Tuesday, February 28, 2012

They're Never Too Young

Of all the functions of the internet (keeping us together, keeping us apart, filtering all serious events through a thick film of irony), one of its most entertaining is acting as a cultural sieve, ensuring that nothing that has ever been broadcast, ever, can truly disappear. Because of this, 21st century man has near-instantaneous access to Rick Astley songs, William Shatner’s staged reading of “Rocket Man”, a TV movie where Meat Loaf chases a yeti, and other pop cultural arcana that would otherwise have been lost to the mists of time. Nothing can ever be forgotten or erased. It's both our gift and our curse.

Anyhow, today’s addition to the annals of wait-this-exists, courtesy of my friend Christine, is this actual Sesame Street parody of Twin Peaks. It’s as bizarre as it sounds and, judging by the youtube comments, proves that David Lynch’s cultural impact extends to unintentionally scarring children who just wanted to learn about sharing and the alphabet. Enjoy!

Monday, February 27, 2012

REVIEW: The Help (2011)

This is where the rubber meets the road at awards season. One of the most instructive case studies on the Oscars comes from 1989, the year that Spike Lee made Do the Right Thing, which is arguably the best and certainly one of the most provocative films to tackle the topic of race in America. It’s a film as loaded as its subject, more or less designed to breach comfort zones and get the audience debating. The Academy passed it over for a Best Picture nomination, and instead gave the top prize to a movie where an old white lady teaches Morgan Freeman to read. The point is a cynically on-the-nose but unshakeable indication that the Academy prefers to tackle Important Issues like race only with safe, palliative reassurances—and from the primary perspective of a white protagonist.

All of which brings us, 22 years later, to The Help, which became a sleeper hit (grossing over $150 million), a Best Picture nominee, and—not for the right reason—a topical lightning rod about how race is handled in American popular culture. This is the sort of slick, polished product that moves briskly and has engaging stars, but completely falls apart if you think about how honestly it approaches its own goals. This is the civil rights era as a low-calorie soap opera, with TV production values, a glossy and sterile visual palette, forced caricatures, colloquial affectations, period details as kitsch, and more melodramatic subplots than it can possibly sustain. (146 minutes!). 

And, for that matter, it never actually confronts racism—not simply because it glosses over the real violent ugliness of the subject, but because it portrays racism as something from a bygone era, perpetrated by cartoonishly wicked people, rather than as a complex societal issue that can even be seen in otherwise upstanding human beings. And when it’s not busy reassuring you about racism, it’s selling out its stated feminist aims, or getting a laugh from a shot of a little girl on the toilet. This is one of the worst Best Picture nominees I’ve ever seen, and while the stars inject an element of charisma and personality that wouldn't otherwise be there, it’s troubling that such a tacky treatment of such serious subjects is what the Academy would like to single out as some of the year’s most important work.

1 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 26, 2012

More Interesting Than the Oscars: A Tribute to the Best of 2011

Another year of a film has gone, which means it’s time for reflections, awards, lists, and montages.

2011 was a year of many things: of major directors testing the barriers of 3D, of nostalgic tributes to bygone eras, and of apocalyptic allegories. But most of all, I would say this was a year of oddities, bizarre counter-intuition, and strange reversals. I'm not sure I would have believed you if you told me at the start of 2011 that Woody Allen would have his biggest box office hit; that Martin Scorsese would make a 3D family film; that Albert Brooks would stab a guy in the eye with a fork on-screen; that the Weinstein-backed Oscar frontrunner would be a silent movie; that a film as willfully abstract as The Tree of Life would not only get released by a major studio subsidiary, but would garner a decent amount of mainstream attention; that the shoe-in for Best Animated Film would be an acid western for kids; that Roland "Independence Day" Emmerich would make a movie about Shakespeare, and that Derek Jacobi would appear in it out of principle; and that the Planet of the Apes re-re-boot would not only not suck, but would actually be fairly solid. Sheer madness, all of it, and it’s my kind of scene.

So while 2011 also set a record for the highest number of sequels (few of them memorable), and while no one I've spoken to, from Hollywood insiders to extended family in Michigan, is particularly impressed by the Oscars this year, I don't think 2011 was quite the washout my more cynical friends sometimes make out to be. Indeed, on the festival circuit, in arthouses, and yes, at the multiplexes, 2011 offered up a lot of very interesting films. Here, I present my 10 favorite films of world cinema in 2011, plus two other memorable ones for good measure. I hope it will entertain, affirm, and infuriate as much as Best Of lists are always supposed to.

Warning: I’m going to cheat slightly. I’m counting “2011” as the year when I first got the chance to see the film. So some of these films I saw at festivals but haven’t been released yet, while others, like Uncle Boonmee, did the festival circuit last year, but didn’t have their official release for the rest of us until this year.

12. Super 8 (J.J. Abrams, USA)

Arriving just in time for summer and wedged awkwardly between major franchises, J.J. Abrams' homage to old-school,1980s Spielberg was the unexpected treat of blockbuster season, reviving the innocent spirit of E.T. and lasting as the "#1 Film in America" just long enough to get steamrolled by Green Lantern. At a time when blockbusters are increasingly crass and overinflated, here’s a modest film that captures the essential appeal of truly good Hollywood fantasies and even pinpoints their origin: as affectionate, geeky daydreams emanating from the heart of suburbia.

11. Film Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard, France)

As pretty much every review has noted, Jean-Luc Godard’s latest avant-garde film essay ends with a title card that says “No Comment”—a convenient authorial absence that leaves the whole sprawl open to interpretation. Thus, Godard’s fans can see it as another rich entry into a rich body of work, while his detractors can see it as a final “fuck you” to an indifferent public. What it is, most clearly, is an overview of the state of Europe circa 2010, which Godard visualizes as a flashy luxury cruiseliner sailing in a circle, while wandering philosophers talk about Europe’s history, the corruption of its institutions, and the stagnation of its ideals. (It makes a strange and rueful sidenote that the cruise ship Godard used is the same one that recently ran aground). Stretches of it are as willfully opaque as anything the man has done, but what burns strong even throughout its most obtuse passages is the mesmerizing beauty of its sounds and imagery. This is surely some kind of landmark in the progression of digital photography, full of saturated, textured images unlike anything else I’ve seen this year—and they’re enough to speak for themselves. Godard has always been an experimenter, less concerned with making a movie than with redefining how a movie can be made, and I’m glad he’s still doing it in 2011.

10. Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, USA)

Containing some of the most nerve-wracking passages in recent screen memory, Contagion dramatizes the possibility of a nightmare epidemic with twitching intensity. It’s easy to imagine this script ending up in the hands of another director and being a much more conventional “hyperlink” piece, maybe playing up the melodrama and the political implications. But Soderbergh’s approach is something different. Not distanced, exactly—the film has too much energy. Not cold, either—he has too much sympathy for his characters. Perhaps the best word is “analytical”: he’s interested in how a disease would spread from place to place and how we’d respond—much the same way he’s interested in how revolutionaries wage guerrilla war in Che, or how a high-end prostitute lives day to day in The Girlfriend Experience. In the grand tradition of hyperlink films, some subplots have more payoffs than others. But the performances (from a who’s who of Hollywood celebrities) are focused, convincing, and largely drained of movie star glamour, and the digital photography is wonderful. By its very texture, shooting on digital evokes the 21st century, a world of technology and vast interconnected systems. And the way the film plays with form—often finding a purposefully counterintuitive way to shoot a scene—is further proof of Soderbergh’s skill at doing truly unusual work within the Hollywood system.

9. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, USA)

An atmospheric, unsettling film about mania gathering in the American heartland, as seen through eyes of a middle-aged man whose visions of the end of the world are either a sign of madness or a warning of things to come. Its ending is sure to set off debates, and I must confess that I'm not sure whether it makes a forceful and coherent point, or if it's just playing games. But this may end up being the definitive American film of 2011: a time where everyone from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street recognizes that the system is broken and senses something apocalyptic in the air. Oscar snub of the year: Michael Shannon.

8. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, USA)

Between Sleeping Beauty and Martha Marcy May Marlene (to say nothing of The Skin I Live In and We Need to Talk About Kevin), this has also been a year for weird psychosexual thrillers. (A colleague informs me that every year is a year for weird psychosexual thrillers, so it's possible that this is just the first time I was paying close enough attention). Anyhow, of that ilk, MMMM may be the strongest. It's an unnerving, well-crafted drama built with ingenuity from only a few parts. Ostensibly about a cult, it traces a beautiful young woman's traumatic coming of age in a world that offers few answers, little sympathy, and lots of exploitation. It may show the indie stiffness at times, but first-time director Sean Durkin also reveals an instinct for detail that makes me curious to see where he goes next. And, of course, it's carried brilliantly by Elizabeth Olsen, who takes a few scattered lines on the page and turns them into a very believable and conflicted character.

7. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, USA)

The ongoing saga of the nameless badass continues, this time in Los Angeles, where it's easily to feel the vibe of existential alienation. For a work of pop-art that’s so willfully cinematic (that is, disregarding of reality), it's tempting to think about how to pitch it. Le Samourai meets Two Lane Blacktop? Brian De Palma + Shane – prostitutes? A Western for when California has already been paved over? So while substance may not be Drive's strength or its goal, it gets by on the collected myths of moviedom, and on a stylistic repackaging that makes them feel surprisingly fresh. Other Oscar snub: Albert Brooks.

6. Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz, Portugal)

Raul Ruiz, who passed away this year after directing over 100 films (with nary a mainstream hit), is an interesting case. It's not so much that I've never really heard a satisfying explanation for some of his more enigmatic films; it's that satisfying explanations seem to be completely beside the point. His style, full of otherworldly images and Romantic bursts of music, is very immediate and attuned to human emotions, and when he keeps his foot in something concrete (as he does here), the results are stunning. So what is Mysteries of Lisbon, exactly? It's a fluid epic, a graceful merry-go-round of characters, and a gripping series of vignettes that keep shifting and blending into one another over the course of a four-hour runtime. (Edited down from six, when it aired as a miniseries). At it's core, and if it were directed in a more prosaic style, it would essentially be one big expository soap opera. But in Ruiz's hands, and with the enveloping mood he creates, it becomes something more: a tract on how life is long, complicated, messy, and beautiful, and you can spend your whole life trying to understand it without coming close. RIP.

5. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson, UK)

Probably the most complicated plotline of the year (and the year includes Mysteries of Lisbon), but you know you're in the presence of good filmmaking when you're not sure how all the pieces fit and yet you can't look away. It comes together in the end as a very satisfying grown-up thriller, and it's elevated by the fact that director Tomas Alfredson uses spies the way Bresson used prisoners, or Lang used serial killers, or Melville used hitmen: that is, he employs the framework of a suspense film to illustrate what a lonely, repressive, and cold world the characters inhabit. This all orbits a veteran spy, who, in a perfect performance by Gary Oldman, is such an enigma that the final moment of the film hits you with the force of a revelation.

4. This is Not a Film (Mojtaba Mirtahasebi & Jafar Panahi, Iran)

It's 75 minutes long, is confined to one location, and scarcely has more than one person appear onscreen. And yet it covers so much ground so artfully, from life in Iran, to the nature of filmmaking, to the power and limitations of cinema when it comes to telling the truth. The origin of this mini-masterpiece is sure to become the stuff of legend: the Iranian director Jafar Panahi was arrested by his own government for making subversive films and sentenced to 6 years in prison, followed by a 20 year ban on filmmaking. So while he was under house arrest awaiting an appeal, he invited a friend over, and they shot this documentary in his living room and smuggled it out of the country on a pen drive hidden in a cake. Most surprising of all is that, despite its topicality, the final product is not an angry film, but a quietly humane and, at times, even shockingly comical one. The trailers are selling this as something of a thriller, but don’t let that distract you. Both politically urgent and intensely personal, it’s an elegiac tragicomedy, a parting act of moral mischief, and a hope for change. And it ends with a sly, optimistic question for the Middle East in 2011: how can any institution hope to control information when practically anyone with a cellphone can be a filmmaker? Seeing this at the Vancouver Film Festival, with an audience completely in tune to its nuances, was one of the best moviegoing experiences of the year.

3. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)

Anyone looking for concrete explanations—about the film's last images, or about what catfish sex has to do with anything—is likely to come up short. But that's as it should be, because this is a film about coming into contact with unexplainable forces, and not only reacting without fear, but even finding a sense of comfort. By the end, it becomes one of the most playful and hypnotic films to ever tackle the difficult subject of mortality. After winning the Palme d'Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, it proved how little a Palme d'Or can help an American release by showing up a year late and playing (in its widest release) in less than 10 theaters. But it's available now on Netflix Instant, ready to be enjoyed by anyone who's feeling adventurous and doesn't mind a filmmaker who asks you to slow down.

2. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, USA)

Nothing if not the most debated movie of the year; placing this one up top is simultaneously the easiest decision and the one I expect to catch the most flak for. I have friends—open-minded ones at that, with adventurous taste—who absolutely can't stand it. And indeed, if you look at the reviews for the film, which are by and large positive, you'll see that even the film's admirers aren't entirely unreserved in their praise, probably because it's next to impossible to take every aspect of this film as seriously as it takes itself. Most of the criticism centers on the more overreaching elements (space nebulas, dinosaurs, Sean Penn kicking around in a desert of modernity), and in all honesty, Malick could probably have edited them out, focused on the center of the story, and ended up with a film that was just as powerful. But overreaching is part of this film's identity and ultimately part of its appeal. Malick dropped an unashamedly grand exploration of Man, God, Nature, Death, and other Big Questions on a jaded, irony-besotted culture, proving that he's either incredibly brave or just doesn't know any better. Either way, we're lucky to have him. You can say that his worldview is simplistic and naïve if you like—you wouldn’t be wrong. But you can’t deny his eye as a filmmaker. So for all the ways that The Tree of Life may be branded an intellectual film, my reasons for prizing it so highly are chiefly visceral: few movies have ever captured the hazy feeling of childhood memories with such clarity, and as a work of pure cinema—that is, sounds and images to evoke emotion—The Tree of Life contains some of the most beautiful moments I've seen on a screen this year, and possibly ever in my life. Rich and dense, sprawling but always deliberate, and certainly the most abstract film to draw mainstream attention in decades, it's something that I expect we'll be talking about for a long time to come.

1. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)

Stunningly well-written and -acted, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation is humanistic drama at its very best, tautly portraying a realistic moral quagmire where every character is both victim and aggressor. It reminds me of the old dictum that "there’s nothing more deceptive than a simple story": on the surface, it’s about a small group of people and why they do what they do, but folded into the details are loaded, complex points about class, gender, tradition, politics, the younger generation, and a historic juncture. And by sympathizing with all its characters, even their flaws, A Separation becomes a rare film that leaves you feeling like you understand people better. For these reasons, it’s my top pick of the year.

The cinematic renaissance of Iran is not new; it isn’t now, and it wasn’t 15 years ago when Abbas Kiarostami won the top prize at Cannes. But if A Separation wins Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars tonight (as it’s expected to), it will be the first time Iran—or, in fact, any Middle Eastern country—has taken home that prize. It certainly comes at an odd time, given the tensions between the US and Iran, and indeed between the Iranian government and its own filmmakers. I wonder what future historians will make of it, though if and when the filmmakers take the stage on national television to accept the award, I hope it’s taken as a sign that cinema crosses national boundaries.


Paring everything down to 12 films to spotlight was painful and caused more problems than it solved, so for Honorable Mentions, here are 15 films that didn’t make the list, but that I’d definitely recommend seeing…

The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, France)

Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, UK)

Beginners (Mike Mills, USA)

Hugo (Martin Scorsese, USA)

The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium)

Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, USA)

Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, USA)

Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo, Mexico)

Moneyball (Bennett Miller, USA)

The Muppets (James Bobin, USA)

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)

Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman, USA)

The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain)

Submarine (Richard Ayoade, UK)

Weekend (Andrew Haigh, UK)

A small footnote: I didn't get to see The Turin Horse this year, which is considered a major world cinema contender. But it recently opened here in the States, so it may end up in my top 10 for next year.

On to 2012!