Search This Blog

February 14, 2010

2009: POSTSCRIPT - The Dead Zone

For a movie goer, this is the most frustrating time of year in San Antonio. There were three weeks after Christmas when there were no new relealeses here. Then schlock. Then the Super Bowl weekend, so, again, no new releases. Finally Crazy Heart opened with, to my mind, much disappointment. So much build-up; so little to deliver.

Again, a San Antonio frustration. I drove to see the documentary La Danse: The Paris Ballet Theater, which was scheduled for a single daily showing (for what I am sure is only a single week) at 2:15. When I arrived at the theater it was showing only at 8:40 p.m. The justification, says the management, was that they had to reschedule at the last minute because of changes in the Jewish film festival. So either one I would have planned for, La Danse OR the Jewish Film Festival, I would have been there at the wrong time. C'est la vie.

January 22, 2010

2009: IX-What Didn't Come Here

(…and I’m sure all of these lists leave out many deserving films)


Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces
Yojiro Takita’s Departures
Steve Jacob’s Disgrace
Erick Zonca’s Julia
Paul Morrison’s Little Ashes
Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light
Anthony Fabian’s Skin
James Mottern’s Trucker
Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon
Roy Aundersson’s You, the Living


Sacha Gervasi’s Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Dan Stone’s At the Edge of the World
Agnès Varda’s Beaches of Agnes
Chris Smith’s Collapse
Peter McCormack’s Facing Ali
Jeff Stilson’s Good Hair (with Chris Rock)
Morgan Dews’ Must Read After My Death
Anne Aghion’s My Neighbor My Killer
Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City
R.J. Cutler’s The September Issue
James Toback’s Tyson
Nati Baratz’s Unmistaken Child
Theodore Thomas’s Walt & El Grupo
Ondi Timoner’s We Live in Public
Joe Winston’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?

2009: VIII-Baad Movies


The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day – Such a disappointment. Troy Duffy’s original Boondock Saints opened in only five theaters in 1999 and then went to DVD and cult status. After I took it home from a BlockBuster I could find no one who’d heard of it. Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus play Irish Catholic brothers who have become self appointed avenging angels. It had a certain Tarantino-derived energy, and was fun in a vigilante sort of way. II is purely gratuitous – and worse, cute. Don’t even bother.

The Girlfriend Experience
I cared less about the people in Steven Soderbergh’s empty excuse for a movie than I have ever cared about any characters ever created (except for those in Humpday below). The film, a superficial exploration of superficiality, follows a professional escort, who also has a live-in boyfriend. Everything is objectified and evaluated as a financial transaction. It doesn’t work as social commentary, as cautionary tale, or as one dimensional morality play.

Two straight guys, high on booze and pot, get rooked into agreeing to film themselves having sex with each other for an experimental film festival. Despite sober reconsiderations, they decide this will be the “ultimate art project.” Pseudo-intellectual conversations ensue. They rent a motel room and keep their date, but all that transpires is more babble trotted out as philosophical dialectic purportedly about profound issues of gender – in one of the talkiest, most self-absorbed movies about absolutely nothing ever made. In all fairness to critical opinion, Stephen Holden, in the NYT, says Lynn Shelton’s film is an “unblinking observation of a friendship put to the test…amused, …kindhearted, and unfailingly truthful” – so what do I know?

The Men Who Stare at Goats
This is a shame because Grant Heslov’s film based on the nonfiction book by Jon Ronson really should be, based on cast alone if nothing else, a good movie. A journalist, played by Ewan McGregor, discovers Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), who, in deadpan delivery, relates his experiences in an Army unit recruited to pursue parapsychology research. The cast of loonies who make up the team is rounded out with comedic performances by Jeff Bridges, Stephen Lang, and Kevin Spacey. How could this go wrong? The story’s not grounded anywhere. The journalist seems like an afterthought, and though it seems Cassady or the journalist – one or the other – should serve to anchor the story, it boils down to little more than episodic skits with no narrative trajectory.

Sherlock Holmes
Guy Ritchie turns the venerable detective into a cartoon action-hero. It aims for realism in the seedy streets of London, while studiously ignoring every law of reason (which would seem to be a problem for Holmes’s famous powers of deduction). It’s too over the top, though as Roger Ebert observes, “The great detective, who has survived so much, can certainly shrug off a few special effects.”

I pride myself on knowing what movies are out there, and some basics about them, so here’s an embarrassing confession. I walked into the theater thinking I was going to a documentary about global water shortages! Instead Park Chan-wook’s story is about a priest who volunteers to act as a guinea pig to find a cure for an epidemiological disease. The experiment seems to have miraculously worked until it is clear the infection has taken hold. A tainted blood transfusion saves him, but at the cost of turning him into a vampire with considerable carnal appetites. The movie devolves into gratuitous excess, even for a vampire movie. I very much liked Park’s 2003 Oldboy, but here he lets things spiral out of control.

If you’re in the mood for one of the best contemporary vampire movies, do not pass go, do not collect $100 and rush to add to your queue the Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 Let the Right One In, a serious examination of the nature of the vampire myth, in the tradition of Nosferatu, written by John Ajvide Lindqvist and based on his novel.

January 21, 2010

2009: VII-Hollywood Generic

State of Play
The International

All three are workable, Hollywood fare – good entertainments.

The Blind Side
It’s Complicated

I have some fundamental philosophical issues with both of these movies. Both suffer from one of my pet peeves, which I’ll call “Tacit Maid Syndrome.” Or TMS. (The syndrome extends to Tacit Gardener Syndrome, etc.) The movie features a family, or a divorcee, or a young couple who live in a 4,000+ square foot house in southern California, or spacious apartment in New York City, or McMansion in a gated community in Memphis – and never once during the course of the entire film is there a hint of a maid – or of a gardener for the acres of grounds – in sight. I know for a fact that these people are not mopping their floors, vacuuming their pets’ fur off of the upholstery, pruning the shrubbery, or scrubbing their toilets. In the midst of these unspoken assumptions is the BIG ONE: These are “middle class” characters – and critics join in, perpetuating this absurdist fantasy of “middle class.” (Don’t get me started; subject of another essay….)

With The Blind Side I have other issues beyond the “feel-good movie of the year” bill that it strives to fit so neatly. How would this young man from a life of poverty, abuse, and family dysfunction have fared, even with the intervention of an affluent family, were he not possessed of the brawn for football celebrity? What if he had shown an emerging talent for math, let’s say, or mechanical repair – or what if he had turned out to be not particularly exceptional at anything – in other words, a regular kid. What then? Would our hearts still be warmed, or would they just be left cold?

2009: VI-Documentaries


Capitalism: A Love Story – Writing about Michael Moore’s Sicko two years ago some critic complained that it was nothing more than a polemic. Hel-lo. That’s what Michael Moore does – and he does it sooo well. I’m no economist, but as a person who 1) has insisted to anyone who would listen since 1980 that deregulation was a recipe for disaster, and 2) sought in 2007 to follow emerging news of impending economic crises to prove my Malthusian economic predictions, I would think that any person with eyes, ears and a brain the size of a pea would not find Moore’s outrage unjustified.

The Cove – Louie Psihoyos’s film seeks to put to rest the tragically mistaken idea that dolphins are cute performers that revel in being held captive for human entertainment. Beyond that, however, those involved in this brave documentary risked their lives to expose the barbaric practice of corralling, then harpooning, thousands upon thousands of dolphins annually in order to put dolphin on the Japanese market as whale meat – a ruse necessary because dolphin flesh contains such high concentrations of mercury that it is dangerous to eat. At the heart of the film is Richard O’Barry, famous as “Flipper’s” trainer. (Flipper was an amalgam of many dolphins.) He has been trying to atone for 25 years, and is at the forefront of the effort to protect these noble animals. You will not be able to shake the blood soaked images from your mind for weeks. (See the Oceanic Preservation Society.)

Crude – Joe Berlinger’s dogged investigation of Texaco’s and Chevron’s 1970s oil explorations that turned a swath of Ecuador into a death sentence for tens of thousands of indigenous people. That the case even makes it to court, considering the oil behemoths’ clout, is astonishing. As much as we want to bury our heads in the sand, we need the Joe Berlingers to hold them in a vice and make us look at what our privileges wreak. When we talk about sustainability, we rarely extend the reasoning to the consequences for whole populations of exploited people. (Berlinger also directed the 2004 documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, which I was predisposed to dismiss and then found quite compelling.)

Food, Inc. – Confession. I have not seen this movie. It came to San Antonio, and I didn’t go. It stayed another week and I didn’t go. I put it at the top of my NetFlix queue but before the turnover, I moved it down. I want to watch this movie. I know what corporate produce farming and animal processing practices are like, having read extensively on the subject. I guess I just don’t want to actually SEE it. I’m going to move it back up in my queue, I promise. But will I ever eat again? Uugghh.

The Horse Boy – The opening scene scrolls out slowly, and not until father and son come into full focus do I say to myself, “That’s Rupert Isaakson!” I met Rupert while working at the Center for Spirituality and the Arts in San Antonio, when he came to speak on his poignant book The Healing Land: The Bushmen and the Kalahari Desert. Michael Scott directs this chronicle of Rupert and Kristin Neff’s son Rowan, who despite or because of his autism, possesses an exceptional emotional bond with horses. His parents’ research leads them to Mongolian herders, and a quest to heal their son through the intervention of Mongolian shamans.

2009: V-Biopics

…none of which were very good…except for:
Julie & Julia – …the Julie of which could have been cut or at least de-whined but Meryl Streep as Julia Child was, come on, TO DIE FOR!

The problem with American actors in biopics generally is that American actors too often have a tendency to do impersonations rather than to truly inhabit the roles. Take Hillary Swank (Amelia) and Morgan Freeman (Invictus) or Joaquin Phoenix in the 2004 Walk the Line. Nothing even close to Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose or this year’s haunting performance by Yolande Moreau in Séraphine and Meryl Streep’s joyous embodiment of Julia Child. To give American actors their due, Matt Damon in The Informant! and Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in the 2006 The Last King of Scotland nail it.

Amelia – Well, Hillary Swank got her affected accent right throughout the film but Richard Gere only got his right in about the first three lines.

Coco Before Chanel – Terrible title; great costumes – well, they’d have to be, now wouldn’t they – but really…could anyone’s life have been so charmed??

Invictus – Morgan Freeman is Nelson Mandela, and Matt Damon is good, but it all just falls short. Clint Eastwood has missed something. On top of everything else, it’s a really bad poem.

Public Enemies – Johnny Depp, here as John Dillinger, is always fabulous on-screen, even when the cars are over-restored, the plot strained, and the vintage costuming too perfect to be true.

The Soloist – After your heart has been warmed, there’s just not much going on here.

The Young Victoria – Nicely done, but there is a sameness about the actresses who are cast to play English heroines, whether fictional or real.

January 16, 2010

2009: IV-Films to Consider

Adoration – Atom Egoyan’s film examines prejudice and coming of age in an internet social media, multicultural, post 9/11 world.

Away We Go – Most critics scoffed at Sam Mendes’s road movie as smug, self-righteous, contemptuous – or all three. I am the first to agree that Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road one of the most bloated movies ever made) seems to have a predisposition toward contempt for the American middle class. However, Verona and Burt’s sojourn to friends and family in search of parental role models yields, fairly realistically, one neurotic, dysfunctional family after another. As far as I know, Roger Ebert and I were among the few who found some redemption in the story, so view at your own risk.

The Brothers Bloom – Rian Johnson’s engaging romp with two aging con men and the eccentric heiress they hope to swindle in that one last job. With Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel Weisz.

Everlasting Moments – Swedish director Jan Troell’s true-life inspired story of a loving, though abused, wife and mother at the turn of the 20th century whose shuttered life is opened up by the re-discovery of a camera she won in a lottery years earlier. Troell almost exclusively employs natural light, giving the entire film the aesthetic quality of the photography that gradually becomes, at first her avocation, and then, against the backdrop of WWI and her need to make a living, her vocation. (One note: Terrible title! Lost in translation?)

Everybody’s Fine – It may be one of those family holiday movie vehicles, yet Robert DeNiro turns in a subtly nuanced performance, something we haven’t seen in a loooong time. Kirk Jones’s peripatetic tale is a remake of Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1990 Stanno Tutti Bene, in which the central role was inhabited by Marcello Mastroianni. When a recent widower sets out, unannounced, to visit each of his four children, he ultimately discovers, of course, that everything is not, in fact, fine. The entire cast turn in sincerely felt performances.

Gomorrah – Mateo Garrone’s cinéma vérité adaptation of Roberto Saviano’s book (the publication of which has forced him to live underground) about the crime syndicate known as Camorra. It gives the lie to Hollywood versions of the romantic idea of generic mafia. I remember the film as being mercifully shot in black and white, but I believe that is my subconscious protecting itself. To say its subject matter is brutal is understatement. The killing is senseless and relentless. Camorra’s annual take is estimated at around $250 billion, a fortune built on the backs of impoverished youth with no futures. (America, you can pay to raise the quality of life for the underclass in taxes or you can pay for it in crime – either way you WILL pay.) I wouldn’t blame audiences for staying away. At the same time, as an African proverb has it, “Not to know is bad; not to wish to know is worse.”

The Great Buck Howard – Sean McGinly’s show business satire stars John Malkovich as a washed up 1970s television personality (based on George Joseph Kresge Jr.) whose mind reading act looks moth eaten. He’s vainly struggling to make a comeback. Rather than allow Buck to come off as a pathetic parody of himself, Malkovich reaches down to reveal glimpses of Buck’s flawed humanity.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus(Best Costumes / Makeup)The ever inventive Terry Gilliam explores the necessity of imagination and myth to the understanding of reality. “You cannot stop stories being told,” Christopher Plummer’s Parnassus tells Tom Waits’s Devil, Mr. Nick, who are themselves playing out an ongoing version of Dr. Faustus. Upon Heath Ledger’s untimely death, Gilliam cast a triumvirate of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to play Tony in the interior imaginarium scenes, Tony’s visage changing depending on the dream being dreamed. The plays within the play riff on the nature of myth and dreams and the caveat to be careful what you wish for.

In the Loop NYT critic A. O. Scott calls Armando Iannucci’s spoof on the loopy “reasoning” employed to justify the pre-emptive strike on, in this case, an unspecified Middle Eastern country, “a sharply written, almost dementedly articulate satire on modern statecraft.” It is uproariously funny, yet sensing the underlying lack of unreality, one can’t help but squirm.

Is Anybody There? – John Crowley’s movie follows a retired magician billed as the Amazing Clarence as he is befriended by Edward, the 10-year-old son of the old folks’ home proprietors where Clarence has been installed. Edward is possessed of a morbid fascination with death and the macabre, and Clarence unwittingly becomes the boy’s mentor in ways beyond sleight of hand. This central relationship and Michael Caine’s presence on the screen are the reasons to see this movie. The remaining constellation of characters are little more than sit-com clichés.

The Invention of Lying – In a little story in defense of the small lies with which we spare others the pain of bare truth telling, Ricky Gervais, who wrote and directed, portrays one of those guys living lives of quiet desperation, made even more unrelenting by the fact that the world has never conceived the concept of lying. When he exclusively happens upon the secret of deceit, lying first becomes a means to manipulate situations to his benefit, then reveals the dangers of religion when interpreted literally, and finally – and most importantly – justifies, as Peter Ustinov once wrote, the fact that “Love is an act of endless forgiveness, a tender look which becomes a habit.” Some critics quarreled about a lack of production values; I saw this as part of the overall premise of naïveté.

Lemon Tree – Eran Riklis’s poignant tale of a Palestinian widow’s struggle to save her family’s 50-year-old lemon grove from destruction when Israeli security officers identify it as a threat to the defense minister who has been settled in the adjacent house. A sympathetic young lawyer argues her case in a military tribunal, and, in an unlikely turn, the defense minister’s wife comes to champion her cause. The beautifully mature Hiam Abbass, who can always be counted on for a performance grounded in dignity and grace, plays the widow Salma Zidane. This painful narrative speaks to the absurdity of government policies as they play out in the real lives of real people.

The Limits of Control (Best Original Music if Not Exactly a Score)Maybe a little too hip for its own good, but Jim Jarmusch’s minimalism is magnetic. Not meta-fiction, but there are nods to William S. Burroughs (the title), Jean-Luc Godard, Arthur Rimbaud (the opening epigraph), and existential philosophy. The French actor Alex Descas plays an inscrutable hit man with no name undertaking a mission that leads him through the sun-drenched Spanish countryside. The soundtrack by Boris imbues the whole with a hauntingly Euro-tech quality that pairs perfectly with Christopher Doyle’s cinematography. (Final cameo with Hiam Abbass of Lemon Tree above.)

Lymelife – The first feature for director Derek Martini and his brother, screenwriter Steven Martini, Lymelife is another story of suburban family dysfunction built around finely realized performances. Lyme disease stands as the metaphor for that dysfunction and the pain it wreaks on those afflicted by it.

Me and Orson Welles – Richard Linklater’s film was met with critical enthusiasm, though I felt the first two thirds dragged. It’s 1937 and a young and naïve, aspiring actor falls prey to the spell of the Great Man. The costuming, the set dressing, the vintage everything are so perfect they look like a vase of artificial flowers – very nice artificial flowers to be sure, but artificial all the same. The last third picks up when we arrive at the final stages of the bildungsroman, and the dialogue begins to take up a serious discussion of what it means to be an actor.

Moon – (Best Special Effects Because THERE ARE NONE)
Sam Rockwell’s wonderful independent, low budget sci-fi questions a futuristic solution to sustaining Earth’s lust for energy, done without hi-tech special effects, just simple scale models. (The other good sci-fi, also, interestingly, low-budget, was District Nine, with the clever conceit of being set in Capetown. Both of these films beat out Avatar in my book. So I get the allegory because it hits me over the head like the iceberg striking the Titanic, but the special effects didn’t work for me – though I did not see them in 3-D – nor did the James Cameron-esque adolescent dialog. Yuk.)

Pirate Radio – (Best Vintage Score)
In Richard Curtis’s based-on-a-true-story, Philip Seymour Hoffman heads up a delightful motley crew who, when the BBC’s government minister (uproariously portrayed by Kenneth Branaugh) banned rock and roll from the airwaves in 1966, set out on a dilapidated tanker to broadcast degenerate music. Their leader (played by the droll and dapper Bill Nighy) has enjoyed a life of sex, drugs, and rock and roll a generation before them. Just when the government thinks it’s won, the indomitable spirit of the music provides the lifeboat.

The Road – John Hillcoat’s post-apocalyptic film is based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Only so-so, even with the lovely performance by Kodi Smit-McPhee, as the boy, who holds his own with Viggo Mortensen. At least the story gives the lie, and dramatizes that we will not go out with one big apocalyptic bang but with a drawn out, global warming whimper. Nonetheless there are, to my mind, continuity errors. Why does a generator work in an old bomb shelter but there are no generators anywhere else? Why running water in one house but nowhere else? Some details just seem to be handy plot-wise.

Sin Nombre – Cary Joji Fukunaga’s feature debut is set moving toward the Mexican border and follows three outcasts seeking to change their lives en el Norte. The young woman Sayra has made it from Honduras, and Casper, with his 12-year-old recruit Smiley, is hoping to escape the clutches of the Mexican drug mafia Mara Salvatrucha. The story is an old one: the thief/con man/outlaw/hit man decides to leave the morally compromised life behind. Then meets his fate.

The Stoning of Soraya M. – Based on French journalist Freidoune Sahebjam’s true story of his, what seems almost surreal, discovery, Cyrus Nowrasteh’s film could have devolved into agitprop. Instead it is a gripping, albeit harrowing, account of profound injustice and brutality of which many westerners would probably prefer to remain ignorant. (Note: The program Campaign to End Stoning has been established by Amnesty International.)

Tetro – Francis Ford Coppola’s original screenplay is a meditation on the archetypical, profoundly damaging relationship between a domineering, egomaniacal father – a world-famous conductor in this case – and his two sons, the teen Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) and the older Tetro (Vincent Gallo), who has estranged himself from the family to flee the shadow of the overbearing patriarch. It’s not enough to say the film is autobiographical. Copolla raises the narrative to a tragic dramatic sphere. The whole has an operatic quality that could have faltered at any point. The fact that it does not, that it maintains itself as a provocative and genuine work of art, is to be admired.

Up in the Air – Jason Reitman conducted searches in St. Louis and Detroit for recently fired (or down-sized, depending on one’s point of view) real-life people who, to greater or lesser degrees, ad lib being axed by George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham, which gives these vignettes a chillingly realistic edge. Nonetheless there’s something a bit breezy about the film that doesn’t require it to confront the consequences wrought by its main character and his superficial attitude toward his work.

Whatever Works – I didn’t like the one everyone raved about last year, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. But I reveled this year in Whatever Works, which finds within the cloud of existential angst, if not a silver, at least a base metal lining. Woody Allen is back on his game with this one as far as I’m concerned.

Whip It – (Best Chick Flick)
OK. So it’s a chick flick, but I’m a chick, and I think I deserve one chick flick. Drew Barrymore directs and plays the supporting role in a story set in the milieu of women’s roller derby. Ellen Page (of Juno) plays Bliss Cavendar, a teen whose mother, marvelously played by Marcia Gay Harden, wants Bliss to follow in her Texas beauty pageant footsteps. Instead Bliss discovers roller derby. A little too cute in places, still it exudes charm while never shying from the realities of a, more often than not, brutal sport.

The World’s Greatest Dad – Bobcat Goldwait’s black comedy is a refreshing antidote to the “heartwarming” family stories with which Hollywood is so besotted. It also takes aim at pop culture mythologizing, and at the superficial and false premises upon which we base it. Robin Williams turns in a moving performance as the single father of a high school kid whose uncouth behavior knows no bounds, but when he inadvertently kills himself, a father’s natural love for his son prompts him, as a writer, to create a new persona through a ghost written “diary.” A surprisingly complex look at human psychology in a deceptively simple package.

January 15, 2010

2009: III-Honorable Mention

For Honorable Mention I have created my own categories.

Inglourious Basterds
Rambo and Death Wish meet The Producers, or something like that. QuentinTarantino’s ironic satire at its best. This guy is growing up.

A Serious Man – Existential Theater of the Absurd is alive and well in the Coen Brothers. Michael Stuhlbarg is marvelously affecting as the suburban Job (and another refreshing actor who has been around for more than a decade, but is not a Hollywood staple) in this homage to a 1960s nuclear-family man (but he’s Jewish for crying out loud) trying hard to do the right thing as unspoken cold war paranoia lurks in the background.

O’Horten – Norwegian Bent Hamer’s narratives are about the little, overlooked things in life and human relationships. O'Horten is a train engineer whose age forces him into retirement but who knows no other day-in/day-out. He goes through a slightly awkward process of adaptation, finally settling into a rhythm he can manage. And that’s it; that’s the story. I fell in love with Hamer’s work with the 2003 Kitchen Stories based on actual post-WII Swedish research that sent observers into Norwegian bachelors’ homes to silently document their domestic behavior. (Previous studies had been conducted on housewives.) Kitchen Stories imagines the inevitable relationship that evolves between subject and observer, no matter how insistently the research demands “objectivity.”

It Might Get Loud – I am a huge fan of music documentaries and this is among the best, not in the usual big concert sense, but in a uniquely intimate sense. (The best is arguably Martin Scorsese’s 1978 The Last Waltz.) Directed by Davis Guggenheim (who also directed An Inconvenient Truth), It Might Get Loud brings together Jimmy Page, The Edge, and (looking like the youngster here) Jack White. It is a film about their musical odysseys and about their guitars – from very first to the most customized and iconic. The final homage to their American musical legacy – what the music critic Greil Marcus has called “the old, weird America” – is at first stumbling, then morphs into balladic anthem. Their rendition of “The Weight” alone is worth the price of admission.

Nine – Rob Marshall (Chicago) lines up a stellar cast to put on a musical extravaganza that would bring a smile to Flo Ziegfeld’s lips. The film’s pedigree traces back through the Broadway musical by Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston from the Italian original by Mario Fratti borne of the iconic film 8 1/2 by Federico Fellini, at once a paean to the Golden Age of Italian cinema and a self tribute to Fellini himself. Daniel Day-Lewis’s Fellini is spectacular, the numbers are spectacular, everything about the film is spectacular – and the romantic conquests, in bustiers of every confection, are ALL spectacular, especially the 75-year-old Dame Judi Dench.

Note on Honorable Mention:
Another I can’t help but wonder if I would have considered, had I had the opportunity to screen it, is Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans with Nicolas Cage as the cop gone bad, though it probably wouldn’t make it no matter what because Abel Ferrara’s very different Bad Lieutenant with Harvey Keitel is one of my favorite films of all time.

2009: II-Top Ten

The Hurt Locker
– All war movies, someone once said, are anti-war movies. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is at the top of that list – and arguably the best. The epigraph is from war correspondent Christopher Hedges: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”

It also helps that, though a few familiar faces pepper the cast (Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes), the star is relatively low key (parts recently in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, North Country, Lords of Dogtown, among others, and a respectable resume going back to 1995) as opposed to casting Matt Damon or George Clooney for the dozenth time in a single year.

BEST ACTOR Colin Firth is stunning in Tom Ford’s A Single Man. Based on the 1964 Christopher Isherwood novel, the narrative spans a single day in the life of an English professor after the death of his partner. Firth’s performance is a definite Best Actor contender.

An Education
– Despite her gently delivered line, “I feel very old, but not very wise,” Carey Mulligan’s performance in Lone Schefig’s bildungsroman as an 18-year-old Londoner seduced away from university by an older lothario promising her “fun” (Peter Sarsgaard in a wonderfully realized performance) is very wise and very affecting. (Superb supporting cast.)

– I’m going to be so anti-PC here. Precious didn’t entirely sit right with me. Harrowing, yes. Powerful performances, yes. And though the pathos doesn’t descend into bathos, it is as if Sapphire, who wrote the novel Push on which the movie is based, has gone through a complete checklist of every tragic, oppressive, abusive situation it is possible to experience making sure not to leave out a single one. Did Job even have it so bad? All that said, Mo’Nique’s uncompromisingly raw performance as the abusive mother deserves recognition.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox
– Wes Anderson’s incarnation of the Roald Dahl children’s book sings with Wes Anderson magic. I am a long time admirer of Anderson’s world view, with its sensibility that there’s a sinister streak in even the best of us. (Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are didn’t work for me – too smarmy or something. I did not see Henry Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gairman’s novel Coraline, nor did I see Pete Docter’s Up. [Is that guy supposed to look like Spencer Tracy?])

Goodbye Solo
– Ramin Bahrani’s heartbreaking film asks of us what it means to be human. A dying, reclusive white man named William, whose visage bespeaks a life of hard living, pays a Senegalese immigrant taxi driver named Solo $1,000 to drive him to a mountain top in North Carolina’s Blowing Rock National Park. What follows is an unlikely friendship, possible only through Solo’s persistence and their unspoken understanding that William’s hire is not intended as a round trip. The movingly evocative performances by Red West and Souleymane Sy Savane linger in the memory, as does Michael Simmonds exquisite cinematography. (If the Academy would consider movies like this one, which it does not, It should be considered for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor.)

Every Little Step
– James Stern’s and Adam Del Deo’s loving documentary about casting the revival of A Chorus Line. The history of the work from concept through to the 1975 opening production is recalled in contemporary interviews and archival footage. But the heart of the film is the casting call for the revival and the young dancers and singers who aspire to have their hopes realized – or risk having them dashed.

Séraphine – I can’t situate Séraphine in the biopic category; it is too profound. Martin Provost’s depiction of the French mystic artist Séraphine de Senlis, powerfully portrayed by Yolande Moreau, delves into the vagaries of time, circumstance, and human relationships – and ultimately into the mysteries of the human impulse toward artistic creation. Séraphine is discovered in 1914 by German art critic William Uhde, who also discovered Henri Rousseau and was an early collector of Picasso. History, then fate intervene.

The Informant!
– Matt Damon’s performance as the megalomaniacal narcissist Mark Whitacre is superb. Whitacre, convicted in 1998 for tax evasion and fraud, was the subject of a biography by Kurt Eichenwald upon which Steven Soderbergh bases the movie. A fascinating look at corporate greed and the insidious ways it has infected the average American’s hopes and dreams.

(Had it opened in San Antonio, I can’t help but believe that I would have given Steve Jacob’s Disgrace this nomination, having enormous respect for the South African novelist J. M. Coetzee from whose 1999 Booker Prize winning novel the film is, according to critics, faithfully adapted. John Malkovich plays the disgraced yet haughty literature professor.)

Summer Hours – Last year Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale, with Catherine Deneuve as a matriarch whose illness focuses the shadow of mortality on a dispersing family, did not shy away from the volatility of messy emotional family conflicts. Oliver Assaya’s Summer Hours similarly examines the passing of a matriarch, but is as concerned with the legacy of the objects of the inheritance as it is with the way that globalization has impinged on sustaining family legacy. Writing in the NYT, A. O. Scott observes that “one of Mr. Assaya’s themes is the way that inanimate things accrue value, sentimental and otherwise – the curious alchemy that transforms certain objects into art.” (I could write a whole paper about this movie.)

[Coming up: Honorable Mentions]

January 14, 2010

2009: I

As 2008 moved into 2009…
…a few notable 2008 movies were not released in San Antonio until 2009:

The Class – Laurent Cantet’s film is the farthest cinéma vérité technique can be extended before becoming documentary. Like the teacher Francois Begaudeau, on whose autobiographical book the film is based, the students in the Parisian multi-ethnic, inner-city junior high school, other teachers, and administrators play fictionalized versions of themselves – often extemporaneously. What emerges is a valuable dialog about the challenges of social and educational responsibility in an age of multicultural diversity and widening class divisions.

Henry Poole Is Here – Mark Pellington’s amazing gem of a movie allows Luke Wilson to shine in the performance of his career to date (taking into account his wonderful turns in Wes Anderson’s repertoire). Henry Poole is dying and plans to waste away in the solitude and emptiness of a crumbling suburban tract house he’s bought for cash. A neighbor sees the face of Jesus in a stain on the stucco. What ensues grows out of human, not abstract religious, transformation.

Wendy and Lucy – Oh my god!! Brilliant, depressing, devastating, true. When left with no support from family, no money hence no transportation, a young woman must abandon her dog, her only companion, to hop a freight train – for what…? Kelly Reichardt’s little 80-minute jewel of a movie features Michelle Williams in what essentially amounts to an almost silent, one-woman performance.

(Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River opened here in 2008, but deserves a second mention in the context of Wendy and Lucy. Another film that confronts the jarring juxtaposition between the relative comfort in which those of us with even modest means live and the toll the daily grind of subsistence survival exacts. Melissa Leo seamlessly inhabits her role as the single mother for whom any one camel’s straw will mean devastation.)

One last note about 2008. There were a few excellent documentaries in 2009, but nothing to hold a candle to the two brilliantly poetic works that emerged last year. John Marsh’s Man on Wire documents Philippe Petit’s 1974 awe inspiring tightrope walk across the tops of the still unfinished World Trade Center towers. Werner Herzog’s rumination on Antarctica’s McMurdo Station in Encounters at the End of the World stuns visually and philosophically as it reveals hitherto unknown deep sea wonders while confronting our collective global nihilism. To not screen these two films is to risk compromising your humanity.

January 12, 2010

2009: Preface

An Obsessive-Compulsive Labor of Love

Each year I like to play the Academy Awards nomination game along with other film buffs. There are inherent problems in the process, one of which is walking the line between what will be legitimate contenders, knowing the Academy's biases, and selecting what I truly believe to be the top best ten. My approach is to try to straddle the line without compromising my aesthetic integrity.

The next challenge is that the professional reviewer has several advantages over those of us in the hinterlands. Before video and DVD, impressions had to be jotted down in the dark of the theater. In the early 1970s I trained myself to do this, scrawling a note, then moving my hand down an inch to scrawl the next one. The best compensation for this blind process was to sit down immediately upon exiting the screening and go through the almost illegible jottings, reconstructing what one could, and adding any additional impressions that came on the heels of that virgin viewing.

Today professional critics have the advantage of a preview DVD, which they can watch at their leisure. Professionals also attend festival and theater premieres, where they have the added input of audience response, albeit sympathetic with director and cast in attendance, but nonetheless audiences not yet influenced by reviews. They further have the luxury of a circle of fellow critics with whom to analyse, dissect and compare any given film within a context of recent releases as well as film history as a whole. Finally, they can go back to that review copy to double check first impressions and to verify dialog, set dressing, cinematographic techniques, etc. against their fallible human memories.

I do not have these luxuries. I see even mainstream movies months after release, and I do not have a review copy available (for up to two years for a foreign or indie film) long after I must cast my votes. I also, in the meantime, have been compromised by exposure to mainstream critical responses, though I strive to be enough of an iconoclast to maintain my own opinions in their shadow.

The ensuing entries are my responses to the films of 2009, taking a personal and sometimes circuitous route along the way.