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.