Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: the year in movies

How do we make sense of the past? What paths does memory take en route to truth, trauma or transcendence? What patterns emerge? Many of my favourite films of 2011, listed below in no particular order (though the first is first for a reason), respond to this question by contrasting the unfathomably vast with the infinitesimal, deep history with willful amnesia, the beginning and end of everything with the harrowing loss of a single life. (Or a single mind.)

Nostalgia for the Light
The central location of Patricio Guzmán’s essay film is Chile’s Atacama Desert, the most arid region on Earth, home to two of the world’s most powerful telescopes, a place where mothers and widows of the disappeared scour the desert floor for trace remains of loved ones while astronomers search the outer reaches of the universe for ancient signs of life. Like many of Guzmán’s earlier films (The Battle of Chile, Salvador Allende), the film interrogates his home country’s selective erasure of unresolved past horrors while waxing nostalgic about its old collective fascination with the wonders of the night sky. Nostalgia For the Light is eloquent, inventive, rigorous, tender, curious and immensely humane.

The Tree of Life
Wildly ambitious (and thus, appropriately, divisive and awkward), Terrence Malick’s latest (a perfect compliment to Guzmán’s—and a perfect corrective to the largely superficial but similarly personal-versus-total-apocalypse narrative of Melancholia) pushes his large canvas/whispered epiphany aesthetic into ever more rippling, impression-flecked terrain, juxtaposing scattered moments of revelation, joy and pain from the childhoods of three Texan boys with nothing less than the origins of life on Earth. The imagery is breathtaking, its arrangement inspired, dictated by its own internal psychic rhythms. The final, mystical sequence is somewhat dubious, but I wouldn’t excise a second of The Tree of Life if it meant dismantling any crucial element in this rare marriage of the spectacular with the personal.

Take Shelter
On that note, Jeff Nichol’s follow-up to Shotgun Stories, his impressive debut, follows the mental collapse of an Ohio labourer and family man (embodied with singular, shambling unease by Michael Shannon) whose knowledge of his possible schizophrenia has him no less convinced that he may be a prophet of the End Times. Set against a all-too recognizable contemporary landscape of economic worries and catastrophic weather, Take Shelter at once speaks broadly to our moment and remains a character study. Like Tree of Life it takes risks and as a result features a problematic finale; like Tree of Life it features a truly remarkable supporting performance from Jessica Chastain in a very difficult matriarchal role.

White Material, Of Gods and Men
Claire Denis’ return to Cameroon finds the formidable Isabelle Huppert refusing to abandon her coffee plantation despite the escalation of a surrounding civil war. Xavier Beauvois’ latest, based on real events, chronicles the final days of a group of Trappist monks who resolve to remain in Algeria during the outbreak of its 1996 civil war. Both films convey a sophisticated sense of the foggy ethics of post-colonial relations and of one’s sense of belonging somewhere; both use music (courtesy of Tindersticks and chanting actors, respectively) to achieve sublime moments of lyricism. White Material is insightful, savage and sinisterly seductive, though one might argue that it, like several other titles on this list, features a clumsy ending, which transitions rather abruptly into the mythic, dragging its heroine along with it.

Le Havre
The intermingling of Europeans and Africans is also very much at the heart of Aki Kaurismäki’s most recent deadpan delight, which, set in the titular French port city, finds an aging shoeshiner helping an African boy with no documents find a safe place to rest and safe passage to London, where he hopes to be reunited with family members that are in an only marginally more secure social position. Le Harve is beautifully—and, typically, idiosyncratically—crafted, with great narrative economy, dry wit, masterful compositions and numerous affectionate homages to French cinema to balance its dour diagnosis of French xenophobia.

Meek’s Cutoff
The fear of the Other is also key to Kelly Reichardt’s most recent work, by far her most industrious yet. It’s a western, albeit one with iconoclastic attention to the everyday chores and struggles of homesteaders lost in 1860s Oregon. The film’s handful of desperate families are led astray by a charismatic frontiersman and are ultimately confronted with the possibility that the dreaded Indian captive they’re traveling with (the magnificently stoic Ron Rondeaux) may be their sole hope for survival. Understated, blending classicism with quietude, and featuring yet another engrossing slow-burn of a performance from Michelle Williams, Meek’s Cutoff ensures Reichardt’s place within the finest American filmmakers of cinema’s second century. Will she continue to branch out into a grander scale of production or retreat into the familiar small? I look forward to whatever she does, either way.

Certified Copy
Another filmmaker in transition: Abbas Kiarostami strays from his native Iran to make a film with a French star (Juliette Binoche, brilliant) and an English opera singer in Italy; the result is very much a Kiarostami film, riddled with a utterly compelling balance of ambiguity and complex emotional/philosophical truths—which says a lot about what we may have reduced to being an exclusively Iranian, Middle Eastern or Third World approach to cinematic storytelling. An author on tour in Tuscany takes a drive with an antique store owner. They discuss the notion of how we place value on the real thing versus the fake, or originals versus copies, of how we invest things with authenticity, and soon we’re unsure about the reality of the relationship we’re watching develop. Did they just meet, or are they in fact an estranged couple? All that matters is the immense resonance of their ongoing questions, grievances and longings, a dialogue with echoes of both Last Year at Marienbad and Before Sunset.

While Certified Copy mines a marriage for questions of how to make sense of the messy lives of its disparate halves, Kenneth Lonergan’s legally troubled, long-gestating and long-awaited (yet appallingly neglected) follow-up to the beloved You Can Count On Me examines the awakening of a young woman’s sense of existential responsibility. A horrific accident following an essentially innocent exchange of glances between Anna Paquin’s college student and Mark Ruffalo’s MTA bus driver prompts a complicated series of events involving familial dysfunction, litigation, mourning and arduous self-realization. Intricate and novel-like, Margaret is a film which would probably appear on more Best Of lists if more people (critics included) had actually seen it. It’s a meal of a movie, and deserves far more attention.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Into the Abyss
This pair of documentaries from the one and only Werner Herzog touch on numerous themes running through this list, most especially the modern as viewed against the ancient-mysterious and the balancing of crime with punishment in a violent world lacking moral guidance. Cave of Forgotten Dreams takes us into France’s Chauvet Cave and offers glimpses of the artistic soul already alive and well in Stone Age man; Into the Abyss ushers us into the US penal system to examine the lives of incarcerated young men whose abysmally meaningless crimes of murder are met with cold-blooded state-sanctioned murder. In both of these films Herzog’s focus remains firmly on people—souls, if you will—who provide us with illuminating, strange and diverse testaments to the irrepressible drive to survive, create and look ever-forward. Not a bad way to finish off a tumultuous year.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Beating a dead horse

Millions of horses died in the Great War. The image of those enormous and elegant, muscular and lithe bodies collapsing, terrified, cut up, scattered, tangled in wire, rotting across muddy European plains alongside the unfathomable numbers of human dead and dying is a very powerful, poignant one. It isn’t difficult to understand how storytellers would be drawn to it. I haven’t read Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel, so I can’t attest as to whether or not it works on its own, but as adapted for the screen by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall, adapted into something that doesn’t feel much like a children’s movie (except that it feels naive and oversimplified), and adapted in such a manner that the horse is no longer the centre of the story (and instead fills that centre with corny stock characters), War Horse is astonishingly hollow, simultaneously mechanical and sentimental, faux-innocent, and thus secretly cynical. In short, it brings out the worst in Steven Spielberg, whose direction of actors has never been more leaden (he gets what I can only hope will be the worst, most strained and artificial performance the normally great Peter Mullan will ever give), whose camerawork has never felt more thoughtlessly money-coated (he seems to need a crane just to shoot inserts), and aesthetically droopy (there’s a closing day-for-dusk shot that has to be seen to believe how ugly it is). It may be the nadir of Spielberg regular John Williams’ long career of composing wildly over-animated scores; every time anyone so much as smirks it’s like E.T.’s flying past the moon.

Perhaps Spielberg felt that War Horse would be a return to past glories; after tackling Normandy, he could now sink his teeth into the Somme (from the Holocaust to The War of Worlds, nothing seems to charge the elder Spielberg’s batteries like colossal, senseless death counts). Indeed, Joey, the thoroughbred-turned-plow horse-turned-war horse, becomes something of a Private Ryan. Everything stops, literally, to tend to him. Brits and Germans meet in the middle of a corpse-strewn battlefield and band together to rescue Joey from a lonesome, slow demise. A field doctor stops attending to a glut of agonized wounded soldiers just to help Joey. At some point, the magical aura surrounding this horse and the way it prompts everyone to ignore all else becomes, arguably, kind of offensive.

It doesn’t help that the horse is just, you know, a horse. There’s nothing all that cinematic about him. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński have no special way of rendering him charismatic. I adore horses, but just sticking one in front of a camera doesn’t make me instantly teary-eyed; the fact is, their allure, the particular nature of their features, isn’t easily captured on film... But really, I’m just struggling to make sense of why War Horse is such a dud. I think rather than generalize or theorize I should just say that this is one of those pictures where, scene-by-scene, over the course of its grueling runtime, you’re sort of baffled by all the small, wrote, bad choices that slowly accumulate: the lame comic relief (a goose), the forced emotions, the speechy dialogue. Spielberg, so much more at home with lighter material (E.T., Catch Me If You Can), has gone to war once more, and this time he really got creamed.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The music of the mechanics of the investigation

A man, recently humiliated for making unsubstantiated accusations against a public figure, is brought to a remote, frozen corner of Northern Sweden, an island of vast manors inhabited by the aging members of an industrial dynasty, some of them one-time Nazis, few of whom talk to each other anymore. The man has been asked by one of the family elders to research his memoir, but the real purpose of the research seems to be to discover what happened to a 16-year-old niece who vanished back in 1966.

As the man gets deeper into his increasingly precarious task (many within the family aren’t nice to him; one even shoots at him) he hires a young woman as an assistant—the same young woman who did an extremely thorough background check on the man for the family elder. Turns out they make a great team: he’s cool but affable, ruggedly handsome in his heavy knits, a sort of old school gumshoe type of investigative reporter, good with legwork and making contacts; she’s withdrawn and socially handicapped, a genius with data processing (she may even have a photographic memory) and swift with acts of necessary roughness, diminutive, with a pale, orphan-child face, multiple piercings and tatts, and, at times, an invincible mohawk. (How does her hair stay so vertical after wearing a motorcycle helmet?) The film they’re in has little time for conventional character development, so our rapid registering of their peculiar, quiet chemistry is important. The characters are embodied by Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, whose performances, defined by such distinct choices in body language, appear effortless, or rather, all about attending to the task at hand. And that’s the sensibility driving The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in a nutshell: telling a story one task at a time; process, procedure, efficiency.

The hiring of director David Fincher for the English-language adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s pulpy, often tawdry international bestseller is inspired. Very few filmmakers could simultaneously manage a production of this scale and bring to it such personal, unfussy finesse. Early scenes snow us with exposition and flashbacks, yet we get everything we need to, and even if we don’t it’s all quite compelling. There’s a great deal of ordinary work up on screen: googling, highlighting documents, scanning photos, thumbing through files, and all of it clips along like the tip-tapping of a crash cymbal. The mystery at the heart of this is genuinely interesting, the resolution pretty satisfying, but what animates The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the music of the mechanics of the investigation itself.

Fincher’s work underwent a seismic breakthrough with 2007’s Zodiac—a mystery that doesn’t even have a resolution!—and this new film takes its cues from that film, as well as 2010’s The Social Network. All these films are on the long side, all of them crammed with plot, all of them hugely dependent on pace, rhythm, dynamics, adrenaline. Dragon Tattoo isn’t the deepest thing Fincher’s made (its serial killer’s gimmicky showmanship mirrors one of the corniest/most shamelessly lurid elements of 1995’s Se7en) by it’s as engrossing as his best work. Even after two-and-a-half exhausting hours, I found myself eager to come back and see what Fincher and his cohorts do with the next installment of the trilogy.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Higher Ground: between God and a hard place

This thing we’ve been calling the culture wars has in recent years aggregated at least one mighty bipartisan ethic: ambivalence is bad for you and your country; tolerance is a slippery slope; agnosticism is for wimps; which side are you on? (Just as an aside: How strange it feels to be posting this review so soon after learning of the death of God is Not Great author Christopher Hitchens.) Yet betweenness is a fundamental part of life; we are ever moving from one place or one absolute to another, most often learning the most we’ll ever learn while on route. Betweenness is what story is made of.

All this is just my way of contextualizing my strong feelings for the closing note struck by Higher Ground—something about which I feel no ambivalence at all. The directorial debut of Vera Farmiga, who also stars, is about living with religious values that remain fixed while one’s life remains insistently fluid. The movie is elegant, intelligent, sensual, and a little uneven—a few truly bum notes stand out against a predominantly careful and wise series of choices. But its closing moments sweep the central character up into a scene of un-showy yet immense bravery and still manage to leave us without firm resolution, and that absence is itself something meaningful.

Farmiga plays Corrine, who, having already conveyed a deep curiosity about Jesus as a child and having survived a potentially catastrophic accident with herself, her husband and her infant child miraculously intact, becomes in adult life a member of some radical New Testament community nestled somewhere in rural New York. Based on Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir This Dark World, Higher Ground begins with extended scenes depicting key moments in Corrine’s youth before catching up with her in the present, a time of great tumult: Corrine’s best friend (Dagmara Dominczyk), a vivacious, raven-haired fellow believer who has no problem leading a fulfilling erotic existence under God, becomes terrifyingly, senselessly ill; Corrine’s fierce intellect becomes increasingly unsatisfied by the gender codes of her sect and the pastor whom she admires yet resents; and Corrine’s unhappiness with her marriage to her high school sweetheart Ethan (Joshua Leonard) is about to overwhelm her normally unbreakable composure.

Despite the repression, despite moments of alarming, sudden violence, there are no clearly marked villains in Higher Ground, and Corrine’s heroism is a quiet one, rooted mainly in her refusal to shut out the voices of desire or doubt or the longings of the spirit. Farmiga depicts the religious community with both affection and frustration, at times celebrating the camaraderie, at others reeling from its enforced naiveté. Her approach only goes astray in the few moments where she tries to slip fantasies into Corrine’s waking life, and the story itself only feels awkward in a few scenes dealing with Corrine’s immediate family, such as the one involving her sister and a big bag of blow. As for her work as an actor in Higher Ground, I can’t say that Farmiga ever gets it anything but right. Her lack of judgement as a director carried over into her performance, so we see Corrine fully surrendered to the ecstasies of worship, mothering and fighting for her dignity in equal parts. The last seven or eight years has found Farmiga emerging as an interesting actress under the direction of Minghella and Scorsese, but we may just be seeing her at her very best here, taking on both roles, and directing herself.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It's a Wonderful Life: cold comforts

Grudging altruism, ceaseless compromise, half-measures, a natural talent for holding down the fort, unfulfilled longings that, more harrowingly, perhaps never really could have been fulfilled: all of these things, accumulating over half a lifetime, drove George Bailey to get stinko, drive into an old tree, then stumble toward that snow-caked bridge over which he planned to tumble into the oblivion of river below. Suicide is painless when you’ve never once tasted what you truly craved, when the walls close in. And, for the third time in the movie, George does fall into the water. (Am I the only one that sees Vertigo when Jimmy Stewart makes the plunge, over and over, first for his brother, then into the hidden pool, and then into the river?) Only it’s to save a man from drowning, not to drown himself—yet again, George is a slave to self-sacrifice. That the drowning man is really a trickster guardian angel who proves to George that he’s well-friended, even beloved, that his town would be a nastier place (though one with a far more bustling night life) without him, doesn’t entirely remove the ache of it all, the fact that George Bailey still never got the hell out of Bedford Falls. And I think this is one of the enduring things about It’s a Wonderful Life: the magical consolation that ends the movie is, in the long run, in the years we imagine to come, only marginally consoling. Life will probably not get much easier for George Bailey. But, like some poor soul from Beckett, he’ll go on.

I’m only slightly embarrassed that I’d never seen It’s a Wonderful Life until last night. Everyone I know has seen it on TV; I don’t watch TV. But anyway what’s especially interesting about the movie is the way it actually seems designed/destined to be watched long after its making. It was a box office disappointment in its day, won none of its Oscars, and only became a holiday broadcast staple in the 1970s. It’s a movie about everything that leads us up to our worst moments, the long march of our pasts and the hard work of accepting cold comforts. The movie was always meant to be a classic, which means to be loved sometime in the future, when everyone involved was dead or dying and nostalgia has wrapped itself tightly round the movie’s breast. The sad truth: apparently George Bailey really is worth more to us dead than alive. Though while the screen is alight, he is, somehow, alive. And, as it turns out, he’s in a pretty wonderful movie.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Unholy in Toledo: The Skin I Live In

Let’s be clear about something: the title of Pedro Almodóvar’s 1987 film Law of Desire is both emblematic and entirely cheeky with regards to this filmmaker’s singular body of work. There are no laws where Almodóvar’s characters’ desires are concerned—at least none that can’t be broken in the spirit of audacity, subversion, showing off, or compulsive plot-twisting—just an immaculately crafted blur of reptile-brain urge and wild ambition, a confusion of longing, desperation, memory and gender.

His latest film, an adaptation of Thierry Jonquet’s 1995 novel Tarantula, plunges into some as yet uncharted (by Almodóvar at least) and especially unsettling territory, with the innovative, fabulously resourceful and seriously messed up plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas, back with the writer/director who made his name for the first time in two decades) plumbing the unexplored depths of posthuman sciences in his efforts to restore order to his shattered family. There’s a beautiful young woman sequestered and constantly monitored in his rural Toledo home and laboratory. She’s both a captive, stolen away from a whole other life, and something invented. The mad doctor is, in a sense, building himself a new wife. He is attempting to recover a dead life. Most interestingly, his endeavour is driven by the conviction that all that makes us who we are is infinitely malleable once we start to tinker with the outside. The external, he believes, determines the external. And to be sure, in Almodóvar, surfaces really do matter.

Given such a premise, The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito) is often extremely creepy. It’s also perhaps a little too cool and clean and clinical, too bogglingly plotty and over-calculated to truly love, but the highly composed grand design has things to ponder, revisit and re-admire. (Like Hitchcock, Almodóvar makes movies that even when flawed are tough to truly exhaust.) The source material aside, the obvious model for this macabre tale of obsession, isolation and transformation is the great 1960 French horror film Eyes Without a Face, directed by Georges Franju, who also made a movie about an abattoir that has to be seen to be believed, or has to be seen to know how much you probably wish you didn’t see it. Most Almodóvar has very clear roots in earlier, beloved, canonical films, but this one doesn’t accentuate homage with much warmth, and there are only a few fits of his characteristic humour. (One highly memorable and totally appalling example of this includes an uneasy reunion between Redgard’s assistant and some guy in a tiger costume.)

I feel like I keep wanting to warn you all about what The Skin I Live In lacks, but the truth is that despite all that I was still totally engaged with it, and some months after first seeing it, I’m easily lured into thinking about it, drawn into conversations about it. It’s fleshy, prompts goosebumps, and gets under the skin.