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2011 list

I’ve finally given in and made my list of favorite films from 2011.
Below are a “top ten” that is admittedly a bit arbitrary and another ten, most of which could be in the top ten also if there was more room. As always, there is no ranking, since I find it ridiculous to compare completely unalike movies (If you want me to even try to do that, you’ll have to ask). With the exception of Drive (which I happened to see twice), this is all based on first impressions…

Akmareul boatda/I Saw The Devil (South Korea)
Gruesome, brutal, violent, bloody. This film is all these things, yet it is uses them within the context of asking a classically moral question: Can one truly confront evil without becoming evil oneself? Choi Min-Sik takes on the other side of the Oldboy coin here, in a way, while Lee Byung-Hun delivers his best performance since, well, the last Kim Ji-Woon movie he was in. This is the latest in a number of impressive films since his debut at the height of the so-called Korean Wave in the late ’90s (FYI: He has been recruited to helm the Schwarzenegger resurrection as his introduction to Hollywood).

Le Bruit des Glacons/The Clink of Ice (France)
Here’s the other movie starring Jean Dujardin that came out in 2011 (The Artist, despite being an enjoyable film, just doesn’t quite work the way I wanted it to as the mainstream po-mo “silent film” that was inevitably coming). From aging provocateur Bertrand Blier, this film concerns an alcoholic writer who is visited, and subsequently hounded, by a human looking representation of his own cancer (a kind of cancer buddy, if you will). A zany, kind-of-funny-even-though-some-of-it-shouldn’t-be romp that loses a bit of steam along the way, but is still as entertaining as nearly anything else I saw this year. Perhaps stereotypically “French” in ways that can either be seen as a positive or negative, depending on your own personal taste.

Cold Weather (USA)
Aaron Katz, uber-mumblecore auteur, brings a slow-burning regular-people type-mystery story that will either be annoyingly slow or freshly interesting depending on your interest in its interest in the slacker-type, Portland-set, late 20’s age stuck characters. Like in the films of Andrew Bujalski, another of the ill-monikered mumblecorers, the focus is less on driving a particular plot or character development than evoking an overall tone and situations of the characters (though Katz seems to have a much better eye for the visual). You may not find the characters all that particularly interesting, but that’s how most people are in reality, right?…

Contagion (USA)
Steven Soderbergh happens to make one of the best films of the year without seeming to infuse it with any sense of excitement or flair. There is a style here that comes from his superior craftsmanship, but it is a purposely detached one. The film is a percolating genre exercise that rides a line between horror-thriller-mystery in a way that can almost seem emotionless at times. The massive scale of such a plot and set of characters is handled in such a way as to include only the minimum needed to coalesce into one of the finest ensembles of the apocalypse of recent memory. I really hope the man doesn’t stay away from movie making too long.

Drive (USA)
Nicolas Winding Refn comes to America. This is what that looks and sounds like. An experience of a picture that is less about driving than it is about changing lanes. I think there is a level of corniness in this picture that exists right along side the “serious” violence it displays in its execution. It’s not quite laughable; it’s not black comedy, but it’s an otherworldliness that prods you into its movie-ness. It is a movie for people who like movies. Another genre exercise turned on its head: Pulp fiction at its best. Neon-noir, as it has been coined elsewhere.

Hugo (USA)
Scorsese makes a(nother) love letter to Cinema inside a children’s picture, shot in the adolescent technology of 3-D, based on a massive picture book by a man with the last name Selznick (yes, he is related to David O.), Scorsese gets a wonderfully clever story from John Logan‘s adaptation, about how Time and Technology effect our future that can also just be a simple adventure tale for all ages. This is a marvelous film that is an easy pick for one of the best of the year. If you don’t agree, you must not care about movies much. Or Méliès. [I admit there is a sentimentality here that may turn some people off, but imagine how horribly different this film would be if, say, Spielberg directed the story of a orphaned boy seeking out his father in the machine…yeah, exactly].

Submarine (UK)
It would be unfair to say that this is like a British Wes Anderson movie. It is the first feature by a very talented Richard Ayoade (probably best known from television show The IT Crowd) of which I hope there are many more. While not as overtly comical as his previous television work, this film is a quirky coming-of-age tale with a way-too-smart-for-reality teenage protagonist who has parents (Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins) who are way too much of a literary construction. But none of that keeps me from thinking that this is one of the best films of the year.

Tabloid (USA)
If people in documentaries could be eligible for Best Actress honors at the Oscars, I would nominate Joyce McKinney. I didn’t know anything about this story, part of which was apparently quite well known in the (British) tabloids in the late 1970s, so I was glad to be amazingly surprised by what is told of it, fact or fiction, in this Errol Morris film. Morris always chooses interesting subjects for his films and he always delves deeper to find something beneath the surface of what most have seen before. This has to have the most outrageous ‘plot’ of any movie I saw this year; stranger than fiction indeed.

The Tree of Life (USA)
Yes, this movie is divisive (It apparently forced many theatres to revise their ticket refund policies). I recommend it at my own peril. It is not for everyone in a similar way that 2001 is not for everyone. But to say that either of these films is “bad” would be a disservice to Cinema. A grand experiment in narrative and philosophy, Terrence Malick gives us a movie about, well, EVERYTHING. I was in awe in a way I know I will probably not be experiencing from a film for quite some time…The most apt word I can think of to describe it would be ‘glorious’.

Womb (Hungary/France/Germany)
A great piece of conceptual sci-fi that touches on the subject of human cloning in a way that I have never seen depicted before. Starring Eva Green and Matt Smith (filmed before he became the Doctor). Despite its slight obtuseness, it is both thoughtful and provoking, as science-fiction should be. I wrote a bit about this below, but I prefer to say as little as possible. Certainly not mainstream fare, though. Just warning you.

Here are some more titles that I liked (I saw 140 or so movies from 2011, so I have to be allowed to like more than ten):

Another Earth (USA)
Conceptual/lo-fi sci-fi as a backdrop for a picture about the curiosity of the Unknown and seeking out a life outside oneself; Meaning that the sci-fi is very minimal. However, it is ultimately a piece the very terrestrial concepts of regret, forgiveness, and redemption. A couple of truly great scenes make this worth seeking out. And it has a man who will probably forever be referred to as Tom Cruise’s cousin as the male lead. (I really wanted to see Sound of My Voice, Brit Marling‘s other more overtly sci-fi from this past year, but it apparently hasn’t been properly released yet).

Le Havre (Finland/France)
Aki Kaurismäki gives us yet another tale of awkward people who emote very little and are unaware of the (sometimes very funny) comedy of their situations. I haven’t seen a lot of his films, but he is known for an immediately distinct visual palette with a style that adds a bit of social commentary and, sometimes, like in this film, a couple rock n’ roll songs in concert. An acquired taste, but a good place to start if you’ve never seen him (He and his brother, at one point, apparently accounted for a third of all film production in Finland).

Jane Eyre (UK)
Mia Wasikowska deserves some sort of award for being most prolifically better than the films she was in this year (also see Restless and Albert Nobbs). Michael Fassbender could possibly be the male equivalent to this (eventually). So, this gets a spot here for them. And it made me cry, even though I knew exactly what was going to happen. The story is great from a great book and has been told/filmed countless numbers of times, yet Cary Fukunaga still manages to make it seem romantically modern (romantic with a capital ‘R’ and modern with a lowercase ‘m’?).

Jodaeiye Nader az Simin /A Separation (Iran)
I am assuming this will win Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this year. I sought it out because Scorsese and another filmmaker that I like (but can’t recall who) recommended it as excellent. It is. A couple in Iran, with a child and an elder who needs home care, separate because one wants to get a divorce. To go into any more of the plot might be too much. This is a family drama, a look into the legal system of Iran, and, perhaps, a commentary on the universal self-servingness of the adult individual. Surely soon to be remade into English so certain people don’t have to bother with the oh so horrible burden of subtitles and exposure to different cultures…

Like Crazy (USA)
A surprisingly effective drama about the impact of immigration on young love; A mature look at the emotions involved in a long distance relationship. Your level of appreciation depends on your emotional connection to the portrayals of the two leading young actors (Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin) who are said to have improvised a majority of the dialogue with the director. Probably because of this the film story is told in chunks, with what could be seen as having particular important parts missing, but it still works.

Meek’s Cutoff (USA)
This has the other great Michelle Williams performance from 2011 (the other being Marilyn Monroe). This is basically a stab at ‘Oregon Trail: The Movie’, if you want a blurb-like description. Yet, it is shot by a filmmaker, Kelly Reichart, who is focused on atmosphere and construction over traditional narrative. It is a digitally shot, anti-Cinemascope landscape picture that looks spectacular in the right viewing conditions (as I was privileged enough to see it in). It is a Western that plays with the idea of what a “Western” should be.

Melancholia (Denmark)
I was initially underwhelmed by this film, thinking it was a step back for Lars Von Trier. One could see it, in a way, as a more passive companion to Antichrist, with its introverted depiction of Depression that he has been personally wrestling with.  The plot point of a planet named Melancholia potentially, devastatingly colliding with the Earth and all its life is yet another grand metaphor Von Trier uses to depict his take on Humanity. I ended up liking this film much more a few days after I had seen it, but I need to see it again before making any personal conclusions. It’s is perhaps unfair to ‘downgrade’ the film because it doesn’t match up to his previous work for me (this is clearly no Breaking the Waves or Dogville), but I include it here because some people don’t care for him at all and that is a shame.

Midnight in Paris (USA)
Near the start of the year, this was the only picture I had seen that I knew would show up on this list. This is one of Woody Allen‘s best films in the past couple of decades. To some, that’s not saying much, but for a man who has consistently made a film EVERY year or two for over 40 years, it should be celebrated when one turns out as well as this. A magically simple tale of love and art with an flightily acerbic Owen Wilson marvelously standing in for the filmmaker in his first great role outside of a Wes Anderson movie.

Le piel de habito/The Skin I Live In (Spain)
This movie is like a mashup of Hitchcock, Eyes Without a Face, and a bit of Last Year in Marienbad. So, basically, it’s another Pedro Aldomovar picture (complete with references to even his own past films like Atame!). He always makes great looking films with great looking women. He also tends to provide really good roles for those women in a way that the majority of other filmmakers do not. I initially thought the plot was a bit too off somehow, but I like it just fine anyway. I regret not championing his previous film higher last year, so I’m hoping I don’t regret the same with this (or any of the other choices) when I get a chance to see it again…

Tyrannosaur (UK)
This movie starts out with a man kicking his own dog to death in a fit of alcoholic rage. And then he moves on to other humans. But he’s not a completely unsympathetic character. At least not in the end. Paddy Considine‘s debut feature as a director shows the possible redemption of a harsh life through  the power of kindness from those who have no kindness given to them (Olivia Colman is amazing). A punishing character study made more interesting by Peter Mullan‘s performance (Warhorse this ain’t). And, yes, the title is explained, but it’s obvious early on that if there are dinosaurs in this film, they aren’t from the prehistoric era.

Special Mention:
Kill List (UK)
I was completely bored with the entire first hour of this movie, so it doesn’t really belong here. However, it might have the best ending I saw all year. It’s like three different movies in 90 minutes: a troubled marriage drama, a hitman documentary, and a I-wouldn’t-even-dare-spoil-it (in case you actually want to see it). Well, it’s not great, but it was completely unexpected, since I had no idea what this movie was about at all. And now I am inclined to think there might be more to it the second time around, if I ever were to watch it again…

Special Mentions of movies with notable lead performances (aside from Polanski‘s film, all by women perhaps not-so coincidentally) that all stand out better than the films themselves: Albert Nobbs, Carnage, L’Crime D’Amour, Hanna, Svinalängorna, Trust, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Whistleblower.
I also have a whole list of movies I did not get to see. Most notably among these are A Dangerous Method and Take Shelter, which I have wanted to see since I heard about their existence over a year ago….and I am still waiting.

I wrote this quickly, so let me know if you care to have me expand on any of these movies. Or feel free to leave your own comments, etc.


Womb (2010)

Here’s a film that surprised me.
Knowing a bit about it beforehand, but not quite enough is definitely recommended. Known factors: Its lead actors are Eva Green (Bertolucci protege) and Matt Smith (yes, The Doctor). That would be doubly enough for me, but Womb is also classified as a science-fiction film (though only in narrative; there are no futuristic set-pieces or anything of the sort). To provide a minor spoiler, if you must know what the film is “about”: It has to do with effects of human cloning. And the film is not at all concerned with using its subject matter to intrigue you. It is not a film about technology.
I mention this because, despite not being a “sci-fi” film on its face, it brings up more in its staging of events about this topic than I have a seen in any other film of its type that I can think of. It does all of this within the narrative itself, which is to say, there is no expositional dialogue or “lesson” entrenched into the sci-fi aspect. Yet, the film gives you plenty of space in which to contemplate the matter. I won’t say much else about it, except to mention that it is lugubriously slow and quite intentionally blunt in its presentation. From the sea blue-gray color palette to the isolated beach setting that truly does at times look how one of the characters describes it; like “the end of the world”, I was still drawn into the film and the “controversial” situation it puts itself in. I found myself asking all sorts of questions about the ramifications of such a possibility when the film was over, which one assumes is entirely the point. It’s not entirely clear to me if the ending is supposed to be as clear as I saw it, but from what I can tell, remembering the beginning is crucial to understanding a complicated facet of the topic. Man’s influence in natural selection does make for interesting (r)evolution.

Since I don’t like to spoil movies here, that’s about all I have to say at the moment. I would like to apologize to myself for having been lax in my posting, though. I have become part of the Google Image Search results fairly recently, so I present some more stills from this film in the hope that people will find them and seek it out.


Inferno (1980)

So, I watched Dario Argento‘s Inferno last night as my annual Halloween night flick. This was the second time I’d seen it, kind of. I first watched it years ago on a 3rd or 4th generation VHS dub that I traded for in the mail from some random dude  on the Internet. That was how we did it back in the day of low bandwidth when people where still saying “What’s this bittorrent thing about?” or even “Do you have a DVD player yet?” etc. We would email each other our lists of stuff and trade tape-for-tape across the land far and wide. I freely admit to this, because we traded titles you simply could not find anywhere to buy retail. Inferno being one of them (I still have a composite print of Profondo rosso as well, where in one scene the actor is speaking English, but dubbed into Italian, with English subtitles that don’t match his lip movement. And, yes, this is barely discernible, because the video quality is horrendous).
ANYWAY. Inferno.

This is Argento’s follow-up to his usually regarded masterpiece Suspiria and his continuation of his “Three Mothers” obsession. Although, even early on in this film you can see that he’s confusing even himself and pushing the other two into this film instead of planning out the belated and eventual failure of a trilogy (and his attempt to move on from the witchcraft angle was a misguided one that just even confuses the issue more). There is a complex backstory to this mythology and there seems to have been some very fine research into alchemy and such, but not much of it makes it to the screen (or at least to the narrative).

The film basically consists of sequences of someone walking around in the dark and then stumbling into being killed with some other eerie sections that include more than one actor in the daylight. If I’m making this seem dull, that’s because the execution of the idea of the film is. Yet, as any fan or Argento will tell you, it’s not the story that you watch his films for. With the possible exception of the aforementioned Suspiria, Tenebrae or Phenomena (my personal favorites), all of his scripts are terrible. Yet, he is, at times, a master visualist. Yes, he can be showy with his long tracking camera shots and famous hand-of-the-killer inserts, but his use of light and color gels rival his late, great inspiration Mario Bava (who actually ended up making Inferno his last film, by working on some of the effects and matte photography without credit, because he just wanted something to do at the time).

The underwater sequence near the beginning of this film is a highlight. If you don’t marvel at it, you probably shouldn’t bother with the rest of the film. It occurred to me that I probably haven’t seen such an intentionally surrealistic representation of New York outside of Eyes Wide Shut. And the scene with the cat in the classroom is insane. And the other scene with the cats too. Oh, and that other one also.

There’s no narrative cohesion whatsoever, but the some of the sequences themselves are just amazing. Overall, it really is almost just middling Argento, simply because the best parts of this are mere extenuations of what made Suspiria so great. Most of the rest is, as they say, retrospectively blah. Although Eleonora Giorgi is nice to look at, as well as the much-more-competent-than-she-seems in this Daria Nicolodi. I’m still convinced she is the main reason for Argento’s obviously best “period” from 1975-1987 (from her being the lead actress in Deep Red to their real life break-up sometime before? Opera). With the exception of The Stendhal Syndrome, starring their daughter Asia, Dario really has not, in my opinion, made a ‘good’ movie since.

So, I guess the point of writing this, for me, is to point out that I originally thought this movie was hard to follow because the quality of the tape from my original viewing was so horrible. Having seen most of Argento’s work since then I knew coming into viewing this perfectly decent Anchor Bay DVD that I’ve had for quite awhile that it was simply the construction of the film itself.
Let’s hope his Dracula 3D (purported to be even less faithful to the source material than his Phantom of the Opera adaptation) will have a decent script and that he can follow it. But I’m a sucker for Argento, so I’m sure I’ll watch it regardless. I mean, I sat through Giallo and it was horrible (even though Adrien Brody tried his darnedness to make it interesting, who was, granted, replacing one of the three main actors to have left before shooting even started). Perhaps some good luck/karma will come Argento’s way after, or in spite of, a Romero remake of Deep Red or when David Gordon Green ever gets to his long planned version of Suspiria.


The Ides of March (2011)

One of the first things I thought as the credits were rolling was ‘This must be Clooney’s definitive answer on why he says he will never run for political office’.
Based on Farragut North, a play by co-screenwriter Beau Willimon, the film revolves around the political campaign of a Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) during a well contested Democratic Presidential Primary in Ohio. Though Clooney has less screen time than some theatergoers may like, he purposefully embodies the recent ideals of his Party (with some clever nods to actual policy that should perhaps be in the public dialogue currently). The plot spends most of its focus on up-and-coming political advisor Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) who has to balance his loyalty to the campaign with his loyalty to the cause it/he is fighting for among a variety of players in and around the campaign. To say anymore would be verging into spoiling the particulars. Suffice to say, decisions are made and consequences are had.
However, this film is really about the the dichotomy between personal and public integrity. What makes a candidate worthy of office, or rather, what makes him or her unworthy? I came out of this film thinking about things that anyone with a brain for politics has surely pondered before, but they are ideas no less relevant for the film them bringing up again in our recent political climate (where many are dissatisfied with the choices on either “side” of the spectrum). The film asks you to consider situations where you have to personally judge whether, as they say, the ends justify the means. Leadership is needed, even from fallible people.
Like most films in which Philip Seymour Hoffman is a supporting actor, his character (the senior political advisor) spells out the moral core of the film: Trust and loyalty are paramount in a business where everything is played for political spin. If you can’t trust someone, they have to go. Like Gosling’s character says another in the film: ‘This is the big leagues. If you make a mistake, you’ve lost the right to play the game’. Yet, there are ways to try to play the game against itself.

I’m writing in generalities, again, because I don’t want to spoil the impact of the specific drama of the film (even though it should not seem unique at all). However, like with his previous Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney may be expecting you to go beyond to film and question its place in our current political/social reality. This is where the weight of the picture comes in.
Does a John Edwards or an Anthony Weiner really deserve to “lose the game” for their individual indiscretions (or keep going back in time for countless examples)? Keeping in mind the future that they could have achieved in/for the Party? On one hand they could have had the personal responsibility to simply not do the things they did (or at least have people around them keep them from being exposed), but on the other are these really things that keep these public figures from being trustworthy leaders in executing policy for the national interest?
I do not wish to take a “side” here, I’m simply pointing out that the answer isn’t as easy as you might think it is/was. If you feel like you already have a definitive answer to that question, this movie might not be for you. If you don’t, it isn’t going to answer it for you. I like it that way.
From a comparative standpoint this film really isn’t any better than a more excellently lensed and scored epsiode of The West Wing, but it is better than almost everything else at the cineplex right now. A mental Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, if you will….


Daydream Nation (2010)

Here’s a movie that I would have loved ten years ago. That’s not a slight on the film, I liked it, but I bring to it a certain lack of impressionable youth that I now know I didn’t even have back then. This movie reminds me of other movies, but not in terms of plot or even merit. I’ve just felt the marks hit in it before in ways that were revelatory in those other movies (like say the way love is approached in Magnolia, or teenage ennui in Donnie Darko, etc.), but here they just come across as unintentionally derivative (if this sounds a bit too harsh, it’s only because those movies are in leagues of their own).
The title caught my eye awhile back, as it is an obvious reference to the great record by Sonic Youth. The film has several of their songs and some other songs from the era, but makes no attempt to be set in the late ’80s (cell phones giving away the lack of anachronization). These are details best left to sweep away (along with the fashion mag-like poster art that has nothing to do with the film). One can only assume the writer-director has a certain like-minded affinity for these bands (though hearing Sebadoh’s “Gimmie Indie Rock” at a post-millenial high school party is a bit too much cognitive dissonance for me).

So, now that the criticism is out of the way, let me recommend this movie to you.
This is a first feature for writer-director Mike Goldbach. I don’t know anything about him and I didn’t bother to look too hard. However, I will most definitely be watching whatever he does next. This is the type of film that has so much going on in it (and for it), that it just cannot help failing to bring it all together in a satisfying way. You have to get beyond that to enjoy the film. It has some great moments from a writer who is clearly self-reflexive enough to recognize his own shortcomings here. Yet, the film is made. So, he’s in a better position than most.

You get little moments that define characters, rather than an overall plot-directed story. The film evokes an overall mood of unbridled teenagery that is rare to see in American film; Smart and assured posturing with simultaneously instant vulnerability and doubt. Caroline Wexler (Kat Dennings) is a meta-character in a play filled with people who define themselves by what they think other people (are supposed to) think of them. She says from the beginning that she is a girl who is playing a part. Yet, somehow in playing this “ethereal” worldly-wise teenager she comes to terms with her own frailties. She chooses to be who she is rather than who she thinks she wants to be. Some things are momentarily “perfect” and that’s worth something more than trying to rise above what could be seen as anything but. It’s a coming-of-age story, but one where the characters skip too far ahead and have to come back to where they belong (I left this movie thinking, ‘Who is this Reece Thompson‘? Oh, yeah, from Rocket Science. Another great performance).

The two male suitors are subtly left to comment on each other. Both have love to give, one whose is initially misplaced and the other’s whose initially has nowhere to give it.  This film is less about resolution (for it is a jumbled one) and more about the comparative impressions between characters. Aside from these two male leads (Josh Lucas plays the teacher with a complexity of both shallowness and depth), I feel like most of the supporting characters are underdeveloped (especially the younger children). Andie MacDowell isn’t really given enough time to have a definable character as the mother, but she makes her role memorable (I point this out because I’ve never really liked her before). Her scene with Caroline’s father (Ted Whittall) is, in retrospect, so deft. They have both loved and lost; in a position beyond the other characters, where they simply enjoy the brief company of each other. I made the mistake of assuming there would be some sort of further involvement between these characters, when I now see that it quite aptly encapsulates the film as a whole: be aware of the little moments that will only seem perfect in retrospect because one will be both too close to them to notice in the present and too far from them to accurately represent them in the future…


Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

I am writing about this movie because I am a huge fan of the original series (which is also why I went to see it on opening day). I also hated the Tim Burton film with a vengeance. I guess writing about it will probably get me more hits on this site too, since I tend to just write about randomly seen films most of the time. The short of it is that I was not disappointed. In fact I might even go as far as to say that its the best possible summer movie I could have hoped for.
The previews showcase the motion-capture developed by WETA over the human acting and I suppose that’s a good thing. The ape actors (blended/disguised with CGI) are actually billed above the human actors in the closing credits. I was afraid James Franco looked too wooden in the trailer. His acting seemed a bit comparatively narcoleptic at times, but it really is not distracting within the context of the film (maybe he was trying for some sort of cohabitation with the visual effect acting, who knows). I would love to see some raw footage of Andy Serkis performing Caesar without the VFX. When Avatar came out I half-joked that I would have preferred watching the raw footage compiled into some sort of avant-garde performance piece. James Cameron‘s film had its moments of believability (aside from the quality of the storytelling), but it was too grandiose, and, well, alien, for the emotional connection to really work for me. This film is a bit more morally complex as well. It deftly moves us away from Franco’s scientist to Caesar as the protagonist of the film, where we end up, in a way, rooting against our own species. The film really pulls you into the mindset of the non-human characters; several of the apes have distinctive personalities and character traits that rise above mere digital animation. The animal rendering, especially in motion, has come a long way since Congo, that’s for sure. At least we can be assured that people will not forget this film come Oscar season in regard to visual effects.

I enjoyed Rupert Wyatt‘s first feature, The Escapist, and was glad to see his ability to balance the emotional element with the spectacle. A lot of this film, especially toward the end, is conveyed purely cinematically without any kind of expositional interference. The human supporting cast all fulfill their purpose rather well, though I think the film would have been stronger if it combined some of the characters. The Brian Cox and Tom Felton characters could have easily been the same person. Freida Pinto‘s could have been given a little more to do other than serve as the unheeded foreshadower who seems to forget her own warning and fall into ‘the girlfriend’ role. John Lithgow is, as usual, as good as he can be with such a small part (adding much needed undisplayed motivation for Franco’s character). David Oyelowo is in the film far less than I expected/hoped and some of the scenes at the Gene-Sys lab do feel badly rushed, even though some are meant to be this way (his character is always moving or at least standing).

Storywise, the film is a version of the verbal story told in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (my personal favorite of the series) about how Caesar came to be and how he started an uprising that led to revolution. Though, it does change/condense this considerably. There are many subtle (and not-so-subtle) references to the original series (my favorite being the Statue of Liberty toy that Caesar briefly plays with in one scene). This film, however, stands alone from the original series. There is a good interview with the screenwriters here that outlines the development of the film. I will refrain from spoilers, but suffice to say, it is not remaking any of the other existing films. I suppose ‘reboot’ is a more appropriate classification, assuming another film will even be made (hopefully so). Speculation already abounds about a one particular piece of television footage shown in the film involving a manned shuttle to Mars….




I do hope this film makes some money, despite the apparent lack of proper Summer Movie Marketing behind it. It delivers enough action to warrant being labeled a “Summer Movie” (probably a wise decision by Fox to bump it up from its original Thanksgiving release date), but it also delivers a bit more story with it. However, the film does shy away from the past series’ allegorical slant (Conquest was clearly intended, as Paul Dehn has attested, to be seen as a possible commentary on the Black Power movement of the time). I suppose there are environmental aspects that the film may be advocating in the background. The California Redwoods play a prominent role, clearly being suggested as a sanctuary of Nature that is portrayed as some sort of place divided from our badly shiny modern civilization. I’m not exactly sure what the film is trying to say, if anything, here. And, again, without spoiling anything, I was left with a confused sense of what we were supposed to expect was going to happen after the film ended. Though, the coda after the credits start does give some obvious indication of what will be happening, it doesn’t indicate what will become of it. And that, of course, is where a second film comes in…and there is nothing tacked on at the very end of the credits to suggest any sort of commitment by Fox to another film. We’ll have to see what the money says, I guess (especially in the coming weeks after it opening relatively well). Until then, I hope to get a chance to check out James Marsh‘s thematically related Project Nim documentary coming out soon….


Ossos (1997)

Why do we watch movies? Or rather, what do we watch them for? What do we want out of them? These are the types of questions I ask from time to time, not really ever expecting to articulate a good enough, general answer.
Recently, there has a bit of a debate going on amongst film critics about the so-called “cultural vegetables” problem. I’ll spare you an overview, except to say that some are using it as an excuse to disregard certain films and others are counter-arguing that it over-classifies films into false categories that deter people from considering them.

I give this context to begin to start to think about this film. Pedro Costa is given the moniker of “slow” and “demanding”. Others, of course, would simply call this “boring”. Yet, very few people seem to attempt to argue that films of these descriptions are unaccomplished or, more bluntly, bad. This tells me that it may be a matter of taste rather than opinion. Which may be part of the problem. These two things are not necessarily one and the same. Everybody has their own personal tastes, which they should not have to defend or apologize for. Yet, not everyone can distinguish this from their personal opinion. Yes, our opinions are informed by own tastes and we can never really, completely separate our own perspective from our critical faculties, but one can consider multiple opinions at once….One can appreciate a film and not like it, etc.

This film is perhaps not the best to choose. I think it is an interesting construction. It revolves around an impoverished group of people in Lisbon who apparently have no prospects in life and no desire to care for themselves, let alone a newborn child that arrives. There is some sleeping (or just laying around), there is a lot of staring at the ground, there is some cleaning work, there is some scrounging for food. There are some suicide attempts. There’s not much of a traditional story here. So, I did not like it much while I was watching it. I do not mean to make it of it an exemplary specimen of my tastes. I simply chose it because it is a film that I found myself wanting to have seen, but not necessarily watch (if that makes any sense). Everything I’ve read about Costa makes me not want to expect to “enjoy” his movies. I have had similar reservations about, say, Bela Tarr, or making myself sit through Jeanne Dielman, viewing them more as chores to the canon than actual enjoyable experiences. Yet, I am still curious about their effects. I like to read about the positives people find in them. And this, in turn, makes me question my preconceptions (while knowing that I rarely misread the tastes of some of these same critics who I have come to formulate a comparison with my own).










This particular film is constructed in a way where you are given no expositional information. You simply follow the bodies around and learn the lean semblance of a plot from the seeming crisis in their lives (which revolves around an unwanted newborn child). Yet, the direction is curious in that it almost taunts the audience with its lack of emotion from its ‘non-professional actors’. I can see some comparing the style to Bresson because of this, but I’m not sure if that comparison alone should give merit to the film or not.

Inevitably, I found myself more interested as the film progresses, as I got more involved in figuring out the characters and attempting to figure out their motivations. But the film isn’t really interested in building character. Whatever it has to say is done through actual cinematic devices (I noticed a lot of re-occuring camera shots and actor blocking). And this is where I find that I re-learn something that I already knew about myself and my own taste. I am drawn to character; to the interaction of people. This is usually accomplished with dialogue and emotive gesture. So, I am drawn to strong, interactive dialogue and, well, movement.
This film has very sparse dialogue and very little emotion from the actors (there is a brief moment of smile and laughter near the end of the film that comes like a taunt and quickly disappears). All of the character building is done through subtle, interpretative gesture and through the camera and editing. There is also very little music (though when a Wire song briefly plays on a stereo it is all the more noticeable).






The film is deliberately constructed in a way that you must do the work of connecting the interactions between characters. Reviewing parts of the film again to grab my screenshots provided here, I found myself slightly more interested in the film. Like my viewing of Hadewijch last year, it seems that the second viewing would be more enjoyable than the first. This happens to me a lot. I won’t enjoy a movie, but force myself to finish it. Then, if I think about (and more specifically about what I didn’t like and why) I am drawn back into it. Sometimes I’ll even watch part of it again. Then, while I don’t necessarily enjoy it completely, I find my impression becomes less negative. So, now I find myself looking forward to watching Colossal Youth (though I know I’ll have to be “in the right mood” for it). Perhaps, this is some form of cinema-masochism?

Part of my problem, which I assume I share with many others, is with the physical context in which a film is viewed. If I had the opportunity to see this in a theatre, I would be more inclined to want to pay attention without distraction. At home, it is harder to maintain the spell, because I may be reminded that I have the psychological power to end it (granted one can walk out of a film at the theatre, but I don’t think I’ve ever done that). I’d like to think that this isn’t so much a matter of cultural vegetables as it is of my simply wanting to see more than I actually can/should. There are whole pathways of cinema that I have yet to sample and I have seen a lot. My inherent curiosity and drive for cinematic consumption makes me want to travel those paths (the maps of which are much more accessible thanks to the Internet). I do not necessarily think most of these films (if any) will better my existence if I do so. So, I suppose it can just be a matter of food for food’s sake, whether some are cultural vegetables or not? I rather like the taste of most vegetables anyway…


The Way Back (2010)

This will be short. I just want to point out this movie that got lost in the award season release schedule and is now finally on DVD. Though, this is the kind of epic, on-location type movie that should be seen on a big screen, if possible. This is also, sadly, the type of movie that just isn’t made that often anymore. Peter Weir managed to scrape together enough to get this made from various sources (National Geographic even threw in some money).
This seems like the type of film that would be a great supplement to reading the story first. Based on The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz, this film triumphs in its attempts at realism (earning its well deserved, though only, Oscar nomination for Best Makeup).
The international, ensemble cast is marvelous with Jim Sturgess and Ed Harris leading, along with Saorise Ronan and Colin Farrell (with yet another surprisingly good supporting performance). The plot concerns the journey taken after a Gulag prison break.
My one complaint is that, with this movie only being slightly over 2 hours, it is much more fragmented in its editing than I would have liked. Despite the lack of changing narrative (it is a fairly linear journey, at least geographically), it could have easily been a half hour longer. And, if you are one for uber-realism, it might be hard to take that Bulgaria stands in for Siberia and Morroco for Mongolia. But the landscapes still look amazing.
The Gulag part of the film really could have been its own feature-length film, but really takes less than 1/4 of the running time. As Weir says, it is all about “the journey”. Definitely worth taking, if you are familiar with Weir’s past adventure tales or just like a good visual story…











Taxi Driver (1976)

I had the privilege of seeing the new restoration of Taxi Driver projected in Digital 4K at an actual theater with Paul Schrader in attendance this past weekend, so I figured it might be worth writing a bit about here. Schrader stayed for a Q&A, as well as a more general forum the following day and gave me quite a bit to think about.
I had not seen the film in years and did not really remember enough to form a coherent thought about it from before. I saw it when I was quite younger, yet I am too young to have seen it in its original release and context. Part of the discussion revolved around its 35 year history and how it has come to take its place in the pantheon of ‘great 1970’s American Cinema’; a time where the so-called New American Cinema, which included such new ‘film-school directors’ as Martin Scorsese, began a short lived era of newly found creative freedom from the Studio system who were eager to capitalize on the growing, yet hard-to-understand youth market.
After a strict Calvinist upbringing that apparently kept him from seeing a film until he was a teenager, Schrader started a career as a film critic, a self-professed protege of Pauline Kael, who veered into screenwriting and then directing. His first solo screenplay was Taxi Driver, after only co-writing The Yakuza with his brother Leonard (which was apparently one of the highest selling scripts of all-time, at the time). It is a story he claims came about as a means of “mental therapy” for the “dark place” he was entering in his life. Schrader confessed that he is very much drawn to character-driven, confined pieces (in comparing himself to Scorsese, with his penchant for broad canvases, sweeping over an ensemble of characters and setups, Schrader prefers to focus on drilling at one particular pinpoint of one particular skull within that canvas, if I’m remembering the metaphor correctly). Taxi Driver is very much a film about a guy confined inside his own space, working out (or rather not working out) his own mortality.

Whether you have seen the film or not, you have no doubt heard of its lead character Travis Bickle, or at least seen a clip of Robert De Niro‘s infamous “You talkin’ to me?” monologue. This is the stuff of film history, forever imprinted on the cultural consciousness. But what exactly is it all about?
I don’t think I could properly answer that question, at least not in a way that has not already been covered by entire books devoted to the subject. I just think it’s worth remembering that every film that reaches such levels of exposure has its context evolutionarily shifted outside of it and its authors control. Schrader approached this point in responses to questions about Travis Bickle’s anti-hero type status on the culture (from his likeness being co-opted as “punk” to his comparisons to real-life terrorists (mostly of the pre-9/11 variety). Schrader was adamant that this character is a psychopath. He is not to be sympathized with (he kept the references to Vietnam to a minimum in part because of this; he did not want people to use this as a rationalization for the character’s behavior). The original character was apparently also much more overtly racist (all the people killed in that scene were intended to be African-American). Schrader made a case that he saw the characterization being racist as being different than the film being racist, but Columbia Pictures appropriately differed with this view and required otherwise.

Schrader has had 35 years to answer questions relating to Travis Bickle, so I take it that he would have expounded a bit if he had some sort of ambivalent identification with the character. Schrader acknowledges that the character comes from both his own creative inner musings and from what he had read about real-life figures like Arthur Bremer (though he claims to not have read his diaries until after writing some of the narration and being surprised at how accurately he mimicked the writing style).
He did touch a bit upon the idea of the “glory in death” that is symbolized by the mohawk that Bickle changes to at that particular moment in the film that he has given himself over to his own evil. Though this could have come from the character’s background as a combat solider (though again this is never expounded upon within the film), Schrader made the obvious, retrospective link to his latter interest in and film biography of Yukio Mishima (which comes from a completely different cultural context, but perhaps shares some similarity in their grandiose/delusional? ideas of ritualized performance).

As another completely unrelated piece of trivia, Tony Bill, a producer who would eventually leave the project, originally pushed for Jeff Bridges as Travis Bickle, because of his previous involvement with the actor. Neither Schrader or Scorsese thought Bridges could pull off such a performance at the time. Scorsese originally wanted Harvey Keitel to play Travis, because he was much more intimate with him than De Niro at that point. Scorsese was eventually convinced otherwise, obviously.

One of the most interesting things Schrader said about the film was his belief that it works as a kind of “evil loop” both structurally and thematically. It starts with the shot of a taxi driver plowing through the smoke-filled streets and ends with the same. Schrader referred to it as a “metal coffin” floating through the decay of the world. Being a self-proscribed “Midwesterner”, Schrader attributes the ethereal filmed New York setting entirely to Scorsese and seemed to not entirely articulate (or even grasp) its importance as a character/setting here (especially in comparison retrospectively to today). The “metal coffin” remark makes me think of the narrative indebtedness to Ancient myth, though this could have been more simply culled from something like Jean Cocteau‘s Orpheus.
Almost every scene is seen through or from Travis’ unreliable viewpoint. Scorsese had Schrader write two additional scenes without Bickle, one between Albert Brooks and a campaign advisor in a hotel room (which was later cut) and the one between Sport (Harvey Keitel) and Iris (Jodie Foster) in the bedroom when he keeps her from leaving him. Schrader hated both of these scenes because they did not adhere to narrative structure.
While there is that question of a skewed perspective through the eyes of the unreliable narrator, Schrader was also insistent that the epilogue to the film was entirely realistic. It is not a dream or some sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy. While he acknowledges that it is obviously ironic in its intention, Schrader says that Travis is no longer interested in Betsy (Cybil Shepard) because he will simply “find another one” and “start all over”. The cycle will presumably continue he gets caught and/or dies.

There’s not much analysis here on my part. I guess I just wanted to get across the thoughts that Schrader put out there for the crowd. Taxi Driver is a film that he included in his own attempt a few years ago at putting together a cohesive film canon in the great piece of writing “Canon Fodder” for Film Comment that can be found, along with much of his other writing, on his personal website.
Schrader seemed very soberly pessimistic about the current state of American film financing (meaning there is no money in the U.S. to be had these days for films many of us are interested in). I’m not sure if I’m quoting or paraphrasing, but he said something to the effect of: “Hollywood doesn’t make dramas anymore. It doesn’t do character-based films”. Spectacle (3D or otherwise) and broad comedy is all that is expected to make money, so that is what is produced. He frequently reminded us all that technology is making the old way of making, distributing, and viewing movies obsolete. Though, he is in no way against incorporating new technology (in forgetting to bring the DVD of his ten minute showreel of film clips, he showed a downloaded version from his phone). It’s just that, with the proliferation of choices out there that this technological revolution has brought, no one has figured out a proper revenue model to pay for the quantity of quality product that could rival something like the “New American Cinema” these days. Looking around at the beautiful new theater in which his film was just projected (in 4K digital no less), Schrader deliberately remarked: “This is so twentieth century”….

Paul Schrader is currently awaiting scheduling and finalized funding (“from the Latin market”) to come together for The Jesuit that he hopes will star Edgar Ramirez (‘if he can get him’) and frequent collaborator Willem Dafoe. Prompted from my own question, he will hopefully be following this with Xtreme City, a “Bollywood American Gigolo” that currently has interest from Shah Rukh Khan and Leonardo DiCaprio (with Martin Scorsese in a producer capacity). Schrader explained the complicated courtship of Khan (co-writing the script with a relative of his who wrote his upcoming RA. One). Schrader doesn’t think DiCaprio will choose this project, as he has many other more lucrative offers to choose from. However, SRK has apparently agreed entrust the American casting decision to the filmmakers (which he would normally have control over before accepting). I’d like to see a masala crossover film and Schrader would certainly bring an interesting perspective to what one usually expects from Mumbai…


2010 list

This is my list of favorite films that I had the chance to see from 2010. There are many I did not see (but I still probably saw more movies than you did). With the exception of Inception and The Social Network (which I have seen twice), all of these words are based on first impressions.
Feel free to leave a comment, if you approve, disapprove, or otherwise have something to say. Thanks.

The ubiquitous “Top Ten”:

The American (US)
George Clooney brings his Michael Clayton face (crossed with a little Alain Delon) to this European styled character study. Those anticipating a Hollywood-type action movie were sorely misled by the previews I saw. Knowing this is Anton Corbijn, I knew to expect something else entirely – like a slow pace and focus on atmosphere. The beauty of this film is in the visuals and in the things left unsaid. Everything about Clooney’s character is conveyed without dialogue. Everything he is thinking in the last act of the picture is spoken with his face. Enjoy the cinematography and the tension not forced on you by music. While the relationship with the priest is severely undeveloped and there is room for other minor quibbles with the intentionally vague backstory, I enjoyed this much more than I expected. And within the confines of this film, Violante Placido is (made to be) one of the most beautiful women alive.

Black Swan (US)
This film is as awesome as the craziness you allow yourself to enjoy. I personally thought it was decently serious (though obviously trashy on purpose), though apparently it’s supposed to be borderline camp for people who can’t handle it. I keep saying It’s like if David Cronenberg or Satoshi Kon directed a mashup of Persona and The Red Shoes. That’s the only way I know how to describe it.  I know zero about ballet, but the film is, in a way, trying to restage the story of Swan Lake with the characters in the film while also being about those characters acting in the same story. That is an impressive meta-task, even if you think it a failure. For me, the movie is about the emotional process of an artist (over)committing to their work. Which is why I think it is resonating with a lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily admit to “liking” the movie. If the ending doesn’t work for you, in the moment, then you will disagree with me and that’s fine.

Heartless (UK)
This is Philip Ridley‘s third film; his first since 1995 (he has been busy writing plays and children’s books). This movie has so much wrong with it from an objective standpoint, but it is ambitious. I choose to embrace the latter. Yes, it may seem disjointed at times, but on the whole, its uniqueness is, well, unique.  I am a biased fan of Ridley’s over-absurdities and his penchant for particular obsessions creeping back into his work (The Devil, crocodiles, morally ambiguous children, etc.). This is a fable of sorts, so it is broad and recognizably derivative. But the way in which it is told is the impressive part. Flailing back and forth between horror thriller, sappy family drama, and coming-of-age story, most of what I have to say about it makes it sound daft (it probably is on the face of things). Too bad; I loved it. Jim Sturgess gives an amazing performance. I had no idea what was going to happen the entire time I was watching it AND I wanted to see what happened next. That is a rare thing these days.

Inception (US/UK)
Too much has been written about this film elsewhere and I have had conversations about it that I’d rather not have to summarize here. Suffice to say, whether you think this is merely “Michael Mann on steroids” with clunky expositional dialogue and horribly written (female) characters or the greatest cinematic Penrose staircase ever committed to celluloid (well, since Primer at least), you have to admit that this being the highest grossing non-sequel/remake of the year is a much better sign for the future of Cinema than, well, take your pick. Regardless, the film stands as a pinnacle of thinking spectacle for, at least, this past year. Even if it doesn’t lead anywhere, I like a movie that wants me to think. Even if it repeatedly screams at me in nearly every scene to do so.

Io sono l’amore / I Am Love (Italy)
A grand, hyperbolical gesture of emotion sweeping magnificently across the psyche. Family, food, architecture, sex, music, and lush Italian landscapes. Escape from all the trappings of the bourgeoisie and find freedom freely felt.
Tilda Swinton + John Adams + Italy = Love


Kynodontas / Dogtooth (Greece)
I’ve written about this film on the site already. It is a truly unique feature about the perversions of isolationism, the trappings of family, and the unstoppable force of individual curiosity. It would be misleading, like a lot of its promotional material, to label this film as “hilarious”. It is a satire of sorts with black comedy elements, but to not take it seriously would be a mistake. This is clearly the work of a filmmaker who is not intent on making a normally conventional story. Rewarding for those that have the patience, I suppose.

Shi / Poetry (South Korea)
Lee Chang-Dong has made some amazing films (Oasis is a personal favorite). This one has a lot to say without being very loud about it. It is a great commentary on aging, family dynamics, and male-dominated culture in South Korea. It is also argues for the place of poetry in everyday life, while being in itself an emotional poem about life in general. Coincidentally, like last year’s Mother (also from Korea), the film contains perhaps the best (elder) female performance of the year. It is a film about wandering, forgetting, remembering, and seeing familiar things again for the first time. Simply amazing and crushingly heartfelt.

The Social Network (US)
This is not supposed to be a “big” movie. I feel that, with all the hype about its focus on Facebook, people will miss out on the point of the film. It has as its subject, as it attests, the chronicling of the creation of a tool that may have the biggest generational social impact of our time. It is a rather distanced reenactment of what allegedly transpired, based on the surely biased recollection of those consulted. What makes this movie both better than the average non-fic bio-pic and not quite a great film is that it really isn’t about the real people involved at all. The film has plenty to say about (the lack of) relationships between people. This is, as they say, the crux of the film: no one involved in creating the online social network really has all that much use for it. The Social Network is not just about Facebook as an entity, it is about the function of something like Facebook as it compares to the reality of actual human social networks (whether it be an elite university, the music industry, or the realm of Law). The quality of this film is judged on whether or not this depth comes across satisfactorily to the viewer while Mark Zuckerberg (and by extension Jesse Eisenberg‘s deceptively nuanced performance) remains a cipher throughout. In the end, the film may just simply (yet successfully) be about living with the consequences of what it means to be an asshole (real or perceived or possibly both).

Triangle (UK/Australia)
I wrote a little bit about this film on the site already, though even in trying to stay spoiler-free I think I probably gave away too much. If you thought the structure of Inception was the most awesomely complex thing you’ve ever seen, you might want to cheek out this horror flick. Bad stuff happens on a boat. And then it happens again. And then, well, that’s all I’m going to say about it.

Winter’s Bone (US)
This film could have turned out all sorts of ways. Especially after reading the novel (an accomplished, short, lyrical MFA styled exercise on atmosphere and cadence shrouded in some sort of hybrid backwoods-noir structure), the outcome is that much more impressive. The film takes a simple story and brings it to life in a way that is at once both immediate and a bit anthropological. I’ve never been to the Ozarks, so I have no way of even attempting to judge this movie based on authenticity. I responded to the emotional authenticity of the acting (Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes stand out among a superb ensemble of actors). And, of course, the film says a lot about (our current) America in ways that many contemporary films fail to acknowledge: there are entire communities in these so-called United States that live outside the world created and supported by “Us”. In a way, this film is the antithesis of what is being lauded about The Social Network. Winter’s Bone is, in a way, about the flipside of this so called “digital age”, where the options people may have once had no longer remain and family is the only currency left to provide for one’s survival.

….And another ten because there are too many to choose from:

Animal Kingdom (Australia)
This is a film about a family of bank robbers where bank robberies are not the focus; this is a study of what it means to be trapped by one’s own environment. It might be worth mentioning that a good portion of modern Australia is historically decedent from displaced criminals who have, in terms of natural selection, evolved through a battle between intelligence and brute force. The metaphor used here is Cops and Robbers as a cycle of human ecology; the strong survive and the weak latch on to the strong.


Burning Bright (US)
A woman and her autistic younger brother are trapped in a boarded up house during a hurricane with Bengal tiger (Garret Dillahunt buys the tiger from an uncredited Meatloaf for what he calls a Safari Park). Yes, this is probably the most ridiculous sounding premise for a feature film, but it holds up. A pure exercise in effects and editing. I am putting this on the list, because, as a thriller, it overcomes the low expectation one would assume going into it.


City Island (US)
I don’t really like Andy Garcia as an actor, so making me forget this is a feat in and of itself. This is a quirky family dramedy that seems to effortlessly build to one of the most hilariously cathartic screwball-like endings of the year. It is specific to the writer-director’s specific childhood locale in The Bronx, NY. It is a light hearted family film for families that already acknowledge their R-rated craziness.


Creation (UK)
Surprisingly meditative pseudo bio-pic of Charles Darwin‘s health and family problems around his creation of On The Origin of Species. The film tackles some big ideas about religion, faith, science, obsession, and guilt without being too heady or polemical. It is a solidly well-made film that is not really about the historical figure, but rather about exploring the possible mindset involved in creating the ideas responsible for our modern scientific view of, well, everything.


The King’s Speech (UK/Australia/US)
Ignoring the problematic historical revisionism of the film (like its alleged whitewashing of the so-called Nazi sympathies within the Germanic Royal Family at the time), I think part of the reason The King’s Speech is getting so much praise (aside from it being supported by the Weinstein Company‘s hugely influential marketing machinations), is that it is a film that reinforces its performances with (sometimes not-so-subtle) visual cues that big Hollywood could only ever hope to get out of its 3-D spectacles. It finds the right balance between being too transparent and too oppressive in the ways it, say, frames the screen space when Colin Firth is playing feelings of powerlessness or isolation. Or the way the edit hovers around Geoffery Rush in times of self-doubt. The combination of its underdog triumph over adversity theme with our curiosity with the grandiosity of the Royal Family makes this an interesting character study. It effectively tries to humanize greatness (inherited or otherwise) and insinuates that we all are better off because even the voice of a repressed stutterer can change the world for the better. So, yes, intellectually it is a bit condescending, but the film belongs on a list like this one because it successfully manipulates us into believing what it wants us to believe. And I’m fine with that.

Mr. Nobody (Canada/Belgium/France/Germany)
This film could easily be labeled as a failure. It is way too long and made next to nothing of its huge budget back (by independent feature standards). That’s too bad, because there is so much amazingness within this film that I can overlook its (many) problems. I like to think that ambitious failures are still often better than mediocre successes.
The film revolves around a man named Nemo Nobody (played by Jared Leto) and his completely unreliable recollections of his life as a 118 year old man in the year 2092. The storylines follow three (?) distinct paths that diverge from particular decisions or actions made at certain points in his life with three different woman. We follow all of these different possibilities as if they all happened, all the while being bombarded with the idea that he could see some of these possible futures from a young age ahead of time. And there’s a lot of overly detailed special-effects assisted visualizations, including some short physics lectures (in character) that explain the ideas behind the possibilities of temporal dimensions in space and such. This is simply one of the most unique movies I have seen in a long time, by a clearly gifted filmmaker. It’s almost as if the lack of coherency in the film is whimsically intentional. To quote a central line in the film: “As long as you don’t choose, everything remains possible.”

Paper Man (US)
This one might seem too “cute” for some people. It certainly displays some of the Sundance type indie-film cliches. However, at its core, it is a very earnest film about what it means to be consumed by childhood ideals and the benefits of the platonic relationships (imaginary and otherwise) that can help in coming to terms with the real world disappointment of their having to eventually die out. Jeff Daniels plays a clearly troubled, yet naively cooky, unsuccessful writer in a way that other actors could have disregarded the complexity of. Though she is more well known for this year’s Easy A, this is the movie that clearly defines Emma Stone as a young actress worth taking note of. The film maintains a balance between quirky (perhaps sometimes unlaughable) comedy and nearly too dark emotionalism. I was not expecting such honest characterizations. Maybe if I see it again it won’t hold up as well, but it’s on the list now…

Red Riding: In The Year Of Our Lord 1974 (UK)
This trilogy is amazing work (three interconnected television films from three distinct directors based on four novels by David Peace), but I chose the first installment as to not cheat the numbers. I actually quite like this film as a standalone, as the second seems a bit too controlled and the third a bit too insular for my liking. For the sake of descriptive comparison, this is a bit like Britain’s answer to David Fincher’s Zodiac (at least in tone and palette). Though this has much more to do with the internal police corruption of the time than the actual murder(s) involved. Set around the real-life Yorkshire Ripper phenomenon and adjacent cases of missing children during this near decade of time spanned by the films, this particular installment focuses on a journalist (Andrew Garfield) beginning the investigation and his involvement with the mother of one of the missing girls (Rebecca Hall). The level of detail here is intricate, but it is displayed in such obscurity that there is no conventional plotline or thriller aspect to the structure of the story. The pacing is slow and the connections made are not easily spelled out for the audience. Much of what happens is displayed without indications as to where we are going or what is actually important to follow. This can be frustrating, but it is meant to be so as we are propelled through the madness.

Shutter Island (US)
I’ve written about this elsewhere on the site, it having been one of the first movies I saw in the theater in 2010. Martin Scorsese elevates this material in a way that makes it both great cinema and about great cinema. He puts the horror thriller genre on display as a freak of nature to be dissected and awed upon. This is the work of a master filmmaker that begs to be applauded. It just so happens to deserve every bit of that applause.


Splice (Canada/France/USA)
Both perversely horrific and parodic, this film rides the line between serious scientific social commentary and playful genre-bending camp. It kind of seems like a remake of an unmade Cronenberg movie from the 80’s (though maybe this is just because it’s Canadian). Given a wide enough release to disturb people into dismissing it, it is clearly only for meant for fans of the sci-fi horror. Count me in.


And a special confoundedness award for movies that I enjoyed thinking about more than actually watching:

I have already written about Somewhere on the site here. I will have to see the film again before making any kind of coherent personal judgment on it. Hadewijch is a frustrating piece of work that has no concern for linear narrative, consequence of characterization, or clear stance on its religiosity, but it seems to contain something worth contemplating. Trash Humpers may not be worth contemplating at all, but it begs you to do something with it, even if that means immediately walking out/turning it off.

If you have any thoughts, please feel free to comment.
Thanks for reading.

featured Short film (9 min)

Blue Shining (Richard Vezina, 2015)

great scene from a great film

Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941)

March 2023