Monday, December 7, 2009

Just what civilization needs...


Another weigh-in on the best films of the decade.

(Some temptations can be resisted. Some should be but cannot. Sometimes reticence is regretted. Sometimes resistance is futile.)

Today: 15 runners-up and the 25th [superlative inflection of positive adjective] motion picture of the decade spanning 2000-2009.
Tomorrow through December 31st, daily: Countdown to #1.


Honorable mentions, listed alphabetically:
Before Sunset (Richard Linklater); Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron); The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Piui); Gosford Park (Robert Altman); Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog); The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow); Little Children (Todd Field); My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin); Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro); Safe Conduct (Bertrand Tavernier); The Sea Inside (Alejandro Amenabar); A Serious Man (Ethan Coen, Joel Coen); The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach); 25th Hour (Spike Lee); United 93 (Paul Greengrass)


No Country for Old Men (Ethan Coen, Joel Coen)
Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel)
23. The Fog of War (Errol Morris)
22. Y Tu Mama Tambien (Alfonso Cuaron)
You Can Count on Me (Kenneth Lonergan)
20. Adaptation (Spike Jonze)
19. Zodiac (David Fincher)
18. Kings & Queen (Arnaud Desplechin)
17. Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki)
16. Amores Perros (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)
15. Sideways (Alexander Payne)
14. The Barbarian Invasions (Denys Arcand)
13. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu)
12. Junebug (Phil Morrison)
11. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch)
10. The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana)
9. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar)
8. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)
7. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee)
6. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel)
5. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
4. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes)
3. City of God (Fernando Meirelles)
2. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
1. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)

Friday, May 1, 2009

"And when it's done, we'll both be free..."

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo—I’m sure I’ve seen the film 20 times. It inspired the longest, thorniest paper of my academic career. And though I chafe at perfunctory rankings of art, my perennial fascination with the Master’s most self-expressive work assures its place on that desert island for which connoisseurs prepare in itemized fashion.

Outshining its palpable wonderments, in my view, is its capacity to reveal uncharted pockets of genius on each viewing. Sometimes it’s a quick shot, sometimes an extended set piece; regardless, you always come away with newfound reverence for Hitchcock’s twisted virtuosity. I had occasion to watch it recently in a venue that did full justice to its grandeur, and this time my attention was seized by a quiet interlude which before then seemed like little more than connective tissue. (This is where I urge you to stop reading if you’ve never seen Vertigo—and let your artistic compasses know they've failed you.)

I refer to the ten-minute sequence which begins after the inquest into Madeleine’s death, and ends with Scottie’s compulsion to enter Judy’s apartment. The parenthesis comprises the saddest, tenderest, most genuine treatment of grief and refusal to unfasten the shackles of lost love I have ever seen on film. Scottie drifts through days as though trapped in a lucid dream, unresponsive to stimuli except those that fuel his need to believe Madeleine is not really gone from him. He returns to familiar locales—the Elsters’ old residence, the bar at Ernie’s, the gallery where Carlotta’s portrait emblematizes past forfeitures to love—almost as if he believes Madeleine is hiding from him, teasingly and in plain sight. The faintest validation of his faith reengages him with the world, but the sting of each setback pushes him further into withdrawal. How tenaciously he questions the woman who would presume to drive Madeleine’s distinctive green car; how thoroughly he retreats upon learning she is the new owner.

The frenzied nightmare that triggers Scottie's breakdown is vintage Hitchcock—the specters of Gavin and Carlotta, the wary but purposeful march to the empty grave, the crime scene-esque silhouette of Scottie plummeting downward into worse things than death. But the compositions that follow are anomalous in the extreme, especially for a filmmaker often linked with sensation over emotion, with economy before patience. The long, slow pan across San Francisco’s skyline attests that all machinations, even Hitchcock’s, must sometimes cede their urgency, and Bernard Herrmann’s soaring soundscape, marked by a literalization of heartstrings, has the curious effect of rendering the passions on display even more shrouded and internalized.

I don’t mean to give the impression of narrative stasis within these scenes. Hitchcock uses the interval to prepare his canvas for the imminent sublimation of helplessness into tyranny; when the time comes, he has subtly groomed us to be revulsed but not confounded. He also exhibits his deft command of parallelism, as the fateful premonitions of Scottie’s dream remind us of Madeleine’s self-fulfilling prophesy, as dire interrogations prefigure unyielding demands, as Midge’s micromanagement of Scottie’s recovery anticipates the exactitude of Judy’s reinvention. But what registers most pronouncedly is the study of a shattered soul—of bereavement in something close to real time. Many handlings of the predicament hasten us through numbness into primal rage, sensual surrender and release. By lingering on the bargaining stage, Hitchcock reveals himself as the master of a different kind of suspense—the suspended animation of the lovelorn survivor.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Contemplation Row

Emerging from I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’s kaleidoscopic portrait of Bob Dylan in all his mutability of image, one emphatic gentleman proclaimed it “a totally unnecessary movie.” More than a brusque dismissal, this observation doubtless typifies the majority response to the work. Haynes’s film audaciously renders a chameleonic character, making no attempt to reconcile his disparate facades, and further clouding the point by dividing the Dylan role among six actors with no clear commonalities.

For a middle-of-the-road moviegoer, this approach breeds chaos and confusion. What good is biography that sheds no light on its subject? That uses technique to augment his obscurity—to pronounce him unknowable without aiming for a semblance of understanding?

As Louis Armstrong said of jazz, if you have to ask you’ll never know. All Dylanites, and I count myself as one, admit that their hero defies definition. True disciples know it would indeed take a half dozen performers including a black boy and a woman to capture his myriad personae.

As with Man on the Moon, the like-minded but less flamboyant Andy Kaufman head-scratcher, I’m Not There presumes the futility of seeking closure. Dylan is enigma incarnate, a figure who concurrently shaped and reflected a cultural moment; to ask for precision and unity is a fool's errand. Haynes is more concerned with ambiance than cohesion, so escapists are advised to look elsewhere.

Among the six incarnations of the artist, not one bears the name Bob Dylan. That’s fitting, as the stage name is no more authentic to Robert Zimmerman than any of the monikers assumed by his surrogates in the film, most of which harbor nonetheless some connection to the man as well as the myth. We get Woody Guthrie and Arthur Rimbaud, named for creative influences. We meet Jude Quinn, perhaps an homage to “Quinn the Eskimo”—a folk rock piece composed by Dylan during the interval that character bridges. At last we encounter Cowboy Billy, whose presence calls to mind the film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, for which Dylan composed his quixotic ballad “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”

Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin) is presented as a twelve-year-old African American, riding the rails and plucking populist tunes on his guitar like his namesake, despite the fact that Guthrie’s time had long since passed. The episode dates to 1959, and in a scene of great power and significance, Woody is rebuked for glamorizing the Depression-era plight of the hobo while civil rights crusades hover on the horizon. “Live your own time,” he is told, as if to quell the anachronism of the early Dylan recordings.

Having reinvented himself—in the first of many such instances—as a mouthpiece of the folk movement, Woody is replaced by Arthur (Ben Whishaw), a pastiche of anterior talents. The look of the picture changes accordingly. From the richly saturated hues of the wunderkind’s westward travels (echoing the palette employed by cinematographer Haskell Wexler in the 1976 Guthrie bio Bound for Glory), Haynes shifts to a gritty black and white
then back to less stylized color with the introduction of Jack (Christian Bale), a romantic Greenwich Village prodigy, and tinted green for our sojourn with Robbie (Heath Ledger), a Hollywood actor playing Jack in a meta-biopic.

The differentiation of texture between each sequence accomplishes a good deal more than helping us keep the stories straight. It evokes an array of memories (or impressions, for those of us too young to remember) of the media we associate with Dylan—the means of disseminating the man into the culture. This is most chillingly manifest in scenes depicting the embodiment called Jude (Cate Blanchett), culled directly from the touchstone of popular Dylan perception, D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back.

It’s within these scenes that lightning strikes. The remarkable Blanchett propels us through the legendary tour of England, the combative press junkets, and the infamous Newport Folk Festival where Dylan unleashed his new electric sound to the inestimable horror of his fan base. Here we see him at his most insufferable—cocky, dismissive, occasionally cruel, and reliant on chemicals to fulfill promises his body was ill-equipped to keep.

The miracle of Blanchett’s portrayal is her ability to capture both sides of the coin. We bristle as we recognize the narcissistic man-child who greets fans and biographers with abstract contempt. This is the Dylan recorded by Pennebaker four decades ago, from whom many fans remain alienated to this day. But we also glimpse the beleaguered, inexperienced songwriter from Minnesota who resented being dubbed the voice of his generation at an age when most people are assumed to know none of the answers. This more sympathetic Dylan was proffered by Martin Scorsese in his recent documentary No Direction Home.

Rounding out the collage—though in fact blurring its focus—is Billy (Richard Gere), hermitlike inhabitant of a folkloric town self-consciously named Riddle. As Billy rides his horse to the town square, all the villagers he passes are cloaked in Halloween attire and seem to be fortifying themselves for disaster. The elements of paranoia, camouflage and individualism suggest Dylan’s period of withdrawal after his mysterious motorcycle accident, followed by the release of his western-themed album John Wesley Harding. But the connection is shaky at best.

Ultimately these scenes are the film’s least successful. Shapeless and baffling, they supply unfortunate ammunition to critics of Haynes’s intrepid stylings. The word “pretentious,” while broadly applied to any feature aiming to sell ideas instead of popcorn, serves in its primary usage to critique works which “pretend” to function in ways they do not, or pretend to know what they’re doing when the opposite is plainly true. Whatever the Billy episode sought to achieve, it falls short, and must be classified as a pretentious supplement to a piece otherwise marked by assurance, not indulgence.

True, I’m Not There strikes the occasional false note. Verbal asides inspired by (or meant to inspire) Dylan lyrics, like Jude’s off-the-cuff utterance “That’s just like a woman,” land with the thud of Forrest Gumpist contrivance. Insertions of pop cultural icons range in their effectiveness—Julianne Moore channels Joan Baez note-perfectly in her few scenes, but Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer and others not bothering with pseudonyms feel shoehorned in.

Nevertheless, Haynes leaves us with a fascinating proposition: that an identity as fluid as Dylan’s couldn’t possibly be pinned down by a single actor or mise-en-scene. And in thrusting us headlong through clashing compositions, feeding us prodigal imagery to make our heads spin, he tenders perhaps the only viable agency for grasping the man and his time—as a raging, roving, psychedelic whirlwind.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

"Two Old Fashioneds. For two old-fashioned people."

What if I asked you which swath of the populace is most grievously neglected on film? Think it over. Consider quality of depiction as well as frequency. There’s no right answer, of course, but I’ll bet my answer differs from yours. And if that’s the case, I’ll wager it’s not because you think my party gets a fair shake, but because conditions are so inequitable it was never on the table to begin with.

I'm thinking of the elderly.

Meaning no offense, I believe that of all the “-isms” that fracture our society, ageism meets with the most unperturbed indifference. Nowhere on earth is this truer than in Hollywood, which (breaking news, I’m well aware) places such premiums on youth, frenetic life and glamorous death that people failing to evince those qualities are regarded as dead weight.

Maybe you’re thinking: Wait, I can name lots of actors in their seventies and they’re still going strong! Have you forgotten Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman? No, but I wish I could forget The Bucket List. Only the latest submission to an endless cycle of pernicious fairy tales (let’s call them Cocooners, after Ron Howard’s execrable prototype), the film purports that loneliness can be cured and vitality regained by jumping out of airplanes with newfound friends. Oh, but the two leads have terminal cancer. Do you imagine people with that prognosis are more apt to spend their last days: a) knocking around the Pyramids with formulaically mismatched sidekicks, or b) trying to stabilize their anesthesia so they’re lucid enough to enjoy the company of loved ones for as long as their escalating pain will permit?

Who wants to watch a film about torturous decline, you might ask—surely not old people! Well, who wants to watch a film about teenage prostitution, gang warfare or meth addiction? Lots of people! The key difference is that those movies end with deceptive catharses, whereas life in twilight can only end in death—and as heartfelt as that may be, it’s also messy, humiliating and sad. Sadder still in many cases are the preceding years, marked by solitude and degradation (not confined to the physical strain). Should you ever question your capacity to empathize with fellow human beings, watch the first twenty minutes of Bryan Forbes’s The Whisperers; they will serve as your litmus test. An Englishwoman of about eighty trudges to the welfare office to claim her subsistence check, then to church where she’s compelled to sing hymns for nourishment, then to the public library to warm her feet on the pipes. That act of indignity gets her expelled from the premises. In his initial review, Roger Ebert posed a question that society is too content to read as rhetorical: “What is it about the Puritan culture, in England and in this country, that makes it necessary for the old and the hungry to shame themselves in order to get the necessities of life?”

To further his inquiry, what is it about the commercial culture, in this country above all, that makes it necessary for the old and the weak to occupy positions of marginality? Death is everywhere in movies and we’re fine with it, just as long as it’s unplanned and unnatural. “Because we’ve come to see death as a failure to keep living, normal death is stripped of meaning, which renders it terrifying,” observes Pomona Prof. Lauri Mullens. But why should something as universal and inescapable as human mortality be terrifying?

Australia-based filmmaker Paul Cox understands that it needn’t be. His exquisite productions, Innocence and A Woman’s Tale, explore the jubilation of life and the weary, wistful sorrow of its passing. The greatest of all films on seniority—and among the greatest of all films—is Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, a trenchant reflection on the unwillingness of young people hurriedly leading their lives to make room for old people still (inconveniently) living theirs. Depressing in its allegations but exhilarating in its candor, Ozu’s masterpiece is brave enough to conclude with a casual expression of life’s disappointments, arriving in a manner both startling and overdue.

The U.S. Census Board reports that 13% of our population is 65 or above. What can that demographic expect from Hollywood? As I see it they’re dropped into three basic pigeonholes. First and foremost, the Cocooners—insidious works that mine the aged for pith and vinegar, shuffling them off-screen when it's time for the youngsters to Be Affected. We note a minor uptick of integrity in the second group, films that respect the elderly but can only envision them in conventional frameworks. These include whimsical human interest yarns like The Straight Story, geriatric buddy pictures (shall we say “crony pictures”) such as Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, and episodic character sketches like the undeniably charming Harry and Tonto.

As expected, the third array concerns treatment of corporeal/neurological failure. Unsentimental works of this type are rare enough, but they’re a dime a dozen compared to the paltry contingent of honest meditations on the emotional cost of longevity. Surviving your life partner or feeling ill at ease with technology and estranged from the younger generations tap into deep-seated cultural anxieties. If we fear one thing more than death, it’s obsolescence. Theres vicious irony in the volume of movies devoted to quarter-life turmoil. Restlessness we embrace, uselessness we scorn.

At last we reach the eternal argument for visibility at all costs. Yes, I prefer twinkly, garbage-mouthed Alan Arkin to no Arkin at all, but there should be a third avenue—one that confronts the winter of life with compassion, fidelity and truth. Is life disappointing? Undeniably. Can the plight be acknowledged? Why else do movies exist?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Short and Sweet

So how ‘bout them Oscars, eh?

There you have seven more syllables of coverage than I planned to impart. Mindful of those hallowed, hollowed words, “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all,” I’ve said precious little on the subject of Hollywood’s preeminent circle jerk. Ah, but if forcibly induced to praise one element of the voters’ conduct, I would point to their uncommonly equitable extraction of two performances that, from a timechecker’s standpoint, lie somewhere between “cameo” and “sub-supporting role.” Doubt’s Viola Davis and Revolutionary Road’s Michael Shannon had roughly a dozen minutes apiece—the length of time it takes Hugh Grant to clear his throat—yet they managed to generate two of the year’s most galvanizing creations. Davis’s single scene in Doubt was a Big Scene, and was lamentably edited as such, but the volcanic brunt of her talent reaches the screen with near-negligible dilution. Denied the luxury of a character arc, she handily and unfussily does without one, arriving on cue fully formed and formidably layered. For all the sturm and drang over alleged misconduct, the party whose reactions resonate most is neither assailant nor exponent, but attestant. Her scene is a movie in miniature, and it proves to be far richer than the one encasing it.

Shannon’s project is perhaps even more formidable. With two short scenes and no histrionics, he’s required to personify candor in a landscape of self-deception. If the Joker was an agent of chaos, John Givings is an agent of authenticity—a man whose penchant for truth casts him out of the order that aches for his vision. In the same way Givings renounces any compulsion to play a role in life, Shannon eschews crazy-sane mannerisms and extrudes dialogue with the precision and impact of heat-seeking missiles. We believe in the “hopeless emptiness” of postwar suburbia not because the screenwriter spells out its ubiquity, but because Shannon points an impassioned finger in its direction and chillingly asserts his pity for its heirs.

Would these turns have forged deeper impressions if they'd been granted more time in the spotlight? Hardly so; I might even argue the opposite. Sometimes one or two-scene roles reverberate on the grounds of their brevity. Just look at the record. In mere minutes they can be iconic (Alec Baldwin’s corporate motivator in Glengarry Glen Ross) or ironic (Christopher Walken, name your poison), sublime (Gene Hackman’s blind Samaritan in Young Frankenstein) or ridiculous (John Wayne, claiming the last word as the Roman centurion in The Greatest Story Ever Told). I confess to a special fondness for Dean Stockwell’s “Ben” in Blue Velvet, a performance that covers all bases in equal measure. Introduced as “suave,” perhaps the one adjective simultaneously vague and redolent enough to convey a sense of his bearing, he delivers an outrageous pantomime to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” projecting the zonked-out vacancy of a man whose delights extend well beyond the drugs he procures from Frank (Dennis Hopper), but also the urgency of one who’s oddly equipped to preside over a moveable feast of debasement. He may look like a clown, but it’s his circus. Brother, suave ain’t the half of it.

So again I open the floor to debate: Which portrayals of limited scope have struck the most clangorous chords?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

As the world holds its breath...

Presenting...the 2008 Golden Steve Awards.

Far and away the most coveted of motion picture accolades, Golden Steves are frequently described as the Oscars without the politics. Impervious to bribery, unreceptive to ballyhoo, disgusted by sentiment and riddled with integrity, this committee of one might legitimately be termed “fair-mindedness incarnate.” Over 100 of the year’s most acclaimed features were screened prior to the compilation of this ballot. First, a few caveats:

1) Owing to a lifelong suspicion of prime numbers, each category (save Best Animated Feature) is comprised of six nominees, not five.
2) Several of the works under scrutiny received international distribution before January 1, 2008. However, they were unavailable to American audiences and thus ineligible for Golden Steve consideration until now.
3) This list is in no way connected with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—a fact that should be apparent from its acumen. Please look elsewhere for Oscar predictions.

And now, the worthy honorees:

Best Picture
The Edge of Heaven
Let the Right One In
My Winnipeg
The Wrestler

Best Director
Fatih Akin, The Edge of Heaven
Tomas Alfredson, Let the Right One In
Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler
Matteo Garrone, Gomorra
Mike Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky
Guy Maddin, My Winnipeg

Best Actor
Michael Fassbender, Hunger
Brendan Gleeson, In Bruges
Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Best Actress
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Maria Heiskanen, Everlasting Moments
Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Kristin Scott Thomas, I’ve Loved You So Long
Galina Vishnevskaya, Alexandra
Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy

Best Supporting Actor
Michel Blanc, The Witnesses
Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
Ralph Fiennes, The Duchess
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Eddie Marsan, Happy-Go-Lucky
Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road

Best Supporting Actress
Penelope Cruz, Vicki Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Martina Gedeck, The Baader Meinhof Complex
Ann Savage, My Winnipeg
Hanna Schygulla, The Edge of Heaven
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler

Best Screenplay--Adapted
The Class (Francois Begaudeau, Robin Campillo)
Everlasting Moments (Niklas Radstrom)
Frost/Nixon (Peter Morgan)
Gomorra (Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, et al)
Let the Right One In (John Ajvide Lindqvist)
Tell No One (Guillaume Canet and Philippe Lefebvre)

Best Screenplay--Original
The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin)
Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)
Milk (Dustin Lance Black)
My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin and George Toles)
Revanche (Gotz Spielmann)
The Wrestler (Robert D. Siegel)

Best Animated Feature
Chicago 10 (Brett Morgen)
$9.99 (Tatia Rosenthal)
WALL-E (Andrew Stanton)
Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman)

Best Non-Fiction Film
Bigger, Stronger, Faster (Chris Bell)
Chris and Don: A Love Story (Tina Mascara and Guido Santi)
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (Kurt Kuenne)
Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog)
Trouble the Water (Carl Deal and Tia Lessin)
Up the Yangtze (Yung Chang)

Best Foreign Language Film
The Class (Laurent Cantet)
The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin)
Everlasting Moments (Jan Troell)
Gomorra (Matteo Garrone)
Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)
Revanche (Gotz Spielmann)

Best Original Song
"Dracula's Lament," Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Jason Segel)
"Little Person," Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, Jon Brion)
"Once in a Lifetime," Cadillac Records (Ian Dench, Amanda Ghost, Beyonce Knowles)
"Trouble the Water," Trouble the Water (Kimberly Rivers Roberts)
"Up to Our Nex," Rachel Getting Married (Robyn Hitchcock)
"The Wrestler," The Wrestler (Bruce Springsteen)