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)
No. 235 | May 2, 2011
In my five decades and counting I’ve had the chance to witness quite a bit of history, but tonight I can say that I don’t remember a moment like this. So often the most memorable events are the most tragic—the assassinations of the ’60s, the Oklahoma City bombing, and of course, 9/11. There have been jubilant occasions, too—the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, the fall of the Berlin Wall—but as an occasion of justice and victory, today’s news, though on a smaller scale, feels like something we may not have experienced in the United States since the end of World War II.
Osama bin Laden is dead. The news was shocking when it came—not because we’d given up the effort, but because we’d given up the thought that it would actually happen. Yet now we get to think about it differently. The effort to get bin Laden (not to be mistaken for our multiple missteps along the way) was not a lost cause, after all. Suddenly, so it seems, we got it right.
The past decade has been painful and troubling, filled with more futility and self-doubt than we ever would want to admit. The demise of bin Laden puts an end to one chapter of our recent history. Though time will tell what it means, for the moment it is reason to celebrate.
As I watched the news with my wife, who I met in the weeks following 9/11, and my son, who’s approximately the age that I was watching the events of November 1963, I felt a glimmer of hope that I have not felt in a long, long while. Maybe we can move on now. It’s about time.
Ding Dong! The witch is dead.
Which old witch?
The Wicked Witch!
Ding Dong! The Wicked Witch is dead.
Wake up, sleepy head,
Rub your eyes, get out of bed.
Wake up, the Wicked Witch is dead.
She’s gone where the goblins go,
Below, below, below.
Yo-ho, let’s open up and sing and ring the bells out.
Ding Dong the merry-oh,
Sing it high, sing it low.
Let them know
The Wicked Witch is dead!
The most fitting movie for the occasion, it seems to me, is the most American of movies, The Wizard of Oz. The witch is dead! The nightmare is over. The time to leave the storm cellar has come.
No. 230 | March 25, 2011
Our theme this week
Performers inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011
Waits is an American original. Though never a huge commercial success, he’ll be remembered long after many of his more popular contemporaries are forgotten. He’s a musician first, but he’s worth noting for his work in film as well. He first had a hit with “Ol’ 55,” when the Eagles recorded it in 1974; his original is a song I can listen to a dozen times in a row and still want to hear again. “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)” was nothing less than an anthem during my college years. You had to love a guy who had the courage to mumble through his songs. But most of all, there was a sense of feeling in his music that you couldn’t find anywhere else. Francis Ford Coppola had him score One from the Heart, and the result is a work of beauty. Waits continued working in film, often onscreen, and his performances in Down by Law and Short Cuts are, to my mind, especially memorable. I can’t do justice to Waits in a short sketch like this, and I won’t try. Suffice to say, he’s one of the greats.
Waits on film
One from the Heart (1982)*
Rumble Fish (1983)
The Cotton Club (1984)
Down by Law (1986)
Short Cuts (1993)
Night on Earth (1992)*
Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)
Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006)
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
The Book of Eli (2010)
* Original score.
Contributed songs to soundtracks of many films (too many to mention, but Waits did much of the music for the 1992 Jeff Bridges film American Heart).
Final note on the Class of 2011
In addition to the five performers featured this week, three others were inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Leon Russell (as a “sideman” and not a “performer,” which seems like an arbitrary distinction to me), and non-performers Jac Holzman (record exec) and Art Rupe (pioneer of indie labels). Congrats to all!
Waits was nominated for an Academy Award for best original score. The story behind Waits and the film here.
1. Name the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers starring in each of these concert and documentary films.
Dont Look Back (1967)
I’m Going to Tell You a Secret (2005)
Live at Red Rocks (1984)
Shine a Light (2008)
Stop Making Sense (1984)
This Is It (2009)
2. Name four of the seven Rock and Roll Hall of Famers to date who have won an Oscar for original song or original score.
3. Well more than 100 movies have opened since the beginning of 2011. Before this weekend, how many of those films have grossed more than $100 million at the domestic box office?
4. The baseball season usually brings with it another baseball movie or two. This year’s most anticipated film about the sport is Moneyball, the adaptation of the book by Michael Lewis (The Blind Side), due to open in September. The central character is Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s, who used computer analysis and sabermetrics to field a competitive team. Who plays Billy Beane onscreen?
5. Match each of the following Elizabeth Taylor movies with the role that she played.
Father of the Bride (1950)
A Place in the Sun (1951)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
BUtterfield 8 (1960)
No. 229 | March 24, 2011
Our theme this week
Performers inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011
My five stages of Neil Diamond:
One) my preteen years: best known as the guy who wrote songs for the Monkees (“I’m a Believer,” et al.), which meant something, and his solo stuff was catchy and very popular, in a good way (“Cherry, Cherry,” “Sweet Caroline”).
Two) my teen years: it was not hip to be a Neil Diamond fan in high school (though I would never deny my fondness for “Solitary Man,” a great song to defend and earn some contrarian cred).
Three) the looking-back years: all in all, Diamond seemed better that I remembered at the time, someone who I could allow myself to like, even if it was in a campy, nostalgic sort of way.
Four) the not-so-young-anymore years: recognition that Diamond was, without qualification, a major pop writer and singer.
Five) the current view: not much different than Four, but surprise at the number of people of a certain age, many of them women, who regard Diamond as the pinnacle of pop, but unlike me, never went through stages Two or Three.
Diamond may have had a whole new career if The Jazz Singer had been a success. We’ll never know what might have been, but we’ll always have that one shining example of a cast with Diamond, Laurence Olivier, and Lucie Arnaz.
Diamond on film
Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973)*
The Last Waltz (1978)**
The Jazz Singer (1980)
Saving Silverman (2001)**
* Original score.
** As himself.
Contributed songs to soundtracks of many films, including Pulp Fiction (“Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” performed by Urge Overkill).
No. 151 | August 20, 2010
Our theme this week
The incomparable Fred Astaire
Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday — “Cheek to Cheek” / Top Hat (1935)
Tuesday — “Begin the Beguine” / Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940)
Wednesday — “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” / The Sky’s the Limit (1942)
Thursday — “You’re All the World to Me” / Royal Wedding (1951)
Fred Astaire was neither the first nor the last to record Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” but he’s the performer most closely associated with the tune. His performance comes in Blue Skies, the Paramount musical that was billed as “Astaire’s last picture.” After performing for the public for forty years, the actor-singer-dancer had had enough. At the age of 47, he called it quits. “Puttin’ on the Ritz” was his “last dance.”
It didn’t work out very well. Retirement, that is. Fred Astaire continued to make movies into the 1980s.