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. 236 | December 30, 2011
Last we met, on this page at least, we were heading down the yellow-brick road with Dorothy to celebrate some joyous news with the Munchkins. That was May. May? May! So where have I been? Good question. Where have you been? Another good question. And where oh where has the time gone?
Long story short, my already full life became even more full and something had to give. That something turned out to be writing for this site on any kind of a regular basis. I had expected that I’d find time to add occasional posts, but that, I’ve learned, is harder to do when it’s not part of a daily or weekly routine. So the year has slipped away—pffft!—but before it is officially done, let’s take a look back at some of the movies of 2011.
For the record, this is not my list of ten best films of the year. No reason to stop at ten anyway, and slowpoke that I am, my moviegoing for the year remains a work in progress. I’m still catching up with a few films from November (and before), and some late-year releases are just hitting theaters (A Separation opens today).
Rather, this is a list of movies I’ve seen (so far) that made going to the theater worth the time and effort. It’s incomplete and somewhat arbitrary—I’ll have something a bit more definitive to say after I’ve taken in a few more year-end releases, sometime before Oscar time. Let me add this disclaimer: these are not necessarily great movies. Some are only arguably good, flawed but with enough redeeming value to make them worth noting.
I’ve broken out the list into two groups: one, films from before the deluge, i.e., before Oscar hopefuls hit theaters starting around October, and the other, films that have come out since.
The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick doesn’t direct many films—five features in 38 years (though he may be just a slow starter, with nearly as many in pipeline). What he lacks in number he more than makes up for with uncommonly rich, dense explorations of the beings who people his stories. His stories are not the linear narratives we’re used to getting at the movies. Nor are his characters revealed through the usual mix of dialogue and action. Malick’s works resemble photographed novels as much as they do cinema. Malick combines images, dreams, memories, and voiceovers to portray lives lived in the context of forces far beyond, and deeper than, ordinary experience. His latest, The Tree of Life, has divided critics and audiences (making it the kind of movie I tend to favor). A tour de force or tour de farce? Depends whom you read. I lean toward the former view. The story ostensibly is about a family in a small town in Texas, yet it takes time for meditations ranging from the origins of the universe to the ultimate demise of Earth. Within that grand sweep we see human life not as a thing in itself but an episode in the continuum. Few movies take such a wide perspective; 2001: A Space Odyssey, a very different film, is one. Malick, like Kubrick, contemplates the mystery of it all and gives his audience something rare, a chance to experience wonder.
Midnight in Paris
We think of Woody Allen as a New York director but he seems to have found new life in recent years making movies in Europe. Since 2005 he’s released four films shot in London and one in Barcelona. This year it’s the City of Light and Midnight in Paris is the best of the lot. (Rome gets its turn next year with Nero Fiddled.) Owen Wilson turns in a winning performance as Gil, an American writer in love more with the city than with his fiancée. His knack for time travel offers an escape as he hobnobs with greats from the city’s storied expatriate past—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, Porter, Picasso, Dalí, and Buñuel among them. The film is sweet and whimsical, more than a bit nostalgic, and for one interlude in which Gil steals the heart of Picasso’s mistress, wonderfully portrayed by the beautiful Marion Cotillard, it’s altogether touching.
Drive is a steely cool slice of L.A. crime drama propelled by an unflappable, razor-sharp lead performance from Ryan Gosling. The film borrows freely from a variety of sources, and influences such as Jean-Pierre Melville and Sergio Leone give the story a distinct non-Hollywood feel. The driver, never named, is a man of few words. He works as a mechanic in a shop run by gangsters, does stunt driving for the movie biz, and hires himself out for getaway work. A loner by nature, he gets involved with his neighbor (Carey Mulligan), who has a young son and a husband getting out of prison. Complications ensue and plans inevitably go awry. Among the strong supporting cast is Albert Brooks as a ruthless and surprisingly believable bad guy.
A comedy with great laughs and real people. See, that’s not so hard. Thank you, Kristen Wiig et al. More like this, please.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Werner Herzog’s 3-D documentary inside the Chauvet Cave in France, where some of the world’s great art has been sealed for thousands of years. Ever wonder, What is it to be human? This film holds part of the answer to that question.
The Company Men
A timely film about a corporate downsizing and for the unlucky duckies who lose their livelihood, what happens next. A fine cast led by Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner, and Tommy Lee Jones.
Thanks to the brave leadership of politicians and medical professionals, the societies of the world pull together, avert panic, and successfully combat a mysterious and deadly virus sweeping the globe. Oops…that’s a different film. This one’s from Steven Soderbergh, and sad to say, it may be a somewhat more realistic view of what could someday happen.
The film is a remake of a 2007 Israeli thriller and doesn’t achieve all that you might have hoped. Still, it’s a heckuva story, and with Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and the busy Jessica Chastain, among others, you’re in good hands.
A Greek film that’s part horror, part comedy, about three older children living a totalitarian nightmare devised by their deranged parents. Unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
Hanna is a teenage girl living in the northern wilderness, where she is trained by her father to be an assassin. Saoirse Ronan does a terrific job in the title role. The film is uneven in spots and has some plot elements that don’t really work. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of action, some nicely photographed sequences, and a few moments of brilliance.
I can think of a few things wrong with this movie, but I enjoyed the performances, especially those of Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis, and Emma Stone. The racial divide of Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s may not be the same as it is today, but the divide now between the haves and have-nots feels as wide as ever, and for that reason, the film seems unusually timely.
A Canadian-made film set in the Middle East and largely in French. Two adult children travel back to the war-torn homeland of their dead mother to deliver letters to their brother and father and discover the truth about their family and themselves. It’s devastating.
Films about baseball typically are not great movies. This is no exception, though it is a cut above many of the others. The tale leaves behind old-fashioned notions of the romance of the sport. This one’s all about the science of numbers. Perhaps that’s the way the game is played these days, but also it’s part of the problem—for the sport and for the movie. A little more heart wouldn’t hurt.
Probably the best Steven Spielberg film this year, though J. J. Abrams directed this one. I liked the story of the clever kids, breaking curfew to make a movie. The extraterrestrials show up, and what started fresh begins to feel like something we’ve seen a few too many times before.
Errol Morris’s documentary on the fascinating story of Joyce McKinney, with a big juicy 1960s sex scandal, a kidnapping, Mormons, and dog cloning to boot.
Adapted from a British television series, The Trip follows the hilarious Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on their travels through the Lake District of Northern England. They drive, they stop at one inn or another, and they eat. Not a lot more happens. But they talk, and their repartee and impressions account for some best laughs you’ll find on film this year. The movie feels a bit slapdash, and I can’t help but wonder what didn’t make it into the final cut, but one thing is sure: no one who sees it will think of Michael Caine the same way again.
The story is over the top—but Roland Emmerich was never one for subtlety. He took liberties—hey, like Shakespeare—so don’t come to this film looking for history. Whatever merits the Earl of Oxford–as–Bard authorship theory may hold (it does make for fascinating reading), at heart this film is a paean to the greatest writer of the English language who ever lived. That’s something special, whatever his name was.
A Dangerous Method
Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud at the birth of psychoanalysis, featuring the story of Sabina Spielrein, the patient, protégée, and lover who unites then divides them. Strong performances from Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortenson. Keira Knightley plays the troubled and irresistible Sabina. It’s a period picture, but with David Cronenberg at the helm, working from a Christopher Hampton script, it’s not at all old-fashioned.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The first of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy to get its English-language big-screen treatment, it delivers more or less what you’d expect (though not much more): quick storytelling from David Fincher, a pulsating score from Trent Reznor, and dynamite performances from Rooney Mara in the title role and Daniel Craig doing some very un-Bond-like detective work. The film is the kind of up-to-date genre piece that Hollywood should be making more of, if only it could kick its fantasy habit.
A film about the magic of movies, and made with more than a bit of magic itself. The story of Georges Méliès, the pioneer filmmaker who lost favor with audiences, ran a toy store with his wife at Gare Montparnasse in Paris, and late in life was rediscovered is one that deserves to be told, and now in fictionalized form it has. Martin Scorcese directed the adaptation of Brian Selznick’s inventive novel. Fine performances, with many comic touches and sweet moments. I am probably more fond of this film than any other I’ve seen recently, and it’s the rare 3-D film I’m glad to have seen in 3-D.
The Ides of March
Intrigue behind the scenes of a presidential campaign, with pols and candidates more lifelike than we get on the reality TV known as cable news. George Clooney directed and stars as Governor Mike Morris, but the film belongs to the campaign manager played by Ryan Gosling, who’s having quite a year. An all-around fine cast, with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright and Evan Rachel Wood on hand to do deeds nefarious and otherwise.
Here, friends, is the love story of the year. Leonardo DiCaprio is a revelation as the one and only J. Edgar Hoover. Armie Hammer is Clyde Tolson, his colleague, confidant, and more. Naomi Watts is his lifelong secretary, the loyal Helen Gandy. A richly told tale directed by Clint Eastwood, probably on balance as good a film as any he’s made.
If you want a movie to help you understand the financial crisis of 2008, I’d recommend the documentary Inside Job. It shows how the 1% ripped off the 99% and gives you the who-did-what (plenty of bad guys, not a lot of good guys). Margin Call is the story of some of those crooks. You might not like them—a few are just rich assholes, after all—but you get a sense of the price they pay. The film doesn’t let them off the hook, but you can understand why they do what they do. That may not be a popular take in these times, but it’s an achievement. The cast is wonderful and the performances well worth the time.
My Week with Marilyn
Marilyn Monroe, as great a star as the movies have known, is brought to life in a remarkable performance by Michelle Williams. You can’t take your eyes off her. That’s the reason to see this movie, even if the film may be slight in other ways.
The Pause Button
As noted above, I’ll be back with another post or two early in 2012, recapping the year and looking at the Oscars (February 26). The regular schedule for posts about movies is on hold for the time being. I’d like to get back to writing more about movies when time permits, but that will not be very soon. I have a couple of ideas for other movie projects, and someday I will get to them too. Meanwhile, my next writing gig will not about movies, and will not be online, but it will keep me occupied for some time, and if and when there is news to share about that, I will let you know.
For you crossword fans, my 16-month series of Gram Cracker minipuzzles wrapped up earlier in December. It was a fun experiment, and in the end I’d say the puzzles turned out well. Hope it was fun for you solvers too. Once again, a big “thanks” to two-time ACPT champ Dan Feyer for his expert test-solving skills, a big help to me getting the puzzles ready for prime time. The Gram Crackers and other puzzles, as always, are at the MAD Puzzles page.
Martin Scorsese, director
Robert Richardson, cinematographer
Brian Selznick (book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret), John Logan (screenplay), writers
Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen
Quote of note
“If you ever wonder where your dreams come from, look around: this is where they’re made.”
—Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), Hugo (2011)
No. 234 | April 14, 2011
Over the weekend I was in Utah (surviving, it turned out), and saddened to learn of Sidney Lumet’s death. I had the itch to see one of his films, and when I made it home I put on The Verdict. No particular reason, except maybe that I hadn’t seen it in a while. It’s a film I had admired but it was even better than I remembered. Paul Newman was brilliant, as good as he ever was, and the film allowed itself a darkness unlike anything you’d see in any movie today. Lumet made something truly special. You get a taste in the clip below.
For more of Lumet, check out this conversation with Charlie Rose from 2006. I recall seeing it the first time. I’d been a fan of Lumet’s films, and I’d read his book a couple of times. He was a guy I’d stop and listen to anytime. It’s a good interview, and after an engaging discussion about movies, Lumet got to talking about another of my interests, crossword puzzles. Turns out he was a daily solver of the New York Times puzzle, “In ink!” he was proud to note. “Except Thursday,” he added with a smile. “Thursday has been getting tougher.” That was sweet to hear at the time. I was just getting started as a constructor, with a puzzle that had run in the Times that month, on a Thursday, a tricky number with a theme on squares. It was a kick to think that the director whose work had given me many thrills over the years may have had a few minutes of pleasure with something I had done. Yet if that’s the case, I still got the better end of the exchange. I owe you, Sidney. We all do.
Finally, a link to the N.Y. Times retrospective “The Last Word,” on the films and life of Sidney Lumet, with reporter Tim Weiner.
Our theme this week
Director Sidney Lumet
Sidney Lumet, in his own words:
The Verdict, Andrzej Bartkowiak, photographer. The movie was about a man’s salvation, his fight to rid himself of his past.
I wanted as “old” a look as possible. Art direction had a lot to contribute, and we’ll deal with that later. But light mattered enormously.
One day I brought a beautiful edition of Caravaggio’s paintings to my meeting with Andrzej. I said, “Andrzej, there’s the feeling I’m after. There’s something ancient here, something from a long time ago. What is it?” Andrzej studied the pictures. Then, with his charming Polish accent, he pinpointed it. “It’s chiaroscuro,” he said. “A very strong light source, almost always from the side, not above. And on the other side, no soft fill light, only shadows. Once in a while he’ll use the reflective light of a metal source on the dark side.” He pointed to a young boy holding a golden salver. On the shadow side of the boy’s face, one could discern a slight golden hue. And that’s what Andrzej carried out in the lighting of the movie.
—Making Movies, 1995
No. 233 | April 12, 2011
One of the greats died over the weekend. Sidney Lumet was a brilliant director and a favorite of mine. He’s one of the reasons I fell in love with movies.
I regret to say my schedule gives me little time to say much now. Instead, you can find many worthy tributes around the Net. Here’s one from Betsy Sharkey in Monday’s paper that does a good job of getting at what made Lumet tick—the moral angle, the slice of New York, the fascination with crime and the legal system. He’s been called an actor’s director, and that is certainly true, but you could just as well call him an audience’s director. He made movies about people for people—grown-up people, no less—and that, as simple as it may sound, is more and more a rare thing in the “product” that Hollywood turns out. Lumet was making movies before I was born and was still going strong in his 80s. Thankfully, he had a long career and made many films, among them some of the greatest of our time (though, like others, he never received due respect at Oscar time). On the short list of his best work I’d put the following: Network, Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict, 12 Angry Men, and Serpico. Those you probably know. Certainly check out The Pawnbroker and Prince of the City, if you haven’t yet. His most recent, from 2007, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, deserved all the raves it received. Lumet was 86. He will be missed.
Our theme this week
Director Sidney Lumet
Sidney Lumet, in his own words:
Let me vent my anger first, so it’s out of the way. Critics talk about style as something apart from the movie because they need the style to be obvious. The reason they need it to be obvious is that they don’t really see. If the movie looks like a Ford or Coca-Cola commercial, they think that’s style. And it is. It’s trying to sell you something you don’t need and is stylistically geared to that goal. As soon as a “long lens” appears, that’s “style.” … From the huzzahs that greeted Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman, one would’ve thought that another Jean Renoir had arrived. A perfectly pleasant bit of romantic fluff was proclaimed “art,” because it was so easy to identify as something other than realism. It’s not so hard to see the style in Murder on the Orient Express. But almost no critic spotted the stylization in Prince of the City. It’s one of the most stylized movies I’ve ever made. Kurosawa spotted it, though. In one of the most thrilling moments of my professional life, he talked to me about the “beauty” of the camera work as well as of the picture. But he meant beauty in the sense of its organic connection to the material. And this is the connection that, for me, separates true stylists from decorators. The decorators are easy to recognize. That’s why critics love them so. There! I’ve had my tantrum.
—Making Movies, 1995
No. 232 | April 7, 2011
Our theme this week
Films about runners and running
Featured this week
Tuesday — Chariots of Fire
In Chariots of Fire, Harold Abrahams and Eric Littell are runners who race for God and country. In Without Limits, Steve Prefontaine runs for no one but himself. Though we’re not supposed to admit it in polite society, Pre, as he’s known, runs for a more noble cause. As I see it, running has nothing to do with politics or religion, and filmmakers are wiser to keep them apart. Prefontaine makes a better subject for a movie, and though I wouldn’t claim Without Limits is Best Picture material, in countless ways it’s superior to the British Oscar winner.
The film came out in 1998 and did nothing at the box office, just as Prefontaine, another film about the Oregon track star, starring Jared Leto, did the year before. The story, and the films, deserved better.
Without Limits, the better version, in my opinion, was brought to the screen by Robert Towne, one of Hollywood’s great screenwriters (Chinatown) and occasional director. (His first directing job was another track story, Personal Best, with Mariel Hemingway.)
Billy Crudup plays the lead, doing first-rate work to capture the spirit, charisma, and headstrong personality that made Steve Prefontaine a key figure in the running world during the 1970s. Prefontaine is a front-runner, taking the lead early and often winning without a contest. When his considerable talent doesn’t blow away the field, he has another edge—guts. He’s cocky and uncoachable, but his faith in himself is admirable. He knows better than anyone else what he needs to do to win.
Pre’s coach is Bill Bowerman, a legendary figure at the University of Oregon and later co-founder of Nike, portrayed by Donald Sutherland in an award-worthy performance, one of the finest of his career. Playing Mary Marckx, Pre’s girlfriend, is Monica Potter (inspiration for the Counting Crows song “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby”).
Well-written, well-directed, and well-acted, Without Limits is small gem, one of those movies you want to seek out, especially if you missed it the first time around. Though never an Olympic champion, Steve Prefontaine, in his short life, was one of the shining stars of American track, and a figure well worth spending some time with onscreen.