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Entries in Michael Shannon (2)




Someone gave me a hard time the other day, demanding to know why I don’t write more about movies everyone has seen—and this was another Rail film reviewer! The answer’s obvious, ain’t it? As much as the mainstream can blow, it blew with particular force in 2009. Meanwhile, as every outlet kept telling us, the heyday of indie film is over. Distributors are dying, venues are shuttered, Netflix and cable obviate the need for theatrical release. Yet the best films this year gave the lie to that thesis; all are international, indie or straight-up arthouse. Even District 9, a blockbuster if there ever was one, felt under the radar, subversive somehow, as if no film with such big box office should be so witty and complex. 2009 gave us few masterpieces and almost as few immersive escapes.
This year, we had to search out the gems.

Beware, beware, beware of the naked man: Baader Meinhoff Complex
1) Baader Meinhof Complex

How could you top this story? Murderous, brilliant, shockingly effective cast-offs of the German bourgeoisie invent modern urban terrorism, merge European and Middle Eastern guerrilla outfits, take psychic control of an entire nation, make a farce of its judicial system and then die/get murdered in prison. The film walks a moral and dramatic tightrope that perfectly captures the psychosis, ambition, rock star sex appeal, and unintentional, homicidal self-parody of Germany’s foremost terrorists of the Vietnam era. Told with a dynamic camera and absolutely no explanation, Complex, like the best films of 2009, leaves you to draw your own conclusions. The overriding conclusion, as with all the best films, is that you have been shown every side of the argument, with no melodrama to ease your way through the complexities.

2) 24 City (Er shi si cheng ji)

Jia Zhang-ke, the best director in the world, here reverts to the grand tableau-like tracking shots of his 2006 masterpiece, Still Life. As Rail film critic Lu Chen observed, these shots parallel the Chinese tradition of narrative pictorial scrolls, with their infinitely unrolling, slowly revealed visions. In 24 City, Zheng’s barely moving camera celebrates and undermines China’s aggressive modernism and the denial—of freedom, of community, of history, of truth—that accompanies it. Or, in certain cases, fuels it. The most beautiful film of the year, 24 City proves the most purely cinematic. In merging documentary interviews, actors pretending to be documentary subjects, portraits, unstoppable upthrusting cityscapes and clanging factories immolating themselves in an orgy of self-demolition, Zheng gives us—as the actual 24 City gives itself—a new form, a way of seeing that digests, even as it ignores, all the forms that came before.

3) Police, Adjective  (Politist, adj.)

Yes, all you whining complainers, by the standards of Transformers or even French Connection, in this policier very little happens. There are no shoot-outs, car chases, or even tracking shots. It’s Romania; no one can afford them. The tension and poetry reside in the understated, telling observation of the clash between duty and conscience in the day-to-day whether at work or in love. Scenes start small and either stay that way or escalate into verbal pyrotechnics that hit harder than any CGI explosion. No one raises their voice, but lives are changed, hearts revived, corruption ensconced. And how many films would dare to base their climax around a dictionary being read aloud? By my count, only this one, ever.

4) District 9An orgy of self-demolition: 24 City

Get some!*

But…some of what?





There went the neighborhood: District 95) Adventureland/ZombieLand

Leading manchild Jessie Eisenberg establishes the brand in two witty, satisfying, not all that dissimilar movies in which amusement parks figure prominently. One offers the bloodsport of late teen romance, the other ditto killing zombies. Eisenberg’s the same guy in both: too smart/sensitive for the room, but capable of a ruthlessness that makes his incisive nebbish routine more than bearable. Both films revel in self-consciously meta-aware dialogue, aware of the character’s own self-consciousness and of each film’s self-conscious determination to warp genre to its own ambitious ends. Both get cute and suffer genre predictability in the third act, but what can you do? On this level of expenditure, it’s a revelation that they get away with as much brainy anarchy as they do. As for Woody Harrelson’s career, clearly he’s in a post self-consciousness, post self-parody space. A space Bill Murray will never occupy, because after inventing it, he long since transcended. Quote of the year: “I know it’s a pretentious affectation, but it relaxes me.”

6) Exodus (Cheut ai kup gei)

Naked frog-men cops beat a crawling man with hammers under a portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth as opera blares. With that introduction, you might expect another surreal Hong Kong male-bonding police procedural. While vesting deeply in the color-saturated, overly designed visuals of Hong Kong bros-before-hos master Johnny To, Exodus explores the driving question of film noir reduced to its most basic component: are women trying to kill men? And if they are, can love forestall the murder(s)? In this Hong Kong, it’s not To’s lingering glances between he-men cops that hold the passion. In this world, men and women actually make an effort to understand each other. That effort comes to naught, but they really do try. Really.

7) Surveillance

Bill Paxton and Julia Ormond play a couple who understand one another perfectly. Federal agents whose love and lust burn undimmed, they elicit great jealousy and furious anger from the rural dimwit coppers who need help with a rash of grisly serial killings. Director Jennifer Lynch nabbed Off Broadway’s and indie’s best actors to give depth to a modern updating of the kind of idea that built Roger Corman’s American International Pictures. In Lynch’s worldview, true love should and does triumph, even when it’s knee-deep in blood. Inexplicably ignored upon release, this nasty little tale’s sophisticated perfomances and fiendish back-story sneak up on you, and seem more nourishing after the movie than during. Another great line sums up serial killers and couples dealing with their own passion: “They’ll get better at it as they go along, or maybe they just don’t give a shit.”

8) The Missing Person

Michael Shannon shows up again, in almost every shot of this neglected indie noir. With his toreup face and thousand-mile stare, he so belongs in neglected indie noirs it makes you fear he’ll never become a big-movie leading man like he deserves. A drunken defeated private eye who channels both Raymond Chandler and Elliott Gould’s fractured remaking of Marlowe (in Altman’s 1973 The Long Goodbye) has to travel on a job. Of course he meets colorful characters (some a bit too damn colorful, as if they didn’t fully understand the phrase “supporting player”), falls inappropriately in love, and ultimately refuses to do what he got paid for. The style, like the story, revels in throwback, and suffers from how poorly its digital imaging conveys the chiaroscuro that noir requires. But Shannon holds it together, and the quiet dignity of his self-degradation might be the performance of the year.

9) In the Loop

Yes, I am an obnoxious wanker!: In The Loop
A relentless, hilarious exercise in Brit-style, Swiftian political truth, wherein everyone—especially those holding the fate of the free world in their hands—proudly acts precisely as venal and short-sighted as they really are. Although it’s simplified so American audiences can understand it (subtitles might have helped, too) and depicted as farce, the incessant narcissistic rage seems a more accurate portrayal of our governing processes than any documentary.

10) The Escapist

One method of escaping: The Escapist
Brian Cox, as everybody knows by now, was so far and away the better Hannibal Lecter it ain’t even funny. Missing the boat on the bigger film featuring that character seemed to hamstring his career, and he’s spent all his time since playing smaller parts. With his orotund voice and brave embrace of his baggy body and poxy face, Cox carries a heavy load of melancholy. His intensity, and the perfect scaling of his emotion to every moment, makes him among the most satisfying actors on the planet. Here he gets to lead, both a film and a prison break. Such films—the good ones—move along predictable lines and still generate suspense. Escapist transcends on the strength of its superb cast (doing their best work to avoid getting blown off the screen by Cox) and—for this kind of exercise—a remarkable, restrained intelligence.

11) Medicine for Melancholy

I know our audience is around here someplace: Medicine For Melancholy
Made for practically nothing, Melancholy manages the trifecta of a singular visual style, story material that you’ve seen nowhere else, and a willingness to poke gentle fun at its own characters. Melancholy makes a virtue of its low budget necessities: street locations, easy naturalist actors, and the smartest parsing of the hipster dilemma ever.

Honorable Mention: Bleeder

BAM presented the work of Denmark’s Nicolas Winding Refn, the auteur behind the Pusher series. Bleeder is Refn’s never-seen masterpiece, his first picture after 1996’s Pusher 1. Bleeder’s like a Kevin Smith movie—about video store clerks, their girlfriends, and the maniacs who sell them weed—only made by someone smart. Refn grasps what the dead-end Kevin Smith life would really do to its characters, and the violence they might resort to from sheer frustration. Their slacker, supposed solutions are writ in blood or abandoned, leaving someone either dead, maimed, or perpetually stewing. Refn’s rigorous, taut style shows his characters no mercy, and each is shocked in his or her turn when they discover their own true nature. And Bleeder’s still not available on DVD in America.



The best films this year were genre pictures: vampire, policier, art film, gangster, war movie…all using genre conventions to keep us anchored as they shattered every genre convention we know. The sensation of being on familiar ground and utterly unmoored made the usual fare seem even more schematic, yesterday’s news. Especially yesterday’s news was, for instance, the supposed cautionary tale ofWall-E; its metaphors of overconsumption proved unintentionally amusing in the face of the new economic reality. By the time Wall-E’s future arrives, we’ll all be fighting him on the slag heaps for those scraps of resonant refuse—Rubik’s Cubes, hubcaps, any sign of green life…

So many films this year seem equally time-warped, as if they didn’t realize their narrative methods just weren’t that effective. But the best of 2008 found ground-breaking story-telling modes (some are forty years old) and ways of conveying drama that rely on our inescapable visual sophistication. The best this year made nothing explicit and the implicit—wherein the emotional, thematic, and even dramatic material was held—was almost too much to bear. There was little arty self-consciousness in the Tarantino, Baumbach or Anderson mode. Why? Because there are only three American films on the list, and it’s only Americans who feel compelled to be self-conscious when they’re artful.


1) Let The Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in)

Love hurts. Love scars. It wounds and mars. Love will also get your arms torn right out of your shoulders if you fuck with someone a vampire loves. And loving a vampire might force you to spend the rest of your mortal days hanging innocents upside down from trees so you can drain their blood. The passive, aging Swedish hippies huddled in their Danish Modern state housing provide the perfect 21st-century equivalent to the terrified villagers who refuse to open their shutters when Count Dracula’s about, no matter how blood-curdling the screams. Despite the astonishingly original treatment of an old story, what lingers are the rigorous, gorgeous visuals, the twining of love and doom, the rescues that ensure only more brutality, the mysteriously disquieting presentation of what comprises gender, and an even more disquieting notion of soulmates.

     "No more sheep head!?!" © Blueeyes Productions.

2) Jar City (Mýrin)

2) Jar City

Contemporary artist Luke Murphy created a big pop-art graph that traces the relationship between Depression and Hidden Information. Director Baltasar Kormákur provides the real-life dynamic: an Iceland of the repressed, where seldom is heard an encouraging word and the skies are apparently cloudy all year. Toughness is admired (vegetarians get a hard time), toughness destroys (our protagonist cop’s junkie daughter comes to him only for money). The cop seeks not justice, really, or truth, but a moral cause, some proof that his corruption within is not wholly mirrored by corruption without. In that quest, as in all others, he will be disappointed. Jar City understands that the only the tiniest triumphs endure.


3) Help Me Eros (Bang bang wo ai shen)

A masterpiece of mise-en-scène and deploying color to convey emotion. At once lucid, apparent, and cloaked in mystery, joyous, transcendent, and heartbreaking. Taiwan’s loneliest man befriends a cigarette girl in a chaos dreamscape of urban pastels. He grows the best bud in town, and sells his priceless modern furniture in crap pawn shops to buy bread. He incarnates the artist’s dilemma manifest in the universe of the post-collapse of global markets. Deadpan Kang-sheng Lee directs and stars in a slow-moving poem of disconnection, alienation, and sex that achieves transcendence through a seemingly new cinematic language.


"When do we get our heads blown off?" © IFC Films.

4) Gomorrah (Gomorra)

Naples is one tough town. The mob stacks barrel upon barrel of industrial waste just down the street, murders moms who won’t give up their apartments, and functions with a mind-set that ensures its members and business partners the life expectancy of East Texas bikers, if that. Matteo Garrone, a thoughtful intellectual, chose a visual style that’s equal parts documentary and The Valachi Papers—half deadpan gaze, half lurid exploitation. As with all this year’s best, he explains nothing. We are hurled into the story as the locals are hurled into this milieu, and sink or swim with them. It’s strenuous, captivating, and it raises the bar for every gangster movie to come.


5) Waltz With Bashir

Guilt, confusion, the fog of war, political purpose, reluctance to bad-mouth one’s homeland, the determination to dehumanize one’s enemies, and an in-the-bone aversion to taking responsibility for atrocities committed on the periphery of one’s actions: these are the ingredients of national denial, as every American knows all too well. It took Ari Folman twenty years to come to grips with the terrors he lived through, the terrors he unknowingly enabled, and the terrors of slowly remembering who he was and what he did. He turned to animation in pursuit of realism, a genius move, and as counterintuitive as his methods of recovery, moral accusation and the refusal to forgive himself or his nation.

  "Why aren't we on DVD yet?" ©Image Entertainment

6)Human Condition (Ningen no joken 1959—’61)

Give it up for the Film Forum: 10 hours of Japanese Tolstoyan, Dostoevskian hopelessness, the unblinking depiction of Japan selling its soul, citizen by citizen, while building to the war; of the dying during the war and the crushing poverty of the land after. Never seen (never on video) and, once seen, never forgotten, not as story nor as one of the more significant visual influences on a number of masters—Bergman, Tarkovsky, Akira Kurosawa among them. Let’s hope that one day soon Criterion will give this film the treatment it deserves.


Lonely are the bullied; Let The Right One In © EFTI.



7) Celine And Julie Go Boating (Céline et Julie vont en bateau—1974)

Give it up for BAM: 193 minutes of Jacques Rivette fucking around as only he could. Light-hearted Rivette proved a rare and lovely thing, and as I wondered when is he going to stop fucking around, he did. The contrast between the cat’s-paw decadence of the first 192 minutes and the door-slamming, party’s-over-oops-out-of-time of the final 60 seconds sear the film in memory. Like Human Condition, it’s set in a quite specific time and place that remains universal and constantly true.

  Three men who have not yet heard the terrible news. ©Blueprint Pictures.

8) In Bruges

Playwright, screenwriter, and director Martin McDonagh’s entire oeuvreseeks to prove the truth of Bertolt Brecht’s immortal line: “He who laughs has not yet heard the terrible news.” The poles of laughs versus terrible news form the yin and yang of McDonaghville, and the urge to escape remains as potent as the need to keep watching through fingers clamped over my eyes. He generates restlessness, and concern over whether to laugh. He makes us ask: is that too much? Has he gone too far? Has he responsibly connected all this gore and pain to something more? And the answer is: nope, and he ain’t gonna. Like Beckett, McDonagh omits what he regards as unnecessary. And like Beckett, that would be everything save ghastly humor and death. Those omissions resonate through his work and may grant a witty gangster farce more profundity than it warrants, but there’s no denying the laughs or the terrible news.


9) Shotgun Stories

As evidenced by …Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Revolutionary Road, Michael Shannon might be the best, not-so-unknown-anymore actor in America. He carries Shotgun Stories, the least embellished, most compassionate and accurate cultural and moral depiction of southern rednecks ever made. This is no small feat. Set in a succession of endless 1980s days in rural po’bucker nowhere, Jeff Nichols’s low-budget Neorealist approach captures the vanity, obsession, small-mindedness, and earned occasional nobility of white, hardscrabble, dead-end American life. As ever, violence and revenge offer the only possible transcendence.

 "I'm going to blast my fuckin' legacy right outta the water!"© WarnerBros.

10) Gran Torino

In the best Charles Bronson movie Charles Bronson never made, Clint proves more patient and more sentimental than Charles ever was. Having begun the cycle of revisionist Westerns by being (in Clint’s words) “the first hero to ever fire first,” Clint here repudiates forty-four years of on-screen bloodletting by refusing to fire at all. For both character and director the finale demonstrates true moral courage. Clint’s unregenerate misanthropy and his genuine wit—a late-career development—more than compensate for clanking exposition and underwritten characters. Much is lost by Clint’s insistence on singing over the closing credits, but it’s his epitaph, so what can you do?


11) Valkyrie

Every year the chickenshit sheep of American movie critics and irony outlets gang up on one picture before it comes out, label it ridiculous, and smirk as it fails. This year, they tried to lay that shit on Valkyrie, but audiences found it anyway. Cruise’s big vehicle is not his vehicle at all, but instead a perfectly solid, well-executed, dumb World War II movie, and I love dumb WWII movies. Is Cruise playing a good Nazi any more absurd or morally bereft than Michael Caine or Robert Duvall playing theirs (The Eagle Has Landed)? Director Singer assembled a Who’s Who of dignified British thesps—Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Terrence Stamp for god’s sake!—to embody the Third Reich as he sought to make a John Sturges picture and he came damn close. It’s our era’s Where Eagles Dare, and there is no higher praise.

And, not while sitting in the theatre during Rachel Getting Married, but afterward and since, Jonathan Demme’s Gus Van Zant Lite sent my bullshit detector off the charts. I expect in a couple years we’re all going to be awfully embarrassed at being taken in. Ditto for Wendy and Lucy.