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Friday
Jan012010

DEPTH IN A DECADE OF DISTRACTION: THE TWENTY BEST FILMS OF THE OUGHTSS

 

The best films of the last ten years resisted the distraction or distractedness which seems to be the decade’s signature. Remarkably, directors created and audiences found films that required and rewarded concentration. Everybody knows so much now, so much of form, technique, method and intention. Film fanatics curate their own private museum of DVDs or downloads, and seeing a favorite or intriguing film five times is no big deal. As a result, we’ve become connoisseurs of fragments. We YouTube sex scenes, punch lines, iconic speeches (“Say hello to my little fren’!”), car chases, classic moments. We accept that most films don’t succeed in their entirety, but might have a moment here or there worth remembering. But moments are not drama.

Films that function as complete aesthetic and dramatic entities are rarities. Anybody who watches only the car chases in Deathproof or the seduction scenes inMulholland Drive might subsequently defend both movies without recognizing the level of their own detachment. In the light of Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy proclaiming the death of the epic novel, and the ever-increasing brain-reduction we all suffer under the unrelenting barrage of schlockbusters (which, like, totally have their virtues!) it’s a relief to see understated, resonant, layered films find distribution and audiences. And inspiring to see films of moral, narrative or technical complexity thrive in the mainstream.

The best films of the decade revealed truth in the first viewing, and grew not only richer, but more entertaining with repeat visits. While their highlights offer plenty of kicks, if that’s what you’re after, the narrative method remains cinematic—story-telling modes that cannot be replicated in fiction or theatre, and were made to be observed in a big dark room in the company of strangers. The best films of the 2000s dealt in archetypal themes, and harkened to the community campfire that no amount of Netflix On Demand can replace.

I fucking hope.

Number 20 is a catch-all, a decade’s worth of Bruno Dumont (Twentynine Palms ’03; Flandres ’06; Hadewijch ’09) and Michael Haneke (La Pianist ’01; The Time of the Wolf ’03; Caché ’05, Funny Games {US re-make} ’07; The White Ribbon’09). Neither director can escape his signature concerns enough to make a film that escapes the constraints those concerns impose. Their excessive mannerism draws you in, but keeps you from immersing. It’s an academic standoff—admirable, but frustrating.

Dumont and Haneke strive to be so damn adult, with their furrowed brows and tortured psyches, but Number 19Madagascar (USA—2005—Eric Darnell/Tom McGrath) revels in being juvenile. It’s just amped up enough, reliant on wit rather than gags, gave adults their portion with hidden Twilight Zone references and never turned oppressive with messages or lessons learned.

Number 18, Morvern Callar (UK - 2002—Lynne Ramsay) features a heroine determined to learn no lessons of any kind. Incarnating a new British youth, she stumbles from one sensation—one New Drug—to the next, morals-free and lucky as hell. With its air of aimlessness without longing—a shocking rejection of the key teen movie trope—and a rotting body in the living room, Movern seemed less somehow on first viewing, but its mood, its atmosphere—poisonous, recognizable and true—linger and grow in the mind.

Number 17, Spirited Away Sen to Chihiro no kamikakush ( Japan- 2001—Hayao Miyazaki) provides (along with all of Miyazaki’s ouvre), the poetic mysteries we crave; the suggestion that all perceptible phenomena exists only as the signs and wonders of a hidden world. Miyazaki’s Michael Powell-like use of color to express emotion and the odd inevitability of his pacing, grants his animation a profundity, an emotional pull, in the form of the unspoken yearning that his young protagonists never manage to fulfill and his adult audience recognizes only too clearly.

While Miyazaki employs the most spare dialogue, director Rian Johnson joyously immerses US teenagers in the linguistic convolutions, the relentless iambic pentameter, of the hysterical period of film noir and, of course, Shakespeare (orDeadwood). In Number 16, Brick (USA- 2005) Johnson creates a singular noir milieu, comprised of lethal terror and the high-school social melee. This accurately presents the high school social melee for what it is: deadly, nuanced, ridiculous, and inescapable.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa had a productive and worthy decade (Bright Future ’03; Ghost Cop ’04; Loft ’05; Shriek ’06; Tokyo Sonata ’08) to say the least and Number 15Pulse/Kairo (Japan—2001), best showcases his gifs: quotidian locations made beautiful by Godard-like composition, an eerily matter-of-fact presentation of the greatest horror, hypnotic pacing, absolutely unexplained allegories and solution-free resolutions: endings guaranteeing that everything that has gone wrong will, in the future, only go worse.

 

"Can daddy please have the heroin?" Pusher II


Number 14 Red Riding1974 ( UK—Julian Jarrold—2009) / 1980 (UK—James Marsh—2009) are British made for TV movies released theatrically stateside, thus raising of the question: how many films this decade were better than The Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men or The Shield?Answer: damn few as far as character development, distinctive dialogue style or ensemble casting. The best of the Red Riding trilogy is almost Pusher (see below) lite: brutal, spare, unexplained, and colloquial. But Red Riding ventures further into melodrama, so it’s only the second best killer/thriller film series of the last ten years. Only.

Number 13, Ni pour, ni contre (bien au contraire) (France—Cédric Klapisch—2002) brings us to the trend of the decade, which I’m required by statute to discover. In the 00s, an underground railroad of (mostly) foreign thrillers, noirs and genre pictures developed, offering a complex, insightful presentation of the human dilemma usually associated with more self-consciously arty and less commercial fare. Like Ni pour, these thrillers mix showcased plotting with cynical characterizations, class/race consciousness, Jean-Pierre Melville-ian locations and wicked idiomatic dialogue. Ni pour goes even further by doing the impossible: it creates an entirely new idea of the femme fatale, and how she got to be one. In that, it’s the most feminist film on this list.

A new world—ours—in which every act or aspect of life is measured only in its worth as barter, as currency, is depicted in Number 12, 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days/ 4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile (Romania—Cristian Mungiu—2007). This purely transactional appraisal applies to abortion, sex, hotel rooms, cars, clothes, a handshake, a rape or a passport. The nightmare of negotiating unending government beauracracy and personal betrayal is shot in a fluid, agile, style. Mungui eschews cuts—he employs lengthy single-shot scenes that underscore how all the characters are in the same mess together, be they supposed supportive life-long allies or mutually antagonistic one-deal-only partners. His unsparing eye and tough-ass compassion mark Mungui one of the most promising new directors.

There ain’t no new Tarkovsky, and there ain’t gonna be. But the emerging filmmakers of China—some whose films are shown in their homeland, some whose never will be and some who go to jail because they are—share Tarkovsky’s preference for endless slow shots that reveal so much reality they render it fantastic, for allowing mise-en-scene to provide all the context or explanation we’re going to get and for moments that combine heartbreaking bittersweet awareness of life with the promise that, while life will remain bleak, a fleeting instant of connection gives it meaning. Number 11, Still Life/Sanxia haoren (China—Zhang Ke Jia—2006) Still Life brings rigorous beauty, documentary-like presentation of concerns that exist only in the 21st Century and—again that word—clear-eyed compassion.

If Number 10, The New World (USA—2005—Terrence Malick) suffers, it’s only in comparison to Malick’s incomparable Thin Red Line. When the spell of Malick’s sublime tableaux weakens, his processes become suddenly visible, and we fall out of the story. That happens no more than twice, and no other director can employ cinema to replicate the dream-state with the poetry of Malick. In his role as the American Ozu, Malick captures the ungraspable essence of the natural world; dude loves himself some wildlife. Plus, he makes Christian Bale seem not only not sinister, but kind-hearted. And only a genius could accomplish that.

The most credible adult love story of the decade, and Ben Kingsley as the most enjoyable, unforgettable villain, make Number 9Sexy Beast (UK—Jonathan Glazer—2000) rise so far above genre it invents a new one. Referencing 1970sPerformance without once evoking it, Beast showcases rich self-dramatizing characters, nasty brutal humor and Ian McShane being all McShanian ’n’ terrifying. Charming, blood-soaked, deeply perverse and self-consciously proud,Beast kicked off a newfound malevolent exuberance in British gangsterdom.

Number 8, Triplets of Bellville/Les triplettes de Belleville (France—Sylvain Chomet—2003) conceals so much heartache, class commentary, mother love, innovative visual genius and Tati-like gags under it’s comfy blanket of astonishing charm and likeability. Featuring pretty much the most accurately rendered dog—and the best dog-dreams—in movie history.

“It all ends in tears; these arrangements usually do,” the villain tells our hero, a post-mod, post-noir coke wholesaler who, like every sensible noir protagonist, views the world with deep-seated but never acknowledged dread. Daniel Craig gives Number 7 Layer cake (UK—Matthew Vaughn—2004) its glamorous focus, but it’s the note-perfect character actors and laconic self-mocking dialogue that provide the depth. The visual and narrative rigor, the lack of decoration or of plot explanation (or of subtitles for them Limey accents) raise this would-be entertainment to the level of all great noir: the tragic certainty that each Faustian bargain ends in tears.

            "Close the fucking curtains!" Let The Right One In

As we sink beneath a tidal wave of cheesy vampire-derived nonsense determined to leach any mystery, romance or tragedy from that arena,Number 6 Let the Right One In/Låt den rätte komma in (Sweden—Tomas Alfredson—2008) reminds how compelling an archetype—and what sort of identity and moral questions—the mythology can still raise. Instead of wallowing in soft-core, Right One asks the tough questions about the forming of sexuality, the limits of friendship and loyalty, the exploitative nature of love and how character may or may not determine fate. A delicate, evolved love story, awash in blood, told with grace and a fiendish sense of consequences.

Dane Nicholas Winding Refn wrote and directed Pusher, a neo-realist street thriller, a masterpiece of concision. He never thought he’d make another. Then poor fiscal planning, two more underappreciated pictures (including Bleeder, which, if it came out in this decade, would sure as hell be on this list), forced him to the edge of bankruptcy. To save himself, Refn made two sequels to his original thriller, one right after another. And so Number 5, Pusher 2: “With Blood on My Hands” (2004) / Pusher 3: “I’m the Angel of Death” (Denmark – 2005) showcases what tight visual grammar, propulsive narrative momentum, an ear for the street and a realpolitik awareness of the new immigrant realities in Europe can produce. Unlike the desperate men in his pitiless urban dope-dealing, whore-mongering, business partner-disemboweling universe, Refn did his best work in the most dire circumstances.

Less dire, more familiar circumstances lend Number 4, Linda Linda Linda(Japan—Nobuhiro Yamashita—2005) its unlikely heartfelt emotion.; Four girls in a Japanese high school have to learn the immortal Blue Hearts Japanese punk anthem “Linda Linda Linda” and play it at their school’s talent show. In this quiet little masterpiece, a New Yorker short story kind of tale, the drama derives from the nuance. And, not so much like a New Yorker story, from a kick-ass rock and roll finale.

Help Me Eros/Bang bang wo ai shen (Taiwan—Kang-sheng Lee—2007),Number 3 creates a seemingly new visual language, a modern narrative echoing the crushingly modern, homicidally indifferent city of its setting. Told in simply framed, hallucinatory one-shot tableaux rich in color, modern street scenes, and repressed emotion, Lee presents a vision of our distractedness, a study in technologically induced alienation and failed groping after love, or any human connection. Immersed in all this banal reality, Lee finds the only possible narrative solution: magic.

"I laugh sometimes myself."

Number 2, No Country For Old Men (USA—Joel & Ethan Coen—2007) remains watchable, rewarding, irritating, funny, compelling and tragic. Is it a capitalist critique (as my eighth or ninth viewing suggests), a Beckettian riot of English as only Americans can mangle it and/or the end of the West(ern)? The Coen’s obsession with American idiosyncrasy as expressed in regional mannerism here serves rather than mocks their characters, and that makes this the most adult of their films. That and the unbeatable source material.

 

 

"It's your decade, Bill."

Kill Bill Vol.1 (2003)/ Kill Bill Vol. 2(USA—Quentin Tarantino—2004), the undisputed Number 1, as deranged and fragmented as our age, a cartoon for adults, the most daring and original style-piece of the decade, with all that bloodshed just to make us smile. Tarantino’s ability to synthesize Asian cinema tropes and render them American predicts the cinema to come. His deep distractedness, and that ability to synthesize, makes him—like it or not—the very model of a contemporary filmmaker. That, and that QT has inexhaustible ideas and not a millimeter of depth. Yet nobody matches his technique, not with actors, the camera, sound design, soundtracks, multi-media formats or editing. Thomas Keller, the chef behind the famously sublime restaurants French Laundry and Per Se, reportedly believes that our palate stops tasting after three bites. So his meals are made of millions of tiny portions, each discrete, but all adding up to a complex and orchestrated whole. That’s Tarantino’s method, relying on his jittery sensibility and connoisseur’s knowledge to reject any realist tendencies in narrative: he is—and allows us to be—the ultimate escapists.

 

Best Retrospectives & Re-Releases
Thank you Film Forum, BAM, MoMA, 
Anthology Film Archives and the Japan Center:

Sailor Suit & Machine Gun/ Sêrâ-fuku to kikanjû (Japan—1981—Shinji Somai)
Chelsea Girls  (USA—1966—Paul Morrissey/Andy Warhol)
2 or 3 Things I Know About Her/ 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’el (France—1967—Jean-luc Godard)
Shohei Imamura Retrospective 
In A Lonely Place (USA—1950—Nicholas Ray)
Fallen Idol (UK—1948—Carol Reed)
Human Condition/ Ningen no jôken (Japan—1959/’61—Masaki Kobayashi)
Celine & Julie Go Boating/ Céline et Julie vont en bateau(France—1974—Jacques Rivette)
The Red Shoes (UK -1948—Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger)
Brighton Rock (UK—1947—John Boulting)

Wednesday
Jan022008

NOT MUCH MIDDLE GROUND - THE 11 BEST FILMS OF 2007

The Eleven Best Films of 2007

2007 offered arty seriousness or genre kicks and little in between. Deep or stupid, the best films vested passionately in formal concerns (well, except for Superbad). Each drove their narrative with a disciplined, specific and original cinematic grammar. Most were as concerned with painterly beauty—or willful ugliness—as with stylistic rigor. The lapidary care lavished by directors made their stories more nourishing, subtle and memorable—even Deathproof. Filmmakers working successfully through such idiosyncratic styles rendered even more ludicrous those grasping after a visual identity. Paul Thomas Anderson, for instance, never found frames appropriate for his story. His grandiose visuals only showcased the bankruptcy of his narrative. Tim Burton chose a flashier set of hammers with which to pound us over the head, but Sweeney Todd remained, like There Will Be Blood, inert on the screen, dead on arrival, forcing us away from the story, turning us into mere spectators. The best films 2007, whether brilliant or moronic, offered sufficient embrace to make us all participants.

Photo courtesy of Mobra Films/Adi Padretu.

1) MONTHS 3 WEEKS 2 DAYS

It’s not the what-choice-do-we-have? stoicism with which everyone negotiates the cloud-cuckoo-land of Romania under Ceausescu. Nor the evocative, realist frames that so bring that era to life. Nor how everything—a pack of Kents, a taxi ride, a woman’s body—is valued foremost as a commodity for barter. Nor the most stark, unsentimental, tragic presentation of abortion ever filmed. It’s not even Cristian Mungiu’s remarkable understatement: one-scene/one-shot, little intercutting, key moments played in fierce whispers or empty monotones, or his deceptively straightforward, multi-layered, unbearable tale. What makes this the best film of the year is how all these aspects merge into an atmosphere of incontrovertible truth: political, emotional, sexual, economic, historic, cinematic truth.

2) IMAMURA RETROSPECTIVE at BAM

Like Isaac Babel or Boccaccio, Shohei Imamura embraces sweat, greed, perversity, fever-lust and self-justification as fuel for the life-force. The working-class universe is his palette, and he paints with an ease for realist dialogue in all its opaque cross-purposes (sometimes folks mean what they say, sometimes they don’t, sometimes they have no idea). Imamura’s compassion for simple human needs overflows (The Eel) or he presents all human efforts as an infernal comedy like an unholy intersection of Balzac and Bukowski (Pigs and BattleshipsThe Pornographers). Imamura does not make Western-style films (like Akira Kurosawa); he’s obsessed with Japanese identity in the face of American occupation, and Japanese custom, whether enduring or crumbling. He likes to turn up the bleak (Vengeance Is Mine) and to tell it as it is (History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess) while turning up the bleak. BAM gave us a joyous overview of the master’s career, and screened his titles often enough that we all could see them. Good for them.

                             Photo courtesy of Miramax Films

 3) NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

The Getaway as conceived by Beckett:

1) Everything takes place at the fraying edge of the world.

2) The language, though filled with arcane meaning for the speaker, remains funny as hell.

3) Ain’t nobody gets away.

 

4) UNDERWORLD at the New York Film Festival

This year’s Festival offered stunning prints from the past that found sparse audiences. It’s a shame, especially in the face of the astonishing, layered but never disruptive original soundtrack—played live—by the three-man Alloy Orchestra (who were commissioned by the Festival). Von Sternberg’s uncluttered, theatrical frames give lie to the widely held notion that silent classics are boring.Underworld’s pace, mise-en-scene, character development, graphic violence and dirty sexuality play as modern as the best of this year, and with more knowing sophistication than most.

5) THE DIVING BELL and THE BUTTERFLY 

Can too much beauty dilute depictions of tragedy? To make the plight of his paralyzed protagonist more moving, Schnabel surrounds him with fabulous French babes, all devoted to his service, none of whom he can ever touch. Schnabel’s embrace of glamour, texture, mood and atmosphere emerge—for the first time—as a fully mature and aware style. His avoidance of hipster mannerisms and easy emotion, and his uncanny dream-like cutting, make the film play in the mind like the memories of his blighted hero: immersing, irresistible and always slightly out of reach.

6) THE HOST

An American makes a Korean pour bad stuff into a river. A decade later, a monster emerges, gobbling Koreans and causing the Americans to enforce a toxic cover-up. So, who’s hosting whom here? The monster a virus or Korea the meddling occupiers? Joon-ho Bong frames as finely realized a bogeyman since Alien with a family of loving bumblers who stumble their way to glory and to no particular new understanding of themselves or one another. With the apocalypse so near at hand, according to the director, paradise is a quiet meal at home with the TV turned off. Who can argue?

7) BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD

In 4 Months’ Romania, economics do not equal karma. Over here, they do. In Lumet’s most bitter, hopeless film, Americans suddenly realize they’ve missed out on the good life they deserve. Since that can’t possibly be their fault, they avidly pursue their doom. As the smartest Europeans turn to issues of class, identity and desperation (this year Cristian Mungiu, last year 13 Tzameti), most American filmmakers keep pretending they don’t exist. But for Lumet—as for Fritz Lang—incompetence at life means a guilty sentence with no parole from the self. Of course Ethan Hawke can’t act. The surprise might be that Marisa Tomei can.

8) EXILED 

Echoing Woo—as if he had a choice—director Johnny To privileges male bonding over any other bond, but his males bond more like The Wild Bunch than Hard-Boiled, and with fewer erotic close-up exchanges. Avoiding the endless exposition that gelds Infernal Affairs or Triad Election, Johnny To finds a beauty in set-pieces, using color like Michael Powell and gun-shot architecture like Leone. So many recent Hong Kong action films have sought—as opposed to the superabundant plot material of Korea’s The Host—content in form, depth in surface, poetry in style. Johnny To, alone, succeeds. Five years from now, Exiledwill not look like this year’s model. It will still be gorgeous, ground-breaking and have the best shoot-outs of the year.

9) DEATH PROOF

Tarantino masturbates more than usual, but the freedom of preaching to the choir helps him develop an incongruous charm. The boy does love his own voice; all the women sound just like him. Tarantino’s taste in music has improved, however, and it’s not (entirely) his fault that there was and remains a thriving genre built on watching girls look hot and then get murdered. If Tarantino’s repellently gleeful about the murders, he’s no less enthralled with Kurt Russell’s shameless whining, Zoe Bell’s joi de vivre or, bless his heart, (endless) car stunts. Tarantino possesses that rarest thing: a unique, instinctive, recognizable style. He once again demonstrates his purely American genius for brilliant cinema in the service of the most fantastically stupid plots.

Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

 

10) SUPERBAD 

I can’t help it; I laughed. Obviously, the writer/directors can’t tell their bad ideas from their good ones, and mistake gag quantity for quality. Happily, their blind joyful conviction in their own methods only adds to the exuberance that makes the film such a lobotomized good time. That, and their genuine compassion for the bullied.

Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company, 2007.

11) THE MIST 

Made on the cheap and looks it, but thought through with a rigor that transcends budget. If the visuals/pacing/oratory remind you too much of Twilight Zone, then revel in Marcia Gay Hardin’s slowly building derangement, Stephen King’s heartfelt loathing for fundamentalists, and monsters that evoke the arrival of Satan. Featuring the bravest, most committed finale of any film in years.

Monday
Oct012007

IT'S, LIKE, CANONICAL; THE 2007 NY FILM FESTIVAL

This was the best Film Festival in years. The schedulers showcased filmmakers that embody the Festival canon, a notion of undeniable art meeting viable commerce that the Festival helped create and codify. New films by familiar faces seemed oddly, pleasantly familiar. Not exactly knowing self-parodies or post-Modern commentaries, these films hit like (worthy) assemblages of each auteur’s greatest tropes. The Lumet film so recognizably Lumetian, the Schnabel so damn Schnabelistic, etc.

Christian Bale as Jack in I'm Not There. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Wenk/TWC 2007.

This gave the lineup a digestible gravitas, a potentcy, a sense that art house and arty commercial movies matter again (as art and commerce), that the last forty years count for something and that the Festival’s canon helped make it so. Bringing back touchstone directors might open the Festival to accusations of relying on brand names to fill the house, but the courage of this year’s programming was most evident when nobody showed up. Shockingly, Iron Horse, John Ford’s seldom seen silent horse opera with a capital O (with live orchestra accompaniment), had to be cancelled for lack of sales! Who knew scheduling John Ford was a commercial risk? That Iron Horsefailed demonstrates the necessity, the community service, even, of the Festival’s return to canon.

It’s been a good while since the Festival got accused of being too smart, too historical, too in touch with the times, too educational, too aware of the debt it owes the very universe it created. Let’s hope they hear the same accusations next year.

The Butterfly and the Diving Bell (Julian Schnabel)

Unlike so many directors, Schnabel loves his characters. For a putative narcissist, he has an overflowing compassion for all their quirks and desires. Schnabel—as well he ought—has a singular eye for using color to convey emotion, cuts like a master and convinces us to feel as he does: that cinema is a dream. Based on a French and American best-seller, Diving Bell picks up after the narrator suffers a crippling stroke. He awakens paralyzed in a hospital—the absolute worst has happened and things won’t get better. As depicted through Schnabel’s terrifying, claustrophobic, one-eyed POV, our hero narrates an entire book of his experience by blinking his eye, one letter at a time. In the least corny way, it’s inspiring. Schnabel doesn’t sugar-coat; our hero is no angel and his narcissism enables him to get his story told while he still can. Perhaps the women are all a little too gorgeous/adoring and the children all too well-behaved. But Emmanuelle Seigner conveys such Jungian feminine patience and warmth…Schnabel only slips when he enters Wes Anderson-land and inflicts upon us how varied is his musical taste. Just once I’d like to see him end a film without a Tom Waits song. But these are minor, minor complaints. The film is heartbreaking, beautiful and perhaps most surprising, wise.

A scene from The Butterfly and the Diving Bell. Photo by Etienne George.

 

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Sidney Lumet)

When Scorsese introduced Once Upon A Time in the West at the Tribeca Film Festival, he finished up by saying: “People ask me if this is a Western. I don’t know if it’s a Western. It’s a Leone picture.” Devil, despite its awkward, stupid and never once appropriate title, may not be a noir, but it sure a hell is a Lumet picture. Along from Prince of the City, which was based on real-world scumminess, Devil is Lumet’s bleakest, most hopeless and violent film. The plot’s a bit schematic, as befits a screenplay by a playwright (Kelly Masterson). The only other annoyance is Ethan Hawke. Incapable of credibly projecting any emotion except smug self-regard, he resorts to histrionics and meltdowns that, happily, prove more irritating to think about later than to watch. You, too, might abandon any middle ground if you were getting blown out of every scene by the subtlety, delicacy and detail of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s minimalist despair. He’s fucking great—the best performance of the year easily, and one of a character that looks almost entirely inward.

 

In surf movies, when the plot bogs down, someone yells: “Surf’s up!” and everyone runs out to catch a wave. Here, whenever a slow spot manifests, Marisa Tomei takes off her clothes. It’s shocking, dislocating, really, since half your mind is tracking the character and half the Hollywood politics of her going naked. The rest of your, uh, consciousness might get taken up with how astonishingly beautiful she is. It’s Tomei’s best work as well, and the first time I can remember her understating. The bad son/disappointed father subplot (a swollen-faced Albert Finney as the wrath of God) adds to the Lumetian vibe; it’s a late ‘50s, overly Freudian explanation that justifies itself by becoming Greek tragedy. There’s little of Lumet’s bemused compassion here—this is a merciless vision of self-made hell. Whenever the tiniest potential of redemption or salvation appears, hope is crushed once more. That level of earned bleakness, these days, the refusal to provide any hint of melodrama or a happy ending or lessons learned, is artistic/commercial courage of the highest order.

A scene from Redacted. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

 

Go Go Tales (Abel Ferrara)

Ferraras films are sine waves. The re-occurring apogee is some smoothly depicted transgression, the re-occurring perogee macho posturing and endless scene-setting before an aimless camera. Sometimes, the posturing and the transgression meld and psychosis becomes poetry (The Bad Lieutenant). Most times, they don’t. King of New York remains Ferrara’s most succesful film because it’s his least indulgent; all the Ferrara tropes—meandering improvisation, forced street language, naked girls, obsessive sex/violence/appetites, self-destruction—are subsumed into plot. Go-Go Tales, for as long as I lasted anyway, presents Ferrara with a surprising A-list of B-list stars, too much money and not enough ideas. Lots of hollering and actorly posturing, several (high school age) models half-pretending to be topless dancers (while never getting topless), lots of floating semi-Altmanesque shots. Sylvia Miles gives a feral committed performance, demonstrating—as does Sidney Lumet—that no real New Yorker becomes nicer over time.

 Redacted (Brian DePalma)

DePalma runs a triple-helix of plausible deniability to disguise how hateful, empty, pandering and morally noxious his attempt at a U.S. army in Iraq portrait really is. As in Casualties of War, nobody shoots sexual violence with more prurient, pornographic interest, and no one is quicker to deny his motives under the rubric of: ‘Don’t blame me—it’s war! Can I help it if war is brutal, disgusting, dehumanizing and fought by the lower classes?’ DePalma’s clumsy attempts at dumbass American lumpen dialogue—presented in a series of preposterously over-wrought/over-shot supposedly ‘real’ moments—reveal a deep contempt for the characters he insists he views in all their humanity. The film begins with formal conceits on a high-school level: one of the soldiers announces that, hey, guess what? He’s going to shoot a video of the war! With this here camera right in his very hands! Later, drama plays out in front of security cams, the only ones I’ve encountered with perfect sound recording capability. It’s all so junior high…but the structure protects DePalma. He claims Iraq is a moral free-for-all and he’s the objective eye. It’s hard to convey the putrid corruption of Redacted: I felt unclean and enraged sitting there—as if I was colluding somehow just by watching. Bottom line: DePalma exploits the pointless death and amoral waste of Iraq; exploits it for cheap violence, for rape, for class hatred, for the most arrogant groping after the moral high ground…all the while working overtime to convince us how sensitive he is. It’s the artistic equivalent of appearing on an aircraft carrier wearing a flight suit in front of a banner that reads ‘Mission Accomplished!’ And should be greeted with equal skepticism.

Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant)

Van Sant employs his infatuation with teenage boys and their mores, dialect, style and inchoate aspirations to create a hypnotic portrait of the impenetrable otherness and moral rigor of high school. Van Sant’s gift for realist dialogue makes the self-conscious New Yorker style of say, Margot At the Wedding, seem as theatrical as opera. Especially memorable is the tortured syntax of real-life Portland detective Daniel Liu playing a cop without a clue. Best-cinematographer-in-the-world Christopher Doyle (In the Mood For Love, Hero and Van Sant’s remake of Psycho) floats his camera through the seedy parts of Portland, finding luminosity and grace under cloudy skies and railroad underpasses. With his last three films, Van Sant has sought a new story-telling paradigm, one based on character, dialogue and well-honed (if casually realistic) mise-en-scene. His rejection of plot/character climax and his embrace of what seemed like navel-gazing turns out to have been meditation. Park is a genuine artistic breakthrough and Van Sant’s best film since Drugstore Cowboy. He has become America’s most innovative director. Now we’ll see if his vision finds an audience.

I’m Not Here (Todd Haynes)

Hey—I’m all for Cate Blanchett acting out every one of Dylan’s moments from Dont Look Back and No Direction Home. I could watch her prance around in them leather pants and polka-dot shirt all day, what with her perfect inflection and better slouch. And if Richard Gere wants to appear in an apparent remake of the last-of-days village scenes from El Topo, more power to him. But, like, to what end? Following the train wreck of Velvet Goldmine, director Haynes stands revealed as a pretentious wanker—with decent taste in music—who did his best work under the structures of plot, like Safe. Hayne’s attempted parsing of the impenetrable Dylan by pastiche, free-association and 8th grade myth-making brings to mind only Mr. Natural’s invaluable words to Flakey Foont: “If you don’t know by now, don’t mess with it!”

Underworld (Joseph Von Sternberg)

Why do we so fear that silent films are boring? Because the accompaniment is so often overblown, sentimental, predictable? Sternberg created the DNA of all gangster films and most noir. Like F. W. Murnau, he cast with an eye for archetypes, so all future molls must be judged against Evelyn Brent and all consigliere compared to Clive Brook. It was tragic to see the house only ¾ full for this inspiration for Coppola, Scorcese, DePalma and everyone else. What made the film, what made it come so alive, was the astounding, nuanced, sophisticated original score by the three-man Alloy Orchestra. They studied the film and composed frame by frame for three months for only two live screenings. Let their sacrifice and care serve as the best metaphor for the worth of this year’s Film Festival.

Margot At the Wedding (Noah Baumbach)

Baumbach doesn’t exactly stunt-cast, but he instantly signposts by his choice of actors. And once signposted, no deeper dimension of character emerges. Nicole Kidman incarnates the smart mean babe who denies playing the babe card; Jennifer Jason Leigh denotes neurotically undermined potential and Jack Black overplays impulsive resentful self-hatred. Black ruins the film, but it’s not his fault. If Baumbach wanted a male lead who wasn’t a cartoon, if he wanted understatement, he would have cast Edward Norton. The question is why? Baumbach’s women characters are so detailed and multi-leveled and his men such one-dimensional scumbags. The story hinges on White’s and Leigh’s relationship having enough cred to withstand Kidman’s contempt for it, and it never does. Given the torments Baumbach puts his characters through, his obvious sensitivity and gift for dialogue makes him seem like a too-smart adolescent torturing his toys.

No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen)

Within their own rigorous world, the Coens still undercut themselves, usually by contempt for their characters. Barton Fink, O Brother and even The Big Lebowskiall featured scenes that seemed unfair—the Coens just roasting some innocent for their own glee. Not since Miller’s Crossing have they back off from their infatuation with smart-assedness and just told a murderous, haunting story with their oversize brains, gift for cinematic structure and cold-blooded Kubrickian bemusement at anybody who dares to make a plan.

 The relentless, Old Testament rhythm of Cormac McCarthy’s prose—even when he channels Elmore Leonard—provides the metronome for the Coens. Their adaptation of No Country is respectful, attuned and as wholly immersing as the book. So much so that some may balk at the brothers’ willingness to minimize what at first seemed the maximum plot-moment. But they play it same as Cormac did, straight up. Their reverence for the material emerges as a welcome dignity conveyed on all concerned. As with The Big Lebowski, the most profound moment is the finale, when—without making a big deal about it—the Coens merge mythology and character, for an ending befitting a masterpiece. Tommy Lee Jones is, of course, God.

Running Down a Dream (Peter Bogdanovitch)

Two hundred and fifty three minutes of Tom Petty?! This ass-numbing, career-overview hagiography—running longer than Chelsea GirlsWoodstockLa Maman et La Putain or the director’s cut of Heaven’s Gate—is constructed by Bogdanovitch in a shockingly standard VH1 visual language that owes nothing to the big screen. Structured for the DVD market (a Best Buy exclusive!) in chapters and self-contained vignettes, the film presents Petty sitting and talking intercut with thirty years of his playing and recording. Petty’s a great interlocutor, with his hangdog hair and jowls, and his deadpan demeanor renders him more profound than he looks (most of the time). He’s weirdly credible about his own life throughout and even more weirdly hard to dislike. Petty’s first ten years—up to Full Moon Fever—are better documented and more listenable than the last twenty, which the film seems to admit add much up to not all that much.

 Petty’s eerie life-long confidence is repeatedly sustained by the universe; the two cornerstones of his band, guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, both just wandered into his teenage band-life in Gainesville and stuck for the next three decades. The inevitable jettisoning of other Heartbreakers gets short telling, with an admirable fairmindedness. Bassist Howie Epstein’s death by unspecified drug use receives little of the usual sentimentality such events engender, which is a great relief. Even greater relief is provided by Stevie Nicks’ appearances being as brief as good manners permit; if you make it to the end straight through (and why would you?), you get ten unbearable minutes of famous folks saying how great Tom is. Why, one wonders, when we’ve been pretty much left to draw our own conclusions for the previous 243?…never quite dull, never quite compelling, the film suffers only one noticeable flaw: there is nowhere near enough Traveling Wilburys.