Friday, January 27, 2012

Declare It

My review of the mysteriously-titled-but-enchanting new film Declaration of War is now up at Battleship Pretension. It opens today in, at the very least, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, but beyond that, it's hard to tell. I love IFC Films to death for the films they acquire and their habit of making them available on many platforms, but an updated theatrical schedule is not exactly their forte. But I strongly urge you to see it at your earliest opportunity.

Also at Battleship Pretension, reviews of The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray releases of The Moment of Truth and Godzilla. Come for the cinema, stay for the totally surreal comments section.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Image of the Day

Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (Dušan Makavejev, 1967)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Best Films of 2011

I've only been doing these lists for the last seven years, but I've never had as difficult a time making one as I did this year. A big part of that is I saw far more films this year than any other (140 might not be terribly impressive to full-time critics, but I have a full-time job on top of all this), and as I always say, the more you see, the more impressive the cinematic landscape seems.

As much as people tagged this year as one overrun by nostalgia, looking at the list that follows, I was struck by a very different trend, one characterized by rigorous intellectual pursuits, pursued in very emotional ways. When one thinks of these, one might be overwhelmed by the questions and mysteries they invite, but also think of the very visceral reactions they provoke, and I'll be returning to that theme many times over in the following paragraphs.

There's no such thing as a bad year for movies, but even so, this one felt especially lush.

Honorable Mentions

J. Edgar
Unfairly maligned for being something it never sought to be, Clint Eastwood's best film since Letters of Iwo Jima is the only way to capture its subject - a fussy little man obsessed with his own legacy. Using his typical economy of direction, Eastwood (guided by an excellent structure courtesy of screenwriter Dustin Lance Black) effortlessly takes us through fifty years of American history without ever missing a beat biographically or emotionally. There are images here among the most powerful and transportive I saw all year.
Full review here. Still in some theaters, due on DVD and Blu-ray February 21st.

I hesitate to keep bringing this up, because it's looking like it's going to be tougher and tougher to see the damn thing, but I hold out hope that there are still a few festivals yet to unveil it. If one must lump this in with the rest of the mumblecore genre (of which I am cautiously supportive), know that this is so much more ambitious than the usual affair, and easily more aesthetically accomplished. But what I was struck by was how unbelievably honest writer/director Sophia Takal was, and how perfect her expression of that honesty is.
Interview with Sophia Takal here, and initial thoughts here.

The Green Hornet
Yep yep! If, as Truffaut said, a film must express either to agony or joy of filmmaking, no film this year more directly captured that joy. Forget the useless 3D, this is all about Seth Rogen's uninhibited performance as an entitled asshole who decides to become a superhero, and the consequences of that decision that would come about in a Frank Tashlin cartoon.
Initial review here. Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Runners-Up (in no particular order)

Joe Wright's entry into the action genre was propulsive, rhythmic, and fluid, as aesthetically audacious as it was thrilling.

Martha Marcy May Marlene
A hell of a debut from Sean Durkin, whose total command of his frame is matched only by the power of his edits (and no, not just because it skips back and forth through time a lot).

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Years from now, I'll probably regret not putting this in my top ten, but for now, there are still so many nooks and crannies that remain unexplored. Potentially a perfect film.

As honest as it is hilarious, and sometimes because of that.

The very thought of a Scorsese film not being in my top ten is startling, but that speaks much more to the quality of films this year than the lack thereof in Scorsese's. A beautiful ode to childhood, second chances, and yes you bastards, the cinema.

We Were Here
Contagion, but purely on the ground floor, and horrifyingly, heartbreakingly real. Riveting from top to bottom, holding an inescapable undercurrent of melancholy that comes from only hearing from the survivors.

Lars von Trier continues to make movies that don't make sense, because the core of our emotions don't make sense. Some passages are terrifying in their honesty, others beautiful, others surprisingly funny. The world finally realizes Kirsten Dunst has been a great actor the whole time.

The Loneliest Planet
To say much more would give away the game, but...Straw Dogs and Gerry all wrapped up in romance.

Numbers 11 & 12, or Top Ten Worthy if I'd Had Something Different for Breakfast

12. We Need to Talk About Kevin
Operatic and painterly, psychologically naked and existentially terrifying. As much about a woman grappling with what the world has done to her as what she has done to the world.

11. Shame
Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan cement their place in modern film acting, conveying a depth of experience not explicated by the screenplay. If McQueen only scratches the surface, then so be it, that's his approach - but there's an ocean underneath the ice.

The Top Ten

10. The Arbor
In 1977, at age fifteen, Andrea Dunbar unloaded the misery of her childhood into a play called The Arbor. Growing up in a poor London suburb that supplied her title, she was the product of a family of alcoholics, and by the time her play premiered in 1980, she'd already had one miscarriage and two children to two different fathers (she'd have a third by another before dying at age 29). Her first, Lorraine, was born to an Asian man, and the blatant racism of The Arbor did not make her life very easy. Her own tragic tale, from childhood to present day, serves as director Clio Barnard's story in this new film. In recording interviews with her subjects and hiring actors to lip-synch over them, Barnard has not only given us welcome distance from the horror of the content, but also created a natural extension of Andrea's original play - using the words from primary accounts and building an aesthetic through which they become a piece of performance. I watched this thinking I'd be in for a fascinating intellectual exercise, and came out emotionally ravaged.
Initial thoughts here. Available on DVD, Amazon Instant Video, and Netflix Watch Instant

9. Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen gets a lot of due credit as a writer of clever lines that convey surprising insight into our relationships between each other and the world around us, but when he sets out to direct these light comedic gems, he really hits his stride. He creates a natural ease and flow that makes the whole affair seem effortless, but stands in stark contrast to the sea of comedies overburdened by a commitment to improvisation. Allen's camera, frequently capturing whole scenes in one take, glides peacefully from moment to moment, as enraptured as we are by the newer and wilder characters he puts in front of it. Leading the whole affair is Owen Wilson in the kind of role he seems naturally suited to - a casual, laid back intellectual willing to take in and roll with whatever's put in front of him - only why has it taken so long for someone to draw him out like this? With one glance, he has our undivided attention, just as he cannot draw himself away from the unfolding pleasure suddenly granted to him.
Initial review here. Available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Amazon Instant Video

8. Nostalgia for the Light
Terrence Malick made the sort of connections between the far reaches of the universe and the individual human experience that works on a visceral, spiritual level; Patricio Guzmán found those same connections in science. I'm not much of a science freak, but I'm continually overwhelmed by the way each new discovery reveals how little of our surroundings we really understand at all. Guzmán grabs hold of that unknowability, transforming it into something miraculous, while exploring the real, tangible nature of the oft-used saying "everything is connected." It's the rare documentary as fascinated with the prospect of discovery as it is with imparting information.
Reviewed on Blu-ray here. Available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Amazon Instant Video.

7. Carnage
Simply put, I didn't laugh as hard during any other film this year. Throw in Roman Polanski's razor-sharp direction and a very game cast, most doing their best work in years, and this makes for a hell of a night at the movies. Shallow? Absolutely, but look at the story they're dealing with here, let alone the people trapped in it (as trapped as they are in the apartment). Polanski slowly increases his depth of field until characters seem to be lunging off the screen in a way that even few 3D films manage, and by the end, the character have nearly destroyed his cinema altogether. If this isn't cinematic enough for you, maybe the cinema ain't your bag.
Initial thoughts here. In theaters.

6. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
One of several films on this list I'm at a loss to explain completely, but which nevertheless is such an overwhelming visual/intellectual/emotional experience, I don't particularly care, either. Even the nature of its title is up for grabs, as writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul never really divulges whether or not Boonmee, who's in the final days of his life, can in fact recall anything before this life. But what he can recall from that would be enough to fill any man's conscience. Unafraid of diving into spiritual realms, Weerasethakul's has more diversions than an episode of Family Guy, but they all add up to a total view of life that is breathtaking in its expanse and depth of consideration. There are enough single images here to last a lifetime, enough questions to keep you up all night.
Initial review here. Available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Netflix Watch Instant

5. Winnie the Pooh
The best animated film of the year, like Woody Allen's latest film, tests the limits of how much charm one person can take. But it does so genuinely, with so much joy in every turn-of-phrase (it's also one of the best-written films of the year; lyrical and clever and so funny) and every quiet moment of trust. I was won over by the film's casual faith in the human condition, that none of these characters "get along" perfectly, but never question the fact of their friendship. It's also a subtle bit of advocacy of the written word, established in the way the text of the story interacts in the frame, culminating in the characters being literally saved by letters. There are few better messages to put into a film than these, and it's hard to imagine them being conveyed with the kind of grace on display here. Simple and sweet, perhaps, but more films could benefit from same.
Initial review here. Available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Amazon Instant Video

4. The Turin Horse
When you're talking about a two-and-a-half-hour black-and-white movie with only thirty shots that chronicles the slow descent of a father and daughter living on a broken farm, it's hard to convey how visceral an experience it can be. This will apparently serve as writer/director Bela Tarr's final film, and one could do worse than to go out on such an unassailable masterpiece, which echoes Tarkovsky, Murnau, and Dreyer as much as it stands alongside them. Chronicling, in many ways, the slow decay of the earth as a physical presence, Tarr inverses Beckett's famous line, "I can't go on, I'll go on," putting the emphasis on the struggle to survive against insurmountable elements. The Turin Horse gets you to reconsider that void that you sometimes feel is out there; the vast expanse of nothingness. I left the theater shaken to my core.
Initial consideration here (along with some notes from a Q&A session with Tarr), and full review here. Its proper theatrical run begins in March.

3. Certified Copy
A woman meets a man in Tuscany. Or does she? Nothing can really prepare you for Abbas Kiarostami's masterpiece, which takes Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise/Before Sunset and sends it beyond the infinite, because I've yet to meet anyone who can get a handle on it. But we can all talk about how remarkably pleasurable an experience it is to see two informed people (Juliette Binoche and William Shimmel) discuss and evoke everything that really matters in life, and if a careful replication of those things is good enough, or indeed if anyone would ever know the difference.
Initial, gushing, incomprehensible review here. Now available on Netflix Watch Instant and Amazon Instant Video.

2. Margaret
For those of you just joining us, the troubled production history of Kenneth Lonergan's magnum opus has led it to becoming a rather difficult film to see for the time being. But my purpose in placing it on this list is no more than any other - to champion an important piece of cinema that I love dearly. And I love Margaret. I don't love it with faint praise, imagining what might be if we ever get Lonergan's preferred cut (though should we, I'll be the first one in line). I love it as it is - a fractured nerve, exposed and fraying at the edges, threatening to unleash hell at any moment. I love that in the week after I saw it, I couldn't think of anything else, and I love that, months later, I still get swept away reflecting on its insane ambition and the perfection with which Lonergan attained it. Led by Anna Paquin in the performance of the year and the sort of acting company any piece of drama dreams theatrical dreams of, this would be the kind of film about which people would say, "man, they don't make 'em like that anymore," but they never did. This is real cinema, dense and uncompromising, a piece that functions beautifully as metaphor and viscerally as drama. It's full of a million moments that could break your heart and a million more that beat you senseless with the unrestrained fury of oncoming adulthood. It's big and terrifying and so smart and so very, very good.
Initial review here. It's not easy to see right now, but a DVD release is expected this spring. Additionally, Los Angeles residents can see it at The Silent Movie Theater January 27th-February 2nd, and it's still playing at New York's Cinema Village, where it's enjoyed a longer revival run than it did an initial one.

1. The Tree of Life
Admittedly, putting the new Terrence Malick film at number one was a lot more daring and interesting when it was called The New World, but I'm no less honest now than I was then. Weaving his childhood against the history of all life on this planet, he's crafted at once the most distilled and wildest version of the thematic concern that's carried his career - that although our lives are not so impressive against the backdrop of the universe, we create meaning with every moment. Nobody has better expressed that duality of existence, nor expressed it so richly.
Initial review here. Available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Godard, and Women, and Music, and Film

The great, priceless organization known as Cinefamily is performing a public service by exhibiting Jean-Luc Godard's astounding Week End now through Wednesday, followed by some of his best stuff from the 1960s January 20th-26th. Those will in turn be accompanied by his latest (and supposedly last) film, Film Socialisme, which I've not yet seen but am, naturally, dying to.

If you haven't seen these, I couldn't possibly urge you more strongly to do so now. I'll be trying to make it to Week End at the very least (if this damn cold ever lets up), which is showing in a new 35mm print, and has heretofore only been available in a rather shabby DVD edition. For those who don't live in the Los Angeles area, all of these are available on very good DVD or Blu-Ray editions (yes, even the Studio Canal release of Contempt is pretty fantastic).

And, well...they're masterpieces. It's been said (and I don't recall where, but the sentiment is wide and pervasive) that Godard's films are better discussed than watched, and I hope the following will disabuse you of that notion. Few directors have so consistently reminded us of what we love about the movies.

(Clips from A Woman is a Woman, Vivre sa vie, Breathless, Pierrot le Fou, and Band of Outsiders)

Friday, January 6, 2012

Movie Journal #6

Sorry about the long time between posts, dear readers. I took a little break for the holidays, and was instantly struck with an illness that rendered my usual habit of writing on and on and on rather inert. I didn't exactly stop watching movies, however much that may have slowed. Although I only saw one new release over my Christmas vacation in beautiful Portland, OR, I also managed to sit my mother down for Chaplin's Modern Times, which went over splendidly. As I always say, if the audience is willing to give it half a chance, a movie from an era will still play.

However, I'm here primarily to discuss a set of new-ish releases, some of which came out much earlier this year, but all of which are now widely available for viewing by various means, by they theatrical, DVD, or our old pal Netflix Instant.

War Horse - This Christmas Day viewing was the aforementioned new theatrical release I saw in Portland, and, in the interest of full disclosure (or something thereabouts), the projection quality was quite shabby. The bulbs were bright enough and the thing was generally in focus, but I'd say a good...tenth of the frame on the lefthand side was lopped off. So that was fun. However, my overall mixed reaction to it was not hampered by the director Steven Spielberg's style, which I found tremendously refreshing (what cinephile isn't down for a recreation of classical framing and acting? Except, of course, those who want nothing to do with The Artist), but the thrust of the story was, to say the least, a little strained. And as fine as most of the performances were, I found Jeremy Irvine to be far too earnest (nobody should shout "we'll be together again!" at a horse, and in public no less). I suspect there's more to this one than what I've found in it, however, and do hope to revisit it in short order.

The Adventures of Tintin - Spielberg's other feature this winter provides more immediate satisfaction than War Horse, but to less lasting effect. When dealing with big action set pieces in animation, one has to trade out the visceral thrill for the sheer ingenuity of the set-ups and execution, and on that level, Tintin delivers the best Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions you'll find in any film this year. Nearly every scene in this film inevitably turns into a set piece, each one wilder than the last (ever seen dueling cranes? Now's your chance!), but there is so much that feels terribly misguided on a technical front. I understand Spielberg's personal attraction to making an animated film with motion capture rather than pure animation - it's the difference between working with actors physically and just voice actors - but the result gives the otherwise light film an unfortunate leaden weight, with the characters' physicality in dramatic scenes operating in direct contrast to the more spectacular segments. His use of 3D is fine, using it more to peer deeper into something in the far depths of the frame than anything else, but it's hard to imagine the accomplishment wouldn't have been just as fine with the digital equivalent of whatever apparatus Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki used on Children of Men.

A Separation - I was rather taken with writer/director Asghar Farhadi's breakout film, though not quite to the extent many others were. He weaves plot and theme together in a way that's really quite striking, and I loved the way he played with the lies we tell ourselves to uphold the belief that, deep down, "I'm a good person." As clever as his screenplay is in terms of set-up and payoff, I found it a little less structurally satisfying in how it focused totally on a certain character only to abandon him or her when the narrative had other concerns. Maintaining the tapestry would not only have been more interesting, but much more honest to what he's getting at. Nonetheless, it's an exceptional film, one you really, really don't want to know too much about going in.

We Bought a Zoo - In spite of the fact that I've liked (to varying extents) all of writer/director Cameron Crowe's work to date, I was more than a little worried going into his latest. Crowe's particular brand of schmaltz always felt honest to me - I believed he really felt these huge emotions that drove his characters - but this felt like the first time he was lying. I am happy to report, however, that this is as earnest an effort as he's ever given, even as it's certainly one of his more problematic ones. Matt Damon goes a long way towards selling the schmaltz, and Crowe is great as ever at finding the smaller moments to emphasize big emotions ("I would LOVE to teach you to shave! Let's shave!" being a real standout) while still be unafraid of big, blatant sentimentality. Not a great film, certainly, but as genuinely warm-hearted and fun as you'd want it to be.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows - Being not particularly fond of the first installment, I was surprised to be even remotely so of this. Don't get me wrong, it's still not a "good film" or anything, but I was rather appreciative of it's even more exaggerated sense of play, due in no small part to the inclusion of Sherlock's brother Mycroft (played by Stephen Fry). Even if he, and Fry, are somewhat wasted, they provide for many avenues of good humor, and Jared Harris is a much worthier villain than whoever Sherlock was up against last time (I think he was play by Mark Strong...). Director Guy Ritchie, as ham-handed as ever, manages to get away with one great sequence that is equal parts Sergei Eisenstein and the opening of Melancholia, but beyond that, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything but manufactured "fun" here.

Albert Nobbs - I tend to dislike films built around a strong lead performance. If they're not driven primarily by an actor as an executive producer, they are at least because a director saw what they had, and wanted to use as much of it as possible, ignoring everything else along the way. Albert Nobbs is quite a bit better than all those, with thematic ambition extending far beyond the front door as it were. Its weak link, somehow, is Glenn Close's lead performance, which reveals on the surface far more of the character's interior life than that character ever would. Nevertheless, it is, as they say, a handsome production, and quite a bit more engaging than you might expect.

The Trip - I have an uneasy relationship with what could be termed "British comedy," though I do recognize that is in no small part because of its ardent - you could say strident - fanbase, but director Michael Winterbottom ended up finding something truly special in its most common detriment - the repeated joke. British comedians seem to love nothing more than repeating one joke over and over again until you want to puke, but here Winterbottom used that tendency as a game of one-upsmanship between his two stars, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, as a way to revel in male competition. What he comes out the other end with is something not only quite funny, but quite melancholy in a way as well.

The Arbor - A towering achievement, the rare documentary film that is cinematic in its bones. Director Clio Barnard took an unusual (to say the least) tact in recording interviews with her subjects and hiring actors to lip-synch to them. This is absolutely as weird as it sounds, for the first few minutes, until it quickly becomes the most natural, brilliant move in the world. The genesis of her project is Andrea Dunbar, who wrote a major play (The Arbor) at age 15 and died at age 29 after a lifetime of alcohol abuse, giving birth along the way to three children by three different fathers. To say their lives were unhappy would be only the beginning of their troubles. Barnard spends most of her time with Lorraine, whose biography serves as a spiritual, and in many ways direct, sequel to Andrea's play, which told the story of her own upbringing in the titular rundown neighborhood. The lip-synching provides necessary distance from the increasing horror of Lorraine's life, while also serving much the same purpose that the stage did for Andrea's - getting the honest truth from a primary source, and creating an aesthetic through which to explore it. You think I'm intellectualizing it, but once you see it, you see right away how natural it is.