Sunday, November 9, 2008

The lost year?

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The other night, perched on my regular stool at Heroes, two Guinnesses deep in my effort to forget that Will Smith films took a billion dollars this year, I caught myself outlining my ambitions to a gregarious barfly. “Movies, yeah!” he roared—an impressive exhibition of gusto from a man already hoisting 32 ounces of Bud Lite. “I go to movies all the time!”

Piqued as I always am by that confession, I inquired what he’s seen lately of interest. He pondered, squirmed a bit, ordered another round, and apologized for his failure to produce even a single title. No problem, I assured him, but just for conversation’s sake, what’s the last movie to leave an impression? Feel free to go back four, five years if need be. More pondering. A trip to the bathroom. Finally, at long last: “I really liked The Graduate.”

The Graduate. Drunks are funny. I mean, obviously a clearheaded, well-informed person could have cited ten or twelve masterpieces from last year alone, right?

Now that you mention it, I sort of want to watch The Graduate right now.
Ask yourself the same question. See what I mean? Was 2008 the worst year of all time for moviegoing? Well, it’s only 85% over; a half dozen or so promising efforts are still in the can. But now that submissions by sure-thing directors like Spike Lee, Ridley Scott and Clint Eastwood have fizzled and at least two Oscar hopefuls have been pushed back to the spring, how will this calendar year be remembered? Will The Dark Knight snare Best Picture by default? Where have all the treasures gone?

Fallen through the cracks, that’s where. Reviewing my catalog of 75-plus trips to the theater since last January, I arrive at two conclusions: 1) This year wasn’t such a wash after all, and 2) The gap between the meaningful and the popular has never been more apparent.

Take, for instance, Happy-Go-Lucky, the richest character study in recent memory. What a vibrant, layered, humanistic and utterly satisfying piece—a triumph for director Mike Leigh, who in forty years of distilling poetry from the plight of the British proletariat has never once stepped wrong. Its outlook is sunnier than we might expect from Leigh, but its incurably cheerful heroine (Sally Hawkins, in the breakout performance of the year) is no storybook fabrication like Amélie. Her buoyancy is less a neurosis than an ideology, cultivated that she might withstand encounters with raving drunks, classroom bullies, property thefts, morose relations, and one apoplectic, self-disgusted driving coach (the brilliant Eddie Marsan). And while the premise may invite Pollyannic glad-handing on the contagion of positive thinking, Leigh has something altogether different in mind. Each of us navigates the world strategically, he seems to suggest; we couldn’t get halfway down the block without a viable coping device. Optimism is just one alternative; many others are represented (and embraced) herein, some of them simpatico, others cacophonous. To Leigh’s credit, the locus of scrutiny could shift to any minor character (and indeed Scott the driving instructor aches for his own movie) without disrupting the ecological balance on display. The pluperfect finale imparts the sense of an ending without the false impression of closure—we joined the story in progress, and so we leave it. The interim has been our profound privilege.

Adventurous filmgoers would be loath to miss My Winnipeg, the latest tone poem from Guy Maddin, whose sensibility is as rapturous and beautiful as any in the pantheon. Using the lo-fi aesthetic of early narrative films in tandem with his distinctly postmodern infusion of surreal compositions, Maddin constructs a singular ode to the metaphysical tension between belonging and estrangement. Renouncing the city he’s never managed to escape, the narrator (Maddin) vows to “film” his way out, purging himself of crippling ties to local and familial lore by emblazoning them on celluloid. His film is a captivatingly unique yet universally relatable treatise on the love/hate dynamics we share with our hometowns. Featuring ‘40s noir icon Ann Savage in a lacerating turn as Maddin’s mother (“as perennial as the winter, as ancient as the bison…”), My Winnipeg surfeits the senses and massages the mind.

At this moment in cinema, are there two brands more debased than vampire movies and adolescent love stories? (I speak even as one who’s never experienced Buffy.) Did anyone expect the salvation to hail from Sweden? Has the year produced a more revitalizing hybrid than Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In? As the only webmaster west of the Pecos, I’m empowered to rule “no” on all counts. See it even if you deplore both genres. See it especially if you deplore both genres.

As quirky hitman-buddy films go (How quickly a conceit becomes a category!), the erratic In Bruges falls appreciably short of Pulp Fiction or any given episode of The Sopranos, but it’s still required viewing for Brendan Gleeson’s superlative performance. The eternal mentor/sidekick whose countenance shifts subliminally from puckish to doleful, and whose beguiling presence has bolstered many a mediocrity, reaches a career pinnacle as the sadder but wiser of two mismatched assassins taking cover in the title locale. More or less Gleeson’s Yankee analogue, the invaluable character actor Richard Jenkins takes center stage in The Visitor and offers an object lesson in film acting. He registers change microscopically from scene to scene, but by the end has limned a bone-deep existential overhaul. If I knew how he did it I probably wouldn’t tell, but anyway, the point is moot. Students of subtlety are further directed to Melissa Leo’s guileless inhabitation of Frozen River and Kristin Scott Thomas’ French-language mastery in Tell No One and—most unforgettably—I’ve Loved You So Long.
So how many have you seen? No apologies necessary, no excuses accepted. Get thee to a Netflix queue, your entire world will change. And more to the point, you won’t look foolish in the corner pub on a Friday night.