Monday, February 22, 2010

Birth of a Nation's Relatively Inoffensive Younger Sibling: Weighing in 94 Years Too Late and Giving Redundant Advice

I apologize for taking so long to post, but I was watching a D.W. Griffith film.

Keeping in mind the Mark Twain quote on how a classic is something that "everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read," I've lately made it a goal to actually go back and watch all the old canonical classic films. It's all the satisfaction of a job with none of the pay, and this blog may be dipping in and out of the quest from time to time--provided the commentary isn't too redundant (Citizen Kane is good, etc.). First was a matter of choosing a canon, which is a post for another time). But D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) is one that appears in seemingly all of them.

Intolerance was Griffith's follow-up to his hated/admired film The Birth of a Nation (1915), which will now and forever be one of film history's most problematic milestones. For those who aren't familiar with the film, or for whom it only rings a faint bell, The Birth of a Nation is famous primarily for two reasons.

First, it's a bona fide cinematic landmark. At a time when movies were seen as more of a novelty than an artistic medium, Griffith together techniques we take for granted (cross-cutting, close-ups) into a multi-threaded epic that demonstrated the possibilities of cinema on a grand scale.

Second, the film is blatantly, virulently, and unforgivably racist. Not even as a subtext--more like a flare shot up into the sky. The movie's historical perspective is essentially that the South goes to hell after the slaves are freed, and all seems lost until the KKK ride in to save the day. Even in its time--over a half century before the term "politically correct" became popularized--the film was met with protests. Today, it seems almost too grotesque to believe that anyone ever took it seriously. The most mind-blowing part is that Griffith was reportedly taken aback by charges of racism, which can still make your head spin, considering the ostensibly-happy ending of the film is that the KKK keep black people from voting. But he was so put off by accusations of intolerance that he decided to make his next movie an epic morality tale about the evils of intolerance, titled in its full form: Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages (a 3+ hour movie with an apparently all-white cast, where black people make a split-second cameo as train porters...don't blink).

And "throughout the ages" is the emphasis. Intolerance is, in fact, four different stories about the price of intolerance, each set in a different time period: the Fall of Babylon, the Death of Christ, the Massacre of the Hugeunots, and a modern tale, concerning labor strikes, city crime, and social crusaders. The film hops back and forth between the stories, as each arcs and climaxes at the same time. It's a technical achievement, the biggest film of its day, and a step forward in narrative complexity. Audiences at the time were baffled, but its stature has become legendary in its own way. And since its ideological content is far less troubling, Intolerance--which diplomatically replaced Birth on the American Film Institute's most recent Top 100 list--is the canonical way to give Griffith his due as a filmmaker without praising a film that essentially functions as KKK propaganda. Much ink on this has already been spilled, and for anyone who wishes to know more about Birth of a Nation and its problematic place in film history, I would actually recommend this essay from Ebert.

Intolerance remains equally praised in the world of film, but less prominent in American history. So with a mixture of curiosity and tentative cynicism, I sat down and watched all 197 minutes of Birth of a Nation's lesser known and relatively inoffensive younger sibling.

And I have to say, almost a hundred years later, the sheer scope of it remains staggering. The amount of sets, costumes, and extras--in the earliest age of film technology--is jaw-dropping. As an example, here's a shot of Babylon:

And that's just for one fraction of the movie.

There's also the court of the French royal family, a car vs. train race, a menagerie of animals, a monumental siege, and what appears to be an Bronze Age flame-tank. In short, the embodiment of old Hollywood spectacle to the nth degree.

As for its ideological content, Intolerance is fairly but not entirely unproblematic . Most of the movie is devoted to preaching basic messages about how Intolerance with a capital "I" is wrong. Different sides barrel towards war based on sanctimony, greed, or misunderstanding, and good people are caught in the middle. Often, the lesson is delivered bluntly with a title card (NOTE: The title cards often have a NOTE at the bottom, much like this one, to offer surface-level or oversimplified historical tidbits). "Simple," in fact, is a good way to sum up the film's worldview.

The more objectionable parts come in the 20th century story, where one of the many villains Griffith sees descending in the modern world is a group of frumpy suffragettes hell-bent on "reform." To be fair, the villainous reform they have in mind is not women's rights, but a crusade against social behavior they deem immoral, such as dancing (think of it as a Wilson era Footloose). So that, per se, is not too problematic. But then you have this title card, in which, with customary subtlety, the narrator informs us: "When women cease to attract men, they often turn to reform as a second option."

The idea that such a sentiment--not to mention the film's rather traditional, homogeneous view of paradise--might foster the very intolerance Griffith wishes to denounce is an irony that sails cheerfully over the film's head. If nothing else, Griffith's body of work makes for a handy artifact on how we all share the same basic abstract values of love and fairness, but can be totally blind to the ways we break them.

But moments like that are relatively small, at least by the standards of retrospective politics. The bulk of Intolerance is more like a big-budgeted after school special, and the explicit messages are, for the most part, simply those kind of basic abstract ethics that I'm sure more or less everyone can get behind. Some of it actually hits a moral potency--peace, love, understanding, and even a kind of religious pluralism. Admittedly, its pluralism is limited to sects of Christianity and ancient Babylonian religions that have long since ceased to be politicized. But hey, baby steps.

So how does Intolerance hold up as a movie/film/not a historical artifact? I have to say, it weaves its narratives together admirably, but as a story it's not terribly exciting, which is a consequence when surprise takes a backseat to theme. Most of it is spent preaching a very direct point about societal ills. It's not that its targets--hypocrites, warmongers, self-righteous moralizers--are particularly objectionable, just that sermons aren't as interesting as drama, at least not over 197 minutes. During the running time, there are a lot of moments, both big and small, that hold up very well. But largely, with few compelling or surprising plot turns, it basically boils down to a message and a spectacle.

But then, as it gets to the end: the cross-cutting! Oh, the cross-cutting! Rolling on and on for what must be the last 30 minutes, building tension into a cascade of climaxes, tragedies, and ultimately triumph. Still works.

In fact, watching Intolerance, I found it very interesting how much from the silent era has been passed down to current film and American popular culture. Examples:

--The tone of the battle scenes. I'm not quite sure how to put it. Their sense of excitement is not too far removed from Spielberg. The way the tomboyish Mountain Girl dances comically in triumph during a non-climactic battle reminds me of pretty much every comic sidekick in a Hollywood action epic. In one scene, amidst battle and chaos, a normally helpless damsel in distress knocks out a bad guy from behind with a pot--and it occurred to me that that basic action trope has been circulating in the movie industry for a century.

--The yearning for a pre-modern rural America as a kind of paradise, to be defended and restored.

--The split view of sex. Victorian purity is held up throughout as the ideal for women. And then the camera lingers with fascination on an exotic Babylonian harem, as scantily clad women recline luxuriantly for long takes. This may have less to do with Griffith than the nature of the movie industry; the scenes were reportedly added after the powers-that-be requested that the film have more sex. Still, moral values sit side by side with the principle of "sex sells," which is a longstanding cultural trend if there ever was one.

Hell, even its size seems like a distinctly American heritage. If there's one thing about world cinema history that seems inarguable, it's that America makes the biggest movies. See James Cameron, who once proclaimed that "size does matter," and who's set out to make the biggest film of the time, for several times in a row. And giant, pet-projects epics expressing a personal populist sentiment have popped up in the new millenium as well. Just see Mel Gibson.

Ultimately, if this boils down to a review, I can't really recommend seeing Intolerance for most people (and I know you were planning to). Film history completists with a free afternoon can go wild, but it's largely a question of "having had" seen it, rather than seeing it.

But I should also say that none of my hesitancy has to do with it being a silent film, a medium that holds up incredibly well in an age when everyone is piling on stimuli. The avant-garde ones still have an edge, yes, but what first surprised me was how many are still gripping--easy to follow, smoothly paced--after almost 100 years. For anyone who's never seen a silent film and is curious about how it can be as good as anything with sound, I'd recommend starting with this one.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Ricky Gervais Show - A Paean Followed by a Critique

I'm a fan of Ricky Gervais, and have been since a friend of mine lent me a copy of the original British version of The Office on DVD. The Office, which Gervais co-authored with his partner Stephen Merchant, was wildly and hilariously witty, but also showed a surprisingly heartbreaking pathos for the ongoing struggles and fading dreams of ordinary people (this last feat being one that I've never seen the American Office, though hilarious in its own right, fully live up to). Extras followed in a similar vein, at its best hitting a bull's eye with a clever, satirical, and hilariously tragic view of show business. What you can easily see from following The Office and Extras, aside from their wit, is that Merchant and Gervais write very dark comedy, but love their characters too much to ever let it all turn out badly.

Aside from those two shows, Gervais and Merchant have a record-breaking podcast, and Gervais recently hosted the Golden Globes. (I should say, for the interest of balance, that I'm not entirely without reservations: I think that sometimes Gervais takes the darker elements of his work a bit far--where bitterness, insecurity, and misanthropy go beyond comedy and into, well, bitterness, insecurity, and misanthropy.)

So naturally, I was curious about his third show--titled The Ricky Gervais Show and basically an animated version of his podcast--but not curious enough to seek out someplace that carried HBO. Which is why I was happy when HBO posted the first episode for free online here.

And I have to say, it's an odd concept: the entire show is built around derisively laughing at one person.

That person is a bloke named Karl Pilkington--their dim radio producer--who sits, in cartoon form, next to cartoon Gervais and cartoon Merchant. The basic arc of the show is that Gervais and Merchant coax Karl into spouting off nonsense, then find witty ways to call him an idiot for 22 minutes (accompanied by animated visual aides, to provide flavor). It's like being with a group of friends and noticing, with forlorn resignation, the guy who everyone keeps around just to laugh at. Really, after the first 2 minutes, where he's insulted several times before he even has a line, I just kind of felt sorry for the guy. It seemed like a thankless job.

At the very least, it makes clear the link between comedy and schadenfreude. It's an arguably (okay, definitely) mean-spirited conceptual core for a show, though I have to admit I chuckled plenty of times. (Comedy: gaze upon the darkness of the human soul.)

There's certainly more to Gervais's and Merchant's podcast than that, but laughing at Karl is placed upfront as the focus of the TV program. Newcomers will see little else. And I have to wonder if this will be able to solidify into a regular thing. Will people--by which I mean a probably coastal demographic of HBO subscribers--set aside time in their schedule and tune in weekly to make fun of a guy? Is that just what we do with comedy anyway? Or is it different when the object of mockery is a real person (unlike, say, Homer Simpson)? Maybe it's not. Pilkington is an executive producer of the show, so at the very least, he stands to gain from selling himself as a cartoon punching bag. Maybe not such a thankless job after all, but definitely a bizarre dynamic. Perhaps everything latent about comedy is now explicit.

Still, I'm curious where they take it next, and I like the idea of cartoon non-fiction. The stream-of-consciousness potential of animation goes well with the stream-of-consciousness nature of podcasting. Inquiring minds can check it out.

For a more bite-sized taste of the Gervais and Merchant podcast, I would recommend their analysis of James Bond, which involves over-thinking a media property that damn well insists you don't think too hard about it (sort of the moviehound, non-revolutionary equivalent of "truth to power"). No Karl involved.

And if you've never seen the British Office, I'd highly recommend the first series (only six episodes...they do things differently over there) which remains a thing of comic beauty.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Now Linked to Critelli Comedy

In an act that further blurs the line between camaraderie and shameless promotion (synergy!), The Perpetual Present is now linked with Critelli Comedy! Critelli Comedy is the website of Mike Critelli, a friend of mine and a very funny stand-up comedian.

To link comedy and media criticism (and which, I ask you, is more ironic?), I direct you to his analysis of Dodge's Super Bowl ad or the widespread post-Avatar funk. So few comedians these days are willing to draw parallels between themselves and Marlon Brando. Enjoy...

Sunday, February 7, 2010

I like being subjective, but that might just be me

Opening with the mandatory This is My Blog post:

This is my blog.

It will be a running commentary on film specifically and media in general, founded on the principle that nothing is too insignificant to merit serious over-thinking (or if it is, the internet is the perfect place for it). Basically, everything from the latest Hollywood blockbusters to art films to whatever the hell is happening on Lost can become the stuff of sincere cultural criticism.



Normally, the posts will be short. But opening the whole thing with a short post seems like an anticlimactic beginning, not to mention no fun.

So to begin, and in the spirit of year-end retrospectives, I present my Top 16 Movies of 2009 (15 was too few and 17 would be excessive). List-making is a shady and hazardous business: numerical rankings are kind of reductive, and I haven't seen everything. But this should at least be a start.

Most people I talk to seem to remember 2009 as a lost year for movies—not to mention the year when Zak Snyder turned Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" into a dirge at the funeral for subtlety. But looking back on it, there were also a lot of very good movies filling in the cracks and closing out the decade in style. I'll say "favorite" because "best" is a loaded word, and one that doesn't acknowledge personal preference. (Not to mention that by 2009, I mean a film's theatrical release in America, though some have been making the festival rounds for longer). And so, my eclectic favorites of 2009, and the ones that positively defined the year for me:

16. Avatar
As it becomes a box office sensation, I’ve heard Avatar charged with many things, from ushering in a new era of cinema, to being over-hyped non-art, to (oddly enough) leading our children towards the day-glo allure of paganism. My own take on it: its lead actor has one facial expression; it has its fair share of holes and convenient coincidences; it hits all the familiar plot points with clockwork regularity; its environmental message feels neither novel nor organic (pun intended); and if I never hear “I See You” playing from the car next to me, I’ll be happy. But right from the opening shots, Avatar can pull you in with an earnest dedication to its own hokum, and I’m willing to drink the Kool-Aid and praise the film for what it is: a gloriously detailed technological marvel, and a fun (if familiar) adventure story with a metaphysical twist. And in a tentpole era where Transformers 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean 3 go in circles for gruelingly excessive lengths, here’s a two and a half hour flick that can more legitimately claim to be epic rather than just long. (Plus, its “foreign race needs a white male hero” subtext is less overtly troubling than it is in, say, The Last Samurai, because we can pretend it’s all about aliens rather than a reflection of deep-rooted ideology. Fun times.)

15. Summer Hours
You can generally spot a foreign art film by a simple, lyrical title about something found in the everyday/natural world, like Wild Strawberries or An Autumn Afternoon. Summer Hours, in this vein, moves with an episodic structure that dips in and out of its characters’ lives—covering a period of time and moments of conflict without breaking from the naturalistic feel. Along the way, it waxes insightful about the purpose of art, the trends of globalization, and the torch being passed from one generation to the next. Beautifully acted and filmed.

14. Up
I loved Up, but not without reservations. Mainly, I feel that there are two sides to it. The opening section (Carl growing old) is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen in any category—children’s, adult’s, animated, live-action, anything. But during the jungle adventure—concerning a mad explorer and a hundred talking dogs—I felt that it turned into a far more ordinary children’s cartoon. Not a bad one, and certainly entertaining, but also unsurprising, a bit incongruous, not fully fleshed out (a rarity for Pixar), and nowhere near the heights of the opening. So for me, there are two ways of looking at Up: either it retreats from its weightier themes, or it takes a kid’s flick and gently slips in a gorgeous meditation on old age. I prefer to think the latter, and either way Up is another winner, with some of the most touching and memorable moments of the year.

13. The Brothers Bloom
At the very least, the latest from Rian Johnson (Brick) deserves notice as one of the more unfairly critically maligned movies of the year, getting mixed reviews and disappearing fast. In all fairness, it’s likely to lose anyone looking for a comic caper a la Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. But we already have a Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and that’s really not what this is. It's not about who gets the money, but about storytelling. It’s a fable about living in fiction versus living in reality, with a surprisingly potent emotional core of brotherly love. It’s not a perfect movie. It may be too bright, shiny, and cute for its own good, a few jokes seem a bit off, and the end is a tad muddy. But it’s smooth and energetic, full of lively and heartfelt performances.

12. Star Trek
Star Trek, with all its many offspring, is one of the few properties of traditional American geekdom that I’m not very familiar with, so I can only judge it as a movie, not as part of a franchise. And as a movie, it’s not so much a masterpiece as what, in a perfect world, every Hollywood blockbuster would be: a well-structured story carried by an engaging cast. More importantly, it knows how to use special effects: not just to throw in tons of visual stimuli (though there are plenty), but to flesh out a detailed fantasy world, which is what special effects have always been necessary for. The glowing space-scapes—and the camera’s roving path inside the ship—shoot for a sense of wonder that only adds to the fun. Anyone who doesn’t like blockbuster tentpoles (the in-jokes, the third act predictability) is unlikely to be won over by anything new. But Star Trek started the summer on a high note that the rest of the season never lived up to. Plus, you have to give credit for using dubious time travel mechanics to make a sequel and a reboot at the same time.

11. Where the Wild Things Are
The sort of movie you love not just in spite of its flaws, but because of them: a beautiful and strange monster that came rumpus-ing out of the studio system. The beginning captures the energy and loneliness of childhood like no other movie I’ve seen. The ending—a view of familial love that’s warm but not cheap—is a thing of beauty. And the journey in the middle is a unique vision of the pros and cons of anarchy: the joy of the letting the wild things out, and the need to rein them in. Likely too abstract and scary for children, but too fantastical for adults, Wild Things hits a kind of zeitgeist in the in-between. By the way, is this something new? We seem to be living at a time when the 18-to-25 demographic is embracing their inner child en masse. People my age look forward to Harry Potter, Pixar films, and Disney princesses as much as any kid. Have young adults always been this nostalgic? Did something change? Is it a reflection of young people reluctantly entering adulthood in a volatile world, or is that just too poetic to be true? I’ll leave that question to sociologists. On a similar note, moving into the Top 10…

10. Coraline
Exhibit X that we live in a golden age of animation: a fairy tale from Neil Gaiman by way of Henry Selick. It’s dark, as fairy tales are, and it writes its plucky-but-self-absorbed heroine accordingly (most movies cast children as either adorably precocious or adorably naïve, but Coraline knows better). And the beautifully moody creepiness certainly captures something of childhood: the phase of your life when something as patently absurd as “people with buttons for eyes” could keep you up at night.

9. The Hurt Locker
What first struck me about this year’s Oscar frontrunner was how straightforward it was. It’s rooted in action movies right down to the banter, and its interpersonal drama can largely be reduced to the age-old conflict between the straight-arrow and the maverick who plays by his own rules. So I can’t really say that it’s that interesting of an approach to the War Movie, but that doesn’t seem to matter. It’s thrillingly well put-together, and its lack of political posture on a heavily politicized issue gives it a kind of character-driven purity. Its mood of tension and chaos, of no visible enemy but a constant pending threat, certainly evokes a different kind of war zone. After all, the movie isn’t structured around any overarching mission—just a countdown to the end of the tour.

8. In the Loop
Focused on the mid-level political strata, In the Loop is, essentially, a back-and-forth screwball comedy where what’s on the line is nothing less than whether or not a war breaks out. Most importantly, this British comedy cleverly avoids the two main pitfalls of failed movie satire: it doesn’t go too far (making its point so heavy that it feels abrasive), and it doesn’t pull away at the last minute (giving a pat happy ending, as if to take it all back). One thing that struck me, though, by the time it opened this summer, was that it felt like a victim of timeliness: six months into the Obama administration, when everyone’s worried about bailouts, health care, and economic death-spirals, a satire of Bush era foreign policy already seemed surprisingly out of date. And this late arrival, if I had to guess, could be a big reason that it didn’t cause more of a stir. But the script is fast and funny, and the cast is perfect. James Gandolfini, as a weary general, may be the movie’s grounded, emotional center. But special notice also has to go to Tom Hollander, as a British politician who’s been handled by PR men for so long that he isn’t sure where he actually stands. Not to mention Peter Capaldi, as the foul-mouthed Scotsman who does the handling.

7. Up in the Air
I remember that when this came out, the all-wise Tomatometer said that it had “just enough edge for mainstream audiences,” and it occurred to me that “just edgy enough for the mainstream” is a fine description of director Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking, Juno). His main characters start out as too cool for school and invariably have sentimental epiphanies. And films like Smoking—and, to a certain extent, Up in the Air—mix sharp satire with an unchallenging reverence for the American Way. However, this mixture of sentimentality and (softened) edge is not inappropriate for a film about humanism triumphing over more “shark”-like impulses. The script snaps, crackles, and never slows down or wastes time, and all three leads earn their Oscar buzz. I know a lot of people found the movie to be a downer, which in large part it is. But it’s ultimately as uncertain as its title, and strangely enough, I see it as hopeful.

6. Gomorrah
A decade of “hyperlink” dramas (Traffic, Crash, Syriana, Babel) closes with one of the strongest: five loosely connected stories set in a Naples crime clan. It doesn’t really try to force melodrama; it prefers a kind of detached realism. It doesn’t really try to bring everyone together; in fact, the fragmented narrative makes the characters feel small, separate, and helpless. Many people will undoubtedly find it boring. But for those inclined to hop on its wavelength, it cultivates a bizarrely mesmerizing atmosphere of dread, loneliness, and chaos, with tiny moments of grotesque comedy. And it has some of the most perfect photography of the year, with a camera that simultaneously feels cut loose and always in the right place at the right time.

5. Inglourious Basterds
I can never tell how significant Quentin Tarantino means to be, or if he’s really just having fun. Case in point is Inglourious Basterds, which raises all sorts of disturbing, provocative questions about the fascistic nature of action films—but then, instead of answering the questions, it shoots them 50 times in the face and burns the motherfucker down. Its ballsy affront to history is, oddly, one of the more truthful things about it: movies are not history, even the more prestigious ones that claim it as their basis. And so long as it’s all wish fulfillment, why not go all-out? If anything, Tarantino is a man for his time and place because he makes clear that reality has been replaced by a (reality-ish) dream world as the subject for films. But all of that just makes Inglourious Basterds one of the most interesting films of the year. What places it high on this list is that it is, well, one the best: an engaging plot full of vivid characters, smooth direction, sharp humor, and a knack for suspense-building that Sergio Leone would approve of.

4. An Education
When I saw the trailer, I dismissed An Education as the kind of bland gentility that gets pumped into arthouses every awards season (period costumes, British accents, etc.). But how unfair I was. The film, in a nutshell: an intelligent but naïve teenage girl, stifled by school and her parents’ ambitious hopes, gets seduced by an older man who’s so charming that you can almost forget he’s clearly up to no good. And along the way, she learns that mistakes don’t ruin you, that she’s stronger than she expected, and that adults are people like any other—both wiser and more clueless than she gives them credit for. If that all sounds like a cliché, it is. But here’s a movie that can give its truisms dramatic vitality, which is a rare thing, even at Oscar season. It does get too pat at the end, but the script by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) cleverly balances humor and drama to make for a beautifully observed coming-of-age story. And Carey Mulligan, brilliantly convincing as the teenage Jenny, gives arguably the Leading Lady performance of the year.

3. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson’s departure from live action—which for him was always a little cartoony to begin with—is lovingly animated and beautifully detailed. Best of all, with his last film almost completely overrun by mannered bourgeois ennui, Fox reclaims the mischief of his earliest works: the Bottle Rocket vibe of imaginative dreamers who come up with needlessly complicated schemes because simple ones are no fun. Stellar all around, from the animation, to the music, to the script, to some of the most heartfelt deadpan to grace an indie age where irony is starting to feel cheap. All of which is not to shortchange how well it accomplishes a simple goal. The fact that this didn’t find much of an audience at the box office—when really, it offers everything a family film is supposed to, and more—stands as one of the bigger injustices of the year. Though it’s too soon to make such a drastic statement, Fox (brace yourself) may replace the Gene Wilder Willy Wonka as the best Roald Dahl adaptation.

2. The White Ribbon
In a small German village on the eve of World War I, a surface of pastoral innocence hides an undercurrent of private lives, secrets, and repressed desires. And this quietly simmering tension slowly but surely finds an outlet in a series of unsolved, seemingly random acts of violence. Austrian director Michael Haneke (Cache), who won the Palme d’Or for this film, excels at making the personal political, and belongs to a rare group of filmmakers who can grip you with a slow pace and unnerve you with silence. Tense, tragic, and hauntingly inconclusive, The White Ribbon is an allegory of denial, of oppression and control, of violence being passed down through the generations. It’s also a reminder that black & white can be as vivid as color: its palette is made up of the blackest blacks and the whitest whites and every ghoulish shade of grey in between. (For arthouse mavens, it rivals anything I’ve seen from Bergman.) See it on the big screen if you can, preferably in a near-empty theater.

1. A Serious Man
Oh boy. I know I’m going to catch some flak for putting this at #1. About half the people I know who saw it absolutely loved it, and the other half were completely put off, so definitely chalk this up as a not-for-everyone movie. But as the Coen brothers’ latest (and arguably most personal) film gets overlooked for a lot of the major awards, I feel like I have to stand by it. It's one of the saddest and funniest movies of the year. And to what extent a movie--any movie--can be seen as both at the same time depends very much on the audience.

In a small Jewish community in suburban Minnesota, a fairly secular college professor, spurred on by personal problems, goes on something of a spiritual quest to make sense of his life. Essentially, the Coen brothers present the Big Questions (about meaning, about god) as a kind of cosmic joke, where the punchline is that there’s no answer. It’s an unpredictable film, a twisting narrative filled with bizarre comedy and the Coens’ knack for dialogue and characterization. And it makes good use of its 1960s period setting: a lilywhite Age of Innocence suburb, with Summer of Love anarchy calling like a siren from off-camera.

The Coen brothers' work has long been filled with ambiguous symbolism and a dedication to formal pleasure—which is something I've seen them criticized for, with the argument that it comes at the expense of emotional insight. Arguably, A Serious Man coheres the ambiguity and formal pleasure into a potent statement. It’s a comedy of uncertainty, where science and faith both come up short, societal standards can't be trusted, and the ultimate truth is nothing that can't be learned from a pop song.

The Coens maintain the sort of distance from their characters normally reserved for Kubrick, which is likely to put off a lot of people. But it feels almost ruefully fitting symbol of its time and place: an escalating series of woes that at first play out like grim camp, but strike home at the end. At the very least, it shows that somewhere between the modern and postmodern eras, existential pain grew a wicked sense of humor. It is, if not their best film, a thematic capstone in the Coen brothers' career.


There are many strong movies this year that aren't on here: great movies that missed a spot list, small gems, or otherwise noteworthy films. So for making moviegoing in 2009 worthwhile, stand up and take a bow: District 9, Drag Me to Hell, 500 Days of Summer, The Girlfriend Experience, Goodbye Solo, Humpday, Moon, Public Enemies, and You the Living.


There it is. A decade is gone, and will soon undoubtedly be the subject of American Graffiti-style nostalgia films featuring iPods and Paris Hilton. Bring on the new decade. Come on, we can take it.