2011: MY YEAR IN FILM

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christopher funderburg

 

  REGULARITIES (cont'd)

I Saw the Devil.

Notorious for its outre depictions of serial murder and pitiless revenge, Jee-Woon Kim's film represents one of the most extreme transgressions of Korea genre film scene which has become famous for its borderline obscene depictions of violence and depravity. The perverse story concerns a good cop who responds to the murder of his fiancee by plotting an elaborate scheme for vengeance: rather than arrest her killer, he ensnares the devil in a web of humiliation and torture. Without its tendon-sliced and crotch-pounding, I Saw of the Devil opens itself to being labelled "torture porn" and if that's enough for you to dismiss it, you're welcome to that opinion. I personally am more revulsed more by that inept and, frankly, idiotic label more than anything on display in this relentlessly unpleasant movie. Certainly, it's surprising to find when perusing the critical reaction to Kim's work that there are still critics out there who haven't been embarrassed out of using such discredited terminology - if you think that people watch movies like this to jerk off and not actually easily widely available, look-it's-on-your-internet-right-now pornography featuring torture then you probaby don't understand the way the world really works and think the Beatles actually had something to do with the Manson murders or that Imperialism can be a force for good. But back to the film, which I should mention can be simplified to a classic "revenge takes its toil on those who seek it" take rendered with virtuouso set-pieces and a healthy dose of gallows humor. It is not a brilliant treatise on anything other than the impossibility of satisfying your anger by stoking its fires, of redeeming your better nature by torching it. Its kinetic plot and seat-gripping intensity are the whole show, a relentless two and a half hours that verges on being more than any audience could handle, not just in terms of brutality, but in terms of reversals of fortune and the unpredictable injustice of the world Kim lays out. For all its style and effectiveness, there is a level on which this is a deeply unsophisticated film. If that's a complaint, it is a complaint that can be lodged against anything from Fritz Lang's films noir, the whole lot of technicolor MGM musicals and John Carpenter's entire ouevre. To those that would say the dividing line falls between dance numbers and decapitations, you have my understanding. Don't make the mistake of thinking that's a dividing line of quality and not merely content.

 

Puzzle.

Directed by Lucretia Martel's frequent assistant & casting director Natalia Smirnoff and starring The Headless Woman's luminous Maria Onetto, Puzzle has the feel of Martel-lite, which might sound dismissive but I don't mean it that way: being a more audience-friendly version of one of the greatest working filmmakers shouldn't be taken as anything but an aggressive compliment. The story sounds terrible: a middle-aged woman discovers a hidden talent for jigsaw puzzles and breaks out of her wearying domestic life. But several of Smirnoff's choices make it a decisive cut above standard "our put-upon savant prevails over everyone who didn't believe in her and wins a trophy!" fare. (See Sandrine Bonnaire in Queen to Play for an example of what Puzzle is not. It's the same plot but with chess instead of a puzzle.)  In discussions of Puzzle, Smirnoff has pointed out that she intentionally picked a talent that no one would inherently respect - Onetto's character doesn't discover a capacity for chess or mathematics or scrabble or music or anything else that would even mildly tempt anyone to label you a genius. By picking an affinity and ability for puzzles as the latent skill of Onetto, Smirnoff has us follow a character doing something entirely for herself with no accolades or respect waiting at the finish line; she does puzzles because she's good at it and being good at it makes her feel good. It is a film about Onetto's own imagination being captured, not the breathtaking ability dazzles those around her. Also, the depiction of her marriage contains nuance...sure her husband lets her down occasionally, but at other times he's charming - in total, he's never less than sincere in his love. Her kids are focused on their own lives, but to the extent that every older teenager should be: their desire to leave the nest and pursue their own lives is not a repudiation of Onetto as a mother, but a natural result of having raised her children properly. Puzzle concerns a woman in transformation, her life changing not because of failure but because all our lives changes, we are constantly in motion always being forced to discover new facets of ourselves. As with A Headless Woman, Onetto delivers an utterly brilliant performance built on small gestures and subtle flickers in her expression. She's the rare performer able to be simultaneously opaque and inviting, her "matron losing her family" a complex puzzle we're happy to piece together.

 

The Skin I Live In.

I just don't understand the world. Pedro Almodovar created what's clearly his best film - an actually provocative and funny game played on the subjects of sex, violence and sexual violence - and nobody seemed to care. Almodovar's work tends towards the thin, campy and middle-brow, pseudo-controversial nothings that feign at difficult subjects only to retreat to puerile jokes and sitcom plots (ugh, fucking Volver.) He's never been a master stylist, nor a particularly talented writer in terms of spinning propulsive, engaging plots... so why is it being ignored that he finally created a gripping, clever story loaded with intelligent humor and genuinely provocative ideas about sexuality? He's never been this good! I suppose my anomalous reaction to this story of a deranged plastic surgeon played by Antonio Banderas and his captive played by Elena Anaya just reinforces that I genuinely have no clue what it is people see in crushing mediocrities like All about My Mother, Volver and Broken Embraces. I know my cinephiles who share my indifference to Almodovar and convincing them to give this one a chance has been no small feat, doubly so because the critical reaction has been so cool. Banderas and Anaya are both excellent, but Almodovar's problem has never been getting the best from his actors - if anything, you would think that critics would be rushing to tout Banderas, a likable Hollywood mainstay rarely given a proper channel for his considerable talents. Who knows why people don't like the film. I can say this: The Skin I Live In actually features what critics always claim comes second nature to the Spanish Mother Hen of world cinema: a sensuous and sly commentary on the nature of human sexuality, an outrageous sense of humor applied to an upsetting subject, dynamite performances from not only the lead roles but secondary actors, gorgeous physical specimens displaying every inch of their physique. A more cynical man might suggest that critics are chasing fads and Almodovar is at a natural down cycle in his career after a decade and a half of non-stop praise, that their coolness on The Skin I Live In has nothing to do with the film itself, or worse, relates to the fact that it actually is what they claim lesser works from Almodovar have been.

 

The Rum Diary.

I have a strong distaste for Hunter S. Thompson, got nothing against Johnny Depp and unflinchingly love Bruce Robinson - probably a weird mix of tastes in comparison to most of the audience that saw this film. A thankfully low-key take on Thompson's pseudo-autobiographical origin story as a freelancer reporter in Puerto Rico at a crappy rag for expats, it drains away most of the overwrought characteristics of Thompson's style and mercifully eschews the tediously stylized direction of Terry Gilliam's take on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The Rum Diary's virtue is that it feels like it takes place in a real world and not in a college kid's dorm poster. Strange and debauched, stirring righteous anger over a backdrop of gorgeous beaches and old city decay, The Rum Diary thoughtfully depicts a romanticism of excess instead of falling victim to a excess of romanticism. More than any film I have ever seen aside from Robinson's own Withnail and I, this film captures what it is like to drink too much, too often with people who are too intellectual for their own good. Its depictions of drug use and carousing lack the minstrel show caricature of Gilliam's inferior film and Thompson's own obsequious writing - The Rum Diary is crazy, but not "craaaazzeeeee, maaaan! Right, I'm crazy, right dudes?" Johnny Depp employs his considerable charisma and once again nails what might be his signature role while Amber Heard is perfectly cast as a woman who is nothing if not alluring. Aaron Eckhart brings an unblinking self-confidence and adds depth to an underwritten villain role - his moments losing control of the situation during carnival provide the most effective examples of the film's overall themes on the limits of power and our inability to control the reality around us, whether it be through rum, hallucinogens, back-room deals or no-bullshit journalism. The film's final lines (one of the few times that Thompson's own words are quoted at length) ring hollow, a flailing bit of self-deception falling pathetically at the feet of Robinson's dispassionate dry-drunk cynicism. It's the greatest compliment I can give to The Rum Diary to say that Thompson would have despised it.

 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

So very dry. When I came out of this film, I told Cribbs that I felt like it was trick - the style is so aggressive, the minimalism of everything from plot to the staging to Gary Oldman's performance so insistent, that I had the distinct feeling of having been made the fool by it. Thomas Alfredson's English language debut radiates self-assurance and refuses to pander to a point that I felt like I couldn't trust it. So few mainstream filmmakers use the tactic of unwavering stylistic confidence to draw in their audience's attention, that I felt a little like perhaps there was less than meets the eye to the winding tale of moles, defectors and deep covers blown. I'm still not confident that Tinker Tailor isn't a case of style over substance, that the dour quiet and moody obliqueness of it all aren't just elaborate window-dressing on a fairly simple story - I can see myself in a couple years remembering this film without an ounce of fondness. But Gary Oldman's central performance is just too good for me to not give Tinker Tailor the benefit of the doubt - a performance so still and subtle and inwardly-directed could easily be a stunt, but then again Oldman has made a career turning stunt roles into memorable characters. His George Smiley all but erases the memory of Alec Guinesses' classic turn in the role and, if that feat weren't enough, the performance suggest that an already legendary actor has been perhaps underutilized and that there are facets of his considerable ability still unexplored. Who could have guessed that Oldman has a whole new set of tricks that he's seemingly trying out for the first time several decades into his esteemed career? I hesitate to praise the film and shadowy spy shenanigans have never been an area of interest for me, but Oldman's work deserves more than perfunctory notice: his performances generates the film around it outward; it would be nothing without him. On the one hand, that might seem like a mark against it - it would be nothing without Oldman - but on the other hand, it gives wide berth and has the good sense to let Oldman carry it. For that reason alone, I can't dismiss it, as much as I have the nagging feeling that it's a bit of deep cover genre fluff infiltrating the mercurial world of great cinema.

 

 NOT TOO SHABBY

Melancholia.

Noted "Nazi sympathy" joke maker and Susanne Bier-centric fake-anti-Semite Lars von Trier has made a career out of needlessly provoking people. His last few films like Antichrist and Manderlay have gotten so caught up in being incendiary that they forgot to be very good. His listless office "comedy" The Boss of It All forgot to be anything at all. He's always been an interesting filmmaker, but one so smart that he becomes incredibly stupid. In light of his recent artistic flailing and haphazard button-pushing, it's nice to see that he's capable of making something like a real movie. I think a lot of Melancholia's success rides on the fact that he's finally chosen a subject with personal meaning - his story concerns a young woman (Kirsten Dunst) suffering from a depression that seems to have cataclysmic reprecussions (or at least a harmonic convergence with the annihilation of all humanity.) Von Trier has suffered from serious depression throughout his life and his latest film ranks up there alongside Mike Leigh's Naked and Fatih Akin's Head On as the most authentic cinematic descriptions of the crushing ailment. The film's two disparate halves are each flawed in their own special way; the first half at Dunst's abortive wedding too rote and the second half following Gainsbourg's domestic tirbulations before the apocalypse too aimless to be totally engaging. Overall, the film's incisive deconstruction of overwhelming, world-consuming misery redeems most of the film's problems, or at least allows me to excuse them. Von Trier has spent the last decade being a caricture of pretentious divisiveness, it's nice to see him attempt to be human being again, even if he doesn't entirely pull it off. But I guess that's ultimately a symptom of depression, the notion that everyone else somehow knows how to simply be a person while it takes overwhelming effort for you to pull off an only mildly convincing facsimile.

 

A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas.

Each Harold and Kumar adventure has been a cut below the previous: H&K Go to White Castle is a stone-cold classic from start to finish, H&K Escape from Guantanomo Bay is very solid overall mixing classic bits with a few regrettable gags and less assured direction, A Very H&K Christmas is passable. I remember almost nothing that caused me to laugh in their latest hazy pot-fueled romp - and, in fact, can easily recall many of the unfunny bits: the interminable subplot with some nerdlinger and the always unwelcome Thomas John Lennon trapped in a closet, the baby on drugs, Danny Trejo as a mirthless patriarch. Even Neil Patrick Harris' shtick has become totally exhausted and I would have been happy for him not to be literally resurrected for the third installment. So why is the film on my list? For the simple reason that John Cho and Kal Penn remain the most likable duo in stoner comedy history and have an easy rapport that feels real to life and never less than charming. They're a winning couple those two and spending a hour and half watching them getting up to their stereotypical race-and-class conscious hijinx won me over in spite of everything else - I could watch those two as Harold and Kumar until the end of time and be happy to do so. I just hope for future installments they bring back the moronic comedy savant Danny Leiner to direct - as Final Destination and Fast and Furious franchises have shown, there's no reason that even a part 4 or 5 can't meet and exceed the best of the series. Part 3 of the H&K saga is nothing special - but the two characters and the actors behind those genuinely lovable performances are as rare as inventive, politically conscious, stoner comedy that keeps its integrity and original vision over the course of three unlikely hits.

 

Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster.

This film following the continuing adventures of Donnie Yen's legendary grandmaster (Mr. Ip Man) are every bit as grim and even more bluntly Nationalistic than its predecessor - but there's no denying its effectiveness. Unlike Yen's contemporaneous pseudo-historical tale of a grand master, the muddled Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, the ugly "China rules" elements never quite undermined my enjoyment of Ip Man 2 - the hissable villain, a preening British boxer, inspires so much animosity that there's no proper response but gleeful anticipation of his forth-coming beatdown. So what if the film shamelessly pulls a Rocky IV and kills off Sammo Hung just after he and Yen have become fight brothers? This is not an original film by any stretch of the imagination, just a more cartoonish and colorful reprise of the first Ip Man. But Yen's quiet portrayal of Ip Man as a reluctant hero goes a long way towards engaging the audience - he's great company, a charmingly unflappable fellow always on the side of right, a righteous character that Yen isn't afraid to play for gentle laughs. Plus, the fight sequences are top notch - Yen and Hung's table fight is a kinetic bit of wire-fu that gives the term a good name and every showdown nails the balance between brutal and balletic that has become Yen's signature - he's a beast with swift, gorgeous technique, a soft-spoken gentleman who will pound your skull in with the grace and fluidity of Martha fucking Graham. (Yes, I stand by that statement.) There are enough bad kung-fu movies out there that I can't take a solid programmer like this for granted - it's tough to be this unremarkably effective.

 

Final Destination 5.

Critics love to complain about how outlandish the death scenarios tend to be in the Final Destination films - in particular, they are fond of the phrase "Rube Goldberg-esque" and delight in pointing out the basic concept of the series, as if through their eagle-eyed attentiveness, they have discovered something no one else would've noticed. Never mind that such criticisms are factually incorrect - just as much of the violence is blunt and abrupt as it is complexly slow-developing - but saying that the circuitously arranged set-pieces of Final Destination are absurdly overwrought is a little like pointing out that milkshakes are only delicious because they have so much fat and sugar; good work, genius. I suppose it's fine if you don't like milkshakes, but it makes me a little sad to see you try to explain your distaste. FD 5 probably ranks as the 4th best in the series because of an irritatingly Tom Cruise-esque lead villain and the always unwelcome antics of David Koechner, but the inherent unpredictability and raucous intensity of the core concept have proven exceptionally durable. As always, a FD film will have you squirming and jumping in equal measure.

 

Love Crime.

To call the recently deceased Alain Corneau, who specialized in paperback-ish thrillers, a journeyman or a hack would not be an insult. Corneau excelled at the kind of gripping, tightly-plotted genre works that  can benefit from nondescript direction that doesn't get in the way of the action. Playing to type, the lovely Ludivine Sagnier and the ice-cold Kristin Scott Thomas trade metaphorical blows in their shared corporate workplace - is it any surprise when their battles eventually take a less metaphorically violent turn? This is a film built on twists, on the gradual reveal of clever plots and staying one step ahead of the audience rather than on philosophy. It belongs to the tradition of Simenon, Westlake and Leonard - you might object that those authors have strong authorial voices and that's fair enough. They also happen to have written page-turning paperbacks dependent on engrossing stories and sharply etched characters. As a cinematic equivalent, Love Crime more than meets the criteria.

 

The Double Hour.

A servicible little thriller from the director of The Unknown Woman (with a twist I can't really get behind) elevated by a sad and moving performance by star Filippo Timi. Timi's turn as an aimless widower, an ex-cop turned meek security guard, has interlaced elements of sadness, hope and magnanimity. Unfortunately, Timi gets relegated to the sidelines for a big strecth of the film in favor of his potential new love, a Slovenian maid played by Ksenia Rappoport. As I mentioned, there's an unsatisfying and cliched twist, but I should point out that the film handles the nuances of the "secret" much better than it could have. Director Giuseppe Capotondi has said he wanted to make a modern giallo and that's admirable, even if he didn't actually - this is the kind of mediocre film that overcomes its deficiencies by having its heart in the right place and nailing the all the small stuff, despite its limited capacities for excellence, sort of a Jason Kelce of cinema. Timi's enigmatic decisions in the final third of the film provide it its only real depth; his actions surprise, but they also feel grounded in the carefully drawn character. If you want to complain about the film's fundamentally silly narrative ideas, I can't argue with you. If those twists and turns cause you to dismiss Timi's world-class work, you're in the wrong.

 

Fast Five.

Along with Final Destination, vying for the title of "Greatest Part V of All Time" - and none of you wisenheimers suggest Empire Strikes Back for the accolade, we're talking strictly production order. While that means their competition is stuff like a Halloween film directed by some nobody from Switzerland, a Jason movie without Jason in it, the Nightmare on Elm Street where Freddy haunts a baby and a some truly awful crap like Attack of the Clones, they nevertheless feel energetic and explosive at a point of creative development when most other films series have totally run out steam and all but forgotten how to be interesting. Fast Five understands exactly what is required of a Fast and Furious film and delivers it more relentlessly than any film in the series - it is not the best F&F film in the franchise, but it is certainly the most F&F of the franchise.

 

Moneyball.

Just a good time at the movies: an underdog baseball story, the biggest movie star on the planet, pitch-perfect comic relief. There's even a bit of surprisingly effective father-daughter sentimentality in addition to the expected notes of cast-offs who nobody wanted over-coming the odds and idiosyncratic leaders displaying an incorruptible integrity. I wish I could say more on this film's behalf because I really got a kick out of it, but I'm not sure what else to say. I suppose I could that even if you think you're not interested in seeing Brad Pitt use advanced statistical analysis (or Moneyball) to manage a hapless baseball team with the help of goofball Jonah Hill, you should still give the film a chance. It's loaded with likable performances from divise actors like Pitt, Hill, Robin Wright Penn and Philip Seymour Hoffman, all at their most engaging, each one nailing their role. The fleet-footed script never gets bogged down in useless subplots or too obsessed with hitting the notes of a typical underdog story, it understands just what's fundamentally interesting about Bill Beane's innovative tactics with the Oakland A's. Conversely, it's never too dry, too sports-and-stats-minded, it strikes an excellent balance between the disparate elements, never struggling to mine unnecessary comedy from the proceedings or stopping to give Pitt inspirational speeches. It's a solid film, one that is exactly like you would expect it to be, only better.

 

Killer Joe.

Playwright Tracy Letts and director William Freidkin re-team for another round of grostesque white trash deliria, a story of gribby greedy little losers who enlist a notorious sheriff into their murder plot. Matthew McConaughy dominates the film as the corrupt sheriff, first with his ice-cold intensity and then when he unleashes an impressively gonzo psychopathic mania. Friedkin and Letts can't quite overcome the film's origin as a play and some of their attempts to make it less stagey and static play worse than if they had just let things be. On top of that, there's a little bit too much trailer park minstrelry in key performances from Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon and juno Temple, it occassionally feels like they're playing white trash dress-up, but they're good enough (except for Temple, who is a real waste of cinematic space in everything I've ever seen her in.) These are major problems, but the film works overall because McConaughey is so perfectly suited to the titular role; his oily self-confidence and snaky charms haven't been so memorably deployed since Dazed and Confused. Letts has a real talent for building crazy, claustrophobic scenarios than suddenly ratchet up their intensity and then keep on exploding skyward with no relief, raining down greasy grief and garbage. Friedkin, for his part, continues to exhibit his talents for gleefully exposing human darkness He doesn't work wonders with the cast, but he should be allotted appropriate credit for coaxing a career best performance not only from McConaughey, but Emile Hirsh as the weasely source of all the film's conflict. Comparable to the previous Letts/Friedkin team-up Bug, Killer Joe can't quite escape its theatrical origins, but the central performances are so unforgettably dark and complex that it probably doesn't matter.

(continues on next page with the presentation of 2011's DISTINGUISHED AND DUBIOUS HONORS)

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