BAD MOOD RISING
"A Hero Will Rise..."
Thus spoke Maximus some eight years ago in the zeitgeist film amidst another "bad" year for film...and otherwise. Just as exceptional as last year was, 2000 had the misfortune of following P.T.A., Jonze, Fincher, Payne, Pierce, Russell, and those endlessly inventive Wachowski Brothers. It was telling that the best film of the summer would foretell the coming eight years: Chicken Run. Yet as always, the nooks and crannies hid the boldest treasures: not Almost Famous, High Fidelity, Requiem for a Dream, and Wonder Boys, but Terrence Davies' The House of Mirth, David Gordon Green's George Washington, Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher, and on the festival route such tiny films as Amores Perros, In the Mood for Love, Memento, and Yi Yi (A One and a Two...). It was a bad year if all you watch are Oscar nominees and summer blockbusters, but such is true for every year.
As George W. Bush ascended to throne, there was a toga-clad Russell Crowe. In 2008, we have Dev Patel. Eight years ago, an enslaved warrior rose to lead a revolution against godless oppressors. Eight years later, we have a thin, bright little man in the spotlight whose unlikely beginnings and endless guile captures a nation's love. I can only pray that the parallels between Barack Obama and Slumdog Millionaire prove less indicative of the coming years as the simplistic jingoism of Ridley Scott's Oscar-winning epic. A more progressive hero rising can be found in The Dark Knight as coconspirators aiming to take down a fugitive terrorist are punished for their ill-thought nobility, their city taken hostage, and their loved ones meant to pay. Or in Frost/Nixon and its nostalgia for retroactive vindication of a corrupt official, no matter how irrelevant. Or in Milk and the same battles against semantics and definitions going on thirty years later. Or in the failed chain of information throughout Burn After Reading, and the defining dialogue exchange of the year:
"What did we learn from all this, Palmer?...We learned not to do it again."
Or how for whatever reason, every comic book superhero movie was mystifyingly good. Guillermo Del Toro did One For Them and used Hellboy 2: The Golden Army as an endearingly ramshackle paean to freaks everywhere. Robert Downey, Jr. launched Marvel's superhero saturation bomb with Iron Man, the most leisurely enjoyable blockbuster in ages with relatively progressive politics. Through sleek genre craftsmanship, The Incredible Hulk restarted a series from remnants as dead as Batman & Robin. And The Dark Knight validated nerds everywhere by making a comic book movie so foreign from the pulpy paradigm that the Caped Crusader almost seemed out of place.
Good years require effort, research, and viewer prejudice. Beyond this, as George W. Bush unlike any other United States President lowered the public's perception of the office to that of mere figurehead while we thirsted for the leadership Barack Obama would provide on the horizon, while strikes damaged the industry and threats of such provided harbingers of the unfounded, this was not a bad year but one we simply wanted to end, to coast through like Senior year as quickly as possible. Before we take one last look back at the lessons worth learning, a quick mea culpa for classes I for one reason or another missed: Ballast, Body of Lies, Chicago 10, The Class, The Duchess of Langeais, The Edge of Heaven, Encounters at the Edge of the World, Elegy, In the City of Sylvia, Kung Fu Panda, The Last Mistress, My Winnipeg, Redbelt, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, The Secret of the Grain, Snow Angels, Standard Operating Procedure, Stop-Loss, and Woman on the Beach.
THE BEST FILMS OF THE YEAR
1. WALL*E (dir. Andrew Stanton)
The single most indelible image in WALL*E is of a glorified trash can and a trigger-happy stealth retrieval unit dancing in space, chasing each other playfully regardless of make or model - or the fact that Earth has been a distant memory for seven hundred years, so foreign from the minds of the remaining refugees that we may have been myth to begin with. And yet with this morbid future history and these two robots, there is a parentage of rebirth and generation, the progressive belief that the future is birthed from any form of love. Similarly, this is the future that PIXAR has birthed and it is one powerfully in love with film. Although director Andrew Stanton successfully adopts Chaplin-esque and Tati-esque pastiches and loving references to Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is a love of musicals - specifically a lonely copy of Hello, Dolly! - that sparks the gender role-play between two androids that will repopulate planet Earth.
The mold that broke thirteen years ago ushered in an incalculable cascade of pretenders and offenders such that the only guarantee ultimately is in that mold-breaking label you can trust in an era of cynicism, weary, and doubt: PIXAR. With an unbroken track record of wizened beauty untouched by pop culture snark, they are hip to be square in their pursuit of unadulterated wonder and joy long since left under the bed like so many forgotten toys by the rest of us. In an age where cinema tethers digital artifice, PIXAR (and especially WALL*E) details a happier future where even the most desolate planets and antiseptic of space crafts feel as three dimensionally "home" as any flesh actor, as any film strip. To say that WALL*E is their finest since Toy Story is like praising Hitchcock for Psycho after his 50's output. But beyond simple declarations of masterpiece, WALL*E is an act of pure good: as deeply humanist and steadfast in belief in the opportunity for change no matter how many hundreds of years of (de)evolution of the human frame.
2. Reprise (dir. Joachim Trier)
It's about the future imperfect. Whether looking forward to a tomorrow of celebrity of recreating an old relationship from idealized scraps, both Erik and Philip are so focused on the idea of writing (Lord knows, we never see their pen-to-paper process) that like so many self-absorbed, self-proclaimed artists, they never afford themselves breath to live in the moment. Trier's Reprise is a tribute to their respective future imperfects, beginning and ending with dizzingly edited pro- and epilogue that comparisons to the French New Wave are inevitable. Beyond its inspiration in film history and unlike its lead characters, Reprise very much knows its footing as a work of passion and immediacy, a movie for sick puppies who love movies and idealize love a little too much.
3. Let the Right One In (dir. Tomas Alfredson)
She tells him she's not a girl. Is it because she hasn't been a girl for centuries, because she never was, or because she's a vampire? At first, Oskar doesn't believe her, but eventually he could not care less. The title is a direct reference to the Morrissey song "Let the Right One Slip In" but really Let the Right One In is about invitations and the most fascinating aspect of vampire lore: they must be invited in. The vampire is the lethal gentleman, the person whose nature is that of the seducer bearing invitation. We have not seen one quite like Eli, nor the nature of the invitation on such sadly open display. There is an overwhelming melancholy to Alfredson's vampire coming of age story that a lesser film would fetishize, but the greatness innate in Let the Right One In is the acknowledgment of the cycle: the world before and the one to come. Oskar will not be the first to care for Eli and he will not be the last. There is a Darwinian harshness to this tale and by the end of their courtship, the decisions made are of eyes wide open towards a life chosen by and for as if product of daydreamed destiny.
4. Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman)
In his directorial debut, it is no great shakes to learn that Charlie Kaufman indeed is just a little person as his puppy dog stand-ins have loved and lost in love for almost a decade. Yet Synecdoche, New York eschews meta-virtues and Darwinian bugaboos for the agonizing literal astonishment of strapping a prototypically Kaufman-esque artiste to the rocket ship of life, lighting the fuse, and watching him hurtle towards the oblivion of obsession and death. No more or less cockroach than Gregor Samsa of Metamorphosis, his life and indeed the movie itself inexorably shifts from one Brechtian extreme to another such that you wonder just how the hell you would up this person, this moment, this life, this different. In doing so, Synecdoche, New York offers that rare thing of the human experience warts and all, a cinematic Yom Kippur as occasion to meditate on the gulf between being and non from its most ingenious conceptual purveyor today.
5. Chop Shop (dir. Ramin Bahrani)
Ramin Bahrani makes foreign films about America. There is a sense of verité in Chop Shop that is so rare in American films, but that only scratches the surface of what makes that film such a devastating experience. It's the American Dream persevering in the most foreign of corners, in young Latino street orphan Alejandro's sad quest to purchase a taco station ot sustain his runaway sister in the middle of the Iron Triange. Bahrani eschews the theological depths of the Dardenne Brothers and instead uses his neorealist aesthetic to capture every scene with single deliberate shots that seem to capture life rather than convey it. And this life in particular is one that Bahrani refuses to sentimentalize and only deliberately reveals Alejandro as an all-too irrational child prone to outburst and ultimately delusions of adequacy as he watches his dreams fizzle with morning.
6. Paranoid Park (dir. Gus Van Sant)
Unveiled like notebook paper falling from a binder, Gus Van Sant gave us his strongest work as an auteur combining his love of physical celluloid with horrifying incident wrapped around mundane aimlessness and vice-versa. A young boy (myspace discovery Gave Nevins) writes notepad circles around his involvement in an unintentional murder and in the effortless loop-de-loops played around his day-to-day life, Gus Van Sant allows his protagonist to circle death rather than the other way around, creating a celebration of life moving forward. And careers. In lesser hands, Paranoid Park would equate death with irrelevance, but this rare film in Van Sant's career equates it with adolescence, passage, and almost hope, that life transcens incident rather than abruptly halts. It's an endlessly playful, ironic, and sincere work, the true time capsule of the filmmaker's career.
7. The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan)
"Tonight, you're all going to be a part of a social experiment."
Build the city up. Watch the city burn. Everyone in The Dark Knight is struggling for control except for The Joker, a manic Boogeyman who thrives on turning free fall into an aimed razor, and as Gotham's Three Knights (one of law, one of politics, and one of the shadows free of such constraints) conspire to put him down, they are made to pay the dearest price of all: women, status, city, and hope. The messy mythology that Christopher Nolan built up in Batman Begins was merely prelude to the monumental distillation he accomplishes here. Over a bleakly unprecedented two-and-a-half hours, Bruce Ways thoughts will range from resting the cape and cowl forever to the panic of never taking them off again. Through Christopher Nolan's labyrinth of bait, switch, and twitch, he will evolve from a symbol of copycat, hockey-pants vigilante justice to the scourge of the city he will secretly protect. The Dark Knight's narrative overreaches in ways the polite fear to start by incorporating our post-9/11 fears into an exercise in Domino Terrorism as we watch the coup against the Joker result in the collapse of one security after another to the laughter of mad men.
8. Milk (dir. Gus Van Sant)
Just as impressive as Van Sant's control over nihilism in Paranoid Park is his control over studio mandate in his chronicling of the last decade in the life of Harvey Milk. In adhering to Dustin Lance Black's biopic screenplay, Van Sant refuses to allow for an artless announcement of open sexuality and allows for a casualness that is as brave as anything the filmmaker has ever done. The margins of every frame in every scene of Milk brim with detail: sex, laughter, love, and life. There is not a performance that doesn't feel in synch with everyone else on the screen, least of all Sean Penn's charismatic Harvey Milk who provides orbit for his movement and the film entire. Awash too long in methodic angst, Harvey Milk is the indelible creation of Penn's career whose verisimilitude to the man is spooky. It's a great performance in perhaps the best classically Hollywood film of the year.
9. Happy-Go-Lucky (dir. Mike Leigh)
The surprise blockbuster of Mike Leigh's career is an insightful lark that grows in memory. One moment to another, it ricochets joyously between allowing this glorious supporting character a movie of her own in which to run rampant with sharp social commentary on the dangers of unfiltered niceties. Sally Hawkins' Poppy is a teacher as is everyone else in the film. Some fail at leaving their baggage at the door in direct contrast of their teachings, and others (like Eddie Marsan's driving instructor from hell) adhere to law far too much. Especially in following what is clearly a new beginning in Poppy's life, the penultimate scene in Happy-Go-Lucky reads all the more painful for anyone who takes or has been taken the wrong way no matter how correctly.
10. Burn After Reading (dir. Joel & Ethan Coen)
I could just as easily have picked the new Aronofsky, Demme, or Desplechin, but months following their imminently respectful Oscar night triumph, the Coen Brothers saw fit to release a companion piece to No Country for Old Men. Whereas their somber Western preaches that the horizon brings a death that whisks off-screen forever, Burn After Reading says that the men in black serve papers of change: in occupation, in love, in sex. And for the goony middle-aged clowns in Burn After Reading, change is a prospect much scarier than death. There is a lot of misinformation just waiting to be misunderestimated and the Coen Brothers have nailed post-9/11 incompetence more adeptly than any Iraq War film, perhaps so uncomfortably that many were all-too ready to dismiss Burn After Reading as simply a lark.
The Band's Visit (dir. Eran Kolirin), A Christmas Tale (dir. Arnaud Desplechin), 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (dir. Cristian Mingui), In Bruges (dir. Martin McDonagh), Iron Man (dir. Jon Favreau), Man on Wire (dir. James Marsh), Rachel Getting Married (dir. Jonathan Demme), Shotgun Stories (dir. Jeff Nichols), Waltz with Bashir (dir. Ari Folman), The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
SPECIAL MENTION - The Happening (dir. M. Night Shyamalan)
Is unintentional laughter any less real? I don't believe so. I go to the movies for two reason: entertainment and enlightenment. Truly, I found both in The Happening which operates as a study manual in anti-suspense. The deaths in The Happening occur from such a distance and at such a deliberately slow pace that it is impossible to find any of them scary or bothersome in any way. It's too goofy to operate as meditation and to slow to work as a thriller. Quite literally, The Happening fails at everything it sets out to do. That makes it worthless then?
Let me digress: M. Night Shyamalan is right now the absolute worst filmmaker operating with the most freedom at his disposal. Michael Bay has made several small shifts towards the competent-but-still-not-for-me and George Lucas is thankfully no longer active. Uwe Boll doesn't have half the power that Shyamalan does but even if he did, I don't think he would actively miscalculate as M. Night does because he is a different kind of egomaniac. Uwe Boll thinks that he makes good movies. Shyamalan thinks he can do no wrong. Like Gus Van Sant, he also has a "Death Trilogy": The Village, Lady in the Water, and The Happening. Call it his "Death of Expectation Trilogy". In order to grow as a filmmaker, one must learn from his/her mistakes. Shyamalan has only learned that he is a genius incapable of making a bad movie. To understand what kind of douchebag this guy is, just keep in mind that his first film was about an Indian film student who falls in love.
Quite literally, nobody is going to Shyamalan movies to get scared anymore and it's possible that nobody will again. The Happening is the rare horrible film that makes you wonder if he was ever good to begin with, if the Twist in the story of his life is that he's actually not just a bad filmmaker but a miserable one. In the case of The Happening, this is not the case. I had very few experiences this year as hilarious and intellectually gratifying as watching The Happening. To gain a better understanding of how to effectively scare an audience, ask why does The Happening not work. It has the makings of a truly great conversation. To me, the only thing genuinely sad about Shyamalan's career now is his outward lack of understanding in American life. I thought that what made The Sixth Sense a truly great film (indeed, I still say it deserved the Oscars in '99) was that it was a very affecting portrait of an American family that went beyond stellar casting, that it was indeed Shyamalan's portrait. Whether or not it was incidental or the product of his directing skill, we will never know. We will never know if in casting Jake Lloyd, The Sixth Sense would be an unbearable dog. What is known is that there may never be a less believable American married couple as Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel.
It may sound like I am needlessly ranting against The Happening but indeed everything that goes wrong in this film only makes it that much more of an entertaining film, if not a truly special one. In his grave miscalculations, M. Night Shyamalan is truly our Ed Wood, a man with innate talent but grievous judgment, and The Happening is the masterpiece of his career.
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