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.