Friday, February 29, 2008

Give me one kiss and I'll be happy

The Dave Clark Five will be inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in a couple of weeks. Sadly, songwriter and lead singer Mike Smith passed away today at 64. R.I.P.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Brown paper packages tied up with string

Now normally you'd read a year-end wrap up like this sometime by the end of December or the beginning of the new year, but late-year releases sometimes don't come to Orlando until a couple of months later, so I have a self-imposed deadline of Oscar night to compile my top-10 list. (Thought: what if writer's strike had continued and the Academy Awards were cancelled?)

A survey of film (and of film criticism) this past year will likely lead you to believe that this was a year dominated by stories of men, that the ooze of testosterone permeated every cinematic offering. And, to be sure, a good number of films last year did in some ways explore territory that has been heretofore traditionally masculine. But some of 2007's best movies feature actresses in roles that don't exist simply in the periphery, but are integral to the film's success. From The Big Bad Swim to L'Iceberg, from Enchanted to The Golden Compass, from Atonement to Grindhouse, women have been portrayed in a surprisingly wide range of ways in movies last year and in no less than seven of my top 10 films this year does a woman (or women) exist at the center of the story, or are at the very at least on par with their male counterpart(s)--four of which are written and directed by a woman.

But before I get to those, let me first acknowledge a number of films (eleven to be exact) that just missed making the list. In any other year or, frankly, if I was in a different mood while writing this, these might have made the top 10. But alas, this is the 11-way tie for 11th place:

Documentaries often get lost in the shuffle of the more-heralded fiction films, but three of them in particular stood out to me. For time immemorial it is almost certain that the current political climate in this country will be defined by our presence in Iraq and while certain films fictionalize the situation there or more obliquely reference it in allegorical terms, Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight tackles it directly and matter-of-factly. Without bias or partisanship, the film in no uncertain terms described the idiocy and incompetence that led to our involvement in the Middle East this time around and, as the title indicates, who knows when it'll be over. Deep Water and The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters are two vastly different documentaries, but at the heart of each of them is how ego and ambition can drive the male half of our species to extremes most of us (men and women) would consider absolute ridiculous and at times downright dangerous.

Not a documentary, but a film that proceeds like one and based on true events, Zodiac also examines the dangerous obsessions of men, as it follows three characters in search of San Francisco's notorious Zodiac killer. Like No Country For Old Men (see below), ultimately the violence of the film is ignored for what that violence leaves in its wake and the questions it almost always leaves unanswered.

The spectre of war, violence, and internal national conflict is of course not unique to us, they exist all over the world. Sometimes the best movies about a country's past are the ones that weave the arc of national history with their character's own personal history. No more engaging is this the case than in Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. Marjane (the character) is herself a dynamo and, like the rest of her family, tough as nails as they have to endure the daily struggle of tyranny and bombings in their native Iran. She is flawed and makes mistakes, but like the country that gave her life, her parents and grandmother know she is worth the struggle. Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley echoes a lot of America's history though it takes place during the Irish rebellion against Britain and its subsequent civil war. Most striking is how often that those who rise up against tyranny in many ways enforce their own tyranny, a hypocrisy that perpetuates a violence that it supposes to quell. In pre-1989 East Berlin, The Lives of Others is more hopeful in its appraisal of oppression. Tragedies and betrayals occur (as they must often do in those situations) but the ultimate empathy of people for others is the only ammo against these types of regimes. Hey, the wall did come down eventually!

Superbad may only be the second-best Judd Apatow-produced film of 2007, but maybe that's why Entertainment Weekly recently named him the smartest person in Hollywood. How is this one any different from any of the other stupid, sophomoric, raunchy comedies that come through the pipeline every year? Because this one understands the insecurity and desperation most 17-year-old boys go through when it comes to sex, girls, partying, alcohol, and friendships that get severed simply because people grow up. Because it is probably the most laugh-out-loud and consistently funny movie of last year. Because Seth Rogen and Bill Hader are the coolest cops ever. Because Martha MacIsaac plays the best drunk. Oh yeah, and because of what's-his-name, that nerdy Irish R&B singer/Hawaiian organ donor.

Why are the smartest people always the most messed up? I don't know 'cos I'm too messed up myself (haha!), but the characters in The Savages and Margot at the Wedding show that, despite some of their best intentions, people are just sometimes bad. The brother and sister Savages may have worked out some of their issues by the end and redeemed themselves, but Margot and the rest of the adults at the wedding are so evil and vindictive throughout that they make the adults in The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach's previous film) look tame by comparison.

The brilliance of Lasse Hallström's The Hoax is not just how Richard Gere's Clifford Irving plays with the truth, but how the film does so as well. It's a kind of cat-and-mouse game the film plays with us and part of the fun is wondering who's more full of it--Irving or the movie. This is a film that is based on a story, not necessarily a true one.
And now,

These are a few of my favorite things:

10. 2 Days in Paris

The best Woody Allen movie not made by Woody Allen since When Harry Met Sally and one of the most honest portrayals of two people, not still in their early 20s, but not yet middle-aged, attempting to navigate the difficult terrain of a relationship while knowing all too well that each of them has their share of emotional baggage.

9. Day Night Day Night

Without preaching or proselytizing, without pointing the finger or passing judgment, Julia Loktev's Day Night Day Night is weirdly perhaps the most apolitical political film of the year. Ignoring everything about the girl's background and reasons for accepting a mission as a suicide bomber (it's even difficult to tell her ethnicity from simply her looks or accent) and focusing on her mundane minute-by-minute activities, the film places us firmly in the present and turns her into an everywoman, a sobering realization of the current climate.

8. Knocked Up

Superbad's older, only slightly wiser big brother is a sort of rom-com in reverse. Sex and pregnancy first, getting to know each other and romance second. Like The 40-Year-Old Virgin before it, Judd Apatow's follow-up generously mixes the raunchy elements with the sweeter ones. But this one actually delves deeper into the differences between the sexes and the sacrifices inevitable in relationships. The "B" storyline between Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann's characters are almost good enough to carry a film on its own, in no small part due to Mann's (Apatow's real-life wife) affecting performance. Apatow's regular cast of characters only get better with each production and they're like a great jazz band who've been together for years, riffing twos and fours off each other seemingly without even thinking.

7. Into the Wild

The romance of freedom and independence--real freedom, not imagined or idealized-- is only tempered by the grave and unfair fact that it probably doesn't really exist. That's perhaps the most moving thing I walked away with after watching Sean Penn's film about the life of Christopher McCandless, a life that is at once inspiring, sad, uplifting, and tragic. It's also a testament--among the many movies, pieces of literature, etc. that would, albeit sometimes rightfully, claim otherwise--to the beauty of this country. Not only beautiful terrain and vast landscapes, but the people. The America as defined by Americans. Sean Penn may be criticized by many "patriots" as being himself unpatriotic, but his movie celebrates us all more than most movies ever try to do.

6. Away From Her

Julie Christie duly gets a lion's share of credit for her performance as a woman suffering from Alzheimer's, but months after seeing the film, it is Gordon Pinsent's performance as her longtime husband that resonates with me. Sarah Polley's debut screenplay (adapted from Alice Munro's short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain") is deft at allowing us to empathize with Pinsent as he maneuvers a life separated from his wife while not letting him off the hook for past deeds done. The movie is as quiet and internal as one can be without sacrificing true drama.

5. Waitress

It would be difficult to watch this film without a tinge of sadness knowing the fate of director Adrienne Shelly, who was murdered before it debuted at Sundance. It would also be easy to dismiss enthusiasm for the movie as an overreaction to her death. But all I know is that this is the movie that might have made me feel the happiest after seeing it and that Keri Russell's lead performance is probably my favorite of the past year. The scenes between her and Nathan Fillion as Dr. Pomatter play like 40s screwball, like this generation's The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. It's also, underneath all its great warmth and humor, a sort of feminist manifesto, showing that a woman doesn't have to define herself by the man whose arm she's on, whether it be her abusive husband or even her all-around good guy doctor. Oh yeah, and all those great pies!

4. There Will Be Blood

The best thing to wash down a great pie with is probably a milkshake! "I drink it up!" as Daniel Plainview would say. The grander theme of the movie--the dialectical relationship between religion and money, God and commerce--is balanced by the focused portrayal of one man's descent into madness. The movie's ambition is equaled only by its main character and it devours him and all that dare enter his path. I know a whole lotta people had issues with the film's insane finale, but I think it's perfect in galvanizing both the larger matters of the film with the smaller, more internal ones of Plainview.

3. No Country For Old Men

After seeing the Coen Bros.' latest film, a very close friend of mine wrote to me: "No wasted shots, no wasted dialogue." And she couldn't have hit it more on the nose. The film is as coolly efficient as Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh is a killer. It's probably the most technically accomplished movie of the year, but saying that would be to diminish its overall accomplishments. Eschewing the violence that occurs earlier in the film, NCFOM becomes a meditation on a world that, like Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), is always recovering, always one step behind.

2. I'm Not There

Probably the musical biopic that most captures the spirit of its subject since A Hard Day's Night, I'm Not There knows no bounds in its approach to Dylan--the artist, the man, the celebrity, and everything else. For all its intellectualizing, it does also have an emotional center, both in the elegiac section with Richard Gere as Billy the Kid, and more notably the bittersweet romance between Heath Ledger as actor Robbie Clark and Charlotte Gainsbourg's Claire. From their first meeting in a Parisian cafe, to their courtship and marriage, to their eventual divorce, this is the episode of the film that is filled with the most joy and also aches with the most pain.

1. Once

A man and a woman (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) are in a music shop, she sits down at a piano, he next to her with his guitar. He's written a song and asks her if she'd try playing it with him. Note by note, he teaches her the melody, while she reads the words on his notebook. Four minutes and one song later, we know everything we need to know about these two. Surely, there are incidental things they'll learn about each other--a kid on her end, a cheating ex-lover on his--but something as simple as the music they share is enough for the film to immerse us in their universe. Everything about this movie is right, every song wonderful. No two characters did I feel more for, no two people did I care as much about what happened to them.

I debated for a long time which I thought was the best movie last year, Once or I'm Not There. In the end these two people, whose names I don't even know (they're just "guy" and "girl" in the credits), were the two best friends I had in all my treks to the cinema in 2007. Some of my favorite movies often have the best endings--a whisper between friends in my #1 movie of 2003, a sunrise and a tapping quarter at the end of my favorite movie of 2005. Once is no different. It ends with a song of course and a crane shot outside a window with someone directly looking into the camera as a sort of goodbye. And as the camera pulls out into the sky we say goodbye as well as we float away. I first saw this movie last summer and I still don't think I've landed.

In an act of pure serendipity, Hansard and Irglová were asked to do a song on the soundtrack of another movie. It just so happens to be a Bob Dylan one called I'm Not There! How 'bout them apples.

Liked some of these movies? Hated them? What were your favorite movies this year? Seriously, I wanna hear it. Comment away!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Little by Little

For those clamoring for me to post more often (and you know who you are!), instead of doing a more thorough interrogation of some of the movies I've screened recently, I will instead do a quick, little mini-review of a few titles of interest. (And of course I'm willing to write more if anybody wants to engage in a discussion of any of these movies.)

La Vie en Rose: Yet another bloated musical biopic. It is often someone will say that real life is more entertaining and dramatic than fiction. I believe those someones are probably the idiots that also say that a movie is never as good as the book. Coming only a couple of years after the likes of Ray and Walk the Line, La Vie en Rose changes nothing of the genre, only inserts a different musical legend (legendary French singer Edith Piaf). In a year when both I'm Not There and Walk Hard were released, you'd think people would grow tired of this type of movie by now. If Dewey Cox were still alive, I imagine he'd try to cut the Gallic crooner in half.

Deep Water: It is often someone will say that real life is more entertaining and dramatic than fiction. Okay, in this case they may be right. One of the most stirring and involving documentaries of the past year revisits the 1968 competition which pitted nine men in a non-stop boat race to circumnavigate the globe. Focusing on one sailor in particular, Donald Crowhurst, the film is a meditation on ego and loneliness and the depths of desperation it can create in a human being. More than that, Deep Water also subtly (and sublimely) examines the things men do (because inevitably they must--if for no one else but themselves), while the ebbs and flows of their tragedies and triumphs leave their lives (and responsibilities) at home on the couch, watching and waiting.

27 Dresses: I know the topic of Katherine Heigl bad-mouthing Knocked Up for being sexist has been talked about at length for while now, but seriously, where does she get off? It's movies like 27 Dresses and the just-as-ridiculous Because I Said So, in which the only goal a woman should have in life is to get hitched that make movies like Waitress and The Big Bad Swim all the more important. It's a shame too because as it turns out James Marsden shows, as he did in Enchanted, that he's got the chops to be a real leading man.

The Savages: In the same way the earlier Away From Her dealt with the onset of Alzheimer's, The Savages deals with the onset of dementia. What's curious about both is that each examine the illnesses from the observer, from the perspective of the loved ones who have to manage the situation. And in a way I guess it would be difficult to do it any other fashion, seeing as it would be quite difficult to truly understand what's going on inside the head of the person who's actually suffering the disease. But the arrival of their father's disease force the two overgrown children, Jon and Wendy, to finally grow up and the tenuous sibling rivalry that surfaces as a result is both painful and painfully funny. Two great performances by the always great Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

L'Iceberg: There are a lot of movies these days that work at subverting a particular genre's conventions, or at the very least working as an homage withing that specific framework. Often they are the more clearly defined genre's such as the western or film noir. But the Belgian film L'Iceberg works within the rich, but nowadays almost instinct world of silent comedy. Like the works of Jacques Tati in the 50s and 60s, the film does have ambient sound and minimal dialogue, but it exists almost purely in the physical and visual. Like most silent comedies, even the works of the greats like Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, when the gags fall flat, the film suffers along with it. But when they connect, they're as funny as anything you will see on screen. Like Chaplin did, the directors simply keep the frame still, letting the actors and the action do all the work within the camera's proscenium.

There Will Be Blood: Of all the movies here, this certainly warrants the most consideration, but I am aiming for brevity here, so we'll see how this goes. Based loosely on Upton Sinclair's Oil!, the film follows one man's desire to bring the industry of black gold to the masses, running over anyone and anything that gets in his way--family and friends included. At the center of the film is a chewy, over-the-top (in a good way) performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. In a way it's the typical story of the American Dream and the ambition displayed by Daniel Plainview (Lewis) is matched only by the film's ambition. The film is also the story of America--the strange bedfellows of big business and religion and the way it has shaped this nation both for good and for evil.

Quick note: as the Oscars are coming up soon, I will (finally!) post my year-end review and top 10 for those who are interested (again, you know who you are!).