Monday, November 12, 2012

Recent Movies: Argo and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

A daring idea for a comedy produces a rather quiet film, and one not nearly as funny as you might expect.  Indeed, it’s one of the saddest American comedies to be seen in years.  The jokes are mostly knowing, wistful ones about human behavior in the face of coming doom--some people go crazy, some throw out all boundaries, some commit suicide, and some go looking for love.  It’s all a but mopey and mushy, and lacking in memorable scenes, but Steve Carell and Keira Knightley anchor the film with heartfelt roles and surprisingly believable chemistry.  Somehow the thing does end up developing momentum and building emotion.  And in the end, it seems to me, this little movie reveals a far more compelling, truthful, and finally, beautiful, view of the human response to The End than Von Trier’s Melancholia and all it’s half-baked philosophizing.

Rating: 7/10 stars.


When a film presents itself as a docudrama about events of international importance occurring within living memory, it helps if the film is accurate in what it portrays.  Argo is not the worst offender in this regard, but when one reads afterward about the various fudged details and learns most of the tension-building elements of the second half of the film were added or falsified, it can leave a viewer dissatisfied.  When the film offers little in terms of depth or theme otherwise (none of the characters are more than two-dimensional, and while there’s a mishmash of comments about Iranian history and the American response that one suspects are just there so the filmmakers can defend themselves from charges of jingoism, there are no larger comments on America and/or the Middle East), the viewer might come to feel the whole thing was a bit empty and forgettable, at worst misleading and reprehensible.  

I won’t go quite that far, because the truth is Argo is pretty gripping stuff, and it effectively dramatizes the mood of the nation and the administration during one of the major crises of recent decades.  It is always a fascinating thing, for this viewer anyway, to see the inner workings of important institutions and the machinations behind major events, and I found the little details to be the most interesting (everything from the mechanical devices used by air traffic controllers before computers to the fact that the revolutionaries employed women and children to piece shredded diplomatic documents back together for propaganda purposes).  There’s also some good stuff in here about Hollywood, both its hypocrisies and its perennial appeal, and plenty of snappy dialogue to give the illusion of more depth.  The clever skewering of the movie business early on, though, just makes it more disappointing that Affleck had to “Hollywood-up” the climax with fictional ticking-clock delays.  In the end, we’re left with a pretty good movie that probably makes most viewers want to read the book or watch a documentary on the subject to learn more about the real story.

[As a P.S., I found Jimmy Carter’s voiceover at the end terribly self-serving with its boast of getting all the hostages back “peacefully”--despite the fact his violent option crashed in the desert and cost 8 American servicemen their lives, not to mention the fact the Iranians released the hostages on the day he left office as a final humiliation, not a victory.]

Rating: 6/10 stars.

(actually posted Jan 2015)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

My (Imaginary) Sight & Sound Ballot

The big story in the cinephile world is obviously Sight & Sound magazine's once-a-decade poll on the greatest films of all time.  Since everybody's critiquing it and making their own suggestions, I figured I'd share my own list, if I was ever so lucky as to be asked for it.

I am an inveterate list-maker, so what follows does reflect some serious thought and many changes and revisions.  (I actually have a big list of greatest movies that I'm constantly updating--which is probably a weird thing to have, but if blogging has taught me anything, it's that I'm not alone in this practice.)  However, I freely admit that the extent of my knowledge and experience in the world of cinema is limited, probably (hopefully!) more limited than anyone who actually participated in the poll, so I make no claim that my list is better than the poll's results, nor anyone else's personal list.  There is, of course, no such thing as the "Greatest Movie Ever Made," so all lists such as this are merely games which help us discover/decide what aesthetic ideals we value.  

My list has no overarching ideals to it except my own response to the movies themselves.  I wouldn't describe the list as my "favorite" movies, because that word suggests to me those movies which I most enjoy watching again and again, but I have not tried to list those movies which are most "historically important" either.  These films are those which have impressed me most strongly with their aesthetic brilliance and emotional power; they have left me in awe and altered the way I see the world.  I present them here with no further detail or explanation; each film deserves volumes devoted to it, and I would need to write at least a post for every one or nothing at all, so I have opted for nothing at all.

So, as of September 2012, this is my list of the 10 Greatest Films of All Time:

1. Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)
2. Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, 1927)
3. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
4. M (Fritz Lang, 1931)
5. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939)
6. It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)
7. On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954)
8. The Godfather: Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
9. The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
10. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)

OK, just two lines of explanation:  If I had to justify with one film the ability of cinema to present beauty and humanity in the face of the vast wasteland of vulgar, obscene, and commercial junk that we are so often swamped with, I would choose Sunrise.  If I had to justify film as an art form which can express the beauties and terrors of human existence on a level comparable to the other great arts--a film to mention in the same breath with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Hamlet, or the Sistine Chapel--I would choose Andrei Rublev.

And just because ten is too small a number, here are ten more films, in alphabetical order, which could on another day have made it into my Top 10:

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
The General (Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton, 1926)
High Noon (Fred Zinneman, 1952)
Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)
The Red Shoes (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1948)
The Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, 1952)
The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

(actually posted April 2015)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The 21st Century Action Hero

Every era has its own particular brand of hero.  The action movie has gone through several periods and had several different types of heroes.  In the ‘40s and ‘50s it was the American soldier, generally in World War II, in the ‘50s and ‘60s it was the cowboy, in the ‘70s the inner-city cop, in the ‘80s the muscle-bound super-soldier, in the ‘90s there was a whole jumble of different types, though tending to emphasize the average guy in an extraordinary situation.  In the first decade of the 21st century, a new trend has emerged--call him the post-9/11 super-spy, or the globalized killing machine. (Or don’t, I’m under no illusion that those are catchy names.)
That summary of hero-types is of course a one-sentence gloss on over half a century of movies, and even confined to a single type of film in a single country (America), it’s extremely reductive.  But I’m only gonna elaborate a little more, so just go with it.  The 21st century action hero I’m talking about here of course exists alongside plenty of contemporaries as well, both (relatively) new (the Superhero), fairly old (the Inner-City Cop), and various attempts at throwbacks (Ryan Gosling in Drive, everybody in The Expendables).  So we should not consider this hero-type to be completely separate and unique, but bound up in and coexisting with dozens of concerns, trends, movie genres, available star personae, and various past hero-types, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting to elucidate the differences.

I see this hero-type as springing from two primary examples, who then influenced others: Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) from 24, and Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) from The Bourne Identity and sequels.  Together, they are probably the most influential action heroes of the millennium.  After them followed the new James Bond (why do they all have J.B. as initials? No clue) movies starring Daniel Craig, Liam Neeson (as Bryan Mills) in Taken, and Saoirse Ronan in Hanna, among others.  (Others movies that might be related, but which I won’t discuss here: Shooter, Inception, The International, ColombianaHaywire.)  All of these characters actually have a lot in common, both in how they act and the conflicts they are involved with.  
Bourne and Bauer are each defined by a sleek, Apple-and-Blackberry-era sense of style: short-cropped hair, functional-but-probably-expensive clothes, nearly always in black.  No shiny leather or kung-fu in business suits, the emphasis is on efficiency all the way through.  Their fighting styles are similar--highly adept at hand-to-hand combat, as well as any weapon close to hand, willing to use whatever force is necessary to subdue opponents.  Their movements are highly trained, quick, and again efficient--they don’t go in for high kicks or shouting, no flamboyance, just killing.  They prefer handguns and sniper rifles, definitely higher-end than a cop’s revolver, but refraining from Rambo-style heavy hardware like BARs or flamethrowers.  They can take on anyone, but they are not gods--they can be hurt, tortured, though they are never killed.  They do not slaughter with impunity, but generally fight one-on-one against other highly-trained killers. These characteristics are generally mirrored by the others that followed them, especially Neeson in Taken.  Bond of course still loves his suits, and spends more time being a pretty-boy than any of the others. Hanna is more colorful, but then her under-size and unique qualities as a teenage girl rather require it.  For all of them, though, there is an emphasis on sleek style, killing efficiently, and a preternatural sense of focus and intensity.  Their movies are fast-paced, intense, with lots of chase scenes and sequences of bone-breaking violence.

None of this is brand new.  Spies and assassins in the ‘70s were always focused and deliberate, John Woo’s heroes were always businesslike and in black (generally suits), sleek and cool have been prized qualities in a (anti-)hero since the noir period.  A lot of these qualities could be sourced to Jean-Pierre Melville and his movies, especially Le Samourai.  Perhaps most strangely about the new types is the way they are never allowed to love (romantically, at least).  If they fall in love, their lover will almost certainly die, and knowing this they are likely to avoid deep relationships whenever they can help it.  Noir heroes were often like this as well, but modern heroes before this would nearly always get the girl.  
Luc Besson was already pushing heroes like this in the early ‘90s.  La Femme Nikita and Leon: The Professional have much in common with Bourne and Hanna.  There is also a probable influence of Michael Mann, especially in aesthetics.  Mann loves that cool-but-not-unrealistic, man-with-a-certain-set-of-skills hero, and his movies are textbook examples of how to craft a “highbrow” action movie.  But Mann’s heroes are always localized, limited, romanticized, and rather old-fashioned.  Our new super-spy-types are the opposite.
The most notable thing about this new generation is their emergence in this globalized, post-9/11 world.  This defines nearly everything about them--they are meant to be (anti-)heroes for our time, not romantic figures of the past like the cowboy, but existing now, immediate, relevant.  They are defined by the world around them, its systems, networks, and geopolitics.  What separates them most is their different stances toward the government and law and order.  Bauer is the ultimate government employee/operative, the counter-terrorist expert and defender of America.  Bond follows in his footsteps (though of course he greatly pre-dates this decade), but for Britain.  Their stance toward superiors and elected officials may change and shift over the course of a film’s plot or a show’s 8 seasons, but ultimately we know they are always working toward the good of the country (whichever it is).  Bourne, on the other hand, is a victim of government and a symbol of its guilt.  Hunted by the same type of intelligence services Bauer and Bond work for, Bourne is just out for himself, to find his memory and place in this world.  He does attempt to get justice for his dead girlfriend and shows mercy on a couple of those caught in the crossfire, but really he’s out to take down the system from a sense of personal outrage and revenge.  Hanna is very similar.  Geopolitics matter less to them than personal rights and wrongs, and they couldn’t care less what result their actions will have to the balance of power between countries.  Nevertheless, they can’t escape the system; it’s all around them.

Neeson is less influenced in politics, but he’s still international, focused intently on rescuing his daughter, who has been kidnapped by sex slave traffickers in Paris and is being quickly moved through Europe along a network that extends through Eastern Europe and to the Middle East.  Neeson used to work for the CIA, but intelligence systems never really figure in the plot--this is international crime, all underground, not spy agency stuff.  Both he and Bauer torture their enemies to gain information.  Bourne may psychologically intimidate someone, but he refrains from torture, possibly because he knows what it feels like.
Ultimately, it is the way they are located in this new world order that makes them most unique.  Unlike most American heroes (and of course Bond and Hanna, among those I’ve mentioned, are not American), they are highly international, often ending up in Europe, always mobile.  They are constantly using high-tech gadgets, but unlike past heroes--such as early Bond--these gadgets are often on the market when the film comes out, and never more than a generation removed--realism is a watch-word for these characters.  (Hanna is the most science-fiction-ish, but even she is being held to standards of believability as much as possible.)  While they are loners, constantly in motion, they find it very difficult to get off the grid--surveillance is everywhere, they can be picked up going through airports, using a credit card, even walking down a street.  They are deliberately postmodern in their ethical and existential dilemmas.  Where an older generation of hero--like the Cowboy--may be an enigma to others but understands his own aims and choices, the postmodern hero (as exemplified by Bourne or Hanna) either doesn’t know his own identity or is caught in a conspiracy he must try to escape from.  In the postmodern world, identity is fragmented, there’s always a larger, more sinister picture, and they are indeed watching you. (And here The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies may have an intersection as well.)

These heroes are (or are intended to be) creatures of our moment, locating the tensions between security and freedom, surveillance and privacy.  They are avatars of our modern anxiety, and our patronage of their entertainments suggest their concerns do indeed hit home.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Another possible source text for Tree of Life?

Probably not.  Nevertheless, the similarities and parallels struck me immediately.  If you've seen it, you'll probably notice them as well.  The whole chapter is equally beautiful and brilliant--heck, so's the whole book--but here's the important passage, where he describes the change that came over Francis at his conversion, and his evolution into both a saint and a poet:

     So arises out of this almost nihilistic abyss the noble thing that is called Praise; which no one will ever understand while he identifies it as nature worship or pantheistic optimism.  When we say that a poet praises the whole creation, we commonly mean only that he praises the whole cosmos.  But this sort of poet does really praise creation, in the sense of the act of creation.  He praises the passage or transition from nonentity to entity; there falls here also the shadow of that archetypal image of the bridge, which has given to the priest his ancient and mysterious name.  The mystic who passes through the moment when there is nothing but God does in some sense behold the beginningless beginnings in which there was really nothing else.  He not only appreciates everything but the nothing of which everything was made.  In a fashion he endures and answers even the earthquake irony of the Book of Job; in some sense he is there when the foundations of the world are laid, with the morning stars singing together and the sons of God shouting for joy.  
--G. K. Chesterton,  St. Francis of Assisi

Note: The Latin for priest is pontifex, which has its root in pons, pontis, n. --bridge. 

Friday, March 30, 2012

Final Best of the '00s Round-Up

So I've finally finished my Best Movies of the Decade countdown, but I figured I'd do one last post rounding everything up.  There are links to all the other posts in the series below, as well as the complete list of films in order below the fold.  In particular I wanted to list the Honorable Mentions that didn't make it on the list (because 60 just isn't enough, I guess?), and you can find them down at the bottom of this post, below the fold.  I also just like making lists of random things, and there are so many things you can make a Best of the Decade list about, so I've included two other items here as well, namely Best TV Show and Best Albums of the '00s.  Hope these are at least somewhat interesting.

The Best TV Show of the Decade: LOST (2004-2010)
I really don't watch that much television (in fact I have more and more aesthetic and moral issues about the whole thing) and I don't get HBO, so take this selection for what it's worth.  I watched Lost for years, viewing the first two seasons on DVD but the third through the sixth season on the designated nights on TV, living with the characters and the mysteries as I had never done with a show before.  It's the kind of show that inspires incredible fan devotion as it ranges from pop culture riffing to soap opera relationship drama to complex moral questioning amid a constantly shifting and evolving plot, all anchored to some of the best characters you'll ever see on TV.  Of course, it was a frustrating show as well, one that was constantly withholding things from its viewers, occasionally got mired in contradictory subplots, and ultimately refused to explain some of its core mysteries, eliciting a bit of a backlash.  I understand those who hated the ending, but I disagree with them.  I found the final episodes beautiful and emotionally satisfying, and I think they crystallized what had really been at the center of the series all along.

If there is a unifying theme to Lost, it is the human incapacity to create our own redemption.  Each major character comes from a flawed, broken home, and is consequently flawed and broken him/herself.  They come to the Island and are given a second chance: If they can only put aside their pasts and work together for the future, they could be happy.  But one by one, their pasts come back to haunt them, and they fail to find happiness for more than a few moments.  Desperately, they seek control, they seek complete free will, confident that if they could just have one more chance, with everything out of the way, they could finally make it right.  But it is not to be.  The universe is too big, too complex, and too cruel for them to ever be able to control it; they are lost in a sea of troubles, and the only constants they can find are in each other.  Each of them must learn to give up this search for control and certainty, to accept some things on faith and hope.  Ultimately, redemption can never be forced from within, only bestowed from above.  But grace can only be accepted by letting go.  That is, perhaps, what heaven is: a place to let go of all the hatreds, worries, gnawing insecurities, and tortured regrets that plague our earthly lives, and accept the people around us in love and gladness.  This grace is not earned, it is merely accepted.  That is what the final scenes show.

My Favorite Albums of the Decade
I have far less confidence in my musical opinions than I do in my filmic opinions, but I have them anyway and I think this list is pretty solid, so take it or leave it.  Albums are restricted to same release time span as movies.

1. Illinois (2005) by Sufjan Stevens
Honorable Mention: Everything else he did this decade, but especially Seven Swans (2004)

2. Funeral (2004) by Arcade Fire
HM: Neon Bible (2007)
3. Love and Theft (2001) by Bob Dylan
HM: Modern Times (2006)
4. Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends (2008) by Coldplay
HM: A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002)
5. How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb (2004) by U2
HM: All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000)
6. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) by Wilco
7. American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002) by Johnny Cash
HM: American III: Solitary Man (2000) and American V: A Hundred Highways (2006)
8. Fleet Foxes (2008) by Fleet Foxes
9. I and Love and You (2009) by The Avett Brothers
HM: The Second Gleam (2008)

10. Day & Age (2008) by The Killers
HM: Hot Fuss (2004)
*   *   *   *

The rest of the Best of the '00s Posts:  Part 1: Intro and #60-55.  Part 2: #54-40.  Part 3: #39-25.  Part 4: #24-11.  Part 5: #10-2.  Part 6: #1.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Best Movie of the '00s: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

(be warned, this post is insanely long.)

 I grew up with The Lord of the Rings.  
The phrase may be overused, on any number of things, but in my case its absolutely true.  I grew up on it, and on every major version of the story, too. 
I must have been around six years old when I saw the Rankin/Bass animated version of The Hobbit, and I saw both the later Return of the King and Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings some time in the next couple years.  I’m not sure of the exact chronology, but I must have become conscious of the books at about this time--my parents had paperback copies on our shelves.  I read The Hobbit in second grade, and the complete Lord of the Rings in third grade.  The latter took me months--I kept getting distracted--but I was absurdly proud of the achievement for years.  By the time Jackson’s version of The Fellowship came out in 2001, I’d read the complete series at least twice, and by now I think I’m at five.  But it hasn’t been just some personal obsession--it’s a family and community thing, a shared devotion among friends and relatives alike.  I encouraged my brother and sister to read the books and was excited when they did.  I remember accompanying sixth grade homeschool buddies who dressed up as hobbits to the theater, and sitting next to friends who couldn’t stop repeating all the good lines in my ear.  I bought the soundtracks and listened to them dozens of times.  My family bought first VHS, then DVD and Special Editions of the films, and we’ve all seen them more times than we can count.  It’s like a culture.  The best illustration I can give is to recall a family reunion at Thanksgiving a couple years ago.  All of us cousins (20 of us?) went to the basement after growing bored with the grown-up talk upstairs and watched the Extended Version of Fellowship, arranged on couches and chairs and the floor and lying on top of each other, ranging in age from 3 to 20 and all rapt to the screen for a film every one of us had seen before.
I say this to clarify a point: There was never any question what my choice for #1 Film of the Decade would be.  Any other choice would have been dishonest.  This list is of movies that mean the most to me, and no other film (or trilogy) has come close to being as influential in my life.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

If I Gave the Oscars: 2011 Edition

The premise is simple: these are how I would give out awards to the movies of 2011, if that was a power that I had.  I'm not going to go through all the exact same categories as the Academy Awards, because some of them are just tiresome and others require inside knowledge that I do not possess.  This post is obviously meant to be complementary to my Best of 2011 post, where I listed all my favorites, so I have left out Best Picture nominees here; they would be the same as the top 10 from that post, so no need to list them twice.  

Each category is listed in order of preference, with the first director/actor/etc. being my choice for the winner.  Things should be fairly self-explanatory from there.

Best Director
1. Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life)
2. Abbas Kiarostami (Certified Copy)
3. Kelly Reichardy (Meek's Cutoff)
4. Tomas Alfredson (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
5. Nicholas Winding Refn (Drive)

Best Screenplay (Adapted or Original, doesn't matter)
1. Abbas Kiarostami (Certified Copy)
2. Cormac McCarthy (The Sunset Limited)
3. Bridget O'Connor, Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
4. Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin (Moneyball)
5. Joe Cornish (Attack the Block)

Best Actor
1. Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
2. Brad Pitt (The Tree of Life)
3. Michael Shannon (Take Shelter)
4. Ryan Gosling (Drive)
5. Samuel L. Jackson (The Sunset Limited)

Best Actress
1. Juliette Binoche (Certified Copy)
2. Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
3. Saoirse Ronan (Hanna)
4. Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids)
5. Elizabeth Olson (Martha Marcy May Marlene)

Best Supporting Actor
1. Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Hurt, Mark Strong (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) --(because they were all excellent and I couldn't choose between them)
2. John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene)
3. Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class)
4. Eric Bana (Hanna)
5. Corey Stoll (Midnight in Paris)

Best Supporting Actress
1. Charlotte Gainsbourg (Melancholia)
2. Elle Fanning (Super 8)
3. Jessica Chastain (Take Shelter)
4. Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids)
5. Emma Watson (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2) --(in recognition for every time she played Hermione Granger)

Best Cinematography
1. Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life)
2. Janusz Kaminski (War Horse)
3. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives)
4. Hoyte Van Hoytema (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
5. Chris Blauvelt (Meek's Cutoff)

Best Editing
1. Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, Mark Yoshikawa (The Tree of Life) --(and it wasn't close)
2. Paul Tothill (Hanna)
3. Zachary Stuart-Pontier (Martha Marcy May Marlene)
4. Kelly Reichardt (Meek's Cutoff)
5. Dino Jonsater (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)

Best Musical Score
1. The Chemical Brothers (Hanna)
2. Alexandre Desplat (The Tree of Life)
3. Cliff Martinez (Drive)
4. Alberto Iglesias (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
5. David Wingo (Take Shelter)

Best Scene
1. Growing up (The Tree of Life)
2. Creation of the world (The Tree of Life)
3. Opening car chase (Drive)
4. No-man's land (War Horse)
5. Opening the shelter door (Take Shelter)

Best of 2011

1. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

2. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)

3. The Sunset Limited (Tommy Lee Jones)

4. Hanna (Joe Wright)

5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)

6. The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski)

7. Attack the Block (Joe Cornish)

8. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)

9. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)

10. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)

11. Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)

12. War Horse (Steven Spielberg)

Honorable Mentions: Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn), Moneyball (Bennett Miller), Super 8 (JJ Abrams), The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher), X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn), The Descendants (Alexander Payne)

Most Underrated/Unheard of: Blackthorn (Mateo Gil)

Most Overrated: Melancholia (Lars Von Trier)

Favorite Guilty Pleasure: Sucker Punch (Zach Snyder)

Worst Movie I Saw This Year: Crazy Stupid Love (Glenn Ficara, John Requa)

(actually posted Feb 2015)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Best Movies of the '00s: Part 5

10.  Inglourious Basterds (2009, Tarantino)
After watching Inglourious Basterds on the opening weekend back in 2009, I came back with my head buzzing, sat down, and wrote an interpretation of the film on a few sheets of yellow legal pad.  It was probably my first real piece of film criticism.  In that essay, I proposed that the film could be seen as a combination/extrapolation of The Dirty Dozen and Once Upon a Time in the West: Just as Leone set his film within a mythologized filmic version of the Wild West created by an entire genre of films, Tarantino’s insight was to recognize that World War II Europe has become a similarly abstract cinematic playground, with possibilities far beyond the historical realties and boundaries or the era.  Hence the title of the first chapter in the film: Once Upon a Time. . .in Nazi-Occupied France.  Tarantino is playing around with history and genre just as Leone was doing in the sixties.

I still think this view is correct, as far as it goes, but I’ve come to realize that the film is doing far more than that.  While all of Tarantino’s films are postmodern meta-movies that mix and match genres, Inglourious Basterds goes further, interrogating the effects that cinema has on audiences and on the real world.  Investigating propaganda and the thin line between corrupting influence and legitimate entertainment, it is a self-reflexive commentary on the war film genre on both sides of the conflict, offering an incrimination of both while admitting the appeal of simple, bloodthirsty fun. It is an indictment of the Nazi sin of defiling cinema, using a literal death-by-blazing-film to punish such a crime.  And finally, it is an act of celebration and reclamation of old, pre-war cinema for today, rescuing directors (Riefenstal, Pabst) and actors (Max Linder, Lillian Harvey) from the obscuring cloud of fascism, while condemning others (Emil Jannings) for their complicity.  An enormously complex commentary on the nature of film and its relation to politics and history, centering a battle within genre for the soul of cinema, it is Tarantino’s masterpiece.

9.  Spirited Away (2001, Miyazaki)
Hayao Miyazaki is the greeatest animator of all time, and this is his masterpiece.  This is saying something, as he already had two world-class masterpieces in My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke, and several other films very nearly as great.  Here, however, Miyazaki moves beyond his usual gentle, well-structured storytelling style into a realm of surrealism, ambiguity, and mystery that actually caused controversy within Studio Ghibli during production.  Chihiro's journey parallels that of Alice, a journey through a metaphorical rabbit hole into an abandoned Japanese theme park, and from there into a boathouse of the gods, a world of spirits and magic where reality is slippery and nothing is as it seems.  The boathouse is a world unlike anything else in cinema, a dominion ruled by a capricious witch who dotes on her monstrous baby, populated by living soot-sprites, talking frogs, many-limbed boiler-men, polluted river-spirits, and dragons who look like teenage boys.  Chihiro must learn to work and grow to survive in this world, proving herself by determination and courage.  In the film's extraordinary final act, however, this dramatic arc seems to fall away in service of poetry.  As if in a dream, all obstacles fall away in the face of Chihiro's newly awakened love and empathy.  Where Alice was stymied by Wonderland's paralyzing lack of rationality, Chihiro succeeds by maintaining her purity and innocence and by offering true emotional understanding to those trapped in this strange land between sleep and death.  With this ending, Miyazaki succeeds not only in his greatest imaginative achievement, but in one of the most profound statements of his humanist philosophy.

8.  The Dark Knight (2008, Nolan)
A seismic leap forward in the superhero genre and one of the most exhilaratingly huge action films ever constructed, The Dark Knight is not merely a crime drama with costumed vigilantes, but a film of enormous thematic complexity as well. It is a film consumed by dualities: good and evil, darkness and light, order and chaos, sanity and psychosis, grief and rage, truth and lies.  The very structure of the film reflects this in the difference of its two halves, before and after the Joker's capture.  The focus is on the knife edge separating the extremes and the spin of a coin it takes to flip from one to the other.  The implications are both moral and political:  What are we prepared to do to preserve civilization in the face of barbarism?  The answers mark the film as perhaps the most profound cinematic statement yet on the age of terrorism.

7.  In the Mood for Love (2000, Wong)
Wong Kar-Wai, the lovesick beat poet of the '90s, leaves behind single 20-something protagonists for married 30-somethings, in the process slowing down his usual blurry-clear photography and pop sensibility, exchanging them for a neo-classical style and lounge jazz rhythm that seems like his apotheosis.  It isn't quite as fun as his earlier films (and it isn't my favorite), but it feels more mature and profound.  Sometimes falsely identified as a societal critique, the film is instead an emotional and atmospheric portrait of a moment in time, a long, drawn-out moment of romantic possibility.  When it finally ends, as all moments must, it is whisked away in a haze of cigarette smoke, eternal only in memory (and celluloid), where it can be replayed again and again, as time goes by.

6.  Pan's Labyrinth (2006, del Toro)
Like Bridge to Terabithia crossed with Schindler's List, Pan's Labyrinth is a fantasy of childlike imagination in the midst of absolute evil and horrific violence.  Guillermo del Toro gives free reign to his imagination in his creature designs on a level only surpassed by Hayao Miyazaki among contemporary filmmakers, and his creations here have the indelible, unforgettable power of your own nightmares.  What is innocence and what is evil?  Can anything pure and fragile survive in the face of such cruelty and brutality?  Or should evil be the one frightened?  Is beauty the one that really conquers?  On a temporal level that may be too much to ask, but in an ultimate sense the film suggests that may very well be the way of it.

5.  Memento (2000, Nolan)
Do you know how you got where you are?  How you got into this room?  Are you sure that's what really happened?  Are you sure your mind isn't playing tricks on you?  Leonard Shelby doesn't remember any of that.  Ask him a few minutes from now and he won't remember this conversation.  He's trained himself to live without, though.  He's tattooed rules onto his body, attempted to drill routine into his muscle memory.  He's on a mission, and nothing is going to stop him.  But how will he know when he has succeeded?  And how can he know he's on the right track, on the right mission in the first place?  Maybe it's not just his mind playing tricks on him, maybe he is doing it to himself.  People do it all the time.  Maybe he's concealing something from himself, telling himself lies to prevent collapse.  Maybe you are, too.  After all, when it comes right down to it, what's really separating him from you?

4.  No Country for Old Men (2007, Coen)
When they want to be, the Coens are the most deliberate and perfectionist filmmakers since Kubrick, and that's what they are here.  In partnering with novelist Cormac McCarthy, the brothers have offered their most indelible vision of a Hobbesian universe, a world where everyone must devise their own code, their own system for living, in order to survive in the face of violence and evil.  The three central characters are pitted against each other in an existential chess match that can only end in death, their personal codes in conflict just as much as their bodies and intellects.  Llewelyn Moss: an opportunist, self-confident and self-sufficient, who believes he has control of his own life.  Sheriff Ed Tom Bell: the old man of the title, principled, weathered, gradually losing faith as he sees his ideas of the way the world should be mocked at every turn.  Anton Chirgurh: a sociopathic killing machine, believes himself an embodiment of fate, but fallible and blind to his own vulnerability.  They could be a revisionist take on the three central characters from a Leone spaghetti Western, tightened and focused instead of widened and iconic.  

The film is a revisitation of themes, styles, and plots from the Coens' Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, and Fargo, but this time the philosophy is given even greater resonance by McCarthy's scorched-earth dialogue.  I suspect it may be their magnum opus.

3.  The New World  (2005, Malick)
A film that deserves so much more than the woefully small space I can here devote to it.  When it premiered in the last days of 2005 it was met with mostly bemused and exasperated dismissals from the critical establishment, which was then countered with a massive push-back from the still-young online cinephile community.  It is a film that almost always inspires boredom or ecstasy--there is no middle ground.

Malick does not merely look back on the historical events of Jamestown in 1607, he transports the audience there, re-imagining every moment with a sensory immediacy I've never felt with any other filmmaker.  Far from a simple indictment of English colonialism or celebration of a lost Native American culture, the film continually sets up dichotomies and then finds ways to collapse them in a constantly evolving vision of history.  Every detail, every moment, is presented as a New World in itself.  Malick examines the idea of America without worrying about politics or legal structures, instead identifying her as the ultimate land of possibility, untamed and impossible to put in a box.  While set in the 17th century, his strongest influences seem to be from the American Romantics and Transcendentalists of the early 19th.  Like Thoreau, he sees the individual in conflict with society; like Whitman, he sings a song of connection between all living things; and like Emerson, he sees history as a river reminiscent of "the flux of all things," and "every man an inlet to the same and all of the same."  Malick's melding of image and sound are unequaled, and the last five minutes are among the most perfectly transcendent passages of film I've ever seen.  It is no exaggeration to say that this film changed my life, and I'm not really sure how it's only at #3.

2.  Yi Yi (2000, Yang)
There is more of life in five minutes of this film than most works of art can manage in their entirety.  Every stage of life, from childhood to youth to marriage to middle age to old age and death, is encompassed in this film's three hours, and it does it with such boundless grace and subtlety that it consistently astounds.  If it is better than The New World, it is only in its sense of permanence and almost architectural structure.  Both films are astonishingly beautiful, but where Malick's images flow like water in a never-ending stream, Yang's come one after the other in a gentle but nevertheless firm and deliberate rhythm, leaving each shot on screen exactly as long as it needs to be.  Many reviews attempt to schematize the plot, which is tempting, for the film follows multiple characters over a very long runtime, accumulating incident until it is comparable in scope and detail to a 19th-century novel.  But this would be a mistake, for Yi Yi is not interested in being a soap opera or melodrama, and detailing all the events of the plot would only serve to lessen and trivialize it.  Rest assured, it is not a strange or difficult film, but a story of a middle class Taiwanese family as they struggle with various personal issues over a period of several weeks or months.  In many ways, this story and these characters could be found in any industrialized country, and by the end of the film this family will seem no more foreign to you than your next door neighbors.

The tone of the film is melancholy, occasionally heartbreaking, but I leave it refreshed and joyful.  All those poor, lonely people, running around and hurting themselves, oblivious to how alike they are in their pain.  The film is a profound act of love and sympathy by Yang, to his characters and to his audience: he helps us empathize along with him, shows us our own petty, sorrowful selves, and lets us know we're not alone.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Best Movies of the '00s: Part 4

24.  The Bourne Ultimatum (2007, Greengrass)
This movie stands for the whole trilogy, the most consistently thrilling action movies of the decade.  I regard this as one of the great purely kinetic action films in history, taking its place alongside The Road Warrior and Aliens as an unrelentingly intense thrill ride.  Bourne is the most influential action hero of the new century, and his desperate search for self mirrors America's own.

23.  King Kong (2005, Jackson)
Both a faithful work of epic reimagining and a subtle work of film criticism, Peter Jackson fills the film with dozens of homages, references, and expansions on the comparatively bare-bones original, making room for all the different interpretations that have grown up over the years, but most of all giving free reign to all the dreams he's ever had about Kong since he saw it in boyhood and attempting to make those dreams reality.

22.  Hot Fuzz (2007, Wright)
Yes, I actually think this is better than Shaun of the Dead.  I laugh harder, at least, and I find Nick Frost's character here more endearing.  And who doesn't love Simon Pegg's apocalyptic-stranger ride back into town, toothpick in his mouth and crossed shotguns on his back?  Or the glee with which the two friends fire two guns whilst jumping through the air? I'm sure I'm not alone in my eager anticipation of the next installment in the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy.

21.  Let the Right One In (2008, Alfredson)
A horror movie for people (like me) who aren't really fans of horror movies.  A gentle story of first love, twisted and darkened into a disturbing tale of supernatural bloodlust and outsider vengeance that haunts the shadows of an apartment complex on a snowy evening.  Perhaps something like an early Grimm's Fairy Tale, before it was made safe for children. Heartbreaking, beautiful, and disturbing.

20.  The Royal Tenebaums (2001, Anderson)
Wes Anderson's masterpiece. A hilarious, stylized, ensemble comedy that darkens suddenly into generational tragedy, before offering the possibility of forgiveness and redemption in a final sequence remarkable above all not for its ludicrousness, but for its truly generous spirit.  The cast, led by Gene Hackman in his last great role, is one of the best of the decade, the writing by Anderson and Owen Wilson is as clever and witty as it could possibly be, and the soundtrack is, as ever, perfect.

19.  The Wrestler (2008, Aronofsky)
Mickey Rourke gives perhaps the decade's greatest male performance as a minor league professional wrestler, past his prime, who can't manage to stop his slow spiral of self-destruction. Sometimes inertia really is too great, even when lifelines are offered.  I remain a bit of an Aronosky skeptic, but this heartbreaking neo-realist throwback really is his masterpiece.

18.  The Departed (2006, Scorsese)
Is it Scorsese's best work? No, of course not.  Does it dissect the foibles of the male impulse to rage and machismo as well as his work in the seventies?  Unfortunately, no.  But it does do things Scorsese had never done before--it generates tremendous suspense, it twists and turns with astonishing ease, and it has the ferocious bite of Cape Fear and Gangs of New York without losing sight of its central plot. It also has one of Scorsese's best casts ever (even if Nicholson goes over the top), and it finally justifies his devotion to DiCaprio with that uneven actor's first really great grown-up performance.

17.  Children of Men (2006, Cuaron)
Probably this decade's most persuasive view of the apocalypse, Alfonso Cuaron's adaptation of P.D. James's novel envisions a humanity incapable of reproducing and living out its final days by tearing itself apart in pointless conflict.  Cuaron's long-take aesthetic creates an incredibly immersive and terrifying Britain of constant danger that unfortunately doesn't look much different from present-day war-zones in Africa and the Middle East.  Into this world, a child is born, and the weight of it all shall be on his shoulders.

16.  Finding Nemo (2003, Stanton)
Pixar had made brilliant films before, but this is the point where the studio cemented its all-time great status.  Nemo is beautiful in a way so far only surpassed by Wall-E (and parts of Tangled) among CGI films, and its story is still the most moving to me of all Pixar features.  There are moments here I still can't think of without a lump in the my throat (the tragic beginning, the sojourn in the whale's mouth, Marlin's sad swim away from the Sydney harbor).  Plus I still laugh at the kiddie humor.

15.  Mystic River (2003, Eastwood)
Eastwood's finest film since Unforgiven (narrowly edging A Perfect World), this titanically acted drama is a profound meditation on the ways time can change people and break down relationships.  Anchored by the finest performance of Kevin Bacon's career (who underacts while his co-stars overact), there were few more wrenching films this decade. 

14.  O Brother Where Art Thou (2000, Coen)
The most purely enjoyable of all the Coens' films.  A hilariously unique adaptation of The Odyssey that draws from Preston Sturges-style comedies, classic American literature (particularly Huckleberry Finn and The Grapes of Wrath), and early-20th century bluegrass and gospel music, in a wild, allusion-filled journey through a mythological Depression-era South.  It also features one of the Coens' finest casts, wittiest scripts, and most hopeful views of human nature.

13.  The Prestige (2006, Nolan)
A character study wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a mystery, with both Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale turning in stellar double roles.  A dissection of obsession and revenge embedded in a richly detailed steampunk-ish world, where nothing is as it seems.  For anyone who doesn't think Nolan can tell stories with images.  Are you watching closely?

12.  The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, Dominik)
This haunting evocation of the last days of the West's most famous outlaw can be seen as a synthesis of the disparate influences of John Ford, Terrence Malick, Henry King, and Robert Altman, with a historical didacticism reminiscent of Ken Burns.  It has many ancestors, yet there is still else nothing quite like it.  As others have pointed out, the film (aided by the magnificent performances of Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck) maps the moment at which legend fades into mere celebrity.  Perhaps a bit too long, it would still be worth a look for its musical score and cinematography alone, both among the best of the decade.

11.  The Incredibles (2004, Bird)
My vote for the finest Pixar film (at least before the heartbreaking and elegiac Toy Story 3), this Brad Bird directed epic is a complex satire of the superhero, drawing from The Fantastic Four and Watchmen, paired with an analysis of the modern American family and a critique of the suburbs and middlebrow education system.  It wraps all that up in a top-notch action movie that puts just about everything else released this decade to shame with its thrilling fight sequences and hilarious dialogue, and manages to make it all a massive, PG-rated blockbuster. Considering the skill, risks, ambition, and originality on display here next to all but two or three other blockbuster movies of the decade just about boggles the mind.