Sunday, December 27, 2009

Broken Embraces

(Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 2009)

A virtuosic performance by Almodovar and his cohorts (especially Penelope), but while the film is sumptuous and eye-catching and jam-packed with internal references and echoes, there is very little dimension to the characters. They are all put through the emotional wringer, more or less, but it doesn't feel as if anything vital is at stake - the characters feel like they're theoretically complex, but the director fails to make us actually care about them. Of course, it isn't clear that 3-D characterization is Almodovar's top priority - it seems more that he's content to dazzle us on a formal level. That's all well and good for about two thirds of the movie, but it isn't enough to make the whole thing hang together, and the experience ends up feeling rather flat.

If I had to guess, I'd say that Almodovar is actually interested in a cake-and-eat-it kind of deal - that he's fascinated by all the inter-textual resonance and cool detachment, and that he wants us to be fascinated too, but he's also trying to tell a good, juicy story. But the themes that he touches on (without ever really exploring at any depth, ie. performance and identity, the irretrievability of the past, and patrimony, to name a few; there are plenty) are intrinsically heavy, and their emotional significance ends up being muted. There are moments and scenes in which the emotional stakes are very high, but they feel desultory, bracketed by clever little melodramatic and comedic trifles. Both of these are strong suits for Almodovar - comedy and melodrama - but in Broken Embraces he doesn't manage to compose anything that hangs together - it's elegantly slapdash, but still slapdash.

That sense of inconsistency is the root of the problem. It's as if Pedro has contracted a case of cinematic ADD - he's trying everything in this film without ever investing his full attention in the piece overall. This incoherence extends to the film on a formal level - there are several shots that display his expert sense of visual balance and rhythm - but there are others that stood out as awkwardly edited, even some genuine visual non-sequitors that smacked more of error than of idiosyncrasy.

All of which shouldn't be taken to mean that the film isn't enjoyable - it is, mostly. But it's frustrating for not being as enjoyable as it could be if the director would just take a deep breath and concentrate on doing something besides impressing everybody. Trust the story, Pedro. Less is more.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


(James Cameron, US, 2009)

Well, it has finally arrived, and I'm happy to say that despite no small amount of initial skepticism, I heartily enjoyed Avatar. It's hard to adequately judge this film at the moment, being as I'm still in the process of decompression from the experience, but this will be an "immediate reaction" kind of post. And my immediate reaction is: pretty freaking impressed. My expectations were met and mostly exceeded. I found myself easily forgiving all of the obvious foibles - cheesy dialogue, on-the-nose allusions, the resounding similarity of the plot with a dozen other similarly themed sci-fi adventure stories. (It's worth exploring those allusions, too - they're so on-the-nose that they almost manage to transform the film into some kind of spectacular polemic against American imperialism, but a discussion of all that will have to wait.) And that's usually a pretty good marker for the overall quality of a movie - how much can you bring yourself to love it, despite how bad some of it may be to your taste and sensibilities? It helps that I'm pretty much in the tank for Cameron's apparent politics, sure, but I'm not usually so swayed by such wide-eyed fantasy.

As of right now, I can say that Avatar has two very major points of interest - two things that Cameron does very well. One is technical, the other one is more formal. Technically, Avatar is a masterpiece. It is not uniformly beautiful - at times, it crosses over into opulence, and there is a kind of uniformity to the environment that feels, well, limited in the human-limitation way (imagine that.) But it is gorgeous enough to knock the pants off of any current contender to the throne of computer-generated visual splendor. Some of the best moments in the film occur when Jake is exploring Pandora for the first time - his first foray into the macro-sized rain forest, which begins in quiet wonder at the exotic lifeforms and culminates in a frantic exit-pursued-by a-hammerhead-alien-rhinoceros. Cameron and his mighty legion of animators, shaders, designers, colorists and so on ad infinitum even manage to top this when Sully (the protagonist), stranded in the forest at night, fashions a torch and then has to run like hell again, this time with a pack of alien jackal creatures nipping at his heels. The movement of the "camera" (here, as in much of the rest of the film, the camera is a computer-generated construct, and almost creepily accurate in its recreation of lens flares, shakiness, and shifting focus), combined with the eerie ambient light AND the light from Sully's torch, makes for pure cinematic gorgeousness. Cameron's shrewdness is especially apparent here in his allowing for the artificiality of CGI to work in his favor. Rather than marshsalling all of his mighty processing power to completely mimic the depth and detail of a real rain forest, he lets his animators make an environment that feels exotic, alien, dreamlike, in other words, appropriately un-real. It's a different kind of beauty, of course, than what you'll get in the cinematography of Nestor Almendros or Gordon Willis, but that's exactly the point. It's the first time I've actually felt somewhat congenial towards the idea of a totally virtual enviroment, and while there is an element of trepidation to such a sensation (a healthy reservation, I believe) it was nevertheless truly inspiring to see what wonders human minds are capable of creating.

The other big factor in Cameron's favor is his full embrace of the genre - in this case, action adventure of the kind pioneered by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Cameron is not a ground-breaker or even a rule-bender in this regard, and actually, on a genric level, he's pretty much breaking with his earlier work, which tended to be gritty and harsh and distinctly dystopian. In Avatar, he plays things very much by the book - carefully constructing a world that is fake enough for us to believe it. The embellished parable, as it might be called, is a form that film does very well. People who complain about the shallowness of the story (a shallowness that is worth noting, but not complaining about) are missing the point. It's a fable, a pageant. It's not interested in psychological depth or narrative twists and turns. It's simply presenting, as Cameron himself has noted, a straightforward account of the history of aggression in humanity - one group invades another because it wants the other's resources. This is a story that is not told often enough, contrary to what several critics have been harping on.
Yes, yes, of course, though: it could have been so much more. It could have had an interesting philosophical slant. But that wasn't what Cameron was after.

Then there's the theme. This is where things get a little more interesting. The notion of, essentially, rooting for the aliens, of favoring them over the humans, does make for an interesting sort of empathy experiment. What does it say about our connection to the earth, about our need for scientific veracity, about our desperation and seeming inability to know ourselves until it's too late -until we're ruined, mind and body, and in doing so have ruined the world that we were born in? More to come.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Werckmeister Harmonies

(Bela Tarr, Hungary, 2000) Two features in and I still don't know what to make of Tarr. Damnation had moments of startling beauty, but its cinematic gracefulness buckled under the atmosphere of gloom. Here, the gloom isn't quite as thick, although the apocalyptic theme remains. Tarr has developed a lighter touch, but at the same time seems to have lost some of his former precision. The camerawork in Werckmeister Harmonies is often labored and meandering, and the various set pieces seem strung together and ponderous. A lot of the imagery and dialogue is just oblique enough to avoid being obvious, but that only makes it feel like a dodge, and all the more pretentious for that. Are we dealing with a rehashing of the Moby Dick allegory? Is the sinister Prince meant to be emblematic of all charismatic leaders? The central conflicts are familiar - choas vs. order, peace vs. violence, innocence vs. evil. Tarr's worldview seems to be oddly similar to Werner Herzog's - a universe that is predominantly depraved and chaotic, with the hapless humans going about their futile business of finding meaning.

Color me underwhelmed. This film has been popping up on Best of the Decade lists everywhere, and while I suppose I can understand some of the furor (it has several hallmarks of The Important Art Film) I can't bring myself to join in. The visuals didn't sweep over me and I wasn't moved by the fleeting moments of humanity. I don't think Tarr is a poseur - I'm willing to grant some credibility to his seriousness and his commitment to his project. But he's an artist without much to say, or one who's too bottled up and bound by his preoccupations to say anything of lasting relevance.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Road

(John Hillcoat, US, 2009)

An interesting film to talk about, but a trial to watch. From a purely technical standpoint, there's a lot to admire, provided you can survive the brutally depressing mood that it evokes. The performances, set design, and editing are all top-notch; in fact, only the music fails to satisfy - it verges on maudlin, abetting the fugue of despair that pummels your feelings into submission. I can't heap enough praise on the mighty Viggo, whose performance is deserving of the term heroic. Part of that sense of heroism, however, comes from an impression of his having struggled for so empty an endeavor. The problem isn't that it's a poorly-made film, or one made with anything but good intentions, care, and sincerity. Indeed, it's almost shockingly sincere, and that's part of the problem.

Can we talk about the notion of a novel being unfilmmable? I'm reminded of a line from the film Jurassic Park (based on a book that practically screamed to be adapted to the screen) in which Jeff Goldblum's character chides the genetic scientists for being "so concerned over whether or not they could that they forgot to think about whether or not they should." I think that the same injunction ought to apply to adaptations of certain novels, and it's one that Hillcoat should have thought more about before they made this film. Of course, in this day and age, there is no greater prize for a literary work than being made into a movie, so it's unlikely that people will start being more circumspect any time soon.

But the question remains - why? It's not to say that subject matter as solemn and terrible as the The Road's off-limits to cinema, but here the steady progression of harrowing situations feels unduly oppressive. It's not all horror, of course, and the film handles the moments of hope carefully, without spilling into sentimentality. All the same, the glimpses of redemption don't do much to leaven the gloom, with the possible exception of the ending - but really, by the end we're so emotionally downtrodden, we'll leap at anything suggesting survival. But is just surviving enough? Is it worth it if no hope exists? Such questions, raised so explicitly and starkly, aren't adequately worked through.

This is sort of the idea behind my earlier comment regarding Viggo having struggled heroically towards dubious ends. The movie is a powerful, overwhelming experience, but it doesn't feel like a great film - it feels like walking through a third-world slum, full of beggars and whores and suffering at a pitch that you really can't adequately imagine. It's not cathartic, it's just awful, and you find yourself feeling spent and mournful rather than fulfilled. While watching the Road, I couldn't help but think that minus the apocalyptic catastrophe, such horrors exist right now. From vicious rape and murder to the unthinkable suffering of starvation, to the quotidian desperation of the homeless - it's all here in this pre-apocalyptic world, just outside the comfort and the joy and the mild inconveniences of the few and very fortunate.

Maybe that should speak in favor of The Road as real art - it did made me feel, and it made me think. Maybe my stance toward the whole film-representation of terrible things is reactionary and unnecessary. But I can't avoid thinking that the unrelenting despair of the film, in all of its perfectly crafted realism, constitutes a kind of transgression against the suffering that is real - a bad-faith manipulation of our capacity to feel pity and sorrow. Can a film this bleak and uncompromising have a greater utility than its ability to make us grateful for running water and electricity? Something so visceral, immediate, so commanding of our instinct to fear violence and privation, doesn't have the detachment* that allows us to adequately respond to these questions - and that's where the Road finally fails.

*A detachment, I should note, that is built-in to the experience of reading a novel, which does not have cinema's fixed dimension of time. Again, this isn't to say that the subject matter itself is too much of anything - too terrible, or despair-inducing - to be given a treatment in cinema. Just that such a treatment has to be very carefully modulated. It has to give the audience a fair shake; some amount of imaginative space to move in, so to speak. Paradoxically, the excellent craft of the movie version of The Road is actually to its detriment. It's a law of diminishing returns kind of thing - the more convincing you make this particular fictional world, the less you give to the audience to do on their own, in terms of feeling as well as thinking.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Sun

(Alexander Sokurov, Russian/Italy/France/Japan, 2005)

It's the eve of Japan's surrender to the Allied forces, and the emperor Hirohito passes his days in a lonely windowless bunker, preoccupied with regret, worry, and doubt. He's beginning to get the feeling that he's not descended from the Sun goddess after all, and is just a mortal like everyone else. His servants and generals insist on his celestial lineage, but the Emperor is worn-out and disappointed, and he knows it won't be long before the Americans come knocking. He does get a bang out of his chief hobby, that of an amateur marine biologist, but his family has been sent away to avoid the Allied bombing, and his only companions are a doting, elderly hand servant and a sycophantic aide.

The film sticks almost claustrophobically close to the Emperor, who is depicted with great prowess by Issei Ogata, but for all of the time spent lingering on his every move and word, little is revealed. Sukorov, who directed and photographed the film, presents the character as a man who has spent his entire life in a dream - simultaneously monstrous and childlike, capable of ordering the death of thousands with a single word and yet dazzled with joy over the beauty of a hermit crab. The contrast between the spoiled tyrant and the gentle recluse is apparent, but the film produces no greater effect than mild curiosity, which can't carry it for the almost two-hour running time. It has all the ingredients for an epic tragedy, but nothing occurs to produce anything like pity or awe. What remains instead is a dolorous mood piece, abetted by the repetitive, ominous score and the desaturated, flat cinematography.

Except for a couple of abrupt, striking moments (the apocalyptic dream sequence is truly terrifying), there isn't much here to admire. I was struck most by the ramshackle production quality - the choice of camera placement and use of lighting is bizarrely amateurish, and the editing is obtuse and out of sync with the overall tone of the story. Having seen (and been exquisitely bored by) Russian Ark, I know that Sukorov at least knows rudimentary staging and image composition, but none of that is apparent here - for the most part, it looks like it was directed and shot by a sophomore film student. Part of this has to be by design - the pale, milky imagery is obviously intentional, and it suggests the foggy quality of antique photography - but it still just looks cheap and sloppy. I'm tempted to chalk the whole mess up to an artistic misstep, since it's clear that Sokurov is both serious and committed to his subject. But that doesn't change the fact that the film is a mess - it's full of passion but is absent of rigor, precision, or anything really special to say.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


(Christian Petzold, Germany, 2008)

A taut, well-paced, politically-infused melodrama. Petzold is a new name to me, and as always, it's great to discover an excellent filmmaker, especially one currently working at the height of his powers, if reports are to be believed (several reviews mark this as his best film yet, which I will have to verify for myself; the rest of his available work was promptly added to my Netflix queue.) Jerichow is a film that leaves one marveling over how the director made the whole thing fly, and without any apparent exertion. Petzold knows just when to add suspense, just when to reveal character, and just when to cut - I don't think I could better catalog the requisite skill set for a director of this kind of film.

What's most impressive here is the careful balance of melodrama and critical distance. The story is pure noir - down-on-his- luck man meets trophy wife, they fall into the sack and promptly begin scheming. The added element of racial resentment is just right - it doesn't overwhelm the story, and ends up adding to the story's poignance, rather than detracting from it. Such a story could be fraught with cliche, but Petzold has an acute sense of how close to keep his characters emotions, and how much to reveal about their lives. I'm not sure I've seen such a potent combination of psychological realism and arty detachment, and I'm genuinely surprised that it worked as well as it did.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Harold and Maude

(Hal Ashby, USA, 1971)

What can I say that hasn't already been said about this absolute gem of a movie? I'll offer up, right out of the gate, that I'm not as much of a johnny-come-lately as I might seem, having seen the film once before, although I was quite young at the time, and I'm sure that a good portion of Ashby's sublimely subtle hilarity went over my head.

What I'm certain I didn't miss was the effusive warmth of the film, which testifies to its status as one of the most tender portraits of alienation and acceptance ever to have been rendered in cinema. Ashby's genius has been a source of great fascination and inspiration for me as of late, and it couldn't come at a better time - as the days grow shorter, the weather colder, and the future of the human race increasingly bleak. The world is in great need of Art like Ashby's - intelligent, wise, compassionate, often bizarre, and personal.

I should probably hasten to add that I don't consider H&M to be a perfect film, or even Ashby's best - Harold's mother being an unfortunate caricature, although she's not atrocious, it gets a bit grating, and there's a good deal of Maude's fancy-free whimsy that's not 100% earned by the story. But, as with so many of Ashby's works, the brilliance that suffuses the film more than makes up for the rough patches. It's just such a damn funny movie, and a moving one too, that you can't help but be charmed by it - in a way, Harold and Maude, in one of the film's several coups of gently sublime innovations, function as perfect synecdoches for the film itself - they're cooky and strange and not quite entirely believable, but gorldarn it if they aren't expert at charming your pants off.

I'll leave off by mentioning one other daring and brilliant coup - it's perfectly obvious to anyone watching with some modicum of attention (and if you aren't at this point in the film, you're a humbug and a dolt) - but the final "mock" suicide of Harold, who (and this is coming, remember, from someone who's seen the film before) just might finally do it, so despairing he is over the loss of Muade, that it actually seems plausible that he is in that car, and that he is finally not faking it. Only to find, of course, and how could it be any other way, etc., that he's received the gift of Maude's love for life, and returns to the world kicking up his heels to the jaunty, eternally youthful tunes of Cat Stevens.

*And here again, because I can't help myself: There is a symmetry, an ease, to the narrative's conclusion that also doesn't quite feel earned. Harold, who has been rehearsing his self-obliteration throughout the entire film (in several instances, quite maliciously, I might add, when you think about it real-world style), learns to be happy and lives on, while the uncannily self-assured and content Maude does do herself in, under circumstances that can be seen both arbitrary and outright sadistic. Arbitrary, of course, because she presages her death when she first encounters Harold, remarking that 75 is too young, but 85 too old, and sadistic, because she does so right after Harold proclaims his love for her and proposes marriage. To give the characters their due, however, it must be noted that Maude's departure is far different from Harold's various rococo masquerades - she goes quietly and with dignity. As for the timing - well, it's perfectly in line with the disciplined whimsy of her character. But more importantly, I think, it perfectly underlines what could be discerned as the main theme of the film, namely, the inextricable coupling of life and death. Maude practices the kind of non-attachment that would make a Zen Buddhist proud, and understands on a profound level that death and life are two sides of the same mysterious coin - a lesson that she endeavors to teach Harold (without once seeming didactic), who was woefully unbalanced in his gravitation to death over life. She saw the potential kindred spirit in Harold - someone who intuited the necessity of death, but was tormented rather than awed by it, and who learned to live (and die, presumably) another way. Maude's wisdom was, and is, of the prophetic sort, and although Harold may not understand, at the end of the film, he seems to be willing to accept. This especially qualifies the film as a masterpiece, and much more than just a "carpe diem" sort of cinematic bromide.

**Really, there's even more to discuss, including the oft-denoted marking on Maude's wrist, subtle but unmistakable, which many have reasonably concluded to be a Holocaust tattoo. This isn't given any explication, and can almost be seen as a misguided and cavalier gesture, but I think it's just subtle enough to be acceptable, and it does play in Maude's quasi- aggressive dismissal of authority (especially the uniformed variety) and her remarks about her tempestuous past fighting for justice, and how she has since mellowed. This is all worth further meditation, and I suspect a fairly long posting on the genius of Ashby's other film will include such sundry details.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


Looking over my last post, I feel compelled to reassess my view of La Cienaga - if not to retract anything outright, then at least to leaven the overall mood of bitterness; I realize the striking disparity in my reactions to Martel's films, and I feel the need to better account for this disparity. This kind of apology-cum hedge is probably bad form, and I'm halfway tempted to simply redact the review, but since I consider it to be basically honest, I'd prefer to just tweak things at the safe remove of a new post.

Mostly, the emotion that was the driving force behind that little screed has its roots in my ever-changing ideas about Cinema as Art. This frequently boils down to what I think is permissible for an artist to "get away with", which might expose more than I'd like about my default position regarding the medium. Because this could easily devolve into a lengthy digression about said position, I'm just going to say that I am a firm believer in Cinema as Art, but my ideas about what films are worthy of such a designation are subject to changing winds of such caprice and whimsy (not to mention byzantine ideological and analytical contortions) that I have a recurring tendency to just whack my forehead in befuddlement.

In order to avoid such confusion and discord, I have lately taken a more enlightened approach, whereby I gently remind myself that unlike Old Man Yahweh, my judgments are neither omniscient nor eternally binding, and admitting my ignorance and accepting the provisional status of my perspective and judgment.

With that out of the way, I'll defer from more self-mortification and try to move into some specifics. The best way I know of to illuminate the flaws of a text is to point to an internal incoherence. This is as close as I usually come to objectivity, and I'm more than willing to admit that this still leaves me miles away from that unreachable destination. Without being to programmatic, and without too much redundancy, I'll say that La Cienaga seemed to exhibit two impulses that didn't coexist peacefully in her movie - on the one hand, the impulse to provide the audience with a realistic portrait of human behavior in certain circumstances, on the other hand, to provide a socio-political critique of the same people, and to tether this to a sensual meditation on humanity's relationship to the natural world. (I'm aware that that second impulse could be divided in two, but for me these two sub-themes were actual conflated, which was part of the problem - a confusion over politics and philosophy). We encounter characters that are well-shaded and believable - they aren't three dimensional, exactly, but they seem "real" - they have recognizable desires, emotions, tics. They are well-portrayed by the actors. Another way to put it, a simpler way, is that they are "crafted" - the result of collaboration between the director/writer and the actors.

When this is combined with the second strand of the film, the political/philosophical dimension, there is a clash. The characters are trapped in an overly deterministic universe that divides them into self-hating adults or callow children. Furthermore, it's suggested that the children are merely biding their time, and they too will someday develop into the feckless and decaying shades that spawned them. This is a classic example of the Artist confusing the message with the medium. In La Cienaga, the world is presented as a troubled and hostile place, with humans failing repeatedly to come to terms with it. Give them a bit of money and privilege, and they isolate themselves with intoxicants, while abusing the less privileged and blithely unaware of it. While it's true that this is a major problem in human society, to present it as an existential condition is to overreach. The helplessness of the cow stuck in quicksand is not the same thing as the perceived helplessness of a middle-aged drunk who is stuck in the past - to play with these images and ideas in the offhand way that Martel does is to be glib. The human dimension is quashed by a portentousness, and the film ends up feeling cheap and dishonest.

One need not provide a sunny outlook in a work of Art - part of Art's moral responsibility is to look openly and honestly at the suffering and senselessness of much of life. But if an artist is to depict suffering, I believe that there has to be some compassion involved. Otherwise, it will be hollow, and ineligible for the mantle of Art.

The frustrating thing is that Martel seemed to get the mixture wrong. The separate threads of the film, taken on their own, are fascinating and ripe for exploration. But the way they are combined in La Cienaga feels haphazard and imprecise. It's a movie that has the raw materials of a masterpiece, but instead of harmonizing, they provide dissonance.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

La Cienaga

(Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2001)

Grating and obtuse, La Cienaga is a mostly self-conscious wallowing in the muck of Art-cinema cliches and conventions, which, having been left to rot in the quagmire of hack academia and the backwoods of festival country, have festered and grown into hulking, incoherent monsters. I'm beginning to have serious doubts about Martel's filmmaking, and am in the slow, agonizing process of reviewing and reconsidering some of my previous thoughts on her films.

Okay, that's excessive. But it is faithful to my initial reaction, which was one of intense irritation and disappointment. I don't think Martel is a snowball artist, but what is one to make of La Cienaga, which leaves no lasting impression save some residual boredom and bemusement?

Often in early films, the cards are on the table but the rules are still fuzzy; it can be absolutely exhilarating to discover a filmmaker in the process of discovery. My own first encounter with Martel was well after her development and refinement, and I thought she had landed in a delectable territory of allusiveness and quirky nuance, all frosted with a thick layer of existential malaise. But that film, and the one previous to it (The Holy Girl) seemed to be uncertain and even foundering when it came to actual substance - it could be discerned even then that the sensations produced by Martel were not enough to warrant her lack of narrative or philosophical rigor.

Here, the craft is not so hermetically tight, although the quality of the performances is excellent. But what is it all in aid of? The stance taken on the characters is unmistakable as a kind of scorn - only the children manage to escape the derision, if only for their lack of experience. It's assumed that they too will grow into the monstrosities that their parents have become - self-involved, crippled by disappointment and bitterness, drunk and pathetic and almost infantile in their helplessness.

If this is a full-scale frontal assualt on the Argentine bourgeouisie, then it would have been better if Martel had written an angry letter, rather than wasting the precious resources of a talented cast and crew. If it's not that, if it's more interested in probing and searching than outright censure, than it must be a noisy, claptrap failure. The characters are half-drawn, the events are pedestrian and insignificant, and the atmosphere is just murky.

What's so damn frustrating about this is that it casts an imposing shadow of doubt over the rest of Martel's work - placing her dangerously close to the realm of the callous virtuoso - blessed with technical brilliance but lacking anything significant to say about the world or the sufferers who inhabit it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Holy Girl

(Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2004)

My second experience with the cinema of Mz. Martel. Like The Headless Woman, it's a tremendously well-crafted work, with a visual and aural precision that is evident in every painstakingly-composed shot. This was a somewhat distracted screening for me, so a re-view will be necessary, but overall I'm very impressed. Once again, it seems that the heart of the film is miles away from the socio-religio-political dimension, and resides instead with the lives of the characters. Martel prefers to sketch these lives (inner and outer) obliquely, relying on nuances and just-captured flickers of behavior rather than conventional drama. This is the crux of her particular slant on minimalism - she is a filmmaker interested in borders -the borders of the frame, but also the borders of our lives, the secret things that exist in the periphery of consciousness.

It's fitting, then, that watching The Holy Girl feels exceptionally voyeuristic, like reading someone's diary, or, better yet, watching them on a hidden camera. The film abounds with secrets, from the banal to the brutal. It has two main focal points: the wonder and abandon of adolescence, as seen through Amalia's romantic and spiritual endeavors, and the crushing weight of middle age, exemplified by the hapless Dr. Jano. Looked at from youth, the secrets of the world are great and seductive, but to the older characters they are a burden and a curse. Martel manages to squeeze a lot from this dynamic, and there are some wonderfully incisive moments to show for it, even if they are tantalizingly brief.

Still, the overall effect of the film is underwhelming. The risk of such a detached style is a lack of emotional investment, which is often at odds with the basic melodrama that provides the film's skeleton. It's hard to fault Martel for being so visually sophistocated, but there are times when the design chafes against the content, and not in a productive way. The Holy Girl is a film that is content to exist in the elusive zone between mainstream and art cinema - it eschews the intimations of transcendence and the mythic proportions of other contemporary works of cinematic minimalism, such as the work of Pedro Costa and Lisandro Alonso (and for that matter, Apichatpong and the venerable master Hou Hsiao Hsien), but its modest aspirations feel strangely inadequate. Mostly realistic (with a few impish nods at surrealism), the film is not quite satire, and yet it isn't sincere enough to be melodrama. The aura of ambivalence is effective at creating uneasiness, but eventually this quality becomes irritating. I would never be one to say that emotional substance and serious ideas are mutually exclusive, but
The Holy Girl, for all of its subtlety, seems not to have enough of either.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Woman is the Future of Man

(Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 2006)

After only recently hearing about Hong's work and its high status international cinema, I hurried to see what I could ASAP, finding WITFOM available to watch Instant on Netflix. Sadly, my enthusiasm for a contemporary auteur to steal ideas from has mostly evaporated - this film left me disappointed and perplexed. At first glance, it's a jumbled-up sex dramedy, consisting of a series of vignettes in which characters come together and fall apart. The tone is mostly detached and the scenes are disconnected, and so the title kept coming to mind as a potential Rosetta stone. But I was never able to unlock it's overriding significance - is it ironic, hopeful, pessimistic, or merely convenient?

Part of my confusion, I have to think, has to do with problems of cultural translation. Much in the film seems to hinge on manners and other norms of behavior, and my unfamiliarity with South Korean sexual mores exacerbated by puzzlement over much of the action. Which shouldn't be taken to mean that I couldn't relate - there is plenty of stuff that bridges the cultural divide easily, such as male insecurity and rivalry over women, not to mention general nostalgia over lost love and the past. The women seem to fare a bit better - they at least have some sense of what they want, whereas the men appear to be totally at sea.

The problem is that none of this is particularly striking or new. What doesn't translate seems stilted and phony, and the dialogue is occasionally so clunky that it offends the ear (or the eye, as it were, as one reads lines such as "I'm making love with you to cleanse you - do you understand?" with mortification.) Neither is there anything special about the visual style, which recalls late- Woody Allen in it's pragmatic simplicity. The dimension that seems to accrete favor in terms of the festival circuit would have to be Hong's deft manipulation of time - the vignettes flash forward and backward, and the audience plays catch-up with the narrative, piecing together the frayed strands of relationships. The problem is, the characters never become interesting enough to really care about, and so the story's momentum frequently stalls.

It seems that the central subject is disillusionment, and the irretrivability of the past - ripe subjects that aren't given much illumination. It's a neat, occasionally funky film, but it regrettably errs on the side of neatness, and winds up feeling minor and uninspired.

*It should be mentioned, though, that Hong does have a good sense of rhythm, both inter- and intra-shot, and there are some wonderfully odd (and thus truthful) cinematic juxtapositions . I'm thinking in particular of the scene in the car, which is punctuated with one character chewing on his breath mint, and the scene in which the same character, as he begins to receive a friendly blowjob - all he had to do was ask nicely - barely notices the dog as it wakes up and exits the frame as if embarrassed. Good stuff like this, however, isn't frequent enough to compensate for the other instances of contrived dialogue and direction.


(Lisandro Alonso, Argentina, 2009)

My previous experience with Alonso's filmmaking, 2004's Los Muertos, left me intrigued but also bemused. There was something elemental about the film, informing the currently au courant cinematic minimalism with an almost primeval weight, but overall it felt incomplete and not fully committed.

Here, Alonso's project is somewhat different, although the broader concerns are still intact. A solitary man travels back to a world he left behind - in this case, our hero is Farrel, a merchant seaman and a drunk, who goes ashore in Tierra del Fulgo to see if his ailing mother is still alive. Farrel is appropriately laconic (as are most of the other characters); what little we learn about him is revealed through his awkward comportment and appearance - greasy hair, angular features, lack of worldly possessions save a small duffel bag and a bottle of Stoli.

The first third of the film is almost perfect: we see hints of Farrel's emotional life, both in his tentative movements as he emerges from the noisy, oppressive bowels of the ship, and writ large on the bleak but achingly beautiful landscapes - the blazing horizon line over the ocean, the desolate peaks of southern Argentina, swirling snow over the massive stacks of shipping containers.

After he arrives at his home village, however, the film's majestic inertia begins to ebb. There's still plenty to admire - the way that Alonso can make everyday minutiae into something weird and vaguely allusive - but the human reality, presented by Farrel's encounter with his father, ailing mother, and vaguely autistic mother, becomes somewhat stifled by the formalism. Unlike the mythic intimations of Muertos, Liverpool is a gentler, more intimate story with undertones of familial redemption and discord. The insistent sparseness of the form begins to feel arbitrary when the story incorporates human relationships; it's as if Alonso is willfully suppressing his characters.

It may be that I'm misreading Alonso's intentions, but the dominant mode of Liverpool seems, more than anything else, to be humanism. More than once I was reminded of Five Easy Pieces, a similar story about a wandering man who seemed bound for oblivion, and whose last resort and potential salvation - family - wasn't enough to keep him rooted in the world.

Overall, Liverpool's virtues outweigh its faults, and it remains a powerful and enigmatic film. But it still seems to be stuck in some kind of limbo between greater expressionism and more rigorous formalism. The opening credits and initial sequence seem almost comic, and I had a fleeting moment where I was sure Alonso was fucking with the audience. But the formal restraint on display, as well as the tender (but still mysterious) ending, testify to his seriousness as a maker of Art cinema. I think he still has some ways to go, but the journey thus far has been worthwhile.

Friday, September 4, 2009

District 9, or The SlumPrawn Millionaires

(Neill Blomkamp, US, 2009)

Okay, it's a neat mixture of high-concept and low-fidelity. It's a gonzo faux-blockbuster, a hyper-VFX'd movie done (relatively) on the cheap. It has this cute little mockumentary narrative device and it's political allusions are present-but-not-in-your-face.

These things alone, however, do not a good film make. D9 is only barely watchable, consisting of rote, psuedo-verite camerawork, silly acting, and uninspired special effects, with only the most cursory nods toward the themes it touches upon. It's basically an action film dressed up as a sci-film dressed up as a semi-serious sci-fi film. This isn't to say that the film has any real pretenses - it's well aware of it's lack of depth, and makes no bones about it. If only the film were more enjoyable...

But it just isn't. None of the interesting questions posed at the outset (Who are the aliens? Why have they come here? Why, despite their clearly superior technology, strength, intelligence, are they not kicking serious terrestrial ass?) are ever answered. Instead, it becomes a tiresome chronicle of the misadventures of Wikus Van De Merwe, the lead character. A genial dumbass, Wikus does provide a bit of slapstick humor, but he's little more than a human face to anchor the long procession of action scenes. The real protagonists are the visual effects, and they're not much more interesting than poor old two-dimensional Wikus. (The one cool FX concept, well exploited in the ads, is the massive, hovering mothership. Blomkamp squeezes this for as much juice as he can, but it doesn't cover up the lame, cheap looking aliens.)

About half way through the picture, I yawned for the seventh time and realized how bored I was. The action, which is the only potential saving grace, is poorly executed, with everything shot super-close and jittery. The grimy camerawork feels more affected than authentically gritty, and the editing is jagged, sub-Bourne mania. There's nothing original on display here - more than anything, it's a project that feels like it was made because it could be - fresh blood (Blomkamp), a star producer (Jackson) and a bargain of a price tag (reputedly in the $30 million range, a steal for a potential action hit, which D9 has handily become.) It might as well be a long trailer for the sequel, which will surely have more money behind it, but will likely be just as impoverished when it comes to ideas.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Headless Woman

(Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2009)

It might be a bizarre echo of Marlene Dietrich's final words in Touch of Evil, but this film is some kind of masterpiece. Whence the qualification of "some kind?" Because (I think) it's a film that demands to be processed slowly, savored upon reflection and re-viewed. It's of that lovely variety of cinema that is at once both mystifying and stimulating - the primary effect is a weird and yet wholly satisfying kind of puzzlement. As they exist now, my impressions of the film are largely visceral, and it will take some time and head-scratching to get a sense of just how many layers exist in this delicacy.

But make no mistake, THW is absolutely a delicacy. Martel is, I'm certain, a true master of the medium, and I say this as someone who has yet to see her two previous features. As far as I'm concerned, if she can make this good of a film on her third time out, she's got the goods.

THW is, first and foremost, a very elegant film - every decision, from the framing to the cut (and especially the magnificently detailed and frequently unnerving sound design) is made with care and precision. Martel never advertises her high attention to detail - she is a filmmaker who is admirably confident in her abilities and interests. In the end, the film manages to cover a remarkable amount of aesthetic ground; it is allusive, realistic, evocative of a specific place and mood, yet gently surreal. All (and I do mean all) of the performances are virtuosic in their lack of affect, their honesty, and while the characters are, traditionally speaking, quite thin, the range of human emotion and nuance on display is often breathtaking.

When we reflect on the "meaning" of what we're watching in THW, what draws the most attention is the political subtext. There's a few overlapping layers of class oppression being examined; the bourgeois oppress the working class, who are of indigenous descent and visibly poor, and the (more subtle) subjugation of women. This deserves copious unpacking by itself, but I would pause here and contend that this is not the beating heart of this truly vital work of cinema.

Rather, the film is an existential/spiritual hall of mirrors, too focused on human idiosyncrasy and the burden of consiousness to be reduced to some kind of artful, stylized polemic (as some have suggested.) It's true - Martel is occasionally deterministic, and there are times when the strands of thematic import show a bit too much; the film wants to, and could be, a magnificent treatise on the human condition but settles for something smaller in scope.

And yet this is no less a victory - a deeply human film that flaunts its politics and beguiles the senses at the same time, leading one to ponder and delight and puzzle over its sensual strangeness even while recognizing its political dimension. But not once is THW shrill or preachy or puffed-up. It's a film that invites you inside, and if you, discovers a wondrous and maddening world quite like our own, yet wholly different - a true dream world. Martel's work of art is the most seductive alternate universe this side of David Lynch.

More to come, certainly...

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Funnier People

And they are, in no particular order: Alexander Payne, James L. Brooks, David Wain, Adam McKay, David O. Russell, Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, Woody Allen.

These fellows, and a few others I'm forgetting at the moment, are all working American directors who are better and funnier writer/directors than Judd Apatow. I haven't seen Funny People yet, and I don't really care to, because I've seen Knocked Up and The 40 Year Old Virgin and they both left me largely unimpressed. Not because they were terrible movies, per se, but because of the glaring disparity between my viewing experience and the hype that surrounded them.

This critical brouhaha has achieved something of a fever pitch with the recent release of FP, and, predictably, there is a sizable contingent of dissenting opinions. Being opportunistic, I'll now join the fray with both feet planted firmly on the side of the naysayers. To situate my opinions a little more precisely, let me point out that this isn't a direct reaction to Funny People - like I said, I haven't seen it yet. This is regarding Apatow's previous work. Furthermore, this doesn't have anything to do with the imputed politics of Apatow's movies. Let me be clear: I don't object to Apatow's films because they're socially conservative; as far as I can tell, they aren't any more or less conservative than most other mainstream movies. I object to his movies because I don't find them either A) very funny or B) emotionally credible. I find them, in practically all respects, to be exeedingly mediocre.

Apatow is, I think, a very skilled writer of jokes. His movies are at their absolute best (and funniest) when he has his male characters sit around and trade jibes. And he knows how to direct the hell out of these scenes - have the characters sit around a table, or on a couch, or in a car, and then film them trading jibes.

When things get more complex, emotionally or physically, he falters, both as a writer and as a director. His characters aren't entirely implausible, nor are their choices or the fictional world they inhabit. But neither are they entirely plausible. The point here, again, is that they're mediocre - never better than just okay, and sometimes very lame. This quality is often personified in his characters: they don't have much in the way of nuance. They're not particularly interesting. They're often not very likable, but this in itself isn't really a problem. As a concept, likability is a red herring of critical assessment - successful characters in fiction can be admirable or despicable. In order to function dramatically, they need only to be compelling. Compelling, when referring to characters, is a tricky concept to define, exactly; certainly not as easy as "likeable." It's an ineffable quality, capable of being described in particular circumstances but difficult to articulate in any general or schematic way. For a positive example, take Paul Giamatti's Miles in Sideways - a fantastic character, full of humor and pathos, brilliantly portrayed by Paul Giamatti. Miles is compelling, he's interesting, he's highly watchable - call it what you will. Then compare him to Seth Rogen's guffawing boor in KU, and the distinction should be clear.

The occasion for my voicing these opinions is not because I care much about Apatow's films one way or the other, but because right now there are some very smart people who seem convinced he's the best thing since buttered toast. Smart, usually perspicacious critics who are making nuanced arguments in favor of the films in question. I read these things and can't help but get a little peeved; it's a personal weakness that I find is best ameliorated through writing my own criticism. I know and fear the temptation to criticize criticism, but sometimes that's a worthy exercise, if only to better understand one's own emotional reactions and the attitudes of others.

And as far as the attitudes of others go, I'm not sure I ever will understand. Why all the hype over Apatow? Why the rush to inaugurate him as the Great White Hope of American Comedy? As far as I can tell, he's done exactly two significant things, neither of which are very special or interesting on their own, but are worth mentioning: he has focused on the latent homoerotic aspect of male relationships, and shown more male nudity. These are fine things, as far as they go. Count me as among those glad to see more dicks in movies - dicks, in many circumstances, are funny. They are currently more funny than boobs, if only because we're more accustomed to seeing boobs in movies. Homoeroticism is also funny, again based upon circumstance (this should be obvious, I'm merely tipping my hat to the truism that comedy is all about friction within a set context - expected vs. actual behavior and imagery.)

But here's the thing that many critics seemed to be missing. Other comedians and comic directors have been doing this for a long time now, with much better results. I'm thinking, in particular, of much of Stella, which orginated as a live sketch show that was frequently centered around absurd homoerotic situations (when Stella became a bonafide Comedy Central series, the dildos and man-on-man humping all but disappeared from their repertoire, and the comedy suffered for it). I'm also thinking of Adam McKay's Anchorman, a movie that featured maturity-resistant males who were hilariously oblivious to the homoeroticism of their relationships.

But on that second example, surely, it can be countered that Apatow centers his movies, almost exclusively, on such a theme. He puts arrested male development and psuedo-homosexuality at the forefront. Well, that's sort of true. But several of the movies often discussed appear on his c.v. as Producer credits, and although we can have no way of knowing his level of creative input, it is assuredly more slight than with the movies he himself directed and wrote.

Thus, the film which most poignantly and explicitly deals with young males in platonic love is Superbad, which he neither wrote nor directed. It was written by Rogan and Evan Goldberg, and it was directed by Greg Mottola, who, for his previous feature credit alone, The Daytrippers, deserves to be added to the list of directors who are better than Apatow. Superbad isn't as good a film as Mattola's previous effort, but it is still better (and funnier) than anything Apatow has directed.

So much, then, for envelope-pushing, or irreverence, or any other such doggerel heaped on Apatow's oeuvre. But what of the other side of Apatow, the tender side, the side with feelings, where the man-children have to grow up and the women learn to love them in their sloven bumbling towards maturity?

Here's where my confusion really thickens. With a couple of minor exceptions, every single moment in Apatows films (the ones he directed and wrote) that strives for emotional seriousness falls miserably on its ass. It is true that they go down swinging; the Serious Moment scenes are practically uniform in their blatant advertising of their intentions, missing only the bright neon sign that reads "EMOTIONAL MOMENT, PLS TAKE CHARACTERS SERIOUSLY."

I'm thinking, in particular, of an especially egregious scene in Knocked Up where Seth Rogan and Katherine Heigl are arguing in the bedroom. I don't remember the context exactly, except that she is seated and he is standing, and the whole thing is so false and dumb and poorly staged and cut and acted that I had to laugh. Well, that's not true - I didn't laugh, but I did make a mental note of how bad the scene was, if only to mention it later when someone professed admiration for Apatow's abilities as a director. Go back and watch the scene - it's atrocious.

Sometimes sincere emotion doesn't have a place in comedies. Farces, like Anchorman, have little use for it. Emotion can work wonders in comedy, but it won't work at all if you don't have credible characters, and Apatow's characters, while they are credible, are often only marginally so. (They are occasionally entirely in-credible, but that's not the central point.) Here the counterexamples are so radically divergent that I hesitate to make them, but I must soldier on: Consider the authenticity of some of James L. Brooks' characters, such as Melvin in As Good As It Gets and Albert Brooks' Aaron Altman in Broadcast News. The Serious Moments in these films are just as credible as the Comedic ones, and they aren't nearly as obvious or obtuse or tonally dissonant. Sometimes they even overlap, a skill of which Payne is the current Greatest Practitioner. When Brooks (or Payne, or Baumbach, or Anderson, or even, although lately this has been rarer, Allen) want a scene to play poignantly, they have a pretty good idea about how to go about it. Occasionally, they create something inspired. Apatow's record is infinitely weaker by comparison, and when poignance does appear, it seems only to show in material that he doesn't personally craft.

Perhaps, as some critics have suggested, this is all made irrelevant by the Major Creative Step Apatow has taken with Funny People. I'll have to see the movie eventually, I suppose, at least to see if the man truly does have room for growth. But it doesn't change the situation of his earlier films, which are exceptional only in their perfect mediocrity.

I could go on with the comparative browbeating, but before this devolves into a virtual pissing match, I'll wrap up with a backhanded compliment or two. Apatow may well be a commercial genius. He certainly knows how to court popular taste, and he knows how to mold it, slightly, and (perhaps most importantly) just how much plasticity it has. He has consistently shown a virtuosity in his ability to push things just so far - high school kids with a propensity for swearing that verges on the Tourettic, men showing and obsessing over their wieners, very unlikely but not unthinkable male-female couples and couplings - but not far enough to truly offend or challenge the mainstream. This, I guess, entitles him to some kind of commendation - the same, in my book, that is to be reserved for great entertainers like P.T. Barnum. What is frustrating is when the critics endorse it, and in their self-deception, side against the suckers when they think they're siding with them.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Wha Happened?

Burn After Reading (Joel & Ethan Coen, US, 2008) 2nd viewing

Not much better than my intial viewing experience, which was satisfactory but nothing to write home about. Granted, it has some hilarious moments, and there's a witty little dash of socio-political satire thrown into the mix, but the film is predominantly flat and cold. Okay, screwball is funny, but shouldn't it also be charming, a bit lighthearted? Here, there's major tonal static - we're going along our merry, wacky way through a cartoonified D.C., but then Brat Pitt's Chad gets his brain splatter-painted all over a closet. Are we supposed to laugh off the movie's grim moments as easily as we laugh off Pitt's hair, or Clooney's bug-eyed mugging? This would be an easy question to answer if the film were funnier, more clever, more just plain fun. But it isn't - at least it isn't as funny or clever or fun as it could be - as any true-blue fan of the Coens wants to believe it should be.

Like so much of the Coens' ouevre, it's a gently subversive genre romp, but unlike their earlier work, there's no invention, nothing that feels really vital or sharp. This is becoming a major bummer, since the Coen boys have proved over and over that they've got the goods, seemingly capable of anything when they're in the zone. Who knows what's ailing them - are they tired, lazy, bored, totally out of juice? I'm tempted to make the diagnosis that while they certainly aren't out of ideas, they do seem to be running low on emotional energy to invest in those ideas. That would explain the nagging sense of emptiness one experiences while watching many of their recent movies. But who knows - their next film, which is being billed as their Most Personal (a phrase that, in this context, should itself set off alarm bells), looks as if it has potential.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Mann's Plight

Public Enemies (Michael Mann, US, 2009) - Not quite full-on art house fare, but definitely not your average shoot-em-up, Public Enemies is something of a conundrum. But it's to Mann's credit that it's an immensely watchable conundrum, one which permits (even encourages) the viewer to get his or her vicarious outlaw thrills while reserving a conspicuous detachment for the reservations of the super-ego. I've lately been interested in a personal retrospective of Mann's work, prompted in no small way by this release and also by the fascinating essay by Matt Zoller Zietz on Musuem of the Moving Image site, but for whatever reason haven't done any re-watching aside from Miami Vice, which is a different ball of wax entirely.

Anyway, I'm convinced that Mann is a serious filmmaker, a dedicated and highly capable auteur, albiet one of occasional lapses in taste. For my money, he errs just a bit too far on the side of commerce, but in these troubled times, we've got to take what we can get, right?

Yes and no. His latest functions almost as an excercise in re-fetishization of gangster-movie tropes - the added crispness of digital technology enhances practically everything, from tommy guns to muzzle flashes, big sleek automobiles, and dark felt. Depp's Dillinger is the quintessential man of action, with just enough charisma held in reserve to make for a damn fine performance. He's got the ratio of mystery to obviousness just right, and he's tons of fun to watch. The rest of the performances are top-notch as well, although Bale's portrayal of Purvis was just a little too mannered for me. Cotillard was near perfect, delivering a three-dimensional character from a bare-bones script that's too reliant on conventional dialogue.

But otherwise, (as has been duly noted elsewhere) the script is remarkably unconventional. It's episodic, with the scenes stacked together with an urgency that is rythmic far more than rational, giving the illusion of narrative propulsion without the substance to hang it on. Instead, we're kept interested entirely through Mann's careful maintenance of mood, and if you're willing to go along with it, it has plenty of rewards in store.

Getting to the question of what, if anything, the film is really about, I have to say I was initially perplexed. I've long felt that Mann's secret strength was the way he contrasted the thrill of the hunt with the loneliness of the kill. That is to say, his films are almost exclusively concerned with driven men, obsessives on a mission (and a very macho one at that), but they achieve an admirable balance by depicting the resultant isolation of such quests. In Mann's universe, the hero's are the stoic seekers, but there's a sense of loss, of regret, over the fact that even when they get what they're looking for, it's never quite what they expected. What begins as a swaggering indiffernce to the trappings of conventional, ordirary life becomes a dead-end in solitude and a longing for what might have been.

That same dynamic is at play here, even in a stripped-down, essentialized form. And this may be the master key to the larger thematic depths (if they are indeed there, I'm still not sure). Much is made of the forget tomorrow, living-for-today ethos that Dillinger espouses. He's almost completely unique in this respect, and ultimately, it's the engine that drives him. All of the other criminals are motivated by other forces - they have long term plans, escape routes, etc. Or, as in the case of Baby Face Nelson, stone cold psychos. The same is true of the law-enforcers, who have goals and ambitions. Dillinger is a Romantic, and in the end, a tragic one. He lives totally, viscerally, in the present. He lives by a code, honoring his friends and punishing those who step out of line, chivalrous to women, and respectful of his adversaries. But he has no regard for the past, expressing breezy indiffernce when Billie remarks that she doesn't even know him (I was raised on a farm...etc.) The point is, for Dillinger, the right now. Even when he expresses some consideration for the future ("The only thing that matters about a man is where he's going..." and "I'm going to die an old man in your arms"), there is a sense that these are just platitudes. Dillinger emphatically has no long-term plans, and his character achieves a necessary depth when some ambivalence about that fact surfaces. The inner conflict isn't really ever developed, but then, this is a film of suggestion and subtley when it comes to metaphysics and character. But it is there, seen when Dillinger is compelled to comfort Frechette and when he remarks, not long before his demise, that "where I'm going I'll have to go a lot farther than Cuba." It seems like maybe Dillinger is smartening up and getting ready to retire, but there's too much deliberate vagueness in such a pronouncement for it to be taken at face value. Dillinger has no interest in running away and living quietly, even for his lovely Billie, and his unwillingness to play it safe is his undoing. He's high on the moment, and for a little bit, so is the audience.

Mann could have gotten more mileage out of such ideas, but the fact that he came this far is impressive and encouraging. There's more work to be done in the hazy zone where big-budget Hollywood and Art meet, but it's nice to know that somebody is there toiling away.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Moaning in the Rain

Damnation - Bela Tarr, Hungary, 1988

There's an undeniable power to the film, and I'm glad I've finally gotten around to checking Tarr out. It had me hooked from the very first image, and I was with it for about 70% of the time. But...I don't know. Something about the unrelenting dreariness just kinda soured on me after a while. I'm not really even sure that Damnation is a pessimistic movie per se; there's such a focus on searching, a defiance of despair that seems simultaneous with an embrace of it...the film becomes a dark but oddly vital meditation on the madness of persisting in a world that seems utterly devoid of hope. But even so, even if one is willing to accept this, the film's oppressivness, the sheer severity of the vision, doesn't sit well with me. I'm willing to accept this as a tempermental thing on my part - I'm so much more impressed with flexibility, nuance, ambiguity, the occasion sprinkling of irony (and there is a bit of that here, a dash of the absurd, but it's a cold and a cruel absurdity, and that's a key difference.) It's a matter of taste, I suppose. Damnation might be a masterpiece, but I'll probably have to see more of Tarr, and revisit this one, before I'm willing to sign off on that idea.

There's a juicy digression waiting to happen about the frought nexus where philosophy and art meet...where cerebration and emotion are thrown together awkwardly, with each one vying for dominance - but that's for another time.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Too Cool or Not Too Cool

The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, US, 2009)

Being a big fan of the 'Musch since way back, I'm going to hold off on my usual preamble; suffice it to say, hopefully, that when it comes to the still-developing area of my consciousness devoted to cinema, his work has been essential and indelible. If it wasn't for Jarmusch, I may never have become interested in thinking about or making movies.

So what's the deal with his latest work? Much buzz has centered around it being magnificently and maddeningly cool - too cool, apparently, for the likes of many. If cool isn't being thrown around as a pejorative term, it's likely that hip is. These are not auspicious words in today's mainstream lexicon, usually connoting a naive, out-of-touch disposition; the assumption is that there's no better indicator of being un-with-it and lame than if you appear to be trying to be cool and/or hip. There's a good thesis waiting to be written about this current aversion to these terms, and an in-depth unpacking of the terms themselves, but that's quite a bit beyond the scope of this review.

But really, though: If you're complaining that Jarmusch is too hip or too cool, then you've probably been saying that since way back, and this latest one isn't going to change your mind. The Limits of Control is a very cool film indeed, even by Jarmuschian standards. So coolness is intrinsic to the film - to what end is it employed?

DeBankole's character, credited as Lone Man, is a hitman, and as hitmen go, he's about as cool as they come. As anyone who's ever seen a movie will tell you, that's saying something. No sex, no guns, no booze - at least not while he's working. He does permit himself expressos, music, and jaunts to the art museum, but these seem somehow connected to his quest, almost as if they were required steps in his meticulous process.

The level of precision is reflected in the filmmaking itself, which is exceptionally, consummately elegant. The music, cinematography, and editing are expertly orchestrated, and they tick along together Swiss-watch style. If there's one nigh-impossible to deny thing about Jarmusch, it's that he is a great lover of the cinematic image. Here, he's aided by the of Christopher Doyle's visual genius and the brilliant editing of Jay Rabinowitz, and someone of a cynical bent might even be tempted to assert that the credit belongs to J's partners in crime. But that's nonsense - anyone with even a passing acquaintance with Jarmusch's previous work would recognize the director's fingerprints all over the place: long(ish) steady takes, laconic characters, tongue-in-cheek humor, a vibrant and nuanced use of color, cross-cultural synergy and dissonance - it's all there.

But there are other things about it aren't quite the usual fare. For one thing, it's his least-funny movie in a long time. It isn't hard to view pretty much any Jarmusch film as a comedy, albeit one with a bone-dry sense of humor. Even what could arguably be deemed his darkest, Dead Man, has moments of comedy that range from wry to downright wacky. I don't think Control marks anything like a break with that tradition, but it's consistently more serious than his previous couple of films.

The seriousness only goes so far, though; it's much more of a tonal choice than a preoccupation with being on-the-level or direct. Jarmusch has always been a sort of playful filmmaker; his movies have always been most enjoyable when one approaches them in the spirit of fun and mystery, as if each one were it's own little excursion into a waking dream. The state of flux that his characters always seem to exist in is most appreciated if the veiwer is willing to be in that limbo herself - to not expect much in the ways of conclusions or definitions, but to be able to appreciate the sights and sounds for their own sake.

I don't mean that his films are bereft of more serious issues; in their own way, they touch on such heady stuff as loneliness, guilt, death, and the problem of connection in a world of cultural and individual differences. But they do so with subtlety, and they seem to be defiantly opposed to conclusions. The questions posed in Jarmusch's cinema are whispered, and they are never answered.

It's odd, then, that for all of the obliqueness of the film's surface appearance, it's upfront about its thematic concerns. You don't have to do much reading between the lines (or the gestures, as it were) to imagine Lone Man as being a soldier in a surprisingly dichotomous meta-conflict. The two sides of this symbolic war could be called, for lack of better terminology, Creative Culture vs. Square Anti-Culture. Each of the Lone Man's encounters with other operatives consists primarily of a one-sided bull session on a particular form of Art: movies, paintings, music, etc. When the bad guy is finally revealed, he turns out to be a walking, talking stereotype of the Ugly American Businessman - obnxious, condescending, and narrow-minded to the extreme.

Ideologically, then, The Limits of Control is uncomplicated and straightforward. For all of the interest in existentialism, it embraces an unambiguous configuration of the symbolic order of things: there are those in favor of the Imagination, and those against it, and both sides are locked in a perpetual battle with each other. This seems shallow, but only if you forget where Lone Man stands in this cosmology. He appears to be following orders, yes, but he asserts at one point that he's "among no one." One way to look at Lone Man's various encounters is as a series of lectures - to which he listens but doesn't respond. Ultimately, he occupies a kind of middle ground - it's clear he's of the Imaginative bent (when Murray's American demands to know how the fuck he got into the bunker, he responds "I used my imagination") but he also follows his own path, his own rules, his own little idiosyncrasies. This is a man who takes his sweet time.

This doesn't put the film in the realm of moral complexity, though - if it did, we'd have to think a little harder about the fact that Lone Man is, at the end of the day, a professional killer. (Morality is almost always skrited in Jarmusch's films, which doesn't mean they're impervious to moral readings and critiques - Ghost Dog comes to mind as ripe territory for such a discussion.) Choosing then to take it mostly on a symbolic level, I think The Limits of Control is a just-barely-qualified success. I like the fact that it celebrates the very virtues it expresses; aesthetic sophistication, elegance, wit, contemplation, and a measure of seriousness and discipline. That last part is crucial, because it's the world of difference that exists between actual creativity and exression and New Agey indulgence. In this sense, then, the film's unalloyed sincerity actually becomes kind of heroic. In this dark and gloomy world of postmodern skepticism, this film is clear about its sympathies and aspirations. Creativity, Imagination, Human Expressiveness - sense of humor notwithstanding, The Lone Man defends them with deadly seriousness. As should we.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Dumont, Duality, and Other Conundrums

Flandres - (Bruno Dumont, France, 2006)

Is there any filmmaker working today as bewitching and befuddling and obstinately French as Bruno Dumont? On the one hand, his work is as unique and ambitious as any in contemporary cinema; on the other, his films seem to espouse a worldview so fatalistic and harsh that the viewer can't help but wonder if Dumont is a) borderline crazy, b) full blown crazy, or c)putting us on. It's a vision of reality in which sudden, lethal violence lurks around every corner; in which the human capacity for callousness and brutality is unlimited and just barely concealed beneath the surface.

This constant threat of menace isn't all there is to life, though - there is also, always, solitude. Dumont's characters are loners, and they are often inarticulate loners. When they do converse it doesn't go far beyond the usual quotidian patter. What they lack in speech they more than make up for in sex; a good portion of screen time in any Dumont film is devoted to the characters' scoring. Getting regularly laid, though, doesn't seem to make them much happier, leaving the American viewer more than a little deflated. If sex and violence don't get these people off, then what does?

So there you have the basic ingredients for the disaffected, cigarette smoking, black-sunglasses-and-beret brand of Continental pessimism. La vie, she is empty and meaningless, no? Except that with Dumont, it's not that simple, or it least doesn't appear to be. What makes Dumont a special case is the inclusion of a kind of furtive mysticism - at first glace, it's barely there, but when you pick up on the cues, you realize it's everywhere. It's almost transcendental - the way he hangs on a characters face, or highlights their posture or stride, the constant juxtaposition of figure and landscape. This alone isn't really new; Bresson, Dreyer, and several others have used the same kind of spooky gaze (of the camera and it's subjects), and there's a whole new generation of filmmakers carrying the torch (Pedro Costa, Carlos Reygadas, Lucretia Martel, et al.) But Dumont ups the spiritual ante by providing some details that can only be understood as supernatural. I'm thinking in particular of the shot of Pharoan (in Humanite) levitating - his feet floating a few inches off the ground, and there's a similar echo in Flandres, when Barbe stands on her tippy-toes and appears to be attempting a similar supra-terrestrial stunt. This is following a sequence in which she claims to have been with Andre, her simpleminded paramour and the co-protagonist of the film, as he raped and killed peasants and ultimately left his companion for dead.

This makes for confusing stuff, since the rest of the film appears to be so staunchly realist. But it's very carefully constructed, and one needn't re-watch the film to see how meticulously Dumont has set up some of these little reveals. All it really takes is a little post-screening reflection to realize how the cross-cutting served to construct a kind of extra-dimensional connection between the characters and their respective milieux. It's been there all along - the back and forth between the lush green of Flandres and the harsh browns and reds of the unnamed (but clearly Middle-Eastern, and likely Iraq) desert locale where Andre is serving, and the escalation of violence - for Andre, killings and a rape, for Barbe, a sudden nervous breakdown.

So what, then, is really going on with this vision? Typically, Dumont is tight-lipped about personal interpretations of his films, but I think he lets his hand show more than he's aware. There's something covertly humane about his pictures, a suggestion that while violence and despair are never far, neither then is hope and redemption. This balancing act, when properly considered, can be seen as either deft or brazenly pedantic, and I'm still not sure where I stand on the matter.

The central dynamic is the resonance of human traits - they are inescapable, but largely hidden from view. War is petty rivalry writ large. Casual sex is the square root of brutal rape. Loneliness the only universal constant; it's in the hollow eyes of the characters and it reverberates through every landscape. We don't see tenderness in Dumont's films, really, but we do see the beginnings of tenderness - and in those beginnings lie the hope that sustains life.

This, at least, works in Humanite. To a large extent, that film's success had to do with it being possibly the most perfectly-cast film of the decade. But ultimately it was more than that - the Dumontian signature mood of dread was somehow leavened by the frequently ecastatic compostions and surefooted rythmn - its mystery seemed to gently suggest an underlying sacredness, even in the most awful things. You could question Dumont's apprent philosophy and still appreciate the nuance in his craft.

Likewise, in Flanders, casting proves to be a make-or-break condition. Here it doesn't fly; Samuel Boidin doesn't have nearly the same kind of arresting countenance as Emmanuelle Schotte. But here again, that doesn't get to the heart of the problem. Too often, it appears that Dumont's method is exposing the limits of his ideas. A filmmaker can only present us with shots of brutality, sex, and hollow eyes for so long before we begin to recognize a paucity of ideas. The insistence on certain tropes begins to resemble harping, and Dumont's obsession with the duality of humanity is reaching the limits of his cinematic inventiveness. His previously dextrous probing of the yin-and-yang is becoming clumsy and slipshod. Andre is a brute, but also a gentle, contemplative man. Barbe's outward behavior is that of an unbalanced hussy, but she's also saintlike in her sensitivity to suffering (she even seems capable of percieving it from across a continent.)

Here I could digress into an examination of the creepy class-bias and condescension evident in Flandres, but that's a stickier and less-pressing issue at the moment. This would also probably be a good opportunity to discuss my own feelings about the problematic friction between the pretensions to realism and the utter lack of naturalistic plausibility - in behavior, events, and so forth - but that's a whole other wheel of cheese and a bit beyond the current case at hand, and anyway, that has more to do with my own aesthetic tastes than it does with objection to this film. I will note, however, that this was pitfall largely avoided in Humanite, and even somewhat in Twentynine Palms.

So it's not the end of the world - Dumont has been mired in the muck of Flanders - worse things could happen. In the spirit of his films, I'm willing to keep an unblinking eye trained on his future efforts. It remains to be seen if Dumont can wring new life from his exacting methods and obsessions, and I eagerly await his next film.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Stains and Other Things Human

l'Humanite (Bruno Dumont, France, 1999)

I'm still collecting my thoughts from the recent viewing of Bruno Dumont's l'Humanite, as excellent and as unsettling a film as I've seen since the calendar rolled over.

That unsettling part seems to be something of a trademark of Dumont's, whose Twentynine Palms also managed to induce no small amount of squirming, and even a couple of big jumps, which is much more than I can say for any putative horror film I've seen in a great while. TP was genuinely shocking in the truest sense of the word - I did not see the film's final events coming, and when they did I was suddenly bewildered and, well - completely unsettled.

In and of itself, this is an accomplishment for a contemporary filmmaker. I should state here that I'm not, nor have I ever been, a serious fan of the horror genre, domestic or otherwise, but I get the sense that I don't really need to see films like, say, the Saw franchise to understand exactly what they're on about, and what is contained therein. The label that's often applied is "torture porn," and really - what more could one want or need to know?

This is something of a not-entirely fair and dismissive argument, but I don't mind making it about films that are as blatantly mass-produced and cynically manipulative as The Hills Have Eyes and its ilk.

That being said, my mini-point is that Dumont, with Twentynine Palms, managed to make something that was truly scary in that it compelled its viewer to ask some unpleasant questions about the world, and maybe himself. It's a further accomplishment that the film also manages to be clever and atmospheric and occasionally beautiful, that is: it's an existential horror flick that is ultimately about more than just arbitrary violence and underlying emptiness - there's quite a bit of humanity (carefully observed human behavior, if you will) - in a film that could easily come across as overly dry and didactic.

I consider this to be difficult to do, since I have a fairly low tolerance for films featuring a cool, detached, existential dread, which seem to be a specialty of the French. My main counterpoint would be Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, which was too overdetermined and heavy on the audience-brutalizing for my tastes.

But I digress. l'Humanite is a much richer and deeper film than TP, and is undeniably a masterful work. It's sequence of events (it would be a stretch to call it a story) follows one Pharaon De Winter, a provincial police superintendent who is both profoundly empathic and none too bright. An eleven year old girl has been found raped and murdered in Pharaon's bucolic country town, and he's charged with finding the responsible party. Rather than focusing on the nuts-and-bolts of most police procedurals, we are instead treated to a tour of Pharaon's gloomy little corner of existence. He lives with his mother. He used to have a woman and a kid, but they're gone, possibly dead. He spends most of his free time tagging along with his sultry neighbor Domino and her boyfriend, and when he's not with them or lying in bed awake and staring at the wallpaper, he's over at the allotment, tending to his flowers. Domino, who's pretty in a sort of rough-hewn way and has an earthy sex appeal, seems to have a thing for Pharaon, and he clearly is in love with her. It's not obvious why he continues to torture himself by accompanying the couple on their various jaunts and listless exploits, but then, nothing about these characters is obvious other than their sweaty, rumpled, searching humanity.

Right away it's implied that Pharaon himself is guilty of the crime. The movie never tells us for sure, and the final shots are limit-pushing in their ambiguity, but of course it's of the essence that we're left with a feeling of uncertainty in a film like this. See, Pharaon is that special kind of hero - mysterious, a little creepy, but also childlike and teeming with barely-contained emotion. It's been said that acting is all in the eyes, and that a performance is all in the casting, and Emmanual Schotte, a nonprofessional actor, would seem here to provide irrefutable proof of those two maxims. He's got a face that seems to be capable of conveying the kind of boundlessly pure feeling that you usually only find on the mugs of dogs, and Dumont fully exploits it.

The other actors are almost as equally sublime in their ability to speak volumes through simple facial expression - the kind of reality that "real" actors spend their whole lives attempting to master. In a parallel universe, this technique of casting based upon look would be too elementary to question, but here it flies directly in the face of the theatrical tradition of acting craft, which cinema has on loan and may never decide to return. Bresson is perhaps the most famous employer of such a method - find a person who looks right, and then ask them to do very little, and forbid them to act, while the camera soaks up there pure unvarnished realness.

Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn't - it's by no means axiomatic that using a nonactor will make a character any more real than using a seasoned professional. A nonactor's performance, or lack thereof, can make for beautifully observed cinema, but it can also be just as stagy and artificial and false as a hyperbolic scenery-chewer from an accomplished Actor. Bresson got away with more than he probably should have with this technique, but he understood its intricacies well and frequently used them to great effect. Here, it pays off in spades - the behavior is believable and feels right more often than not, even when the focus is clearly not on psychology or character, which is most of the time.

So what's it all about, then, in the end? Is Pharaon, who at times borders on saintliness, a rapist and a murderer? Or is Joseph, Domino's lout of a boyfriend, the guilty party? Maybe neither? If Dumont is interested in having a point, it might be that the assignment of guilt is an illusory crutch in the face of the world's evil. For all of the naturalism in this movie, it has the feel of a cinematic parable, with the camera giving special attention to specific images and motifs - genitals, sweat, trees, hills, mud, grass, flowers in bloom, and a profusion of faces and eyes. I appreciate this perhaps most of all about Dumont's aesthetic - it has gravitas and elegant beauty - at times, an almost minimalistic lyricism, but it's also accurate (if oblique) in its depiction of human behavior. Somehow he's managed to bridge the gap between being too laboriously symbolic and capturing believable human behavior - I would very much appreciate access to the formula he's using, thank you very much.

But I'm not sure that the point of this film is that it has a point - it's invested in a search first and foremost: an honest confrontation with the real world, and a meditation on all of its aching beauty and horrifying ugliness. There are times at which Pharaon comes to resemble a religious archetype - the spiritual seeker - a pure soul, hopelessly innocent and yet damaged, casting an imploring stare in the face of existence. All the same, it is entirely possible to read the character as one wrestling with his conscience over a very real and very terrible crime that he committed - even as he attempts to fantasize away his guilt.

To pack all of this into a single film, and to make the finish product work at all, is a major accomplishment indeed, and my hat is off to Dumont for doing so. If it's perhaps a touch too ambiguous or enigmatic, I'm willing to forgive the trespass in the name of ambition. We need more movies that set their aim so high.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Hating on Main Street

Now that I've said a bunch of nice things about some of the movies I've seen this year, I thought for balance's sake that I'd put a some hurting on one that I thought was a real stinker:

Revolutionary Road
(Sam Mendes, US, 2008)
A lot of stuff and nonsense. I ended up lending all of my available empathy to the actors, who toiled admirably in spite of a bogus script and seriously inept direction. (In plenty of scenes, Kate was still a joy to watch despite the cringe-worthiness of the material; Leo fared worse, with his proclivity for easy tics and stock gestures abetted by Mendes.)

It’s a very pretty film; the cinematography, editing, and music are mostly excellent, but that’s about as much goodwill as I’m willing to expend on this turkey. The central, overriding and positively indefensible flaw is this: the thematic conceit is a bunch of bullshit. The film posits itself as being wise, insightful and maybe even subversive, but it ends up supporting the same ridiculous dichotomies embraced by the characters - namely, that in America, one can (and must) choose between the mindless, sterile existence of mainstream suburbia, or flee the bourgeois sham and thrive, "y'know, really feel things" in the Utopia of Europe (specifically Paris). I don’t think the filmmakers believe this, but that’s the reality the film presents, and it's as bogus and simplistic as a chest-thumping Michael Bay pageant.

RR is so unselfconsciously enamored of its own tragic weight that it ends up feeling, more than anything else, bizarre. Lines are uttered with a stagy crispness that feels almost Brechtian, except here it's meant to be dramatic, not distancing. (Eg: the line "I felt that way once. pregnant pause The first time I made love to you" is delivered with a kind of trance-like conviction.) There are occasional bits of coherence that emerge from the script, and a couple flashes of realistic human behavior - such as when DiCaprio and the underutilized Zoe Kazan share a boozy afternoon tryst - but mostly the clunkers and head-scratchers keep piling up, with incresingly strange results.

The weirdness reaches its apogee with ultimate pseudo-canonization of the Wheelers, suggesting the audience take them as tragic unsung heroes/dreamers, and who were at least less hypocritical than all the other pathetic suburbanites. This is confirmed by the last couple of scenes, where the still-shaken neighbors agree to forget the Wheelers and the uncomfortable truth they represented, and the bizarre final shot where the old codger tunes out his wife as she drones on about how the Wheelers were really just odd troublemakers.

Finally, although finely acted, the Michael Shannon part was perhaps the biggest bucket of hogwash slung in the entire film. It further endorses the notion that all mainstream life is intrinsically vapid, empty, hopeless, etc. – and that the only way to really see and understand this truth is to be bulging- eyeball insane. We're meant to understand that Frank and Susan don’t really see the depths of the Dark Truth about bourgeois life in the fifties; if they did, they would also be getting multiple rounds of electroshock therapy. Do Mendes and Co. really not think that audiences are going to see through this condescension and, justifiably so, get pissed off?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Inaugural Post: Best Films of 2008

Disclaimer: I don't much like doing year-end favorite lists, but I'm gradually warming up to the idea. Part of my resistance to this practice has to do with an uneasiness about ranking, and this uneasiness largely stems from a neurotic obsessiveness over the intricacies of stratification.

That said, it's also kind of fun, and it seems to be a good way to get writing and thinking.

What I mean, then, when referring to these films as being the "best of" the year, is that they are simply that; though they are ranked from one to five, there may be considerable flux between their relative merit. There is no definite reason why one is ranked above another, unless whims and gut-feelings count as definite reasons. This isn't to say that I feel like my justifications are overly arbitrary or slapdash; I understand that there's a delicate balance in criticism between inarticulable, personal sensation and good, reasoned positing and backing-up of concrete ideas and assertions.

Also, and this may sound so obvious as to be inane: This is a highly subjective ranking, comprising the films of the year that most touched and inspired me and provoked me to think. I risk such inanity because I think the assumption of subjectivity, which is supposed to be implicit in criticism, is actually not so implicit, or not nearly as implicit as it should be. Largely, this is a question of tone more than of content: a lot of the criticism that I read contains a veneer of authority that I find distracting, silly, irritating, and thoroughly unfounded. (Here's where I should lay out, in detail, the particularities of my own meta-critical framework; the fact of the matter is that such a framework doesn't yet exist, and part of my project with this blog is to suss out the details of such a framework and hopefully achieve something coherent and workable.)

So, then: Five Of The Best Films of 2008:

1. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, UK)

- A masterful, delicately observed work that's equal parts character study and philosophical rumination on the nature and pursuit of happiness. Besides expertly dealing with a fairly universal topic, the film also resonated with me for deeply personal reasons. Like pretty much all of Leigh's stuff, it feels quietly profound. Although it's not his best film by a long shot, and it shows its hand a bit more than I would prefer, it has enough nuanced humanity and tenderness, enough formal clarity, and enough generous humor and beauty to place it squarely at the top of my list.

2. Still Life (Jia Zhang Ke, China)

- It's been a while since I've seen this one, but I can still recall the feeling it gave me: a giddiness and enthusiasm borne of inspiration. Still Life is the kind of film that gets you excited about the possibilities of cinema. Like Hou Hsaio Hsien, Jia Zhang Ke has a wonderful knack for meticulous observation, creating a lucidity that makes shifting between documentary and fiction seem effortless and natural. Unlike Hou, Jia has a pronounced funny bone, able to deftly tinker with the absurdly comic and mysterious without compromising his sense of gravity. (Hou does have a funny bone, but he tends to keep it pretty well in check most of the time, and it resides more in the characters than in the concept.) Still Life excels in multiple dimensions - it has political, cultural and aesthetic significance - but it also has an acute sense of mystery, and that makes it a very fun film to watch.

3. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao Hsien, Taiwan)

- I'd really have to sweat if I wanted to come up with something that hasn't already been said about this gem. It's Hou at the height of his powers. It has Juliette Binoche. It carefully, expertly, wisely (and I mean really wise, the kind of wisdom that is woefully absent from so much of contemporary cinema) explores the fraught path that connects the ever-enigmatic worlds of childhood and adulthood.

4. Milk (Gus Van Sant, US)

- A feel-good movie that you can really, unguiltily feel good about. Well told with minimum fuss, and featuring a field-dominating performance by Sean Penn (I have to wonder what goes through the heads of other male actors of his generation when they watch his films), Milk is a mainstream humdinger of the highest order (let's see that blurb on a poster!) And the fact that it manages this while also being a bio-pic means extra bonus points.

5. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, US)

- Really solid stuff. I'm not totally won over by Reichardt; there's something about her films that still seems vaguely undercooked, but they are the products of a singular vision that's vital to current American cinema. Success for Reichardt is important for all serious up-and-coming filmmakers, because it means there is an audience for quiet, small, slow, and intricate films in a market dominated with formulaic pandering, both in the so-called "independent" sphere and in the mainstream. There's not all that much going on in this film, but there are some crazy-good moments, and its adherence to its formal convictions is worth noting and praising (this wouldn't be true if those convictions were bogus, but they're definitely not.) It also helps that Michelle Williams is lovely and awesome.

Another problem with such a list: I haven't seen a lot of films that I wanted to see, such as Wall-E, A Christmas Tale, Let the Right One In, Silent Light, and Waltz With Bashir. I do plan on seeing all of these films, but until I do, this is how the list stands. It should go without saying that this is totally open to revision.