2010: ANOTHER YEAR IN REVIEW
THE BEST [cont'd]
The movie's final, devastating message - written on a note at the climax of a largely dialogue-less film - would be absolutely unbearable if Sylvain Chomet hadn't spent the last 90 minutes demonstrating that there is magic in the world, if only in the sense that there are those who need to believe it and people willing to help them believe. Nothing so calamitous as the absurdity and unrelenting flow of modern living that Jacques Tati and his creation Monsieur Hulot passed through with a vexed brown study threatens the title conjurer and his young charge, as mere survival in a technologically evolving metropolis brings a slow and crushing death to the fantastic. Not just the music hall enchantment, but the the romance of travel and life on the road that comes to an end in light of new responsibilities. Because at its heart The Illusionist is a movie about being a parent, sacrificing everything to protect and insure the happiness of the one who looks up to you (a theme that carries over from The Triplets of Bellville and its emancipating mother.) Some day she has to learn that shoes do not magically appear out of nowhere, but until then it's so vitally important that she believes they do. His job is to give this girl the illusion of magic, even in a contemporary society where humans are lost after being picked apart a piece at a time. It's at once a testimonial to Tati and his elaborate productions and the history of hand animation that the film's characters and backgrounds are so beautifully realized. Chomet himself nurtures the audience with his gorgeous design and hand-drawn visuals, a traditionalist himself, and never for a minute did I think to myself "cartoons are not real" or "animation is anything less than magic." It could be that the director has found the perfect medium for practical skill and talent, a field that with only two feature length films under his belt, he seems to have conquered.
Much better than...NEVER LET ME GO
Like the entertainers of The Illusionist, Mark Romanek's clone babies are fated to slowly have everything taken away from them before fading away from an coldly indifferent society. The difference is that these mopey specimens never exhibit any kind of notable qualities beyond backstabbing each other and enjoying food at a diner that one time. It makes me think of Shohei Imamura's masterpiece The Ballad of Narayama, about a rural village in 19th century Japan where, once a person reaches the age of 70, he or she must submit to the tradition of ubasute: that is, travel to a remote mountain to die of starvation. It presents its elderly heroine as a woman with so much of herself left to give that her arbitrary sacrifice is made all the more tragic. If Romanek's movie, from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguo, is supposed to be about the same acceptance of whatever fate society has in store for you then I didn't get it: who cares about these kids sulking and gazing longingly into each other's eyes when they have nothing to contribute like the old woman from Narayama (or David Ogden Stiers in that episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation") or even a vague conception of possible escape. I never thought Ewan MacGregor and Scarlett Johansson would seem like such strong role models, but Michael Bay's Clonus rip-off at least felt like it had a point (even if that point was "cool" futuristic cars.) The film's "timeless/dated futuristic" feel suggests that its trio of bottom rung suckers and cultural fish out of water represent a purity that is tragically wrung through the corporate grinder, but with no ideals or illusions to stand for they are nothing more than baby seals begging not to be clubbed. Illusionist's community of collective performers are brought together by their need to survive, their willingness to submit to constant degradation and humiliating jobs until it becomes impossible to maintain their preservation of the fantastic.
I've been trying to decipher the title of Richard Ayoade's directorial debut, and what I've come up with is that hero Oliver Tate is himself the submersible vehicle in question. Lurking beneath the surface, allowing his own obsessions and fears (both rational and irrational) to retrogress without communication to the outside world, he is free to exist and hurt people inculpably, and the minute he surfaces he's exposed and powerless: he's not fooling anybody. It could be I'm reading too much into it, but if I am it's because Ayoade and actor Craig Roberts create such a deep portrait of a gloriously depthless character, a combination of Rushmore's proud Max Fischer, Bud Cort's solipsistic Harold, and the scheming Antoine Doinel. For him, wooing the unattainable Jordanna is like sneaking into enemy territory, leaving tokens of his existence and getting the hell out of there. It's all out of self-preservation, since Oliver would never be able to accept that people didn't see him exactly the way he wanted to be seen, or that his life might be in any way imperfect, that his failed astronomer father might be cuckolded by his wife in favor of the cheesy life coach across the street (all three terrific performances from Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins and Paddy Considine.) Ayoade is a gifted comedian, but nothing he's done alluded to what a successful debut this film would be, non-aggressive in its quirkiness: elements that could have been awful (mulleted mystic, eczema-inflicted Anna Karina-hairstyle heroine, soundtrack by the guy from Arctic Monkeys) work perfectly. Talking about it recently I realized that movie is also like a submarine - it goes away for a while, you forget about it, then it pops back up majestically into mind and seems like the best thing you've ever seen.
Much better than...BLACK SWAN
Did you know that art is hard? Artists around the world, from ballerinas to living statues, should beware of getting too preoccupied with their craft: it can cause hallucinations, skin rashes and mirror reflection schizophrenia. Every once in a while, it makes people turn into birds. But you know it's true what they say - you're not really a devoted dancer until you have sex with your rival and kill her...IN YOUR MIND! The dancing scenes didn't ruin the movie for me (mostly, they made me dread the day I meet some ballet enthusiast who hears my daughter's name and thinks it's a Swan Lake reference) although it seemed like Aronofsky doesn't actually care about them. It was more the sloppy recycling of elements from Repulsion, Suspiria, The Red Shoes, Specter of the Rose, The Company, The Fly, Carrie, Étoile and - where there's meant to be confusion - the girl-on-girl action from Mulholland Drive to try and make this seem more than an uninspired ghost movie that bog down the whole humorless effort. The heroine is such a self-obsessed wreck that it's hard to feel like she doesn't deserve the derivative torture she goes through. Everything seems achingly earnest and tongue-in-cheek at the same time, but mostly dishonest and uninteresting. Still I was willing to leave it alone after Toronto this year, but once again my gaging of how a film will be received turned out to be embarrassingly inaccurate and I just don't understand how its reputation as one of the best movies of the year grew to such a manic, twirling, bird-like fervor.
What's this got to do with Submarine? Easy: both movies were made by guys with weird last names that start with "A." (I tried to work Piranha 3-D into this conversation but it felt a little forced.)
The word "tabloid" derives from "tablet," referring to a condensed or compressed piece of journalism that gets straight to the point without much exploration. Errol Morris is by nature an explorer, an archaeologist of his subjects' past who looks at the facts like misshapen dinosaur bones that stubbornly refuse to reveal their origin. He knows there's more to the anomalous story of Joyce McKinney and the Case of the Manacled Mormon than the mere sensationalism exploited in the media, and he gives McKinney the chance to help him understand what that is. Which isn't to say he doesn't share a plebeian fascination with the muckrakers, as the aspects of McKinney's past excite his own sense of wonder, and why not? The details of her life involve true crime, celebrity, pornography, religion and even a little science fiction thrown in at the end. But I don't doubt for a second that Morris respects and admires McKinney, even as he winks at the audience and laughs, 'Isn't this just too crazy to believe?' He sympathizes with her because it's her story against countless others, and because hers is a romantic one. No stranger to cryptic interviewees who have something to hide, from David Harris to Max the parrot, Morris sets about accessing her language, never calling her a liar but pointing out her unique detachment from reality, sometimes with a single word ("mini-bar!") But he never tries to simply uncover the truth: that would be like putting a marshmallow in a parking meter! For him, the media's appropriation of her life doesn't come anywhere near the mystery of the woman herself. By the end of the movie there are no less than three Joyce McKinney's. The most accessible is the tabloid queen: a crazy, publicity-seeking criminal pervert that might as well be a fictional creation. Then there's McKinney's own version of herself: misunderstood victim, survivor, incurable optimist, a portrait of a normal woman refusing to lie down and take the injustices visited upon her. Finally, most importantly and by far the most complicated is the Joyce McKinney that Morris presents to the audience: a unique, romantic oddball just as worthy of spending an hour and a half with as Stephen Hawking or Robert S. McNamara.
Much better than...Pretty much everything - there's just nothing else to compare it to positively or negatively.
There isn't a single moment that would ever be praised for originality in either style or substance. There's also not a single sequence that doesn't work. Basically a blue collar Heat or an East Coast Point Break (hockey replaces surfing) with Joe Pesci-esque ticking time bomb Jeremy Renner added to the mix, it says a lot for Ben Affleck as a director that everything feels fresh and exciting, making up in propulsion what it lacks in character development. And, as in Gone Baby Gone, it's all about environment: you don't doubt for a second that Affleck shares with his character a knowledge of every corner of this "town" and its cyclical criminal underground designed to keep him from leaving. It's one thing for Neil McCauley and crew the action might have been the juice, but these guys are born into it, resolved to end up dead or in prison. It's a theme that's set up in the prologue and never really explored satisfyingly enough in the story, but somehow it lends the movie a sense of foreboding and urgency. Like Gone Baby Gone's white trash mom Amy Ryan, Blake Lively is so perfect in the movie she transcends any one-dimensional sketching that kind of a character comes from. Past crime movies and books that served as inspiration are felt in the movie's three home run heist sequences, especially the highway chase that leaves spent shells halfway across town and the intense final stand-off at Fenway Park - in the local vernacular: wicked.
Much better than...SHUTTER ISLAND
I don't get it: did people let movies like Secret Window or The Number 23 or Perfect Stranger get away with their similarly campy cliches and senseless twist endings? If Shutter Island had been made by David Koepp or Brad Anderson, would anybody have gone out of their way to praise it (or, for that matter, if Black Swan had been made by James Wan?) Because while Scorsese's name and Robert Richardson's stellar cinematography lend the movie prestige and pretensions to high art, it feels exactly like the kind of mid-level genre sleeper that delivers everything but innovation. Scorsese refuses to take the material seriously yet never misses a chance to overplay a sequence with cobwebs on the walls, fog rolling onto the shore and a character actor gussied up in some ridiculous outfit sitting in an armchair by the fireplace. You can pinpoint its problems with the use of this string of older, rugged performers: in The Town Chris Cooper and the late Pete Postlewaite serve a purpose, in Shutter Island it feels like "what random part can we write for Max von Sydow?" It's appropriate that the movie is an adaptation of a book by the writer of Gone Baby Gone, because Ben Affleck showed with that movie and his latest that he's not above approaching well-trodden material with noble intentions and the hunger to make it feel new. Both films employ similar situations, characters who feel trapped, "kee-razy" sidekicks/loose cannons, themes of abandoned family and a useless female supporting part - they're all given better treatment in Affleck's film. Not that I blame Scorsese: the temptation to make a warped "it's-all-in-his-head" psychological thriller even managed to ensnare poor John Carpenter this year. I guess he's on a Boston kick the way Woody Allen is on a London kick, but from comparing Shutter Island and The Town it should be clear to anyone who deserves the title of Filmmaking King of New England.
TOY STORY 3
The reaching theme of Pixar's catalog has been what happens when a person (or a car, or a robot, or a superhero) no longer feels needed; more specifically, when the love of the one individual who makes them feel special is taken away. Last year's UP! built a meaningful relationship between two people and shattered it all within a five minute montage, and the rest of the film was about coming to terms with what had been lost. UP! was about the acceptance of a loved one's death - this final installment of the increasingly brutal yet magnificently entertaining Toy Story franchise is about the acceptance of your own. Forget the bloated four hour farewell to the characters of the Harry Potter series: how excruciating is it to have made the journey with these Pixar creations for the last 17 years only to see them still struggling with the same issues of insecurity and self-worth when faced with the horror of purgatory or oblivion? It's in these characters' nature to want to feel eternally useful, and devastating for them to lose that sense of purpose. This idea has been prevalent since the first movie, where Buzz Lightyear realized he wasn't the unique, universe-spanning space ranger he believed himself to be, and has developed into an even more poignant insight into the human/toy mentality as the recurring theme of this second sequel. And that's not even mentioning the new set of memorable characters, sub-themes of immigration and socialization (which like any Pixar politics you're free to take or leave, and are probably better leaving) and level of quick wit and awe-inspiring computer animation that have become the studio's signatures.
Much better than...RABBIT HOLE
The most halting sequence of Toy Story 3 comes at the end, where Andy's mom - up to that point more a Peanuts parent-type, Nanny-from-Muppet Babies-esque bottom-down obscured authority figure - walks into her son's empty room and we see her at the right level for the first time. The look on her face when she realizes she's saying goodbye to the young man she raised comes from an unexpected and genuine emotion far beyond sentimentality. Woody sees it and understands for the first time that people move on, and he's not the only one losing his "partner." I bring it up because that 60 seconds of a friggin' cartoon are more profound than the entirety of John Cameron Mitchell's melodrama of two people dealing with the loss of their young son. And seriously, you would think that tragically losing a toddler to a car accident would be more crushing than sending your 17-year-old off to college, but you wouldn't get that impression from comparing Nicole Kidman's mourning mama to Andy's mom's expression. Kidman goes through several phases of insufferable behavior ranging from annoying random strangers to isolating her pro-healing husband without once appearing like a real human being; by the time she reaches out to the teenager behind the wheel of the car that killed her son, her motivations seem less remedial and more aseptically perverted. I understand that the film wants to study the less than sympathetic stages people go through when dealing with the death of a loved one, and that it even approaches it in a restrained and respectful way, but it just has nothing to say about it. Acceptance of death, whether it be one's own or the literal/symbolic death of a family member, goes beyond a movie star turning on the waterworks in hopes of award nominations. Just watch the scene in Rabbit Hole where she gets rid of her son's toys and clothes - does it stay with you the way Andy's empty bedroom does in Pixar's movie?
It's not perfect. It's not the book. But it might be the closest thing to a real movie the Coens have ever made, a seamless marriage of their love of all things period and cinematic and Charles Portis. What's most satisfying is their lack of self-awareness: they employ music cues like this was a typical, fun western, and that's pretty much what they've made. There's no marachi band or polka king poster or jokes about health clubs (sometimes they're even a little too self-conscious of their typical shenanigans: how else do you explain their exclusion of General Sterling Price the cat?) But as I always try to remember, it's wrong to judge a movie by what it's not - luckily, there's plenty to say about what it's got. Like a spot-on performance by Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross and the humor milked from her headstrong yet feeble-minded demand for a little justice and civility from an untamed country. She's an anachronism, a modern young woman transported back to a time without proper legal or judicial systems in place, forcing her to take things into her own hands (which, being a 14-year-old's hands, grab the idea of some sort of superhero avenging the wicked with Biblical wrath.) A lot, too, has to be said for Jeff Bridges' appearance: you can practically smell Rooster's body odor coming off the screen. But he has smelly uncle appeal, and it's not hard to see why Mattie puts her trust in this straight-shooting old gunslinger. Her admiration of Rooster's grit equals the Coens' love of western toughness, hence their relishing of the final shootout and savoring Portis' dialogue that contribute towards the building of the what is arguably the best western since Unforgiven. I admire its sand.
(Also I'd like to point out to Vern that both movies have it wrong: Rooster is missing an eye in the book but he doesn't wear an eyepatch.)
Much better than...WINTER'S BONE
I hear the term "southern gothic" and I can't help but get excited; it conjures up Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Deliverance, Texas Chain Saw Massacre...even Daniel Woodrell, whose country noir novels Give Us a Kiss and Red Tomato were enjoyable enough reads. I haven't read Winter's Bone, but based on the plot as related in the film I'm shocked to learn it was anything but a short story. The movie is made up of basically three scenes: girl looks for dad, various allegedly shady characters waylay girl in her task, girl finds dad. And Jennifer Lawrence's Ree Dolly is a sad shadow of Mattie Ross. Here we've got another murdered father, another young woman seemingly over the head in a supposedly dangerous cold wilderness, only this one lacking not only grit but basic human faculties and common sense. I've seen her described as "scrappy" by a number of critics - are they joking or is that a typo with an "s" added to the front? All she does is trespass on people's property and force her Rooster Cogburn - a fey, shrimpy John Hawkes - to stick his neck out to get her out of trouble. Why is she considered heroic? I'm convinced that it's her hair. Whether it's put up in a determined "journey" style, or flowing a little too perfectly for someone we're supposed to believe can't afford shampoo, it's the only thing that gives her character any sense of purpose or provides something to focus on to distract from the hollow inadequacy of Lawerence's "breakthrough" performance. Yet even her flowing blonde mane has nothing on Hailee Steinfeld's firm pigtails that make you believe she means business and is ready to step up and show her mettle when nobody expects her to. Oh, Ree Dolly has to cut her dead father's hand off? Mattie gave up her own arm! There are all sorts of things wrong with Winter's Bone, but starting off at the "heroine" everyone has been focusing on these last few months is as good a place to start and end the debate as any. The movie simply has nothing True Grit doesn't (although I would have liked to see a scene where Mattie eats squirrels.) The only thing the films really have in common are the archaic accents, and I reckon that ain't enough to sustain an empty, boring movie about characters so emotionally dead already that there's no sense of danger if anything should happen to them. But I'm still holding out for a sequel, and I really hope they include yet more scenes of white trash women warning the "scrappy" blonde away from a "dangerous" man who just turns out to be an unshaven character actor.
PLEASE STOP TRYING TO CONVINCE ME TO SEE
INCEPTION and THE SOCIAL NETWORK
Get this: I'm in your dream! And it's a ballpark! Or a swimming pool, whatever! Doesn't that freak you out that this is your brain I'm walking around in like it ain't no thing? People who go on and on about the intricacies of Inception remind me of college students with that poster of the Escher room proudly displayed on their wall (an appropriate comparison, since most of them talk about Nolan's brilliant use of penrose stairs, as if adding layers was an acceptable bypass to some sort of sophistication.) Inception stands for what popular science fiction has been doing for years: replacing freaky scenarios with dumb action scenes and suggesting intelligence without actually possessing it, its director name-dropping Borges so that he can automatically take on the writer's original thinking and talent when the concept is clearly just The Matrix with a spin-y hallway in place of bullet time effects. When you have millions of dollars to spend on effects, it's got to be easy to astonish based on the simple logic: "It's a mind library, right? So why can't buildings bend and hallways go all spin-y? How about slow motion explosions, that'll be trippy." If these tricks work for you fine, but there are a ton of less pretentious and fake-smart movies I prefer to commit the "architechture" of my mind to.
At least there are people who refuse to give Inception any (unearned) credit based on its status as a summer movie cash cow from a guy who directs Batman movies. The same can't be said of David Fincher's The Social Network, which has got to be at least in the running as Most Beloved Multi-Award Winning Film Of All Time By Everybody Upon Initial Release. It's like getting a Facebook invite. You politely ignore it because you don't want any psychotic ex-girlfriends finding out what your route to work is and figure that's that. Then you get another invite. And one after that. And people ask you, "Why aren't you on Facebook?" For some reason the response "It's just not something I'm excited about" isn't good enough. Everybody you know has a Facebook page, even though you can't see the appeal. And people whose opinions you respect try to tell you, "I know - I wasn't going to start a Facebook page either, but trust me man it's the shizz." My point is this: there is nothing more aesthetically displeasing than watching characters use computers, so what can there possibly be to recommend in a movie ABOUT computers? Let me stop you before you knock down your chair: I know it's all about our modern times and various other Sorkin-sanctioned topical themes. I just don't care - not when there are Claire Denis movies to watch and fall in love with all over again. Life's just too short, for Facebook the site or Facebook the movie.
I know I'll eventually get suckered into seeing at least part of both of these movies, but for now I'm a happier man for just letting them exist without my involvement.
(continues on next page with 2010 AWARDS)
<<Previous Page 1 2 3 Next Page>>
home about contact us featured writings years in review film productions
All rights reserved The Pink Smoke © 2011