Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Top Ten of 2010

Putting my curmudgeon's hat on for just a moment...

If there's one word critics generally admit they have no business using when assessing a film (or any other work or performance), it's "overrated." In theory, this seems right: how a work is received by others has nothing to do with its intrinsic merit, and should not affect an individual's evaluation of that merit. As a measure of quality, "overrated" and its corollary, "underrated," are meaningless.

But I call BS. The fact is that cultural criticism is inherently subjective, not objective, and unless you see a movie in a complete vacuum, your reaction to it is inevitably going to be influenced by the preconceptions and expectations you bring to it. And with a turbo-charged, Internet-driven media constantly flooding our consciousness (and subconsciousness) with advance information, breathless hype, and that indefinable, fickle creature known as "buzz," it's a miracle that moviegoers haven't become entirely jaded by now.

But maybe that's just me, and maybe I just read too much about movies before I see them. All I know is that with each passing year, there seem to be more and more that I look forward to with intense anticipation, only to be let down, to varying degrees, once I actually see them. Examples this year: INCEPTION; THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT; THE SOCIAL NETWORK; THE KING'S SPEECH. All of these films had merit; but I could not share even a fraction of the overwhelming enthusiasm they seemed to inspire in others. And this has made it difficult for me to distinguish how much of my critical response was truly based on my own standards and how much was me falling victim to my own expectations, fanned into a frenzy by the insidiously powerful Buzz Machine.

It's worth noting that there were several films that the Buzz Machine touted full blast that I still ended up enjoying very much, without a shade of disappointment, such as THE FIGHTER, BLACK SWAN, and TRUE GRIT. And I still liked THE SOCIAL NETWORK enough to put it in my top ten. However, some of the films that actually stayed with me the longest were smaller pictures that all but slipped under the critical radar. These are the ones I'm proudest to include in my top ten - and I'm not just being contrarian.


This little gem went largely unnoticed, though it did get some attention for Patricia Clarkson's beautifully nuanced lead performance as a Western woman adrift in present-day Cairo. Her co-star, Alexander Siddig, was even better, and the delicate direction of Ruba Nadda elevated what could have been extremely trite East-meets-west material into a subtle and poignant romance.


Yes, this based-on-a-true-story boxing picture owes a huge debt to ROCKY, and no, it doesn't really break any new ground. Doesn't matter. It's so dynamic and so well acted across the board (Christian Bale and, surprisingly, Amy Adams the standouts) that it kept me riveted from start to finish.


Over-the-top? Yes. Ridiculous? Yes. Original? Not particularly. But you still can't take your eyes off it. This is the kind of balls-out, teetering-on-the-edge filmmaking only Darren Aronofsky can give us, and his nightmare vision of the artist driven to madness still haunts me.


Just saw it last weekend. For such a downer of a film, it's also remarkably tender, funny, and engaging. It finds beauty in pathos, in what could have been a merely sad, scruffy, even sordid tale of a doomed marriage. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams will wring your heart as the couple that proves that love, alone, isn't enough.


A Coen brothers movie with a heart! Rare and valuable for that alone. But still with plenty of their merciless, bone-dry wit, and excellent turns by Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. Especially Bridges, who refuses to let the ghost of John Wayne intimidate him. The Dude abides.


Ok, ok, it was good. It deserves to be here. My criticisms still stand. Can we move on now?


I'm not sure Sofia Coppola's really progressed that much as a filmmaker, but even if she hasn't, I continue to enjoy what she does. Few can capture as deftly as she does those wordless moments of tenderness or tension that relieve the anomie of everyday existence.


Not a perfect film by a long shot, but something about it has stuck with me these many months. It has a clarity of vision and purpose, and a profound respect for reason and intellect, that you rarely see in films today, even the good ones.


A very good, sensitive rendition of a book that had to have been incredibly challenging to adapt to film. Critics were largely dismissive, perhaps because it took few risks stylistically, but I think it deserved better. Dare I say it was underrated?

10. HOWL

Again, flawed, yet there's something charming, almost quaint (in a good way) about its half-pictorial, half-documentary-style presentation of a cultural "moment" and the man behind it. I did not expect it to show up in my top ten, but it stayed with me, and here it is.

Just missed: TOY STORY 3; 127 HOURS



Monday, January 03, 2011

December Movie Roundup; R.I.P. Pete Postlethwaite

Happy new year!

The holiday movie rush has vanquished me; I cry your mercy. I won't be able to write full reviews of the films I saw in the last days of 2010, but because they are (mostly) quite good, I did want to offer at least some brief thoughts here. I also want to acknowledge the passing of Pete Postlethwaite, who was not only a great actor but also blessed with one of the most fascinatingly un-beautiful faces ever to appear on the movie screen. I remember after seeing him recently in "Inception" and "The Town" wondering if, after his ubiquity in the '90s and relatively dormant '00s, his career was on the rise again. Turns out he was fighting cancer that whole time I thought he'd disappeared, and sadly, a resurgence was not in the cards. A great loss; he was only 64.

His most memorable role was probably Daniel Day-Lewis' long-suffering dad in "In the Name of the Father," but moviegoers may also remember him as Kobayashi in "The Usual Suspects" and Father Laurence in Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo & Juliet." Or any number of other films. You never forgot that face; you just couldn't. Luckily, his talent was such that it wasn't only his face you remembered.

And now, the movies that rounded out my year:


directed by Joseph Kosinski
starring Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Michael Sheen, with a brief appearance by Bruce Boxleitner and an even briefer one by Cillian Murphy (uncredited)

I haven't seen the original TRON, so I can't weigh in on whether "Legacy" lives up to, well, its legacy. What I can say is that despite some nifty visual effects, the zen presence of Jeff Bridges, and an arresting soundtrack by Daft Punk, the new TRON doesn't add up to much. It begins promisingly enough, with Sam Flynn (a bland but likable Garrett Hedlund), son and heir to Bridges' Kevin Flynn (hero of the first TRON, who in the interim between movies became a software mogul and then mysteriously disappeared), following his father’s footsteps – literally – into a computer program. That’s when the 3-D kicks in, and for a while the spectacle of Sam playing video-game gladiator for his life, doing his dad proud in the races known as "light cycles" (considerably souped up for the 2011 version), and coming face-to-face with his dad’s best bits of programming (who look like models plucked from a space-age rave), as well the old man himself, is reasonably entertaining in a brainless, pure-sensory kind of way. But the lack of emotional investment eventually takes its toll, and at about the two-thirds mark, the movie really starts to flag. By the time Kevin Flynn’s digital alter ego, Clu (a CGI-tweaked younger version of Bridges), rallies his forces for a war against their Maker, I was just waiting for the whole thing to be over.



directed by les Coens
starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailie Steinfeld, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper
based on the novel by Charles Portis

A Coen brothers film with a heart – ye gods, is it possible? Sure, given the right source material: in this case, a Western about an iron-willed 14-year-old girl, Mattie Ross (Hailie Steinfeld), who hires U.S. marshal "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to hunt down the no-account low-life (Josh Brolin) who killed her father, and insists on coming along to see the job done. Joined by a Texas ranger named Laboeuf (Matt Damon) who’s after the same man, they journey deep into Indian country — stark expanses of wintry brush, woods, hills, and canyons, captured in all their severe beauty by the Coens' go-to DP, Roger Deakins — in pursuit of their quarry, and gradually develop a grudging respect and affection for one another along the way.

Based on a novel by Charles Portis and previously adapted into a 1969 film starring John Wayne, "True Grit" is at once old-fashioned and appealingly odd. The Coens keep both qualities in balance by preserving with loving care the distinctive, drolly formal, almost archaic narrative voice of the book and punctuating it with their own equally distinctive, wryly ironic emphasis. It's a good match, and the actors fall nicely in line with the film's half-earnest, half-comic, all-deadpan tone. Bridges, who has the biggest shoes to fill (Wayne won an Oscar for his performance as Rooster), meets the challenge with aplomb and makes the role wholly his own: his unkempt, perpetually and brazenly drunk Rooster is a hoot, but also, at the right moments, poignant. Damon is even funnier as the vain but game Laboeuf, while newcomer Steinfeld makes a remarkably assured screen debut as a heroine who's not so much plucky or precocious as an old soul with the tenacity of a bulldog. It’s the shifting dynamics of this trio that keep us engaged even as the story moves inevitably towards a tried-and-true archetypal Western standoff and surprisingly sentimental climax (tempered by a more somber coda). All three protagonists reveal a core of "true grit," and together they simultaneously draw on our sympathies and hold us at arm’s length. One senses that Mattie wouldn't have had it any other way.



directed by Sofia Coppola
starring Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning

Let's be blunt: Sofia Coppola isn't to everyone's taste, nor does she try to be. She occupies a peculiarly rarefied sphere - the Hollywood elite, second generation no less - and she films what she knows: life in a vacuum, bubble, fish tank, insert your enclosed/hermetic space of choice here. Moreover, she films it as a series of moments and impressions rather than a narrative that builds towards climax and resolution. Not a recipe for popular success, to say the least; yet few directors today have her gift for evoking mood, atmosphere, and feeling with so little action and so few words.

"Somewhere," which follows a few days in the life of an A-list movie star, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), continues the trend. Most of the movie takes place in or around the privileged environs of the Chateau Marmont, a swank L.A. hotel, with a brief, even glitzier interval in Milan. And most of it, seen through Johnny's eyes, is just one long stretch of ennui, hardly interrupted by his duties (such as they are) or even his pleasures. The shining exception is the time he spends with his young daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), who drops by for an unexpected but not at all unwelcome visit of indeterminate length. Their easy, unforced chemistry quickly makes clear that that time is precious to them both, whether they're playing Guitar Hero, ordering late night ice cream from room service, or just frolicking in a swimming pool. It's not, however, enough to fill the void in Johnny's life; only to sharpen, if momentarily, his vague awareness of the void.

That may make the film sound grimmer than it is, when its touch is for the most part very light, and there are plenty of comical moments that both relieve and underscore how trapped Johnny is in his aimless, rootless existence. "Somewhere" isn't tonally perfect; as in "Lost in Translation," Coppola indulges in a brand of look-how-silly-and-strange-these-foreigners-are humor that can't entirely be excused as simply illustrating how alienated her protagonists are. In general, I find her films less effective when she's being satirical than when she's in earnest, probably because the targets of her satire are just too easy. And even her earnest moments in "Somewhere" falter the more she tries to verbalize them; towards the end of the movie, there's a scene in which Johnny gives voice to his despair that both falls flat and feels too pat. That's not to knock Dorff's performance, which is quite good, even if he looks a bit too small and scruffy to be a convincing A-lister. The real star here, however, is Fanning, who's luminous without being impossibly angelic. It's no coincidence that Dorff, and the film overall, is best when he's with her.


Added January 2011:


directed by Derek Cianfrance
starring Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams

I went into "Blue Valentine" expecting to come out feeling beaten down and deeply despondent. Instead, I came out feeling moved and deeply impressed. Make no mistake, "Blue Valentine" is not an uplifting story: it's about the collapse of a relationship between two people, Dean and Cindy (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, both fabulous and totally Oscarworthy), who were once very much in love. But because of the way writer-director Derek Cianfrance structures the film - each scene in the present, harsher reality, when Dean and Cindy's marriage is on the rocks, is immediately followed by a scene from six years earlier, when they first met - it feels like only half of a sad movie. The other half is a love story, full of hope, tenderness, and charm. It's that charm that took me by surprise; the pleasure of watching the younger Dean, a free spirit and dyed-in-the-wool romantic, woo and win the more guarded Cindy remains oddly untarnished by what we know lies in the future for them. If anything, the pleasure and pain sharpen each other by their juxtaposition. That juxtaposition, on a scene-by-scene basis, can sometimes feel a little too on the nose; but it also introduces a different and arguably more interesting perspective on the (d)evolution of their relationship than a more linear narrative would have done. We see what drew the two together, and at the same time we're primed to see the seeds of what will eventually drive them apart. I can't overemphasize how crucial Gosling and Williams are to making this device work, and how terrific they both are. They'll make your heart bleed, and I mean that in a good way.