Monday, January 04, 2010

Backwards and Forwards: 2009

If you weren't around for the beginning of the Backwards and Forwards series, read the top of this post to get wise. Once we're all caught up to speed...

Films I Might Have Underestimated: These calls are incredibly hard to make with the impressions still so fresh, and I can only assume that my second-guessing will be more interesting or at least more pronounced after another couple of years. For now, though, after an awards-season tide of mediocrities which don't remotely compel me toward a second viewing, I do have to tip my hat to films that failed to really hook me but at least emerge from a distinctive artistic sensibility, marching to its own beat. I liked Coraline when I saw it in the spring, but aside from its thorough-going exploitation of the 3-D technology, some over-crowded frames, repetitive scenes, and weak vocal work in key roles kept me from signing on to its very long list of committed fans. I might need another peep at it, just like I might try a second look at District 9 to see if the strangely insisted-upon but also weirdly scattershot documentary conceit mars my second impression of the movie as badly as it did my first. I have to say, I remain unconvinced that the narrative world evoked in District 9 would have opted for risky, expensive, and complex relocation instead of an outright genocide of those aliens, so the whole premise of the movie gets more and more preposterous to me in direct proportion to the otherwise admirable impulse to endow this story with some worldly perspective. I've already been through A Serious Man twice, in the face of all the hosannas, and though I still see an unusual drama too often overwhelmed by a scurrilous freak-show, when it isn't just rerouted and confused by showy narrative cutaways, there is something about the film and/or its enthusiastic reception that makes it hard to get complacent about all my misgivings. And then there's Inglourious Basterds, a movie whose barely tempered sadism, its uneven performances and compositional rigor, and its alternations between taut and slack montage got me going on my own indulgently long, inlgourious rant which I never quite finished. Now, faced with how indelible the best parts of this movie are by the end of 2009, when the best sequences of so many movies I roundly preferred have already started to fade, it became even harder to square my begrudging esteem from my visceral dislike of the movie and its politics. I rented the DVD and feel stuck in the same bind, more or less; I didn't hate it as powerfully, but I spotted even more moments where the framing, the acting, and the energy seemed deficient. But surely this is the kind of film that's hard to parse without some distance? Stay tuned.

Films I Might Have Overestimated: The top half of my eventual Top 10 list has been pretty much set for a while now, but all those B+'s have been harder to parse. I've already revisited Duplicity, which is still a movie I'd like everyone in Hollywood to see, and a high-water mark in plot construction and star performance. Comedies can be intricate and delicious! Imagine if Sherlock Holmes had been even half this willing to make the audience use their noggins to piece together the movie, not to mention what's happening in the movie! Still, though I remain enthusiastic, some redundant bits and visual unevenness flattened me just a shade from my fizzy first impression. My caveats about Sin Nombre initially focused on some action set-pieces, one midfilm when the antagonists almost catch up with the leads, and one at the end waged across a river, that really fell short of spatial and rhythmic coherence. Now, I'm worried that more cracks might start to show on this rapturous-looking object, though the cinematography, sound, and overall intensity are hard to question. The Limits of Control was such an intoxicating couture show of Euro-hipster chic, with the colors, shapes, lines, and locations looking just as chic, that I wonder whether it can retain anywhere near the same power on second visit, or on DVD. Then again, lots of great critics past and present would dispute that a movie needs to "work" more than once, outside its ideal environment of the darkened theater and dream-sized projection.

One Way or Another, I Need Another Look at: One movie I frequently think back to despite a soft grade at the time was Robert Siegel's Big Fan, which has that knack for cajoling my memory to slough everything flat-looking and amateurish about it and really heighten everything mealy, pathetic, but strangely heroic about Patton Oswalt's character and performance, and about Marcia Jean Kurtz's gutsy performance as his wailing mom. Most importantly, the movie has very little of what you could fairly call "polish," and yet it's hard to imagine how receptive a piece like Big Fan would be to most forms of "polish." It has that niggling, residual afterlife that I think Steven Soderbergh's small films like Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience often want to achieve but rarely do, and I have to give it credit for that. On the whole other end of budget and aesthetic ambition, Public Enemies still feels like a weirdly redundant exercise, fatally lacking in energy for huge swaths, and even more so in the performances of Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. Again, it may only be that Mann's haphazard success with his experiment in digitally photographed period gangsterism seems like a more personal and interesting half-success than the staid, limping dramatics of An Education or Up in the Air, and once faced with the movie a second time, I wouldn't necessarily see any more in it than I did the first time. But personal stamps were so hard to come by in 2009, I'm willing to take the chance.

Women in the Director's Chair: I can't wait for a second chance at Drew Barrymore's Whip It, the great, fast, witty, audience-gratifying pop confection of the fall. That it wasn't a box-office hit remains even more galling, given that teenagers and women, the predicted target demographics for Whip It, certainly turned out to the multiplex all year for other pictures. Hopefully it gets a Zoolander sort of second life on DVD, at which point I hope that Barrymore's School of Rock levels of directorial warmth and facility with her idiosyncratic comediennes start getting more of their due, too. She also gave a lovely gift to Austin, Texas, and she showed how you can keep a movie clipping along briskly without just cutting the bejesus out of it or relying exclusively on sound cues to push things along. For all of the welcome hype about female directors this year, Barrymore had a difficult time even angling into the articles that fawned over Bigelow, Campion, Arnold, Scherfig, Meyers, and Ephron, but if Whip It cannot reasonably claimed as a piece of work to rank alongside The Hurt Locker, it's at least twice the film that An Education or Julie & Julia is, and I expect it to keep holding up sturdily against tonier fare like Bright Star and Fish Tank.

Most Unfairly Dismissed: I realize that The Soloist looked like the sort of movie that only exists to reap Oscar nominations, and I avoided it in theaters on just those grounds. So I'm throwing a stone from a bit of a glass house, but upon renting The Soloist, I was pretty blown away by the forceful, detailed, uncocky acting of Jamie Foxx and even more so by Robert Downey, Jr. Not all of Joe Wright's showy formal flourishes pay off perfectly, but it's nice to see a mass-market narrative taking some risks with the way it expresses itself, and compared to something like The Blind Side (though I don't mean to diminish the compliment by setting such a low bar), the interrogation of the motives and evasions behind compassionate philanthropy is much richer and leads to more tensions and ambiguities in The Soloist. Best of all are the scenes set inside a colony for the disenfranchised, casting real street dwellers in the roles and avoiding most of the condescension or self-serving exhibitionism you'd fairly expect. There's real anger in those scenes, and a portico into a version of Los Angeles that movies busily occupy themselves with avoiding. Moving into the arthouse, I wasn't fully taken by the monochrome photography or the woozily Oedipal narrative of Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro, but I expected to have a lot more conversations and debates about the movie through the year, and it's a gutsier, more controlled, and better acted piece of work than Coppola's Youth Without Youth ever was. That one deserved the critical cold shoulder, but this one demands attention. So too does Tsai Ming-liang's Face, if only because it has real comic zest and some beguiling set-pieces, even if Tsai is nakedly repeating himself and building a piece that can only possibly speak to lovers of French cinema, kitschy couture, and the mannered grammars of the festival circuit.

Awaiting Distribution: I have written in earlier posts about my admiration for Chicago Film Festival highlights like Fish Tank, Mississippi Damned, Mother, Raging Sun, Raging Sky, and the documentary My Neighbor, My Killer, reviewed here. Maybe my favorite film that I spent almost no time discussing was the Iranian mystery-drama About Elly, loosely inspired by L'Avventura but with none of Antonioni's glassy, remote modernism. In fact, when About Elly hopefully reaches an American arthouse audience, preferably as bolstered by a Best Foreign Language Film nomination, people will certainly buzz about having never seen such an unpretentious, genre-inflected, accessible Iranian film get any kind of American distribution. In many ways, it's even more relaxingly watchable than the children's films like Children of Heaven or Where Is the Friend's Home?. These young, middle-class, Friends-age characters will also entail a major challenge to what most of us have seen thus far on screen, but just because the film isn't preoccupied with regimes of oppression or esoteric metaphysical quandaries doesn't mean that there's not more at work in this crafty, completely realistic thriller than is immediately obvious.

Performances I'm Most Eager to Revisit: Naturi Naughton was such a spitfire as Lil' Kim in Notorious that she almost hooked me into seeing Fame when it came out in September. I second-guessed that impulse, and wisely, from what I gather, but the prospect of looking back at her scenes in the B.I.G. movie is quite tempting. I have never seen even 10 seconds of Arrested Development, so Alia Shawkat was a new name to me, but during Amreeka, I admired the casting director for finding such a plainspoken and charismatic teenager for the role of the protagonist's gently rebellious niece, and then, in Whip It, I marveled at how Ellen Page's best friend more than held her own with all of the other proven scene-stealers in the cast, and no less when Bliss and Pash have a testy falling-out than when they're trading laughs, eye-rolls, secrets, and impetuous gestures. The deserved admiration for Abbie Cornish in Bright Star made Ben Whishaw's gentle swoons and underplayed neurosis a little harder to appreciate, but he is at least Cornish's equal in the film and deserving of comparable acclaim... and this, after failing to convince me of his much-rumored brilliance in several earlier roles. Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci certainly haven't been starved for accolades in Julie & Julia, and though I demur from the standard line that the Julia sequences are better than the Julie ones, the Child(less) marriage is certainly the element that has lingered most with me, and which I'll inevitably need to brush up on as part of the Best Actress write-ups. Lastly, three more leading men that got a bit short-shrifted this year: Russell Crowe, who renders one of the only persuasive journalists I've ever seen in a Hollywood film in State of Play, in a resolutely unshowy performance that still bespeaks the kind of intensity the film needs; Korean mainstay Song Kang-ho as the priest in Thirst, where Kim Ok-vin is almost impossible to look away from, but he surely merits more attention than I gave him; and Ben Foster, who I think gave the best of several strong performances in The Messenger but is somehow reaping the least benefit in terms of year-end awards and critical discourse.

Top Ten Films Still to Catch from 2009:
1. White Material (France), dir. Claire Denis, with Isabelle Huppert
2. Wild Grass (France), dir. Alain Resnais, with Sabine Azéma
3. Dogtooth (Greece), dir. Giorgos Lanthimos, with Christos Stergioglou
4. I Killed My Mother (Canada), dir. and starring Xavier Dolan
5. Samson and Delilah (Australia), dir. Warwick Thornton
6. Kinatay/The Execution of P. (Philippines), dir. Brillante Mendoza
7, To Die Like a Man (Portugal), dir. João Pedro Rodrigues
8. Valhalla Rising (Denmark), dir. Nicholas Winding Refn
9. No One Knows about the Persian Cats (Iran), dir. Bahman Ghobadi
10. Lourdes (Austria), dir. Jessica Hausner, with Sylvie Testud

Runners-up: Golden Bear champion The Milk of Sorrow, from Peruvian filmmaker Claudia Llosa; Romanian-British drama Katalin Varga; Todd Solondz's post-Happiness provocation Life During Wartime; Richard Kelly's 70s-set box office under-achiever The Box; Venice's top trophy winner, the military invasion drama Lebanon; Brenda Blethyn and and Sotigui Kouyaté's buzzed performances in London River, with reliable Sami Bouajila in support; Brillante Mendoza's Lola, since he apparently makes a new film every five minutes; the end-of-the-world testimonial documentary Collapse; Mumblecore again, but maybe more sunnily, in Beeswax; Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly's pet project Creation, if only for Bettany's performance; Sri Lankan drama Between Two Worlds; George Romero's sixth zombie outing Survival of the Dead; Women without Men by Shirin Neshat, a premier female filmmaker from Iran; and, of course, Tilda Swinton hitting it in Italian in I Am Love. Yes, Tilda, you are. But what did the rest of you see this year, hot off the presses, that you're sure I need to catch. Don't say The White Ribbon, because it hasn't even arrived yet for its first-run bow in Chicago.



Blogger Andrew Rech said...

Hello, first time commenter even though i've been reading your wonderful and insightful blog for quite awhile, but I really had to say something when you said you thought Coraline had some weak voice acting. Which ones were they to you? I think the entire voice cast is top notch, Teri Hatcher makes for truly inspired vocal use for the Other Mother and I remember when I saw the trailer that her voice alone gave me so many chills. I was skeptical about Dakota Fanning, but I think she perfectly fits the somewhat whiny but smart and well meaning girl that she is, and it reminded me a lot of Daveigh Chase's work in Spirited Away. Which voice roles do you think were not up to par?

Totally agree about Whip It! Definitely going to be in my top 10 of the year (and you really should see Arrested Development). Agree on An Education as well, I don't think it disappointed me as much as you but I walked in expecting a 4 star experience, but came out thinking more like 3, or even a 2 1/2. I know it's based a memoir but I just can't help feeling like *SPOILERISH* Jenny betrayed herself a bit in the end.

I have not seen The Soloist for the same reasons you didn't originally, but what you've said about it has made me interested now, I won't expect anything great but perhaps i'll be surprised.

12:26 AM, January 04, 2010  
Blogger Sam Brooks said...

I love your assessment of Whishaw's performance, I think it matches up to Cornish perfectly. I fully believed that he was somebody that Fanny could fall completely in love with, so charming without being overtly so. The scene where they knock on the wall remains in my memory since seeing it six months ago.

I also find Song Kang-Ho underrated in Thirst, although Kim Ok-vin got all the attention and rightfully so, he does keep the film together in it's stickier bits. And he does have an odd sort of charm.

12:42 AM, January 04, 2010  
Blogger Y Kant Goran Rite said...

Can I say "The White Ribbon" anyway? I'm not being snarky - I just really want to hear your take on it.

Otherwise, I'm not sure if you (or anyone) caught Tulpan, a completely transporting Kazakhstani docudrama that won the Camera d'or in '08. Also Burma VJ, 24 City and Home.

8:19 PM, January 04, 2010  
Blogger CCW said...

I'm crossing my fingers that Life During Wartime will provide some juicy opportunities for Ally Sheedy to shine. I was hoping that a nice career resurgence would of started after her sterling work in High Art, but so far nothing really stellar has come her way (at least of what I've seen).

9:32 PM, January 04, 2010  
Blogger Guy Lodge said...

Fellow "Tulpan" fan here.

I don't think it ever made it to U.S. screens (though I'm pretty sure it was on IFC's VOD service), so I'm guessing you never caught "Three Blind Mice"? Certainly one for the list -- Glenn Dunks will back me up on this one.

I'm almost as excited for you to see "White Material" as I am to read your eventual take on it.

9:32 PM, January 04, 2010  
Blogger Guy Lodge said...

CCW: Personally, I found Ally Sheedy a little out-of-sorts in the "Life During Wartime" ensemble, though the disappointment was countered by my surprise at how loose and engaging Allison Janney is in it. (I've never been a fan.)

Ciaran Hinds is best in show, though.

9:35 PM, January 04, 2010  
Blogger Colin Low said...

Then again, lots of great critics past and present would dispute that a movie needs to "work" more than once, outside its ideal environment of the darkened theater and dream-sized projection.

Do they? I'm all for those magical one-off moments, but what's a mass-market art if its experiences aren't replicable, especially if we refrain from the knee-jerk distinction between cinema and TV screens? Shouldn't a movie be even better if it holds up to our new modes of viewing, to our endless poring, freeze-framing and chapter-skipping? I'm not being sarcastic; this is how I've grown up into movies, so I'd like to believe that this approach has some validity. Of course, your wonderful Remembering the 00s series has pushed me more into chasing the theatre experience when I can, but unfortunately, it doesn't always have good results...

(Sorry if I sound a little grouchy, I came out of An Education two days ago and I've been debating its merits or lack thereof with a friend; our reactions were nearly polar opposites. I'm working on a review but I'll have it up only after my site moves to its new domain.)

2:13 AM, January 05, 2010  
Blogger Catherine said...

Katalin Varga doesn't have a whole lot to say, but the whole experience of the film is quite beguiling. The landscapes are quite lovely and Hilda Péter has a FANTASTIC face; I was super impressed when I found it it was her first film, and I'm eager to see what she does next.

The Box is rubbish, but one of Cameron Diaz's line readings gave me the biggest laugh in a cinema I had all throughout 2009.

Finally, I cannot get over the fact that Whip It still hasn't opened in this country yet. The most egregious non-release of the year.

11:57 AM, January 05, 2010  
Blogger Glenn Dunks said...

I definitely think "Three Blind Mice" would be right up your alley, Nick.

4:23 AM, January 06, 2010  
Blogger Andrew K. said...

Well. I really, really, really liked An Education, so I'm an odd one out. I agree with you on The Soloist, but I just saw Up in the Air and I really did NOT like it. I'm completely nonplussed right now as to the buzz. Maybe I won't rate as low as you, but I'm still mulling over my thoughts and even Farmiga [who is the highlight for me] doesn't really do that much for me. And I LOVE her.

PS. When are you seeing The Lovely Bones. I always like that you come from nowhere and give some surprising grades for films. And I really want to know what you think of it.

12:26 PM, January 07, 2010  
Blogger CCW said...

@Guy: Thanks for the insight into Life During Wartime. I've never been a Janney fan either, but I'm willing to change my opinion.

Nick, Rachel Ward's film Beautiful Kate looks interesting and has gotten some solid reviews. That's another one that I hope gets some commercial exposure here in the U.S.

10:02 PM, January 09, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The Soloist" caught a LOT of negative attention, and I'm still not sure why. OK, so the script and the cinematography could be sappy and melodramatic at times, but Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx were a dynamite combo. They kept the film grounded with the performances mainly because neither actor does sentimental very well. In a movie like "The Soloist," that's a huge plus.

10:55 AM, January 15, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Andrew: Thanks so much for commenting, and sorry for taking so long to respond now that you've taken the time. I actually did find Teri Hatcher to be pretty colorless as the villain, and given that the graphic and thematic contours of the Other Mother kind of boil down to a less interesting retread of the Bad Mama figure from so, so, so many stories, I think a defter actor would have helped a lot. But I agree that Fanning was just what Coraline needed, and I probably owe the whole film another look.

@Brook: Glad to hear that Whishaw has his ardent supporters, though who knew that even Cornish would feel so forgotten by this point in the calendar. Hurt Locker and Waltz aside, can't this awards season get anything right?

@Goran: Your wish is my command! White Ribbon review going up momentarily, now that it's finally opened in Chicago. Can't wait to see those others, but I missed my shots at 24 City and Burma VJ during their very brief runs at the Siskel.

@CCW and @Guy: Your recs of those films only make me more curious to see them, and I'm curious about lots of the same performers you mention.

@Colin: This one-viewing-only mantra famously belongs to Pauline Kael, not just as a personal praxis but in response to what she sees as the unique artistic ethos of movies to be artful, crafty, and effective within a contained moment, outside of any obligation to hold up over time. Lots of people strongly disagree, including me, most of the time, but I do think I sometimes come down a bit too hard on the immediate effectiveness of a film's spectacle or storytelling by over-thinking how durable it's likely to be.

@Catherine: I haven't heard a peep about Katalin Varga even surfacing over here, but I'm still hopeful.

@Glenn: Ditto about Three Blind Mice...

@CCW: ...or Beautiful Kate.

@A:EE: Now that The Lovely Bones has finally gone wide, it's landed in Chicago, and I'll probably go see it. Thought I have to fess up that I'm really having a hard time resisting the accumulating impression that it's a dog. It sounded that way on paper and looked that way in the trailer, but I'm trying to keep an open mind.

@M Carter: Nice to see another new name in the comments, and thanks for the backup on Soloist and Harvey.

11:42 PM, January 17, 2010  
Blogger Mr. K said...

Hi there Nick, also writing first time:
What do you think of Ann Hui's movies? I've recently saw The Way We Are and Night and Fog (also, I consider Women in her 40s to be very good), and I think they are superb (it pays off better if you are from Hong Kong obviously).

2:16 AM, January 18, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Mr. K: That's a totally new name for me, so I thank you for the recommendation, as well as for taking the time to comment for the first time. Much appreciated, and I'll definitely seek out those titles sooner or later.

2:29 AM, January 18, 2010  
Blogger Mr. K said...

Thanks Nick for the quick reply!
Here's a link to a brief interview
I'm from Hong Kong (now in Vancouver), so maybe I'm just a bit biased..hehe
but I do like the humanity in her movies, haven't seen her older movies though.
If you have a local library, they might have her movies...
otherwise, I think go to
also, to put the Golden Globe and Oscar to shame, she's actually won the Hong Kong Academy award twice in directing....TWICE!!!!

3:33 AM, January 18, 2010  
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