31 December 2010

THE BEST FILMS OF ALL TIME: #86-95

The complete list
Introduction
#1-5 #6-15 #16-25 #26-35 #36-45 #46-55
#56-65 #66-75 #76-85 #86-95 #96-105 #106-115

95. Duck Soup
(Leo McCarey, 1933, USA)

Though they're arguably the most iconic figures in sound comedy, it's acknowledged that the bulk of the Marx Brothers' films aren't terribly "good": pockmarked by uninspired filmmaking and reedy subplots. This rarely matters, since the sheer industrial-strength potency of their humor outweighs everything; still, it's no coincidence that their best-loved film is the one that teamed them with a director of real skill who knew just how to present their antics for maximum effect, and a screenplay entirely free of the dross that often framed their work (it is comfortably their shortest feature). And so, instead of a bunch of great jokes with some movie in between, Duck Soup reigns supreme as 68 minutes of comic perfection, a screwball satire musical vital and razor-sharp enough, with enough of an anarchic kick to remain fresher and more modern than just about any new comedy in the last several decades.


94. Day for Night
AKA La nuit américaine
(François Truffaut, 1973, France)

An insider's pointed attack on the film industry made by a man who couldn't be more palpably in love with the subject he's satirising; but in this case, affection does not get in the way of being clear-eyed and intelligent. Truffaut himself plays the director of a crisis-besotted French movie, but he never claims special privilege for his own profession, instead treating the director, as well as a star-packed cast, as just more confused people in the crazy backstage world of moviemaking. It's a romantic, hectic tribute to all the people from the script girl on up who go into the production of every single film, hilarious, generous, and impeccably well-crafted; it's easy to get so swept up in the charm of it all that you fail to notice how, unlike the fictional Je vous présente Pamela, Truffaut's own film is such a cunning and crafty and perfectly-oiled machine.


93. Laura
(Otto Preminger, 1944, USA)

Massively screwed up even by the standards of film noir, this snarly tale of a dead young woman and the two men who loved her - and the third man who only fell in love with her after her murder - is one of the greatest implausible mysteries and psychosexual funhouses from a decade rich with both of those things. Mixing glossy style, of the sort only a great aesthete like Preminger could dream up, with tawdriness out of the cheapest dime novels, the film's (a)moral center is neither Gene Tierney's waifish Laura, nor Dana Andrew's sturdy, bland detective, but rather in Clifton Webb's amazing Waldo Lydecker, a bitchy, cynical newspaperman who represents both the erudite charm and absolute scuzziness that makes Laura one of the quintessential works of its genre. It's beautiful, it's witty, and it's wholly savage: pulp fiction gone to charm school, a black comedy of manners.


92. Winter Light
AKA Nattvardsgästerna
(Ingmar Bergman, 1963, Sweden)

Straddling the line between "so depressing that it becomes transcendent" and "so depressing it's unwatachable", this is the film where cinema's most famous cold-blooded miserabilist decided that he no longer believed in God. Starring Bergman regular Gunnar Björnstrand is tremendous as a Lutheran pastor who realises that he can say and do nothing to reassure a parishioner that there's still reason to have faith and hope in the Nuclear Age, as a local schoolteacher tries to show him that there's still the chance for meaning even in a material universe. Glacially-paced and unforgiving to all its characters in a harsh manner even for a Bergman picture, set in a sickly winter captured perfectly by Sven Nykvist in his best hour as a cinematographer, Winter Light is the textbook example of those depressing, pretentious European movies parodists like to mock; but it is a devastating work, no two ways about it.


91. Blade Runner
(Ridley Scott, 1982, USA)

By this point, I suspect that watching Scott's legendary future-shock dystopian neo-noir, for a youngster just discovering cinephilia, must be something of a disappointment: what's the big deal, every "edgy" sci-fi movie is just like that, with the shiny black surfaces and everything all worn out, and moody electronic music. Yes, true: the secret, of course, is that Blade Runner invented all those things, single-handedly creating just about every trope and cliché of design for just about every futuristic thriller in nearly three decades. Nor can a single one of its countless imitators claim to possess the same overwhelmingly complete design, from the biggest ideas to the smallest; and virtually none of them make more than a rudimentary stab at the film's creepy but deeply touching concept of what does or doesn't make us "human": philosophically immature, but compelling, and given added weight by the nihilistic spectacle of it all. (Reviewed here)


90. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control
(Errol Morris, 1997, USA)

Four entirely unconnected people, united only by the director's conviction that something about their weird & quirky lives (the quirk blissfully unstressed by Morris's disarming camera) tells us all about the hectic, exciting, terrifying world around us. While appearing to function solely as a depiction of people on the fringe of "normal society", as Morris had already done several times, FC&OOC is really inviting us to consider ourselves, and the speed of our own life, in relationship to these four odd, but to all appearances entirely happy men. Their obsessions are just like our obsessions, even if ours are normalised by culture and theirs aren't. It's a film with a burning humanist message that creeps up through the seams, taking us by surprise when we realise that Morris's tribute to determined misfits has all along been a lesson in reconsidering how we think about life and our place in it.


89. Le samouraï
(Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967, France)

One of the great privileges of being a fan of international cinema in the last 10 years has been the front row seat we've been given to the rediscovery of a towering French filmmaker whose clinical post-modernism and fascination with the mechanics of genre mark him as forebear and accomplice to the Nouvelle Vague, but whose extraordinary aesthetic directness is a world removed from the playfulness of that movie. Melville's masterpiece, not for want of some truly exquisite competitors, is this imposing piece of hyper-cool minimalism: an excoriation of hip masculinity dressed in the skin of a gangster picture where the precision of a man's clothes doesn't speak to character, so much as it is character; where the perfection of surfaces is a desperate compensation for the fact those surfaces cover a psychological and moral void, elegantly and simply expressed by a world of unyielding greys and whites.


88. The Piano
(Jane Campion, 1993, Australia / New Zealand / France)

A character study of incredibly rare ambiguity and complexity: we come to feel that we know a great deal about of the mute Scotswoman Ada (Holly Hunter, giving the sort of sublime performance, a bewildering array of shades of meaning and emotion, that comes along once in a generation), though it's tricky to say exactly how we know it, or to put it into words. This is because the film is so oddly symbolic and metaphoric despite how consistently it outruns its own metaphors: Campion combines a tyrannically acute control over the visuals while expressing the most delicate handling of tone and character, leading to a film that appears more deterministic than it really is. Though Stuart Dryburgh's exquisite cinematography captures everything with hypnotic tactility, there's something haunting and even fantastic about everything we see, as though the whole movie was a dream pinned to celluloid. (Reviewed here)


87. Badlands
(Terrence Malick, 1973, USA)

The legend of American cinema's most mythological figure starts here, with a vaguely factual crime drama that only apparently rips-off Bonnie and Clyde, while actually presenting a cryptic vision of youth, and America's concept of itself as a land of free spirits and wide spaces. Not a critical vision, necessarily - even once the killing starts, Malick is far more concerned with observing than judging. And it is the precise texture of that relaxed, reflexive feeling that marked Badlands as so different from everything else in the New Hollywood of the '70s, and continues to set the filmmaker apart, even as his debut remains arguably his most concrete and certainly his most concise project. While I, of course, adore the pastoralism of his later films, the indelible, casual humanness of this film has always made it, for me, the very best of a small but immaculate body of work. (Reviewed here)


86. Pierrot le fou
(Jean-Luc Godard, 1965, France / Italy)

Halfway through his first decade as a director, with the joys of post-modern formalism starting to ossify into convention and the promise of egregiously political films still just on the horizon, Godard made what is quite possibly the most Godardian of all films: a crime story about two young people abandoning society for the pleasures of their own cavorting, willfully breaking narrative rules and behaving as though character rules don't exist. It's a story told through color and costuming and music - including the least-expected musical number in all of cinema, except by that point, you're pretty much expecting everything - rather than characters and action; Godard's attempt to deconstruct a movie through a pop-art explosion. It's easy to see how this could be unbearably pretentious, but it's a goofy cartoon whose manic energy always trumps the more self-absorbed theoretical concerns - unlike much of his later work.

30 December 2010

BAD MOVIE SHOWDOWN

It's rare outside of summer to get two movies released in such close proximity to one another that look so grueling as the live-action/animation hybrid Yogi Bear and the Jack Black vehicle Gulliver's Travels. Both promised to be as vile and unlikable as anything Hollywood has shat out in 2010, and there seemed to be a real possibility of the pair of them jockeying for the title of the year's worst film. Being of a scientific mind, I could think of only one way to determine which of the two was the graver insult to the dignity of the art of cinema: DEATHMATCH!.

Which is the worst? Let's find out!

PLOT
Yogi BearGulliver's Travels
A talking brown bear with a yen for stealing picnic baskets in Jellystone Park becomes the only hope of saving his home from a venal mayor planning to sell logging rights to cover his town's budget shortfall.A pudgy loser who works in the mailroom at a New York newspaper, trying to impress the pretty travel editor, takes a trip to the Bermuda Triangle, and finds himself lost on an island full of tiny people, and becomes a hero thanks to his size and willingness to lie about himself.

Winner:* Yogi. The story of Gulliver's Travels is an impressive wreck, particularly once the pretty travel editor also ends up stranded on Liliput, but there is nothing on earth as wheezy as the "evil land developer" plot.


DEVIATION FROM SOURCE MATERIAL
Yogi BearGulliver's Travels
The arid Hanna-Barbera cartoons consisted of nothing but Yogi trying to steal food from tourists, which could never support a feature, but the bear's motivation remains constant, at least. It is surprising, perhaps, that he is not more of an active protagonist - Ranger Smith is almost more of a main character - but given how unpleasant is the sight of lovingly-rendered cartoon bears interacting with actors, it's probably just as well.Another Gulliver adaptation that stalls out after just one of the four travels (though I was stunned that Brobdingnag puts in a cameo appearance), but the real insult is the modernisation, which involves copious slang, video game references, and a general Jack Blackness to all the humor, jarring unpleasantly with the Regency-era Liliput. Also, Gulliver fights a mecha to win the war with Blefuscu. And yet, they did not see fit to change his first name from "Lemuel".

Winner: Gulliver, no contest. Yogi is a sad attempt to spin 80 minutes out of a cartoon that was already shitty at 8 minutes, while Gulliver defangs one of English literature's most iconic works of satire and replaces its wit with Star Wars jokes.


CAST
Yogi BearGulliver's Travels
Dan Aykroyd as the voice of Yogi, Justin Timberlake as the voice of Boo-Boo (shockingly, Timberlake is infinitely funnier and closer to the original character), Tom Cavanagh (TV's Ed) as Ranger Smith, Andrew Daly as the venal mayor, Nate Corddry as his venal aide, colorless rising comedy star T.J. Miller.Black, of course, plus a packed roster of B- and C-listers, including Billy Connolly, Jason Segel, Amanda Peet, Catherine Tate, Chris O'Dowd, and colorless rising comedy star T.J. Miller.

Winner: A push. Yogi's cast is objectively worse, but there's more delight in watching the semi-famous folk in Gulliver foundering. Plus, both feature the character acting of colorless rising comedy star T.J. Miller


CAST MEMBER YOU'RE EMBARRASSED FOR
Yogi BearGulliver's Travels
Anna Faris, as a documentary filmmaker in love with Ranger SmithEmily Blunt, as the princess of the Liliputians, in love with a sad-sack commoner

Winner: Gulliver. At this point, none of us can afford to be so thin-skinned that seeing the marvelous comedienne Faris playing below her talents offends us, while Blunt is essentially reprising the performance from The Young Victoria that netted her a spot in the Oscar buzz conversation last year.


SCATOLOGICAL/GROSS OUT JOKES
Yogi BearGulliver's Travels
Talk of Boo-boo's toxic flatulence, a mention of urination in bears' courtship rituals, Yogi snorting a grub out of his nose, Yogi mentions rectal thermometers, Anna Faris recalls using bird shit as ink, and I am fairly sure that there's at least one other shit joke I've forgotten.A Liliputian disappears up Gulliver's ass, plus the "piss out the fire" scene present in the novel.

Winner: Yogi. One does not get the feeling that the Gulliver team came to play.



GHASTLY POP MUSIC NUMBERS
Yogi BearGulliver's Travels
Yogi and Boo-Boo try to prove that they can entertain the campers by shaking their moneymakers to "Baby Got Back"; they later water-ski to Poison's "Nothin' But a Good Time"; Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" makes its union-mandated appearance.Gulliver ends the Lilput/Blefuscu conflict by - a propos of nothing - leading a massive dance-in to a Black cover version of Edwin Starr's "War".

Winner: Yogi, but only just, and solely thanks to its 3-to-1 advantage. Nothing in either movie made me so utterly unhappy as the "War" scene in Gulliver.


NITPICKY COMPLAINT THAT SHOULDN'T HAVE BOTHERED ME, BUT IT DID
Yogi BearGulliver's Travel
National Park Service areas cannot be redistricted by municipalities for agricultural use.The technology level of the Liliputians is all over the map; Gulliver, an idiot mail sorter, brings electricity to the island; in thanks for peeing on the castle, the king builds him a house (in one week!) large enough that it probably cost the GDP of the country for several years.

Winner: Yogi. Though Gulliver certainly has a number of tiny, stupid holes that keep poking up, Yogi's entire plot is based on an utter fallacy.


GARISHNESS OF 3-D
Yogi BearGulliver's Travels
Food is spat directly at the screen not once, but twice; a turtle exists for apparently no reason other than to project parts of himself towards the camera; most of Yogi's plots for stealing picnic baskets involve moving parts that thrust toward the camera like knives.Indifferently post-converted, such that many scenes barely register as 3-D whatsoever, and in most places where it does register, Black appears more fully dimensional than the Lilputian cardstock figures composited in with him.

Winner:To be honest, I'm not sure which approach is the more contemptible.


GENERAL UGLINESS
Yogi BearGulliver's Travels
Boo-Boo's unnaturally detailed eyes and both bears' soft but insubtantial fur will haunt my nightmares; but at least the human actors' resolute inability to match eyelines with the CGI characters gives the whole thing a surrealist patina that almost makes it all tolerable.Other than the terrible compositing, terrible post-process 3-D, lifeless and flat lighting, and the inexplicable sense that Black's entire body has been lightly Photoshopped, it's no worse than any hack project.

Winner: Yogi. In fairness, it is not more hideous than the trailers have been promising for months.


BEST GAG
Yogi BearGulliver's Travels
No funny gags as such, but Timberlake's nervous straight lines are often good for a a wry grin.Catherine Tate's incredibly obvious desire to have sex with Gulliver.

Winner: Gulliver. Yes, I did say that was its "best" gag.


TIMELESS MESSAGE FOR YOUR CHILDREN
Yogi BearGulliver's Travels
Don't let other people keep you from following your own drummer; be nice to the environment; feed wild bears.The pretty girl definitely likes you. And if you lie to her to get her attention, she'll forgive you, on account of your awesome pop culture knowledge

Winner: Gulliver. We really don't need more of those stories, and Yogi's heart is in the right place, though I wouldn't take the wee ones to Denali right afterward.


THE CHAMPION: Marmaduke. Sorry, boys, but if you want to play in the big leagues, you'll need to master the elegance of opening and closing your movie with matching jokes about a dog farting and being smug about it.

Yogi Bear: 2/10
Gulliver's Travels: 2/10

THE BEST FILMS OF ALL TIME: #96-105

The complete list
Introduction
#1-5 #6-15 #16-25 #26-35 #36-45 #46-55
#56-65 #66-75 #76-85 #86-95 #96-105 #106-115

105. Angels with Dirty Faces
(Michael Curtiz, 1938, USA)

Not the most important of the Warner gangster pictures; not the purest; but damn me if this isn't the best: the genre commonplace of the two street kids, one grown up to become a local community leader and one grown up to become a hood is at its richest and most rewarding with Pat O'Brien and a never-better James Cagney filling the two roles. That's not even counting the always-welcome presence of Humphrey Bogart at the start of his fame as the lowlife even nastier than Cagney's Rocky Sullivan. Under the masterfully efficient hands of Michael Curtiz, it would already be one of the tightest and most driven of all gangster pictures; but it ascends to sublimity on the strength of its final scene, when the question driving the film - can O'Brien ever redeem Cagney's humanity? - is answered in one of the most potent moments of 1930s cinema.


104. Yi yi
AKA 一一
(Edward Yang, 2000, Taiwan / Japan)

From my Best of the 00s: All about everyday people facing everyday problems, it's an unusually well-observed and nuanced human story; it rises to the level of sheer art through Yang's incredible sense of how to present the story of the Jiang family visually. Very few movies have ever used the possibilities of color to such great extent; we learn more about the characters and their emotions because of how they fit into the palette of a space then because of anything they necessarily do or say. By the same token, the static shots that overwhelmingly dominate the film, and the way that movement changes the sense of those shots, gives us a powerful sense of the relationship between the Jiangs and their environment. But formally perfect as it is (very, very perfect), the formal elements are always used in strict service to character and emotion. The fulsome humanity is what makes it a masterpiece. (Reviewed here)


103. Fantasia
(Disney Animation Studios, 1940, USA)

The great ambition of Walt Disney's life, and the commercial bomb whose failure has sometimes been cited as the beginning of the end of Disney's period as a home for truly artistic animation for thinking adults, this perversely uncharacteristic marriage of all the most experimental cartoons the producer's populism could stomach with classical music ranging from the supremely easy to the (in 1940) daringly avant-garde was never, ever going to be a hit; the surprise is that history has ended up redeeming it as such an iconic classic. Though by no means a flawless whole - I'd not shed a single tear if I woke up tomorrow and found that the Beethoven sequence had never existed - there is no better place in history to appreciate on such a broad scale all that American animation is and has been capable of, from the silliest to the most exquisite. (Reviewed here)


102. Hiroshima mon amour
(Alain Resnais, 1959, France / Japan)

It's a Resnais film about the slippery nature of memory; forgive me for repeating myself. Marrying the personal, the political, and the historical like very few films would dare - and it's not nearly the director's most confounding movie! - Hiroshima mon amour was the first Western movie to seriously grapple with the consequences of the A-bomb not in some abstract sense but as the very real cause of much devastation in two Japanese cities; and yet that's not even the point of the film, nearly as much as it is about a nameless Frenchwoman who finds herself alive to sensations she had thought dead; and even then, the sensations the film's stridently anti-narrative mix of words, sounds and images kicks up in the viewer are not necessarily what the characters experience, unless they are. What can I say, it's hard to be specific about abstract visual poetry.


101. All About My Mother
AKA Todo sobre mi madre
(Pedro Almodóvar, 1999, Spain / France)

A jaw-dropping blend of outrageous melodrama, human emotions so fuzzy and big that they'd have been decried as lacking subtlety during the silent era, hallucinatory colors in every hue but "natural", and a love of women in all their guises and glories, all of it anchored by Cecilia Roth's indescribably excellent performance as a woman who experiences the worst kind of tragedy before finding peace. Of Almodóvar's many adventures in playing with style and narrative formulas, none are ultimately so emotionally rewarding; nor do any of his earlier or subsequent explorations into the bent edges of human sexuality seem this unabashedly uplifting; nor do the rest of his multicolored fantasias seem so defiantly bright and cheerful. It is, in short, his most fun movie, and to be the most fun Almodóvar picture is to be uncommonly fun, indeed. No mean feat for a movie that opens with a teenager's death.


100. Jaws
(Steven Spielberg, 1975, USA)

They'll tell you that it ruined everything that made the 1970s so wonderful, and they're not wrong, though they're perhaps forgetting that the movie which put the greatest populist in cinema history on the map is itself a quintessential example of '70s filmmaking far more than it's like any of its bastard children from all the barren summers since then. Forced by accident to be one of the most cunningly crafted thrillers ever, Jaws is always smart and restrained instead of leaden and exploitative, and the focus is always - always - on the journey of the men chasing the shark and not the shark itself; it's no accident that the scene everybody remembers centers on three drunk guys swapping stories. The dirty secret of the world's first summer blockbuster is that it's first and foremost a tale of one man becoming his best self in the face of danger. (Reviewed here)


99. His Girl Friday
(Howard Hawks, 1940, USA)

Dialogue as a lethal weapon in this fastest-pitched of all screwball comedies, the star exhibit in the They Don't Make 'Em Like That Anymore Hall of Fame. Hard to believe that once upon a time, a romantic comedy starring the most heartthrobby heartthrob in all the annals of movie-stardom could be such a savage cultural satire with such a demanding joke-per-minute ratio: even with our TV-attuned viewing habits, trained to process information faster than Hawks would have dared to dream, His Girl Friday is still a breathless ride, the kind where if you let your attention flag for a minute you're going to miss at least one A+ gag. Yet, exactly because of this take-no-prisoners attitude, it ends up one of the most satisfying and rewarding rom-coms of all time: these ex-lovers don't make their inevitable reunification remotely easy with their sniping and backbiting, but by God, they earn it.


98. F for Fake
(Orson Welles, 1973, France / West Germany)

Near the end of a career with more downs than ups, the onetime Boy Wonder, and one of the medium's greatest trickster gods, sprung this unclassifiable "documentary" upon an unsuspecting world, and almost four decades later we still haven't caught up with it. Recounting some of the most noteworthy liars and fraudsters of the 20th Century, the amateur magician in Welles can't help but play one trick after another on the audience, assembling his film like a tornado with information thrown here and there and God help you if you're not able to keep up with it. And just when we think we've gotten on top of this craziest of all personal essays, Welles pulls the rug out from under us with the most impeccable sleight-of-hand that any filmmaker has ever played upon an audience. When it's over, you can barely remember what "truth" means, just as Welles doubtlessly intended.


97. The Conversation
(Francis Ford Coppola, 1974, USA)

The best of the '70s paranoia thrillers is that rare kind of movie where form and content are mixed to the point where you can no longer distinguish them: this itchy thriller is all about perception and perspective, of what we see and what we hear and how we interpret those things. Gene Hackman is at his absolute best as a surveillance expert who knows just a smidgen less than he thinks he knows, resulting in a number of deaths and tragedies; nor was Coppola's command of the medium ever more precise and deliberate than it is here, constantly shifting the audience's awareness from just a bit more than the protagonist, just a bit less, the same... it's an exhausting film, that's perhaps a bit more intellectual than it is felt, but virtually nothing can match the gnawing feeling of dread you get with each new revelation in the script.


96. Au hasard Balthazar
(Robert Bresson, 1966, France)

"The world in 90 minutes" was Godard's famous judgment of Bresson's metaphorical retelling of the life and passion of Jesus Christ in the form of a put-upon donkey; ol' Jean-Luc wasn't exaggerating much, either. One can never get on top of Balthazar; there always seems to be something more to the film that remains just a breath out of reach, and always a new detail that simply wasn't there before; it's an inexhaustible movie, one of the most aesthetically complete works of the 1960s and impossibly emotional. None of which is to deny that it's kind of insanely miserable: Bresson wasn't ever looking to make your day brighter, and this is certainly not a good film for animal lovers. Still, few films say so much about human suffering in the face of a capricious and arbitrary universe, and the attempt to find transcendence in the face of it all. (Reviewed here)

I DON'T LIKE OPERA. MOVIES ARE BETTER.

I like to imagine that Jacques Demy first thought up The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as a direct response to Jean-Luc Godard's 1961 A Woman Is a Woman. That film, a splashy Technicolor Cinemascope musical, was also every inch a Godard film: amiably cynical, eager to tear itself apart and reveal all of the ways that its very concept, which the director famously summed up as "a neo-realist musical; that is, a contradiction in terms", was a charming but empty-headed lie. Possibly Demy - infinitely more romantic than Godard could ever conceive of being - was put out by his colleague's delight in writing off the romantic love story as essentially insincere, and wanted to prove him wrong. Or maybe it has nothing to do with any of that; maybe one night, Demy was sharing a late drink with Michel Legrand, and over the dim haze of cigarette smoke, Legrand confided that he desperately wanted to write a sung-through movie musical, and Demy leapt at the chance.

However it got to be there, the important part is that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg exists, and is one of the most apoplectic romances ever filmed. The plot is sheer boilerplate: in November, 1957, 17-year-old Geneviève Emery (Catherine Deneuve at her all-time most luminous, sung by Danielle Licari) is in love with 20-year-old mechanic Guy Foucher (Nino Castelnuovo, sung by José Bartel), but her mother (Anne Vernon, sung by Christiane Legrand) does not approve. Guy goes off to war in Algeria, and about the same time, Mme Emery begins to encourage wealthy jewel speculator Roland Cassard (Marc Michel, sung by George Blaness) to woo Geneviève, in no small part because of his willingness to keep her sagging umbrella shop afloat. By 1959, Geneviève, having given birth to Guy's child, has married Cassard and left Cherbourg, leaving a miserable Guy to choose between self-destruction, or Madeleine (Ellen Farner, sung by Claudine Meunier), the nurse to his ailing aunt Élise (Mireille Perrey, sung by Claire Leclerc), and the one beacon of light in his broken life.

A number of different factors raise this absurdly simple scenario to the level of highest excellence, but the chief among them is surely Michel Legrand's iconic score: one of the great composers in film history, and this must be his greatest achievement, if only for its breadth and ambition. Pilfering from the popular music of the '50s and early '60s, stealing the flavor of American gangster and noir film scores where it was appropriate - for this was a Nouvelle Vague project, after all! - and when all else failed, launching into a soaring Romantic melody, Legrand's score runs only a minute or two shorter than The Umbrellas of Cherbourg itself , and yet it only repeats motifs when it is absolutely justified or required by the narrative, and even in these repetitions the music is expanded or whittled down as necessary.

He even does this without creating any recognisable "numbers" as such: the film is mostly comprised of scene-long ariosos - that is, sung words that are more melodic than recitative but not nearly enough to be called songs. This is the only way it could have been scored, really, with the libretto consisting entirely of Demy's dialogue, written as a screenplay. Unadorned and workaday, the words could not withstand the "bigness" of a more standard musical, but the emotional, driving cues that Legrand uses are the perfect fit, even as the mere fact of scoring some of the words spoken within the movie can't help but feel peculiar; two mechanics talking about an engine, or a man poking his head into the umbrella shop looking for directions, all sung. It is verismo taken to its most absurd, but then, it was a French movie in 1964. That's just sort of what one did in those days, point out the absurdity of received artistic forms, even if one was as sincere as Jacques Demy.

The music is beautiful here, jarring there, playful yet over there; it is a slightly threatening undertone to Cassard's early appearances (not an entirely fair fate for the character, and actor, that Demy brought in from his earlier picture Lola; but then, he serves a totally different purpose here), and it is a jazzy celebration of youth and sass when we're watching Guy interact with his co-workers. But most of all, it is the epic love theme for Geneviève and Guy, an Oscar-nominated piece in a bittersweet minor key that appears several times on the soundtrack, opening and closing the film and leaving us certain from the very first frames that this will not be a film with a happy ending; and its counterpoint, a theme associate with Madeleine, which is more complex and brighter, but not as rich; reflecting, we might suppose, the difference between the blast of passion that is our first young love and the lower-key feelings of our "grown-up" love, the one that's probably more meaningful but so much less thrilling.

While Legrand's genius is undeniable, he's not the only person operating at 100% in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg: we must also thank cinematographer Jean Rabier and production designer Bernard Evein for making the film such a gorgeous feast for the eyes, all candy-colored wallpaper and bright costumes and everywhere a sense of gaiety and energy that first reinforces the young lover's enthusiasm, then comments upon it ironically, and finally, in the last scene, a merciless collage of white walls and white snow, puts it out of its misery. A more lavish, lovely color film did not come out of France that decade; I don't know that I'd say that a lovelier color film has ever come out of France, though in doing so I might incur the wrath of Bruno Delbonnel.

Finally, though, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a triumph of naked emotionalism, and a dash of saucy New Wave manipulation. The first of the story's three segments (though it runs some good deal longer than one-third) presents one of the most sympathetic, sentimentally gooey teenage romances ever, infinitely more compelling than in all of the teenybopper exploitation fare from then till now, trouncing the then-new musical West Side Story into oblivion. Part of it is Deneuve and Castelnuovo, looking so fragile and innocent, both of them; part of it is Demy's distance from the characters - at 33, he was old enough to know better than making such a sappy tribute to first love, but it's partially the slight margin of maturity he lets into the edges that somehow makes Geneviève and Guy seem more honest than would otherwise be the case.

The second segment follows Geneviève as Guy goes to war, and Cassard presents himself as the only good alternative to a soon-to-be single mother; it's in this sequence, when Geneviève's blissed-out romanticism transforms into pragmatism and deep inner strength that Deneuve really prefigures her magnificent career, from beauty queen to national treasure of France to international icon of cinema. The third segment, centered on Guy, follows much the same pattern, though it is not so richly performed, but in both cases, the intent is the same: playing on our response to the first segment, these attempts to drive the lovers apart strike us as capricious and sad, even if the characters seem to slowly grow to accept what is happening to themselves.

Then comes the last scene, set more than four years after the rest of the movie; and I would not dream of spoiling it for those lucky souls who still get to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg for the first time, but suffice it to say, this is where Demy springs his trap: we in the audience, conditioned by the movies to few first loves as the only true loves, want this final scene to mean one thing, but the characters don't seem to feel the same way, and it becomes increasingly aware that for us, and us alone, the film is a tragedy; for the characters, it's just what happens in life, and though they might have been happier if things had worked out better, it's us, not them, weeping as Legrand's aching score achieves its most overstated grandeur in these final moments. The message of this finale seems to be: don't trust sentiment, a fine continuation of Lola; and for all that it seems to espouse a swooning affection for big splashy romance, in reality The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is good deal more mature and world-weary than it pretends.

29 December 2010

THE BEST FILMS OF ALL TIME: #106-115

The complete list
Introduction
#1-5 #6-15 #16-25 #26-35 #36-45 #46-55
#56-65 #66-75 #76-85 #86-95 #96-105 #106-115

115. Gerald McBoing-Boing
(Robert Cannon, 1951, USA)

The first major defection of animators from Disney, in the 1940s, resulted in the formation of United Productions of America, a home for artists who felt that Uncle Walt's insistence on realism, always realism, was needlessly limiting the development of American animation. Before economic reality kicked in, UPA was responsible for some of the most inventive cartoons in history, of which the best is undoubtedly this Dr. Seuss-penned fable about a little boy who speaks in sound effects. Sweet and funny and pure delight to watch, with a sketchy, arch-minimalist design scheme that remains terrifically bracing all these decades later, Gerald McBoing-Boing is one of the most formally innovative pieces of animation ever, and yet unlike so much of the wonderful experimental animation before and since, it manages to rewrite all the rules while still being a top-notch family-friendly entertainment.


114. The Godfather
The Godfather, Part II
(Francis Ford Coppola, 1972 and 1974, USA)

The first part is justly renowned as one of the great tales of American striving, detailing the most admirable and most damnable characteristics of the Corleone family (big F, small f, it's the same both ways) in a story about the crisis of identity facing the newly minted superpower after the Second World War as much as it is about any individual character. The sequel manages the impossible feat of deepening that foundation, making it richer and more tragic, even Greek in its painfully unsentimental presentation of how a single man can be responsible for the destruction ofall that he holds dear by the very steps he takes to save those things. They're both great separately, but the cumulative effect of the two pieces viewed in tandem - The Rise and Fall of Michael Corleone - is the stuff of pure myth, America's uncomfortably dark national epic.


113. Secrets & Lies
(Mike Leigh, 1996, United Kingdom / France)

"Secrets & Lies" could be the title of any number of Leigh films, so concerned are they all with the delicate framework of deceptions and negotiations that go into making up that most hellish of all social units, the family - and yet he saved it for his masterpiece, a mirthless story of the long-buried past coming back to rattle the present that is never once depressing, thanks to the director's light touch and the outrageously talented cast, playing their liars and victims as well-meaning, messy human beings above all else. Thanks to that humanism, what could have been a grueling tale of people hating and sniping and trying to ruin one another is, instead, one of cinema's most forgiving, heartbreaking depictions of instantly recognisable family dynamics in all their pain, that still manages to demonstrate over and over the love that makes all that pain worthwhile.


112. Chungking Express
AKA 重慶森林 (Chóngqìng sēnlín)
(Wong Kar-Wai, 1994, Hong Kong)

At times gaudy, at times so idiotically earnest that you can't help but wonder if you should be rolling your eyes; except that Hong Kong's master pop fantasist presents his splashy, impossible stories of two frumpy cops and the outlandish fairy-tale women whom they love with such ferocious energy that it completely overwhelms any attempt to outsmart what are, in all honesty, some very squirrelly narrative tricks, and a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in the form of Faye Wong who outdoes just about every other example of the form. Wong's genius, always, but here especially, is to make films with the woozy nostalgia and urgent romanticism of a really great pop song transporting you to another place emotionally using all the dirtiest tricks - and yet, does it matter how you've been transported when the effect is this visceral, this colorful, this exciting, this completely sincere?


111. La jetée
(Chris Marker, 1962, France)

Equal parts glacial formal exercise and moody, almost Gothic, science-fiction fable about the implacable march of fate, Marker's peculiar little experiment in storytelling through still images - and one indelible motion shot - is the kind of straightforward trifle that you can "get" without even having seen it, and then spend years slowly puzzling out the different levels buried in its apparently surface-level meaning. Using still frames to represent human memory is an obvious enough trick that plenty of films beat Marker to the punch, yet none of them carry the same unsettling implications that the reason photographs make such good memories is that both the memory and the photo are, in essence, embalmed corpses. At the same time, he uses the still image as a deterministic cage; no motion picture footage is so unforgivingly definitive as the photograph, as the doomed, unnamed protagonist learns to his eternal sorrow.

110. The Damned
AKA La caduta degli dei
(Luchino Visconti, 1969, Italy / West Germany)

Everybody has made movies about how the Nazis were bisexual hedonist rapemongers; you know that, I know that, your grandma knows that. But nobody knew that better than Italy's most accomplished documentarian of the lifestyles of the shallow and depraved, whose masterpiece is this crazy nightmare epic about the fall of a craven industrialist family whose fear of authoritarianism is ultimately no match for their eager embrace of all the power and luxury and influence that comes to those who sell their souls to the devil Hitler. The most operatic of Visconti's many hyper-melodramatic family stories (the Italian title is the same as Wagner's apocalyptic Götterdämmerung, "Twilight of the Gods") is also the most savage and unforgettable: a depiction of humanity at its most hellish and depraved that could stand up to any horror film ever made.


109. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
AKA Les parapluies des Cherbourg
(Jacques Demy, 1964, France / West Germany)

There were as many faces of the French New Wave as there were New Wave filmmakers, but there was always a focus on youth culture, and a delight in playing with genre. Both of which are omnipresent in this entirely sung-through musical about a mechanic who falls in love with a girl who runs an umbrella shop with her mother. It's crazily dramatic and over-the-top, but the complete lack of adult sensibility in Demy's treatment of the material matches well with the protagonists' own sense of the eternal importance of their love affair - all of which makes the last scene even more tragic than it might otherwise be, as flatly grown-up pragmatism instantly sucks all the swoony romanticism out of the characters. Michel Legrand's outrageously wonderful score, and Jean Rabier's candy-colored cinematography make it a treat for the ear and eye as well as an unapologetic weeper. (Reviewed here)

108. Solaris
AKA Солярис
(Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972, USSR)

Angry at Stanley Kubrick's icy, anti-humanist 2001, which he probably viewed as emblematic of the West's focus on technology and achievement at the expense of people or some such, Tarkovsky swung back with an adaptation of Stanlisaw Lem's iconic novel (Lem hated the movie, incidentally) that matched Kubrick's picture for inscrutable narrative but upped the ante on spiritualist imagery and added a much richer layer of human tragedy. The result is one of the most sedate science-fiction movies ever - for a solid hour, it's totally earthbound and anti-fantastic - and one that too easily courts the complaints of "boring" and "pretentious", but its stately pace and focused grounding in familiar, everyday humanity is precisely the reason that it ends up one of the most psychologically astute and artistically meaningful genre exercises in history. Its mysteries are profoundly human mysteries, never space jargon for the sake of it.


107. Suspiria
(Dario Argento, 1977, Italy)

For as long as there has been Italian horror, there has been Italian horror with incoherent screenplays, inexplicable characters, and a general air of "what the holy hell is going on?", married to images of impossible otherworldly beauty, nightmarish and gorgeous in equal measure. No Italian filmmaker got more mileage from such surrealist horror as Dario Argento, and no Argento picture is as roundly successful as his first unabashedly supernatural thriller, in which an American ballet student realises that her school is plagued by an ancient witch. None of it makes sense, but the sense of being thrust into a whirlwind of the uncanny gives Suspiria an undeniably thrilling kick, the glorious cinematography and production design add a sense of visionary hallucination, and the shrieking techno score by Argento favorites Goblin makes the whole thing feel like a waking dream, tethered to reality in only the most superficial way. (Reviewed here)


106. The Gold Rush
(Charles Chaplin, 1925, USA)

Chaplin had other films with a more fully-expressed moral sensibility, but they sometimes were trapped under their crushing sincerity; none of his other comedies is so funny as this epic farce of frontier life, a breezy pre-Depression reminder that things have always been tough on the little tramps who make it through on pluck and good fortune. Anchored by some of the finest gags in his career, including the legendary "shoe-eating" and "roll dance" scenes, Chaplin concocted a movie that blends ephemeral storytelling with historical gravitas and tremendous physicality (few studio-bound winter sets in the silent era feel as cold as this one), one that never forgets to be playful even at its gravest moments. By the blissful closing shot (in the original release: avoid at all costs the 1942 revision), the totality of the film's sunny optimism brushes away any resistance we might have to its sugary contrivances. (Reviewed here)

LIFE'S BEEN GOOD TO ME SO FAR

As a director Sofia Coppola has taken a fair amount of criticism for making hermetically sealed movies about poor little rich folk; and with her fourth film, Somewhere, she's taking it again. That's not the sort of thing you can disagree with - nor can one really do anything to disprove the fairly obvious fact that Somewhere (which won the 2010 Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival) takes a hell of a lot of narrative details from Coppola's best-known work, Lost in Translation.

In point of fact, Somewhere is so typical of the director's small body of work as to be quintessential: this is Sofia Coppola's obsessions and aesthetic predilections boiled down and concentrated. Which is going to annoy and piss off a lot of people, and completely entrance a much smaller number, and then in between are those of us who are fascinated by what Coppola is doing while finding that she doesn't always do it completely well. I am inclined to say that, despite the great debt the new movie owes to Lost in Translation, it mostly reminded me of her most recent prior film, 2006's Marie Antoinette, in effect rather than in content: like that project, it feels like there's an absolute masterpiece cowering inside, if only the director would have the courage to go all the way with her challenging, even maverick stylistic choices, rather than pushing a bit and then seeming to glance back over her shoulder as if to ask, "Is that okay? Or is it a little too anti-commercial?" Then, it was the exhilarating modernist dressings she applied to her period biopic with only some consistency; now, it's a brutal depiction of the psychologically void celebrity presented with a lack of emphasis on either plot or character development in any of the ways we normally think of those things that, so help me God, suggests that Coppola wants nothing so much as to bring the clinical nihilism of Michelangelo Antonioni back to movie screens; and yet somewhere along the line, her nerve fails her, and the film keeps scraping against a far more typical "sad dad given a sense of worth by his daughter" story that isn't in and of itself, bad. Unfortunately, the two movies do not gel together much at all, and it always feels like Somewhere wants to end up "meaning" more than it does, with the traditional Hollywood elements of the father/daughter plotline writing checks that the more pervasive "detachment from cultural norms and modes of identity" elements don't cash, but rather rip up and light on fire with a Brechtian cackle.

Though the film hinges on a daughter feeling adrift when her super-famous daddy spends more time making his art than loving her, Somewhere has nothing at all of the autobiographical about it: in fact, the protagonist is the emotionally-stilted father, and the disappointed girl/Sofia Coppola analogue is barely a character at all, but a plot mechanic, albeit one treated with inordinate delicacy by the director and performer. At any rate, the story is about Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a famous movie star, though we are deliberately given almost no sense of what kind of movies he makes; mostly, he's promoting the European release of something called Berlin Agenda, apparently a spy thriller with a poster that shrieks "Premiered on USA Network the week before its DVD release", though we are shown over and over that Johnny is iconic enough that nearly everyone he meets knows him. At a certain point, his ex-wife (Lala Sloatman) has to go flake out for a while - why, where, how long are all left unanswered - and Johnny is left in care of their 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning), a longer period of time with his offspring than Johnny has apparently ever experienced before.

You might suppose it writes itself, but it absolutely does not: sentiment and schmaltz are as far away as Coppola can banish them, and the degree to which Cleo's presence redeems Johnny, as well as the process by which that happens, are not issues which Somewhere finds terribly interesting. The film's main focus is on taking slices of Johnny's life, and observing them with a fierce degree of alienation - even though the story progresses in straightforward, easily understood chronological order, there's a definite sense that what we're watching is a fragmentary version of events. Far from being a schmoopy tale of a famous person that nobody wuvs, Coppola's story is a much more slippery thing: the story of a man who thinks he has all that he needs to be satisfied, realises that the bland emptiness he's been feeling is proof of the very opposite, and starts to consider the sort of things he needs to do to fix that. The fact that he is a movie star is practically incidental, except in that it permits the director to indulge in more symbolism than most American movies would dare to consider seemly in these neo-neo-realist times: the actor as a figure without a real self, Los Angeles, city of dreams, as a collection of facades and styles without substance or meaning.

At times, honestly, the symbolism is a bit much: the opening shot, endless minutes long, is the image of Johnny in his Ferrari, driving around and around a circular track, never stopping and never getting anywhere; the last image, part of a series of shots cribbing indiscriminately from the end of Lost in Translation, sees this and trumps it, bringing the equation that fancy car=shallow, unexplored life to its heavyhanded conclusion. And yet there's something ecstatic in Coppola's refusal to soft-sell her heavily metaphorical tone poem of a movie: it is what it is, and that's that.

Helping out along the way are ace cinematographer Harris Savides, stepping in for Coppola regular Lance Acord, and ace editor Sarah Flack, already Coppola's go-to editor; between them, they craft a world of endless long takes and jagged montages assembled according to a rhythm that nobody could explain rationally, yet which fits the emotional tenor of the movie perfectly (though I regret the halfsies approach Savides takes: he seems to be trying to do an impression of Acord, almost, and it's not a cosy fit). Grainy and flat in ways that firmly underline Johnny's fatigue at life - one indelible scene finds him dozing off while two blond strippers gyrate in his bedroom, filmed to look as resolutely unsexy as attractive half-naked women conceivable can look - Somewhere is not conventionally pretty, and the pace of the editing leaves it a touch jumpy and draggy in turn; but convention would not suit this movie one inch.

Oh, Somewhere! you could be such a singular achievement, a character investigation that uses none of the typical Hollywood tricks and in so doing both explicitly and implicitly indicts the Hollywood apparatus, while crafting one of 2010's most haunting depictions of a tormented soul - but Coppola chokes, in entirely avoidable ways. There's a lengthy trip to Italy that recalls Lost in Translation to absolutely no benefit; there are a great many scenes that make their point, and then make it again, and then make it a third time just in case we missed it (and in so doing, betrays the exemplary work done by both Dorff and Fanning, two actors for whom I had no expectations, and whose unnaturally quiet, normalising performances are the heart of the movie: Fanning's terrific awareness of her proto-pubescent body, playing both a kid and a young woman jostling for prominence in a single under-loved daughter; Dorff's eerie habit of catching up with himself, which is more easily demonstrated than explained; there is a great scene where Johnny watches Cleo skating in which Dorff goes from detachment to amazed pride, and lastly to suddenly realising how amazed and proud he is, and all of this happens such that we're not actively aware of any of it until it's over). The director rather seems to doubt herself, which perhaps reflects the generally condescending response to her career, and perhaps is because she is aware of the terrible weight imposed by her surname, even as it opens any number of doors. She comes so close to making a great film with Somewhere that it's doubly depressing that it ends up just being good and tremendously uncommon; still, I wouldn't trade it for anything, and even if Coppola always remains stuck in this tentative, half-formed mode, she's still more interesting than most of her peers.

7/10

28 December 2010

115: A NICE, CLUNKY, "WHAT THE HELL KIND OF NUMBER IS THAT?" NUMBER

The complete list
#1-5 #6-15 #16-25 #26-35 #36-45 #46-55
#56-65 #66-75 #76-85 #86-95 #96-105 #106-115
Notable omissions

As mentioned, today is the 115th anniversary of cinema, depending on how exactly you want to define "cinema"; it has, at any rate, the notable benefit of being the only specific date that we can point to, instead of blithely pointing to "summer" as the anniversary of the first projected motion pictures. But I should really not start rambling.

The point being, 115 is a good number. Fives always are good numbers, and while 110 and 120 are even better numbers (and of course, 125 is best of all), I wasn't such a secure blogger in 2005, and I shouldn't want to wait until 2015. Who knows whether I'll be blogging still in 2015? I might even be dead in 2015! Which is why I rather need to take advantage of this most auspicious date to present a most ambitious project:

The Antagony & Ecstasy List of the 115 Best Movies of All Time.

"Best" is a contemptibly tricky word, of course, so please forgive me for using it. I mean some foggy combination of "important", "well-crafted", "aesthetically meaningful" - whatever the hell that means - and good old-fashioned "I like it". It's not meant to be an objective list, nor a comprehensive one; just a personal noodling by somebody who likes to make lists of movies, perfectly-timed to fill the first week or so of the notorious January Doldrums. Mostly, it's a companion to my list of the 100 Best Films of the Aughts, from a year ago.

First things first: the rules. I strictly follow the convention that no film made within the last ten years should be on a list of this sort; it takes time to let these things settle. I'm going to fudge just a hair, and say that my eligibility period ends on 31 December, 2000: any film premiering that day or earlier made the eligibility cut-off, nothing from after that date, no matter how sure I am that I love it.

To try and step around the problem, common to awards-giving bodies and listmakers of all sorts, of being enthusiastic about things that I've just seen, I'm also following a more amorphous, personal rule: anything that I saw for the first time in the last 12 months - fudging again, I'm using 1 January, 2010 as my cutoff - is ineligible. Sorry news for My Neighbor Totoro, Ivan the Terrible (both parts), The Beyond, and at least a few other likely titles that, in all honesty, I should have seen before now; but one cannot help it.

Also, to keep the list more interesting, I used a limit of three films per director. Artificial maybe; perhaps it reveals too much of an auteurist bias; whatever the case, I needed to do something to keep this from being "A Ranked List of the films of Kurosawa Akira, with some other films in there for fun".

Biases, unfortunately, still exist, and despite all of my tweaking and trying to make something that didn't read so desperately like the viewing list of an undergraduate film study group, the list that made me happiest was fairly parochial; there are 79 directors on the list, a respectable number (though overwhelmingly white, and few enough of them women that I am quite humiliated to call attention to it), but only 16 countries; nearly half of the films on the list come from only two different countries, in fact, and I suspect most of you could guess ahead of time what countries those are. It is tremendously lopsided, with the 1950s and 1960s accounting for a huge portion of the whole. Unfortunately, attempts to correct this simply looked too artificial, like I was trying to account for a quota; best to admit that whatever the list says about me, it says, and move on.

The most nettling question was of definition: there have been many kinds of films made in 115 years, and not all of them deserve to be thrust into competition like racehorses. Tell me, on what sane matrix one can qualitatively compare L'arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat with His Girl Friday? I have thus made some concessions to categorisation:
-No trick films, actualities, or any of the other early films from the era before continuity.
-No experimental films, though whatever "experimental" means is up to the individual. For a time, I was going to use "has no theme, only formal elements" as my definition, but of course that doesn't work at all; in the end, I gave up on a definition of "experimental" or even "non-narrative", and went instead with a subjective litmus test, finding my wisdom, as always, in Disney: any standard that eliminates Fantasia would be too strict, and any film that strikes me as more "experimental" than Fantasia is off the list.
-No "episodic" projects - that is, no serials (goodbye, Les Vampires), and no television miniseries often thought of as movies (Dekalog was the most painful victim of this rule). This seems to me to be fair both on the narrative and formalist end of things; though truth be told, I did it mostly to skirt the "three films per director" rule on Ingmar Bergman, and even so the Dekalog issue very nearly made me take it back.

On the other hand, short films and documentaries both seemed entirely fair game to me, and both are comfortably well-represented.

(Incidentally, don't cry for the actualities and experimental films; I'm going to present a list of some of the ones I love the most before this is all done).

This is going to be presented in much the same fashion as the Best of the '00s list; every day, I'm going to publish a set of 10 (which of course leaves five left over, and the top 5 is going to be all special-like), and as often as I can possibly manage it, I'll write a full-length review from that set of 10 on the same day. The top post on the blog throughout all of this is going to be the running tally of all 115 films, tastefully hidden behind a jump.

A final word: this is, of course, ultimately meant to spur discussion, not to etch anything in stone, and I don't suppose even I agree with every last nuance of ranking; I've changed my mind too often in the last couple of weeks (and as of this writing, I still don't have the order of the top 4 in anything like a finished state) to think that I'll like any of this a year from now. I just hope that it's at least a bit fun for everybody, and maybe, maybe, maybe (but probably not), a halfway decent list of good things to check out. I know that it's pointed out to me, over and over again, how very little I've seen in the face of everything I'd liked to have seen; and it's my great hope that all of you pop up with some suggestions for things I need to check out to plug in some of the more awkward gaps in the list to come.

GREAT MOMENTS IN FILM HISTORY

On December 28, 1895, brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière presented a screening of 10 films at Le Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris. This was one of the key events in the history of the motion picture: not the first time that an audience had paid to see a film - Edison's Kinetoscope had already become quite popular by that point - and not the first time that a movie had been projected on a screen in front of an audience (for the earliest versions of motion photography were all limited to one viewer at a time).

It was, however, on that winter day 115 years ago that the Lumières and their short program invented the idea of the cinema: a room where strangers would all gather together to sit in the dark and pay to watch movies together. It was the ideal culmination to a year in which the art of the motion picture advanced more than it ever would in any subsequent 12-month span.

I would like to take you on a trip back that revolutionary event, when the great art form of the 20th Century, the most important vehicle of entertainment in my lifetime and probably yours, was born. For maximum effect, turn off all the lights and surround yourself with Frenchmen who are absolutely flabbergasted by what they're seeing.

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2010: UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

The man who gives Restrepo its title appears very early on: on a bus heading to the Korangal Valley in Afghanistan, PFC Juan "Doc" Restrepo grabs the camcorder that his platoon is sending around the bus, to joyfully holler right into the lens how damn excited he is to be going into combat with all of his buddies. We'll only briefly see him alive once more, in a film dedicated to putting the lie to Restrepo's ebullience, and a more perfectly on-the-nose opening to a war picture you could not imagine; and yet Restrepo is as thoroughly nonfictional as any documentary could be. Which makes this opening moment less of a cliché and more of a chilling precursor, just one of God's sick little jokes.

Restrepo was made by a photographer, Tim Hetherington, and a journalist, Sebastian Junger, neither of whom had ever worked in film before, and yet it is as rousingly cinematic as any other movie from 2010. Hetherington and Junger were embedded in Afghanistan for 15 months in 2007 and '08, on and off, on a Vanity Fair assignment; during their trips in-country, they shot around 150 hours of video footage which was ultimately carved into this 93-minute-long vacation to hell. The Korangal Valley, we are informed, was the most dangerous combat theater faced by American troops in 2007 (in April, 2010, the U.S. government finally abandoned the valley, after losing too many men there), and on the basis of Hetherington and Junger's film, it's completely easy to believe that statistic.

By the time the filmmakers were set up to start actively filming, Restrepo was already dead; his platoon (that would be Second Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment) named a new outpost in his honor, one that was intended by platoon commander Capt. Dan Kearney to provide the Americans with an excellent strategic vantage point overlooking much of the valley and interrupting Taliban lines. OP Restrepo was, in Kearney's optimistic view, going to represent the turning point in the Korangal campaign. In practice, it seems to have merely provided the Taliban with a more convenient target; nor is this the last point at which the gap between Kearney's hopes and reality will feature in the film. Every week, he hosts a meeting of the local tribal leaders; every week, he tries to promise them the moon if they'll help the American forces; every week, they react with the same exasperated contempt.

But politics are the last thing we're meant to take away from Restrepo which is, befitting the men who put it together, largely an act of reportage made with a the least possible editorial influence. As the soldiers raced up and down the rocky hills, with unseen assailants shooting from every which direction, so did Hetherington and Junger, camera in hand, run right along with them; as the soldiers sat in OP Restrepo, bored out of their mind and terrified that, at any minute, a rain of violence might start to fall on them, so did Hetherington and Junger sit and watch and try to capture as many of the details of everyday life as they could possibly manage. The directors have made their intentions clear in every interview and on the film's website: Restrepo is meant to be experiential, capturing as much as possible the feeling of being with the platoon in that place for a little more than year. It is not meant to explain the war, attack the war, condemn or criticise or praise. It is simply meant to depict, and to as far as it can, make us feel what the soldiers feel, though of course there's no equating the experience of watching a movie with the experience of being shot.

There are times when this hands-off, detached approach gets a bit annoying, feeling almost more like the filmmakers are dodging the hard questions (the liberal in me is offended that they let Kearney off the hook as much as they do; the conservative in someone else will doubtlessly have a different complaint); at times, it's even discomfiting and problematic. At one point, one of the soldiers is killed, and the camera catches up in time to bear witness as several of his comrades learn of his death and react with varying degrees of shock and numbness - but the camera remains curiously "apart" from the scene. It's an intimate moment, and part of it feels very much like we aren't supposed to be watching it; but the soldiers themselves do not mind, evidently, and that is really all the justification Hetherington and Junger require for putting the moment in the finished film. At the same time, it's not the only justification: if we're going to be thrust face to face with the grim, crushing reality of warfare - and there is no goal Restrepo cherishes more deeply than this - we need to see death, to be aware that one of the people who has been present here and there throughout the film is, in reality, dead; that those pops on the soundtrack, sounding more like firecrackers in the distance than the harsh cracks we usually think of when "gunshots" sound, are savage and deadly.

Even so, and despite the soldiers' ready willingness to play for the camera, never allowing us the luxury of feeling like this is all a dramatic fiction, it never seems like we're "there" - and of course we aren't. No matter how sincere and fastidious the reporting may be, and it is both of those things, Restrepo is always separated from us by one remove, showing us horrors (very real, very affecting horrors, mind you; never romanticising war, with the few moments in which the filmmakers themselves in the middle of a firefight coming across as disorienting and terrifying in a way that makes even the most adept Hollywood war movie seem callow) that we, fundamentally, cannot understand. That's a peculiar theme for a motion picture: "you are now about to see things which are beyond your comprehension", although it honestly seems like they might be beyond the participants' comprehension as well; throughout the film, in the only staged moments we ever see, there are clips from interviews Hetherington and Junger conducted with the soldiers in Italy, on the way home from Afghanistan, and most of the interview subjects have a dizzy, far-away look, like the concepts of "home" and "Italy" aren't really clicking for them, but having left the grinding reality of Korangal Valley, they can no longer remember it except as a series of impressions.

These interviews, the one concession to interpretation the film makes, serve to give a structure and frame to the main incident of Restrepo, but they do not overwhelm it, nor do they sentimentalise it. Instead, they simply add a grace note, a reminder of "this happened" which sets off and gives context to the "this is" of the rest of the movie. I suppose that's the main point of the film: it is humanist, treating battle from a person-sized perspective, and if that costs it a sense of history, the benefit far outweighs that loss. Ultimately, Restrepo reminds us that wars are fought by individuals, not faceless armies, and as much as we can tell ourselves about "the human cost", it takes actual humans with actual names to drive that point home.

9/10

27 December 2010

THIS BLOG'S ONLY MAJOR AWARDS REPORTAGE OF THE YEAR

It's that time again! The Online Film Critics Society has today announced our nominations for awards in various categories for the movie year in 2010, including some tied scores! Very exciting.

The noms are essentially the same ones you've been seeing, though almost every category has at least one surprise. I am particularly happy that we've gone ahead and loved Scott Pilgrim vs. the World even in a small way, and cited John Hawkes for Winter's Bone. And I'm fucking on the moon that Kim Hye-Ja got a nod for Best Actress for Mother.

25 December 2010

MAY YOUR DAYS BE MERRY AND BRIGHT

Whether this is a day of celebration for you and your family, an excuse for a long weekend, or just a regular Sunday, I hope it finds you well and happy. Thanks for spending 2010 with Antagony & Ecstasy, and here's to a great 2011!

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2010: THE INTENSE DEPRAVATIONS OF THE GREEKS

Deprived of context, the first scene of Yorgos Lanthimos's Dogtooth, winner of Un Certain Regard at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, makes pretty much no damn sense and it is nevertheless somehow discomfiting and unnerving - and as matter of fact, context doesn't end up mattering very much, for although we learn a whole lot more about the "whats" of the film, we never really learn the "whys", though there are some educated guesses we could make; and throughout, the film remains discomfiting and unnerving, to such a degree that the words seem laughably insufficient. There's not a better way to put it, frankly, than "fucked up", and if you noticed during the film's modest release that a lot of people compared it to the work of Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier, you can probably guess just how fucked up Dogtooth is: the cheeky cruelty of Haneke placed within the cosmic absurdity of a David Lynch picture, is about the formula I'd use, though any attempt to diagram Dogtooth so schematically collapses in the face of Lanthimos's rather singular (and how!) vision.

Anyway, I was speaking of that opening scene, in which three young people listen to a woman's voice on tape, giving them a vocabulary lesson that makes the odd claim that "sea" is a word describing a particular kind of chair. The listeners consist of a boy around 20 (Hristos Passalis), a slightly younger girl (Aggeliki Papoulia), and a girl slightly younger still (Mary Tsoni): we'll learn shortly that they're siblings, though we never learn their names, and it seems much too plausible that the don't even have names beyond "the boy", "the elder one" and "the younger one". After their lesson is over, looking for something fun to do, they invent a game: all of them stick their finger in a basin of scalding hot water, and the last to pull out wins. Which, for my money, is where the film decisively moves from "odd" to "my flesh won't stop being crawly".

It eventually all comes out that these siblings live in a large isolated house in the country with their parents (Christos Stergioglou and Michele Valley), who have done quite a phenomenally great job of keeping their children safe from the depravations of the world; so safe that the youths have never in fact been beyond the fence surrounding their large yard, and have at best a deformed idea of the world outside (and at worst? Well, now we know why that tape, recorded by their mother, informs them that "sea" is a type of chair). The charades played out by the parents to keep their children in the dark - the invention of a naughty older brother who went beyond the fence and now perpetually suffers, the notion that airplanes are toy-sized objects that sometimes fall in the backyard - are at once goofy and terrifying; the film is the pitchest-black comedy in a long time, but a comedy it nonetheless is.

Though, in fairness, it's pretty gosh-darned hard to laugh at much of the rancidity on display, since the film begins shortly after the father has hired his co-worker, Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), to visit the family every now and then and sexually service his son (one feels that the parents view adolescence as an irritating necessity, akin to getting the car's oil changed every 3000 miles), and she proves to be a destabilising element in the family's incredibly delicate arrangement: specifically once she barters with the elder sister to receive oral sex in exchange for a cheap headband. From here on, things get increasingly, well, fucked-up: not to give anything away, but man-eating cats and incest are notable only for being largely unexceptional in the scheme of things.

Dogtooth is not, however, shocking for the sake of it; the extremes the film dabbles in serve what turns out to be the nastiest satire released to U.S. theaters in 2010 (and, as I sit and think of it... the only satire? Or at least the only one worth a damn). The sketchy, impossible characters - for one thing the movie never does nor attempt to is ground them in psychological realism of any sort, not even hinting at the specific reasons that any of this perversity exists - are the vehicles of an exceedingly farcical exploration of contemporary Western attitudes towards security and in-group thinking: there are at least three distinct levels on which this satire operates. First and most obviously, as a broadside against overprotective parents whose desire to keep their children safe leaves their children unable to function in the world; second, and perhaps most importantly, an attack on parents who view it as their duty and right to teach their children what to think - religious fundamentalists leap to mind, but the film makes no distinctions and could just as easily apply to any political or social belief that overbearing parents force upon their offspring - third and most broadly, as a metaphorical statement about anyone who'd rather bury their heads in the sand and pretend that the real world does not exist.

No matter what flavor of satire you like best, they all end up the same way: with the parents (two of the most loathsome characters of the year, especially the father, who isn't just a control freak but a wildly sexist patriarchalist) descending into increasingly disturbing and self-defeating hypocrisies, while the children's utter lack of guile heads into ugly, violent places. Never a fun movie, Dogtooth turns into something almost unbearably sour by the time it wraps up in a concluding shot that goes on for several seconds longer than anyone could possibly endure, with implications that become increasingly horrifying as it lingers; but its meanness is pointed and sharp, never miserable for the sake of it, but insightful if dreadfully uncomfortable.

Lanthimos offers no escape from any of this: his long takes and cold medium shots give the film a slightly clinical feeling, and the deliberately stiff performances do not a blessed thing to relieve that feeling. It's unforgiving in the extreme, but brilliant in its dark way: a masterful study of humans destroying other humans for the sake of a little bit of power. Which might not be the pleasantest theme, but it's unfortunately one that always remains timely.

9/10