Friday, January 4, 2013

10 Best Movies of 2012

I'm not even going to bother lamenting about how this was the worst year for movies in recent memory (even though it was), because, frankly, I'm tired of being that guy.  The thing is, I want to be one of those people who claims this to be an incredibly wonderfully great year for movies (which they do every year).  And I am so freaking jealous of them.  I'm jealous that they can watch a movie like Zero Dark Thirty or Lincoln and say, "Yes, this is a great work of art."  It's not that I necessarily think their standards are lower than mine (even though they probably are), it's that we're clearly looking for different things, and the things I'm looking for are elusive and rare.  I saw exactly two great movies last year, plus a possible third which, judging by the great wave of appreciation that crashes against my heart and brain every time I think of it, I may have underrated.  There were also some other movies I liked a lot.  Here they are:

10. Cloud Atlas
Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings' (sounds like a polka band) ambitious epic, based on David Mitchell's brilliant genre-bending novel (which I highly recommend), is so insane and yet so earnest that I fell a little bit in love with it, warts and all.  With its devil-may-care treatment of race, gender and sexuality, it's almost like something John Waters would make if given a studio-sized budget.

9. Miss Bala
Gerardo Naranjo's rigidly self-controlled Mexican crime drama came out way back in January, and has mostly been forgotten since then (it's appeared on only two "top 10" lists made by professional critics).  It's a remarkably assured work from a director with whom I was completely unfamiliar (this is his fourth feature).  The title is a play on words -- the plot revolves around the Miss Baja beauty pageant, and "bala" is the Spanish word for "bullet" -- but the film is much more austere than that implies, doggedly following its heroine as she desperately strives to take control of a life that, through an unfortunate twist of fate, has become not her own.

8. Argo
This is the year's best CIA-in-the-Middle-East movie, a film set in 1980 that could just as easily be a film from 1980.  Unlike those of that other CIA movie, its pleasures are contextually autonomous; you don't need to have ever heard of Iran or the hostage situation to understand or enjoy it.  It's also the most breathtaking nail-biter to come along in some time, with a plot that would have been screaming to be dramatized immediately after the real-life events occurred, had they not been classified.

7. Beasts of the Southern Wild
One of the year's most impressive debuts (both director-wise and actor-wise), Beasts of the Southern Wild is an almost otherworldly achievement.  It's pragmatic yet fantastic, morbid yet adorable, frequently unpleasant yet absolutely joyous.  Six-year-old newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis carries the film as if she's been acting for thirty years.

6. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
I love it when a documentary comes along that understands that non-fiction films don't have to sacrifice aesthetics.  This study of the world's most revered sushi chef is a zen-like meditation on both culinary art and old age, and what the latter means for the former (and what the former means, period).  And this is above its completely fascinating role as an exposition into the sushi-making process, which is much more complicated and interesting than you probably think.

5. The Snowtown Murders
The name change is unfortunate but necessary, I suppose.  In Australia (and at AFI Fest, where I saw it), it was simply called Snowtown, a convenient catch-phrase recognizable to Aussies but meaningless to Americans, who likely haven't heard about the grisly real-life murder spree that inspired the film.  As an abbreviated title, then, it's especially meaningless, seeing as how the film does not take place in Snowtown and the murders weren't actually committed there (but the media dubbed them "the Snowtown murders" because that's where the bodies were dumped and later found).  The actual film, too, is often meaningless and difficult to follow for anyone not already familiar with the case, and yet I found this to be bracingly challenging rather than vexing.  It's a quiet, eerily convincing examination of the seductive nature of evil, as personified by serial killer John Bunting, played here with a terrifying mix of menace and affability by Daniel Henshall (my pick for best actor of the year, if the Academy is paying attention).  Another stunning directorial debut, by Justin Kurzel.

4. Jeff, Who Lives at Home
Sometimes you just fall for a movie without really understanding why.  Such is the case for me with Jeff, Who Lives at Home, which has nothing innovative or visionary going for it, and yet it provided the happiest 83 minutes of my collective 2012 movie-going experience.  I think a lot of it has to do with the casual, offhand humor at which Ed Helms excels and which provides a perfect counterpoint to Jason Segel's patented dopiness (which usually irritates me, but which makes him positively cuddly here).  But mostly, it's the idiosyncratic script by the Duplass brothers that got me, with its series of absurd scenarios and its characters that are fully aware of their absurdity.  Hey, look at that, I guess I do understand why I fell for it.

3. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
This is the one that I may have underrated slightly.  I was a huge fan of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Distant, but was somewhat less enthused about his follow-up, Climates, and absolutely hated the next one, Three Monkeys, so I was relieved to find him returning to form with this, his most audacious and ambitious film yet.  It runs two and a half hours, more than ninety minutes of which consists of a group of policemen searching for a dead body in the Anatolian steppes in the middle of the night.  And it's riveting.  Not because anything happens, but because, perversely, nothing happens.  It's an existential police procedural that uses the mundanity of detective work as a synecdoche for the human experience, seeming to argue that a routine murder case maybe should be an oxymoron.

2. Moonrise Kingdom
This is the movie towards which Wes Anderson seems to have been building his entire career.   Every Andersonian device and quirk seems to have been invented in earlier films in order to be perfectly placed in this one.  It's wryly hilarious and deliriously romantic and impossibly adorable, filled with more delightful sight gags per square inch than any other recent film I can think of.  Wes Anderson antipathists are strongly advised to steer clear.

1. Samsara
It floors me that this film has gone almost completely ignored by critics, even as Koyaanisqatsi (a movie I find utterly tedious) is still discussed in reverential tones.  Is it simply a case of Too Much?  Originality versus perfection?  Because this film is astonishing; not just cinematographically (though it's so beautiful it makes it hard to breathe), but intellectually, as well.  It's a film about where we've been, where we are, and where we're going as a collective species. Ron Fricke is nothing short of heroic for filming it all, editing it together, and giving us this gift for what had to be absolutely zero profit, and I kind of think he deserves a medal.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

I signed up for Letterboxd, where I will be posting short capsule reviews of movies I watch.  At least until I get tired of it.  You can find it here:

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Objectively Great

Is there such a thing as an objectively great film?  I've been having this argument in one form or another for at least 20 years.  The prevailing school of thought seems to be that yes, there are objectively great films, and if you don't like these films, well, you're just plain wrong.

Which of course is ridiculous.  "Objectively great" is an oxymoron.  If something is objectively anything, it is so based on facts, free from bias or personal interpretation.  And personal interpretation is integral to any discussion of film.

So, why, then, do people make this claim? Someone once told me that certain films simply become objectively great, based on their place in cinema history and the general consensus.  Which, to me, sounds worryingly like opinion by syndicate, groupthink taken to ridiculous extremes.  I'm reminded of an anecdote I heard the other day, in which a screenwriter called up a Hollywood studio executive to find out what he thought of his script, and the response he got was: "Honestly, I don't know what I think, because I'm the only one here who has read it."

Even the meaning of the word "great" is subjective.  My ex-husband used to get annoyed when I described a movie as being very good but not great, because he didn't understand the difference between a great movie and a movie that has nothing particularly wrong with it (I eventually cured him of this condition).  But what is a "great" movie, really?  Everyone has their own standards for bestowing that most sacred adjective on a film.  Myself, I tend to think of a great film has being one that challenges me, either artistically, intellectually, or emotionally.  But really, the best answer is the same one used to define everything from art to pornography: I know it when I see it.

Many people confuse historical importance for artistic greatness, as though the one automatically assumes the other.  This has always seemed problematic to me, though.  Surely, greatness requires more than mere innovation.  Sure, The Birth of a Nation is noteworthy for, if you'll pardon the pun, birthing modern cinema in many ways, but is it really a great movie, this offensively racist, cartoonish Civil War melodrama?  Is The Jazz Singer a great movie for being the first with synchronized sound?  A movie is a lot more than merely the sum of its technical achievements, and being the first to do something certainly does not mean you were the best at doing it, or even particularly good at it.

The real reason people make this claim of "objective greatness," I suspect, is simply that they don't trust their own opinions.  And really, who can blame them?  There are so many factors to consider when forming an opinion of a movie -- directing, writing, acting, cinematography, editing, sound, makeup, costumes, set design, to say nothing of those that are entirely script-related: plot, dialogue, characterizations, are there any plot holes, does it all make sense? -- that it's a wonder we're even able to coalesce our thoughts after only one viewing.  It's much easier to trust the experts to determine cinematic greatness for us, to start from that fundamental viewpoint and work our way to an understanding of the film from there.

There comes a point, however, when you just have to stand on your own legs and declare, "No, actually, this movie really isn't all that great!"  But people are afraid to do that.  Nobody likes to stand alone, to be the dissenting voice in the crowd.  It's scary out there.  And because it's so scary, a kind of herd mentality overtakes us.  It's not that we necessarily alter our opinions to match those of the majority, but when our opinions do match the majority's, or at least come close enough to roughly align with them, it comes as such a relief to have them validated in such a way that we start thinking of them as objective truths.  Opinions seldom thrive in a vacuum.  Knowing others feel the same way we do makes us feel less alone, less strange, less... different.  It's why we watch movies to begin with.  And read books.  And listen to pop songs.  It's all to confirm that there are others out there who are Just Like Us.

So what happens when we don't agree with the majority?  Well, it varies from one person to the next.  For some, it's anger ("How can you all like this overrated piece of crap?!").  For others, it's fear ("What's so great about this movie?  I'd better watch it again because I must have missed something!").  For still others, it's concession ("I know this is a great movie, I just don't like it.").  We scour the Internet in search of smart people who agree with us just so we know we're not crazy.  We're all so afraid of our own opinions that it's become nearly impossible to have a rational, intelligent discussion anymore.

This is especially true in the nerd community.  Certain movies have to be great.  They just have to.  Nerds are extremely protective of their movies, and often go to extreme lengths to defend them.  The Dark Knight Rises (you knew this was coming) opens this weekend, after four years of collective salivating over casting news, leaked set pics, general gossip, any tidbit having anything to do with anything having any kind of connection to this movie.  Such levels of anticipation create a pressure cooker situation, one which requires only the barest hint of negativity to set it off.  When early reviews came in, and not all of them were positive, the fans exploded.  "How dare they dislike this movie, when clearly it's the best movie ever even though we haven't seen it yet?!"  Rotten Tomatoes actually had to shut down comments, it got so heated.  This goes beyond a mere unwillingness to accept differing opinions.  This is fanaticism in the truest sense, as blind and irrational as any extreme religious zeal.  But it's what we humans do, I suppose.

So if there are not objectively great movies, does this mean there are no objectively bad films?  That's harder to judge.  Certainly, there are films that one would be hard pressed to call "good"; it's why something like Mystery Science Theater 3000 could exist.  At least from a technical standpoint, there are certain standards that must be maintained; if a movie fails to reach them any of them, then yes, a case could be made that it is objectively bad.  On the other hand, in my 30+ years of moviegoing, I've discovered few movies as purely entertaining as Plan 9 from Other Space, a film that clearly falls short of acceptable standards of quality in virtually every aspect of its creation.  So how can it be a bad movie if I enjoyed it so much?  This brings us back into that gray area governed largely by "I know it when I see it."

Of course, fans are just as quick to label a movie as "objectively bad" as they are to label something "objectively great."  There are the reasonable candidates, like the aforementioned Plan 9Manos: The Hands of Fate is another commonly cited one.  But then there are movies like The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Superman Returns, and X-Men: The Last Stand, movies that actually got good reviews from the majority of critics on Rotten Tomatoes (76% in the case of Superman Returns), and yet which are invariably used in fan discussions as synonyms for "bad movie."  Now, I bring up these four examples in particular (there are many others) because they're all movies that I personally love.  Not like, love.  And yet I can never talk about my love for these movies in public, because I'm already coming from a foundation of Wrong in the minds of most people who might take part or in some way encounter the discussion.

How did we get to this point, where opinions are so threatening that they need to be quarantined?  Is this really what we want in an intelligent society (which I realize is another oxymoron)?  I suppose humans have always had a fundamental need to make others agree with them -- it's why we have religion, wars, and Oprah -- but at its core, it's always been a matter of fear and insecurity.  Applying that paradigm to something as trivial as moving pictures (and I'm speaking as an ardent film lover) is just doubly pathetic.  Movies aren't mathematical equations to be solved.  They're not scientific formulas.  They're collections of images, sounds, ideas, emotions, rhythms, perceptions.  Some affect you, some don't.  Some that don't affect you affect others, and vice versa.  Whether they affect others or not has nothing to do with you and the effects the movie has on you.  Acceptance of this truth is the first step to a genuine, uncompromising love of the cinema.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Deus ex Silva

Self-conscious horror movies have almost become an industry standard.  I suppose it started with the Scream franchise, which poked fun at the slasher genre while at the same time actually being a slasher movie.  Then came Eli Roth, whose movies are basically straight horror films, but then suddenly become comedies at the end, as if to point out the absurdity of the whole genre.  Last year saw the release of my personal favorite entry in this burgeoning sub-genre, Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil, and now comes the similarly themed The Cabin in the Woods, from the minds of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame.

I can't possibly discuss this movie, or why I despised it so vehemently, without massive spoilers, so consider yourself forewarned.  But since my aim here is to forewarn you against seeing this movie, I think you should ignore the previous forewarning and just read this review anyway.  Trust me, I'm doing you a gigantic favor here.

I knew I would hate it more or less from the first scene.  Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, two actors I normally like quite a bit, play a pair of office workers, in one of those office scenes meant to draw attention to the mundanity of the situation in order to comically juxtapose it with some sort of extraordinary twist.   It's such a commonplace set-up that I can generally spot them right off.  These scenes invariably start with one of the office workers complaining about some banal element of his personal life, usually involving his wife, so the writers can assure us that these guys are Just Like Us before pulling the rug out and revealing there's much more to them than meets the eye.  It's such a trite affectation that professional, experienced writers really should know better by now.

In this case, the "twist" is that these guys work for a vast organization that manipulates college students into vacationing at a remote cabin in the woods, which is essentially just an elaborate TV studio (think The Truman Show in the forest) where the kids are set up as sacrificial lambs for whatever horrors they unwittingly unleash.  In other words, they create real-life horror movies.  It's a meta-horror movie, in which the standard tropes of the genre are all explained away as the machinations of this mysterious corporation whose motives are only gradually revealed to us (I'll get to that in a minute).

So, for example, the creepy gas station attendant that the protagonists encounter at the beginning of just about every horror movie ever made is here revealed to be an actor.  And the creepy cabin has an even creepier basement that They Shouldn't Go Into, but of course they do, and they find it loaded with all sorts of props culled from the horror genre: an old diary containing a spell for raising the dead, a music box, a puzzle reminiscent of the one from Hellraiser, and so on.  The idea here is that the puppetmasters are allowing the kids to choose the means of their own demise.

This is all very "wink wink, nudge nudge," and it's not particularly clever.  It's bad parody because it originates from a flawed premise.  It implies that horror movie tropes need to be explained away to account for either their uniformity or their sheer stupidity, or both.  But... why?  What is it about Hellraiser, or Evil Dead, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or any of the other innumerable films it references, that needs an explanation beyond what is provided?

Indeed, the explanation here makes far less sense than the movies they're parodying.  Are you ready for it?  These college kids are being sacrificed to some sort of evil, demonic god, who will destroy the world if he is not appeased.  And they can't simply be killed, they have to suffer first, hence the elaborate charade.  That's it.  That's the explanation.

It's the complete lack of creativity behind this explanation that really infuriates me.  This movie is, by its nature, setting itself up as being the superior of silly horror films, giving us a knowing wink while explaining why horror movies all seem to lack imagination.  But there's nothing imaginative here, either.  They've simply replaced one dumb premise with another dumb premise.  What is this movie saying, exactly?  How does its absurdly contrived, diabolus ex machina conceit relate to horror movie cliches?  It doesn't.  The writers simply needed something to tie everything together, so Giant Evil God it was.  Really guys?  Giant Evil God?  That's the best you could come up with?

All of this would be forgivable if the movie was actually well made, but it's not.  It has the same bad acting as the horror movies it mocks, and the same bad casting choices (why, for instance, cast the 30-year-old and impossibly good-looking Jesse Williams as the "brainy" college student?  I don't remember that ever being a horror movie cliche).  The lack of naturalistic acting and dialogue kills any sense of contrast between the real world and this artificial world in which the characters find  themselves trapped.  The same goes for the hackneyed camera work.  Indeed, the camera never seems to be positioned where it needs to be to heighten a scene's effectiveness.  Everything is telegraphed for us, so there are no surprises or even mild suspense.  This movie needed to rise above its subject matter, and the movies it spoofs, for it to work at all, and it not only failed to do this, it didn't even make an attempt.

And even this would be forgivable if the movie was funny.  Heck, I would have taken mildly amusing or droll.  But it's none of these things.  It's filled with the same groan-inducing one-liners that made Buffy and Firefly so insufferable to me (Whedon fans, feel free to ignore this review... there's no way you won't love this movie).  I'm a big comic book geek, but this movie is seriously making me question my desire to see The Avengers (especially since Whedon directed it as well as wrote it, and Serenity was... not my favorite sci-fi film).

In the end, this movie doesn't accomplish anything that Tucker and Dale and the Scream movies didn't already cover, and with more intelligence and wit.  Aside from, I suppose, the climactic "Who's Who?" monster melee, which I guess is satisfying in a geek-out sort of way.  But it also betrays the film's true purpose, placing it in the company of Freddy vs. Jason and Aliens vs. Predator.  It's a self-indulgent geek trip, and frankly I've had enough of self-indulgent geek trips.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Is There an Editor in the House?

I really shouldn't have attempted to watch Heaven's Gate, The Turin Horse, and This Is Not a Film all in the same weekend.  It basically meant I spent over seven hours watching nothing happening.  I'm starting to forget what it's like to watch a movie in which there's stuff going on.

Maybe that's a little unfair.  Things do happen in Heaven's Gate, Michael Cimino's notorious 1980 career-destroying flop; it just takes a while to get it going.  First it has to give us 20 minutes of the protagonist, James Averill (played by Kris Kristofferson), graduating from Harvard, which really has nothing to do with the rest of the film, and which mainly consists of John Hurt (looking way too old to be graduating from college even with the makeup artist and hair stylist's efforts to de-age him) giving an esoteric and essentially meaningless speech, followed by the graduates dancing around in circles.  Literally.  Indeed, most of the 219-minute movie is just people dancing around in circles, both literally and metaphorically.  That, and screaming at each other in various European languages.

I really want to believe that the circle motif represents something more than simply the circular nature of life, the way that everything occurs in an endless and ineffectual loop, but the evidence doesn't suggest that there's anything more to it than that.  The whole plot of the film is just a thin clothes line from which to hang these flimsy metaphors (about as flimsy as the metaphor I just wrote, in fact).

Anyway, after the Harvard sequence, we get about 40 more minutes of introductory material, as the story jumps ahead 20 years, to the 1890s, and the film's true setting (Wyoming) and characters are established.  So, we're a full hour into the movie, and it feels like it's just starting.

After another hour, I still felt like I had no true idea of who these characters were.  Kristofferson isn't much of an actor, or much of a movie star, so he gives the already vague character he portrays an extra layer of vagueness.  Christopher Walken and Jeff Bridges wander around the film without much to do, John Hurt's purpose is completely mystifying, and Sam Waterston puts in an appearance every once in a while to remind us that the film has a villain.  Only Isabelle Huppert, as the hooker with a heart of gold,  really exists as flesh and blood, although she plays the character with such giddy girlishness that it borders on creepy, considering her profession (incidentally, the film also marked the debuts of both Willem Dafoe, as an extra, and Lost's Terry O'Quinn, in a minor role, as well as an early performance by a very young-looking Mickey Rourke).

Cimino's original cut was reportedly almost five and a half hours long.  I can't imagine what was cut out, when the 3.5-hour version already feels bloated and aimless.  If you're going to ask your audience to invest this much time in a film, then surely you should be offering something in return, like engaging characters or an interesting story.  All we really get is Vilmos Zsigmond's magnificent tawny-toned cinematography, but that's hardly sufficient remuneration for 219 butt-numbing minutes of our lives.

But at least it's a bonafide movie.  Jafar Panahi's This Is Not a Film (now in theaters) is certainly aptly named, because it's really not a film at all.  It's literally a home movie, shot on a video camera (and, at one point, an iPhone) entirely in Panahi's apartment over the course of a single day.  If this sounds absurd, you have to remember that Panahi is the Iranian filmmaker who was arrested and banned from making films for 20 years.  So This Is Not a Film represents a protest, of sorts.  The story behind it is already becoming the stuff of legend, how the footage was smuggled out of Iran in a birthday cake by associates of Panahi's who must remain anonymous or face a prison sentence.  So, you know, it's all very noble and worthy.

But come on.  I mean, let's get real here.  It's not a movie.  It's 75 minutes of Panahi moping around his apartment, taking phone calls from friends, family, and business associates, and reading excerpts from a screenplay he was not allowed by law to film.  It's actually not as boring as it sounds, and in fact it's occasionally quite interesting, particularly when Panahi makes digressions to discuss his previous films (using his DVD copies as visual aids).  But it's of interest only to people who have been wondering what Panahi has been up to since his arrest.  And the answer is: well, not a whole hell of a lot.

I know Iran has been in the news a lot lately.  I know it's a place that 99.9% of Americans will never visit, so it's, you know, exotic and foreign and shit.  And I know the political regime sucks.  But this is not a film!  It's barely even a protest.  Even Panahi himself seems doubtful of its value as a movie, though he seems to be aware that it does raise some interesting questions about truth and art.

So if it's not a movie, what is it?  A political statement?  Maybe.  Panahi does try to adhere to the letter of the law if not the spirit, so he has friends and family members work the camera for him (or simply leave it running on a table).  Eventually, though, he gives up this pointless charade and picks up the camera himself, even venturing outside with it.  It's essentially Panahi waving his middle finger at the government, the equivalent of a child testing his parents for the limits of their patience... but does that constitute art?  I remain doubtful.  Regardless of the circumstances, I don't think the act of picking up a camera should automatically be worthy of praise (or our money), if what is actually onscreen is irrelevant.

Both Heaven's Gate and This Is Not a Film represent, at least for me, cinematic excess and superfluity, and both raise questions concerning whether or not everything that can be put on film should be shown.  But if there were a king of cinematic excess and superfluity, that crown would surely go to Bela Tarr, who has had a chronic case of diarrhea of the camera for about three decades now.  This is best exemplified by Satantango, his 7.5-hour magnum opus, a film that could have easily shaved off four hours by simply cutting every shot in half, and nothing would have been lost.  Indeed, it would have been the same movie, just less of it.  Tarr is a man who really loves to film the shit out of things.

The Turin Horse (also now in theaters) is allegedly his final film, for which we can all be thankful.  It clocks in at a mere two hours and 26 minutes, and yet it still feels like it's never going to end, like the world has ended and this movie is all that remains.  Which might very well be the point.  It certainly appears as though the world is ending for the characters, an old farmer and his daughter, who are trapped in a windstorm that lasts six days, and trapped in their lives, which are mercilessly interminable.

Nobody's ever going to ask, "What's your favorite part of The Turin Horse?"   Unless they're joking, and they're looking for a response like, "The part where the old man eats the potato."  Or, "The part where the girl eats the potato."  Or, "The part where the old man looks out the window."  Or, "The part where the girl looks out the window."  Yes, this is the movie.  It's like a parody of every unfair preconception that an average American has about European films.

Now, I can handle slow films.  My favorite filmmaker is Andrei Tarkovsky, who wasn't exactly known for speeding things along.  I'm also a fan of Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a three-hour plus film in which the title character performs the same mundane routine, over and over again.  The difference is that Jeanne Dielman's deliberate tedium has a specific point to make (heck, with Delphine Seyrig's intense performance and Akerman's exquisite sense of camera placement, it's not even tedious at all), and it all built to something.  Tarr's point could have been made just as well without the tedious repetition.

But what really bugged me about the film was its aestheticism.  Tarr's camera fetishizes poverty.  He shoots, as per his idiom, in grim black and white that makes everyone and everything look bleakly beautiful, like a perfume ad for the post-apocalyptic consumer.  In its way, what is actually onscreen becomes almost as irrelevant as in This is Not a Film.  Tarr is so in love with textures and shapes and shades that the actors just seem to get in the way.  His camera lingers on objects -- a drinking glass, a lamp, and, most laughably, a sheet hanging over the field of view -- with such portentous significance as to suggest that he includes things like story and characters merely begrudgingly, so that we'll stick around to look at his pretty still lifes.  As the characters gradually give up on life in a world of despair brought upon by the debasement of man, or whatever (honestly, Bela, what the hell is the matter with you, dude?), it has all the resonance of a painting.

What, then, are we to learn from this?  That every film needs a merciless, jackbooted, take-no-prisoners editor to keep the director honest?  When you make a film, there is an unspoken compact established with the audience.  We give you our money and our attention, and in return we expect to see things that have significance to ourselves.  I'm reminded of Steve Martin's speech to John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.  "Not everything is an anecdote.  You have to discriminate.  You pick things that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting."  That's true of films as well as anecdotes.  Just because you want to film something, it doesn't mean it should be filmed, or that we want to see it.  A little self-restraint is all I'm asking for here.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Thoughts on the Oscars

Every year, a certain inevitable inevitability creeps up come Oscar time.  We more or less know precisely who and what is going to win, and not merely because the ceremony arrives at the tail end of a string of lesser and mostly homogeneous awards shows: the Golden Globes, the various guild awards, the critics awards, etc.  It also has much to do with how the movies themselves are brought into the public eye.  The first time I ever heard of The Artist, it was in print next to the words "future Best Picture winner."  Ditto for The King's Speech.  It's like these movies are set up from the beginning to win awards, presented to the Academy like some sort of matchmaking service.

So it's hard to muster much enthusiasm anymore.  And yet, somehow, I do.  I still love the Oscars.  There's something official about them, backed by 84 years of history, almost as long as movies themselves have been around.  The Oscars matter, even after we've accepted the fact that they're decided by a group of people who are just marking ballots after coming home late from a 16-hour shoot, who haven't seen half the films and have no real clue whether Moneyball had better sound mixing than Transformers: Dark of the Moon or not.  We still have the illusion that these are the year's definitive bests in their respective categories, and what are movies if not illusions?

So, yeah, I didn't much care for The Artist.  But its Oscar for Best Picture still means something, still gives it its place in history alongside such beloved classics as The Greatest Show on Earth and The Life of Emile Zola.  You can't un-award an Oscar, or even a nomination.  Jonah Hill will always be Academy Award Nominee Jonah Hill.  Coming soon: 21 Jump Street, starring Channing Tatum and Academy Award Nominee Jonah Hill.  There's something comforting in that. 

I have no real problem with most of the winners, either.  They gave Woody Allen an Oscar for his script for Midnight in Paris, which I predicted (the Best Screenplay award almost always goes to a Best Picture nominee, so it was either that or The Artist, and I figured a lot of Academy members would be prejudiced against voting for a silent film for a screenplay award), but which nonetheless came as something of a pleasant surprise.  Having personally only seen nine of the 20 nominated acting performances (including zero for Best Actress), I had no real stake in the outcome of any of them (though I do think Jean Dujardin is a tad overrated).  True, a win for Melissa McCarthy would have been awesome, but did anyone really think that would happen?

I'd also like to thank the Academy for giving Best Adapted Screenplay to Alexander Payne, who has already won, and not to John Logan, who has never won, and yet keeps getting nominated even though he's awful (his script for Hugo would have made a great Public Service Announcement for film preservation, but it's not really a screenplay, is it?).  This even makes me forgive them for giving the Best Animated Feature Oscar to Rango, a movie I loathed (and anyway, I haven't seen the other nominees, or have any wish to do so), or Best Song to "Man or Muppet," a song that makes me want to machine wash a Muppet on high, with bleach and no fabric softener, from a movie I also loathed.  And for giving War Horse absolutely nothing.

It was actually the most enjoyable Oscar ceremony in years.  Billy Crystal was back, so they had a host who was funny and knew what he was doing; they had Cirque du Soleil doing a pretty cool performance; they skipped the performances of the Best Song nominees; and, best of all, they moved the lifetime achievement awards and the Jearn Hersholt Humanitarian Award to a different ceremony entirely, so we were spared half an hour of somnolent platitudes.  Thank you, producer Brian Grazer... you may be the first person in history to shut Oprah up.

Now if someone could just explain to me why, in a room full of sound mixers, they couldn't find someone to fix the sound.

Monday, January 9, 2012

10 Best Movies of 2011

Contrary to popular opinion, I have to say this was an awfully weak year for movies.  As so often occurs, with what seems to be increasing frequency, I found myself underwhelmed by most of the critics' favorites.  Indeed, this year had more than its fair share of critical responses that simply seemed bizarre to me.  Like, for instance, A Separation.  Nice movie, kinda forgettable, pretty typical Iranian film, really, the kind I've seen many times before... and yet it had the critics declaring it a masterpiece to be placed alongside the canonical greats of all time (of course, neither am I a big fan of Kieslowksi's Decalogue, A Separation's spiritual antecedent... ethical dilemmas seldom hold much interest for me as plot material, which is why the Dardenne brothers generally leave me cold, as well).  Or The Artist, this year's The King's Speech, a cute crowd-pleaser that was mysteriously exalted as something brilliant and momentous.  Or The Tree of Life, which was just laughably bad, like a pretentious student film with a Hollywood budget and a top-notch D.P.  And there were others, mostly with one-word titles: Hugo, Drive, Shame, Melancholia et al.

All right, now that I've most likely alienated half of those reading this, I can move on to my top 10 list, which will no doubt alienate the other half.  In ascending order (well, numerically descending, but you know what I mean):

10. The Arbor
One of my favorite films of 2002 was The Laramie Project, a docudrama based on a play in which actual interviews with people connected to the Matthew Shepard murder case were transcribed and then performed by actors as dialogue, which proved to be a surprisingly effective experiment in cognitive dissonance between drama and reality.  With The Arbor, filmmaker Clio Barnard took that concept a step further, by having her actors actually lip sync to the recorded interviews of real-life people (in this case, the friends and family members of English playwright Andrea Dunbar).  I know what you're thinking, probably the same thing I was thinking when the concept was explained by on-screen text at the start of the film, which was something along the lines of: "Wait, what?"  But it only took one sentence to convince me of its efficacy as a weirdly poetic device.  Barnard intercuts these docu-dramatized scenes with sequences of Dunbar's autobiographical play (called The Arbor, natch) being performed (outdoors in the very neighborhood in which it is set), and real television footage of Dunbar herself.  It's like layers of reality upon layers of reality, making for an eerily fascinating examination of the meaning of truth versus art.

9. How I Ended This Summer
I've never seen a movie quite like How I Ended This Summer.  Even the title betrays an unusual sense of whimsy that you have to actually see the movie to understand.  The film is a two-hander about a pair of meteorologists living in an isolated weather station on a remote island off the Arctic coast of Russia, and the plot concerns what happens when a lack of communication between these two men creates a misunderstanding that ultimately spirals out of control.  It takes roughly the form of a thriller, but, really, it's an anti-thriller, in which the plot is moved forward by inaction rather than action.  More contemplative than kinetic, but infused with humor so dry and deadpan that it's easy to miss it entirely.

8. The Future
Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know was my favorite movie of 2005, and, really one of my favorites of all time.  Finally, after six years, she made her second feature film, and while it doesn't reach nearly the heights of brilliance of her first film, it still outstrips most films that came out last year.  July once again directs herself, this time as half of a self-involved bohemian couple whose uncharacteristically magnanimous adoption of a stray cat sends them spiraling into some sort of existential, premature mid-life crisis (their reasoning goes something like this: "This cat will live another five years.  In five years we'll be 40, and 40 is basically 50, and everything after that is just loose change.")  It's a hilarious look at thirtysomething neurosis, but also, ultimately, kind of a sad one.

7. The Descendants
It says a lot about Alexander Payne that his latest movie is my second least favorite film that he's made, and yet it still makes my Top 10 list of the year.  The thing that strikes me most about his style, evident in this film more than in any other, is his sense of place.  He's so specific in his treatment of scenes and social milieus that it's almost impossible to come away from one of his films without feeling like you've just spent a year of your life living in whatever locale it's set in, whether it's the wine country of Santa Barbara County (Sideways), or, in this case, the Hawaiian islands.  And, just like with all of his other movies, the performances are terrific across the board (Shailene Woodley, a young television actress, is particularly impressive, if only because she's young and from television), and the script is equal parts sensitive and acerbic.  I love this guy.

6. Moneyball
Herein lies the value of film critics.  Without them, I never would have seen this generic-looking baseball movie, never would have known I was missing out on maybe (probably... almost definitely) the best baseball movie ever made.  And it's a great baseball movie made from such unlikely material.  The drama isn't based on homers or strike outs, but on board meetings and conference calls, as it follows Oakland A's manager Billy Beane's quest to build a winning team based on statistics and computer analyses rather than talent.  It's surprisingly riveting stuff, and, even with the focus on the business of baseball over the actual sport, there's still room for those stirring crowd-pleasing moments that are the benchmark of any sports movie.  What a nice surprise.

5. Tucker and Dale vs Evil
In an era of dumb horror movies and dumber comedies, Tucker and Dale vs Evil feels like a miracle.  It's a smart, hilarious horror-comedy that, even more surprisingly, actually has something to say.  The premise is truly inspired: a group of college kids go camping in the woods, and run across a pair of redneck hillbillies who, um... just want to go fishing.  But since the college kids have seen... well, take your pick of horror movies... they assume that the two hillbillies are inbred psychotic killers, particularly after the kids keep meeting with grisly accidents one by one.  In reality, the hillbillies are just regular, nice guys minding their own business, utterly perplexed that college kids keep dying around them.  So what we get is both a spoof on slasher movies and a commentary on prejudice, as well as a sweet character study and some of the most pitch-perfect moments of gruesome dark comedy I've ever seen.  First-time(!) writer-director Eli Craig is definitely one to watch.

4. Putty Hill
If The Arbor is a documentary posing as a drama, Putty Hill is a drama posing as a documentary.  Not that it can really be classified as a mockumentary, but the film occasionally takes time out from the action to hold interviews with the characters, conducted by the (unseen) filmmaker himself.  The film itself plays a bit like something Richard Linklater and Gus Van Sant would come up with if they ever decided to work together.  It follows the friends and family members of a young man who recently died from a drug overdose, and how his death affected (or didn't affect) the community in which he lived.  Absolutely mesmerizing from one shot to the next, filled with uncannily naturalistic performances and a formal mastery not commonly found in low-budget American indies, it's the year's most overlooked film by a mile.

3. The Guard
My first response upon seeing The Guard was that it was this year's In Bruges: a witty, darkly comic British (well, Irish, in this case) thriller with a first-rate Brendan Gleeson perfomance.  So it wasn't much of a surprise to learn that the writer-director, John Michael McDonagh, is the brother of Martin McDonagh, the writer-director of In Bruges.  Clearly, this family is awesome.  In Bruges is the better film, I think, but The Guard is a more than worthy companion, with the same breezy wit, the same loving attention to character development, the same visual aplomb.  The trailer makes it look like a lame cross between a buddy cop movie and a fish-out-of-water comedy (the "fish" being Don Cheadle's FBI agent, paired with Gleeson's drunken Irish cop to catch a gang of drug smugglers), but the actual film delights in subverting these cliches, and others like them.  Far more interested in character than comedy or action, it ultimately becomes Gleeson's movie as it gradually stakes its claim as, really, little more than a detailed character study.  And what a wonderful character it is.

2. Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen is very hit or miss, especially lately, but when he hits, it's magical.  This is one of his best films, and easily his funniest.  It's the kind of movie he was making back in the '80s, when he would have a new masterpiece practically every year, and particularly recalls The Purple Rose of Cairo, its most obvious thematic sibling.  In one of the most canny marketing campaigns since The Crying Game, the trailers  avoided revealing what the movie is actually about, and I wouldn't dream of spoiling it here; but it's a story so enchantingly told, so fraught with pleasures both small and large, that it's no wonder it became Allen's highest grossing film to date, and his first in quite some time to get serious Oscar buzz.  It's his most assured film in years, with gorgeous camerawork, absolutely brilliant casting in all of the key roles, and a screenplay that, while it might belabor the central thesis a bit much, is decidedly pointed and utterly charming.

1. War Horse
Somehow, Steven Spielberg made one of the great masterpieces of the 1940s and nobody noticed.  Maybe because he made it in 2011.  But whatever... War Horse is the closest thing we have to the days of John Ford and Victor Fleming, King Vidor and Powell and Pressburger.  It's a glorious, old-fashioned epic about a great love being torn asunder by war.  The fact that it's a love story between a boy and a horse does nothing to dilute its emotional potency.  Even I, who groaned at the thought of seeing a horse movie, was captivated by this story.  I can't imagine it working as well on stage (it's also a Tony-winning play), without Spielberg's knack for anthropomorphizing these animals... not in a silly kids movie kind of way, but in subtler ways that simply serve to remind us we're watching living, feeling creatures.  For it's the horse who is the film's protagonist, not the boy, and without such an uncannily expressive treatment of our hero, it would be an entirely different movie... Au Hasard Balthazar with a horse, or something.  The whole film is magnificent, with the expected stunning war scenes and unexpected moments of humor, but the ending is what I'll remember most.  The ending is quite simply one of the most insanely beautiful things I've ever seen in my life.  To say that it moved me to tears is a severe understatement.  It freakin' destroyed me.

Worst Movie of the Year:
I watched this only because Ebert put it on his Top 20 list for the year.  Every so often I forget why I don't read Ebert anymore, and I need a movie like this to remind me.  Think of the absolute worst '80s Afterschool Special you ever saw.  Then imagine that it was about internet sexual predators, maybe involving Chris Hansen from Dateline somehow.  Now, imagine that Afterschool Special remade as a feature film in 2011.  That movie you're imagining is way better than Trust.  This movie is hilariously awful, a two-hour piece of propaganda against something we already know is bad.  It's a movie in which every scene seems to be calculated solely to teach teenage girls the dangers of online messaging, complete with a creepy sexual predator who, like most movie sexual predators, couldn't be simply creepy by being a sexual predator, but has to have an extra layer of creepiness even above that, like creepiness squared.  But the funniest moment is when the teenage victim, who up until now has been defending the sexual predator and insisting the sex was consensual, suddenly has a breakthrough and realizes, "Oh my god, I was raped!"  Rape, incidentally, is the film's key word.  The dialogue in any given scene invariably goes like this: "blah blah rape blah rape something something rape, yadda yadda rape... rape rape rapity rape."  PSAs have more subtlety.