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By Roderick Heath
Many times in 2014, I was tempted to throw my hands up and walk away from the year’s film scene. It seems to have been a pretty common feeling. The profitability of the film industry’s most exalted spheres have slumped, and the sense that the obsession gripping Hollywood for recycled product and well-milked cashcows might be choking the industry it at a time when people are all too willing to switch over to some other source of entertainment is becoming more convincing—not that it’s likely to spark any great sea change in Hollywood yet. Certainly a sense of diminishing returns was all too palpable in this year’s mass market cinema. Some have posited that the current economics of Hollywood have practically killed off the stream of mid-budget films aimed at adult audiences, though that strand had long been an endangered species: adults have long been very picky about what they go to see in a movie theatre. This year, I lost the last of my patience with Marvel and even Godzilla’s presence on the big screen couldn’t entirely please me.
Despite all that, 2014 has slowly accumulated good films like specks of gold in river sand until the year has proven doggedly, quietly impressive.
We Are the Best!
A lot of this year’s films have concerned themselves with creativity itself as a theme: the sources of it, the process of gaining the skill to express it, the worldly powers it gives those who master it, and the constant, dogging anxiety of doing right by it. We Are the Best! looked wistfully back to time most artists have gone through, when their impulses and characters demanded creative outlet long before they actually had the skills for doing so, when their spirits were at their purest. Damien Chazelle’s scripts for Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano and his own Whiplash posited the idea of the artist needing brute force to gain virtuosity. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood proposed that creative vision is the result of specific, often terrible, sometimes wonderful formative experiences. John Carney’s Begin Again and Jon Favreau’s Chef both suggested a fall is needed to rise again as a creative force. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook presented a heroine as a frustrated artist whose possible incipient psychosis might be a by-product of that potential creativity. Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur turned creative ownership into gender struggle, the wish-fulfilment side of much art turned around on itself in a bitter sex farce. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) portrayed an actor who had known the dizzy heights of Hollywood success trying to prove himself an artist in the face of a culture geared to poles of celebrity-obsessed admiration or antipathy. Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner gave us a panoramic contextualisation for a boorish genius. David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars portrayed creativity turned septic tank, the world of acting and celebrity having turned into stews of self-worship and pharaohlike, incestuous self-perpetuating discourse control. Jerome Sable’s Stage Fright, a film that failed resolutely to achieve any of its interesting goals, nonetheless also made the link between cathartic horror and creative success with a great climactic image, its heroine transformed into a stylised icon of trauma and triumph, splattered blood and theatrical make-up mixing on her face.
Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek depicts an exercise in self-mythologising fallen victim to the primal, unruly terrors that still inhabit our world. The Lego Movie made good sport of generations of popular mythology and then delved into the childhood roots of how we construct our own world views, and then how we adapt them to coexist with others. Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys breezed through the familiar rags-to-riches-to-pain narrative of the showbiz flick to conclude that sometimes professionalism is a greater value than mere inspiration and that identity often trumps aspiration. The Fault in Our Stars tried to portray the moment when the intellectual awareness that art cannot contain life’s grief suddenly becomes all too immediate.
Some films took this thematic turf a step further and contemplated characters trying to create or recreate themselves, the creation of the self and life itself becoming art forms. The very notion of becoming, the processes that create us as individuals and as a collective and point us forward became a recurring concern. The alien temptress of Under the Skin felt the faint breezes of the humanity she gazed at uncomprehendingly, but finally became fatally trapped between worlds. The heroines of Wild and Tracks both sought to conquer distance to rebuild their damaged interiors. The eponymous Lucy of Luc Besson’s scifi action epic accidentally pushed onto a higher level of awareness and then willingly pushed herself to achieve the status of a god. The flailing hero of Locke, his life suddenly turning into a disastrous quagmire, struggled throughout to pull off a piece of managerial legerdemain that would write his commitment in the sky. The hapless heroine of Obvious Child converted the minutiae of her existence into her art, stand-up comedy, which then often affected her life, an ouroboros chain of creation and deflation. The bourgeois Los Angelinos of Coherence, many of them failed or flailing artists, are confronted by doppelgangers who might turn their own failings and self-hatreds upon themselves, and offers a heroine who quite literally tries to beat herself to death to grasp a better version of the same thing. Amy of Gone Girl tried to control her own life narrative through a dense mesh of art and action.
As far as “big” movies go, this year has been trending lacklustre to rotten, riddled with overhyped, underwhelming fare as the current Hollywood ethos of sequels, remakes, and franchise service finally began to crack up under its own weight. Usually a film year offers two or three blockbusters deserving of appreciation, but this year, the fun and spectacle the genre offers have been remarkably lacking. Something like Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla sounds far better as a think-piece article than it actually played as a movie, with its occasionally brilliant images foiled by a flimsy script. Guardians of the Galaxy, a pseudo-original hit for Marvel, spawned innumerable memes, most of them wittier and more entertaining than the spectacularly ordinary, lazily composed film. Maleficent, a promising concept in revisionist fairy-tale-telling from Disney, proved to be depressingly incompetent trash that couldn’t even be bothered to sustain a basic story and character logic. After feeling the strain throughout 2013, I also felt this year like I saw the comic book movie, the industry’s greatest money faucet at the moment as well as its stand-out cultural phenomenon, begin quietly dying. The depth of enthusiasm it can still wring from aficionados has started to feel forced and wilful, with minor tweaks and twists greeted like momentous events and competent films inflated into titans by sheer force of hype. What was once one of the best comic book series, the X-Men franchise, saw Bryan Singer returning to the helm on Days of Future Past, a work overloaded with promise and expectation that managed to piss just about all of it up against the wall, save for the great “Time in a Bottle” scene. Captain America: The Winter Soldier provided a reasonably honourable attempt to bring the superhero genre down to earth and contextualise it amidst a semblance of real, contemporary evils, but still ended up a grab bag of random story elements and stodgy action. The unfortunate mess that was The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has been generally recognised, though again I felt a little out of step as I found it a slight improvement on Marc Webb’s first, dolorous reboot; at least it had the minatory courage to shoot for romantic tragedy, something the gutless Marvel films couldn’t countenance.
Exodus: Gods and Kings
Ironically, I found two of the most entertaining big-budget works of the year were throwbacks to bygone brand of spectacle, the biblical epic: Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Scott’s film sometimes played like a highlights reel from The Ten Commandments (1956), but Scott’s pernickety, critical scepticism gave it specificity and wove intelligently with the vistas and grandiosity, taking as its keynote the detail that “Israelite” means “he who wrestles God,” and keeping camp and earnestness in a healthy balance. Aronofsky’s was a different beast, more ambitious and cinematically lively than just about any other big movie of the year, if also more humourless in trying to forge new zones for mythopoeic inquiry. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Peter Jackson’s (probably) final entry in his Tolkien series, like Scott’s film, is all but a throwaway master class in big movie making, making sweeping use of the screen, reading action coherently, and packing even the most functional shots with visual lustre. The most hyped and discussed blockbuster this year was Christopher Nolan’s divisive Interstellar, another supremely ambitious work that saw Nolan trying simultaneously to earn the Kubrick comparisons he’s had heaped on him whilst also positioning himself as heir to Steven Spielberg as king of the Hollywood mythologists. He didn’t make it, with a script that ran the gamut from irritatingly pedantic to haplessly schmaltzy, took some blind alleys and a last act that didn’t work. Yet Interstellar was still an often-compelling experience that packed a sense of true wonder in both scientific theory and cinema, and signaled the widening outlook of movie scifi after decades of being reduced to mere action backdrop.
The Lego Movie
One of the best major money-spinners from Hollywood this year was Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s The Lego Movie, a zippy, hugely entertaining film that contained, in its building blocks, a sense of perspective on how children build their own worlds, a satirical streak that broadly and successfully lampooned many popular modern Hollywood narratives, and also more specific gags that occasionally cut deep: after its portrayal of Batman as an emo-jock jerk with a sideline in death metal music sporting lyrics like “Darkness!” and “No parents!” I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to take the character seriously again. One thing that 2014 has been a quietly terrific year for is the kind of trashy fare we’re not supposed to honour on best-of lists: I’ve created an honour roll for my preferences below.
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons
Not for the first time in cinema history and surely not for the last, it was interesting to see filmmakers from beyond the pale take on the sort of thing we used to expect from the Dream Factory and outdo it by degrees. Stephen Chow’s funny, frenetic, almost endlessly inventive Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons had zest and ingenuity enough for 10 films, as well as a lampooning streak that didn’t strain to seem urgently hip. Meanwhile Welsh expat turned Indonesian auteur Gareth Evans made the year’s best action film and crime epic by far in The Raid 2: Berandal. Evans will certainly hear the call from Hollywood soon, and part of me hopes he might spread his gospel from such a vantage, but another part of me wants him to stay where he is, creating tropical storms. Paul W.S. Anderson took a thankful time-out from those goddamned Resident Evil things to make Pompeii, a film that was crucified by many on release and a box office bomb, and yet became a quick fetish object for Anderson’s vulgar auteurist fans. Yes, it reminded me why I once thought him an interesting talent: the film’s clunky, clichéd sword-and-sandal first half gave way to a second half that was a sustained study in controlled, ebullient cinematic spectacle.
David Ayers, who gained some notice as a screenwriter and then as director, released two films this year, the fairly well-regarded and successful Fury, and the much-derided Sabotage. I greatly preferred Sabotage, a gamy, vicious, hard-driving revisionist western in cop garb that sported Olivia Williams and Mireille Enos’ in two impressive, blind-siding female performances—you know something’s weird when Williams and Arnold Schwarzenegger counted as one of the best romantic pairings of the year. Fury, by contrast, tried a two-faced game in looking with unvarnished force at the inhuman side of war, and offered a marvellous centrepiece sequence that saw Yankee tank crewmen and two German women thrust together amidst rites of passage and stews of resentment. But then it retreated into a stale and incomprehensible celebration of comradeship that threw away the very point it had been making in favour of a clumsy, ill-conceived action finale. Jaume Collet-Serra, who has made some decent DVD shelf filler in the past, raised his game considerably with Non-Stop, an expertly developed pressure-cooker thriller that slipped into excess by its finale, but along the way used widescreen photography to conduce both claustrophobia and paranoia, expertly charting a drama that concerned not just Liam Neeson’s regulation damaged badass and his electric concerns, but also a small community roused from dozy distraction to group action. Even better was Omid Nooshin’s barely seen Last Passenger, a thriller similarly pitched at first on a level of near-subliminal menace amidst a drowsy romantic comedy, building into an urgent fight for survival with dashes of Spielberg’s Duel (1971), even if, again, Nooshin didn’t quite know how to end it.
Cold in July
Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas’ attempt to revive his beloved TV show, proved a mixed, but mostly charming bag that provided solid evidence that social commentary and good humour don’t have be mutually exclusive and that Kristen Bell remains one of America’s wasted natural resources. I wasn’t so thrilled with Jeremy Saulnier’s much-hyped Blue Ruin, a very indie film that displayed some fine craft throughout but fizzled on both the levels of raw suspense and supposed critique of revenge-minded action films, many of which already essentially made the same points: if the movie really wanted to disassemble the genre’s usual presumptions, it might have started by making the villains less caricatured. Jim Mickle’s Cold in July was a similar mixture, more intriguing and pulling off some inspired perversions of expectation. Scott Waugh’s Need for Speed was excessively goofy and a little too determined to annex the Fast and Furious fans, yet it was the kind of formally strong, candy-coloured entertainment too rare this year, and benefited from an excellent cast having a ball. Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano sustained some strong sub-Brian De Palma staging and remained taut until almost the end, though, like too many films this year, failed to even try to come up with a convincing finish. The zippy efficiency and moodiness of these films to my mind showed up the pretences of some of the year’s more acclaimed genre-leaning films, including Bong Joon-ho’s okay but incredibly overblown Snowpiercer (save that schoolroom sequence, a black comedy apotheosis) and David Fincher’s Gone Girl, a film that had no idea how to discipline the many impulses of its source material for effective cinema, leaning at different stages towards media satire, marital parable, thriller, and horror film, and doing none that well.
Similarly confused was Luc Besson’s Lucy, which toyed with some great mind-bending scifi ideas and confirmed Besson’s powerful sense of style hasn’t entirely abandoned him. But Besson’s lazy story development and perpetual B-movie presumptions foiled its potential. José Padilha’s remake of Robocop was a beggaring spectacle, lumbering where the original was fleet, obvious rather than sly, painfully literal and bogus-classy rather than disreputably ingenious. Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow became a critical charity case after it bombed at the U.S. box office because it was a rare attempt in the current studio scene to forge something new, but it never had any clue what to do with its superficially clever storytelling and battery of reliable actors. Kenneth Branagh’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was an odd duck, trundling into a tedious welter of contemporary action clichés, but along the way suggesting something more serious, contemplating its young hero’s confrontations with his mortality and first life-or-death struggle and patriotic duty shading into romantic conflict in a manner vaguely reminiscent of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934). Divergent was a The Hunger Games cash-in that moved in frustrating fits and starts, but proved ultimately more entertaining than any of the Hunger Games films have managed to be yet, with a less duly stoic heroine and some nice villainy from Kate Winslet. McG’s 3 Days to Kill was a sorry waste of talent, including the agreeably battered Kevin Costner, Hailee Steinfeld playing the same part as she did in Begin Again, and Amber Heard cast as a potentially great character, a brilliant, ruthless, sexually adventurous hit woman who was then made to stand around and do absolutely nothing.
White Bird in a Blizzard
The Expendables 3 continued that barely watchable series’ habit of casting an increasingly awesome array of leathery action greats and forcing them to mouth terrible dialogue and mow down cardboard villains. Machete Kills, which likewise cast Mel Gibson in what seems now to be his most appropriate role as charming asshole, was a slightly more enjoyable genre mockery, but signs are that between this and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, it’s time for Robert Rodriguez to grow up. The latter at least featured a well-reviewed Eva Green, who was unleashed to great effect in an off-the-wall incarnation of thwarted passion in White Bird in a Blizzard, where she found the meeting point of Douglas Sirk character and J-horror ghoul, and also in 300: Rise of an Empire, the latter, a mildly entertaining, if often ponderous study in CGI action that offered one of the year’s most memorable movies images: Green’s Queen Artemisia kissing the lips of a prisoner’s severed head, a bold moment of far-out eroticism in the midst of a genre usually very busy sublimating it.
Amidst the growing school of independent fantastic cinema, Ti West, who had been shaping up as a major talent, turned in The Sacrament this year; tense and entertaining, it was nonetheless something of disappointment in resorting to the found-footage mode West had so effectively countered before, and skating over its not-quite recreation of Jonestown without penetrating beyond its studiously composed surface. Still, some sequences, like the lengthy one-shot portrait of a woman poisoning her brother, were powerful, and Gene Jones’ performance, alternately seductive, defensive, and imperial, was superlative. Two classy thrillers I was eager to see and ultimately severely disappointed by were Hossein Amini’s The Two Faces of January and Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man. The former almost gave “old-fashioned” a bad name as it moved pokerfaced through potentially cracking, perverse material, and the latter crept glacially towards a preordained, cynical finale without locating its own dramatic heart, for all the good work by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rachel McAdams.
The Quiet Ones
More sustained, and indeed one of the small gems of the year, was professional provocateur Bobcat Goldthwait’s restrained, smart, witty found-footage burlesque Willow Creek, which wove rich, satirical value contemplating various forms of mythologising and coupling whilst offering some quality scares, particularly in its signature, epic-length tent sequence. Hammer Studios’ revival continued to slip along unsteadily with John Pogue’s well-made, attractively cast, but rickety The Quiet Ones, a film that, like Blair Erickson’s The Banshee Chapter, mixed traditional horror filmmaking with found-footage touches to varying effect. The Banshee Chapter sustained interest by having a plot composed of an array of inspired connections and a defiantly Val Lewton-esque sense of minimalist scariness. The Irish horror film In Fear failed to keep me until the end, sadly. Surprisingly, the best-regarded horror film of the year has proven to be an Australian film, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, all the more remarkable considering the film’s quick trip in and out of movie theatres here. I must admit, however, that apart from Essie Davis’ sustained performance, it left me cold: the relentless showiness of the filmmaking couldn’t disguise that this is well-worn territory for horror fans, replete with neon-flashing metaphors, and the marvelous prop book that sets up the drama wrote a cheque the film couldn’t cash. Also, the characterisations, particularly of the hapless heroine’s son, kept changing according to what Kent wanted to do with a scene. James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence was a fleet and entertaining mindbender, made for next to nothing and sustaining its “Twilight Zone”-esque plot with conceptual cleverness and a dash of enjoyably sarcastic commentary in offering a literal portrait of people who become their own worst enemies.
The Monuments Men
Over in “serious” movie land, things have often been just as frustrating. George Clooney, who was so impressive with his first two features as director, reached an artistic nadir with The Monuments Men, a film that lurched from scene to scene with no sense of structure, tension, or character substance, only the most snivelling take on its cultural thesis, and a series of lazily tethered vignettes that added up to the one of the most galling moviegoing experiences I had in 2014. Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo were terrific as a pair of mutually exploiting rodents in Nightcrawler, with Gyllenhaal particularly offering an expert black comedy performance as a creep who shape-shifts into whatever he thinks the market wants of him. But the one-note script was far too pleased with itself, built to an utterly predictable “dark” climax signalled about an hour earlier, and cut no deeper as media satire than the average Kent Brockman report. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel was for me a new departure for the director: whereas his take-it-or-leave-it directing style has been at least reliably on a level with his writing, this was the first time I’d been frustrated that his script couldn’t have been handled by a director with a half-ounce of taste and a real sense of the European tradition he was bastardising and trivialising. David Cronenberg, who had been on a roll, crashed to a halt with Maps to the Stars, a would-be devastating critique of modern Hollywood and American parenting. Cronenberg’s direction was poised in a way that only showed up the emptiness of the script, which did at least have a core idea with potential—the likening of modern Hollywood with ancient Egypt as a place where incest is the logical end-point of cordoned power and privilege. Yet the satirical points were dismayingly stale and smug: nutty actress celebrating a rivals’ misfortune and a self-help guru who’s a total asshole to his kids.
Under the Skin
The year’s most unavoidable movie in terms of critical regard has been Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Boyhood’s stature derives entirely from the unique conceit behind its filming, having been shot in snatches across a 12-year period to chart young star Ellar Coltrane’s growth. This method is indeed affecting for allowing us to see actors age before our eyes, but as a work of dramaturgy, it’s a superficial achievement that fails to gain real entry into the psychology and viewpoint of its young hero (certainly not like Terrence Malick did with The Tree of Life), instead presenting a mass of vignettes and ironically being prevented by the niceties of that method to get up close to the poetry of becoming. Studying Ethan Hawke’s face and how much it’s changed since Joe Dante’s Explorers (1986; another greatly preferable study of childhood dreams giving way to adult realities), moved me more than young Mason’s growth into a vague and wooden avatar for just about every stubbly, arty, self-involved young man likely to make up the bulk of its audience. Yet the film offered up some excellent moments that rang painfully true, particularly Mason’s encounters with the various men, most of them his mother’s poor choices in mates, frustrated with his ever-intensifying individuality, making plays for power over him disguised as sagacious aid. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is another highly regarded work of the year, and I have more sympathy with it: the final scene was so good it almost urges me to put it on my best-of list, and yet I could never shake off the feeling that I was watching an exercise in music video aesthetics being stretched to a 90-minute film: so coolly confident when portraying utter alienness stalking social refuse in a desolate Glasgow, the film turned stodgy as it tried to reverse the perspective, as ornery, ordinary humanity can scarcely get past Glazer’s relentless aesthetic filter. Still, the film’s sense of atmosphere, the chill and cheerless Glaswegian streets and the wild surf and rain-smothered hills, were powerful in a manner that made the film’s contemplation of various forms of life stunted by circumstances urgent.
Gregg Araki, a filmmaker who shifted from enfant terrible to major artist nearly a decade ago with Mysterious Skin, returned with White Bird in a Blizzard, a jumpy, oddly curtailed film that nonetheless continues to nag at me, in Araki’s perfervid and often dreamlike blend of John Waters-esque camp and P. T. Anderson-like haunted nostalgia. The film’s animating murder mystery offered a thriller element less by pondering who murdered whom, but rather in contemplating whose aberrant and frustrated sexuality boiled over with destructive results, and how much Shailene Woodley’s young protagonist has inherited it, in a work pitched at the nexus of wistful coming-of-age tale, suburban tragedy, and punch-drunk satire. Gia Coppola’s debut film Palo Alto, an interesting if rather loosely structured adaptation of a book of short stories by James Franco, sometimes trod similar territory in portraying adolescence in affluent, distracted America as a no-man’s-land of experience. Franco’s much-mocked, yet dogged, directorial career threw up some intriguing, if ultimately unsuccessful films, particularly Interior. Leather Bar., a pseudo-documentary exploration made with gay filmmaker Travis Mathews that rummaged through concepts of acting and the aesthetics of sexuality, whilst Franco’s solo work Child of God turned Cormac McCarthy’s arty gross-out novel into a portrait of utter human degradation that, by the end, may well have been reborn. Jean-Marc Valee’s Wild tried to bash Cheryl Strayed’s diffuse memoir of walking therapy into an epic of personal experience: the result swung wildly between clumsy devices and granola pseudo-philosophy, and yet often communicated a sense of life far more unruly than this sort of thing usually offers, and had the straight-up nerve to portray a heroine who was no angel. John Curran’s Tracks, a similar tale, chose a more distanced take, one that ought to have proven superior, and yet the evasive smugness of the film’s dramatic pitch somehow turned great adventure into tedious hike. Amma Assante’s Belle touched on fascinating history and personalities and offered Gugu Mbatha-Raw a star-making role she made the most of (see also Beyond the Lights), but proved filled with vapid characterisations and laborious speechifying on a level somewhere between romantic melodrama, historical consciousness-raiser, and Jane Austen fan bait, to the point where it almost became self-satire.
Get On Up
As ever, biopics were a cash crop this year. Mr. Turner essayed the form with eccentric power and teeming detail, trying to capture an age and way of life as much as the prickly personality of the singular man who inhabits it. And yet somehow, somewhere, the film lost its own thread of enquiry, to the point where it seemed to be essentially ingeniously-composed rubbernecking. The Theory of Everything provided an utterly contrived and smoothed-over portrait of Stephen Hawking, exemplifying just about everything wrong with this contemporary brand of prestige lure. Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys and Tate Taylor’s Get On Up were both showbiz biopics that gained less attention than expected. Both films kept their own theatricality in mind, making comedy out of the usual road-to-stardom stuff, and the vivacity of Get On Up’s early scenes suggested Taylor might redeem himself after the godawful The Help: the recreations of the flash and cool of a real cultural revolution were often superb. But whereas Eastwood’s sturdy sense of technique and emotional directness eventually helped his film locate a modicum of worldlywise catharsis, Taylor’s became cartoonish and ultimately formless: Chadwick Boseman worked his ass off playing James Brown, and yet never quite found what was going on behind those sharklike eyes, whereas Nelsan Ellis quietly stole the film as his long-suffering, less mercurial yet vital compadré Bobby Byrd. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Coincidence) likewise was essentially a showbiz farce constructed out of archetypes and received ideas posing as a grand and incisive tragicomedy, but redeemed by its sheer delight of technique and performance.
A Million Ways to Die in the West
2014 was a weak year for comedy, but then again so are most years now. The controversial dumping of the Seth Rogen-James Franco vehicle The Interview by an assailed Sony probably hasn’t cheated us of a classic of mirth, and yet the event as a whole suggested new truths about global culture with some galling and ridiculous ramifications. Few were particularly keen to see a film from Seth MacFarlane after his job hosting the Oscars, and his western parody A Million Ways to Die in the West proved frustratingly patchy and indecisive as to what kind of movie it was. Yet it was an intermittently enjoyable experience after all, a contemporary answer to Blazing Saddles (1974), just as undisciplined and tendentious, if much less consistently inspired, offering such random joys as the spectacle of Amanda Seyfried sucking on Neil Patrick Harris’ moustache, and Gilbert Gottfried’s wacko cameo as a fake Abraham Lincoln joyously announcing his newfound wealth to a bunch of oblivious schoolkids. On the other hand, the much-praised Obvious Child was, like its heroine, nowhere near as funny or radical as it wanted us to think it was. Jon Favreau’s likeably minor Chef had energy and a good-humoured take on the same story other films took deadly seriously this year, though its chief effect in the end was to make me hungry. Lukas Moodysson’s We Are The Best! was a gleefully energetic if rather shallow and sometimes nerve-trying paean to the joys of youth rebellion.
Quai d’Orsay (The French Minister)
2014 was at least a vintage year beyond the precincts of the Anglo-American zone. Little surprises and pleasures I was privileged to catch this year included a couple of fine Canadian films, Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais’s mordant portrait in comedic existential angst Whitewash, featuring a drolly soulful Thomas Hayden Church, and the superior Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, both films unfolding like bleak fairytales in the midst of the woods. Out of France came one of my more frustratingly unseen films of the year, Jean-Luc Godard’s much-acclaimed Goodbye to Language. Bertrand Tavernier’s Quai d’Orsay (released abroad as The French Minister) was a divisive film, as some branded it a laboured Gallic version of Yes, Minister and The Thick of It, but it was to me a lighter, much less one-note indictment than those satires, instead a deft comedy of manners that tried to comprehend the degree to which modern politics is a game of perpetual catch-up football enacted by people whose talents and follies coexist. Roman Polanski offered what was, to me, easily his most enjoyable and full-blooded film in a long time with the twisted role-playing satire Venus in Fur, setting Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Seigner into a pas-de-deux of sexual and artistic gamesmanship. Francois Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie was, by comparison, a good-looking but still-born study of an alienated young woman who finds…well, something or other in prostituting herself out. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, maker of 2011’s superlative Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, captured the Palme d’Or this year with Winter Sleep, an equally lengthy and intensive interrogation of the modes of petty tyranny and fear that too often consume and define life on the most everyday levels, unfolding like a good book but infused with genuine cinematic values. Jauja, Lisandro Alonso’s spacy, intriguing, if ultimately unsatisfying odyssey across the Argentine pampas inferred history as a chasm people fall into and societies emerge from. Naomi Kawase’s Still the Water was a lustrously beautiful, if excessively diaphanous fable that told a not-dissimilar story to Boyhood, but with a far richer sense of social and natural connection, as well as a more specific sense of the fears and torments of growing up.
Performances of Note:
Agata Kulesza, Ida
Allison Pill, Snowpiercer
Brendan Gleeson, Calvary
Dakota Fanning, Night Moves
Don Johnson, Cold in July
Dorothy Atkinson, Mr. Turner
Dylan Moran, Calvary
Edward Norton, Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Emma Watson, Noah
Emmanuelle Seigner, Venus in Fur
Essie Davis, The Babadook
Eva Green, 300: Rise of an Empire; White Bird in a Blizzard
Gene Jones, The Sacrament
Golshifteh Farahani, My Sweet Pepper Land
Imogen Poots, Need for Speed
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Joaquin Phoenix, The Immigrant ; Inherent Vice
Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice
Katia Winter, The Banshee Chapter
Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice
Marion Cotillard, Two Days One Night; The Immigrant
Martin Freeman, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Mireille Enos, Sabotage
Nelsan Ellis, Get On Up
Olivia Williams, Sabotage
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Russell Crowe, Noah
Shailene Woodley, White Bird in a Blizzard
Thierry Lhermitte, Quai d’Orsay
Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive; Snowpiercer
Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner
Tom Hardy, Locke
Favourite Films of 2014
Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)
Calvary wasn’t a perfect work, but it was a massif of ambitious drama that actually had something to say and said it well, simultaneously curious and sceptical, brutal and humane, extraordinarily funny and deeply sad. A titanic lead performance from Brendan Gleeson backed by excellent ensemble work helped give flesh to a film that delved into matters of faith and character and beyond, to study the failure of the most profound social bonds in the modern world, to try and honestly state both why the failure happened and also question what, if anything, might remake those bonds.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Peter Jackson)
A lot of pretenders have tried to claim the crown of the FX blockbuster king in recent years, and the sharp knives that greeted Peter Jackson’s final Tolkien entry suggests many are ready for a change of dynasty. But Jackson still does this sort of thing with a sense of gusto, fulsomeness, and an eye for beauty in unlikely places that makes most rivals look pathetic, particularly amongst this year’s big movie dross. Battle of the Five Armies stands tall in the Hobbit triptych: fun as they were, the first two often felt like theme park rides in Middle Earth, whereas here the final battle rams together every moving part in the story with consequence, and pays off with a pair of harshly beautiful death scenes carrying more tragic gravitas than just about anything else in the entire sextet. The spectacle of cross-purposes, naked greed, and swaggering arrogance from various self-appointed supermen who conspire to start a war also represented the most morally complex passage in the series, and the possibility of redemption through trial therefore more moving.
Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)
I found myself cocking an eyebrow suspiciously at Ida, a continental excursion for a filmmaker who had previously been based in Britain. With its black-and-white photography, Holocaust themes, preciously framed shots, and general air of mournful seriousness, it seemed like something carefully pitched to be the perfect art film for pseuds. Yet under the film’s studied surface lay a fervently beating heart and a brilliant sense of character in a work attuned to cultural dislocation and flavourful in its evocation of the period. Pawlikowski’s style conveys the way life flows on, running roughshod over personal loss and horror, suggesting both why that’s inevitable and possibly even for the best, and also noting the good and bad reasons why some might choose to opt out altogether.
The Immigrant (James Gray)
A tragic tale situated in real history but dusted with the lightest gilt of magic-realism, The Immigrant needed no gimmicks or stunts other than good filmmaking to tell its story, rising with a symphonic blend of intricacy and directness and represents one of the most concise and intelligible aesthetic constructions of recent years: The Immigrant withholds until its last shot, and then haunts for days afterwards. The sublime intelligence of Marion Cotillard’s bedeviled heroine and particularly Joaquin Phoenix’s tortured Caliban deserve great acclaim, but won’t get it.
My Sweet Pepper Land (Hiner Saleem)
This oddball mix of Fordian western, Leanian epic, Shakespearean romance, with a jigger of antic gallows humour, has gained little release and appreciation, and yet it’s stuck with me with more affection that many other films of the year. My Sweet Pepper Land resituated Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) in the wilds of Iraqi Kurdistan, portraying a young policeman’s entanglement with a victimised schoolteacher and a criminal potentate as a way of exploring the new frontiers of an ever-assailed nation and cultural tensions pulling the Middle East in the many directions all too clearly described by contemporary history.
Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)
I wasn’t sold on Kelly Reichardt’s lauded anti-western Meek’s Cut-Off (2010), but her follow-up Night Moves was accomplished in treading similar territory with a lighter foot and a less obvious sense of irony. A notable film talent emerged more completely. Depicting a trio of eco-terrorists driven to blow up a dam by various motives both political and personal, Reichardt, like Hiner Saleem, blended disparate genres, including war movie, murder mystery, horror film, and the jangled nerved thrillers of ‘70s cinema (including Arthur Penn’s great film of the same name) for the sake of depicting people and an age at a crossroads, the grey zone where commitment shades into hostility, idealism is subsumed by solipsism, and alienation realises that it is actually sociopathy.
Noah (Darren Aronofsky)
Aronofsky’s startlingly odd, mammoth, misshapen revival of the biblical epic had chutzpah beyond the measure of any rival in big-budget cinema this year and an actual vision to purvey, daring to enrich a stark legend with conceptual weight and philosophical enquiry. See also Ridley Scott’s less thoughtful, but brilliantly staged Exodus: Gods and Kings.
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
Jim Jarmusch’s best film in many years was a droll and opulent exploration of the bohemian creed through a twist on an old metaphor: vampirism. Tourism through the desolate grandeur of Detroit is equated with the intellectual journey of life and of romance through the ages, constantly changing expressive form and governing code but never the vital essence. The coda landed a blackly humorous rabbit punch in contemplating how sooner or later, everyone who looks at the stars has to acknowledge the gutter they’re in.
The Raid 2: Berandal (Gareth Evans)
Punctuated by thunderous, brilliantly staged and choreographed sequences of mayhem and martial artistry, Gareth Evans’ follow-up to his claustrophobic ass-kick classic from 2011 expanded his scope enormously, not entirely without some pacing problems, but finally creating a spectacle of motion matched to an expansive drama of gangland honour, offering everything from tragedy to farce and hazy poeticism.
Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
Note-perfect social realism and incisive ethics and psychology provide reminders just why the Dardenne brothers are so lauded, in a taut and thrilling tale that is also utterly believable. Marion Cotillard’s second great role of the year saw her inhabit an Everywoman without a trace of either star slumming or self-important art.
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Denis Côté) / Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie)
I pair these films in part because Stranger by the Lake was a delayed 2013 film, which Marilyn Ferdinand reviewed back then, and because both are cool, bare-boned, almost mythic tales with a queer twist: Stranger by the Lake invoked primal rituals of mating and blood sacrifice in a landscape deliberately cordoned off from the modern world, whilst Vic + Flo Saw a Bear becomes a kind of fairy tale enacted by two aging, life-damaged lesbian partners threatened by a lurking demon from one woman’s past. Both films conclude with wrenching, brutal, yet oddly touching visions of people who just can’t live without love, even in the face of annihilation.
Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
The Palme d’Or winner is over three hours long, driven by dialogue, and replete with silence and evocations of alienation–it’s like the art movie your mother warned you about. Yet Winter Sleep is patient rather than inflated, dense with detail and quietly motivated, taking its characters seriously but never over-indulging them. Ceylan analyses psychology and social context with a feel for how the two affect each other. Like Calvary, with more finesse, Ceylan uses a small town and its occupants to delve into the way so many of us create phantoms of our preoccupations, terrors, and preferred world views and inflict them on other people.
Would Be On Favourites List If I Had Seen It In Time:
Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
American Sniper (Clint Eastwood)
Locke (Steven Knight)
Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh)
Still the Water (Naomi Kawase)
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
Venus in Fur (Roman Polanski)
White Bird in a Blizzard (Gregg Araki)
Willow Creek (Bobcat Goldthwait)
Rough Gems & Underrated
Begin Again (John Carney)
Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu)
Coherence (James Ward Byrkit)
Exodus: Gods and Kings (Ridley Scott)
Interstellar (Christopher Nolan)
A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor)
Palo Alto (Gia Coppola)
Quai d’Orsay (aka The French Minister, Bertrand Tavernier)
Selma (Ava DuVernay)
Starred Up (David Mackenzie)
Roll of Genre Pleasures
Cold in July (Jim Mickle)
Grand Piano (Eugenio Mira)
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (Stephen Chow & Chi-kin Kwok)
Last Passenger (Omid Nooshin)
Need For Speed (Scott Waugh)
Non-Stop (Jaume Collet-Serra)
Pompeii (Paul W.S. Anderson)
Sabotage (David Ayer)
Veronica Mars (Rob Thomas)
Overrated & Underwhelming
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)
Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)
Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller)
Fury (David Ayres)
Godzilla (Gareth Edwards)
Gone Girl (David Fincher)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn)
The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum)
John Wick (Chad Stahelski, David Leitch)
Lucy (Luc Besson)
Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)
Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre)
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)
Tracks (John Curran)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer)
3 Days to Kill (McG)
The Fault in Our Stars (Josh Boone)
Maleficent (Robert Stromberg)
The Monuments Men (George Clooney)
Robocop (José Padilha)
The Rover (David Michôd)
Bird People / The Blue Room / The Captive / Charlie’s Country / Child’s Pose / The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby / Force Majeure / Frank / A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night / Gloria / Goodbye to Language / The Guest / The Homesman / Horse Money / Ilo Ilo / In Bloom / It Felt Like Love / Joe / Land Ho! / Leviathan / Love Is Strange / Mommy / Norte, The End of History / Nymphomaniac / Pride / The Strange Little Cat / Stray Dogs / The Tale of the Princess Kaguya / The Tribe / Unbroken
The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2014:
Baby Face Nelson / The Beguiled (Don Siegel)
Bell Book and Candle (Richard Quine)
The Big Night / Finger of Guilt (Joseph Losey)
The Bigamist (Ida Lupino)
Break of Day (Ken Hannam)
China Seas (Tay Garnett)
The Colossus of Rhodes (Sergio Leone)
Creature with the Atom Brain / The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake / Pier 5, Havana (Edward L. Cahn)
The Driller Killer / China Girl / The Addiction (Abel Ferrara)
Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler / The Testament of Dr. Mabuse / The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang)
Electra Glide in Blue (James William Guercio)
Faces (John Cassavetes)
Girl Walk//All Day (Jacob Krupnick)
Hatchet for the Honeymoon (Mario Bava)
Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch)
The Horsemen / Black Sunday / Prophecy (John Frankenheimer)
Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian)
The Loyal 47 Ronin (Kenji Mizoguchi)
Matango (Ishiro Honda)
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki)
Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak)
Queen of Spades (Thorold Dickinson)
Rabid / The Brood / Scanners (David Cronenberg)
Railroaded! / T-Men (Anthony Mann)
Seas Beneath / The Plough and the Stars / The Long Voyage Home / The Sun Shines Bright (John Ford)
Shaft / Shaft’s Big Score! (Gordon Parks)
The Sorcerers (Michael Reeves)
The Story of Temple Drake (Stephen Roberts)
Strangler of the Swamp (Frank Wisbar)
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (Charles B. Pierce)
Trouble Man (Ivan Dixon)
Une Femme est une Femme / Vivre Sa Vie / Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard)
The Uninvited (Lewis Allen)
Winstanley (Kevin Brownlow)
Woman Who Came Back (Walter Colmes)
Wyatt Earp (Lawrence Kasdan)
Scorecard: Best Films of the 2010s, Halfway Mark:
12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
Anna Karenina (Joe Wright)
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
The Grandmaster (Wong Kar Wai)
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Edgar Wright)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)
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By Roderick Heath
We citizens of cinephilia live in a strange time. It’s perfectly possible to live completely insulated from the bustle of the weekly release schedule in theatres, video stores, and, increasingly, online, and settle in to survey the great sprawl of the medium’s history with more freedom and range than ever before. And it’s equally possible to do the opposite, and voraciously consume the new without a thought to the old, as the repositories of film history move online, where they need not stir even the moment’s interest they used to for the curious renter. Does either position constitute good citizenship in movie land? What is any art form without a sense of its past or an interest in its present and future?
2013 has been great year for film, and yet a lot of people wouldn’t ever know it—some don’t even want to know it. I can understand that to a degree. Super-sized studio movies rule our roost more than ever before, but even some of them still manage to hide in plain sight, qualities distorted and masked by their own gravitational fields. The current dominance of the blockbuster mentality, which tosses out everything from bright gems to massive turds, has not destroyed creative labour in the margins; indeed, in many ways, it seems to have created great metamorphic pressure on other zones of current film. But what’s the use of that if the audience has given up? Smaller films need the attention and support of critics and passionate viewers more than ever. Of course, when I say a great year for film, that doesn’t mean that it was all great. The one luxury of my position is that I don’t have to watch any old crap. But if 1939 is considered the greatest year for film because of the perhaps two dozen excellent works released at the time, then this year presents a perfectly legitimate rival. A different breed of rival, of course, a collage filled with oddballs, malcontents, misshapen beasts, a freaky longhair happening in contrast to the swanky old soirée.
Given how fast cultural dissemination happens now, the feeling one sometimes gets is that a film hasn’t really been seen, but rather one notes a network of received impressions and preformed judgements. 2013 has been a bonfire of the works of aging auteurs: Abbas Kiarostami, Terrence Malick, Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, Sally Potter, Wong Kar-Wai, Ridley Scott, and more released new films, all of them interesting, some of them important, sparking enthusiasm in some circles, but disdain and belittling in many others (and with Martin Scorsese’s new work an exception that proves the rule, his having successfully become an institution). There’s often a point where the young imitators of notable artists gain more plaudits than the originals’ new works. For example, the dull and affected Ain’t Them Bodies Saints owed much to the shooting style of Malick’s ’70s films but had none of his originality in storytelling and structuring. Several of the year’s best-reviewed works come from directors who emerged in the 1990s—Spike Jonze (Her), Richard Linklater (Before Midnight), David O. Russell (American Hustle), Alexander Payne (Nebraska)—whom I’ve only warmed to in extremely varying degrees, if at all, but whose work undeniably works as catnip for many, as does that of Joel and Ethan Coen, spiritual godfathers of many of these filmmakers, who invoked the spirits of Americana again with Inside Llewyn Davis. Independent film in North America is definitely in a state of flux at the moment, finally seeming to have moved out of the hands of people trying to recreate the success of Reservoir Dogs or Little Miss Sunshine, and aesthetically at least that’s a good thing, as more adventurous and eccentrically ambitious work emerges like Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Resolution, Stacie Passon’s Concussion, and many more.
2013 saw a minor upsurge for Australian film: I haven’t seen the big-ticket films of the year, the much-anticipated second film from indigenous filmmaker Ivan Sen, Mystery Road, or the three-hour portmanteau based on the writing of Tim Winton, The Turning. But I did catch Ben Nott and Morgan O’Neill’s Drift, which was good-looking drivel, and Goddess, a surprisingly energetic and good-hearted, if rather thin and cliché-happy attempt to construct a populist Aussie musical but far superior to Wayne Blair’s slick but phony The Sapphires (which was released at the end of last year but gained international release in 2013). There was also The Great Gatsby, the most American of subjects, but an Aussie film to a surprising degree. As incontinent with images and ideas and trashy in its aesthetics as Baz Luhrmann’s films always are, it was nonetheless something close to a real film as it refused to embalm a classic, but rather tried to find narrative purity in aesthetic excess.
The Place Beyond the Pines
In past years, I’ve sought out connecting themes and images between the many films of the year, that elusive sense of the communal mind and spirit as expressed by artists. There’s been a glut of movies looking hard at racial prejudice in the past and present, as ever an electric theme in the U.S. and particularly keen this year, expressed through works like 42, 12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, whilst black directors, who made several of these, also had a banner year. Likewise, a glut of films contended with endemic decay and the threat of violence in working class and regional enclaves: Prisoners, Out of the Furnace, The Place Beyond the Pines, Mud, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, hell, even The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, whilst, at the opposite end of the socioeconomic scale, the bandits of jejeune privilege in The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers went on the offensive.
Some directors, including Shane Carruth, Danny Boyle, Peter Strickland, and Ben Wheatley, toyed with reinvigorating a mode of cinema based on extreme visual stylisation and recreations of the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, as if on the verge of kicking off a new psychedelic era in cinema. Similar in mood though different in approach was Nicolas Winding Refn’s much-abused but potent and hypnotic dream-movie Only God Forgives. Films based on true stories were all over the place: The Bling Ring, Captain Phillips, American Hustle, Lone Survivor, Eden, The Wolf of Wall Street, Lovelace, Fruitvale Station, The Butler, Behind the Candelabra, No, A Hijacking, Beyond the Hills, etc., ad nauseum. The endemic hunt for a sense of truthfulness, of ripped-from-the-headlines veracity and RELEVANCE! some of these works display began to bother me after a while, as I commenced to ponder if this borrowed finery didn’t retard the creative insight of some artists. Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, for instance, had the instincts of a blisteringly funny satire somewhere inside it but was oppressed by its own sheen of detached authenticity, whilst works like Captain Phillips and Lone Survivor seem at least superficially to present experiential studies rather than interpretive narratives, an approach that makes in their context of their stories, for gripping movies that raise perturbing questions as to what truths are being left out. On the other hand, a film like No readily displayed the epiphanies an attentive attitude to recreating familiar fact can generate, whilst American Hustle improvised freely on its chosen tale but sought no insight beyond pop sentimentality.
Another stream apparent in the year’s works is the attempts by filmmakers to grasp and pull apart their material on a systemic level, tracing cause and effect through layers of narrative and time. Some were happy to do this in regards to film construction and narrative itself, apparent in movies like Resolution, Berberian Sound Studio, Computer Chess, Trance, or Museum Hours, in which the very structure of the film itself is toyed with to examine the way we’re relating to it whilst watching it. Others turned a structuralist sensibility on their material, whether it be in mechanics, like the Rube Goldberg-like narrative form of Gravity, the anatomised drug trade and show-and-tell plot of The Counselor, studies in situational dynamics like A Hijacking, the elaborate biological tag game of Upstream Colour, the genes and generational events, as in Stoker or The Place Beyond the Pines, and interpersonal relationships, like Blue Is the Warmest Colour. It’s not so surprising that in the wake of financial crisis and political turmoil, the desire to dig down and comprehend phenomena on a more complete level is apparent in such works and for artists to engage the growing canniness of the audience regarding how narrative and other systems work. British films shared this interest in cycles of behaviour in antiheroic characters, marked in Edgar Wright’s The World’s End and Danny Boyle’s Trance. Characters at the mercy of cruel fate, and cruel overlords and companions, likewise litter the screens: the most striking scene in Wheatley’s peculiar A Field in England had a man, just tortured into compliance with an evil alchemist, emerging from a tent in slow motion with a beaming rigid smile on his face, the sickly image of Orwellian slavery as freedom, and therefore one of the most politically interesting scenes of the year.
Oz the Great and Powerful
Similar notes flowed through Man of Steel, as Zod kills, tortures, and annihilates in the name of patriotism and then chucks a super-nihilistic hissy fit when someone disagrees with his method, a moment that called to mind the similar all-or-nothing stances by conservative politicians all around the world in the past year or so. There was a peculiar conceptual similarity to Man of Steel in Wong Kar-Wai’s staggering comeback The Grandmaster: both took well-known stories of beloved folk heroes and refracted them to emphasise the violence, disconnection, and lost pasts that defined them, filtered through islets of almost hallucinogenic imagery. Star Trek: Into Darkness undermined the moral presumptions of a cosy scifi franchise, with villains both official and rebellious variously war-mongering or entrapped, and heroes wrenched into new realms of unfamiliarly ferocious behaviour by the loss of friends and mentors. False and corrupt regimes recurred throughout many films, even in ones as playful as Iron Man 3 and Oz the Great and Powerful. State and criminal elements stalked each other into a bloodbath in Drug War, with a grotesque scene halfway through in which a criminal forces a cop posing as a drug dealer to take life-threatening amounts of his own product, another act of cruelty that again must be met with a smile, whilst the very conclusion offers the bleakly doubled-edged spectacle of a criminal pleading to his last breath for a way out until machinery he’s been trying to stymie since the opening inevitably ends his life.
Only God Forgives
The beleaguered people of Upstream Color were united by abuse and intestinal instinct, but finally rejoined the natural world. Similarly concerned with returning to the earth were Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling, following last year’s impressive Sound of My Voice with The East, an attempt to create a thoughtful but more conventional thriller that finished up sadly overcooked. But it was fascinating in trying to dramatize a new, literal resistance to the modern world by creating a world within that world with its specific rituals and motives bordering on the cabalistic. The sad girls of Beyond the Hills had their lives repeatedly corralled and ruined by institutionalisation; the lead victim of Eden had to become conspirator and participant in slavery to survive. The essential drama of Only God Forgives accepted the familiar moral exigencies of noir melodrama and yet undermined them with a vision of sin and redemption enacted through the most gruellingly corporeal means, dragging back the ideas of justice and order a couple of thousand years to their primal roots. Two films that danced about each other like conjoined twins were Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips and Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking, both of which dealt with the same essential matter but in divergent terms, one a scrupulously realistic but nightmarishly personal experience where the passion of victim and power-holder was clear, and the other a study in removed perspectives, men inflated to godlike status or reduced to insects according to their use not just of guns but words, technology, money, and time.
On the other hand, films motivated by a sheer, unironic (but not necessarily oblivious) love of medium and story still crop up now and then, evinced by the expansive, if rather differing pleasures of films like Pacific Rim or Blancanieves. It was a pretty good year for unalloyed fun at the movies. Two major critical flops there were also big-budget fantasy films were, I found, rather cheery. Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Killer, which was also a big fiscal flop, was surprisingly old-fashioned, and starred Nicholas Hoult, who was also agreeable in the lightweight zombie romance Warm Bodies. Sam Raimi ran the risk of despoiling an eternal critics’ favourite with a defiantly Sam Raimi-ish take on L. Frank Baum in Oz the Great and Powerful, enjoying the showbiz bluster and protean sexuality he finds behind the curtain of the classic family yarn. Neil Jordan’s vampire film Byzantium was deeply problematic, and yet I’ve wrestled very hard with whether to include it on my favourites list, with its moments of original brilliance and intensity of imagery arguing in its favor.
Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion was eye candy of the first order and stirred me for at least trying to be real scifi, but it could not overcome its wearyingly derivative script. The cumulative effect of Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World was to finally sour me on the Marvel franchise, with two loosely cobbled-together pseudo-stories laced with entertaining but unconnected moments, proving this realm has no serious place to go after The Avengers. The death of Paul Walker was a tragic coda to his singular success as an actor in the Fast and the Furious series, which racked up its sixth instalment earlier in the year and lodged it firmly in place in the pantheon of gleefully absurd entertainment. Certainly Furious 6 was more successful in recreating the yahoo fun factor of ’80s action drama in its own meathead way than the year’s several studied attempts at same, like Iron Man 3, The Expendables 2, and The Last Stand. J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek: Into Darkness failed interestingly to dislodge its early ’80s precursor, though the new film was quite perversely and excessively abused for being a zippy, probing, if modishly conventional adventure movie that chiefly lacked the mythic aspect of its model. The actual, absolute bottom of the barrel for easy comparison was John Moore’s degradation of a once-great series with the turgid A Good Day to Die Hard. You can’t go back to Nakatomi Plaza again. Or to 1953 again. Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger sparked some defences from some critical quarters after its box office failure, but this was one time I had to stand with the consensus: the film’s general mix of by-rote Bruckheimer pizzazz, Verbinski’s dull and clumsy idea of slapstick action, general story incoherence, and the film’s aberrantly evasive and stupid approach to its revisionism, made for a singularly trying film. It was an action-comedy that wasn’t exciting or funny.
Of course, I have my list of the overhyped and the underwhelming. Some of those films have me more intrigued than others at this point, particularly the ones that came close to being very good. The World’s End, for instance, was a movie with many fine qualities, and it staked new adult ground as the cap for the “Cornetto trilogy,” and yet it finished up as a confused work that failed to develop any of its ideas or characters anywhere near as well as they should have been; it stands for me as perhaps the year’s subtlest but most definite letdown. Upstream Color was dazzling at first, but it came down to some tinny, rather painful New Agey ideas explicated via a cinematic method that became tedious after 20 minutes. I loved the basic idea of Stoker, a rewrite of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt as black antithesis, but the style, apart from two great scenes, kept the charge of genuinely transgressive transformation too ponderously aestheticized.
American Hustle unleashed an array of revved-up stars and some delicious cinematography on an oddball caper tale, but the film’s lack of a genuine focal point or clarity of emotion, not to mention plot, essentially turned it into a collection of flashily shot, unevenly acted scenes without rhyme or reason. Also, as a sustained piece of fake Scorsese, it neatly joins the aforementioned phenomenon of the superseded auteur, as did the macho wankfest The Place Beyond the Pines, which mistook ripping off good ’70s fims for actual moviemaking. For all its luminous acting and formidably artful craft, Blue Is the Warmest Colour needed to get deeper into its characters’ heads and spend less time writing its own textual analysis. Francis Coppola’s long-delayed Twixt was quite interesting and a total mess. But I’d certainly encourage anyone to see it, because it offers a privileged glimpse of a real artist wrestling deeply with his very creative nature in the face of mortality and life experience, and that’s a rare thing. I have no problem confessing that one of the major reasons the orgiastic praise turned on Gravity pissed me off was the interesting subtext of a lot its praise; that although it was a “special-effects movie,” it was a “realistic” and “thoughtful,” even “artistic” one, as opposed to those other special-effects movies that are the bane of modern moviegoing. Gravity was actually none of those things, but rather was a corny and reductive adventure flick that allowed critics and audiences to get off on CGI without the guilt of liking a genre film.
Star Trek: Into Darkness
Images, as ever, images, in films good and bad and middling, still bespoke the power of the medium. In Man of Steel, Superman, floating in the ocean, bemusedly watching a pair of whales swim above him. In Blue Is the Warmest Colour, a pair of young lesbian lovers melding into a symmetrical new creature, and, later, one of them, cast out of Eden, walking away into the rest of her life clad in an emblematic colour that is now a surrendered standard. In Star Trek: Into Darkness, a genetically-engineered villain, on the run from his enemies, materialising over a smoky, desolately alien landscape, replete with Wagnerian gravitas of menace and danger. In Oz the Great and Powerful, a witch about to go wicked with tears burning rivulets in her cheeks from the acidic bitterness of disillusionment. The hapless hero of 12 Years a Slave dangling from the end of the rope, trapped with painful exactitude between life and death, only kept alive by constant effort. Or, later, when he desolately burns a hopeful letter, the last tremors of light and heat becoming a small constellation, a total reversal of the earlier moment in style and yet still communicating the same sense of essence. The tear leaking from the eye of the sleeping beauty at the very end of Blancanieves touches the essence of cinema itself. So does the play of watching in Passion, with the watcher watched by the watcher’s watcher, sex object staring back at viewer, potentate willingly blinded, the screen cleft as artist and killer, victim and patsy are all entwined, marching towards the final cut.
The Great Beauty
In The Counselor, the malicious art of beheading carefully prepared for under a Cretaceous dawn, the tragic indictment of the title character as he wanders dazed and gutted through people at a rally for the needlessly killed, and the hilarious sight of Cameron Diaz having sex with a car windscreen. The slow zoom in on a celebrity doll house suspended in panes of light against dark with the L.A. skyline beyond through which The Bling Ring gang scuttles, at once like invasive rodents and blessedly foolish children in some Chuck Jones cartoon. The child prodigy in The Great Beauty, bullied into creating art in front of a gaggle of society swanks, hurling paint at a huge canvas in her rage, but then succumbing to her greatest instincts and creating a delirious work of colour, humiliating every phony around her. Or, in the same movie, the midnight exploration of the palaces of Rome crammed with the art of centuries. The paintings in Museum Hours, endlessly scrutinised, endlessly rich, and the human visions, like the lone woman singing mournfully in a hotel room, ephemeral and echoing. The villain of Drug War, having tried every trick in the book to give the slip to his fate, reduced to dragging along the corpse of the hero to which he’s handcuffed, in his last desperate effort to escape. Amongst an endless sprawl of great visions in The Grandmaster, my two favourites were the hazy moment of make-believe for a very real purpose that sees two lost souls momentarily united in an approximation of their fantasies, on a train, and the climactic appearance of the heroine wreathed in steam and smoke, ready for battle.
A Field in England
The manic hallucinogenic freak-out that is the set-piece of A Field in England, when time and space and person all fold in on each other. The hot rod loaded with celebrating black folk liberated by wealth and Jazz Age mores crossing the bridge in The Great Gatsby. The masked girls dancing with automatic weapons and their piano-tinkling gangster guru on the dock in Spring Breakers. The mountain of squirming zombies assaulting the bastions of civilisation in World War Z. The nuns carrying their personally crucified martyr across the snowy church compound in Beyond the Hills. The crazy cliff-face battle in GI Joe: Retaliation. The incestuously tinged piano duet in Stoker, and the perverted beauty of the psychopath coming of age whilst masturbating to sweet memories of snapping necks. Another psychopath, this time ensnared by her own games and stirred revenge, gazing out from the hospital window at the end of Side Effects. The heartbreak and rage on Andrea Riseborough’s face, cracking the studied sheen and ultra-modern artifice of Oblivion, as she’s confronted by the sudden, forced change in her reality by her lover. Another great scene featuring Riseborough, the Fritz Lang-esque escape through the urban underworld at the start of Shadow Dancer.
I’m So Excited
The look (and sound) of unimaginable terror of a screaming starlet unleashing the genuine dread of the pit, even in cynically creating schlock, in Berberian Sound System. The erotic encounters of Concussion, bodies meeting in multifarious brands of intimacy and tactile appeal with the specific poetry of flesh. The dead pop star transcending unpleasant reality and taking off for a properly kitschy afterlife at the very end of Behind the Candelabra. The trio of dazzlingly gay airline stewards staging an impromptu dance number to the eponymous song in I’m So Excited as they try to keep their audience of passengers narcotised to the reality of an epoch that may end in crash landing. The body of a fallen ecoterrorist interred in the ground as naked as she came into the world, in The East.
The computer beadily watching its creators in frustration, trying to will the future into being, in Computer Chess, and the prostitute casually removing her head to allow access for the young, bemused nerd to begin exploring far more complex systems. The lovers swimming in the moonlight, beatific prelude to the gruelling assaults on flesh and spirit to come, in Rush. The tiny girl chased by a gigantic monster like some prepubescent nightmare brought to life and radiating from a totemic red shoe in Pacific Rim, and its answering moment later, as the same girl, grown and in a monstrous robot, drags a ship to use as a club on her lysergic-coloured quarry in a moment of sublime revenge. The flurry of light, motion, wet, and pain, staged like a spirit journey, distorting the would-be hero’s vision as he tries to get a dying girl to a hospital, which forms the climax of Prisoners. Amy Adams’ whoop of incoherent life-lust after a disco toilet declaration intercut with bawling Tom Jones sing-alongs of the regular guys in American Hustle.
The waterfalls of gushing blood and swirling bats that give Byzantium its cred as gothic horror, offset by hazily alienated visions of its ageless heroines spying on their own remembered selves. A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III recalls a furious lovers’ quarrel as a dumb show within a Volkswagen as it travels through a car wash. The damaged young hoodlum watching his girlfriend strip through dazzling veils of drenched colour and false glamour, in Only God Forgives, somehow watching her and watching himself at the same time, inside and outside of the dream. The pensive young prostitute looking in vain for her grandmother in the teeming heart of an alienating metropolis in Like Someone in Love, and its climactic reversal, as the camera calmly watches curtains that bat lazily in the breeze after a brick crashes through the glass and knocks out the hapless old intellectual. The waters slowly rising over the causeway like cyclical fate even as the young lovers dance in their ignorant bliss amongst the plethora of similarly great crystalline visions in To The Wonder. And on and on, on and on, images.
12 Years a Slave would’ve been a good film without Chiwetel Ejiofor, but Steve McQueen has a knack for carefully choosing actors who can burrow deep within the substance of his work, and the actor’s endlessly expressive countenance provided a symphonic display of emotion and intelligence, moving from horror to shame to rage to soul-cracking despair. Even for such a well-proven actor, it was a hell of a job. He was well-supported, with Michael Fassbender at a rare pitch of ferocity, Benedict Cumberbatch revealing in the subtleties of cravenness, and Brad Pitt saving the day, albeit in the most soft-spoken of ways. Fassbender and Cumberbatch continued to be the men of the hour, as the latter did a good job in a thankless role, taking up the reins of Khan in the enormous shadow of Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek: Into Darkness, his characterisation potent, insolent, self-confident, but supremely ruthless and ultimately lunatic. As hyped as the role was, and as dismissed as it’s been subsequently, it was still a supremely cool piece of villainy. Fassbender meanwhile was the smug, glib soul of The Counselor, ripe for the fall into stygian darkness, contending with Pitt again and Javier Bardem as artful chewers of Cormac McCarthy’s deliciously arch noir dialogue. By contrast, in To the Wonder, Ben Affleck’s mug was the stony Easter Island visage around which Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams danced in intimations of variable personality, particularly Kurylenko, whose dazzlingly sustained impersonation of a mercurial but deeply flawed nymph was the only one this year that struck me as powerfully as Ejiofor’s for sheer commitment. McQueen tends to use his actors’ physiognomies like canvases on which his films are projected, and Malick is similar, as is Wong Kar-Wai, the only man alive who can start with an Ip Man biopic and come out with a poetic paean to the marvel that is Zhang Ziyi.
Adele Exarchopolous exerted a similar, if more controversial spell on her director and audience thanks to the protean power of her lead role in Blue Is the Warmest Colour, holding the film’s final scenes on course as a study in the physical pain of losing love written entirely on her young but sturdy frame. Amidst the occasionally overripe histrionics of Prisoners, Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance held up in trying circumstances, whilst Viola Davis and Terrence Howard were so good I wished they’d been the proper stars of the film. In a similar vein, Keith Carradine’s grizzled eloquence almost shocked Ain’t Them Bodies Saints out of its stance of po-faced revivalism with his performance as an aging but still-formidable Fagin figure watching over the fates of his wayward former charges. Tom Hanks hardly needs plaudits, but Captain Phillips nonetheless supplied him with a chance to prove himself on a new level, particularly in the concluding scenes that wowed everyone as the heretofore stoic and intensely controlled sailor crumbles after he gets his happy ending. It looked like this was going to be another year of Matthew McConaughey, and his excellence in playing variations on southern-fried peckerwoods with nascent humanity in Mud and Dallas Buyers Club cannot be denied, though the former movie proved a slightly unsatisfying blend of indie-flick modesty and crowd-pleasing escapade, and the latter gave way to too many obnoxious conventions in both the heroic-biopic and gay-films-for-straight-people fields. Nonetheless, there was a sense of physical intensity to McConaughey in the latter, evoking both the corporeal devastation and psycho-spiritual ignition derived from his existential battle.
Tony Servillo effortlessly held together the carnivale that was The Great Beauty, making a potentially unlikeable main character into the man everyone wants, just a little bit, to be. Toby Jones, always an excellent performer, loaned his presence mysteriously to the latest Hunger Games film for a part that’s all the more insulting after watching his note-perfect subtlety in Berberian Sound System, communicating both his character’s deference, ferocity, disquiet, and genius. Amidst some unnecessary stunt casting and wobbly accents, Alessandro Nivola was superb in Ginger and Rosa as the phlegmatic, self-involved, radical father who is a prophet of modernity but doesn’t see past the end of his own nose (or penis). Russell Crowe is aging into an elder statesman with surprising dignity and new good humour (as long as he doesn’t sing), and he propped up two pretty bad films I saw this year, The Man with the Iron Fists and Broken City, with an old trouper’s sense of charm, and just about stole Man of Steel with his mix of gravitas and punch. Henry Cavill did well playing the hero, because he didn’t make me miss Christopher Reeve, and better, he didn’t remind me I’d first seen him in Immortals. Michael Shannon was also in that film and he was commanding, though overshadowed in evil by the icily charismatic Antje Traue. Shannon was star of The Iceman, a third-rate Scorsese knock-off that came out on DVD this year; it still used Shannon’s trademark mix of awkwardness and brutality well, and gave some supporting roles to some oddly but effectively cast actors like David Schwimmer, Chris Evans, and a particularly good Winona Ryder. Robin Weigert was gutsy and interesting in Concussion, and had some strong support from Laila Robins, whilst A Hijacking was blessed with the triangulated presences of Søren Malling, Pilou Asbæk, and Abdihakin Asgar as the men whose tempers are tested by tensions between their shared desires and their ulterior goals.
The definition of a great ensemble performance is one where you can’t imagine any one actor removed from the whole with others. The small ensemble of Like Someone in Love would certainly count there, and certainly the team in The Past were superlative in and of themselves. Two comedy films this year that had oddly similar premises were tied together equally by ensemble comic performances in which the shambolic was brought to life with sharpness: The World’s End and This Is the End. Emma Watson’s hilarious but sadly small part as “herself,” the innocent but plucky English girl at the mercy of the wilds of L.A. celebrity, in This Is the End, was a fitting counterpoint to her witty and convincing turn as the shallowest of Californian princesses oblivious to all concerns but her own self-written life script in The Bling Ring. Drug War, although exceedingly cinematic, had a theatrical aspect to it as the heroes shifted guises and personalities. It was a tour de force for Sun Hong-lei in particular as the stone-faced cop who adopts the most divergent personality possible in the course of his investigation, and it became an existential portrait not just of subterfuge or police work but of the roles circumstances force us to play. Amongst the battery of heavyweight actors in American Hustle, Christian Bale’s grotesque was technically impressive acting but never felt particularly urgent as characterisation, and Bradley Cooper was just plain annoying, whilst Jennifer Lawrence managed to stay just on this side of broad in playing a ferociously fascinating but precociously disturbing harridan, leaving it to Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner to keep things grounded, the former as a peculiarly honest con artist and the latter as a doomed man of the people. Charlie Sheen’s part in A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III was dismissed generally as smug, but there was a cheeky sense of play and self-mockery mixed with unexpected dignity in his acting that reminded me at least why once he was an actor and a star with a rep.
The women of 12 Years a Slave were interesting, too. Lupita Nyong’o was class because she knew she captured the peculiar, nihilistic power of her victim role as well as the pathos and terror, Alfre Woodard offered a weirdly persuasive portrait of sex slave as female entrepreneur, whilst Sarah Paulson stopped just this side of caricature in portraying her spurned, vengeful, contemptuous homestead queen as her equally hateful husband’s enabler. There were definite weak links in the ensemble Joss Whedon gathered together for his gonzo edition of Much Ado about Nothing, but there were some marvellous ones, too, particularly Amy Acker as Beatrice, who did the most impressive moment of slapstick comedy I’ve seen in years at one point, and Nathan Fillion as Dogberry. Soairse Ronan was as palpably intelligent as usual alongside a slippery, sensually vicious Gemma Arterton in Byzantium, and also in the even less-seen Violet & Daisy, an intriguing if unsuccessful piece of light surrealism, where Ronan actually got a run from her money not just from the late, great James Gandolfini, but from costar Alexis Bledel’s surprisingly droll, emotive turn as Ronan’s prematurely world-weary partner in assassination, as if someone had packed Lee Marvin into her diminutive frame. Ellen Page was quintessentially impressive in her limited but vital supporting role in Zal Batmanglij’s The East as the incarnation of radicalism formed by bitter personal experience.
Andrea Riseborough kept on rising with a triptych of expert performances in very different films, as the doomed gal Friday of Welcome to the Punch, the spurned lover and inadvertent species traitor in Oblivion, and as the quietly steely, enigmatic antiheroine of Shadow Dancer. Olivia Wilde, after lurking on the edge of stardom for nearly a decade now, suddenly came into focus for many in Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies, beautifully skewering her character’s mix of ladette winsomeness and flake. Jamie Alexander, striking in her parts in The Last Stand and Thor: The Dark World, might well take over from Wilde as the most appealing actress to be found in the most frustratingly nonpriority roles. Rachel McAdams’ performance in Passion provided high contrast with her portrait of febrile feeling in To the Wonder, and gave Brian De Palma’s film the jolt of high-camp verve it required. Laura Michelle Kelly was a firecracker of unleashed, incandescent energy in Goddess, a musical-comedy performance comprising surprisingly old-school chops. Cristina Flutur’s performance in Beyond the Hills was vital, as she captured both the desperate, heart-rending neediness of her character, and also her tunnel-visioned, infuriating, self-destructive side. One of the most mesmerising, amusing, intelligent performances of the year was that of Ela Piplits in Museum Hours (not to denigrate the easy improvisatory turns of leads Mary Margaret O’Hara and Bobby Sommer, by any means), playing a mere gallery guide expounding intelligently about art, but doing it with such calm panache, such dextrous engagement in easily batting way the representative of modern Puritanism, that it reminded us of how blunt and patronising many films are when they come close to such ideas. For me, however, some of the year’s most memorable on-screen performances didn’t even come from actors. The cast of Computer Chess, mostly nonprofessional, seemed born in their roles mostly because they were. I can’t think of Gerald Peary’s magnificently stilted emcee work without a wide grin.
Favourite Films of 2013
12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
A lot of the praise for Steve McQueen’s third film smacked of sophomore political and cultural studies, but this adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir did far more than check off a list of desirable talking points: McQueen’s incisive eye, as exacting as in his debut Hunger (2009) but less mannered, succeeded in both indicting a grotesque system and illuminating its horrors. McQueen’s evocation of the peculiar institution is often gut-wrenching, and yet often purposefully banal in portraying what was merely the reductio ad absurdum of free enterprise. But the film’s strongest achievement lay in how carefully it ransacked every character’s psychologically enmeshed responses and blind spots, from hero Northup whose exceptionalism proves largely only a taunting absurdity, to Benedict Cumberbatch’s genteel, amicable, but moral coward plantation oligarch (the man Ashley Wilkes realised he was), and on down to Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson as the Edward Albee-ish poisonous pair who treat slaves quite literally as objects to enact their passions and cruelties upon, all portrayed with unforgiving clarity.
Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland)
Peter Strickland’s study in private psychological anguish in the context of trashy ephemera and nostalgic pop culture fetishism was not a film for everybody, but definitely a film for me. Misread by too many as a missed opportunity for a thriller, it’s really a queasy comedy of manners that slides into a surreal dreamscape for a journey through the underworld before rebirth.
Blancanieves (Pablo Berger)
When everything old is new again (see also Computer Chess, No), Spanish director Pablo Berger made a silent film, but amazingly, not just one for critics and retro film fans, but for actual audiences. He gave them the humour, thrills, and delicate beauty of both a real silent film and a fairy tale, in a version of the past that recalls the great works of Expressionism and yet filtered through a modern sensibility. Even Pedro Almodovar couldn’t hold a candle to it this year as far as Spanish cinema went.
Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski)
So feather-light it seems like it might crumble at a touch, Andrew Bujalski’s oddball-screwball comedy actually reveals ingenious gall holding it together, basic jokes and ideas and even more basic technology layered upon layer to create something deeply strange, very funny, and, finally, beguiling.
The Counselor (Ridley Scott)
A post-apocalyptic nightmare set in the present, Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy reduce the Hollywood crime film to its constituent parts and watch them twitch in the midday sun. The result is nasty, funny, and hopeless, at once lucidly beautiful and bitterly ugly. The filmmakers, much like their hero, pushed far out into deep waters and paid the price with some ugly critical assassinations.
Drug War (Johnny To)
Completely different in tone and approach to The Counselor and yet built around many of the same ideas, Johnny To’s latest film works as both self-commentary, as both hero and villain circle each other in sustained acts of bluff and gamesmanship, and as whip-crack thriller. In a modern China that seems to be a wilderness of newness, justice is upright but also constitutes just another competing system in the market, and the gangster and cop protagonists both scuttle across its surface, trying to survive.
Ginger and Rosa (Sally Potter)
Sally Potter’s reminiscence about bohemian youth in early ’60s Britain was compelling, not least in its peculiar female perspective, but also for its fascinating lack of nostalgia and sense of sociological precision, exposing heartbreak, betrayal, familial tragedy and disappointment, and the omnipresent pall of fear of the nuclear age. Potter explored with a rare seriousness the problems that result when people decide to live without old values but find nothing with which to replace them, and yet she managed to make the film feel the opposite of heavy. In spite of some casting problems, it was sustained by Elle Fanning’s luminous lead performance.
The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai)
A divisive work, but to me a serious candidate for the greatest film of the decade so far, Wong Kar-Wai’s resurgence is a lode of ironic disparities, tackling seemingly very stolid subjects—the martial-arts action epic and the biopic—and constructing a supercharged rhapsody of vision, time, and poetic humanity as revealed in rest and motion.
The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino)
This extraordinary remix of La Dolce Vita as a cultural anatomy of modern Rome through the eyes of a social gadfly is also extraordinarily uneven: the nominal heart of the film, that gadfly wrestling with his reawakening desire to be a true artist, never feels more than a McGuffin, and the finale’s attempt to encompass an aspect of spiritual longing and wonder fails badly to mesh with overlarge satire, especially frustrating as elsewhere in the film director Paolo Sorrentino generates the desired duplicity of effect so beautifully. And yet Sorrentino offers some of the most stunning set-pieces and artistic epiphanies of recent cinema, confirming the impression of Il Divo (2009) that he knows how to throw parties on screen better than anyone alive, far outstripping Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby for capturing both the powerful splendor and obscenity of decadent high life, dancing with dreamy artistry through the Eternal City to pick up an insane collage of compelling vignettes. Tony Servillo’s wry, yet emotive performance kept the boat steady, presenting a fascinating continuity with Il Divo as studies of men at the centre of things who are, nonetheless, enigmatic in their seeming obviousness.
Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami)
Like several films this year, Abbas Kiarostami’s latest was perceived by some as a comparative letdown by a major director, but the perception perhaps said more about the onlooker than the object. Kiarostami’s new world-wandering project landed in Japan and created this superficially delicate, surprisingly concentrated tragicomedy about roles played in youth and old age. It recalled Paul Desmond’s album titled after the same song standard, as both are lounge jazz opuses stripped down to the most elemental, expressive, romantic, and mournful notes.
Man of Steel (Zack Snyder)
It took a second viewing for me to properly appreciate what Zack Snyder had managed with his revisionist Superman epic. With the Marvel franchise this year offering films barely holding together on any level and revealing that the Marvel world has nowhere to go, Snyder’s film looked and felt brave and grand; even with the excess of its battle scenes and weaker aspects, it still seems like the closest thing the superhero craze has thrown up to a classic since Hellboy II, a big, bristling, good-looking, surprisingly serious brand of fantastic film that went far beyond spotty fan service to provoke as well as please its audience.
Museum Hours (Jem Cohen)
About as far from Man of Steel as it’s possible to get in the same medium, Museum Hours is an almost indescribably original oddity, combining essayistic filmmaking, documentary, and gentle drama. Its portrait of a Canadian in Vienna making friends with a gay, middle-aged ex-rocker turned museum security guard almost completely rewrote the rules of how a narrative film can work, and did so with the simplest and most modest of methods. It’s an odd film that counts an art history lecture as an action climax.
Pacific Rim (Guillermo Del Toro)
The other top-of-the-line blockbuster of the year. Although it was a heavy flop in the U.S., there’s something salutary in the fact that this film was an enormous international success, especially in China, with its globalised heroics and roots in an alternative stem of modern pop culture based in Asian fantasies. In any event, it was cool, it was colourful, it had the year’s best heroine (sorry Katniss), and in the year of Ray Harryhausen’s death, it provided ample evidence that his legacy lives on in popular cinema.
Passion (Brian De Palma)
Brian De Palma’s latest comeback special was uneven in tethering his narrative and camera gymnastics to a remake, but damn if it wasn’t still De Palma, still making films that glow like neon and cut like surgical steel.
The Past (Asghar Farhadi)
Asghar Farhadi’s latest wasn’t entirely up to the standard of its predecessor, but it’s still good enough to make most films in the same vein of domestic realism look shrink-wrapped, offering an emotional range in regarding the modern family that spanned from wry amusement to desolation.
To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)
Malick’s follow-up to an enormously critically acclaimed film failed to ignite the same blazing admiration and indeed perhaps suffered from a backlash against his style, usually given a lot of time to dispel between the director’s releases. But for me, this was a dynamic, deeply pleasurable and stirring attempt by Malick to wrestle with something he’d avoided until now—a detailed, fleshy, true-feeling adult romance—in the context of his most modern and most overtly religious narrative. Although always a shooter of great pictures, few of Malick’s images have felt so genuinely immediate and human as several found in this one, like Rachel McAdams holding out her rope-bound hands to her lover, counterpointed in Malick’s editing with her forlorn and floundering emotional squall in facing rejection and her stoic resignation in getting on with life, giving three points of behaviour within seconds in a coherent, economic, and powerful manner. Many directors can cut quickly; few can create a little world with such brevity.
Would Have Been on This List If I’d Seen It In Time (progressively updated):
Bastards (Claire Denis)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson)
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)
Significant Blind Spots
A Touch of Sin / Anchorman: The Legend Continues / As I Lay Dying / The Book Thief / Carrie / Don Jon / Elysium / Europa Report / The Fifth Estate / Frances Ha / Fruitvale Station / Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom / Out of the Furnace / Saving Mr. Banks / The Spectacular Now / The Unspeakable Act / The Way, Way Back
A Hijacking (Tobias Lindholm)
All Is Lost (J.C. Chandor)
Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu)
The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola)
Blue Is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche)
Byzantium (Neil Jordan)
Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg)
Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener)
Mud (Jeff Nichols)
No (Pablo Larrain)
Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn)
Oz the Great and Powerful (Sam Raimi)
Flawed but Appreciated
American Hustle (David O. Russell)
Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass)
Concussion (Stacie Passon)
The East (Zal Batmanglij)
A Field in England (Ben Wheatley)
Furious 6 (Justin Lin)
A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (Roman Coppola)
Jack the Giant Slayer (Bryan Singer)
Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon)
Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski)
Resolution (Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead)
Rush (Ron Howard)
Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh)
Star Trek: Into Darkness (J.J. Abrams)
The World’s End (Edgar Wright)
Disappointing and/or Overrated
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery)
Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh)
Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron)
Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen)
Kick-Ass 2 (Jeff Wadlow)
The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance)
Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)
Stoker (Chan-Wook Park)
Trance (Danny Boyle)
Upstream Color (Shane Carruth)
42 (Brian Helgeland)
Gangster Squad (Ruben Fleischer)
A Good Day to Die Hard (John Moore)
The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski)
Lone Survivor (Peter Berg)
Lovelace (Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman)
Runner Runner (Brad Furman)
Welcome to the Punch (Eran Creevy)
World War Z (Marc Forster)
My Year of Retro Wonders: The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2013
And Soon the Darkness/Wuthering Heights (Robert Fuest)
Apache Drums (Hugo Fregonese)
Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda)
Caged (John Cromwell)
Cuba (Richard Lester)
Decoy (Jack Bernhard)
Django/The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci)
Electra (Michael Cacoyannis)
The Face Behind the Mask (Robert Florey)
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (Shunya Itō)
Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog)
Fixed Bayonets (Sam Fuller)
Five Miles to Midnight (Anatole Litvak)
Hell Is for Heroes (Don Siegel)
It Happened Here (Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo)
Katalin Varga (Peter Strickland)
The Last Movie (Dennis Hopper)
The Magician (Ingmar Bergman)
One Wonderful Sunday/Stray Dog (Akira Kurosawa)
Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray)
Peking Opera Blues (Tsui Hark)
Pink Flamingos (John Waters)
Raw Deal (Anthony Mann)
Rock All Night (Roger Corman)
The Tall T (Budd Boetticher)
That Cold Day in the Park/Brewster McCloud/California Split/Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson/Fool for Love (Robert Altman)
The Tiger of Eschnapur/The Indian Tomb (Fritz Lang)
Town without Pity (Gottfried Reinhardt)
Two Rode Together/Sergeant Rutledge (John Ford)
Vanishing Point (Richard C. Sarafian)
Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff)
The Whip and the Body (Mario Bava)
White Sun of the Desert (Vladimir Motyl)
Wings (William A. Wellman)
Witchcraft (Don Sharp)
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By Roderick Heath and Marilyn Ferdinand
Fourscore and seven years ago, give or take a few, Marilyn Ferdinand sent unto me an email to say she was starting a blog, and asked if I’d like to contribute something for it. And lo, it came to pass that the blog was called Ferdy on Films, and I gave unto her my first review, of Ridley Scott’s The Duellists. And verily, the gods of the internet sayeth that the blog was good.
One thousand posts and a half-million or so words later, I’m beginning to suspect this is some sort of trend. My head’s still spinning: I can’t even believe it’s been four years since we celebrated our five-hundredth post. In Arabian Nights, Scheherazade regaled the Sultan with stories to keep his axe at bay for a thousand nights. All ends happily of course, even after, on the one-thousandth night plus one, she admits to having no more stories to tell. Well, our happy ending is that, even after a thousand posts, we still have many movies to talk about. But we’re pausing to contemplate what a great labour it’s been.
Our heads were never at risk lest we failed to deliver our new posts, but the experience has certainly impacted our lives in a fashion I certainly didn’t imagine when we began, not least of which is the marvellous friends and supporters we’ve gathered over the years. The animating spirit of Ferdy on Films lay from the beginning in the fact that for both of us, Marilyn and I, cinema was something to be celebrated, not fawned over, but met with energy and interest, respect and attention, and generosity—that the little film and the big one could be spoken of equitably, that the casual movie fan was as open to a good idea as any cinephile. Ferdy on Films was our labour of love, a product and source of self-confidence. At first we had no idea who our audience would be. Now our audience animates and renews our passion. Our blog has been our own little hymn to freedom. Freedom of thought. Freedom from all cares but sheer love of a medium. Freedom to add to the larger cultural conversation without necessarily having to give a damn about it. The sheer freedom to say what you want, mediated, like all true freedom, by a sense of responsibility and of a driving ethic to say it in the best way you know how.
I owe great thanks to Marilyn, whose talent and vision and push into the unknown zones of deepest cyberspace dragged me along.
So, five of my favourites from amongst my own posts. These were hard to whittle down, believe me, and I could make three or four such lists. I’ve bypassed a couple of essays I’m proud of on films any self-respecting film fan probably has. These are not my most popular posts ever, and I don’t know if they’re the ones that have had the deepest impact, but they are essays where I’ve felt closest to that impossible ideal I always have in my head, that a film commentary can at once lay bare how movies work and yet retain the heady pleasure of actually watching them.
Reviewed December 24, 2010
It was a pleasure writing this piece for Adam Zanzie’s Steven Spielberg Blogathon in 2010, as it gave me a chance to coherently and deeply discuss one of that director’s less appreciated works. It’s been particularly gratifying that in the time of 12 Years a Slave, Amistad has been gaining some new interest from some critics.
The Blood on Satan’s Claw (aka Satan’s Skin, 1970)
Reviewed October 25, 2011
Horror cinema has been something of my special beat on the blog since it started, and this piece from 2011 is one I have great affection for, as it allowed to do two things I particularly enjoy: to talk up a relatively unsung film, and to follow trains of thought stirred by the film in every direction. The great thing about horror films is that they’re under no pressure to be relevant to anything except their own perverse psyches, but that means they can be relevant to anything.
Story of a Prostitute (Shunpu den, 1965)
Reviewed November 24, 2012
The weird and wonderful Japanese auteur Seijun Suzuki has become one of my favourite filmmakers, and this epic stirred me to ecstasies I tried to capture in this essay from last year. It’s a piece that allowed me to honour both Marilyn’s early “off-road” ethos and celebrate a truly great film.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
Reviewed March 30, 2012
There’s been no shortage of encomiums to F.W. Murnau’s silent classic, and I don’t know if I added anything new to the repertoire, but still it’s a testimony to great cinema that, no matter how familiar, it can stir us like a bolt from the blue.
The Tree of Life (2011)
Reviewed September 6, 2011
Roger Ebert.com honcho Matt Zoller Seitz said this piece was one of the best pieces of film criticism he’d read by anybody on anything. And he totally can’t take that back.
When I first started Ferdy, the blogosphere was still on the newish side and a place of experimentation. I wrote a lot more “Our Backstreets” columns than I do now—personal stories and commentary set apart from movies that covered some material readers enjoyed, including an obituary for Studs Terkel and memories of local children’s television in Chicago. I also participated in a lot more memes and blogathons, which were the ways cinephiles got together on the internet before Facebook plundered the film blogging community. I even helped found a film club, The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club (TOERIFC), which rotated to the various blogs of its members each month. A couple of my favorite reviews were written for TOERIFC, The Rapture (1991) and The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia (2009), and they were favorites because they were designed specifically to engender discussion.
Rod and I both tried some regular features. His were “Famous Firsts,” to which I contributed a few entries, and his wonderful “Days of High Adventure” series on adventure films. I started one, “Nobel on Film,” in which I reviewed films made from the works of winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature and tried to make some literary and visual comparisons. I never got very far with that series, but my review of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1970) provided me with the extraordinary pleasure of getting a comment from the son of the film’s director, Caspar Wrede, who joined me in bemoaning the lack of a decent print of that terrific film. David Wrede would not be the only family member who would pitch up at Ferdy on Films. In what has to be the most unique comment thread on this site or many others is the family feud raging to this day in the comments section of Crazy, the 2007 biopic of guitarist Hank Garland I saw at the Big Island Film Festival on the Big Island of Hawaii.
It has been a trippy ride that has given a lot of meaning to my life in so many ways. I’ve had opportunities to do things I never dreamed I would do when this all began, and met some truly good people along the way. My friendship with Sam Juliano at Wonders in the Dark actually led me to write my best review, for his site! My blessings are many, including having one of the best writers and a guy with an enormously good heart as my blog partner all these years. Thanks, Rod. I love you, man!
And now, here is my humble offering of a handful of posts that still make me smile.
Reviewed August 25, 2013
A Technicolor noir I saw at the 2013 Noir City Chicago, Niagara impressed me as a Hitchcockian film that reached incredible depths in using its famous, almost clichéd location as an integral part of its tale of lust and violence. The film marked the first where I saw Marilyn Monroe on the big screen, and the impact was breathtaking, to say the least. Nonetheless, director Henry Hathaway kept all the elements of his film in tight, well-coordinated control, making it a feast for a critic to examine.
The Quiet Man (1952)
Reviewed November 13, 2008
Irish-American director John Ford nourished his hope to make The Quiet Man over several decades, encouraged by members of his informal stock company, which included John Wayne, Ward Bond, Maureen O’Hara, and his own brother, Francis. When Ford finally got Republic Pictures to bankroll the film, he dashed to Cong, Ireland and created a film that almost directly channels the Irish mythic tradition. This review gave me a chance to delve into Irish folklore, a particular interest of mine, and show layer by layer how Ford created a time out of time. This review is as close to scholarly as I’ve gotten without being pedantic.
A Fool There Was (1915)
Reviewed February 14, 2010
Satisfying on every level as the first review for the first fundraising blogathon ever held at Ferdy on Films. Quintessential vamp Theda Bara’s body of work is almost completely lost and forgotten, but thankfully, this film, the one that made her an instant star, remains. Being able to see, understand, and convey what a sensation she was to women emerging from the stifling Victorian age, particularly within the context of a current resurgence of vampire lore, was eye-opening for me and readers alike. It was an additional thrill to expose the woman behind the eyes that are the symbol for the Chicago International Film Festival, a yearly ritual that I have been covering since 2006.
Certified Copy (2010)
Reviewed October 4, 2010
I’m a big fan of Iranian film, a national cinema that manages to be political, personal, inventive, and provocative while suffering persecution under the country’s Islamist rulers. Abbas Kiarostami is the greatest of all Iranian filmmakers, one whose obsessions with appearance and reality underscore the censored lives of his country’s citizens. With Certified Copy, he took this theme out of Iran for the first time, filming in Italy with two Western actors in the lead roles. Through careful observation and a thorough grounding in his core concerns, I felt a new blossoming of his filmmaking technique, and my enthusiasm made this one of my most satisfying reviews.
An Interview with Errol Morris
Posted April 17, 2008
I don’t do many interviews because of my shyness, so why I decided that I had to talk to the combative documentarian Errol Morris is beyond me. Nonetheless, a less-than-satisfying experience with his then-new film Standard Operating Procedure (2008) had me full of questions, and when I challenged him on what seemed to be a failure to communicate, he had a few choice expletives to throw my way. Nonetheless, I remained calm and ended up with a very thought-provoking Q&A that ran overtime (to the consternation of the next set of journalists waiting to talk with him on that press day) as we contemplated the bizarre state of our country in 2008.
Starting at 9:00 a.m. CT, Ferdy on Films will give away one DVD each hour. We will post the DVD being offered at the top of the hour in this section. If you want to be part of the random drawing for that hour, simply post a comment with the name of the film in it before the next title is announced (yes, even if you posted at 9 a.m. or whatever hour, you will have to post again for subsequent giveaways). The names will be thrown into a hat, and one drawn. Rinse. Repeat. Pay attention to the DVD format to be sure you can play it before you enter to win. One DVD per person. Winners will be contacted at the email they use to post their comment to provide their address.
9:00 AM GIVEAWAY
20th Century Fox | 1953 | 89 min
50GB Blu-ray Disc, Single disc (1 BD)
Playback: Region free
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Original aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, German, Italian, Catalan, Croatian, Czech, etc.
The winner of the Niagara Blu-ray is SAM JULIANO! Congratulations!
10:00 AM GIVEAWAY
THE TREE OF LIFE
20th Century Fox | 2:18:54.325 | 2011
Playback: Region free
Release date: October 11th, 2011
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Resolution: 1080p / 23.976 fps
Subtitles: English (SDH), Spanish
Extras: Exploring The Tree of Life (29:56 in 1080P); theatrical trailer (2:08 in 1080P); separate DVD disc and digital copy disc included
The winner of the The Tree of Life disc set is J.D.! Congratulations!
11:00 AM GIVEAWAY
A NEW LEAF
Not in my top five reviews (in fact, I’d rewrite it today), but one of my top five favorite comedies. Written, directed, and starring Elaine May and costarring Walter Matthau and James Coco.
Olive Films | 102 Minutes | 1971
Playback : Standard DVD, region free
Release date: September 4, 2012
Aspect ratio: Widescreen
The winner of the A New Leaf DVD is ROBERT! Congratulations!
12:00 PM GIVEAWAY
Dreamworks Video | 155 Minutes | 1997
Playback : Standard DVD, region free
Release date: May 4, 1999
Aspect ratio: Widescreen
Extras: Production notes; cast and filmmaker bios; theatrical trailer; behind the scenes featurette
The winner of the AMISTAD DVD is PHIL HALL! Congratulations!
1:00 PM GIVEAWAY
THE QUIET MAN
Olive Films | 129 Minutes | 1952
Playback: Blu-ray, region free
Release date: January 22, 2013
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Resolution: 1080p / 23.976 fps
Extras: The Making of The Quiet Man (27:48); 36 page liner notes booklet
The winner of the THE QUIET MAN DVD is ROB CHRISTOPHER! Congratulations!
2:00 PM GIVEAWAY
BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW
Sony | 93 Minutes | 1970
Playback: DVD, region free
Release date: March 22, 2010
Aspect ratio: Widescreen
The winner of the BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW DVD is PATRICK FRIEL! Congratulations!
3:00 PM GIVEAWAY
Lost & Found: American Treasures from The New Zealand Film Archive
These are treasures our blogathon helped bring to thousands. Includes John Ford’s Upstream and our third blogathon project The White Shadow.
Image Entertainment | 198 Minutes | 1910s-20s
Playback: DVD, region free
Release date: September 24, 2013
The winner of the Lost & Found: American Treasures from The New Zealand Film Archive DVD is MIKE SMITH! Congratulations!
4:00 PM GIVEAWAY
STORY OF A PROSTITUTE
Criterion Collection | 96 Minutes | 1965
Playback: DVD, region free
Aspect Ratio: Original aspect ratio 2.45:1
Release date: July 26, 2005
Subtitles: English, none
Extras: Exclusive new video interviews with director Seijun Suzuki, production designer Takeo Kimura, and film critic Tadao Sato; new essay by film critic David Chute; original theatrical trailer
The winner of the STORY OF A PROSTITUTE DVD is PAUL MOLLICA! Congratulations!
5:00 PM GIVEAWAY
Criterion Collection | 106 Minutes | 2010
Playback: DVD, region free
Aspect Ratio: Widescreen
Release date: May 22, 2012
Subtitles: English, none
Extras: Director Abbas Kiarostami’s 1977 film The Report; new interview with Kiarostami; Let’s See Copia Conforme, An Italian Documentary on the Making of Certified Copy (:53), featuring interviews with Kiarostami and actors Juliette Binoche and William Shimell; trailer; booklet featuring an essay by film critic Godfrey Cheshire
The winner of the CERTIFIED COPY DVD is JILL BLAKE! Congratulations!
6:30 PM GIVEAWAY
SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS
20th Century Fox | 94 Minutes | 1927
Playback: DVD and Blu-ray, region free
Aspect Ratio: Full screen
Release date: January 14, 2014
Extras: Original Fox Movietone version and European silent version; commentary by ASC cinematographer John Bailey; outtakes with commentary by John Bailey; original theatrical trailer; original scenario by Carl Mayer with annotations by F.W. Murnau; original Sunrise screenplay; restoration notes
The winner of the SUNRISE DVD is CLIFF WEIMER! Congratulations!
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By Marilyn Ferdinand
Another Chicago International Film Festival has come and is just about gone, and unlike previous years, I don’t feel at all exhausted by the effort. I don’t feel particularly inspired by it either. Perhaps my lack of fatigue has something to do with the lack of challenging, thought-provoking fare. While my writing output has been prolific—I even managed an interview, something I generally shun because of my shyness—this festival played things right down the middle, so gathering my thoughts about each movie had little of the struggle I normally face.
This is not to say that I didn’t see some interesting films. I was confronted with a surprise right at the end with a raw look at old age when I was expecting an adoring portrait of an elder stateswoman of the Broadway stage, Elaine Stritch. A more adoring portrait emerged from Wałęsa: Man of Hope, but the film was enlivened by the brilliant filmmaking technique of a grand master of Polish cinema, Andrzej Wajda. I also found the mix of comedy and drama unexpected and quite moving in the Cuban love story/social commentary Melaza, from a first-time feature director to watch, Carlos Lechuga.
As usual, I didn’t see the tent-pole films, perhaps with the exception of A Thousand Times Good Night. It floored me that so many people were excited that the protagonist was a woman in a male-dominated profession, as though that “feminist” cred makes up for its oh-so traditional values. Jirí Menzel, another grand master of cinema returning to the CIFF, could never be called politically correct with regard to women, but he also didn’t seem to take his own film too seriously—the result was diverting and forgettable.
Two presentations I chose not to write about were Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley and David Robinson’s presentation of several silent films from his festival in Pordenone. At Berkeley had some interesting moments—for example, a neoconservative professor at the formerly ultraliberal Berkeley speaking out against providing a modest amount of money to faculty with children for child care because she thought it was subsidizing a “personal choice”—but the intense focus on administrators and budgets threw the film off balance for me. Robinson’s selections were, on the whole, interesting, throwing in one of the many versions of the butterfly dance, as well as a couple of modern silent films and one series of outtakes from a formerly lost film by a native of Kenosha, Wisconsin I must remember to say I did not see because of copyright issues.
If I have any grand conclusion to make about this festival, it is simply that not every year is a banner year. CIFF is trying to broaden its scope with its regional focus—this year was Africa—but programmers need to do more to foster connections to emerging national cinemas and innovative filmmakers if Chicago is to get more of the world-class films it deserves.
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me: Documentary filmmaker Chiemi Karasawa captures more than the Broadway legend in her 87th year—she provides a moving testament to life near the edge of death. (USA)
Shakespeare and More – A Conversation with Harry Lennix: The actor talks about his new film, H4, Othello, his new production company, and more.
The Don Juans: Veteran director Jirí Menzel brings his gleeful sensuality to bear on this story of two Don Juans working together to produce Mozart’s Don Giovanni and finding out about their failings as men. (Czech Republic)
The Exhibition: In this thoughtful and comprehensive documentary, an ambitious artist raises provocative and controversial issues when she paints a series of violent portraits of murdered prostitutes. (Canada)
Melaza: Economic uncertainty causes a young couple in love to make ingenious and risky arrangements to keep afloat in this lovely, surprisingly funny slice of life under communism. (Cuba)
H4: Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts I and II are given a contemporary spin by this spirited African-American production starring the great Harry Lennix as the title character. (USA)
Lifelong: The final breakdown of an unhappy marriage between an artist and her architect husband is chronicled in painful detail. (Turkey/The Netherlands/Germany)
Papusza: A biopic about the renowned Romany-Polish poet Bronisława Wajs, aka Papusza, is rendered in stunning images, with a strong emphasis on Romy life during the 20th century. (Poland)
The Verdict: The Belgian criminal justice system is put on trial when a man who was denied justice for his murdered wife takes the law into his own hands and dares a jury to convict him of premeditated murder. (Belgium)
A Thousand Times Good Night: This film explores the choice a war photographer is forced to make when her sexist husband threatens to leave her and take their two children with him if she doesn’t stop putting herself in harm’s way. (Norway)
Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)
The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)
Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)
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By Marilyn Ferdinand
Harry Lennix is a busy man. An actor who has distinguished himself in the theatre (for example, the title roles in August Wilson’s King Hedley II at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and Malcolm X at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre) and in 95 (and counting) film and television shows, including his latest, NBC’s “The Blacklist,” Lennix has also launched a production company, Exponent Media Group (EMG), to bring back mid-budget films. The second EMG production, H4, is at the Chicago International Film Festival, where Lennix hopes it will find a receptive audience and, importantly, a distributor. I had a chance to talk with him about H4 and more this past week.
What was the genesis of the H4 project?
It was more or less a thought experiment for Ayanna Thompson, a preeminent Shakespeare scholar at George Washington University, a brilliant woman of color I met in Memphis, I think it was 2008. I told her that I’ve always loved Henry IV, and I wondered if there was a way to contexualize it without changing the language substantially to this experience we call the black experience.
She grafted together this script, and the director Paul Quinn, who’s Aidan Quinn’s brother and a terrific director and a great teacher, and I, primarily him, put it into a screenplay form. All of us started to rehearse it in a classroom at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles—30 adults sitting in chairs and desks for high school students. We would just read the script and over the course of those weeks, characterizations starting coming through, people sort of cast themselves in these parts. It was sort of an organic experience that way, and we tried to figure out a way to shoot it for not a lot of money, but not have it look cheap. If you don’t have a lot, you want to use what you have and make it look like it’s intentional.
What about these particular plays attracts you, and what about them seems particularly relevant to the African-American experience?
The black experience is a wide and long experience. There is a distinction between black and African American. The primary thing that black has in it is the slave experience. For example, you can be white and be African American. If you were born in South Africa and nationalize yourself here, you’re African American.
Why I liked it so much and why I thought it was applicable was because it is a human experience that a father does not always approve of his son’s development. And that was the case here. In this case, the father has arrived at power through what might be seen as illegitimate means. The history of Richard II and then Henry IV taking over power from him is interesting, and he felt bad about it evidently, at least in Shakespeare’s imagination. So I thought, where does that apply in black life?
I thought our royalty are generally spiritual, political type leaders, people like Dr. King. Jesse Jackson Jr., of course, has a father who himself wanted to be president, wanted to be in the great halls of power. Martin Luther King’s father was a preacher, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who became a congressman, had a father who was head of the largest Protestant church in America. So it seemed to me that this was right for a comparison, and so we created this kind of political potentate. Originally, we felt we might make him a spiritual leader because there was no easy allusion to a black person being the head of state in America. But clearly that’s no longer true, as we have a very powerful black man in office now, and so we seized on that. I think that what resulted you can easily buy.
Have you had audience reaction to the story? Do they get it?
I don’t know because nobody has seen it in its completed form. We took a more or less rough version of it to Stratford-upon-Avon, England, Shakespeare’s birthplace, and showed it to a couple hundred Shakespeare scholars at the most prestigious Shakespeare scholarship conference in the world, the International Shakespeare Conference. It’s every other year, and they asked us to screen it because Ayanna is a member. They looked at it with great interest. They were curious about what the ramifications were, the violence, the sociopolitical activity that was going on in it. I think they accepted it wholesale in the sense that you’re asking it. They didn’t have any problem with its contextualizing of the people they were watching on film saying these words and doing these things. I don’t imagine that we’ll have a big issue or a whole lot of debate about whether or not we’re worthy.
All of us, Marilyn, we all have to study Shakespeare. All of us, if you speak English. You have to read it or watch the movies and talk about it. And we are forced, as it were, just by circumstance never to really be able to see ourselves in these roles. We’re told it’s universal, we’re told it applies to every human experience and every group of people. But we don’t get a chance to see it. And so this was my way of saying, I think you’re right, it is universal, it is great, it is timeless, and we have as much right to do it since I had to study it, since I had to learn it and practice it.
And I can’t tell you how many hours and hours of craft time is devoted to Shakespeare performance, and that normally, when I get to do it, I’m in a subservient role or a marginalized or token role. And I don’t really get a chance to chew up this language and to digest it in the way that white actors do. And there’s no reason for it.
With the exception, I suppose, of Othello.
I don’t like that play, Marilyn, I don’t like that play one bit, and I’ll tell you why. I’ve done it, I’ve played the part, and I know a lot of people think it’s great, but it is like if you want to do Shakespeare, Negro, you go and do Othello so you can be this simpleton who is manipulated by this evil white man who’s not even in a position of power. But he’s got you twisted around his finger and you revert to type, to this bestial, thoughtless, murderous, suicidal animal. That’s what happens. Although it’s probably a rare black actor who says that, I don’t think I’m alone. It’s extremely uncomfortable to play that part and have any pride, any kind of equilibrium as a black man. It’s impossible, really, to walk away with your dignity. I don’t know who can do it really—I’m sure there are people—it’s just probably me, but I don’t want to be relegated to Othello. It’s not indicative of the black experience.
You seem to be forming something of a stock company with the directors, like Danny Green, and producers involved in your projects? Tell me a little more about the collaboration. Is it your intention to always be working together?
Yes, that’s very perceptive of you. Danny and Albena Dodeva actually got engaged in H4 fairly late, at post-production, as producers. Post-production is the single most important aspect of getting a film made. There’s pre-production, which is cool and fun and crazy, and production, which is heaven. You’re loving doing it, you’re loving the problems that are facing you. But you can have all this stuff, all the ingredients for a meal, but then you’ve got to put it all together and put it in the oven. That’s post-production, which Danny and Albena have learned brilliantly through doing Mr. Sophistication (2012).
Our filmmaking company is called Exponent Media Group (EMG), and our intention in calling it exponent is because we believe we can exponentialize limited resources and show that there’s a third way. You don’t need hundreds of millions of dollars to do these blockbuster superhero movies, and you don’t have to look like you filmed it on your iPhone in your back yard. There is something in between that can combine the technological advances with a good production and good, old-fashioned Hollywood movie-making. And that’s what we intend to do with EMG, and this is the second effort. We are gearing up to go into our third effort, and I’m extremely excited about that. One of them is going to hit.
What are you doing about the distribution end of things?
That’s the million-dollar question. We had a distribution deal for Mr. Sophistication, but it fell through because it was delayed, and we didn’t want to wait too much longer because we want to get H4 out and make sure that it comes out at the right time. Now that I’m on this television show, we think this is a great time to launch EMG. We are close to closing a deal on Mr. Sophistication. We don’t have a distributor yet for H4, but we hope to be able to find one through our submission to these film festivals, Chicago being the most important one. This is our opening shot, so we’ll see.
I’ve enjoyed the films you’ve been in that have appeared at the CIFF, which go back to The Human Stain (2003). Was it problematic for you to have Anthony Hopkins in the title role for that?
I had absolutely nothing to do with the casting for that (laughs). No, I love Anthony Hopkins. I worked with him on Titus, and I think he’s a great actor. I know that other actors were interested in and up for that part. But here’s an interesting thing, color in America. What is black? For example, Dr. Adam Powell, for his early years, passed for white. A lot of people passed for white. J. Edgar Hoover, they say, was black and passed for white. So black is really a state of mind. So I didn’t have a problem with Anthony Hopkins playing the role.
I think if somebody, particularly like me, who is taking these plays or movie ideas and adapting them for the black experience, that goes both ways. So if I want to do Shakespeare, there should be no reason why white people can’t do Lorraine Hansberry or August Wilson as long as there’s a context for it that makes sense. I just saw The Hollow Crown on “Great Performances,” with Jeremy Irons the other day and they had a very good actor by the name of Paterson Joseph playing Henry V’s cousin, York. But he was black! I’m not aware, in the 14th century in England, of any black person walking around in the court of the king as a fully functional, empowered official of the court. So who is this guy? I wanted to know. It took me out just long enough for me to say, I applaud the effort, that’s nice, it’s good that they want to include people, but that is not indicative of an actual experience.
My question has been with regard to these things is can we be inventive enough, creative enough to find a way to include somebody without forcing the issue? I don’t want to force myself on somebody just because, you’re right, the black actor should be able to do Shakespeare. That’s not good enough to me. It’s fine for some people, but I don’t have a problem with people also who don’t like it, who say, that is not historically accurate. At the end of the day, I know that there’s a way to do these plays … and not to make it relevant, the plays are relevant. The play didn’t ask me to do it. It was perfectly fine! But since I love the language and since I’ve taken it upon myself to try it, then it should make sense to the person who just wants to come in and have a good experience without having to twist his mind up so that he can make sense of it.
So, that’s what I want to do, and I hope that we get to do a lot more of these plays. I want to do Julius Caesar, for example, and I just did a Romeo & Juliet with a cast of all people of color set in Harlem. This is an idea whose time has come. We are having a good amount of attention coming our way because of H4, and I’m curious to see if it continues. I hope it does.
You are still very involved in the Chicago community. What does your connection to our city mean to you?
For me, Chicago is the prototypical American city in the sense that it was founded by a black man, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, who founded this outpost and had a relationship with the natives there and later with a lot of other people, like French traders. To me, he exemplifies the American experience, someone who takes what is in front of them and then spins it into gold. Now Chicago is also known as the city that works, and I love that work ethic that we have there. We may not have the most polished baseball team or what have you, but we find a way to get it done, and that has always been my motto. I went to a Catholic seminary whose Latin motto means “work and prayer.” I have always believed that those two characteristics are beneficial. You can’t pray too much. I think you can work too much, but when you find a balance between those two things, I believe that progress gets made. I like being identified with and representing Chicago. People ask me all the time where I live, and I tell them it may be New York or L.A., but I’m from Chicago. My mama’s there, my people are there, my beginnings, my whole roots and infrastructure are Chicago. And I’ll never stop being part of it, I love it.
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By Marilyn Ferdinand
Dennis Cozzalio is at it again with one of his famously fun film quizzes for the ages. As he has selected one of my favorite ogre school teachers to ask the questions, how could I not participate?
1) The classic movie moment everyone loves except me is
The “We’ll always have Paris” scene from Casablanca. I like it, but it is more a speech than a tender moment.
2) Favorite line of dialogue from a film noir.
That’s what noir is all about, the incredibly quotable lines. Well, I’ll pick one I like: “Match me, Sidney.” (Sweet Smell of Success)
3) Second favorite Hal Ashby film.
The Last Detail. Shampoo has a very slight edge because of Julie Christie’s hair.
4) Describe the moment when you first realized movies were directed as opposed to simply pieced together anonymously.
5) Favorite film book.
At the moment, Issues in Feminist Film Criticism, edited by Patricia Erens.
6) Diana Sands or Vonetta McGee?
Vonetta McGee. She has an unforgettable face.
7) Most egregious gap in your viewing of films made in the past 10 years.
Recent films of Kathryn Bigelow, soon to be remedied.
8) Favorite line of dialogue from a comedy.
“The mayor of Canada possibly?” (Ruggles of Red Gap).
9) Second favorite Lloyd Bacon film.
So many films I haven’t seen. But Boy Meets Girl takes the second spot of the ones I have seen. Gotta go with Here Comes the Navy as #1.
10) Richard Burton or Roger Livesey?
Roger Livesey. On the whole, he made better films and an unforgettable Colonel Blimp.
11) Is there a movie you staunchly refuse to consider seeing? If so, why?
I’ll consider anything, but I can staunchly refuse to see a film anyway.
12) Favorite filmmaker collaboration.
Powell and Pressburger. None is better.
13) Most recently viewed movie on DVD/Blu-ray/theatrical.
Bye Bye Birdie (1995). Not very good, unfortunately.
14) Favorite line of dialogue from a horror movie.
From the 1931 Dracula: “Come here.” It’s not the line but how you say it that’s so much fun.
15) Second favorite Oliver Stone film.
Platoon. I like The Doors the best.
16) Eva Mendes or Raquel Welch?
Raquel Welch. I bought her yoga VHS tape, but I don’t own anything with Mendes in it.
17) Favorite religious satire.
Nazarin (Luis Buñuel).
18) Best Internet movie argument? (question contributed by Tom Block)
I recently defended Armond White (yes, how did that happen?) in his defense of Seth MacFarlane throwing Hollywood’s tastelessness with regard to women back in the face of the Academy. It was a lively argument that needed to happen.
19) Most pointless Internet movie argument? (question contributed by Tom Block)
Anything to do with “best” lists. It’s a pointless pitting of taste against taste.
20) Charles McGraw or Robert Ryan?
With apologies to my friend Alan K. Rode, Robert Ryan.
21) Favorite line of dialogue from a western.
From Shane: “Mother wants you. I know she does!” Something about it always gets me.
22) Second favorite Roy Del Ruth film.
Taxi! Thanks a Million is my favorite.
22) Relatively unknown film or filmmaker you’d most eagerly proselytize for.
Lebanese filmmaker Rania Stephan whose film The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni absolutely floored me. She’s an up-and-coming filmmaker whom I would gladly promote any hour of any day.
24) Ewan McGregor or Gerard Butler?
Ewan McGregor. I’ve been a fan for ages.
25) Is there such a thing as a perfect movie?
Is anything perfect?
26) Favorite movie location you’ve most recently had the occasion to actually visit.
San Francisco, two months ago. I even did the Vertigo tour.
27) Second favorite Delmer Daves film.
Dark Passage. Demetrius and the Gladiators is my favorite. I’m a sucker for sword & sandal movies. (Yes, I know I should have put up a picture of Bogey and Bacall, but isn’t this one much more fun?)
28) Name the one DVD commentary you wish you could hear that, for whatever reason, doesn’t actually exist.
Daisies. I need some help walking through parts of that one.
29) Gloria Grahame or Marie Windsor?
Very, very hard choice. Very slight edge to Marie Windsor because she made every low-budget film she was in so much better.
30) Name a filmmaker who never really lived up to the potential suggested by their early acclaim or success.
Lisa Cholodenko. Real tragedy about the the loss of truth in her films.
31) Is there a movie-based disagreement serious enough that it might cause you to reevaluate the basis of a romantic relationship or a friendship?
None of the usual arguments, like Pauline Kael dismissing anyone who does not love McCabe and Mrs. Miller. I would have to rethink relationships with people who enjoyed or cheered on rape scenes in movies.
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By Roderick Heath
Wait, let me get the familiar motifs of my yearly confession out of the road. Many films overrated, blah blah. Many good films vilified, blah blah. Bloody distributors, blah blah. Okay. Let’s go.
Several critics this year took the time and effort to declare this the year cinema died. This suggested, in part, a symptom of solipsism, as what’s much closer to the truth is that film criticism as a tenured profession with major newspapers and magazines is fading, if not dying. So it’s tempting to do as the Vikings do and burn the ship along with the corpse of the fallen warrior. The proposition that because more people watch certain TV shows than certain well-reviewed, but aesthetically difficult films and that, therefore, the art form is dying, could well have been clipped verbatim from a newspaper column in 1962. Granted, film is going through an upheaval at the moment in terms of the nature of the medium itself and the kinds of audience it can draw out of their homes. Like every other art form and entertainment at the moment that isn’t Xbox or You Tube, it has to fight for its survival and status.
From a personal perspective, 2012 did not prove a repeat of 2011, a vintage year for cinema. It seems like I spent most of this year waiting—waiting for good movies. I beat my own record for viewings of films released in the calendar year, which entailed increasing the amount of mediocrity and missed opportunities I willingly exposed myself to. Of course, several of this year’s most “important” films have been held back until the very last moment, or have received such listless distribution (e.g. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master‘s cursory Australian release), that I find myself genuinely bereft for not being able to comment here on several (but the lists are updated as time progresses). Only sheer luck and a helping hand allowed me to catch a couple more that grace my lists below.
I had hoped this year I might be able to curb my contrarian tendencies a little, but I instead find them stronger than ever. A lot of highly regarded films left me frigid if not bored, many quality works carried a distinct and quietly disturbing aspect of déjà vu or ambition without the strange heat of real creativity, and several of the handful of films I felt any true affection for have been treated with outright contempt by the cultural apparatchiks. There were many films I anticipated watching enthusiastically, perhaps too much so, like Holy Motors, The Deep Blue Sea, and Oslo, 31 August, where I admired them and saw their specific beauty, and yet in the end felt something lacking; perhaps it was the lack of true penetration of the inner life of the dramatic protagonists or, in the case of the occasionally very brilliant Holy Motors, a final sense of the often strained conceptual stunt truly adding up.
After watching the diptych of Australian-directed, American-set gangland dramas, Killing Them Softly and Lawless, I became afflicted by the knowledge that I’ve been watching the same scuzzball crime flick in variations since about 1990, a blend of detailed criminal argot, showy grit, method-inflected overacting, and gunshots to the head. This sensation sharpened to a point where both films proved to have one particular moment in common, a thug getting pissed off and delivering an even worse beating when the victim has the temerity to get bodily fluids on the thug’s clothes. Many films with potential seemed to lack that extra inspiration to break themselves out of the ruts of Good Little Movie or Nice Try, to whit Liza Johnson’s Return or Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister. It was sad and frustrating to watch a film brimming over with unruly life like Bachelorette take refuge in the cosy clichés of the chick flick brand it seemed to be attacking.
Others, like Rian Johnson’s Looper and Zal Batmanglij’s Sound of My Voice, tried on the other hand to be a bit too clever, failing to juggle all of the many balls they threw in the air. Looper also exemplified a breed that includes films like Sleepless Night, The Grey, and Haywire in setting up magnificently and failing to bring it all home. 2012 was overloaded with self-serious action films and spectacles with pretensions to substance, films like Looper, Skyfall, The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man, Cloud Atlas, The Grey, Chronicle, The Hunger Games, Haywire, and The Bourne Legacy. These often received glowing reviews and filmgoer enthusiasm, and some of them were genuinely good films. But there must be something wrong with me: most of these felt half-baked, failing to measure up to what a good craftsman, like Joseph H. Lewis, Andre De Toth, or Richard Thorpe, could invest in a pulp narrative 60 years ago. Skyfall was a case in point, sporting a great and intelligent core idea: to walk James Bond back through his half-mythical past only to bring him to a new beginning. But the idea was squandered through a listless and derivative story that finally left the film exposed, stripped of the pop-art exuberance that made the series interesting in the first place. By comparison, I found myself responding far more to the buoyant inanity in films like The Avengers, Wrath of the Titans, The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, films that do not try for a second to fake meaning. And there are few words fit for polite company I can think of to address those critics who have put the marvellous John Carter on their worst-of-year lists.
Yet, after all this, cinematic excellence still accumulated, like the gentle rain from heaven, as a better writer than I said about something completely different. In films of 2012, characters seem splintered off from the bulk of humanity like rubble flung off from some great collision. And indeed that’s how many people at large feel—I know I do. Look at the protagonists of films like Cosmopolis and Holy Motors, contained by their universe-unto-themselves limousines, travelling the cityscapes in search of a moment of transcendent creation/destruction, their immediate psychic and physical reality redesignated as an extended piece of performance art. Their bond with the actor-therapist heroes of Alps was inescapable: the Alps troupe filled in as simulacrums of the dead, as their own existences become voids to be fled no matter how painful the consequences. The wandering nonhero of The Day He Arrives, a film director entrapped by those long, improvised takes known as life, was surrounded by doppelgangers and numbing repetitions, elliptical events, and hazy, half-remembered epiphanies. The aged, haggard, aching characters share a dolorous existence in contemporary Portugal in Tabu, and the revelation of a past finds an exotic netherworld where melodramatic passion flared and died and led them to this end, the former colonial tended to a bitter grave by the former colonised. The alienated protagonists of the great diptych of unabashed horror films released early in the year, The Innkeepers and Kill List, were driven to distraction and despair by looming financial crisis and finding avatars for their own folly in the strange id-emanations that torment them. The ragged and bloodied survivors of The Grey fended off armies of wolves and the perishing cold, poised as onanistic avatars for the reality of trying to retain masculine self-respect in modern working-class life. The intergalactic swashbucklers of The Avengers had one of the most amusing and telling single shots of the year’s cinema, coming after the end credits of their own movie and added like a little supernal signature flourish by mastermind Joss Whedon, showing them exhaustedly and silently chewing over ethnic cuisine: saving the world is just another shit job.
Speaking of shit jobs, the victims and abusers of Compliance swam in the same reeking, overused frying fat. The physically broken and fiscally pummelled lovers of Rust and Bone hung off the edges of their society with what was left of their bodies and wits. The aging, exhausted cops trudging around the wastelands of rural Turkey in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia were haunted by the broken idols of the past and the accusing eyes of the living. The readily brutal heroes of Sleepless Night, The Grey, Kill List, Haywire, and Savages fought tooth and nail to keep their narrow foothold in the prosperous human community above chasms of existential fear. Hell, even the dwarfish band of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey were looking for a way to get their home back off the dragon/finance company. Miss Bala’s titular wannabe beauty queen attempts to use her looks and body to escape poverty and gains her prize through the most ironically horrifying of entrapping nightmares, her body turned into a far more immediate commodity, peeling off the skin of her society and discovering the chaos and hypocrisy beneath.
Damsels in Distress
Batman found himself the thin black line between pseudo-revolution and toothless authoritarianism in The Dark Knight Rises, the richest vigilante in town engaged in a tango of toey flirtation with the most supine of criminals and recovering from having a back snapped by the most uppity of plebeian radicals. The übermensch antihero of Cosmopolis could be a distant relative of Bruce Wayne’s but without the altruistic delusions, glimpsed at one point splayed on all fours whilst receiving a rectal examination, gilded by sweat, and flirting with an employee. Later he casually shoots his bodyguard and revisits his childhood in a seeming quest to pull apart the fibres of his life one by one, before eagerly finding his opposite in life in Paul Giamatti’s pathetic assassin, luckless agent of a devoutly wished extinction. Even in the gentler parts of town, eccentrics had to fight to claim their space and right to exist. The protean boy and girl of Moonlight Kingdom, the collegiate, depressive do-gooders of Damsels in Distress, the Norwegian teens of Turn Me On, Dammit!, the bizarre family of Dark Shadows: all looked for redemption in love and fellowship, but still always faced the oncoming day when anomie would turn to crisis.
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
Heroes exhumed from classical texts and history for this year’s films seemed to share this outsider-looking-in quality: the hopped-up holy anarchists of On The Road, rushing at a hundred miles per nowhere, were the characters in Moonlight Kingdom a few years older and a bit more damaged. The final day in the life of the protagonist of Oslo, 31 August, wandering the city disgusted with his failures and himself. Anna Karenina’s eponymous heroine alternating between stage and audience in wrestling between her moral and sensual sides. The princess of Snow White and the Huntsman, the living lodestone for a natural order degraded and exiled by a grotesque caricature of celebrity culture. Even Abraham Lincoln, in Steven Spielberg’s crucial film, attempts to leaven a great good at the price of surveying the wasteland his efforts wreaked, a sense of the moral cost of even supposedly moral struggle accounted for by corpse-strewn battlefields, blazing cities, and piles of rudely amputated limbs—and that’s to say nothing of his vampire-hunting sideline.
Oslo, 31 August
But for many, the unceasing battery of a world gone wrong gave way to moments of grace and epiphany: even the doomed hero Anders of Oslo, 31 August found fleeting moments of joy and beauty in his odyssey, even if he remained as repelled as he was compelled by things from which he felt himself eternally severed. He represented a striking inversion of last year’s number of peacefully conceding heroes, unable to escape a downward spiral that finally announced the rupturing of logic in the jarring cessation of a beautiful piano tune. Anna Karenina’s similar self-induced end came at the end of a life lived as a headlong rush of pleasure and pain. The triumph of the last seconds of Alps finally sees life and performance converge in a moment of perfection. Eruptive celebration momentarily breaks the mood of oppressively weighty and corrosive choices in Lincoln. There was surreal beauty in Rust and Bone, as Marion Cotillard’s character went from broken remnant to the carnal ferocity of her self-induced reinvention as a tattooed, hard-rutting fight promoter.
Declaration of War
And everywhere were fragments of insane beauty—images, images, images, the soul of cinema, laced with the muscle of sound, and sculpted by the edit. The ecstatic abandon of On the Road’s uncouth scallywags, their momentous dawns and fraying nocturnal revels. The dawn-light epiphany of Levin in Anna Karenina and the obscene beauty of Anna’s death, the thunder of the horses riding through the theatre and the abandon in her dance floor surrender to physical ardour. The swooning drug-dreams and hideous violence of Savages. The raging protest outside the limousine whilst within savants converse about how the external chaos is governed by mathematical certainties and inevitable defeat. The cross-edited visions of the equally phony Victoria Winters and Alice Cooper in straightjackets in a lucid game of accusation and anger essayed in playful pop cultural terms in Dark Shadows. The insane smile of Angelique Bouchard in the same film, still planted on her face even as she plucks out her heart and hands it over to the man who disdains her amour fou and collapses from within, revealing the lacquered mannequin her obsessiveness made of her. The teeming magnificence of the alien cities and the gorgeous desolation of Mars in John Carter, captured and contained in the redemptive lustre of Dejah Thoris’ sea-blue eyes. The awesome one-shot survey in The Avengers of the team in action that crossed the breadth of the city. The dawn-light swim of Oslo, 31 August where Anders watches his young and pretty companions with the descending pall of a man with no sense of the future. Cotillard saluting the whale that crippled her and the mammal gesturing back in Rust and Bone, and Matthias Schoenaerts punching the ice over his drowning son with raw, injurious desperation. The perplexingly magnificent dread landscapes of Tartarus and the Labyrinth in Wrath of the Titans. The sight of the duelling hero and villain of The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate being sucked up into a hurricane to continue their battle whirling in the eye of the storm. Valérie Donzelli’s distraught run through the hospital in Declaration of War.
The ecstatic thunder of the accordion band in Holy Motors’ entr’acte and the mystique of Edith Scob donning her Eyes Without a Face mask. In Tabu, the black-and-white, soundless sex scene that ruptures the film’s air of physically manifest decay and remoteness, the prayer shot through with rapturous poetry that punctuates the stolid modern pieties of a protest march, and the idiot enthusiasm of the frontier pop band. The egglike, bloodied remnant of the once-smug physiognomy of Aksel Hennie in Headhunters, touched by the grace of his wife’s forgiveness. The perpetual motion machine that is the hero of Sleepless Night eluding his pursuers by diving into a cotillion of clubbers grooving to Queen, enacting a primal drama against a backdrop of entitled hedonism. The racing intercut stories of Cloud Atlas, that incredible, pounding cyberpunk chase of the futuristic lovers, and the beatific suicide ritual of the young composer. The stone idol, carved by a forgotten society in the midst of a wilderness illuminated by lightning to shock a man into sudden awareness of his mortality, in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and the hovering, mysterious, marvel-provoking beauty of the peasant girl who astounds the tired, dessicated menfolk. The lost beatitude of romantic haven in the sight of Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston in tipsy ebullience before the inevitable fall in The Deep Blue Sea, and the communal nostalgia dream of the sing-along in the tube station. The sinking ship and springing whale of Life of Pi, twinned moments of gleaming leviathans depicting the folly of humankind and the power of nature. The characters of The Day He Arrives shivering in a snowy, slushy dawn after a night of revels, departing to their separate, lonely abodes.
That moment in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey when Bilbo stands in his house, suddenly bereft, before his charge to join his new friends in an adventure; the swashbuckling charge of the dwarves through the kingdom of the goblins; and the gang’s dangling cliffhanger peril, saved by a feathered deus ex machina. The dazzling, terrible whirlwinds of violence that Miss Bala has to charge through repeatedly, and the strange semi-rape that sees her awkwardly trying to mount an injured, saurian beast of a drug lord who is both her protector and tormentor. The dark god’s hand erupting from the earth as the apocalyptic punchline of The Cabin In the Woods’ jokey generic play, after a menagerie of horror cinema’s icons have been released to commit gorgeous carnage. The liberated teens spinning high in the sky in Chronicle. In Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens and his black housekeeper/lover reading the 13th Amendment in bed together in celebration of a future made possible; the blazing buildings of Confederate cities; the arcane melodrama that evokes Manichaeistic struggle just before a titan’s death is announced to his son. The dying Goody of Vamps standing amidst Times Square, aging by the second even as she passes through a rapturous peeling back of the years and transformations of the beloved space to its once-quaint, cobbled self. The rage of the killer paterfamilias in Kill List, stoked to a world-melting heat by obscenity revealed, pounding in a paedophile’s head with a hammer, only to later be chased through stygian woods and hellish tunnels by masked demons determined to implicate him in the reckoning he thinks he can buy off with too-late righteousness.
Cinema is dead, my arse!
I don’t know if I saw a better-acted film this year than The Day He Arrives, purely by dint of the fact that the human behaviour it depicted seemed to flow with the happenstance energy and gestural concision of real life. This quality of extreme, almost invisible naturalism was shared by the cast of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, who all seemed to have been born in the clothes they wear and in the space they inhabit. But, of course, that’s not the only standard for great acting, which can also be the alchemical art of display that sometimes risks excess for the sake of finding something more finite and compelling. In that regard, one of the year’s most inevitably well-regarded acting efforts, Daniel Day-Lewis’ incarnation of Abraham Lincoln, was a surprising pirouette for the actor who had delivered two of the last decade’s greatest performances in a grandiose key (Bill the Butcher, Daniel Plainview): Day-Lewis offered not just the eloquence and folksiness of Honest Abe but also the shrewd lawyer, dry, bordering on parched, struggling against a subtly conveyed terror to hold together the remnants of his family and self-respect even in the throes of being transformed into an icon by his final successes, even reduced at one point to glaring out of the shadows of a window bay with baleful anger and sorrow at his accusatory wife. The incredible roster of support Day-Lewis has in Spielberg’s film emerged as a Dickensian roster of precisely illuminated, ever-so-slightly magnified portraiture, including Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln, brittle and intelligent and tragic in her self-crucifying anxiety, Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens, the most unprepossessing of ideologues revealed as a brutally witty moral swashbuckler, Gloria Reuben’s careful, but crucial, small part, and David Strathairn’s dusty, crafty William Seward. Michael Stuhlbarg, who helped fill out Lincoln’s cast with a memorably John Ford-esque, timorous congressman, also contributed the only performance in Sacha Gervasi’s lamentable rubbish Hitchcock, as crafty agent extraordinaire Lew Wassermann, that didn’t look like a mobile waxwork exhibit.
Well, all right, Scarlett Johansson made for a tolerably perky Janet Leigh in Hitchcock, too. She also continued her recent run of films suggesting she’s finally growing into the movie star zone into which she was thrust prematurely after Lost in Translation (2003) with her contribution to one fairly popular film this year, which sported a generally marvellous collection of character turns by actors playing emotionally crippled, physically misshapen, neurotically talkative misfits engaged in group dysfunction and rampant physical comedy. Wait, was The Avengers a Woody Allen film and nobody told me? I always grudgingly enjoy being forced to change my mind about an actor, and one I had dismissed as an asinine pretty boy quite genuinely impressed me with his gall this year in a diptych of roles: Robert Pattinson’s performances in Bel-Ami and Cosmopolis were received with disparate levels of interest and recognition, but in both, he cleverly played off his signature role as a beautiful bloodsucker, as the former film allowed him to play a conflicted and frightened man lusted after and idealised by the women around him in a fashion usually reserved for the opposite situation, and the latter let him play a smarmy billionaire driven by forces within to try to smash apart his own pharaohic hegemony as part of a masochistic experiment in system decay. In both films, Pattinson was nimble enough to depict the turmoil, even foolishness, under the surface of superficially purposeful cads. His Twilight costar, Kristen Stewart, weathered storms of scandal and popular opprobrium to expand her increasingly impressive resume with a lead performance in Snow White and the Huntsman that was sturdy and restrained until it finally bloomed in butch glory. Charlize Theron was splendidly arch playing Stewart’s wicked queen enemy. Stewart was also an affecting addition to the vigorous cast of On the Road as the blazing-eyed, jailbait bohemian Marylou. But the film properly belonged to Sam Riley, all doe-eyed naivete mismatched to a prematurely lived-in voice, and Garret Hedlund, the garrulous, but shark-eyed rough trade byproduct of a juvie hall education in a rougher, bleaker, but paradoxically freer America.
Denis Lavant was the glue that held the fractured pieces of Holy Motors together, at once a study of acting itself whilst sustaining a coherent characterisation of an actor as a character: it was impossible, of course, to miss Lavant’s physical dynamism and chameleonic talents, because the film was about those very talents so long in need of a vehicle, and the result was very much an exploration of the traditional symbiosis of filmmaking talent behind and in front of the camera. Kylie Minogue’s beguiling cameo and song likewise buoyed the film’s flagging second half like a visitation from another, classier planet. Aggeliki Poupolia led the cast of Alps, equally multitudinous, except, of course, where Lavant was playing the epitome of acting talent, the Alps team were the opposite, deliberately awful actors filling in for real people: as in Dogtooth (2009), but essayed in a subtler fashion, Poupolia’s genius at slow burns arriving at incendiary climaxes shook continents with its force. Amongst the manifold offhand pleasures of Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, with the customary Johnny Depp grotesque front and centre, the real battle for acting honours fell to Michelle Pfeiffer as haughty matriarch and Eva Green playing her cabalistic minx as an undead Joan Crawford heroine. Green shifted to completely different register of soulful resignation opposite Ewan McGregor in David Mackenzie’s odd but occasionally striking parable Perfect Sense. Jennifer Lawrence underplayed her lead role in a film that made her exponentially more famous, The Hunger Games, to an extent that inspired some internet mockery, but it was a performance consistent with her breakthrough role in Winter’s Bone (2010) in trying to embody a heroine given to simply accepting the evil inherent in any situation and proceeding for the sake of survival.
Greta Gerwig’s star turn in Damsels in Distress was very much the key to the film’s seemingly insufferably arch, blithely self-impressed façade, cleverly shading into modes of honest pain, sly self-critique, and finally, pure goofy charm. Brit Marling might have committed the ultimate actress-writer faux pas in having someone else in the film she wrote describe her as beautiful, and yet her capacity to animate her character in Sound of My Voice as both radiant and yet, with suggestions of serpentine evil constantly lurking behind an ambiguous smile, was the work of someone who knows her stuff, and Christopher Denham was as impressive opposite her as he was wasted in Argo. Anne Hathaway may well get herself an Oscar this year for Les Misérables, but the role most people saw her in this year was, of course, Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises, a ringer who successfully kept the ball in play with sufficient insouciant wit and poise to make up for the turgid, incoherent pseudo-epic around her. Her costar and rival for the listless affections of Bruce Wayne was Marion Cotillard, wasted in her second Christopher Nolan film. But Cotillard’s superlative performance alongside the equally impressive Matthias Schoenaerts in Rust and Bone was her artistic compensation, and much more than just the mischievously clever CGI that made her look like a double amputee: rage and grief and erotic force have rarely been presented together and with such force, especially without a trace of actorly showboating. Keira Knightley’s Anna Karenina was, on the other hand, showboating with careful and compelling modulation, playing a self-dramatist for whom everything is, on some level, a theatrical gesture. Her befuddled, tortured husband was played with career-best pathos by Jude Law, who turns his fading matinee idol looks into an aesthetic weapon.
Another star who, like Law, emerged in the late ’90s and whose career had seemed to be slowing, had a suddenly incandescent year: everyone’s talked about the second coming of Matthew McConaughey, and I can’t really argue with it, though I wish it had been in better films. The best of the bunch was William Friedkin’s broad and excessively theatrical, but impressively seedy Killer Joe, which, of course, culminated in his forcing Gina Gershon to fellate a chicken drumstick, one of the most memorable single moments of 2012: Gershon’s own feral force, finally tamed by the cruellest of methods, was equally impressive. In Magic Mike, McConaughey provided the meaty, muscly, wolfish smarm to offset Channing Tatum and Alex Pettyfer’s well-exploited physiques and pleasant lack of acting talent. Bruce Willis, still an unflappably laid-back presence, was affecting as the dopey, but affectionate sheriff in Moonrise Kingdom, and sported an amazing manga hairdo for a couple of minutes in Looper. His confrontation with a weirdly convincing Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his youthful alter ego in Looper saw two generations of male movie stars share a diner breakfast in by far the best moment in the film, presenting the amusing conceit of the older and younger versions of the same violent dipshit in different phases of self-deception. Emily Blunt, who backed them up, was the year’s most accommodating female movie star, handling thankless roles with class, including being surprisingly convincing as the besotted third wheel in Your Sister’s Sister, opposite Rosemarie DeWitt, who was, in turn, the only thing worthwhile about Promised Land. Their male costar in Sister, Mark Duplass, was also in Safety Not Guaranteed, playing exactly the same character in each, a slightly more lunky, blue-collar version of the smart, loquacious, but fragile boy-men so popular in modern comedy. Two films provided more than enough of that, so, of course, now he’ll be in everything.
Indie veteran Ann Dowd was the engine of Compliance, communicating middle-aged anxiety and quiescent vindictiveness without entirely losing her façade of amiable managerial politeness; full marks as well to her costar Dreama Walker for playing the year’s most hapless character. Pat Healy, as the villain of the piece, ably sustained the necessary, slippery, verbal wit and also appeared, completely unrecognisable, as the feckless coworker of Sara Paxton’s assailed, flaky hero/victim, one of the year’s most underappreciated lead turns, in The Innkeepers. Similarly strong in a low-key, quietly engaging indie film was Linda Cardellini in Return as a returned servicewoman beset by alienation and unable to live in the present; Michael Shannon and John Slattery gave her good support. Stephanie Sigman as the human ping-pong ball who temporarily becomes Miss Bala was a study in sustained terror, with gifts of bravery and loyalty occasionally showing through an otherwise wisely maintained mantle of acquiescence. At the other end of the scale, Cloud Atlas was hurt almost irreparably by its excruciating conceit of using its actors in recurring roles, with Tom Hanks delivering two or three of the worst performances of his career. But Jim Broadbent held his own in two segments, particularly in a peerless comedic turn as the editor stranded in an old folks’ home by his brother’s conniving. Doona Bae managed to imbue her part as a sagacious clone with sensuality and suggestions of spiritual grace that transcended the compilation of stereotypes and clunky axioms she represented. Ben Whishaw’s perpetual air of spidery intelligence likewise buoyed the film, as did his brief appearance in Skyfall as a Q for the new millennium. Noomi Rapace was intelligent and gutsy in Prometheus alongside the impressive, but extremely ill-utilised Michael Fassbender and Idris Elba, providing, in that immortally queasy robotic abortion scene, the only real reason to watch that unholy mess of a movie. Although they did not say a word, Ana Moreira and Carloto Cotta as the doomed lovers in the flashback sequences of Tabu, proved you don’t always need dialogue to deliver hypnotic performances, and Teresa Madruga as the saintly but solitary Pilar was the soul of the film’s first half.
I know that Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, and Simon Russell Beale were very good in The Deep Blue Sea; in fact, it was impossible to miss, as if heavyweight dramatic acting had been included as an event in this year’s London Olympics. Come on, Rachel, one more sobbing moan for Britain. By contrast, Anders Danielson Lie’s excellence in Oslo, 31 August was predicated on a difficult part, as his namesake character only occasionally emerged from his position as melancholy observer to reveal his anger and despair, as well as self-mortifying impulses. Eddie Redmayne, also getting good notices for Les Misérables, offered a startling performance cast against type as a sociopath slowly but inevitably giving in to his worst impulses in weird and uneven Hick, which also featured another of Chloë Grace Moretz’s protean turns as the teenaged heroine who finally and fatally could not get out of his clutches. Blake Lively backed them up and also appeared in Oliver Stone’s Savages, cumulatively making a case for herself as a bonafide actress playing characters easy to dismiss as airheaded parasites who prove to have hidden depths and reefs. Amidst the wobbly satire and shenanigans of the chicks-behaving-badly epic Bachelorette, the key threesome of Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, and particularly, Isla Fisher were game in inducing hilarity, empathy, and convulsive vomiting. In a similar vein, Alicia Silverstone was smart and endearing as the vampire long past pop culture expiry date fed up with playing the modern game of feigning eternal youth in Vamps. I dare say more people feel sympathy with her character’s plight than are willing to let on.
Favourite Films of 2012
Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos)
Alps feels, at first glance, too much like another entry from the now familiar school of mordant Greek absurdist cinema exemplified by Lanthimos’ first film, Dogtooth, and Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg (2011). Like those films, it’s a through-a-glass-darkly portrait of socially normative behaviour studied like an alien scientist watching humanity through a telescope held the wrong way around. But it holds together with greater integrity as both a story—though still infused with jolts of surrealism and enigma—and as a personal odyssey for its disintegrating heroine’s efforts to slot herself into other people’s realities. In other words, a distinctive filmmaker retaining his distinction whilst visibly and intelligibly evolving.
Anna Karenina (Joe Wright)
Joe Wright’s second appearance in two years on my list confirms me as a resolute Wright fanboy, I suppose, but Wright seems to me to speak in a cinematic language once fairly commonplace but now almost freakish—poised, yet expressive; smart, but emotional; showy and semi-experimental, but rooted in a passion for the material and a desire to engage the audience. Few others directors on the scene seem able or willing to be as formally animated and innovative without being precious to the point of irritation. The result shakes up a moribund subgenre, but also realises the inherent beauty and brilliance of Leo Tolstoy’s novel.
Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)
David Cronenberg continues on his recent roll, recasting Don DeLillo’s admired novel as his late-career critique of his very first movie, Shivers (1975), substituting the immobile trap of an apartment building for a self-sufficient limousine, and humans threatened not by parasites, but humans turning into parasites, feeding off larger, incorporeal organisms. Eric Packer, well-played by a cleverly exploited Robert Pattinson, is the wizard of high finance who’s conquered his piece of the world, but, now bored, does not so much give himself up to fate or primal experience as conduct another of his studies in systems, being this time the dynamics of disintegration, observing and even creating his own downfall with the same bewildered, semi-human fascination.
Dark Shadows (Tim Burton)
A delicious, if uneven emporium of droll absurdity from Burton, Dark Shadows did not escape the stored-up disdain for some of Burton’s profitable, but weaker recent efforts. Nonetheless, this was one of the year’s liveliest mainstream releases, a blend of retro psychedelia and good-natured satire at once deeply acerbic and perversely earnest in its investigation of retro obsessions, familial bonds and maladies, post-’60s liberation, and the joys of hate-sex on the ceiling. (See also Amy Heckerling’s delightfully screwball, accidental companion piece, Vamps.)
The Day He Arrives (Sang-soo Hong)
Some people complain that Sang-soo Hong makes the same movie over and over again, and that could well be true, but so do a lot of other directors, and very few with the same beguiling mixture of formal artistry and improvised elan. Hong digs so cleverly and yet subtly into the more melancholy aspects of modern life with its stripped illusions, trashed niceties, and collapsed hierarchies.
The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (Tsui Hark)
Less beautiful and controlled than Hark’s comeback film Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010), this follow-up nonetheless saw Hark perhaps surpass it by going totally for broke, in a breakneck ride of multiple factions, heroes and villains, deceptions, double-crosses, sand-dancing battles, and sky-riding duels. Result: Hark proves he still has a capacity to make even close Hollywood avatars like The Avengers look nearly anaemic by comparison.
The Innkeepers (Ti West)
Ti West’s bare-boned, classical horror aesthetic builds on the intoxicating minimalism of The House of the Devil (2009) for a slightly more traditional, but no less sustained tale of factotum depression shading into supernatural terror.
John Carter (Andrew Stanton)
This year’s Sucker Punch (2011), with a twist: whereas Zack Snyder’s film from last year was flagrantly postmodern and cool in its take on CGI spectacle, John Carter is a reinvention of the yarn-spinner’s wheel, resolutely traditional cowboys vs. aliens stuff realised with more class, visual spectacle, and actual entertainment value than 50 dark knights rising. The big multiplex screens were bathed in all the lush, absurd splendour of turn-of-the-century scientification; just a pity so few people were sitting in the audience to see it. (See also another critically underrated spectacle, although likely in the end to be a far bigger popular success, Peter Jackson’s simultaneously grand and mischievous The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.)
Kill List (Ben Wheatley)
A restless, unsettling, mercilessly potent vision of contemporary angst, be it financial, military, or familial, churning the uneasy mindset of the millennium’s first decade into a great British horror film. Images as stark and appalling as any in classic genre cinema rub against a hazy, paranoid parable for the cost of maintaining a prosperous western lifestyle, whilst everywhere, demons wait.
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
Lest things get too grim in a time in which the political venality on display across the world will echo in infamy for decades, Lincoln reminds us of the potential nobility of the human condition, as manifest both in leaders reputed, like the title character, and in the lesser, or merely less-remembered, mortals around him. The way politics is an accumulation of, rather than a force upon, individual feeling and perspective has rarely been described with such ardour and intensity, nor stuffed historical countenances reanimated with such relish for the expressivity of words and the concise power of images. (See also Timur Bekmembetov’s trash-mash edition of the same tale.)
On the Road (Walter Salles)
Cruelly but not surprisingly received with dismissal by many critics, this is youth culture mythology’s bleary awakening and its night-after hangover and self-critique. Walter Salles’ film of the Beat bible strips the material of legend and finds human foible, failings, and hope still rudely alive. It’s a film for people who both fondly regard the novel, but also hold it in perspective, and for people who know that life often requires looking disaster dead in the eye and then looking past it.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
What was perhaps most impressive about this work by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan was the way in which it manages to bridge several different kinds of movie-making without apparent effort or violating its quiet, ambling, deceptively deadpan façade. It’s an historical rumination. It’s as realistic a portrait of police and policing as you’re ever likely to see. It contains fragments of magic realism and eerie, almost expressionistic beauty and dread. It’s an oft-hilarious situation comedy. It’s a desolating study in time, age, and fate.
Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard)
Jacques Audiard has a cunning capacity to make far-out melodrama tropes and weird afflictions for his characters work in deceptively realistic, everyday contexts, which makes him often seem like the last of the great Victorian Naturalist novelists, the Zola of the banlieus. In part a nongenre remake of his romantic thriller Read My Lips (2001) as a raw, modern epic of sex and money, with damaged souls rendered literal in limited and injured bodies, Rust and Bone swerves a couple of times too many, but its boldness and vivacity linger large.
Tabu (Miguel Gomes)
Tabu also directly contrasts the pettiness of modern life and the way age reduces everyone to less than they truly are with the outsized passion of yesterday’s youthful folly, with everyday depressive longing segueing into period melodrama, but with a constant, morally serious eye on the shifting vicissitudes of history and personal nature. Gomes’ masterful formal conceits constantly evoke another phase in cinema and life—black-and-white photography and a long, semi-silent segment—and yet avoids any hint of self-satisfied stunt.
Would Be on This List If I’d Seen It in Time
Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)
Farewell My Queen (Benoît Jacquot)
Girl Walk//All Day (Jacob Krupnick)
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
The Avengers (Joss Whedon)
Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman)
Frankenweenie (Tim Burton)
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson)
Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo)
Oslo, 31 August (Joachim Trier)
Savages (Oliver Stone)
Sleepless Night (Frédéric Jardin)
Snow White and the Huntsman (Rupert Sanders)
Sound of My Voice (Zal Batmanglij)
Vamps (Amy Heckerling)
Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmembetov)
Bel-Ami (Declan Donnellan, Nick Ormerod)
The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)
Cloud Atlas (Lana and Andy Wachowski, Tom Tykwer)
Compliance (Craig Zobel)
Declaration of War (Valérie Donzelli)
Haywire (Steven Soderbergh)
Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
Killer Joe (William Friedkin)
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
Return (Liza Johnson)
Turn Me On, Dammit! (Jannicke Systad Jacobsen)
The Amazing Spider-Man (Marc Webb)
Argo (Ben Affleck)
The Bourne Legacy (Tony Gilroy)
The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)
The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies)
The Hunger Games (Gary Ross)
The Grey (Joe Carnahan)
Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik)
Looper (Rian Johnson)
Lore (Cate Shortland)
Prometheus (Ridley Scott)
Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh)
Skyfall (Sam Mendes)
Goodbye First Love (Mia Hansen-Løve)
Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi)
Hyde Park on Hudson (Roger Michell)
The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona)
Lawless (John Hillcoat)
Les Misérables (Tom Hooper)
Life of Pi (Ang Lee)
Promised Land (Gus Van Sant)
Significant Blind Spots
Almayer’s Folly, Amour, Bernie, Detachment, Keep the Lights On, The Loneliest Planet, Monsieur Lazhar, Seven Psychopaths, Sister, Take This Waltz, The Turin Horse
My Year of Retro Wonders: Great Older Films I Saw First in 2012
All The King’s Men (Robert Rossen)
A Bell for Adano (Henry King)
Berlin Express (Jacques Tourneur)
Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks)
Countdown (Robert Altman)
The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kolatozov)
Dark Waters (Andre de Toth)
The Day the World Ended / Not of This Earth (Roger Corman)
Die Nibelungen / The Tiger of Eschnapur & The Indian Tomb (Fritz Lang)
Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder)
The Earth Dies Screaming / Revenge of Frankenstein / Frankenstein Created Woman / Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (Terence Fisher)
Elevator to the Scaffold / Viva Maria! (Louis Malle)
Farewell to the King (John Milius)
Faust / Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F. W. Murnau)
Flowers of Shanghai (Hsiao-hsien Hou)
Gate of Hell (Teinosuke Kinugasa)
Gilda (Charles Vidor)
Hell’s Angels (Howard Hughes, James Whale, Edmund Goulding)
Hercules in the Haunted World / I Tre Volti Della Paura / Knives of the Avenger (Mario Bava)
Jeremiah Johnson (Sydney Pollack)
Judex (Georges Franju)
The Knack…and How to Get It / Royal Flash / Robin and Marian (Richard Lester)
La Frissons du Vampires / Les Démoniaques (Jean Rollin)
Laura (Otto Preminger)
Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner / The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Karel Reisz)
The Looking Glass War (Frank R. Pierson)
Modesty Blaise (Joseph Losey)
Mountains of the Moon (Bob Rafelson)
Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara)
No Regrets for Our Youth (Akira Kurosawa)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dreyer)
The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöstrom)
The Phenix City Story (Phil Karlson)
Phantom of the Paradise / Obsession / Blow Out / Mission to Mars (Brian De Palma)
Sorcerer / Cruising (William Friedkin)
The Stars Look Down (Carol Reed)
Sword of Doom (Kihachi Okamoto)
Tattooed Life / Story of a Prostitute (Seijun Suzuki)
A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Douglas Sirk)
Torment (Alf Sjöberg)
Track of the Cat / Blood Alley (William A. Wellman)
When a Woman Ascends a Staircase (Mikio Naruse)
Young and Innocent / Under Capricorn / Topaz (Alfred Hitchcock)
Young Mr. Lincoln / Three Godfathers (John Ford)
Zatoichi Monogatari (Kenji Misumi)
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Stanley Kubrick
By Roderick Heath
More than 20 years since the end of the Cold War, and nearly a half-century since the film was released, why is Stanley Kubrick’s seventh feature, a modish fantasia dealing with the perverse id and assailed mentality of its specific era, still so lauded, so beloved, so vital? How can a film with such subject matter still be considered a titanic work of cinematic comedy? Why does it stand tall when attempts to update it or reproduce its unstable blend of elements usually fall very, very short? Some answers: a great filmmaker at the height of his craft. A great comic actor also at his height, backed up by other superlative talents. A screenplay possessed of a pitiless intelligence and ornery wit. A time when taking risks in cinema was rapidly becoming more permissible, even necessary. Over and above all this, Dr. Strangelove helped to define something about the modern world that has survived even as the Cold War has faded. The apocalyptic anxiety it diagnosed and treated with mockery and gallows humour has hardly vanished, but has rather faded to the background static in our daily lives. Dr. Strangelove is a purgative rather than a wallow, however, a work of fatalistic fervour that is nonetheless perversely cheering precisely because it considers the worst the world had to offer and yet still finds the joie de vivre in it.
Dr. Strangelove began evolving when Kubrick, interested in dealing with the threat of nuclear war, had a book recommended to him credited to the pseudonym of former RAF officer Peter Bryan George. George’s novel, variously titled Two Hours to Doom or Red Alert, was a sober thriller depicting Armageddon almost brought about by a combination of human frailty and technological estrangement. Kubrick had been pushed close to the summit of Hollywood success in helming Kirk Douglas’ earnest projects Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960) only a few years after the precocious former photographer had broken into the industry with self-financed films. But frustrating experiences making Spartacus and One-Eyed Jacks (1961), from which he was fired, soured him on Hollywood. Kubrick had recently made what proved a permanent move to Britain to shoot Lolita (1962), a movie that established him as a more eccentric and individualistic director than anyone had realised, gifted at tackling taboo subjects whilst maintaining an ironic but fervent empathy for tragically human protagonists.
Kubrick was, at this time, also gravitating towards the burgeoning fringe comedy scene, and had been exploring the possibility of collaborating with edgy comic talents like Lenny Bruce and Jules Feiffer. Impressed by the raw material of Red Alert, Kubrick began working on a screenplay with George, but as he laboured, realised that there was a lode of dark, inchoate, innate absurdity beneath the surface of this seemingly sober assessment of nuclear strategy, a realm where supposedly sensible men talked in terms of “megadeaths,” politicians whose posturing endangered billions, and military leaders stuck in an earlier era could not give up the idea of winning conflicts with weapons that could raze cities to the ground in the blink of an eye and poison the earth beyond habitation many times over. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 had seen a two-week stand-off where the fate of the world seemed literally in the balance. The emotions this time stoked in people—rage, disgust, horror, fear, the despair of impotence—were primal, yet radically at odds with the post-war world’s most cherished goals of pacified insulation.
The gulf between those who had come of age before the destruction of Hiroshima and those who grew up after it exacerbated a generational disparity. A new strain of satire arrived in the late ‘50s, moving out of the coffee bars, student mags and revues, art and cult novels and onto television and movie screens. Pop culture was thus infiltrated by the influence of Dadaism, Surrealism, the Theatre of the Absurd, and other avant-garde art movements that drew power from the century’s earlier tragedies, emphasising the impudent deconstruction of cultural maxims. Humourists, satirists, and quick-witted artists like Bruce, Feiffer, Tom Lehrer, Terry Southern, and Joseph Heller were rapidly defining the new taste for critical humour with an undertaste of blood and cyanide. Kubrick was about to bring hip comedy to the big screen properly with his adaptation of George’s novel. He hired Southern to help complete the travesty he had set in motion.
Some thought Kubrick was overreaching. His regular producer Robert Harris broke up their partnership, convinced Kubrick was headed for disaster. Bosley Crowther, the dean of mainstream cinematic taste for The New York Times, denounced the resulting film. But the howls of opprobrium were quickly drowned out by the howls of laughter and admiration. War is tragedy, the film seemed to say, but nuclear war is so inimical it lies beyond morality and human sensibility, and is thus absurd and might as well be laughed at. Dr. Strangelove, whilst moulding a definitive form of satire in cinema, clearly owed as much to slapstick tradition as to anything else, and sustained within its modish, anarchic immediacy is a strong sense of filmic tradition. In spite of its scope, intent, and the force of its impact on pop culture, Dr. Strangelove is also the cinema’s longest, most sustained banana peel gag: something goes wrong, the dumb boobs slip up, try to stay on their feet, but only succeed in bringing everything down with an almighty crash. The resulting film, whilst almost sui generis as a whole, had many progenitors: there’s a lot of the despairing joviality of Catch-22, the anarchic tilts of Duck Soup (1933) and Spike Milligan’s radio programme The Goon Show, a surrealist-slapstick pastiche on imperial-era melodrama and pulp fiction. Southern, who knew the tradition he worked in, slipped in an obscure reference to Jonathan Swift, and concludes the film with his own Modest Proposal.
Dr. Strangelove unfolds very close to real time, and this adds to the nauseating sensation of watching events that cannot be stopped, imbuing the action with a feeling of free-fall, a feeling actualised in the immortal plunge of Maj. T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens), riding the bomb that brings about the end of the world. Taking advantage of a training operation that brings U.S. B-52 bombers within striking distance of the Soviet Union, Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), commander of Burpelson Air Force Base, who has gone insane and intends to start World War III, sends out an obscure battle order, Wing Attack Plan R. This allows him to order his planes to attack in case a Soviet attack has already wiped out Washington, disrupting the chain of command. The airmen in their stratosphere-cruising tin cans, tethered to humanity only by radio and with this contact strictly limited to a prearranged code to tune out false enemy messages, can only accept their orders at face value and proceed.
One plane, the Leper Colony, commanded by Maj. Kong, survives a missile attack that leaves communications cut off, but Kong proceeds regardless with determined bravado. Ripper order his XO, Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), a British officer present through an exchange program to ready the base for an attack and to cut off all contact with the outside world, to ensure that any attempt to capture him and halt his plan will be staved off as long as possible. Ripper hopes to force the government to commit to all-out war, but President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again), resists the ministrations to do just that from his military advisor Gen. ‘Buck’ Turgidson (George C. Scott) and instead contacts the Soviets to warn them and offer aid in repelling the attackers. But as the Russian ambassador De Sadesky (Peter Bull) explains in horror, even one bomb falling would be too many, as the Soviets have constructed the Doomsday Device, which will automatically detonate and poison the entire planet, as the ultimate nuclear deterrent.
One aspect vital to appreciating Dr. Strangelove is the degree to which it is not a comedy at all. The grounded detail and informed perspective of George’s novel remained an important aspect of the film, and Kubrick’s insistence on tangible verisimilitude is apparent throughout in Gilbert Taylor’s cinematography, at once artfully expressionistic and harshly realistic, and particularly Ken Adams’ production design. Adams, who was to a certain extent inventing a lexicon of modernity in design through his work in this film and in the James Bond series, rendered sets like the interior of the Leper Colony and the War Room as spaces where functional technology has infused décor, and even the psyche, to become a denaturalised way of life where humans are mere aspects of the mechanism. The story is essentially believable, and plays out with thriller-like compression and logic. The notion that a U.S. Air Force general, a lunatic with a mind poisoned so fervently against Communist threats that he might abuse his authority and plunge the world into a nihilistic war, contained a note of quiver-inducing anxiety, suggested by the bellicosity of Douglas MacArthur and Curtis LeMay and their conflicts with presidential authority. The secret root of Gen. Ripper’s rancour is, for all its hilarious paranoia, based on a genuine conspiracy theory once propagated by the John Birch Society that water fluoridation was a Communist plot.
The combat sequences and the bombing run of the Leper Colony feign a scrupulous procedural intricacy. Long before it became a compulsory aspect of cinematic pseudo-realism, Kubrick and Taylor employed handheld camerawork to give portions of the film a jerky, haphazard, grainy vibrancy, as if it’s all really happening, televised live and uninterrupted. Kubrick milks the interminable complexity and rigour of the procedures the airmen follow to build tension, like steps on some long, manual-dictated march to Calvary. The claustrophobic tightness of the Leper Colony’s interior is emphasised with camerawork where the actors’ breath all but fogs the lens. Minor technical details become the stuff of apocalyptic drama. The actual moments of violence in the film, in the battle for Burpelson and the suicide of Ripper, come without ironic distancing or farcicality.
Where the serious, orthodox elements edge into comedic style is in precisely the strange territory where the nuclear age infrastructure is revealed as both a by-product of, and new soil for, the perversities of the human condition. The most basic binary of all is constantly in evidence throughout: sex and death. The equation of fetishized military power and infrastructure with phallic sexuality wasn’t new in 1964 and is even more clichéd now, but Dr. Strangelove turns it into a key, recurring gag, and the root motive for the drama. The “Arms Race, the Space Race, and the Peace Race” are boiled down to a dick-size competition. Machismo is seen as the not-so-secret meaning of the Cold War, as the military men of the United States, a nation steeped in the mythology of manliness and exemplified by Stetson-clad Texan Kong and secretary-boffing Turgidson, suffer acute anxieties over loss of potency in the insulating and softening qualities of modern life. They’re doomed to fret that they’ll never be as real men as the Russians who have proved themselves in fire and battle, for, as Turgidson puts it, “Look at all them Nazis you killed!”
Muffley, the feminised liberal archetype, offends this type utterly with his recidivist cockblockery. Turgidson, introduced in a tryst with his leggy staffer Miss Scott (Tracy Reed, the only woman actually featured in the film soon outclassed by all those sexy, sexy missiles and curvaceous bombers), promises he’ll be back in time for “blast-off!”—a conflation of explosion and orgasm that the film later reiterates in the most spectacular terms. Indeed, everyone has their sex life interrupted by the erupting crisis, from the Leper Colony airmen leafing through their girly mags to Soviet Premier Kissoff being interrupted by Muffley’s call during a drunken debauch. Buck has to handle an irritated phone call from Miss Scott at the War Room table (“I thought I told you never to call me here!”), forced to mollify her in an excruciatingly funny vignette that conflates philandering executive and naughty schoolboy both in Buck’s ample frame: “Someday I’m gonna make you Mrs. Buck Turgidson!” he declares in a skewering of the era’s chauvinist mentality sharper than a dozen Mad Men episodes. But all are soon distracted by the promise of the ultimate climax.
The correlation deepens as Dr. Strangelove unfolds, as the dualities of life and death, sex and murder, chaos and creation, begin to infuse the visual and thematic substance of the entire work, expostulating the concept of the death instinct as inextricable from the sexual instinct, only now, the destructive element has become infinitely more powerful than sex. The carnal awareness never far from the surface in Kubrick’s cinema finds a partner here in Southern’s love for suggesting powerful, but queasily displaced erotic underpinnings to many a contemporary obsession. Here, the sex, like humanity itself, has become inextricable from technology. The opening credits, scored to a wryly lilting version of “Try a Little Tenderness,” present footage of a B-52 refuelling in mid-air, with the music transforming it into a gentle dance of aerial coitus: even the planes are doing it now. Hal 9000’s psychopathic hissy fit is only a stone’s throw away; Strangelove himself, contained in a wheelchair with self-animated limbs, is the misbegotten median of the process. Whereas in Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960), Kubrick had studied the frantic rage of a ruling class in their inability to make individuals into mechanisms that obey their will and desires, here the process is far closer to completion. But the order is fraying from the other end: leadership in the modern world, both political and military, has devolved into a tangled skein of ass-covering, partisan piety, psychic fragmentation, and propagandistic fig leaves. The first breakdown of the system is the greatest, the ultimately irreparable one, that of Ripper’s sanity. The source of his breakdown? The onset of middle-aged impotence.
Dr. Strangelove is the crux of Kubrick’s career. Whereas the raw, humanist howl of Paths of Glory was obvious enough to let Jean-Luc Godard mistake him for an heir to Stanley Kramer as a cooker of cultural vegetables, Dr. Strangelove confirmed Lolita’s promise that Kubrick was now in the game for the antiheroes, misanthropes, and rogues. He would engage with macrocosmic concerns with an increasingly rarefied style that seemed, by the standards of commercial cinema, a detached, analytical, even misanthropic affectation. But what truly distinguishes Kubrick’s oeuvre, and Dr. Strangelove in particular, is the way the methodical filmmaking and the coolness of the director’s regard offsets the compulsion, the messiness, and the pathos of the human state.
Apart from a couple of minor excursions, Dr. Strangelove unspools as three extended, interlocking, cross-edited scenes, taking place in locales which are crucially, fatefully separated by space and communication, but which are also conjoined in cause and effect: the War Room, the Leper Colony, and Burpelson Base. In each locale, according to the classic rules of farce and also to the natural rules of intense situations, a slow-burning urgency, shading into hysteria, develops. What results is a tragicomedy of cross-purposes. Perhaps just as alarming as Ripper’s insanity is the way the other characters refuse to give into disintegration, trying until the last moment to do their jobs, and indeed refusing to waver from their roles, their world-views and presumptions, myopia continuing even past the point when it’s destroyed the world. The Leper Colony’s airmen (including James Earl Jones in his first film), though pushed to the limit, continue to operate with stoic professionalism. Muffley and Mandrake are linked not only by being played by Sellers, but by the fact that they each try to deal with the situation as best as they can, and resist the people around them who represent variations on a theme of martial lunacy and a love/hate relationship with the idea of mutually assured destruction. Muffley sacrifices his soldiers for the sake of peace. Mandrake is confronted by a lunatic who might possibly shoot him if he becomes too troublesome, and sways from meekness to forced bonhomie to exasperated clumsiness, but still tries constantly to find a way to save the world. De Sadesky continues to sneak photos of the War Room as it becomes clear the Cold War will now go underground.
Dr. Strangelove’s modernity is written into the textures of the film, in the chitinous flash of technocratic infrastructure, the chiaroscuro duplicity of the lighting where fluorescent glare and recessed glows illuminate the actors with unflattering harshness against enveloping darkness, the interplay of Taylor’s studiously framed and balanced photography and Anthony Harvey’s propelling edits. Kubrick had from the first balanced twin poles of realism and expressionism in his work. Dr. Strangelove is defined on many levels by the push and pull of these divergent impulses, adding to its power, as characters like Ripper, Kong, and Strangelove seem to lurch out of the shadows of the psyche, distorted and rendered hyper-real in their caricatured menace, into the studied authenticity of the rest of the film. Here, too, the later Kubrick, the notoriously spare and measured imagist, began to appear. Kubrick encodes messages of power and attitude in his visuals. Consider the framing of Scott’s Turgidson as he explains the situation for the President’s benefit. He is filmed from a low angle that emphasises Turgidson’s stolid turgidness, with a folder on the desk before him just edging its way into the frame labeled “World Targets in Megadeaths.” Kubrick maintains the same shot for much of the scene, in interchange with Muffley, who is shot almost at eye level but further away and framed between two foreground listeners, at once more reasonable-seeming but also smaller, pettier, his ineffectiveness plain. And Ripper, the animator of this situation, is shot in looming, dominating close-up from below, a glowering, inescapable death’s head, savage and unremitting. The basic technique serves its purpose in depicting the relations of these men and their characters in themselves, and resembles other moments in Kubrick’s canon, like the early exchanges of The Shining (1980), that perceive characters on their best behaviour but straining to keep cool, with a sense of quietly composing forces that will shatter the surface tension. In contrast, and yet without any sense of aesthetic disparity, the battle scenes are a maelstrom breaking up the film’s fastidious visual language, shot from the perspective a grunt or war correspondent hunkering behind a machine gun and crawling through the weeds.
Kubrick’s most obvious desire here was to achieve a documentary immediacy, compounding the film’s commitment to tactile realism. Death and carnage are rendered at once spectacular and remote, as Kubrick’s control of perspective makes space and distance an important aspect of fighting, reproducing the intent of Ripper’s orders in rendering the warring forces as an alien threat, distant moving things to be shot at. The nature of the action they’re engaged in is confused on both sides, as Ripper’s men assume the approaching force is Communist, whilst the attackers, as exemplified by Maj. “Bat” Guano (Keenan Wynn), have no idea what’s at stake. The suggestion that a politicised lie animates this action, and perhaps all such action, becomes inescapable, whilst the fact that the fighting soldiers are actually on the same side evokes the warrior doppelgangers of Kubrick’s first film, Fear and Desire (1953). They assault blocklike structures with a minimalist blandness and prefab look; Burpelson could be a school or a hospital or any other institution. The prominently featured signs proclaiming the USAF’s motto “Peace Is Our Profession,” could well be one of Kubrick and Southern’s satirical coups, except, of course, that it really was the USAF’s motto. The film’s most famous line, barked by Muffley to the wrestling Turgidson and De Sadesky, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!”, simply restates this discrepancy more immediately, and echoes again through to the root premise of Ripper’s plot. His mantra of peace on Earth represents a conundrum quite understandably maddening to a warrior like him, for the only complete, guaranteed peace is that of complete annihilation, that Roman desert.
Dr. Strangelove’s connection to silent comedy was to be confirmed with a climactic pie fight, but Kubrick decided, probably for the best, that this element was best left restrained: Dr. Strangelove never gives into farce entirely. Classic slapstick comedy of early cinema heroes like Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd has clawed back ground from being considered the lowest of comedic arts, thanks to analyses of the implicit drama of circumstance, of human fallibility and ingenuity at war with a happenstance world. If the root of all slapstick was the banana peel gag, such comic artists inflated that basic principle into a systematology wherein individual ingenuity and striving faces a world that conspires against them, be it through social perversity, personal maladjustments, economic troubles, unruly inanimate objects, or machines that both perfect human abilities but also mimic and metastasize their faults. Such highbrow conceptual prisms might seem like gilding the lily, and yet they did return lustre to such arts that had for a long time been lost, particularly in the mid-20th century. That’s when slapstick was largely regarded as child’s play, and satire was ennobled as the intellectual, artistic end of the comedy pantheon. As Pauline Kael became fond of complaining, for a long time after the impact of Dr. Strangelove, it was not enough for a comedy to be a comedy: it had to have a satirical edge. Pricking pomposity, assaulting authority figures, mocking retrograde values and social pillars, insulting consumerism and capitalism and militarism: these became the worthy targets for the comic mind. Satire had long been subject to that old joke: it’s what opens on a Friday and closes on a Saturday. That was largely true in cinema as in the theatre, though filmmakers like Chaplin, Rene Clair, Jacques Tati, and Frank Tashlin had attempted over the years to dovetail it neatly with more familiar comic business in their films, combining their jaundiced appreciations of modern life with character comedy and good old-fashioned pratfalls.
To a certain extent, Dr. Strangelove only inverted the focus of such filmmakers, reducing the farcical to a supernal flourish that underlines the lunacy of the supposedly serious events on screen. When Turgidson tumbles head over heels in his frantic distress when Muffley proposes bringing the Russian ambassador into the War Room to prove his sincerity, or when Guano, hesitant to damage the property of corporate power to save the world, gets a face full of Coca-Cola, all divisions between slapstick and satire dissipate. Appropriately, Turgidson’s tumble was actually an accident that Scott refused to let shake him from character, and Kubrick saw how it suited the film. The characters’ names give obvious clues to their functions in this farce: Jack D. Ripper, obsessed with sex and slaughter, the dark heart of the Freudian taxonomy. Merkin Muffley, the girly-man with a wig where his privates should be. Kong, the chest-beating ape. ‘Buck’ Turgidson, talking macho manure and military guff a mile a minute. Mandrake, named for a natural aphrodisiac that’s also a slow poison, evoking the officer’s flailing mix of tenacity and ineffectualness. “Bat” Guano, fearsome, dim, and totally batshit. The specific tenor of these names is very Terry Southern, but it’s also one of the oldest tricks in satirical writing, going back to Aristophanes—the use of a name that’s based in a pun or an assignation that reduces an individual to a type, an exemplar, a singular quality that stretches across social groups: where tragedy evokes the apotheosis of the individual even in the face of annihilation, satire details the ignominy of the species, especially in the face of annihilation.
Of course, Dr. Strangelove, as well as being a Kubrick film, is also a Peter Sellers film. Sellers had played multiple roles in films before, including in two films that seem distinctly prototypical for Dr. Strangelove, The Mouse That Roared and I’m Alright, Jack (both 1959). But not since Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) had a comic actor dominated a film so completely and provided a display of such effervescent, chameleonic wit. Sellers sustains the film’s central sequence, in which Muffley must call Kissoff to warn him of the impending danger. He finds the Soviet Premier not hard at work ploughing the fields whilst dictating foreign policy memos as propaganda might have it, but ensconced with a mistress and completely soused. Muffley has to communicate with a careful mix of brotherly affection, paternal cajoling, and plaintive appeal. Sellers’ verbal brilliance here is uncontained, as his intonations signal every register of his conversation with the unseen, unheard opposite. Muffley’s way of handling people and the character of the person he’s dealing with come through, as we gather the Premier is boozy and good-humoured, delighted to hear from his Yankee friend, but with the volatility of a drunk, a volatility Muffley’s used to dealing with, surrendering all affectation of command in favour of a housewife’s wheedling. An extended parody on the popular perception of Adlai Stevenson and Nikita Khrushchev, and a variation on a gag style popularised by Bob Newhart, this scene is both the linchpin of the movie’s warped humour, whilst also peeking under the metaphorical skirts of the Cold War to find the very human protagonists behind the monolithic facades. Dr. Strangelove constantly suggests those facades are desirable for both sides, a construction that justifies their paranoia, their raison d’etre, whilst constantly revealing the permeability of these monoliths. De Sadesky scoffs at the Americans’ denial of plans to build a Doomsday Device when the Soviets learnt about it from The New York Times, and Kissoff advises Muffley that he can get in touch with the USSR’s super-ultra-maxi secret defence command through Omsk Information.
Mandrake, Sellers’ second and most fully realised character, is a bittersweet anachronism, the last proper British officer of the WWII generation, assuming a fraternal joviality whilst nursing grim memories of war and torture, operating according to a code in an age that sees him play second fiddle to bellicose Americans and clattering computers. Sellers’ talent for physical as well as verbal comedy is subtly but beautifully revealed as Mandrake contends with the crisis, from his forced good humour in displaying the working radio playing pop music to Ripper, a sign that the world outside is continuing as normal, then working himself to a peak of officious indignation in trying to order Ripper to unlock his office door, which Ripper had locked right in front of Mandrake without him noticing, the General’s psychopathic cool completely stymieing Mandrake’s gentlemanly forbearance. Mandrake is at first the embodiment of the stiff upper lip, responding to news that “we’re in a shooting war” with the driest English perturbation (“Oh hell.”), but is driven to ever more frustrated, vibrant anger as he contends with the obtuse suspicion of Guano, who takes him prisoner after Ripper’s suicide: “Shoot it off!” he commands the Major, needing the change from a Coca-Cola machine to make a world-saving phone call to the White House, his patience finally severing and speech reduced to staccato fragments, “Shoot! With a gun! That’s what the bullets are for, you twit!” Mandrake is, in spite of being as much a satirical type as Turgidson or Kong, also the audience’s essential figure for identification, a reasonable, all-too-human individual who operates according to the necessity of the moment. Whether deciding discretion is the better part of valour in dealing with Ripper or trying to establish authority over Guano when the moment demands, Mandrake experiences every moment like a trial by ridiculous ordeal, and Yeats’ classic line about the best lacking all conviction whilst the worst have passionate intensity is depicted in all its agonising truth.
Sellers’ third characterisation as the eponymous nuclear strategist confined to a wheelchair is the even more alarming counterpart to Ripper. Whereas Ripper plots Armageddon because he’s mad and seems, in his very last moments, to regain a certain lucidity, even nobility, in his confrontation of the darkest abyss of fate, Strangelove is the spirit of pure, malicious delight in a destruction that will sweep away the world and give him a chance to rebuild it according to his own perverted proclivities. Strangelove, the title character, is actually only central to two scenes, and yet he fixates the attention and haunts the mind as a kind of laughing devil. Sellers’ most bizarre and inspired grotesque, Strangelove, with grating Germanic accent overlaid on helium tones, snaps at words with toothy eagerness like an intellectual barracuda. He’s a compendium of some of the Germanic men involved with Cold War exigencies, including Wernher Von Braun, rocket scientist to the Nazis; atomic bomb designer Edward Teller; strategist Herman Kahn; and the coiner of the phrase “mutually assured destruction” John von Neumann. Strangelove’s shallow allegiance to democratic ideals and his inner, fixated ardour for the idea of a glorious Gotterdammerung is hinted by his literally Anglicised name, changed from Merkwuerdigliebe. He also, not coincidentally, calls to mind the great mad savants of Fritz Lang’s Expressionist films: Caligari, Mabuse, and especially Rotwang.
Whilst Dr. Strangelove was in the editing room, the recently premiered TV show Doctor Who was just introducing its iconic villains, the Daleks, the next stage of Strangelove, mutants created by atomic war completely encased now in their wheelchairs, speaking with an electronic version of the same harsh, grating, savage voice. Strangelove, it becomes clear, actually embodies the nuclear age, a twisted, semi-human remnant forged by one political culture joyfully obsessed with mass murder and now having found a new one to feed off of. His weird, leering pleasure in discussing all things apocalyptic rhymes with that look of feral joy displayed by so many of Kubrick’s antiheroes. But whereas with the likes of Ripper, Alex DeLarge, Jack Torrance, Pvt. Pyle et al., that savage smile signalled the shattering of the civilised veneer by the beast within, in Strangelove they work in perverse synchronicity; Strangelove is the ultimate result, as much as the Star Child of 2001, of human evolution, its fusion with its own works and wares, into a monstrosity.
Whilst Sellers dominates, Scott, Hayden, and Pickens are the invaluable back-up. Pickens treads a fine line in presenting Kong as a broad stereotype who is, nonetheless, not excessively buffoonish, possessed of a certain level of humour and determination that could be admirable in other circumstances, but who’s also blind on the most vital levels. Hayden’s Ripper is played deadly straight even as what he says seems innately silly. Hayden had almost disappeared from movie screens in the 1960s, sick of Hollywood and ashamed of his HUAC testimony during the McCarthy era, but here he brought effortless class to a role that could have been easy to overdraw. Actor and director collaborate in rendering the character genuinely frightening in his dead-eyed stare and vicious-looking teeth biting a cigar. When the pathetic side of Ripper emerges, and he explains in evasive terms the impotence that afflicts him, Hayden slows Ripper’s confident bark down to a slightly sluggish, peevish drawl, the faintly shambolic fool of fortune under the man’s fearful veneer glinting through. Ripper maintains a sickly paternal affection mixed with a weird sexualised threat for Mandrake, who listens as if every inch of his body is puckered in discomfort. Ripper embodies the splintered psyche of the age, panicked over his waning masculinity and conceiving it in political terms. Scott’s Turgidson, an avatar for LeMay, is unassailed by such anxieties, as obtuse, myopic bigotry incarnate, his pose of professional responsibility soon peeled back to reveal the garrulous, zealous, Commie-hating, bug-eyed big kid, one for whom nuclear annihilation is rarely more real than a football match. He reaches a soaring flight of lunatic enthusiasm in his rave about the talents of the American air force pilot that concludes with sudden realisation of the meaning of what he’s talking about, smacking his forehead and cringing. Turgidson soon rediscovers his balance as he listens to Strangelove’s plan for repopulating the Earth, almost panting with enthusiasm as he questions whether this would mean abandoning the “so-called monogamous sexual relationship,” like a kid about to given the key to a candy store.
All of Kubrick’s films are driven by the same fundamental dynamic, the friction between the primal and the civilised, and pushes towards extremes in either direction discovers antitheses latent within: the deadening effect of order provokes explosions of id-welling expression, and combat with primitive forces sometimes reinforces essential human qualities. Just as the evolved ape-men of 2001 have to combat their own devices to achieve transcendence, so, too, do these characters—except, of course, they fail this time around, but discover a strange delight in the notion. Similarly, the odyssey is another Kubrickian motif here, as the flight of the Leper Colony mirrors that of the Discovery and, later, the pod used by Dave Bowman in 2001, as technical disasters must be overcome and a mysterious world penetrated. The icy, forested, mountainous wastes of Siberia (actually Canada) they fly over are as vast, alien, and spectacularly strange as the hallucinogenic oceans and continents Bowman soars across, and conjoined by a similar sensation of lurching headlong into the unknown toward an event that cannot possibly be survived, at least not in the usual way. The scene in which the Leper Colony is nearly destroyed by a Russian missile is rendered vivid without visual effects, as the pursuing missile is registered only on a radar screen, and its explosion appears as a flash, whilst the navigator’s panicky voice is drowned by a wave of eerie interference before the shockwave wallops the bomber. Kubrick gets around the limitations of his budget through the simplest, yet most audio-visually impactful of means here, and more, as it captures the keenest sensation that 2001 would be far more committed to—the sensation of danger in isolation, far from home, tethered to a machine that might be the death of you.
Dr. Strangelove is, like many like-minded films that would follow, as much at war with its own cinematic genre as with any real-world concerns. Kubrick repurposes manipulative aesthetic tricks, usually employed in celebrating martial heroism in both life and cinema, to turn them back on the war story and mock its presumptions. The only incidental music in the film is a driving employment of Laurie Johnson’s spare variations on the Civil War anthem “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” a choice that strikes at the mythology of American martial values as it accords with, but also mocks, Kong’s gung-ho purpose, and Ripper’s cry to Mandrake whilst wielding machine gun, “The Redcoats are coming!” The tune eventually drops away, leaving only driving martial drums to underscore Kong’s warlike zeal and race against time. Turgidson crows about the instilled ability of an American air force pilot to defy any obstacle, natural or military, to reach his target and fulfil his mission, only then to cringe in realisation of what this means: achievement of a goal in ignorance of the meaning and outcome of his efforts, dooming everyone else to oblivion. And indeed, the Leper Colony’s crew act just like they’re supposed to, and more; they exhibit brilliance and bravery in the course of their duty. If this were a WWII tale and they were trying to knock out a Nazi base, we’d be cheering them every step of the way, thrilling as they overcome every challenge, tearing up as the commander gives his life to make sure the payload drops. But here, it’s a horror show of nerveless proficiency and detachment from reality, with a laugh-yourself-sick punchline. Kong is so oblivious to the likely results of what he’s doing that he eggs on his men with promises of “important promotions and personal citations” once they get back. The Leper Colony crew’s resourcefulness means that even when they can’t bomb any of their assigned targets, they can try for another, which fatally takes them away from the areas Muffley has advised the Russians to cover.
Of course, at the very last second, Kong gets his bomb bay doors to open, and he plunges with the payload to the earth, whooping with joy every inch of the way, the bomb suddenly the ultimate bucking bronco and the greatest phallic substitute ever, the blast that results in redneck apotheosis and orgasmic eruption. This is the film’s most famous moment, and indeed one of the most iconic in the history of cinema, partly for its starkly beautiful reduction of the film’s themes to one singularly powerful image. Kubrick’s visualisation is perfect, camera affixed to the end of the bomb, gazing down at the yee-hawing Kong as the bomb tips and plunges toward its target with vertiginous rapidity, with only the rushing air and Kong’s bellows audible. Kong’s cries are inimitable and funny, but also unnerving in their exultant violence, and the scene, barely a few seconds long, seems to last forever. The bomb hits the ground in a flash of obliterating white, rendering this vision at once hilarious and almost heart-stopping in its force and strangeness. The concluding montage of atomic explosions, signalling the annihilation of the world, is scored to Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again.” This choice of song is the film’s final, smirking coup, recalling its anthemic power and nostalgic meaning for the WWII era, repudiating the fatuous self-satisfaction of how-I-won-the-war types, and making an obvious point: that the notion that nuclear war can be survived is a fairy tale and the event impossible to liken to any previous conflict. Yet, Kubrick also invites us to revel in the sing-along cosiness, the communal affection and power the song communicates, as it feels like a last hug before the dark plunge, a final carouse with humankind, and an exhausted, conciliatory concession to the irrational. At its most ruthless, Dr. Strangelove is also at its warmest.
But even the end is not the end, as, faced with the certain destruction of life on earth, the cabal in the War Room listen with increasingly responsive and wrapt fascination to Strangelove’s proposal that they move a nucleus of human society underground to wait out the time it will take the Doomsday Device’s effect to dissipate. Not only does Strangelove’s idea give hope to the seemingly hopeless situation, it actually sounds like an Eden for the white middle-aged males left to repopulate the world with a potential smorgasbord of females. Whilst the world is being pummelled to pieces by atomic horrors, the men in the War Room are worrying about a future arms race and glowing with enthusiasm for living out the rest of their lives underground with a harem. Strangelove is finally unbound, his seemingly paralytic arm now taking on a life of its own, snapping as he speaks into Heil Hitler salutes with the involuntary passion of an erection, and grasping his crotch in auto-erotic frenzy. Strangelove is forced to wrestle and bite it into submission as he continues to expostulate his plan, and it becomes plain this Frankenstein’s Monster is erotically thrilled by the situation now before him, as. As he rises from his chair, restored to full working order, his final cry (“Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!”) confirms that Hitler’s dream is nigh complete. Emblematic of the film it concludes, Strangelove’s last line is weird and scary, and yet capable of wrenching the loudest of laughs from me every time I hear it. As Lynn sings, nuclear blasts, all real, rupture oceans and burn in infernal power, spreading fire in the night sky like a false dawn, poetic in their dread. In spite of all, we can still laugh at Dr. Strangelove’s vision. For the time being.
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By Marilyn Ferdinand
It was a happy day for this cinephile when I got on the radar screen of Mimi Brody. Mimi’s official title is Pick-Laudati Curator of Film at Northwestern University, which means that she is in charge of Northwestern’s film-related programming. While she can take the credit for the many and varied screening choices that occur throughout the year, it is with her approach to special events that she really shines. In 2011, she put together a three-day conference on, of all things, film criticism that brought me together with my cohort in film preservation, Farran Nehme, for the very first time (Farran was on the panels; I was an enthusiastic audience member). When there was some unfinished business from that conference, she booked an additional panel for this year that brought renowned film critic and scholar Adrian Martin to my neck of the woods. It’s rare that any university in the United States not only would take contemporary film criticism seriously enough to devote considerable time and resources to bringing together the best critics to talk about their endeavors, but also include panelists from academia, print journalism, and online blogs and digital magazines. The conference was named “Illuminating the Shadows,” and it did much to bring online criticism out of the shadow of perceived inferiority and put it on an equal footing with more traditional vehicles for film criticism.
Mimi made it a point to introduce herself to me at the conference, and has kept me up to date on other film doings that might interest me and this blog’s readers. I was very excited when she sent me an e-mail announcing “Rethinking Film Preservation: Implications and Inspirations for the 21st Century,” booked by the Preservation Department at the Northwestern University Library. Again, the approach to thinking about film looks to the future with open arms, and if there ever was a discipline in need of a gentle, but firm nudge into the future, it is film preservation and archiving. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked with film collectors and buffs about the Chapter 11 filing of Kodak and the demise of celluloid, with the hand wringers and outraged mixing with the genuinely nervous repertory programmers who wonder what will happen to their ability to get and show high-quality 16mm and 35mm prints. Greedy corporations are blamed for failing to understand the aesthetic quality and purity of celluloid, forcing independent exhibitors like Chicago’s 85-year-old Patio Theater to ask Kickstarter investors to help fund the purchase of a $70,000 digital projector just so they can stay in business.
Bringing a knowledgeable, practical, and forward-thinking preservationist and archivist like Dr. Caroline Frick to speak to a diverse audience was another brilliant stroke. Dr. Frick is an enthusiastic, intelligent, and funny individual who is the president of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA), a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and founder and executive director of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image (TAMI). Because I attended her presentation, I now have a clearer picture of where we are and where we might be going in our continuing efforts to save our audiovisual heritage.
Frick began with a fascinating fact about a list that even the most diehard film buff probably hasn’t heard of or voiced an opinion about (that might change right now!): the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. The vision and mission of this program are below:
The vision of the Memory of the World Programme is that the world’s documentary heritage belongs to all, should be fully preserved and protected for all and, with due recognition of cultural mores and practicalities, should be permanently accessible to all without hindrance.
The mission of the Memory of the World Programme is:
* To facilitate preservation, by the most appropriate techniques, of the world’s documentary heritage.
* To assist universal access to documentary heritage.
* To increase awareness worldwide of the existence and significance of documentary heritage.
Of interest to film fans is the fact that the first of only two American films to be placed on the register (the second is an ethnographic study) is The Wizard of Oz. The film was promoted over several decades as an important representation of America’s cultural heritage, but was regarded with suspicion because it is the product of a commercial enterprise. It only made the list in 2007 because George Eastman House archives the print from which commercial products and exhibitions emanate, thus providing a link to a nonprofit organization that UNESCO seems to need to declare something in the public interest. Thus, Frick established that the peculiar public/private nature of U.S. film preservation and distribution is as American as apple pie.
David Woodley Packard; Wohelo Camp (10 minutes, 1919)
Frick set up the landscape of film preservation funding as well. David Woodley Packard, son of the cofounder of Hewlett-Packard, is responsible for the lion’s share of grants for film preservation. Preservation of films like The Wizard of Oz (aka, Hollywood films) constitute the only projects his foundation will fund. The National Film Preservation Foundation, for which For the Love of Film blogathoners have raised funds in two separate years, does the heroic work of providing funds to archives like TAMI to restore and preserve everything else, from industrial films to vintage television commercials. One film Frick is especially excited about finding, and is working to restore and preserve now, is an interview with 96-year-old “Uncle” Jeff Hamilton, who was Sam Houston’s slave. The film was literally a solid brick that had to be put in a sauna to relax.
At the same time, a big challenge to the film preservation community, including funders, is to evolve the definition of what constitutes preservation. Frick was trained in the photochemical restoration of nitrate and other film-based materials, and celluloid has been fetishized by many parts of the film community. Until recently, even the great NFPF provided funds for restoration to film, not to DVD. Frick said AMIA members are struggling to come to terms with the digital present and future, but she doesn’t see this as an either/or process. “Many copies make films safe” is her mantra, and the digital revolution has made it possible to save thousands of audiovisual artifacts that otherwise would be languishing and possibly dying waiting for their turn in the few photochemical labs still in existence—or deemed not worth the trouble at all. I commented to her after the presentation that people might not be so unforgiving of digital projection if they’d had my experience of sitting through eight time-eating film breaks during a theatrical showing of Jean Renoir’s French Cancan that forced me to abandon the screening to make an appointment. Just last night at the 13th annual Silent Summer Film Festival, impresario/organist Jay Warren did something he has never done before—he asked for donations to the Silent Film Society of Chicago to defray the sky-rocketing costs of acquiring films for the festival. If a high-quality, high-definition digital transfer of last night’s Sherlock Holmes (1922) had been available, a lot of the money spent on the festival could have been diverted to more screenings throughout the year.
Farran’s recent post on Self-Styled Siren, “The Kid with the Citizen Kane Tape,” showcased the flagging interest in our film heritage. Perhaps ironically, Frick mentioned that YouTube has created a huge appetite among the college students she teaches for vintage home videos, commercials, and industrial films—the no-copyright audiovisual artifacts that are freely available on YouTube that we cinephiles generally pay little or no attention to. Imagine if we could get more of these kids to consume films like The Wizard of Oz (which, unbelievably, Frick says more and more of her students have never seen or even heard of) online or through their cable TV provider or some other way that hasn’t even been invented yet, but will be, and soon. I am happy to say that by emphasizing access, our fundraising blogathon this year was a small step into the future for the many feature films that have been lovingly restored, preserved, and locked away in an archive waiting for someone to pay all the fees associated with showing them.
Finally, Frick shared her enthusiasm for the hundreds of films shot by director Melton Barker, of which perhaps only six or seven are still in existence. Before you run off to your film encyclopedias to figure out why you’ve never heard of this prolific director, let me explain that Barker was an itinerant filmmaker/businessman who traveled from town to town from the late 1930s through the 1970s with one script only, Kidnappers’ Foil, and induced ordinary families to pay $10 a head (more if the child had lines) to have their children appear in it. Barker is the perfect icon of American films as a populist form. Vintage audiovisual artifacts will live on to inform, entertain, and enlighten us only when we can all see and hear them.
The Local Gang (Childress, Texas, 1936) in Kidnappers’ Foil
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By Roderick Heath
So, what is an adventure film?
Amongst film genres, some are defined by links to a specific time and place, like Westerns, or essential elements and gimmicks, like the futuristic setting or advanced gadgets in science fiction. Others are defined by the emotion they are supposed to inspire: comedies make you laugh, whilst horror and thriller films work as advertised (or try to). Genres are, of course, never impermeable things: Westerns have moved into outer space, comedies can revolve around profound fears, and the adventure film can cross the borders of many other genres.
Today, the adventure film might be considered an adjunct of the action film, but in truth, it’s more the other way around: the action film is the specifically contemporary version of the adventure film, defined by an essential need for kinetic movement and violence, utilising the props of the world as is, an ethic purely of the present tense. The adventure film, on the other hand, is uniquely ancient, possibly the most ancient genre of storytelling in existence, with links to bardic songs, campfire tales, cave paintings. The adventure movie, whilst usually retaining an action element, is defined as much or more by a sense of physical movement not necessarily involving violence, but rather travel and globetrotting, or a sense of having reached and become trapped in the world’s extreme and hostile locales, living on the edge in places of desperate straits. Such adventure tends to take place in settings that old-world, often pretechnological, or at least set in periods where technology is not so tyrannous or has been neutered as a world-ordering force. The adventure can, however, also be futuristic, set in times and worlds where technology restores a level of elasticity to personal freedom and heroism. The adventure film is politically difficult: it can invoke the rise and fall of nations, and stands squarely on the resilience of its heroes and the people they encounter. The meeting of cultures, violence between the two, and also their mutual acceptance and blending, is a constant frontier of the adventure film.
Men are usually the heroes of adventure films, but not always, and if it can be said that the genre is not necessarily one of violence, then some of the hardiest venturers into psychic and physical extremes are women, for example, the cast of William Wellman’s Westward the Women (1951) and the entrapped ambassadors of western culture in John Ford’s 7 Women (1966). The genre can tread the edge of the utterly fantastical, and yet, as with the likes of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s and William Friedkin’s diptych of films based on Georges Arnaud’s novel The Wages of Fear or Mikhail Kalatozov’s depiction of the ill-fated true-life Italia expedition The Red Tent (1969), it can also depict extremely simple, grindingly realistic scenarios. Adventure films are often built around motifs for transmitting knowledge that have roots in human prehistory: the riddle, the map, the quest, the search. Whilst action films are often seen as containing elements that pander to social conservatism, with an emphasis on law enforcers and authoritarian solutions, the adventure film can have links to colonialism and imperialism but just as often can have antiauthoritarian, even radical narratives, often encompassing, sometimes incidentally but also often directly, the establishment (or reestablishment) of legitimate government, or the fight against tyrannies. Such a scenario can be seen as far back as the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, where the hero embarks on his long voyage in order to bring down the usurping tyrant back home, and flows through the adventure swashbucklers of Errol Flynn and the struggles of Indiana Jones and Alistair Maclean’s pulpy heroes against Nazis, or George Lucas’ rebels against the Galactic Empire. The adventure film is also more fundamentally romantic than the action film: indeed, the modern genre has roots in romance, the broad name for all early fiction, and in courtly ballads and poems extolling the knight and lady fair. Saving the damsel, or more rarely but occasionally, the dude in distress is oft a key element of the adventure genre’s ideals.
One reason I’m engaging with this topic is my general frustration with how few great and actual adventure films there are, particularly in the modern pantheon. Recent attempts to revive subgenres like the pirate movie, with the increasingly intolerable Pirates of the Caribbean films, and the find-the-buried-treasure tale, like the National Treasure movies, raked in money but left a bitter aftertaste at their incapacity to develop coherent narratives. Instead, they compiled tropes and gimmicks harvested from a range of predecessors and hurled them onto the screen without even the clear-minded organising principles behind earlier examples of the process, like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
Much of the thunder of both the classic action film and the adventure film has been stolen in the past few years by the superhero flick. Superheroes, by dint of their extraordinary gifts, are able to keep aspects of the classic swashbuckler alive in the age of drones, rockets, armour-piercing bullets, and nuclear weapons. Superheroes certainly have links to the more-than-human heroes of Greek, Jewish, Indian, and Chinese myth, but in being superhuman and barely vulnerable to all but the most absurd dangers, they cannot really channel the sure reality of physical stamina and witticism, the sense of being merely human even whilst contending with terrible forces, necessary for the swashbuckler. Beginning in the early ’50s, with the likes of The Crimson Pirate (1953), the genre became increasingly comic and self-mocking, with some stronger examples emerging from France, like Philippe de Broca’s giddy duo of Cartouche (1962) and That Man from Rio (1964), and Louis Malle’s Viva Maria! (1965); in Britain, Richard Lester’s series of seriocomic deconstructions of the form in the mid ’70s managed to both critique and satirise the genre whilst still engaging it on its own terms.
A question then arises: is the adventure film fundamentally just a mode for playful divertissement, or can it be more serious than is often allowed? Action films are often caricatured as Pavlovian, anti-intellectual fodder for the mindless masses, not without reason, but also often in ignorance of the deft balance of the aesthetic and mechanical ingenuity necessary to make the genre work. Adventure films require similar gifts, and yet it can also be said that the adventure film stands at odds with the action film in that it can more easily be thoughtful, even philosophical, as some advanced examples like Richard Brooks’ Lord Jim (1965), Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), or Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) testify. Adventurers can be intellectual, scholarly, like Indiana Jones or Sir Richard Burton in Mountains of the Moon (1989), or meditative or even self-destructive: Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1983) and John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) and Zardoz (1974) both push the genre to its physical limits whilst also engaging its deepest meanings in terms of both the psyche and the world where Conradian heroes disintegrate in trying to face down the primal, and civilisation becomes a death-dream from which the adventurers need to be awakened.
Many war films cross the line into adventure film territory: The Guns of Navarone (1961) and The Great Escape (1963) take place in World War II, and yet they elide the usual brutal realism of the combat genre in presenting neo-swashbucklers, and Apocalypse Now (1979) grafts the Conradian adventure onto a wartime setting. Westerns, too, often cross paths with the genre, particularly the likes of Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930), Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965) and The Wild Bunch (1969), and Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966): these films involve a scope of action and character beyond the familiar parameters of the horse opera.
And what about films from cultures beyond Europe and the US? The likes of Atarnarjuat (2001), the first Inuit cinema epic, certainly tell adventure stories, and, indeed, document the sorts of folk myth from which the genre evolved. Asian cinema’s classic genres of wu xia and jidai geki are tantalisingly close in nature to the swashbuckler, and though defined by certain specific rules of structure, the kind of action they depict, and their settings, Tsui Hark, Kihachi Okamoto, Akira Kurosawa and so many others have pushed into the realm of the adventure genre.
Can adventure films even be chamber pieces, or purely psychological? The likes of Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), Satoshi Kon’s Paprika (2006), Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape (1984), and Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990) all take place in their hero’s headspaces. But how about the psychedelically derived adventure, as in Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967)? Dennis Hopper, who cowrote that film, was a kind of adventure filmmaker, expanding on the notion through his definitive hipster odysseys Easy Rider (1969) and The Last Movie (1971). How about sexual adventures? Philip Kaufman’s Henry & June (1990) described itself as “A True Adventure More Erotic Than Any Fantasy,” and, indeed, erotica has always had a certain structural affinity with the adventure tale, with wandering, assailed, curious individuals delving into realms far beyond the normal. So what about Emmanuelle, or Deep Throat? Okay, now I’m just teasing, but you get my drift.
In any event, this series is going to look at both iconic and some less well-known works of adventure cinema: I am open to requests and petitions for works to be covered, and I’ll be interested in whatever suggestions you have. Please keep in mind that I won’t be dealing with films Marilyn or I have already written about here or at This Island Rod.
Now, hold onto your hats. We’re on our way.
The series so far:
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Sea Hawk
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Die Nibelungen: Siegfried & Kriemhild’s Revenge
The Black Swan
Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi
The Scarlet Pimpernel
Farewell to the King
The Three Musketeers: The Queen’s Necklace/The Four Musketeers: Milady’s Revenge
A Chinese Ghost Story/A Chinese Ghost Story II
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad/The Golden Voyage of Sinbad
Enter the Dragon
The Naked Jungle
Two Mules for Sister Sara
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By Marilyn Ferdinand
I don’t make lists, though somehow one slipped out of me last year. More precisely, I posted a list of favorite movies I viewed in 2010 by any means at all as a way of giving them more exposure. I am assured that such opinions do matter to filmmakers and distributors of arthouse and independent films, as the media tornado swirling around the firing of Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman spits out a number of pronouncements about the causes and repercussions of this action.
This Is Not a Film
Of course, this “end of an era” at the Village Voice is only one front on which the world has changed—whether for the better or worse depends upon who is making the judgment. The year in film also had this valedictory quality to it, as many older filmmakers turned a nostalgic gaze on their own life’s work. Monte Hellman ended a 20+-year absence from feature films to present us with a skillful, entertaining look at his own career in Road to Nowhere. Claude Lelouch, long consigned to the ash heap by the French, made a similar survey of his own history, both personal and professional, in the criminally overlooked What Love May Bring. Martin Scorsese paid homage to the father of his industry, Georges Méliès, in Hugo. Sadly, two Iranian filmmakers said farewell to their vocation—Mohammad Rasoulof with his film Good Bye and Jafar Panahi with This Is Not a Film—as the iron fist of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his regime banned and imprisoned them both. Finally, the late Raúl Ruiz made, as Rod said, “a classic example of a grace-note film from an aging director,” with his final film Mysteries of Lisbon.
King of Devil’s Island
A number of films had a retro aspect to them. The extremely entertaining Madame X, a first feature from Indonesian director Lucky Kuswandi, wore its love of 60s pop action films on its sleeve. The new silent film The Artist not only paid its respects to the silent era literally, but also quoted from such classic films as Citizen Kane and A Star Is Born. King of Devil’s Island from Norwegian filmmaker Marius Holst was crafted with a classic style and care that reminded me of Howard Hawks. Even Terrence Malick’s much-lauded The Tree of Life made comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey all but inevitable.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
I watched many more current releases than I have in many a year thanks to the screeners sent “for your consideration.” Despite numerous fine performances from a bevy of talented actors, was it really necessary for Michelle Williams, Michael Fassbender, and Jessica Chastain to be in so many of them? I like and admire these artists, but their multiple appearances seem retro as well, as though the Hollywood dream factory were still pressing contract stars into assembly-line service. Certainly, the paucity of any really imaginative or mold-breaking films from Hollywood (aside from pop/fantasy films well covered by Rod here) and the continued use of the 3D gimmick to get butts in seats signal that the business of show hasn’t changed much in decades. I much preferred the American independent films I was able to find: Without and Monogamy were two relationship movies from first-time feature directors Mark Jackson and Dana Adam Shapiro that perfectly captured the seductive terror of aloneness the new generation faces. First-time feature director Sean Durkin echoed this unease in Martha Marcy May Marlene, a studio film with a credible indie feel that, in condemning cults, actually reinforced the conformity of mainline living Durkin said he was trying to critique.
My Week with Marilyn
Rod and I discussed whether this was “the year of” anything. For him, it was the year of the ensemble, and given how many of his favorite films were ensemble-driven, that is entirely reasonable. I saw many more chamber dramas, and for me, it was the year of the star turn. Albert Nobbs, Shame, Martha Marcy May Marlene, My Week with Marilyn, The Iron Lady, and to a lesser extent Jane Eyre, Drive, J. Edgar, and The Artist all contained dominant central characters that largely drove the films. Some of these films were complete successes, and some were a triumph of acting over incompletely realized material, some bordering on vanity project (e.g., Albert Nobbs).
South Side Projections’ Mike Phillips at the projector
The Chicago front saw some new players enter the scene, some established players retrench, and others break out and work wonders. My good friend Mike Phillips founded South Side Projections, which became an instant treasure to underserved audiences on Chicago’s working class and African-American South Side. Mike’s protégé Julian Antos and Becca Hall launched the Northwest Chicago Film Society, moving the popular Bank of America classics series from the now-demolished home it had for more than 40 years to the nearby Portage Theater. Fans of the series worried about the change of venue and day (from Saturday to Wednesday), but Julian and Becca’s valuable and eclectic programming has seen them through a very successful year and a strong opening in 2012. Roger Ebert relaunched At the Movies at WTTW, the public television station where he and Gene Siskel started their television careers; financial trouble has sent the series, hosted by Christie Lemire of the Associated Press and local critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, into a limbo from which it may not emerge.
Finally, Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren hosted the second For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon, to benefit the Film Noir Foundation. We raised $5,700 to help restore the Cy Endfield film The Sound of Fury, just in time to learn that the major studios are abandoning celluloid forever. Future preservation efforts will need to take a new focus, but we intend to continue the battle to save our film heritage with a third blogathon.
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By Roderick Heath
“We’re going to need more holy water!” – Ron Perlman, Season of the Witch (2011)
It’s been a hell of a year. One of rage and anarchy, sloth and pathos, calamity and continuity. Our world reminds us every day now of both how close we are and yet also how far apart.
And our cinema—is our cinema keeping pace and reflecting our interesting times? Not if you’re looking for Godardian agitprop aesthetics, obviously. But perhaps, on another level, a psychological level, a mythopoeic level?
Regular readers of my end-of-year confessions will know I usually finish up feeling disappointed, cheated, frustrated, and generally bewildered by my cinema going, especially once awards season is in full swing. So many Oscar-hungry puff pieces, so many overstuffed fanboy epics, so much faux-auteurist pap clad in the new imperial clothes! Usually my frustration tends to stem from being denied a chance to see important movies, and this year there are, as ever, a few real nagging gaps in my viewing, and also quite a few that I refuse to care about. Amongst the year’s biggest movies are some I’ll probably never see, including Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, desperate franchise-wringers from people who barely know how to make movies, but know all about getting bums on seats.
Film itself, the actual physical medium, is dying, or at least bound to be valued only by niche obsessives, retronauts, and historians. Like many things, this stirs a debate between my practical yin and my romantic yang: for filmmakers it means both a liberation from the cost of the medium, helping level the playing fields a little more in the always-expensive world of movie production, and yet it threatens also a potential loss of craft, of care in shooting and assembling those fragments of arranged reality which we call films. Major, well-proven filmmakers like Spielberg and Scorsese have this year made large-budget films with personal themes that are intended for the broadest audiences possible, yet these have been characterised, and to a certain extent received, as some kind of retrograde, risky perversity. Does such fretting count as evidence of how deeply we have been brainwashed by the carefully niche-marketed, incessantly hip zeitgeist?
Yet there’s little doubt in my mind that this has been the best year for cinema since at least 2007, and possibly since 1999. Of course, “year” is always a problematic categorisation, given the channels of distribution that many films, particularly indie films and movies from non-English-speaking markets, have to flow though. In any event, any time frame that brings us cinema on the level of The Tree of Life, Uncle Boonmee, and Mysteries of Lisbon on their own would be a memorable window in movie history. Even some of this year’s outright disasters had at least a perverse ambition going for them. Whatever else you can say about the likes of Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet and David Gordon Green’s Your Highness, both ramshackle attempts to crossbreed geeky genre satire with slacker-stoner humour (with Greg Mottola’s Paul as a third, though far superior, entry), they had an eccentricity and, occasionally, a sheer sense of anarchy that made them far more engaging than such bathwater-flavoured square-deal fare as Captain America: The First Avenger or Contagion, if not, in the end, any better.
Yet I’m surprised at how much bitching I’ve encountered about the year’s low quality of movies amongst mainstream moviegoers. Even there I’m at odds: the multiplexes have seen such lively fare as X-Men: First Class, Thor, Fast Five, Scream 4, Hanna, Super 8 (not a sequel!), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two, and Sucker Punch flitter across the screens in sprawls of pixels and pummelling. I’ve certainly had some powerful disappointments, many of which weren’t even bad, and yet which are bundled together in my mind for seeming to offer far more than they really give: the sophomoric insights of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, the aggressively, turgidly oddball angst of Richard Ayoade’s Submarine; the overwrought mustiness of Rowan Joffe’s Brighton Rock; the hollow, New Age parent-baiting of Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk About Kevin; the shrill conscience-movies clichés of Robert Redford’s The Conspirator; the clogged and dreary Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; the blundering wastage of Cowboys & Aliens and Captain America: The First Avenger, etc., etc. But even in such disappointments, good moments hold the memory, like the scene in Submarine where the young hero is left alone at the dinner table whilst his girlfriend’s family have a crisis hug, a penetrating and all too tangible moment.
So, I’m really still impressed with the breadth of energy evident in cinema, both mainstream and tributary. I’m left with a patina of sensations and textures, visual and emotional and intellectual: the symphonic natural landscapes and macro- and microcosmic attentiveness of The Tree of Life, the dense jungle populated by id-welling monkey men, black caves, easeful waters, and starlight of Uncle Boonmee, the alien, rectilinear universe perforated by proofs of jagged humanity in Drive. The soaring visions of an alien Asgard where matter and dream hang on the edge of eternity in Thor. Hugo’s Belle Époque neverland. The Moses-as-sociopath vision of X-Men: First Class’s Erik Lensherr hauling a submarine from deep in the sea and hurling a sky full of rockets back at Pharaoh’s army for the sake of liberating his people from bondage. The dreamy thickets of nocturnal suburbia where protean teens venture out and evolve into new beings in The Myth of the American Sleepover and Super 8, the globe-trotting of Hanna, the snowy mountain fringes where the monks of Of Gods and Men are marched to meet their fate, already touched with the otherworldly and the purified.
The sombre desert limbo and the nocturnal jazz of Passion Play and the stygian, drug-fuelled nightclub rampage of the anti-hero in Oren Moverman’s Rampart. The bleak forest halls and the eerie, totemic wind farms that guard the edge of the darkly enchanted village in Wake Wood, littered with corpses as nature is thrown fatally out of balance by human arrogance. The wistful chamber music of Mysteries of Lisbon where time and tales’ edges blur and congeal and reverse upon themselves. The wonder of the perfectly formed small baby’s limbs in The Tree of Life and Womb; the foggy, bleary oedipal plains of that second film. The ethereal, noir-soaked frames of Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere, where murder and muse coalesce into a fabric of both eroticised yearning and alienation. Rivers of gore spilled by the heroes of 13 Assassins and Drive in their divergent quests to defend the weak. The anticipated nightmarish blood-tide of the future permeating the uptight adventurers of A Dangerous Method. Endless armies of the psychic war in Sucker Punch warded off by its singular warrior amazons in landscapes that suggest a nerd’s busted hard drive in hell. Harry Potter and friends standing before the blazing ruins of their alma mater, releasing quietly relieved breaths of victory and survival.
Last year, I waxed excessive about some linking themes I had noticed preoccupying the minds of filmmakers, as they offered a raft of variations on the theme of the maladapted survivor searching desperately for their humanity. This year, many films expanded upon such a motif to ask almost cosmic-scaled questions: What makes us what we are? Do the events that shape us truly make us, or do such things only give us tools and vices that enable our expression? Where are we going and what things we have learnt help us when trials come? Such questions permeate movies as seemingly different as The Tree of Life, X-Men: First Class, Hugo, A Dangerous Method, Womb, Sucker Punch, Hanna, Mysteries of Lisbon, Attenberg, Drive, The Ward, and Jane Eyre. I was fascinated by the powerful images of parents with children, and those of the hazy fringes of civilisation where there is a kind of spirituality even in the act of corporeal extermination, repeating throughout many. Several films evoked the trappings of psychotherapy and depicted adventures in the inner space. One of the more conscious, recurrent themes was that of generational torch passing, messy and fraught as it always is. Sex and violence are eternal presences in movieland, of course, but imbued so often of late with aspects of the genuinely primal, parsed through dream states, myth, and frantic hunger, from the Freudian fever-dreams of Womb, to the masochistic heroines of Leap Year and A Dangerous Method, needing physical shock to suture together sex and spirit. Heroes have come sometimes beaten, commonly bloodied, often falling with feet of shattered clay. Villains have often been hard to discern from heroes, with characters who bundle together what we love most and fear most within their frames. Hell, even the mysterious alien beast of Super 8 is both a terrible monster and a desperate, forlorn prisoner.
Children and adolescents have been peculiarly powerful protagonists throughout the year, fighting off alien invasions, saving cinema history from the rubbish heap, battling off superpowers and secret armies, even committing mass murder with admirable focus. Simultaneously, the older men are older and more tired, beaten about by life and watching hopes fade, from Ben Kingsley’s tragic Georges Méliès in Hugo to Kevin Spacey’s and Stanley Tucci’s bruised company men in Margin Call, Antonio Luz’s swashbuckling but haunted Father Dinis in Mysteries of Lisbon, Vangelis Mourikis’s dying idealist in Attenberg, and even the collapsing dignity of Kristen Wiig’s oddly tragicomic heroines in Paul and Bridesmaids. All perhaps could hope for an ounce of the dignity, even nobility, which the monks of Of Gods and Men and Uncle Boonmee himself can take to their respective graves. By contrast, many heroines have been frantically trying to hold together the shape of their world and give it meaning by sheer will, from the fantasy monster slayings by the girls of Sucker Punch to the atavistic rituals of Attenberg’s Marina, Keira Knightley’s Sabina Spielrein knitting neurosis into theory, and Jane Eyre’s rectitude in the face of degradation.
Is there a keynote to any of this? Certainly not one that encompasses so many films, with their manifold aims and qualities. And yet, throughout such experiences as those of the adventuring youths of Hugo and Super 8, their more thoughtful kin across town in The Tree of Life, and their (spiritual) older siblings in The Myth of the American Sleepover and the survivalist fantasias of Hanna, Sucker Punch, 13 Assassins and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two, the old men on their final pilgrimages in Of Gods and Men, Attenberg, and Uncle Boonmee, and the Driver giving his lady one life-encompassing kiss just before stamping out another man’s life entirely: all see their protagonists unable to escape their limited selves, and yet all finding a kind of perfection in fellowship and moments of strange serenity remaking an often dull, sometimes cruel world into a place of raptures. Perhaps the figure who could encompass them all is the hapless filmmaker of Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere, the end product of evolution up from the magician Méliès is presented as in Hugo, hurrying his naïve dreams past the camera lens, where Hellman’s protagonist is constantly reaching towards the past, the present, to other people, to a story to be told, and always seeing them retreat into amorphous unknowns and unanswerable longings.
PS: I only saw two current Australian films this year. One was Snowtown, which started off well, with a compelling portrait of seedy hate mongers in a poverty-stricken environment, but devolved into “droning psychopath browbeats fearful youngster” shtick well-exhausted by The Boys (1997) and Animal Kingdom (2010). The second was A Heartbeat Away, a film that filled me with incoherent rage and made me turn it off less than 20 minutes in. This may be an unfair sample of the year’s local cinema.
Some Favourite Performances
Whilst I found it wore out its welcome pretty quickly, I will give Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip this: it captures something convincingly, even affectingly insufferable and doleful about actors thanks to Steve Coogan’s and Rob Brydon’s deft performances. They offered, in between Michael Caine impressions, authentic portraiture of the second-tier male celebrity as show-off, restless consumer, feckless egotist, and occasionally, very familiar figures of middle-aged pathos, angry and bewildered at the sometimes tiny quirks and infinitesimal vagaries of luck that can rule a career. Many actors and other creative people can, I suspect, discover of shiver of self-recognition. Similarly, although the film actively pissed me off, it’s hard to ignore how Tilda Swinton sustains We Need to Talk About Kevin purely and literally by the sweat of her brow. Other famous actors lose and gain weight and slap on the prosthetics to gain awards, but Swinton belongs to a small breed who really does seem to use her own strangely textured flesh as a palate for her artistry, even if directors keep casting her in the same part over and over. Indeed for me it’s been mostly a year of actresses. One of my favourite performances, Shannyn Sossamon’s in Road to Nowhere, was a meditation on the idea of the actress, mutable, inaccessible yet exposed, duplicitous yet laid bare, multitudinous and yet tethered to a single constant image. Sossamon, like Megan Fox, whose low-key, well-textured performance as the angel so bruised by the male gaze in Passion Play that she can barely meet anyone’s eyes, also represents the former It-girl as case study, foiled in the attempt to walk the line between teen-boy masturbation fodder and capital-A actress, diffused through a prism of punch-drunk fantasy.
Perhaps a claim for future It-girl status was Claire Sloma’s magical performance in The Myth of the American Sleepover, the pixie-haired, nose-studded individualist feeling her way through a night of epic debauchery, coming into focus for a jazz ballet routine which, like the film itself, manages to capture something glorious yet painfully transient about the changeling age. Elle Fanning, following up her performance in last year’s Somewhere, made a marvellous contribution to Super 8, standing out amongst a strong cast of youngsters as she shocks her young male friends with real acting talent, and in the scene of the young hero falling in love with her as she’s slathered in zombie make-up, a moment alive with layers of adolescent Eros and transformational strangeness. A couple of years older but no less protean, Saoirse Ronan’s star turn in Hanna possessed a singular grace in playing a character who’s both a casual killer and an utterly bewildered innocent. Polar opposite in temperament, if not homicidal capacity, was Emma Roberts’ delicious psychopathic teen narcissist in Scream 4, avatar of everything suspect about Gen Y, managing to be both hilarious and alarming as she shreds her own body to convincingly inhabit the role of media hero, and later walloping David Arquette to jelly with a bedpan. I’m not sure if I enjoyed a moment in 2011 cinema more. Similarly, memorably ballsy and occasionally unhinged, Amber Heard strode through her two-for-one trashterpiece year of Drive Angry and The Ward with the feral pride of a lioness who considers the cinema screen her private patch of veldt.
Words of praise for some Aussie girls who seem to move from strength to strength: Mia Wasikowska, who inhabits her role in Jane Eyre as if no one else has ever played the part before. Emily Browning, whose supple emotional register gave Sucker Punch both its grit and its emotional intensity. Rose Byrne, who made trying to spy in her underwear seem just another day on the job in X-Men: First Class and managed to make her bitch role in Bridesmaids convincing in her chichi pathos. Speaking of which, Kristen Wiig’s excellence in her self-penned vehicle was most apparent when the film kept to its true brief—portraying a woman in a flailing midlife crisis, riddled with class rage and emotional resentment—rather than the limp attempts to match the frat boy hijinks of Judd Apatow. Wiig was also a gas playing the lazy-eyed, foul-mouthed, new-minted atheist in Paul. Eva Green’s reptilian cool was beautifully exploited in Womb, as was Matt Smith’s rubbery intensity and Lesley Manville’s wizened brilliance. Brighton Rock at least had Andrea Riseborough’s engaging portrait of dim but dogged rebellion against the fetid drear of post-austerity England. Jodie Whittaker left Venus well behind with her similarly sleek impersonation of a put-upon yet heroic nurse in Attack the Block. Kathy Burke was almost my lone salvaging grace for the train wreck of a film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in playing her aged, exhausted she-geek with a still-bubbling edge of randy gaucheness. Robin Wright’s retention of dignity buoyed The Conspirator. Keira Knightley and Monica del Carmen shared, if little else, a taste for masochistic extremes in A Dangerous Method and Leap Year, and both lived up to playing difficult, intransigent, inchoate personalities whose very pain and fragmentation made them more powerful than anyone close to them. The year’s most genuine breakout star, insofar as a year ago no one had even heard of her, was Jessica Chastain, in her ethereal impersonation of Terrence Malick’s idea of earthbound grace, and her gutsy, emotionally well-shaded semi-lead role in The Debt.
Amongst the male of the species, Christoph Waltz might have been disappointed with his first follow-up to Inglourious Basterds, but, considering that he provided most of the few actual laughs in The Green Hornet (“I am ungassable!”), we can’t be disappointed in him. Attack the Block was similarly given some saving zest by the flip wigger cynicism of Alex Esmail, the drolly stoned college boy filled out by Luke Treadaway, and the posturing yet actually befuddled masculinity of Joe Boyega. Ryan Gosling’s thousand-yard-stare-of-the-sensitive-hunk acting has generated a wealth of amusing internet memes, but it’s a great part of the power of Drive, enticing and yet puzzling in his silent, seemingly open demeanour that hides a soul filled with great and terrible wrath. Similarly cunning was Albert Brooks’ justly acclaimed casting as the unlikely force of evil Gosling is fated to meet. Oscar Isaac contributed to the film’s peculiar textures with his evasive performance as Gosling’s foil, but his major part of the year was his alluring, villainous ham in Sucker Punch, shooting hapless ladies in the head and crooning Roxy Music with equal aplomb.
James McAvoy had an excellent year after a spell of eddying post-Atonement, playing conscientious, whip-smart young heroes in The Conspirator and X-Men: First Class: anyone who can make the line “I can’t feel my legs” sound halfway convincing deserves some sort of award. That film was also given some genuinely relishable villainy by unexpectedly dashing, sublimely sadistic Kevin Bacon, and, of course, the man who was everywhere this year, Michael Fassbender, slinked through his role as the proto-Magneto with dark wit and charm. Fassbender might get awards props for the one major role of his I haven’t caught yet, but considering that Fassbender also gave fine physical form to Rochester in Jane Eyre and inhabited Carl Jung with a smouldering brilliance in A Dangerous Method, he certainly has earned his pay. Viggo Mortensen was similarly stellar in Cronenberg’s film, wielding a crafty, authoritative intelligence in portraying Sigmund Freud that far transcended the usual look-at-me celebrity impersonations. Woody Harrelson’s excellence in Rampart sustains a meandering but occasionally ferocious journey into the dark heart of American manhood. Amongst the undoubtedly awe-endowing cast of the final Harry Potter chapter, Alan Rickman’s hyped grace note as the hapless Snape was fine indeed, but oddly enough, I came out having enjoyed Ralph Fiennes’ invocation of something pathetic in the monstrous Voldemort; in a year in which we’ve seen genuine fawned-over-but-actually-detested tyrants depart the earth, he summarised something about them, in his cringeworthy attempt to play the loving despot, not easily appended to news stories.
I’ll spare a kind word for two good actors in movies I hated, Tom Hardy, whose sullen aggression blended with irreducible pain in Warrior was genuinely rousing, and Matt Damon’s frazzled everyman mucking through disaster in Contagion. Along with costar Emily Blunt, Damon’s class also gave some solidity to the stupefyingly silly The Adjustment Bureau. Kevin Spacey, after a long spell of strange and hammy roles, finally snapped back into A-game mode in the generally well-acted Margin Call, and gave his best performance in a decade. Seasoned Hollywood leading men Sean Penn and Brad Pitt were similarly, uncannily immersed in the texture of The Tree of Life, though the film’s real star was young Hunter McCracken, voluble in his incarnation of nascent pubescent emotion and receptivity. Christopher Plummer’s lauded role as the dying gay father in Beginners is obviously an emeritus Oscar in the making, but he was also very good, giving one of his most intimate and convincing film performances in many years. But perhaps the real gem of that film was Goran Visnijc’s role as his peculiar, emotionally bewildered lover. Paul Giamatti, everyone’s pet thespian, sustained the schmaltzy duo of Win/Win and Barney’s Version, imbuing them with life their screenplays probably didn’t deserve, and meanwhile his despicable King John in the rowdy Ironclad was a nice change of pace: nobody has or ever will catapult Brian Cox into a brick wall with as much bravura. Eric Bana was incredibly good and rather underused in Hanna, which is pretty well the story of his career. Young Asa Butterfield in Hugo offered a peculiarly restrained and subtle adolescent performance, keeping pace with the ever-luminous Chloe Moretz playing perhaps her most normal character ever; standing over them literally, if not figuratively, were Ben Kingsley in a characteristically electric turn as the haunted Georges Méliès, Helen McCrory as his sadly ebullient wife, and Sacha Baron-Cohen lobbying hard to be the heir to Peter Sellers as Hugo’s tragicomic foil.
Jean Dujardin has snagged himself an almost certain Oscar nomination this year with his part in The Artist, a role that neatly sidesteps any language difficulties for a French actor in a French movie, an interesting corollary to a year filled with excellent performances in non-English-language films that will, by and large, be entirely ignored. These ranked from the entire cast of Of Gods and Men, including familiar old hands Michael Lonsdale and Lambert Wilson, to the daring of Monica del Carmen in Leap Year, and the hypnotic work of Adriano Luz, Maria João Bastos, and Clotilde Hesme in Mysteries of Lisbon, and Kseniya Rappoport as the antiheroine with a splintered psyche in the uneven The Double Hour. Sergey Puskepolis’ hulking, abusive, scary, yet strangely fatherly characterisation in How I Ended the Summer did a lot to give the film its sense of latent threat and grizzled, vodka-scented heartbreak. Ariane Labed in Attenberg provided a deliciously deadpan portrait of millennial angst and perversity and, finally, almost subliminal grief. Luis Tosar, in Even the Rain, gave a solid core to a thumpingly unsubtle piece of proselytising with his intelligent portrait of a professional jerk obeying humanitarian impulses within himself he wishes he could wish away. Kôji Yakusho gave 13 Assassins its unshakeable moral and physical core, opposite the most memorable villain of the year, the dead-eyed psychopathic princeling embodied by Gorô Inagaki.
Favourites Movies of 2011
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
Cronenberg’s cool, intelligent dissection of not merely the human foibles of the great and brilliant, but of an era and different ways of conceiving the world is his best film in 20 years, and a refreshingly sober study of the trial and error demanded by both scientific method and rebelling against the world that cocoons and frustrates us.
Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari)
Far deeper and more genuinely affecting than its English-language equivalents, The Descendants and Beginners, and a worthy follow-up for the Dogtooth team, Attenberg was a notably astringent, yet penetrating study of an inchoate, quietly grief-stricken era where certainties slip away along with loved ones, and humans become strangers to themselves.
Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
Refn’s second appearance on my best-of list in two years was a superficial departure from 2010’s Valhalla Rising, and yet maintained deep ties with the earlier film, as a portrait of the human capacity for psychotic rage and benevolent care cohabiting uneasily in one body, and repainting the world according to a mysterious and sometimes frightening moral and aesthetic force. A triumph for cinema craft and directorial vision.
Hanna (Joe Wright)
Joe Wright’s succinctly shaped, yet reflexively epic fairytale-cum-action flick skipped nimbly through genres and continents, evoking everyone from Orson Welles to Terry Southern to the Brothers Grimm on the way. Plus, love that Chemical Brothers score.
Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
A touch distended and ungainly, there is nonetheless a genuine sense of cinematic wonder and emotional iridescence in Martin Scorsese’s first tilt at making a film for all ages, as he finds a way to pull everyone closer to his life obsession and entertain at the same time. Hugo both celebrates the communal dream of cinema and embodies it, and evokes the painful joy of leaving behind childhood even in the midst of a neo-Technicolor fantasia.
Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga)
Brusquely handsome and flushed with real feeling, this surprising little gem manages to quietly ransack the settled conventions of the costumed literary adaptation and find a bleary realism in an old and settled template, without stooping to Lit Theory class gimmicks or chocolate box romanticism.
Leap Year (Michael Rowe)
A searing nugget of excellence revolving around cryptic suggestions of familial trauma and Latin American dislocation, vast realms of history and discourse channelled into the body of Laura (Monica del Carmen), trying to exculpate loneliness and crisis through inviting abuse to her body from the one guy who likes her enough to do it. Falls down right at the end, but a vital trumpet blast all the same.
Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz)
The lamented Ruiz’s swan song had all the qualities one expects of both great cinema and also great literature, narratives and images flowing with perfervid beauty and rich melancholia in currents and cross-currents of cause and effect, personality, and sexuality, finally adding up to prove that history is a joke played on all of us.
The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell)
So restrained and limpid in its rewriting of American Graffiti as a Prozac-infused odyssey through the mating rituals of contemporary teenagers that it begins to feel like a fever dream, this film turns its quietly poetic realism into one of the most unobtrusively authentic, yet also artistic and beguiling, portraits of being at that cusp of final adulthood I’ve ever seen.
Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman)
Hellman’s first film in 22 years has its share of longeurs, as if negotiating the strange new textures of modern digital indie cinema, and yet it carefully compounds into a deceptively skillful contemplation of the directorial craft itself and a genuinely clever deconstruction of the noir film and the femme fatale/muse figure. Fittingly for one of the true fathers of independent cinema, Road to Nowhere, like Hellman’s works did 40 or more years ago, impresses with the sense of sovereign artistry wrung from a low budget.
Scream 4 (Wes Craven)
Call it the year of the horror comeback: John Carpenter and John Landis both returned to movie screens after a decade’s absence with erratic films, the resurgence of Hammer Studios continued with the interesting, almost really good Wake Wood and the terrible The Resident, and Wes Craven returned to his famous postmodern slasher series. With original cast members obviously feeling their age and a slew of newbies of variable charm, nonetheless this, when it found its groove, became one of the most purely entertaining and refreshingly nasty mainstream films of the year, with Emma Roberts’ narcissistic psycho proving a far wittier, equally relevant rejoinder to the dolorous art-house exploitation of We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder)
The year’s most mistreated mainstream film (amongst several) that revealed a general cluelessness and neopuritanical streak underlying much critical mentality about the possible fusion of cinema with internet and gaming culture, as well as attempts to expand the lexicon of American blockbuster cinema, Sucker Punch is a wild, crazy, irresponsible ride through the id, and a celebration and deconstruction of the 20th century’s fantasy canon, a bleak satire on institutionalised, outsider-crushing “care”, and the relationship of both with the slow but irreversible liberation from many forms of psychic tyranny. There’s hot chicks with machine guns killing dragons, too.
Super 8 (J.J. Abrams)
J.J. Abrams’ nimble-bodied attempt to recreate the early Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment aesthetic also inspired a lot of surprising hostility, to the extent of crowding any serious contemplation of not only how well he recreates that aesthetic, but also how he offers a self-reflexive meditation on nostalgia, childhood awakenings, and the techniques of cinema. He considers again his recurring fascination with not only themes of familial longing and damage, but also with the act of mediating life through visual recording, and makes it work as its own piece of filmmaking to an extent very few such pieces of retro-cinema tribute ever manage. It also takes its young protagonists far more seriously and on their level than the patronising hipster snark of Attack the Block. Plus, that train wreck was the set-piece of the year.
The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
Whilst, on balance, I didn’t think it quite lived up to the more integral, if also more prosaic, greatness of Malick’s The New World, The Tree of Life earned all its gobsmacked plaudits through sheer nerve and vision: physically ravishing, spiritually probing, and genuinely complex and observationally acute beneath the potentially dizzying pretences, it’s the sort of film that gives ambitious art movies a good name.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) and Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois)
I’ll count these two together because they are, in a way, “last year,” and they each represent fascinating, moody meditations on how we approach a sense of the infinite in both human terms and through the natural world’s benign, embracing indifference: the explicit religious-cultural war in Of Gods and Men and the cryptic militarist repression in Uncle Boonmee each lend a background of human cruelty and irrationalism, whilst the foreground drama concentrates on the values, experiences, and binding ties of family and comrades that leaven the journey into the undiscovered country.
Womb (Benedek Fleigauf)
A caustic little Euro-sleeper with a powerhouse cast and a thorny plot, Womb is a Kubrickian scifi chamber piece with a streak of Polanski-esque psychological gamesmanship, that actually manages to investigate its singular basic idea through with nerveless logic and emotional depth, thus succeeding where many similar films pretend to try and still fail.
X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn) and Thor (Kenneth Branagh)
There were too many comic book superhero movies released this year, or at least so I’m told. But these two movies manage to take that dreary job description and do joyously different things with their respective material, pushed into different realms of Hollywood genre lore by two perpetually energetic British directors. In the case of Vaughn’s film, that meant offering a sleek, swashbuckling reinvention of the well-worn franchise that paid honourable tribute to ’60s Bond flicks and the broad neo-pulp pantheon, whereas Branagh turned the Umpteenth Avenger into the protagonist of a rousing Shakespearean power ballad, with a smart lead performance as a fairly thick hero by Chris Hemsworth and some genuinely soaring fantasy imagery. If you wanted colour and light this year—and god knows I did—then these were the ticket.
Would Have Been On This List If I Had Seen Them In Time:
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
The Raid: Redemption (Gareth Evans)
The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar)
War Horse (Steven Spielberg)
13 Assassins (Takashi Miike)
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (Steven Spielberg)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two (David Yates)
How I Ended This Summer (Aleksey Popogrebskiy)
Rampart (Oren Moverman)
Wake Wood (David Keating)
X (Jon Hewitt)
I Liked, With Reservations
Another Earth (Mike Cahill)
Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes)
The Double Hour (Giuseppe Capotondi)
Fast Five (Justin Lin)
The Hunter (Daniel Nettheim)
Margin Call (J.C. Chandor)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)
Paul (Greg Mottola)
Source Code (Duncan Jones)
Super (James Gunn)
Passion Play (Mitch Glazer)
Point Blank (Fred Cavayé)
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
The Ward (John Carpenter)
Attack the Block (Joe Cornish)
Burke and Hare (John Landis)
Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston)
Eye of the Storm (Fred Schepisi)
The Conspirator (Robert Redford)
The Green Hornet (Michel Gondry)
Submarine (Richard Ayoade)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
Your Highness (David Gordon Green)
Brighton Rock (Rowan Joffe)
Conan the Barbarian (Marcus Nispel)
Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
The First Grader (Justin Chadwick)
A Heartbeat Away (Gale Edwards)
The Help (Tate Taylor)
Immortals (Tarsem Singh)
The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd)
Red Riding Hood (Catherine Hardwicke)
The Resident (Antti Jokinen)
Warrior (Gavin O’Connor)
We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)
As Yet Unseen
50/50, Amigo, Bellflower, Margaret, My Week With Marilyn, Red Dog, Shame, The Sleeping Beauty, Weekend
My Year of Retro Wonders: The Best Older Films I First Encountered in 2011
Arashi Ga Oka (Kiju Yoshida)
The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko)
Back Door to Hell / Ride the Whirlwind / Cockfighter (Monte Hellman)
The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh)
The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra)
Blast of Silence (Alan Baron)
The Bride with White Hair (Ronnie Yu) / The Bride with White Hair II (David Wu)
Castle Keep (Sydney Pollack)
Chungking Express (Wong Kar-Wai)
Contraband / A Matter of Life and Death / Gone to Earth (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Dark of the Sun (Jack Cardiff)
El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky)
The Embryo Hunts in Secret (Koji Wakamatsu)
Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges)
Freud (John Huston)
A Generation (Andrzej Wajda)
The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino)
It’s a Gift (Norman Z. McLeod)
Ivan the Terrible, Parts I & II (Sergei Eisenstein)
Land of the Pharaohs / El Dorado (Howard Hawks)
Letter from an Unknown Woman / Lola Montes (Max Ophüls)
The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman)
Mahler (Ken Russell)
Murder by Contract (Irving Lerner)
The Nanny (Seth Holt)
Night Train (Jerzy Kawalerowicz)
Paprika (Satoshi Kon)
The Quatermass Xperiment / Quatermass II / The Day The Earth Caught Fire (Val Guest)
Sebastiane (Derek Jarman and Paul Humfress)
Shivers (David Cronenberg)
The Sniper (Edward Dmytryk)
Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)
Tess (Roman Polanski)
Voyage to Italy (Roberto Rossellini)
The Wedding Party / Sisters (Brian de Palma)
Went the Day Well? (Alberto Cavalcanti)
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By Marilyn Ferdinand
In the last blog entry, my partner Rod Heath gave his year in review and 10 favorite films of 2010. He also mentioned the ongoing dialogue we’ve had about the films we’ve seen and what has worked and not worked for each of us. Here’s what he said:
Marilyn’s been hungry for films with positive and expansively humanistic sensibilities, which have, sadly, been pretty thin on the ground. I’ve found myself, on the other hand, responding enthusiastically, or, at least, with a certain empathetic recognition, to the oft-brutal and misanthropic mood exhibited in so many films.
Rod, of course, is essentially correct about the kinds of films we’ve each pursued and how we have scored our respective reactions. I have not been impervious to the misanthropy afloat in the zeitgeist—indeed, I have found myself haunted by the dead-on critique of the current state of our culture by the mockumentary I’m Still Here—the mud-wallow that is reality TV, the rise of the dilettante to meteoric heights, self-obsession projected for mass consumption by enabling home and surveillance technologies, and the sanctification of the word “fuck” as the dominant term for emotion and emphasis. Do I want to escape all that? You bet! Art has the ability to ennoble, but it seems that most filmmakers are content these days to fish in wading pools and shoot into barrels. A paucity of films with ideas or any motivation to really wrestle with them has film audiences and critics falling all over themselves to try to find some nourishment for their minds and souls—hence, the declaration that Inception is the thinking man’s blockbuster, never mind that there’s nothing to think about but the plot twists.
I find myself in the grip of a very strong desire to find a lot more that’s real in my everyday experiences. The world has gotten too virtual for me, and even the movies, whose fictional stories have always helped put real life, once lived largely face to face and in real time, into much-needed perspective, are, as Rod put it, “thin on the ground.” For example, the gay and lesbian experience, so long banished from or opaquely referenced in movies, is now everywhere, with many a straight actor looking for a same-sex tongue kiss to keep up with the times. Ironically, lesbian director Lisa Cholodenko, given the chance to show how the other half really lives in The Kids Are All Right, chose to create a sitcom highly palatable to straight audiences, putting her characters in an upper-middle-class California milieu and offering a lesbian who is made invisible under a bulky blanket while failing to arouse her lesbian partner during a silly sex scene and who is then rushed into a straight sexual relationship for the duration of the movie.
Leave it to documentaries to provide a snapshot of where we are today—ironically, still remote from the world or in despair. Marwencol shows how a hideous assault on a cross-dresser in upstate New York sent the victim, exceedingly lucky to be alive, into a fantasy world populated by dolls whose names and stories stand in for a world the man is too frightened to face. Restrepo recalls the televised Vietnam War, but unlike with Vietnam, who has really connected their own fates with the men and women sent to the other side of the world to fight yet another war? And Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work continues a trend of documenting aging celebrities (Valentino: The Last Emperor, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster); watching Rivers’ desperate bid to keep working—and surely that’s why she agreed to do this documentary—seems to continue the freak show aspects of her current celebrity, but I’m not sure what it means on a cosmic level. Waiting for Superman is union-busting propaganda and fear mongering. And documentaries like Casino Jack and the United States of Money and Countdown to Zero (“convincingly argued and extremely polished, it has theatrical potential for auds whose reservoir of worry about humanity’s future hasn’t already run dry” says the Hollywood Reporter) provide too little too late for most of us.
As distribution for films made outside the United States or official channels continues to dwindle, it is harder for fresh, world-expanding visions to be seen. And yet they are there, and I’ve been lucky enough to see them. Recognizing films officially with awards based on whether they have played theatrically during a given year is a hegemonic and, given internet distribution, archaic practice that assures these films will not join in the publicity bonanza a show like the Oscars can provide. So I’m simply going to ignore this kind of nonsense and make a list of favorite films I’ve seen this year through any means at all.
In alphabetical order:
Asleep in the Sun (Alejandro Chomski)
Literary adaptations don’t have to be Oscar-baiting films on a grand scale. Alejandro Chomski’s sly and winning Asleep in the Sun reinvigorates the scifi horror film with humor and wisdom. It’s a smallish film with a big heart and charm to burn.
Bluebeard (Catherine Breillat)
Leave it to the brilliant Catherine Breillat to take the oft-told tale of Bluebeard and weave a grisly story of wish fulfillment that gives patriarchy its comeuppance.
Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
Recalling the multinational, polylingual sex farces of Luis Buñuel, Abbas Kiarostami turns out a philosophical love story unlike anything I’ve ever seen—as puzzling and beautiful as love itself.
Lourdes (Jessica Hausner)
A perfectly modulated comedy, Lourdes also makes rueful comment on the desperate need and search for personal miracles that keep religion and its many brokers in business.
Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg)
Regarding Henry made poignantly real when Mark Hogancamp is beaten nearly to death, awakens from a 9-day coma with the task of relearning everything from walking to writing, and gives up his old best friend—booze—to build himself a new, safe world of doll friends in his fictional Belgian town of Marwencol. The will to survive and create art rich with sincerity and imagination is Hogancamp’s gift to everyone who sees his town and this film.
No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (Steve James)
If documentarian Steve James has ever made a less-than-compelling, beautifully crafted film, I’ve yet to see it. James turns a beam on his own home town of Hampton, Virginia, where a criminal assault case against rising basketball star Allen Iverson showed the depth of the community’s racial divide, long buried, but never dead.
On Tour (Mathieu Amalric)
A bit of a rambling, loose film, but the wonderful sense of family and shared fates reminiscent of the films of Mike Leigh inform this look at an American New Burlesque troupe on tour in France.
Problema (Ralf Schmerberg)
Imagine you are at a dinner party with 112 of the most interesting, informed, out-of-the-box thinkers on the planet and they all respond to 100 pressing questions asked by people from all walks of life all over the world. Imagine, too, that you could see their answers any time you wanted by clicking on this link and that you could make your own movie out of what you found there. Open-source films are a totally new form, and I feel incredibly fortunate to be around at the moment of their birth.
The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court (Pamela Yates)
The United States lost all credibility as the world’s white-hatted savior when it failed to join the International Criminal Court. The ICC truly does divine work, bringing criminals to justice and ending their reigns of terror. How the court works, what it has accomplished, and what still needs to be done form the basis for this eye-opening, compassionate documentary focusing on the real good guys in the world today.
Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean)
An ordinary tale of adultery given an extraordinary treatment by master filmmaker Radu Muntean, Tuesday, After Christmas provides an allegory for Romania in a newly prosperous era.
Waste Land (Lucy Walker)
The art of found objects advances exponentially when photographer Vik Muniz travels back to his native country of Brazil to make art with garbage from the country’s largest landfill and the people who make a subsistence living recycling some of it. Uplifting, ingenious, and a subtle critique of the social divide that keeps black Brazilians down and white Brazilians throwing away perfectly good objects and people.
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By Roderick Heath
I did resolve to do a more thorough and serious “confession” this year than those of previous years, in part because this piece will look at several of my favourite films for the year that, for various reasons, I’ve been unable to write up in the more traditional Ferdy on Films template. I doubt what follows lives up my lofty ambitions. It’s been a year, in terms of general quality of movies, both better than it seemed at first and yet also riddled with crushing disappointments. I doubt too many will argue with the proposition that there have been precious few great works, or ones that even tried for greatness. Greatness requires flashes of rebellion against what’s already been proven as reliable and sturdy, whereas today’s cultural centrifuges work to assert a pulverising sameness. That any art form can, and should, offer up many different paradigms of style and story at once has, oddly, never been a popular notion, and even those who claim to want something different often merely settle for repeated versions of something different. A film like The King’s Speech is no less formulaic than the average dim-witted action flick or rom com, and I’m surprised so few seem to notice.
As I’ve said in years past, I’m usually happier raking the debris of cinema culture rather than admiring its shiny new bastions. And at a time when contemporary Hollywood’s directors would benefit from relearning some rigorous classicism in their approach to storytelling and cinematic technique, I’m also finding more than ever that there’s a depressing homogeneity and surface-level pseudo-insight that’s infected the screenwriters in Tinseltown, and elsewhere, too. They’re all so reliant on the most predictable, by-rote, class-taught story structures, and producers have rarely been so fond of the notion that all you have to do is assemble certain disparate pieces in the correct order, and you’ll have a colossal hit. That sort of thing made itself particularly apparent in obscene chimeras throughout the year, in blockbuster fare like Clash of the Titans, The Wolfman, Iron Man 2, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and Robin Hood, as well as would-be serious dramas like The King’s Speech and Hereafter. On the other hand, easily illustrated by the likes of Splice and Black Swan, self-appointed auteurs often think it’s enough that they came up with a pile of provocative ideas, and leave most of the actual work to the audience in a patent search for cult status: if you didn’t “get” the movie, then you simply weren’t the right audience for it. If Christopher Nolan’s Inception was admirable for anything, it was that it was plainly the product of a singular aesthetic and artistic sensibility that wasn’t afraid to think big; and yet it, too, belonged in all aspects to this second category, except in terms of its budget and box office. One obvious reason for the giddy reception of Black Swan in some quarters is that whilst its story basics are hackneyed and characters numbingly clichéd, as filmmaking, it’s something far beyond the everyday.
In any event, I achieved a personal record in terms of the number of films released in the U.S. or Australia in the 2010 calendar year that I’ve managed to catch, but still not all that many by the standards of a professional critic. In the past few weeks I’ve had repeated conversations with esteemed colleague Marilyn Ferdinand about the year’s well-thought-of films which we’ve been working our way through at a time when we’ve had sharply diverging tastes and expectations about them. Marilyn’s been hungry for films with positive and expansively humanistic sensibilities, which have, sadly, been pretty thin on the ground. I’ve found myself, on the other hand, responding enthusiastically, or, at least, with a certain empathetic recognition, to the oft-brutal and misanthropic mood exhibited in so many films. Movies seem to be channelling the repressed rage that many have felt in the past years of mismanaged wars and economies, the impatience with officialdom and low-burning unrest in our info-bombarded zeitgeist. Occasionally, the zeitgeist even provides its own revealingly mangled rhymes. One of the major screen heroes of the year was a bisexual Swedish female nerd fond of exposing malfeasance on the internet and brutally punishing rapists; one of the most controversial real-life figures of the year was an ambisexual Aussie nerd fond of exposing malfeasance on the internet and accused of rape in Sweden. One of the most “fun” films of 2010 featured a prepubescent girl butchering adults in a calculated but slyly passionate jab at the ever-more cloying, hermetic middle classes whose anxieties are usually the bread and butter of all big commerce, Hollywood included. Prime award-bait piece Rabbit Hole presented a great long wallow in the fallout of when the cult of suburban cocooning fails.
At the heart of that misanthropic streak, perhaps of the most interesting, continually recurring figure in this year’s more prominent works has been the antihero who, variously treacherous, criminal, reprehensible, even downright psychopathic in their war with the world, who find themselves finally, painfully, destructively tethered to their remaining human affections and emotions. Such a description roughly fits John Hawkes’ Teardrop in Winter’s Bone, Mads Mikkelsen’s One-Eye in Valhalla Rising, Eddie Marsan’s Vic in The Disappearence of Alice Creed, Casey Affleck’s Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me, George Clooney’s Man with Many Names in The American, Olga Kurylenko’s Etain in Centurion, Ben Mendelsohn’s Pope in Animal Kingdom, Nicholas Cage’s Big Daddy in Kick-Ass, and even, in their less flashy fashions, Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and Pierce Brosnan’s Adam Lang in The Ghost Writer. In contrast, the need and will to escape, whether it be from literal captivity, oppressive lives and crushing weights, in defiance of whole social hierarchies or merely of a daily grind or tragic memory, saw hapless but determined Everymen and women rise in counterpoint to the general run of bastards on screen. Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island and Cobb in Inception, Jim Carrey’s Steven Russell in I Love You Phillip Morris, Katie Jarvis’ Mia Williams in Fish Tank, Aggeliki Papoulia’s Older Daughter in Dogtooth, Gemma Arterton’s Alice Creed, Keir Gilhcrist’s Craig in It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Angelina Jolie’s Evelyn Salt in Salt, the hapless heroes of Predators and The Town and Centurion and even, in their way, Stephen Dorff’s Johnny Marco in Somewhere and the unfortunate couple in Rabbit Hole—all were fighting against things as seemingly benign as the suffocating sponginess of consumerism or an inability to find their true selves, or very real, very dangerous corporeal enemies, and dread existential abysses. Even Serge Gainsbourg, as portrayed in Johann Sfar’s Gainsbourg: vie heroique, is chased around by the literalised ogre image of the anti-Semitism that terrorises and inspires him to the end of his days.
Some of these characters fit into both categories: does not One-Eye, in his wordless way, flee the lingering ghosts of the men he’s killed in search of a transcendence he finds in the most unlikely of places? Is not Teddy Daniels both killer and victim, quarry and pursuer? Doesn’t Mia nearly kill a small girl in her anguished attempt to protest her betrayal and limited life options? The American even trundles slowly to a dead halt, painted in his own blood, in a final effort to escape a life in which he is advised not to make friends—to be, therefore, dead whilst still alive. The young walking organ bags of Never Let Me Go did not try to escape physically, but they did try to establish their own identities and make their own pathetic protests against the inevitable. Their rebellion is to be much more human than the film’s imagined alternate society expects them to be. Steven Russell flees lives, sexual identities, and law enforcement with the panicked speed of a man desperately trying to keep hold of the one thing that gives his self-destructively consumerist lifestyle some specific gravity.
Many of those cinematic monsters, walking wounded, and wayward warriors had been raised virtually since birth to be the creatures they are, sometimes obeying their ingrained purposes to the letter, others rebelling and seeking out their own raison d’être. There’s a certain irony in this theme, insofar as there’s probably never been such a time in human history in which people are less required to master certain survival arts than today. But perhaps there is both the reaction to and commentary on the growing panic in which children are shoved into the rites of growing up and preparation for an ever more paranoiacally competitive world. Mindy “Hit-Girl” Macready, Evelyn Salt, and Etain are brought up as creatures of dynamic savagery to avenge murdered family members. Teddy Daniels and the Bostonian heavies of The Town are steeped in regulation American machismo and class warfare, struggling against all ingrained presumptions to think of another way out of their jams. Ree Dolly, as a backwoods, squirrel-shootin’, back-talkin’ Lady Liberty, advises her young siblings, “There’s a lot of things you’re gonna have to learn to stop being afraid of.” Nina Sayers of Black Swan is the product of a lifetime regimen of training and preparation for a great future that may never come unless she learns to rebel against precisely what has pushed her so far. The children of Dogtooth enact a perverted version of arch patriarchal, bourgeois fantasies of keeping children socially sterilised against pernicious, uncontrolled forces. Future king Bertie (Colin Firth) in The King’s Speech has been twisted into incoherent knots by the firm upbringing designed to make him strong and resolute, yet it turns out that’s exactly what was needed to fight the dirty Hun. Harry Potter lurched ever closer to the fate awaiting him since infanthood. Even the original gangster himself, Robin Hood, made a cursory outing, passing rapidly through alternate social ranks to finally discover he is the common ancestor of Winston Churchill and Glenn Beck.
If Hit Girl’s rampaging violence represented a kind of giddy fantasy of unleashed anarchy, Never Let Me Go examined the exact opposite world of existential entrapment, and Dogtooth remained balanced precariously and thrillingly between the two, all three nonetheless presented variations on this same theme of who we were are raised to be and why. The notion that, in the end, all behaviours and actions are both futile and infinite, resounds. The notion that the mind is its own deep well that contains entrapping depths and stygian nightmares, whilst hardly novel, again rose up to swamp many of these heroes and heroines. Shutter Island and Black Swan offered up male and female archetypes—the über-macho film noir hero and the innocent, fragile maiden—who take long trips through their own psyches, becoming their own enemies, soothsayers, and spirit-guides. Teddy and Nina are both disintegrating psychos who destroy themselves for a principle, and that principle is love in differing forms. Love also vibrates beneath the harsh, violent, taciturn surface of Valhalla Rising, where One-Eye’s affection for the child he adopts leads him to sacrifice himself to a tribe of Native Americans his mind has reconfigured into avenging demons, on the edge of all human existence.
A couple of more random notes:
—It was a good year for British directors, whether overseas or at home.
—If films like Inception, Black Swan, and The Social Network, in their differing fashions, tried to choke the audience with exhibitions of their own glib brilliance, The American, Dogtooth, Valhalla Rising, and The Disappearance of Alice Creed proved how little you need to compel an audience.
—Will someone buy Leonardo DiCaprio a decent razor?
2010 in Fragments
Even if films aren’t great or even that memorable as a whole, so many offer up glorious little bits that are worthy and make being a cinephile the fun business it really is. One of the great scenes in 2010 featured former boy wonder Harry Potter having the bleakest of Christmas Eve homecomings. He finds the graves of his parents and grotesque monsters wearing the guises of helpful humans whilst locked on the frozen exterior of a cozy world, the yuletide songs of that world emerging muffled from within the warmth of civilised security and all its stable assumptions. Our heroes are enacting some dark duties indeed these days to satisfy our sense of truth.
Another great scene, in Dogtooth, presented a dialectical opposite: in the nominal balm of her family living room on a celebratory eve, a young woman brought up on a scant diet of seemingly randomly absorbed pop culture moments amidst a sea of context-warping disinformation, attempts madly to please her parents with a grotesque aping of Flashdance’s iconic dance routines.
Teddy Daniels, in one of his psychotic dreams, imagines a smiling beauty covered in blood, cheerfully asking for and receiving his help in bundling away her murdered children’s bodies. In another, he stands amidst a shower of papers, denying a hideously wounded Nazi a quick coup de grace by pushing away his gun.
Wonder warrior Hit Girl finishes up beaten to a pulp by her arch nemesis and murderer of her parents, mobster Frank D’Amico, only for the baddie to be fired out the window on the end of a rocket by Hit Girl’s adoptive brother, with the advice, “Pick on someone your own size” trailing him. Truly, love expresses itself in some strange ways.
In Somewhere, Johnny Marco and his daughter Cleo bond over Guitar Hero, competing to see who can play the worse fake rock god. In Gainsbourg: vie heroique, a genuine rock god and momentary amour Brigitte Bardot celebrate sex and life with a joyous impromptu performance of their pop-art hit “Comic Strip” in a scene straight out of an old-school musical.
In Detective Dee and The Mystery of the Phantom Flame, the titular hero and his gang of oddball aides battle their nemesis in an underground city, huge spars of wood spearing a sunless sea as our heroes enact a ballet of superhuman motion, wire-fu dynamism, and lysergic imagery in the most intricate synchronisation. In Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Scott defeats an army of henchmen after he earns the Power of Love, sees a samurai sword spring from his body, his enemies’ bodies disintegrate into piles of arcade game-feeding quarters, leaving him standing on a field of victory decorated by piles of glittering silver. In Green Zone, Matt Damon’s all-American hero seems to defy the efforts of heaven and hell to stop the truth getting out, chasing down the Iraqi general who holds the key to Pandora’s Box and battling soldiers from both sides on the way in an astounding marathon for both actor and filmmakers.
In The Killer Inside Me, Lou Ford beats a woman’s face to a shattered pulp even as she moans, “I love you.” In Winter’s Bone, Ree’s quest to find her father leads her to the emotional and physical abyss, where she has to hold his rotting corpse’s hands out of the water so that they can be cut off with a chainsaw. The American commences with the ultimate act for a star looking to change his image: George Clooney shoots the woman he just made love to in the back of the head.
In Centurion, after killing another Roman in her unceasing quest to avenge atrocities, Etaine releases a scream of frustrated rage that echoes only with the unfillable void that endless slaughter provokes. In Never Let Me Go, Tommy (Andrew Garfield) releases a similar scream when he realises how hopeless his dream of escaping a slow death of being hacked up to keep other people alive has been. In Valhalla Rising, the lost Celtic would-be holy warriors devolve into hysterical mutual battery and desperate prayer, appealing to a God that doesn’t answer, squirming in the mud and howling at the wind. In I Love You Phillip Morris, Phillip, believing his lover Steven has died, receives a visit from his lawyer, who proves to be Steven. Faking your death from AIDS, he informs us, is quite a tricky feat.
Scott Pilgrim follows Ramona Flowers into her mystic abode, seeming to skate upon thin air. The American goes down on his favourite prostitute, to her utter surprise and swiftly captured affection. Black Swan‘s Nina, deep in a dug-addled fantasy, grasps her rival-cum-friend Lily (Mila Kunis) for the most ecstatic of erotic revels: the moment of seeing Nina give into lust with real joy made a refreshing contrast (even if it’s just a wet dream) to a spectacle like that of Greenberg’s Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) and Florence (Greta Gerwig) fucking in so pathetically uninspired a fashion that even they can’t be bothered sticking it out to the end. Perhaps better than Black Swan’s Sapphic onanism was the moment, both hallucinogenic and tender, when The Runaways’ Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) kisses Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) when pumped full of drugs in an infernal nightclub, the fetishist drone of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” blaring. Rarely has young lust seemed at once so innocent and so dangerous.
Some things that are remarkable about movies aren’t even so specific. The moody, hazy, blasted Beckettesque sands of coastal New England in The Ghost Writer infuses the drama of that film with an almost existential angst that almost convinces you you’re not watching a great filmmaker wasting his time on go-nowhere pulp. The equally devastated landscape of Winter’s Bone is dotted with the refuse of a civilisation that reached a high water mark and then retreated, leaving only stains and debris. The wondrous landscapes of Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame burned with exactly the right kind of fantastic beauty, in the sort of film that the people who made the likes of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the Clash of the Titans remake, and Iron Man 2 should be forced to watch on a constant loop until they forget their names and start speaking Cantonese.
When one talks about award-worthy performances these days, it’s hard not to take for granted that such acting usually come wrapped in crappy films. Two of this year’s best feats of acting, Natalie Portman’s in the cheesy if giddily entertaining Black Swan and Colin Firth in the stolid The King’s Speech are both elegant testimonials to both actors’ rise through wayward careers to the peak of their craft. Portman’s advance from the fetchingly sassy young outcast of Leon, The Professional to Black Swan’s anguished, ardent Nina caps off a fascinating trip, and if any human element gives material force to the trippy, dippy rush of that film, it’s her splendidly heady, overwrought presentation of a repressed girl who ruptures at the seams and learns to revel in it. Costar Mila Kunis wasn’t so far behind her, either. Firth comes across like he put himself in real physical and psychological pain to present King George VI as anything but the honourable cipher he’s always seemed to be. Just as dynamic and physically convincing was Eric Elmosnino in Gainsbourg: vie heroique, a sustained incarnation of one of pop culture’s most protean figures, even if the film around him finally proved unable to take its reinvention of the biopic quite far enough. The late Lucy Gordon’s hypnotically beautiful contribution to that film only reinforced the tragedy of her death. After years of trying to establish his credibility as a serious actor, Jim Carrey finally achieved a near-brilliant synthesis of his comic talents with a meaty role in I Love You Phillip Morris: it’s as close as he’ll ever come to his Monsieur Verdoux.
Jennifer Lawrence’s incarnation of Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone, on the other hand, is the sort of performance that sends a fledgling career into the stratosphere. Lawrence got to speak several of 2010’s most memorable tough-guy lines, sometimes with a bloody lip. Just as important, if not more so, were John Hawkes’ and Dale Dickey’s respective contributions: both long-seasoned actors, it seemed hard nonetheless not to believe they’d been born the people they played. This year’s Hot Brit Miss, Gemma Arterton, who seemed to be in every other movie released in 2010, spent much of The Disappearance of Alice Creed tied to a bed, and yet her performance, riddled with an equal mixture of immediately engrossing fear, survivalist cunning, and spoilt party girl learning a few harsh truths, was my pick of them. Even better was Eddie Marsan’s incarnation in the same film as a gay ex-convict trying to project ferocity but ending up crucified by the one thing he loves: tossing Alice the keys that set her free was one of the most humane moments of the year. Miranda Otto’s turn in South Solitary presented a woman of advancing years and amazingly little good sense with the kind of utterly guileless quality that only the shrewdest actors can radiate. Ditto Greta Gerwig in Greenberg, whose fuzzy-headed distraction proved a defence system so resilient nuclear weapons would deflect off it. From the exact opposite end of the aggressive scale, Katie Jarvis’s excellent debut in Fish Tank provided exactly the right kind of shaded progression from jumped-up brat to newly wise existential wanderer; the clear indication that she’s older at the end of the film than her character’s mother ever will be is thanks entirely to Price’s elegant evolution. Michael Fassbender, her costar, continued moving from strength to strength, both in Fish Tank and Centurion. Mark Ruffalo likewise had a great one-two punch with Shutter Island, with his policeman’s act learnt from bad TV shows, and his unexpectedly affecting hipster douchebag in The Kids Are All Right.
Thekla Reuten’s contribution to The American as the liquid-nitrogen-cold assassin with whom the title character does business and then battle, is one of those innately convincing, utterly poised bits of acting that can make or break movies and yet rarely get noticed. George Clooney’s performance was just about as good a piece of star acting as I ever hope to see, revealing the weight of the film’s buried emotionalism almost entirely through his eyes. Similarly, Mads Mikkelsen, an intelligent actor of the highest calibre, embodied the ferocious One-Eye of Valhalla Rising with a primal grit by never speaking a word. Olga Kurylenko somehow compelled the eye with her equally wordless female equivalent in Centurion. Max Von Sydow, at age 80, actually managed to steal two huge movies this year (Shutter Island and Robin Hood) with finely pitched emeritus performances. In Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Ramona Flowers was unique for a Dream Girl in a youth flick—she emerged as a credible, even haunted young woman with a nice line in martial arts moves. 2010 was also the year of the preternaturally mature adolescent girl: Elle Fanning’s gossamer presence in Somewhere and Chloe Moretz’s galvanising enthusiasm in Kick-Ass gave my favourite performances of the year as basically the same person in wildly different guises. Older in body, if not in mind, Aggeliki Papoulia delivered an epic performance in Dogtooth as a young woman who learns in the course of the narrative, how to bully and bribe, please and perturb, give and get orgasms, and finally, how to manipulate everything she’s been told about the world.
So, lists (stop sighing!) in alphabetical order:
My Ten Favourite Films of 2010
The American (Anton Corbijn)
Corbijn’s film version of Martin Booth’s novel “A Very Private Gentleman” was never going to win awards for originality, but it’s the film’s restrained, taciturn evocations, full of both sensuality and despair under the surfaces of the crisply described Italian setting, that made it pack a deceptive emotional punch. The American lived up to the legacy of great assassin films like Le Samourai and The Day of the Jackal it so patently wished to join.
Centurion (Neil Marshall)
There’s a lot of things wrong with Centurion—too much drive-in gore and a script awkwardly poised between providing a minimalist thrill-ride and something more meditative—but few films this year have stuck as firmly in my head. It’s a gamy, vicious, high-tensile riposte to the sloppiness of Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood as far as historical action films go, and the compelling vision of warring societies on the frontier of history actually bore the weight of parable, whilst the eccentric rhythm manages to be simultaneously cynical and yet riddled with a curious spirituality. It kicked large quantities of ass, too.
The Disappearance of Alice Creed (J. Blakeson)
I watched Alice Creed just before The Ghost Writer, and there was no mystery for me which was the superior film. In spite of Polanski’s efforts, the hints of sexual satire and emotional gamesmanship in that otherwise timid thriller remained mere hints, whereas Alice Creed, whilst losing its grip at a couple of points, constructs a fraught situation that plays out with exhilaratingly nasty, yet strange, emotionally telling twists. If, as I saw it described, The Ghost Writer is “Nabokovian”, Alice Creed would only take a few slight tweaks to become a Harold Pinter play.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui Hark)
Tsui Hark hasn’t made a good film in a long time, so his resurgence with this inspired action-adventure movie, apparently made after bathing in LSD and watching a bunch of his old movies, could be the pinnacle of the modern Hong Kong wu xia genre with a dash of steampunk, as the titular hero and his team of weirdo assistants battles secret supervillains and state-sponsored terrorism. It isn’t just Hark’s aesthetic riposte to Zhang Yimou’s Hero; it’s also a political one, insisting that loyalty to a society’s rulers must have its moral dimension.
Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos)
Safer ground for me here, as most serious critics loved Dogtooth. I’ll point out a couple of hesitations: the basic idea, far from being unique, seems rather influenced by Australian director Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby, if essayed in a completely different fashion. Also, there’s getting to be a bit too many of these arthouse movies that make a gag out of pathetic characters’ stilted attempts to reenact scenes out of iconic Hollywood movies. But that’s pretty minor in the face of a film that manages to be exactly grotesque, queasily funny, interpretatively ambiguous, and finally bizarrely beautiful.
Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughan)
Another film with a lot of things wrong with it, Kick-Ass nonetheless claims its place on this list for excellent filmmaking, and for being provocative and blissfully entertaining all at the same time.
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (Edgar Wright)
In years to come, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World might, I hope, look like one of the few films our era has offered that can rank with the likes of A Hard Day’s Night and Singin’ In The Rain as a film that seems perpetually, giddily in love with the possibilities of youth, art, and cinema. Edgar Wright’s third film transcends his brilliant, but comparatively familiar niche of satires that blend genre tropes and humdrum truths, to present a film high on the notion that anything might happen.
Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese)
A minor film by Scorsese’s standards, nonetheless, the drenched Technicolor nightmares and the incipient hysteria that cranks up with no good place to release itself except in tortured self-realisation proved be the kind of minor film that only a great filmmaker can produce. Unfortunate enough to come out at the year’s start, 11 months later, it looks better than ever.
Valhalla Rising (Nicolas Winding Refn)
This film perhaps might also be subtitled “Where’s Werner?” But I forgive Danish-American cult director Refn’s obvious emulation of Herzog and Tarkovsky if only because that’s at least a road less travelled when it comes to homage, and because this film’s deeply weird, yet remarkably lucid final vision of the very dawn of the modern world is quite original. When a Viking killing machine and a gang of Scottish religious warriors find themselves stranded on the shores of North America, the question is not will they get home again, but, how does a human react to being confronted by their own insignificance. Stylistically vivid and thematically obscure, it nonetheless grows green in the memory.
Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)
I weighed up whether to put this or The Killer Inside Me on this list: Michael Winterbottom’s film is less uneven than Granik’s, but it’s also a more purposefully remote one. Granik’s, on the other hand, remembers the cardinal rule of the westerns and film noirs it channels: it excites.
Agora (Alejandro Amenábar)
Another Year (Mike Leigh)
The Eclipse (Conor MacPherson)
Carlos (Olivier Assayas)
Easy A (Will Gluck)
Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold)
Gainsbourg: vie heroique (Johann Sfar)
The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One (David Yates)
I Love You Phillip Morris (Glenn Ficarra, John Requa)
The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom)
The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi)
Somewhere (Sofia Coppola)
Tamara Drewe (Stephen Frears)
Better Than Expected
Alice In Wonderland (Tim Burton)
Green Zone (Paul Greengrass)
Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek)
Predators (Nimrod Antal)
South Solitary (Shirley Barrett)
The Town (Ben Affleck)
Worse Than Expected
Aftershock (Xiaogang Feng)
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)
Casino Jack (George Hickenlooper)
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Niels Arden Oplev)
Inception (Christopher Nolan)
The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko)
The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper)
Nowhere Boy (Sam Taylor-Wood)
The Social Network (David Fincher)
Splice (Vincenzo Natali)
Animal Kingdom (David Michod)
Hereafter (Clint Eastwood)
Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau)
Robin Hood (Ridley Scott)
Biutiful; Certified Copy; Toy Story 3; Vincere; White Material; etc.
My Year of Retro Wonders: The Best Older Films First Seen in 2010
Abismos de pasión (Luis Bunuel)
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
Burn, Witch, Burn! aka Night of the Eagle (Sidney Hayers)
Celine and Julie Go Boating / Duelle – une quarantaine (Jacques Rivette)
Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes (Walerian Borowczyk)
Election (Johnny To)
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! / Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer)
Intimacy (Patrice Chéreau)
La graine et le mullet (Abdellatif Kechiche)
Lady Snowblood (Toshiyo Fujita)
Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin)
Night Tide (Curtis Harrington)
Red Psalm (Miklós Jancsó)
Osaka Story / Sisters of Gion / Women of the Night / Sanshô the Bailiff / Street of Shame (Kenji Mizoguchi)
The Saragossa Manuscript (Wojciech Has)
Sex and Fury (Norifumi Suzuki)
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors / Sayat Nova / The Legend of Suram Fortress (Sergei Paradjanov)
Shock Corridor / Verboten! / The Crimson Kimono (Samuel Fuller)
Spirits of the Dead (Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini)
The Tales of Hoffmann (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
The Trip (Roger Corman)
The Trojan Women (Michael Cacoyannis)
Trouble Every Day / 35 Rhums (Claire Denis)
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Jaromil Jirês)
Vampyres aka Daughters of Darkness (José Larraz)
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2010 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
When I started thinking about what I would say to wrap up this year’s Chicago International Film Festival, I knew it would not be the usual gathering of impressions, recaps, acknowledgments, and griping about being tired. I got a thorn stuck in my craw after reading an interview with Gabe Klinger about the festival. There was much Gabe said that I agreed with, particularly about the need for more outreach and new blood, which I believe an endeavor of any kind needs perhaps as often as every five years. But I also felt a stale wind blow regarding taste and who sets it and, of course, the age-old question of show vs. business and the uneasy alliance that has existed since the dawn of cinema between those with the money and those with the vision. I had to ask myself some hard questions about how I see my role, not only in covering this festival, but also as a film blogger. I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading some intelligent and cogent articles, blog posts, and comments on these and related subjects, including the contentious and enlightening post and comments on Girish Shambu’s site just prior to the opening of the Toronto International Film Festival and a look at film journalism by Chris Fujiwara.
In the spirit of the debate about Toronto, I want to say a few words about the festival I just finished covering. CIFF is not a destination film festival for making deals and apparently has no plans to become one. Nor is it one that wishes to explore cinema at the edge or educate audiences; while I liked, even loved, a lot of the films I saw, I can’t call most of them cutting edge or revelatory of new possibilities in cinema. CIFF is what its founder and staff do for a living and to give themselves the perks of hobnobbing and travel, and like most long-time employees, they do what they know how to do year after year.
The festival is a very American affair, with honorees in most years comprising American directors and actors and marquee films opening and closing the festival comprising mainstream American product. The audience for the films they program are largely middle-brow Midwesterners looking for something to do, cinephiles from small towns near Chicago who are hungry for something other than multiplex fare, or immigrants who want to see films with scenes from their old country in their native language. It offers audiences a veneer of sophistication by bringing the “big” cinephile films from Cannes in—and this festival is nothing if not Francophile, reflected enduring ties from its founding during the rise of the French New Wave. But if CIFF had not offered Uncle Boonmee, that film certainly would have shown up (and will show up again) in one of the venues around Chicago, which has a very vibrant cinematic community offering experimental, foreign, revival, and video presentations every day and more specialized film festivals and retrospectives than I can shake a stick at. CIFF doesn’t have to be more than it is—audiences won’t demand it because there’s something for everyone outside of the festival—but I never hear the end of hardcore cinephiles saying they hate CIFF.
From my reading about other festivals, it seems the conditions that persist at CIFF are not unusual. Is that really what film festivals are these days—a race to the middle? Strip malls? The hardcore cinephiles in Chicago know they’re being ignored by the “premier” cinematic event of the year. But are they snobs who can’t find value in anything that isn’t difficult or trendy? Sadly, encountering the snobs is a very distasteful part of my cinematic experience. It’s not hard to see great value in many films that offer other kinds of challenges and delights, particularly the chance to see and understand life in other parts of the world. These types of films have comprised the bulk of my viewing at the 2010 CIFF. What comprises an “important” film or national cinema is debatable, but for me, it involves finding the universal in the particular and activating archetypes that are the road to personal and global transformation. That’s why a film like Uncle Boonmee, which I can’t say I enjoyed in the usual sense, has so much power and so deserved to win at Cannes. Yet, I can imagine the snobs touting it without understanding it in the least—and CIFF did nothing to make the film accessible to casual or serious filmgoers besides show it.
My role isn’t terribly complicated, but I also feel that CIFF doesn’t “get” me either. As someone with a “general” press pass, I am able to see films for free in exchange for publicizing them through my blog, hopefully in advance of screenings to drive ticket sales. I am not considered by CIFF a top-tier member of the press and therefore am not invited to stand on the red carpet (unless they can’t fill it), attend the awards ceremony, or take screeners home to view because CIFF does not consider my audience significant enough to court—they have never asked for my “distribution” statistics, therefore they must not care how many or where my readers are located. In this stance, CIFF further reveals its isolation from the international film community that it advertises in its very name. Reporters from Chicago-centric publications like our daily and weekly newspapers and the Chicagoist website do belong to this privileged caste, reflecting the desire of organizers to promote ticket sales among locals and the assumption that these outlets are still where their audience get their film information.
Even as I see the limitations of this festival, I understand that I myself am in a privileged position. A large number of my readers and even my blog partner will never get the chance to see most or all of the films I do. I recently got into a heated debate with someone over a favorite directors list that comprised nothing but majority men we’d recognize as more-or-less the usual canon. As I told him, “Movies tell us about ourselves, but you can take for granted that you’ll have your stories told (certainly your favorite directors reflect your satisfaction with the stories they tell to some extent) whereas I cannot.” With more distribution channels opening on the Internet and in other home-viewing formats, I can only hope that my shout-outs can give some of these films a chance to deliver their ideas to more people so the universe of ideas can expand beyond the usual suspects. Although I acknowledge it as a deficit, I am not primarily a champion of the aesthetics of film; I am an activist interested in communication through word, image, and emotion of the experience of being alive. That’s what it is my responsibility to promote, and as long as I write, I’ll take it seriously. l
Previous CIFF coverage
Problema: A meeting of 112 thinkers and doers who give their answers to 100 pressing problems of our day forms the core of this open-source documentary that will be available for recutting and showing to anyone anywhere in the world. (Germany)
The Happy Housewife: A buoyant young woman falls into a dangerous depression following the birth of her son and must deal with her past. (The Netherlands)
Southern District: The decline of the Bolivian upper class gets a very personal treatment in this close examination of one La Paz family and the natives who work for them. (Bolivia)
Asleep in the Sun: Ingenious period film that shows the transformation of a troubled woman into someone whose personality her husband doesn’t recognize after a stay in a mental health clinic. (Argentina)
Tuesday, After Christmas: A beautifully photographed story of adultery poses a potent metaphor for Romania in its new prosperity. (Romania)
On Tour: A French TV producer returns from “exile” in America with a troupe of burlesque dancers to try to get back on top in this amiable, improvisational comedy. (France)
Circus Kids: The St. Louis Arches youth circus travels to Israel to join forces with the Galilee Circus to help bridge the gap between Arabs and Jews in this optimistic documentary. (Israel/USA)
The Matchmaker: Magical coming-of-age drama in which a teenage boy learns a message of love and tolerance from a Holocaust survivor. (Israel)
Ten Winters: Emotionally honest and lyrical study of a man and a woman whose initial attraction goes through many changes as they experience 10 years worth of living. (Italy)
Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)
The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)
Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)
The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)
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By Marilyn Ferdinand
Among film collectors, archivists, and preservationists, Rick Prelinger has the status of movie legend. Prelinger, an archivist, writer, and filmmaker, amassed a collection of 60,000 advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur films that became the Prelinger Archives. In 2002, the U.S. Library of Congress acquired the collection, which has made a portion of it available free online to those who wish to view, download, or reuse the material. He is cofounder of the Prelinger Library (with spouse Megan Shaw Prelinger), an appropriation-friendly reference library located in San Francisco.
He wrote The Field Guide to Sponsored Films (2007) which “describes 452 historically or culturally significant motion pictures commissioned by businesses, charities, advocacy groups, and state or local government units between 1897 and 1980.” It is available as a book and as a free PDF from the National Film Preservation Foundation. From 2005 to 2007, Prelinger worked at the Internet Archive on a large-scale texts digitization project and recently helped organize the Open Content Alliance. His feature-length film Panorama Ephemera, depicting the conflicted landscapes of 20th-century America, opened in the summer of 2004.
On the heels of the NFPF announcement of its partnership with the New Zealand Film Archive to repatriate 75 American films, I thought a conversation with the founder of another important film archive was in order. Here are the results of our e-mail Q&A.
Rick, you’ve done just about as much as anyone to ensure that sponsored films remain a part of our cultural heritage. How did you get interested in this area of film making?
I was working in 1982 as a researcher on Heavy Petting, a documentary film about sexuality and romance in the years after World War II. As part of the job, I did extensive research about educational, advertising and industrial films, becoming fascinated with this rich world that no one knew much about at the time.
How did you build your collection?
When I started collecting, we were in a time of transition from film to video, just as we are now in a transition from physical to digital media. The U.S. is an incredibly media-rich nation—we throw away more media than most countries ever produce. I began approaching schools and colleges with media collections, libraries, production companies that had gone or were going out of business, and people who’d worked in the industry who had collected material. There was a great deal to choose from and my collection grew rapidly. In 1984-85, I realized that I needed to think in an archival way rather than just collecting, and began to collect original and preprint material instead of simply copies of release prints made for projection. Since there was obviously never going to be money to preserve all of these films, it seemed important to try and save these films in the best possible state.
Where is the collection now?
In 2002-03, the film collection to date went to the Library of Congress, where it is now being unpacked and processed. There will be public access to the materials sometime in the next few years, but it may take some time—they are dealing with some 200,000 cans: 60,000 completed productions plus a whale of a lot of unedited footage. Since that time, we have also continued to collect, and I mainly concentrate on home movies, amateur film, and a few commercially sponsored films. I don’t really collect educational films any more.
I’m a fan of these films, particularly “civil defense” films. The House in the Middle is a curious film that posits the unlikely idea that a fresh coat of paint will protect a house from a nuclear explosion. What are your personal impressions of this film?
The House in the Middle, to me, is a film that relies on a gimmick to get its point across. The government-run civil defense campaign was systemic and reached into many areas of life—there were films for householders, for farmers, for industrialists. In my opinion, this was simply another angle to repeat the line that preparedness would guarantee survival. In addition, the film links cleanliness and fresh paint with morality and survival. While this looks pretty ridiculous today, America’s marketers have often resorted to weird twists in order to sell their products. Compare this film to the many post-9/11 ads that use patriotic words and images to pitch specific goods and services.
Was this film an official part of the Defense Department’s informational effort?
I think it was made with the consent and collaboration of the government, who provided footage for the project, but I’ve seen no evidence that it was an official film.
Do we know anything about the people who wrote and filmed The House in the Middle?
Not really. It appears to have been made by a Washington PR film that may have contracted out production, but I haven’t done deep research yet.
Can you tell me about the physical state of extant copies of this film? What exists? How good are the YouTube and DVD copies of the film?
We have a 16mm Kodachrome print, as does the Library of Congress. Our print is not bad, though a little dark. We made a fairly decent video transfer and put it online for free at the Internet Archive. I think the YouTube version, like most YouTube archival videos, is a poorly derived, poor-quality dupe of what we offer online for free, and the DVDs are also copies of our online copy. I don’t know whether the original film materials still exist but hope to find them some day.
This film is on the National Film Registry as worthy of saving. What exactly does it mean to be on this registry and how will it affect The House in the Middle?
Films that make it onto the Registry are “artistically, culturally or historically” significant. I hope that this means the film will be preserved for posterity, but I believe we should hold off until we are as certain as we can be that original materials no longer exist. Going back to original materials would result in a film that much more closely resembles the original version. Beyond that, the Registry is a wonderful way of calling attention to films that may not be extremely well known but have the potential to enrich public understanding of cultural, social and cinema history.
Sponsored films are obvious precursors to the infomercial and the sponsored news spots that look like newsroom-produced stories. How do you compare these earlier efforts with today’s sponsored films?
Sponsored films are an ancient genre of cinema, going back to the first advertising films projected on New York City walls in 1896. While they are still being made by the hundreds of thousands, companies tend to focus more on the Web as a medium for their messages. The big difference to me between the film era and today is that the large and small production companies and studios that made sponsored films mostly no longer exist. But there’s more in common between video and Web production today and the glory days of industrial and advertising film than most of us might realize. Many of the messages and storytelling strategies are still the same.
What can people do if they want to see these films?
The best resource is the collection we’ve put online, and it’s absolutely free to download and use the films. Check out the Prelinger Collection at the Internet Archive. There are also other great collections at the Archive, including the Academic Film Archive of North America and AV Geeks. Click around!
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By Marilyn Ferdinand
I always awaken very early on my first morning in Cannes, just at dawn, and pull on my jeans and a sweater to walk down by the old port for a cup of coffee at the all-night cafe.
OK, so that’s not what I do on my first morning at Cannes. That’s what Roger Ebert does. Good old, Roger. He has so many memories of Cannes. I do not. I’ve never been to that fabled festival. I’ve never met jury member/critic Pauline Kael or Ken Hartford, the film “butcher” who sells movies by the pound. I’ve never gazed on the sands of the Cote d’Azur or met the original Cannes Man, bon vivant Jacques D’Azur. That last name can’t be a coincidence, can it? But then people are constantly reinventing themselves in, at, and through the movies, especially at a circus like Cannes.
Since I started covering film festivals four years ago, I’ve learned a bit about the agony and the ecstasy of these ocular orgies. There are never enough hours in the day or enough cans of Red Bull to sustain one over the long haul. The much-touted films often are not nearly as interesting or satisfying as the films one decides to see based on personal interest, unless the two happily coincide. But I have to wonder if all the Cannes hype might not sweep me away from my sensible sleep schedule and misgivings about some of the films over which more experienced observers are frothing their café au lait. Who knows, I might have been tempted to brave Antichrist. It’s so much better to be psychologically tortured in the company of chic French speakers, n’est-ce pas?
Sadly, the festival ain’t what it used to be, or so the old timers say. Cannes is so much bigger, shinier, more corporatized, less devil-may-care, they say. Maybe that’s the reason Tim Burton is heading up the jury—an attempt to put the zany back in the festival. Quite possibly a loose grouping of fan boys will descend on the resort town, perhaps dressed like Johnny Depp in Alice in Wonderland or Sweeney Todd, to outrage and entertain the jaded sophisticates of festivals past.
All I do know for sure is that the Oscars are over, and now it’s on to the next landmark of the cinephile calendar. Soon we’ll know which films will be in competition, and the entire blogosphere will be buzzing with predictions. I’m not one for speculation; I’m all about the experience.
One day . . . you wait and see. l
*With thanks to Lee Dorsey and The Pointer Sisters
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Ferdy on Films has been hacked! Or something. Anyway, there are odd links throughout the site that encourage you to visit some Russian honeys. This is perhaps the natural extension of posting a positive review of How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman, which is a favorite on a Russian discussion board. Anyway, we’re trying to fix the problem, so please bear with us.
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By Roderick Heath
Out with the old, in with the same old. Like (almost) everyone else, I pinched pennies and withheld from excessive spending on frivolities in the past 12 months as we rode out the financial crisis like the ark-dwellers of Roland Emmerich’s 2012, so my trips to the cinema in 2009 were relatively limited. Fortunately, in the past couple of months, mine and Marilyn’s entry (promotion? ascension? beatification?) into the ranks of the Online Film Critics Society saw us inundated with screener discs sent by hopeful studios and independent distributors, constituting the first actual perk I’ve experienced in film critiquing. And as happy as I have generally been to have such an opportunity, then again, much like Yossarian pointedly not helping build the officers’ club, I’ve always taken pride in ignoring a lot of movies, a pride now rather threatened by having copies of films I would be happy never to see, like The Blind Side, mailed to me. Now, as my film writing has been nudged gently out of the realm of happy amateurism and into that of desperate semi-professionalism, thus joining too many of my other pursuits, I am, therefore, in search of a new hobby. I will be accepting suggestions until the end of January. The current frontrunner is fly fishing.
Call me a terminal grouch if you like, but at least amongst the films I saw, this was a weak and watery year of cinema-going indeed, with a few real gems shining out amidst the indifferent. As ever, it began with clearing away the dried-up carcasses of 2008’s crop of Oscar bait, wading through the (white) elephantine, instantly forgettable likes of Doubt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and The Reader, the brutally disappointing Revolutionary Road, and the dispiritingly bogus “feel-good” victor, Slumdog Millionaire. Easily the best of that batch were Gus Van Sant’s slightly too pat but still dramatic Milk, and Jonathan Demme’s lively, lived-in Rachel Getting Married. I also liked the closest thing Woody Allen will ever offer to a late-period movie in the Hawks mode, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, making it the first Allen film I’ve liked in 20 years.
The year’s roster was strongest in serving up forceful, volatile action films and thrillers. Three of my four most favoured 2009 films were, to a certain extent, shoot-’em-ups: Michael Mann’s majestic Public Enemies, Quentin Tarantino’s delirious Inglourious Basterds, and Zack Snyder’s waywardly wonderful Watchmen. A few highly entertaining worthies included Pierre Morel’s smashing Taken, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, Tom Tykwer’s soulful The International, Neil Blomkamp’s raucous District 9, Kevin Macdonald’s absorbing State of Play, and J. J. Abrams’ vivid Star Trek. Taken was the kind of high-octane crap Hollywood’s supposed to give us regularly, but now it seems the French do with the most gusto, whilst Star Trek took this year’s inaugural Iron Man Award for “The Film that Isn’t Quite as Rocking as We Wanted It to Be, but Rocks Anyway”. The International and State of Play sustained a remnant of the spirit of Fritz Lang and Alan Pakula, and District 9 energetically revived the ideals of ’80s sci-fi action.
And no, I haven’t yet seen the new work by an actual icon of ’80s sci-fi action, James Cameron’s Avatar, which, so I understand, cost enough to buy Sri Lanka, and I’m hesitant to do so until it comes out on DVD, free of the need for funny glasses. Meanwhile I’m quite glad I resisted the temptation to go see Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, GI Joe, and a few other oversold bang-bang flicks even when the darkest days of recessionary angst made their hermetic, juvenile pleasures appealing, retaining them instead for their proper place and hour: cable TV when nothing else is on. I went instead to see the new Harry Potter flick, and strike me dead if it wasn’t the year’s most unexpectedly likeable blockbuster, and the aforementioned 2012 which, when treated rightly as comedy, I found a blast. No, I’m not ashamed.
Certainly those smarter action films continue a trend I noted last year of intelligent filmmakers being drawn to expressing themselves through material once regarded as trashy. There’s also been the intriguing phenomenon of noted directors tackling children’s movies, which resulted in Spike Jonze’s valium-soaked edition of Maurice Sendak’s hymn to the inner beast, Where the Wild Things Are, a film which successfully defined everything witless and boring about the modern alt-culture it so desperately wanted to channel. I’m also left still pondering The Hurt Locker, whose modest generic reconfigurations have been far outstripped by the rhetorical praise it’s received. It’s certain that filmic phenomena move by at a quicker pace than ever now: I watched the Twilight phenomenon go from a tolerable and intriguing opening installment in January to an excruciating disaster called New Moon by December.
Meanwhile, adult drama has been pronounced to be just about dead as far as Hollywood is concerned, which may or may not be true. The continuing dominant Clooney-Coen-Soderbergh template of deadpan, ironic comedy-drama offered up two diverting films in The Informant! and The Men Who Stare at Goats, both of which took glancing, facile lunges at defining the faults of the modern American military-industrial mindset. And I’ve still got A Serious Man and Up in the Air to look forward to, if that’s the phrase I’m after. I’ll admit to mildly enjoying Nora Ephron’s Julie and Julia, neither more nor less incisive and relevant to the state of the contemporary psyche than The Informant!
Indie cinema, it is generally believed, is in the process of imploding, and try-hard formula-squeezers like Sunshine Cleaning might indicate a certain exhaustion of ideas. But most of the truly stimulating American films still came from the outermost precincts of the mainstream: Robert Siegel’s intriguing, if finally frustrating, Big Fan, Greg Mottola’s modest, but rich and multileveled Adventureland, and James Gray’s Two Lovers, a very great film that neatly fused gritty outer-borough angst with Visconti-esque operatic flair. What I saw of British cinema this year was largely underwhelming, with the overblown, shapeless period film, The Young Victoria; the sneakily clever, if rather too silly and uncourageous Lesbian Vampire Killers; and the overrated An Education breezing in and out of my mind and leaving little to remember except for Rosamund Pike’s spiky glare. They were all a warm-up for the worst film I paid more than two dollars to see in 2009: Richard Curtis’ repulsively misogynistic and grindingly unfunny The Boat that Rocked (Pirate Radio stateside). On the other hand, there was Steve McQueen’s near-brilliant Hunger, a film that’s slowly trickled along the routes of distribution to receive the praise it deserves. I’m not sure if Jane Campion’s Bright Star counts as British or Australian filmmaking—both, I think—but either way, it was half a good film.
Such was a quality Campion’s movie shared with an entirely Aussie film, Warwick Thornton’s Samson & Delilah, the oodles of official praise which it received made it feel like an act of treason and racism to critique it honestly. It was indeed a poetic and affecting, if uncomfortably sentimental and suspiciously lightweight work of social realism. On the other hand, David Field’s The Combination was temporarily removed from cinemas over worries that the ethnic quarrels it sought to define would spill over into the audience. Field’s film was actually a solid potboiler disguised as a social-message picture, but there’s nothing new about that. I’ll admit also to having had a lousy year of keeping up with recent foreign-language releases, though I’ll blame the fact many works I wanted to see never seemed to come near a theatre near me. I did admire Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long, and Paolo Sorrentino’s tremendous Il Divo provided my year’s viewing with a stirring coda—on cable, undoubtedly where I’ll have to watch for many more of this year’s most well-regarded, but badly distributed works.
So, lists, and we can leave this whole sorry year behind us:
The Best Films I Saw in 2009 (Produced in and/or released in Australia in 2009)
Tie: Public Enemies (Michael Mann) and Two Lovers (James Gray)
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino)
Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)
Adventureland (Greg Mottola)
Watchmen (Zack Snyder)
Milk (Gus Van Sant)
District 9 (Neil Blomkamp)
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
20 Most Awesome Films I Saw for the First Time in 2009 (Not Made or Released in 2009)
Chimes at Midnight and Confidential Report/Mr Arkadin (Orson Welles)
Bande à part (Jean-Luc Godard)
Branded to Kill (Seijun Suzuki)
Broken Blossoms; or, the Yellow Man and the Girl (D.W. Griffith)
Deep Red (Dario Argento)
M. Hulot’s Holiday (Jacques Tati)
Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog)
The Big Parade (King Vidor)
Martin (George Romero)
Venus In Furs (Jesus Franco)
The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy)
CQ (Roman Coppola)
In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai)
The Letter (William Wyler)
Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (Tsui Hark)
Fascination (Jean Rollin)
Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger)
The Reptile (John Gilling)
The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (Kevin Billington)
Hunger (Steve McQueen)
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Begging Naked, 2007
By Marilyn Ferdinand
As anyone who has read my blog partner’s 25 Essential Films of the 2000s knows, Rod concentrated on feature films in compiling his list. It’s my turn as the self-assigned documentary maven at Ferdy on Films to choose a list of notable documentaries of the 2000s. This category of filmmaking is a particular favorite of mine and one that rarely receives the kind of attention that feature films do, unless, of course, it’s a piece of docusnark by some yo-yo from Michigan who is given to channeling Mike Wallace, Geraldo Rivera, and Ub Iwerks all at the same time. Nonetheless, documentaries were on the ascent in the 2000s as a way many people could get the information and education that corporatized, downsized, and increasingly partisan media would or could no longer deliver. Consider the success of the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s traveling show on global warming, as the official acknowledgment of the documentary as an alternative, legitimate, trusted source of news and analysis.
Yet, documentaries are also films, and the form has developed and changed over time, eschewing a strict talking-heads format for more interpretive methods of relating factual material, including the controversial reenactments that always seem to get Errol Morris in trouble but that caused no one a moment’s worry about James Marsh’s Man on Wire, though they were far more dubiously used. What once would have been considered merely “home movie” footage is now the raw material and finished product of such documentaries as Capturing the Friedmans, Tarnation, and one of my favorites listed below, Trouble the Water. This innovative use of primary-source—particularly self-referential—material has spilled into features such as The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, and strongly influenced the “queasicam” features that have become de rigueur.
There were many worthy documentaries in the 2000s—this list could have extended much further and included the entertaining and enlightening March of the Penguins, Murderball, My Architect, Grizzly Man, The Nomi Song, and Bright Leaves, not to mention those I didn’t have the chance or the stomach to catch up with, like Taxi to the Dark Side, Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, and No Direction Home. Ultimately, I chose films that took me places I couldn’t go myself, taught me things, and moved me with their commitment, honesty, and beauty. Here they are in alphabetical order:
Begging Naked (Karen Gehres, 2007)
This film has yet to find a distributor, but it did find a champion in Roger Ebert, who showed it at the 2009 Ebertfest. Exploring Times Square both before and after Giuliani’s “clean up,” what comes through most movingly about this film is the meaning of friendship, as director Karen Gehres films the life and times of her troubled friend, artist Elise Hill.
Beyond Ipanema (Guto Barra and Béco Dranoff, 2009)
I can’t remember when I’ve learned so much in such a short span of time. Barra and Dranoff’s pulsing exploration of Brazilian music since the 1940s is like a musical composition itself—driving, expressive, and filled with the enthusiasm to stuff as much great music into its horn of plenty as possible.
Born into Brothels (Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, 2004)
The red-light district of Calcutta is never captured on film, so this documentary is valuable for that feat alone. But it would be nothing more without the children who did—and did not—find a way out of the cycle of poverty and prostitution through photography. Moving, memorable, and a worthy winner of the 2004 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
Chuck Jones: Extremes and In-Betweens, a Life in Animation (Margaret Selby, 2000)
As a big Chuck Jones fan, just about any documentary about this great animator and director would have made my day. But Margaret Selby’s documentary doesn’t leave any aspect of his career on the cutting room floor, while moving with the verve and humor of the animated world the great man himself brought to life.
Cinerama Adventure (David Strohmaier, 2002)
Another film without a distributor, this film represents the most enjoyable documentary movie experience I’ve ever had. My curious obsession with movie technology—particularly widescreen formats—was more than sated on this history of Cinerama and the technology Strohmaier created to simulate a Cinerama experience—Smilebox.
Control Room (Jehane Noujaim, 2004)
You may not like it, but Al-Jazeera is the voice of news and information for the Arab Middle East. Control Room offers a unique look at this misunderstood organization and the way that American public information workers come to see the world in a different light by watching it, and then watching what their bosses tell them to report. Essential viewing, in my opinion, with real-life drama that will stop your heart.
DAM/AGE (Aranhada Seth, 2002)
Indian writer Arundati Roy is the focus of this documentary about the proposed construction of a dam in the Narmada valley. Roy, a native of this area, protests the construction and visits communities along the river, so her odyssey is a very personal one, the nuances of which Seth captures beautifully. This affecting profile of a famous person and her fabled country can be viewed for free at the invaluable Snag Films.
Excellent Cadavers (Marco Turco, 2005)
Despite a slightly awkward framing device, Excellent Cadavers exposes and explains the complicated history of the Sicilian Mafia and two crusading lawmen who paid the ultimate price to try to bring them down. Sad, infuriating, urgent, this is a look at justice and its cost that will have you rethinking your devotion to the Sopranos.
The Gleaners and I (Agnès Varda, 2000)
Master filmmaker Varda premiered a great autobiographical documentary this year, Beaches of Agnès. But it is this minutely observed documentary on those dedicated to saving what others discard that, to me, provides the best portrait into her life and work. A beautiful exploration of aging and the mystery of life, filmed as only Varda can.
How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It) (Joe Angio, 2005)
Melvin Van Peebles is the most important African-American filmmaker alive today, and perhaps of all time, but I didn’t know the half of it until I saw this energetic, humorous, and sharp documentary. I felt the kind of rush watching it that I had on viewing Van Peebles’ seminal Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song for the first time. Irreverent, caustic, and vitally important.
Lost in La Mancha (Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, 2002)
Terry Gilliam’s loss in failing to film Man of La Mancha is our gain, as Fulton and Pepe use bits and pieces of footage of the failing production to show a train wreck in slow motion. It’s funny, horrifying, and ultimately sad when one considers the film that might have been.
Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea (Chris Metzler and Jeff Singer, 2004)
I’d never heard of the Salton Sea before viewing this documentary, and now I’ll never forget it. Archival footage of this California resort community’s heyday juxtaposes with dead fish and welfare communities that have sprung up in this real estate fiasco some still remember fondly.
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain, 2003)
It doesn’t get any better than this—real footage of the attempted coup against Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez shot by an Irish film crew that happened to be filming a profile of the leader at the time. A lucky break for Bartley and O’Briain and, ultimately, for us, in helping to make sense of a fast-moving event and providing a filmed record of an historic event.
Riding Giants (Stacy Peralta, 2004)
Step into Liquid is perhaps the better known of modern surfing films, but Riding Giants is the more awe-inspiring. The footage is beautiful and masterfully cut for suspense and visual impact, and the score is hypnotic and inspiring. I can’t think of a better sports or nature documentary of the 2000s.
A State of Mind (Daniel Gordon, 2004)
Director Daniel Gordon was given unprecedented access to film in North Korea, chronicling school girls spending all of their spare time rehearsing for the yearly Mass Games, an enormous and lavish demonstration to honor dictator Kim Jong-il. An extremely rare look at a truly awesome event, and the mindset of North Korean youth dedicated to pleasing their leader.
Stevie (Steve James, 2002)
This is the hardest film you might ever try to watch. Hoop Dreams director Steve James looks up the man who was his charge when James was in the Big Brother program. Stevie, a difficult boy James backed away from, has become a sad, lost, and dangerous fringe dweller. James wonders if Stevie ever had a chance, and if he himself failed Stevie. Honest, brutal, unforgettable.
Tell Them Who You Are (Mark Wexler, 2004)
What’s it like to be the son of a famous director/cinematographer? Mark Wexler demonstrates as he attempts to document his father, Haskell Wexler, for posterity. It’s a fractious ride that will make you wonder why Wexler didn’t become an accountant instead of trying to follow in his father’s footsteps.
This Film Is Not Yet Rated (Kirby Dick, 2006)
We’ve all wondered about the secret workings of the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating board. Kirby Dick takes us inside the process by recording this documentary’s ratings odyssey, and by cracking the veil of secrecy by interviewing a couple of former raters who have broken their contracted silence. Dick connects the dots and helps us reach some disturbing conclusions about the agenda of censors in the film industry.
Trouble the Water (Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, 2008)
Go inside New Orleans’ Ninth Ward as Katrina approaches, hits, and recedes. Watching the waters rise higher, higher, higher through the live footage of a family of survivors, cut with follow-up footage and news reports by Lessin and Deal, brings the tragedy of Katrina and the shame of our nation vividly to life.
The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia (Jennifer Baichwal, 2002)
Exploiter. Artist. Appalachian insider and friend. Photographer Shelby Lee Adams is, perhaps, all of these things. But respected Canadian director Jennifer Baichwal allows everyone to have their say. What you ultimately decide is up to you.
War Photographer (Christian Frei, 2001)
James Nachtwey is one of the world’s preeminent war photographers. Why does he do it? How does he get so close to danger, grief, and anger? Why do his subjects trust him with their rawest emotions and experiences? Swiss filmmaker Christian Frei combines fly-on-wall experiences with interviews to paint a portrait of a complicated man.
The War Tapes (Deborah Scranton, 2006)
Three American soldiers in Iraq filmed their experiences. Deborah Scranton edited their footage and interviewed them and their families. Together, they created a record of the passage from civilian to survivor for two of the men, as well as the viewpoint of a career soldier. I haven’t seen all the Iraq-related docs that are out there, but I feel I understand so much more about this war than I did before because I got it right from the horse’s mouth.
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (Spike Lee, 2006)
Spike Lee’s documentaries are as renowned as his feature films, and with When the Levees Broke, he has created his most ambitious and meaningful film to date. The four-part, 255-minute opus gives a thorough, impassioned, 360-degree view of the weather event known as Hurricane Katrina and the tragedy that followed.
Whose Song Is This? (Adela Peeva, 2003)
An exploration that rose out of a lighthearted curiosity about the origins of a popular song turns dark and deadly as Bulgarian filmmaker Adela Peeva makes her way around the Balkan countries that claim the song as their original creation. A shrewder illustration of the term “balkanization” you’ll never find.
Why the Towers Fell (Garfield Kennedy and Larry Klein, 2002)
The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were huge blocks of steel and concrete, built to withstand the impact of weather and aircraft collisions. They should have withstood the impact of the jetliners that crashed into them, bruised but unbowed. But they didn’t. This fascinating documentary shows schematics and offers penetrating analysis about the design flaws that brought them crashing to the ground. It’s not easy to watch, but it is an important look at the very heart of why this tragedy was not better contained. The documentary can be viewed here.
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