No. 237 | February 26, 2012
The end of the year came before the end of my moviegoing for 2011, and my recap from the holiday season was admitedly an incomplete look back at last year’s films. I blame Hollywood. Most weekends are a drought for quality, then at the end of the year the heavens open. I suspect we could more easily change the weather than the movie studios’ release schedule, which does create a challenge for anyone who wants to see all the movies that are worth seeing.
By now I’ve seen most, though not all, of what I’ve wanted to see. (Melancholia, Carnage, some foreign films, e.g., remain on my “must see, but not yet seen” list.) So, with the red carpet already laid out for the Oscars, it seems like a good time for a 2011 recap redux.
In the post below I’ll offer my quick take on some notable films that I hadn’t mentioned last time, including a few notable for the wrong reasons. Then I’ll wrap up with my choices for top films for the year. (As I type this I still haven’t made my list, so I’m as eager as anyone to find out what they are.)
A love story in love with movies, and with the way movies were once in love with love. I found the film fascinating (and the reaction fascinating to read as well). The Artist aims to recapture something that’s been lost, something more than just the stripped-down conventions of an early movie era. It wants a way of looking at our world and ourselves free of the ironic and cynical view that’s become commonplace in recent times. Not all was well in the old days, and The Artist has its scenes of tragedy as well. Those moments may seem easier for us to grasp; the scenes of wide-eyed innocence feel less familiar. They feel nostalgic, in fact, and if there is any use to nostalgia, it’s to say there’s something not quite right with the way things are today. The once-fresh world of movies has grown old and stale, and we need a new way forward. That’s a critique I find persuasive: you’ll have to look hard to find anything new on this list of top grossers for the past year. The Artist has something in common with the films on that list; it too borrows from the past. But it is not an old film. It’s wildly entertaining and the freshest film of the year.
A film about sadness, but hardly sad at all, Beginners is sweet and warm, yet far too sweet and warm for its own good. The performances are fine, and give credit to Ewan MacGregor and Christopher Plummer, especially. The cast makes the film worth watching, but the story seems oddly muted. Conflict is avoided at all turns, characters are explored only so far, and this tale of how life can be messy and full of surprise seems a bit too neat in the end.
A Better Life
An immigrant gardener and his son, and the struggles of working-class life in Los Angeles. The Oscar nomination for Demián Bichir is well-deserved, and all the better if it draws a bigger audience for the film, now on DVD. The bond between father and son is heartfelt and moving.
Frailty, thy filmmaker is Alexandar Payne, the director who has given us Ruth Stoops (Citizen Ruth), Tracy Flick (Election), Warren Schmidlt (About Schmidt), and Miles Raymond (Sideways). No one is as flawed and as compromised in The Descendants, except perhaps the mother, who is left in a coma after a fleeting few moments waterskiing off the Hawaii coast in the movie’s opening scene. This film belongs to George Clooney, playing the husband she can cheat on no longer. He is a true hero by Paynean standards, an accomplished lawyer, a respected patriarch, though a hapless father to his two daughters. Payne does excellent work blending tragedy with humor, and Clooney and the cast are terrific.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The film has its flaws. There’s the problematical appropriation of 9/11 for its ready-made tale of anguish, reducing a still-fresh national tragedy to a simple plot device, to the occasionally annoying, frequently not credible, central character, Oskar, the boy who loses his father in the World Trade Center crash. The father left behind a key and Oskar searches the city of New York for the lock it belongs to. So far, not so good. But Oskar’s encounters provide a number of memorable scenes. Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright, and Sandra Bullock all do good work, and Max von Sydow as the mysterious “renter” shines in a role without a word of dialogue. A bit gimmicky, but that is par for the movie overall.
The performances are wonderful. Michael Fassbender offers a brave and powerful portrayal of a man addicted to sex. Carey Mulligan shows why she is one of the leading lights of her generation. The bitter truth that the movie pretends to deliver, however, is all bitter and no truth. I found the story not just unappealing but hard to believe. Director Steve McQueen may be more interested in the buttons he’s pushing in his audience than the lives of his characters onscreen.
This film from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi ranks high on the list of critics’ favorites. I’d have liked it more if it were a little less the Bickering Bickersons of Tehran. It’s a drama about a family being torn apart: a married couple on the brink of divorce, a grandfather with Alzheimer’s, a daughter caught in the crossfire. The father hires a housekeeper, but when her pregnancy ends in miscarriage, he ends up in court accused of murder. Fair to say, Persian justice does not operate the same as our own. A Separation is a good film, well worth seeing, though I have to say, not as great as advertised.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Did I enjoy it? Thoroughly. Will I see it again? Absolutely. Did I follow it? Well, yes and no. There’s a complicated plot that I wouldn’t dare to describe. It almost comes as an afterthought, anyway. Atmosphere, character, and games of trust and deceit are at the center of this Cold War spy story, adapted from the novel of John le Carré, with a cast of mostly Brits headed by Gary Oldman. First rate all around.
A misfire of epic proportions. A war is fought, millions die, but all is well: the horse survives. Steven Spielberg, please phone home. (We won’t even bring up what you did to Tintin.)
Another Oscar nomination (Nick Nolte as the alcoholic father) already on DVD. Warrior is a father-son drama set in the world of martial arts fighting. Above average for its kind, though nothing especially groundbreaking.
1. The Artist
2. The Tree of Life
3. Midnight in Paris
5. J. Edgar
7. A Dangerous Method
8. The Descendants
9. Margin Call
A few notes: (1) On any other day, you’d get a different list. I could see any of the top four or five being #1, for example. (2) I’ve left off foreign-language films, documentaries, and some others. It’s silly enough to rank films of different genres telling different stories, but I did want to draw the line somewhere. These are feature-length, live-action, fiction films in English. That’s it. (3) The conventional wisdom is that 2011 was a below-average year for movies. I think it’s too early to tell. What we are fond of now and fond of later are often different movies, and ultimately what makes a good year is a few good films that linger in our memory, not the ones we forget. I’d guess most of the films on the list will stand up, and others will emerge. But I don’t really know. Only time will tell. (Now, I’m wondering how I could have left off Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The second guessing has already begun.)
The Artist (2011)
Michel Hazanavicius, writer-director
Guillaume Schiffman, cinematographer
Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, Uggie
Quote of note
—George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), The Artist (2011)
Entr’acte | January 20, 2011
More ballet (dancing with—who else—Death).
Entr’acte | January 18, 2011
More ballet (someone, it seems, is always dying).
No. 207 | January 14, 2011
Our theme this week
Films about ballerinas
You might expect a movie about a professional wrestler to be a hard-hitting, brutal affair. You might expect a movie about the ballet to be lighter, more refined entertainment. But you might be surprised to find the two films have a lot in common. The movies: The Wrestler and Black Swan. Both feature performers driven by demons and other forces, who in the end make the ultimate sacrifice for their craft. The two films are violent; the first is especially physical, the other, more psychological. Both are directed by Darren Aronofsky, and both happen to be very good.
Art can be subtle, art can be obvious. Black Swan is more the latter. With a plot centered on a production of Swan Lake, the imagery of black and white is as plain as in an old-time western. The key, though, is not the virtues of one over the other, but the need for both.
Natalie Portman is Nina, a young dancer with a chance for the lead in her company’s new ballet. Her technique is immaculate, and she’d be perfect for the role of the white swan, but in the view of her director, Thomas (a very good Vincent Cassel), she lacks the passion to perform the black swan. The story follows her development from perfect, fragile girl to confident artist willing to let herself go. The challenges she faces include Thomas, an imposing figure whose support can be frank to the point of abusive, and at times highly inappropriate; Lily (Mila Kunis), a new dancer with the company, who befriends Nina and loosens her up, but is a cunning rival; and Erica, her overbearing mother (a fearsome Barbara Hershey), a onetime dancer that stardom eluded, and the source of Nina’s considerable fears.
Aronofsky provides a detailed examination of Nina’s psyche. At times the view is subtle, at times, fantastical, and even where the film goes over the top, I found the internal logic of the story and characters to be bulletproof. To its credit, the film doesn’t take the easy way out. It’s true to its own conceits.
This and the week’s other two films have a few similarities. Black Swan‘s technique-versus-passion theme can be found in The Turning Point. But Black Swan is closer to The Red Shoes. Both have story-within-a-story elements, with the identities of a ballerina and her role merging in captivating and tragic ways. The Red Shoes borrows from a fairy tale, Black Swan from the world of horror, and each tells a tale about a beautiful and talented ballerina that makes for a mesmerizing, unforgettable movie.
(More poster art for Black Swan here.)
No. 206 | January 12, 2011
Our theme this week
Films about ballerinas
Featured this week
(See Monday post for theme introduction)
Monday — The Red Shoes (1948)
The Turning Point made a big splash when it was released, but time is often the best judge of a film’s worth. For The Turning Point, despite a pocket of loyal fans, time has not been particularly kind. No film of the 1970s received more Academy Award nominations, but few film fans now would list it among the great films of that notable decade. More likely, it’s remembered today for receiving eleven Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture and four for acting—then failing to win a single award. (Only one other movie, The Color Purple, in 1985, matched that peculiar honor of going 0 for 11 on awards night.)
Director Herbert Ross had an active career during the 1970s and ’80s, making comedies (Play It Again, Sam, The Sunshine Boys, The Goodbye Girl) and dance-based music films (Pennies from Heaven, Footloose). For Ross and his wife, producer Nora Kaye, both former dancers with the American Ballet Theater, The Turning Point was a film close to their heart. If there’s anything the film does especially well, it’s the ballet. The dancing is spectacular, and beautifully filmed, with more than a dozen selections from the popular repertoire. Leading the effort are ballerina Leslie Browne and the incomparable Mikhail Baryshnikov, both dancers making their screen debuts and earning Oscar nominations for their supporting roles.
Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft play the leads, Deedee and Emma, two dancers who once were friends and rivals. They meet again, twenty years later, having followed very different paths. Deedee had a child, Emilia (Browne), and left the performing life to raise a family. Emma made her name as a prima ballerina, winning nineteen curtain calls for one performance, followed by years of success. Deedee remains jealous, having missed her chance, and Emma fears the end of the career for which she has sacrificed much. The resentments of the two women simmer until they boil over into a full-blown cat fight outside Lincoln Center. But it’s too too late to change the past, and the future belongs to the daughter, whose rise from teenage unknown to ballerina in a single summer is one storybook element in an otherwise reality-based drama.
The Turning Point has some virtues, but some shortcomings, too. The acting is strong in spots, but uneven (the Oscar nominations for the supporting roles seem very generous). The writing is unbalanced, with some half-drawn characters and a plotline involving Deedee’s son that’s left dangling. Perhaps the most jarring problem is the disjointed nature of the dance scenes, which don’t flow from the rest of the action so much as interrupt it.
To its credit, though, The Turning Point is a movie about women who have the power to choose for themselves, unlike the week’s other films, in which authoritarian men rule the world of ballet.
In that respect, the film may be more contemporary, though to me it feels not as vital. In The Red Shoes, a dancer must choose between love or art. In The Turning Point, the choice is family or career. The earlier film has a timeless quality; the later one feels less urgent. No one dies in this one, but then, nothing seems worth dying for.