgent nor falsely propelled by the well-chosen cuts; it looks about 100 times better than what you'd expect from a pair of brothers, in this case Tennesseeans, who are working strictly in the company of friends and near their hometown environs; and it fuses the genres of zombie horror and roseate, shadowy, Virgin Suicides-ish reminiscence with sensational confidence. The images are frequently indelible, and though I suspect the "midnight movie" angle will be the best hope for packing in an audience, Make-Out with Violence shouldn't be bracketed into any niche. It runs a clean circle around almost anything I've seen out of Sundance in recent years, and of the 13 or 14 movies jockeying for position in this year's expanded Best Picture field, I think Make-Out with Violence is more thoughtful, creative, unusual, and well put-together than all but one or two of them. (Prodigal Sons, if you set aside The Hurt Locker, is a light-year ahead of all of them.)

Performances I'm Most Eager to Revisit: Blindness is the sort of laundered, sometimes shapelessly internationalized adaptation of prestige lit that you wonder about seeing it once, much less twice, but I have to say this for Julianne Moore: in a part that carries a huge lure for metaphorical or melodramatic grandstanding, and for an actress who's been frivoled away by a lot of her recent films, Moore stays fantastically true to the direct, warm, everyday qualities of the character. It's the single performance of hers stretching all the way back to Far from Heaven that I'm most interested to reassess. It takes so long to get the hang of Che's understated approach to its character and its inchoate ideas about how to make the project cinematically viable that a lot of Benicio Del Toro's performance had passed before I could really lock into to a scrutiny of his scrupulous downplaying. There are some memorable moments of physical acting toward the end, but it's otherwise such a slow burn, but hugely admired by some actors I know, that I'm tempted to cordon off four hours of my life at some point to give it another shake. Sally Hawkins was the critical darling of last year for her daring exploration in Happy-Go-Lucky of the borderzone between grating and endearing. I think the film needed more re-writes, and almost every other performance I'm tempted to revise or even recast, but I want to contemplate the secret to Hawkins's success, even though she landed just outside my own list of five favorites in her category. Even closer to that group, but not quite there, was Emma Thompson's heartbreaking distillation of middle-aged fatigue, cautious optimism, disappointment, and hard-won pluck in Last Chance Harvey, a movie that looked so much like an awards-season throwaway that lots of people stayed away. But Harvey is like watching Thompson stretch her small, moving, film-rescuing turn in Love, Actually to feature length, and Dustin Hoffman and Liane Balaban are very nearly as good. I can imagine lots of people who would want to see Last Chance Harvey moved to the "Films I Might Have Overestimated" category, but I won't do it: it's sensitive, it's measured, and in Thompson's case especially (but not only), it's sublimely performed. In fact, I might pop it in the DVD player right now.

Top Ten Films Still to Catch from 2008:
1. Momma's Man (USA), dir. Azazel Jacobs, with Matt Boren and Ken Jacobs
2. The Beaches of Agnès (France), dir. Agnès Varda, featuring herself
3. Tokyo Sonata (Japan), dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, with Teruyuki Kagawa
4. Still Walking (Japan), dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda, with Hiroshi Abe
5. Modern Life (France), dir. Raymond Depardon, documentary
6. 24 City (China), dir. Jia Zhangke, with Jianbin Chen and Joan Chen
7. The Song of Sparrows (Iran), dir. Majid Majidi
8. Afterschool (USA), dir. Antonio Campos, with Michael Stuhlbarg
9. Frontier of Dawn (France), dir. Philippe Garrel, with Louis Garrel
10. Teza (Ethiopia), dir. Haile Gerima, with Aaron Arefe

Runners-up: Korean barnstormer The Good, the Bad, and the Weird; The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), a documentary co-directed by ace Eternal Sunshine cinematographer Ellen Kuras; the increasingly topical documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired; the Brazilian prize winner Linha de passe; Baghead, from Mumblecore's celebrated Duplass brothers; L'Autre, which won Dominique Blanc the Best Actress award at Venice; Aussie hit The Black Balloon; the Argentinean women's prison drama Lion's Den (Leonera); the body-paint and prosthetic explosions of Hellboy II: The Golden Army; and Charlize Theron, showing her indie spirit in Sleepwalking. But I clearly need more help here. Pipe up, folks!


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Backwards and Forwards: 2007

Films I Might Have Underestimated: I haven't been an unqualified fan of any of the Pixar films except the Toy Storys, though The Incredibles comes very close. Ratatouille, though, is a rare case of a Pixar film where I didn't feel anything, almost all of the way through. The illustrating and production design seemed really fussy and detailed but not in especially evocative ways, the characters who weren't Remy the Rat just slid off the screen, and the dynamics of the story seemed oddly simple by Pixar standards, and certainly when compared to the industriousness of the artistry. Babe nailed the fairy-tale wonder of the pig who wants to be a sheepdog, but except for the delicious climactic spectacle of a kitchen full of rats, Ratatouille just seemed to lope along with its "Anyone can cook! Be whoever you want to be!" trajectory. Was I feeling hard-hearted that night? It wasn't as overtly modest as Cars, and I'm inclined to give credit to Brad Bird, but I remember astonishingly little of this movie, and felt out of the loop of the serious critical enthusiasm. I hustled myself through Boarding Gate to be able to make a Top 10 list at the end of the year, which isn't the way to absorb what's special about an Assayas film, and certainly wasn't the right frame of mind for such a sharp little splinter of upscale exploitation. I know lots of people who really love In the Valley of Elah, which catches me off-guard because I remember literally not knowing another person who had seen it in the theater. The two things I objected to most were the narrative disarray and what I thought of as the perfunctory photography of Roger Deakins, but I've heard several folks speak ardently on behalf of the latter, and I'm intrigued by Paul Haggis's overt valorization of this movie over his much more "successful" Crash. And I certainly signed on to all the raves for Tommy Lee Jones. His surprise Oscar nomination sure tasted sweet.

Films I Might Have Overestimated: Chicago 10, which debuted at festivals in 2007, was nearly the last movie I saw before the end of 2008. I was so taken aback by how much it impressed me and swept me up that it became a surprise qualifier, even to me, for my Top Ten list. I still appreciate the energy, prankishness, and danger of the piece, and the utterly rare reminder of what a genuine culture of American dissent can look and sound like. Yet I'm always a bit abashed about ranking it above so many other strong films. The reason, I'm sure, is that my surge of feeling for the film came only a month after the election of Barack Obama, and I live down the street from Grant Park; also, I had just spent eight years wondering if this sort of mass uprising was still possible in the U.S., and why it hadn't happened. Anytime I have such strong reason to suspect contextual reasons for valuing a film, I worry that I have let them overcloud the film "itself," whatever that means. I still strongly believe in Chicago 10, but in any case, it will be at least another year or two before I'm ready to go back and ascertain.

The Counterfeiters, by contrast, was one of the first movies I saw in a theater in 2008, and though it's often singled out as an exemplary case of weak recent claimants of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, I actually admired its visual stringency and its harrowed quiet. Was I wrong? Broken English was a fun rental, with Parker Posey making her first real bid since Personal Velocity as a semi-dramatic actress in a brokenhearted story. I savored lots of the comic touches, too, but I've talked to a lot of women who dislike the movie, and their points have been pretty persuasive. (Still, how some of the same friends dislike this and totally run with Sex and the City frankly eludes me.) Speaking of nerves about gendered representations, though, I have a quite palpable memory of sitting at Knocked Up being surprised at all the brio, personality, and surprise zingers by which it was triumphing over such a brazenly sexist and self-serving script. The brazenness and the sexism are much clearer in retrospect than the redemptive jokes and aspects of performance, which are pretty evanescent if you aren't sitting in front of them. I can't imagine holding onto the same "B" after another look, but I really don't want another look. Maybe the steepest dive I can see coming among my estimations of 2007 films would be for Brian De Palma's Redacted, whose experiments in multimedia storytelling struck me as noble and apropos, but I've had nothing to say to objectors who find the whole project hectoring and crass and the performances irretrievably amateurish.

One Way or Another, I Need Another Look at: It's rare that work in a familiar genre earns the hype of representing something totally new for that genre, but after one more look to make sure, I'll be ready to espouse that Sokurov's Alexandra is a totally new kind of war film. My well-known skepticism about Ang Lee took a surprise vacation for the bright, hot, and hard Lust, Caution, and since I still need to write up why Tang Wei gave the best female performance in American cinemas in 2007, against some stellar competition, I have all the more reason to revisit the picture, with my notepad out. Two critical darlings of the year, There Will Be Blood and Zodiac, struck me as winning the kinds of reviews that were only too willing to overlook what I saw as patent flaws—the wobbly handling of the Dano character and the rushed, tendentious final act of the Anderson, and, for Zodiac, the baggy middle, the myopic treatment of the wife, and the self-insulating logic that it's supposed to feel endless, erratic, and lost up its own wazoo. I haven't been back to either film to sort wheat from chaff, though I have restless feelings about both films that suggest I could like them much more, much less, or about the same. Ira Sachs's Married Life, by contrast, was a movie that few people had time for, and I agree that the cast didn't feel fully unified, and the script might have gained from one more rewrite. Certainly there's little if anything in it to compete with the empyrean pathos of Far from Heaven, but I remember finding it brave of Sachs to attempt a similar critique of 50s-filtered representations without the seductive safety net of plush melodrama. I like its coldness, and I love those opening credits. Lastly, I saw Silent Light over two years ago, and though I found Reygadas to be currying too much favor on aesthetic grounds without having enough to do or say with his scenario or characters, I have a hard time recovering how smitten I was with the cinematography, and in the case of Silent Light, that's a major thing to forget.

Undistributed: Why has nobody distributed Joanna Hogg's Unrelated for a U.S. release? Could all the recent hubbub about women directors, even if Manohla Dargis is right (and she is) about all the inequities being swept under the rug of a few breakout exceptions, possibly help this funny, sad, and surgically lucid drama? It centers around the single, middle-aged plus-one, rendered in a fantastic, quiet performance by Kathryn Worth, who gets included in a family friend's vacation. She tries both to distance herself from a friend whom she obviously finds distasteful and to endear herself to the younger set, whose libido and irreverence she just as clearly envies, and from whom even one glancing acknowledgment or one conspiratorial confidence is manifestly intoxicating. Then again, It's not just the indies abroad who need help in the U.S. market. Henry Barrial's True Love was by far my favorite discovery of the Indianapolis Film Festival in 2008, even though I couldn't talk my fellow jurors into giving it a prize. Anyone who can succeed with one of those dramedies based on overlapping urban lives, and can do so without skimping on the comedy or the rue or the human complexity, deserves a moment in the sun, if for no other reason than to show the bulbous, Hollywood versions how this sort of thing is done. But True Love generates plenty of other reasons for being granted wider exposure. Val Lauren's and Andrea Helene's performances would look right at home on an Independent Spirit ballot, and the whole movie is sexy and bittersweet. With or without that bland title, I hope the movie finds a home somewhere.

Best Case for Trying Again: While we're speaking, though, of pitfalls of distribution: how exactly do you defy decades of industrial context to become an accomplished female filmmaker in Japan, and then scoop the Grand Jury Prize in competition at Cannes with a rare foray out of documentary, and still your film doesn't make a blip on American shores? I concede that Naomi Kawase's The Mourning Forest isn't the most electrifying sit on first pass, and it seems to make a fetish of lengthy shots of wind in the grass, or low-angle shots of magisterial trees, or nursing-home residents calligraphing away in their quiet, final days. All stuff we've seen and possibly snored through before. But there's a tougher, more slippery movie hidden inside the beatific and patience-testing one that The Mourning Forest often resembles, and occasionally is. Finally tracking the film down on international DVD, I liked it enough to feel justified in my ire at its poor fortunes on the world market, despite that glittering prize. Teaching it in a Contemporary Women Filmmakers course made me even more confident of its subtle deftness and its spiritual and formal nuances. Again, hopefully all the chatter about the Bigelows and Scherfigs and Campions, or maybe a subsequent feature by Kawase that's a little easier on the audience than this one, will make a difference to the money people, allowing more people to take this trip. As though a chance to see the film that bested The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Persepolis, Zodiac, and No Country for Old Men for the second-highest award on the Croisette shouldn't already be enough of a hook, if they hadn't let that potential marketing angle get so cold.

Performances I'm Most Eager to Revisit: I think the most unimprovable critical zap that I overheard from someone I don't actually know sprang from the lips of Tim's friend Fiona, who said of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford that "the weather is overacting." Brad Pitt, for me, was both over- and underacting, but I've already attested to my high regard for Garret Dillahunt in that picture, and I'd be curious to take a second peep at Casey Affleck and Jeremy Renner, too. Laura Vasiliu and Vlad Ivanov clicked for me in some but not necessarily all ways while I was watching 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, in contrast to the exemplary lead turn by Anamaria Marinca. Certain critics groups, most famously the LAFCA, felt more sanguine, and I'm eager to try again. All through watching Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven, I thought to myself, "Who is that phenomenal, delicate actress playing the worried mother? She's so good!" Color me surprised when she turned out to be Fassbinder axiom Hanna Schygulla, and then again, a few weeks later, when the National Society of Film Critics echoed my feelings with their Best Supporting Actress prize. I'll be curious to see how the turn plays now that I'm expecting to pay attention to it, rather than having it fortuitously catch my eye. Sam Rockwell has been a tough taste for me to acquire over the last decade, but 2007 finally gave me two performances, in Joshua and in Snow Angels, where I felt some of the admiration that came more quickly to many others. Since I predict he'll be around for a while, it's worth boning up on my favorite peaks in his body of work. Lastly, two diametrically different Oscar nominees. Hal Holbrook easily deserved the prize for Into the Wild, for a turn so emotionally naked without ever wheedling the audience that I'm almost embarrassed to have it sitting on a shelf, ready to call up with the pop of a button and the flick of a remote. And Cate Blanchett, God bless her, had the phenomenal chutzpah to grimace at her own stentorian belting in Elizabeth: The Shriekquel, which, given my initial and perfectly understandable rejection of the movie, is ironically the only possible cue for me to look again. Did she know the whole time that she was going that Big? Was she having fun with it? Was she fighting a losing battle to give Shekhar what he demanded but find little windows to entertain herself? I'll probably regret a second visit, but even if it's irrecuperable as a film, it's hard to beat as a bitchtastic drag revue.

Top Ten Films Still to Catch from 2007:
1. Secret Sunshine (South Korea), dir. Lee Chang-dong, with Jeon Do-yeon
2. The Secret of the Grain (France), dir. Abdel Kechiche, a César champ
3. Import/Export (Austria), dir. Ulrich Seidl, a John Waters favorite
4. XXY (Argentina), dir. Lucía Puenzo, about an intersexed child
5. Chop Shop (USA), dir. Ramin Bahrani, with Alejandro Polanco
6. Heartbeat Detector (France), dir. Nicolas Klotz, with Mathieu Amalric
7. Nightwatching (UK/Netherlands), dir. Peter Greenaway
8. Frownland (USA), dir. Ronald Bronstein, with Dore Mann
9. Dark Matter (USA), dir. Shi-Zheng Chen, with Meryl Streep
10. Battle for Haditha (UK), dir. Nick Broomfield, with Matthew Knoll

Runners-up: Golden Bear winner Tuya's Marriage; Tilda testing meta-reality with Lynn Hershman-Leeson in Strange Culture and the limits of the anti-event in The Man from London; The Banishment, a Best Actor winner at Cannes, from The Return director Andrei Zvyagintsev; Nikita Mikhalkov's Oscar-nominated 12; I Served the King of England, from Czech New Waver Jirí Menzel; John Sayles gets musical with Honeydripper; two well-reviewed titles by French women directors, Actrices, by French actress Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Water Lilies by Céline Sciamma; more lilies, this time in the Taiwanese lesbian drama Spider Lilies; Abel Ferrara, directing Asia Argento and others through Go Go Tales; Aaron Katz's Dance Party USA follow-up Quiet City; Denzel Washington's Globe-nominated drama The Great Debaters; Jonathan Demme's presidential bio documentary Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains; and Takashi Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django, an easy champ over Vicky Cristina Barcelona in the category of titular non-sequiturs, if you ask me.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Backwards and Forwards: 2006

Films I Might Have Underestimated: At some point, I will owe Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth a second try. Cinematography Oscar aside, I thought the lighting was a bit hard and flat, and I didn't care for the way the girl had been directed. Which is to say, I never cared what happened to Ofelia. But the biggest sin for me was that the politics were so flatly uncomplicated (the fascists are brute, obvious savages! the Resistance could hardly be more heroic!), and especially when compared to all the confrontationally strange imagery and tones elsewhere in the movie, that central dichotomy and the relations between the underworld and the "real" world never felt as complex as I wanted them to. Even a clichéd version of the charismatic antagonist would have been preferable, for me, to Sergi López's overt odiousness. Still, I have read plenty of convincing or at least ardent claims to the contrary, and it's worth re-exploring, particularly if it helps me get past my reluctance to engage with other del Toro films. The Host, which I did absolutely like, nonetheless threw me with its emphatic, weirdly parodic emphasis on the idiocy of its characters, over and over and over. Things reached the point where I couldn't quite figure what the film was gaining by having them be such a bunch of klutzes and oafs, but that's transformed in my memory into something I perversely like about the film. My more sanguine response to Bong Joon-ho's Mother this past fall has also made me curious, though I'd love to just forget his dismal contribution to the Tokyo! anthology film. Nathaniel and Goatdog both went bananas for what I would call the hipster-slickster weep-for-the-young-writer drama Reprise, but given that I remember nearly nothing about the movie, I might have needed to pay more attention to it or stay more open to it.

Films I Might Have Almost Certainly Overestimated: So shoot me for bucking the media meme and finding Poseidon completely enjoyable, well-shot, and fantastically art-directed. You could absolutely do much, much worse for summer blockbusters, and every year, lots of people do. But when I think back on it now, I usually think of: a) Emmy Rossum, wet; b) Richard Dreyfuss as a Tragic Gay™; and c) Fergie's positively horrendous attempt at Maureen McGovern disaster-epic balladry, featuring the timeless lyric, "You will be my journey, and I will be your road." Surely that's grounds enough for demoting the B that I handed down? Otherwise, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus is the kind of crazy-ass side project that I'd love to see more stars taking a risk on, and after Secretary, I probably would have followed Steven Shainberg anywhere. But Entertainment Weekly, a magazine I stopped really reading at the beginning of the decade and whose "film reviews" I often have a really hard time with, opined succinctly and pretty irrefutably that Fur somehow purports that Diane Arbus's artistry lay in finding the beauty and sensitivity in freakish people, when, if anything, the exact opposite was true. That's the kind of pithily damning summary from which it's hard for any film to recover.

One Way or Another, I Need Another Look at: When Christopher Nolan makes sinister, sprawling movies about chiseled, almost interchangeable white men menacing each other in the halls of power, everyone goes gaga, but when Robert De Niro did it, the American press couldn't be roused. Matt Damon is unquestionably too young for his part in The Good Shepherd, and the eleventh-hour release date clearly didn't help. But from the score to the script to the sets to the unnervingly shifting dramatis personae to the unusual narrative structure, I thought this was pretty dark, tangy stuff, and it looked great on the screen, especially if you accept a certain kind of dour, bureaucratic blankness as part of the idiom the film is exploring.

In fact, The Good Shepherd shares with almost every film from 2006 that I'm keen to revisit a proclivity toward re-examining some facet of political history and historiography. I'd never conceived of the movies this way before compiling this list, but programming them as a repertory series under that banner would be pretty fascinating: the purposefully stilted, defiantly weird jury-trial of West African colonialism in Bamako; the lurid, sub-Saharan dictatorship-as-horror-show sensationalism of The Last King of Scotland; the Stasi drama The Lives of Others, which I was nearly alone in finding much too sentimental and conventional, for all its impression of stone-cold severity; the tonally opposite Marie Antoinette, still a prohibitive favorite for the dubious honor of having drawn the most openly sexist batch of reviews for any mainstream release in the 00s; and the virtuoso realism of United 93, whose existence never bothered me, since the film was hardly "entertaining," and I don't understand the national injunction to honor our dead without ever, ever regarding them, or without risking any empathetic, vicarious approximation of their experience. Very possibly the best of the lot is the movingly terse and elegantly visualized Letters from Iwo Jima, which I know I had some reservations about, but damned if I can remember what they were. In fact, damned if I can remember much about the film except the sepia tones, the slow-burning performance of Ken Watanabe, and the creepy underworld of those tunnels and caves. How I wished they'd opened this at a less frenzied time than late December—at the expense, if at all possible, of dropping it into Flags of our Fathers's October release window and abandoning that cruder, lamer, uglier picture altogether. (Note that The Host and Pan's Labyrinth would also fit themselves snugly into this series.)

Best Case for Trying Again: I couldn't believe how hard Casino Royale screeched on the brakes once James Bond and Vesper Lynd starting bumping his Goldfinger against her Octopussy. Honeymoon, schmoneymoon. Everyone in the audience is ahead of you on this one, James. Everyone. The Jeffrey Wright character, that long and weirdly Michael Lucas-y torture sequence, and the Isaach de Bankolé subplot all seem like extra elements the film doesn't need, and/or like juicy bits that Royale would have done well to extend at the expense of something else. I got pretty cranky about all of this, and speaking of, it didn't help that Crank and The Departed had pretty much sated me on grandiloquent action spectaculars by that point in the season. But on second pass, pre-Quantum of Solace, I was thrilled to re-discover how sexy and brainy and vervy the James-Vesper repartee actually is in Casino Royale, and how much energy the movie does whip up when it isn't strangely halting for a bit of extended card-playing or testicle-bashing, or dilating itself beyond reason for an inevitable finale. It's stylish, kinetic, and rather witty for great, long stretches. I should have given it more benefit of the doubt.

Recently Surfaced: By contrast, I gave Open Water 2: Adrift plenty of benefit of the doubt, and hot damn if the movie doesn't repay in spades. If you didn't like the original, don't worry: this was never written to be a sequel and was only titled that way for the American DVD. The scenario: six photogenic friends, conforming to more or less recognizable types, go for a day of sailing on Eric Dane's yacht. As you'll note in the photo, they enjoy a collective dip in the Pacific, but if you're reading the image carefully, you'll spot the problem: no one left a ladder down for getting back onto the boat. I know, you're wondering: surely there is a way around this, and how exactly does one mine a whole film from this predicament? But seriously, I have rarely seen such a mundane, completely plausible mistake get played for such (mostly) convincing ramifications and exquisite tension, especially as the hours pass and the sky darkens. The camera gets placed all over, and it's always scarily suggestive: is anyone or anything ever going to arrive on the horizon? How high is that slippery fiberglass wall, anyway? Is there something underneath them in the water? Is some clue to their rescue hiding in plain sight? Is the gal in the background subtly starting to lose it? Adrift works astonishingly well, up in the Dead Calm league of great open-sea nailbiters. (I haven't seen Knife in the Water, but there is a knife in the water in this movie, and that's not for nothing.)

Altogether a more auspicious, wondrously expectation-defying rental than, um, Phat Girlz, which I checked out to make myself a more fluent speaker of Mo'Nique before my hot date with Precious. Hardly sophisticated, and it's completely patent that the money was scraped together, almost literally: what look like unprocessed takes and non-colortimed dailies are edited right into the picture. But Mo'Nique has got real vitality in several scenes, and though her Buttoned-Down Best Friend is just awful, her Sassy and Thin Best Friend is sometimes kind of fun. The politics of body-image and of pan-Africanism, despite being so explicit, get twisted up in frustrating and occasionally disheartening ways, and whether it's a plus or a minus, Mo'Nique seizes on her one big chance to Act with a dramatic intensity that way exceeds the call for an obligatory sad-breakup montage.

Even If It's Not "Better" Than I Thought: I still don't like what they make Anne Hathaway wear when she starts to "get it" in The Devil Wears Prada, and a lot of the writing is pretty forced and asinine. I don't feel bad about the B–, upgraded as it already was from an initial C+. But Hathaway herself is a linchpin of the film who has never gotten enough credit for that. Streep and Blunt and Tucci all have their succulent bits that I have quoted over and over in the ensuing years, and as perfunctory as the filmmaking often is, there are quick moments where some small formal nuance spring to life, like the scary handheld pan of the room as Tucci and Hathaway arrive late for a design meeting, and the slow, daunting image of Streep gliding forward like a snow leopard about to kill, only this leopard is holding a blue cerulean belt.

Performances I'm Most Eager to Revisit: Maggie Gyllenhaal hasn't quite nailed a part since Sherrybaby, and a lot of the parts she has accepted haven't left a lot of room for that, anyway. I'm surmising that a trip back to this Jersey drama will either rekindle my hopes for her career or underscore certain omens of half-interested performances to come, but no such qualifiers are likely to attach to Danny Trejo's unsung but tremendous supporting performance as her inscrutable friend-sponsor-onlooker. The ensemble in 12:08 East of Bucharest might have been the year's best, although only Ion Sapdaru earned a year-end honor from me at the time. I can't tell you a lot about Leonardo DiCaprio's work in Blood Diamond except that I remember sitting in the theater thinking how much better I thought it was than the risible trailer had implied. Sadly, now all I remember is the trailer, and he doesn't deserve that.

Now that more people are joining me on the Vera Farmiga train, Breaking and Entering is likely to see a lot more rentals, where her spry take on a blowzy Romanian prostitute is bound to win admirers. I hope folks also start clocking Juliette Binoche's interesting work as a taciturn Balkan refugee in the same film. Al Gore finally got America listening about precipitous climate change An Inconvenient Truth, despite giving a pretty canned lecture. How'd he do that? But thank God he did! Lastly, Little Children and Notes on a Scandal are the kinds of late-fall awards magnets whose shelf-life can almost never compete with their gluttonous desire for trophies and prestige in the immediate moment. On those grounds, I was pretty hard on both movies, especially Children, and I think with good reason. Still, the hard-working casts weren't nearly as blameworthy as the overbearing direction, irregular momentum, and dubious dialogue in both projects. Jackie Earle Haley, Phyllis Somerville, and Judi Dench especially merit some more notes, even if I'm still scandalized.

Top Ten Films Still to Catch from 2006:
1. Colossal Youth (Portugal), dir. Pedro Costa, with Vanda Duarte
2. The Water Diary (Australia/New Zealand), dir. Jane Campion
3. Broken Sky (Mexico), dir. Julián Hernández, with Miguel Ángel Hoppe
4. Golden Door (Italy), dir. Emanuele Crialese, with Charlotte Gainsbourg
5. Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis (USA), dir. Mary Jordan
6. Night of the Sunflowers (Spain), dir. Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo
7. God Grew Tired of Us (USA), dir. Christopher Dillon Quinn
8. Les petites vacances (France), dir. Olivier Peyon, with Bernadette Lafont
9. Taxidermia (Hungary), dir. György Pálfi, if I can stomach it
10. Dance Party, USA (USA), dir. Aaron Katz, with Cole Pensinger

Runners-up: The inevitably creepy documentary exposé Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple; Time, a Kim Ki-Duk film that scored the top prize at that year's Chicago Film Festival; Abbie Cornish and Heath Ledger bottoming out in Candy; the documentary Small Town Gay Bar, in competition at Sundance; Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche's Algerian feature Bled Number One; Comedy of Power, from the not entirely reliable Claude Chabrol; Paolo Sorrentino's divisive The Family Friend; and gay-themed Berlin prizewinner The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros. At some point, I'll need to see Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 feature Army of Shadows, which numerous critics cheated onto their lists after it finally got its first commercial release—which only makes more obvious that 2006 was not far behind 2003 for bleakness on the cinema front. Once more, my Top Ten was more than usually replete with holdover releases from the previous year.


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