tongue-tied lightning

The Best Films of 2011: #7 Essential Killing
March 7, 2012, 1:28 AM
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I went into Essential Killing knowing only that it starred Vincent Gallo and was directed by Jerzy Skolimowski, who I had never seen a film by. I was initially put off by the topical aspect of the film, as I find films that so blatantly deal with current events often serve to diminish them which tends to leave them feeling rather trivial. This is perhaps a misguided view (I’m struggling to come up with examples of what I’m talking about) but misguided or not, it’s still a prejudice I hold. So I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enthralled by Skolimowski’s tale of a suspected terrorist on the run, fighting for his survival.

Almost entirely wordless and composed of long measured takes Essential Killing seems to progress logically. Examining its character and the events that have taken place and deciding what the next appropriate action would be on behalf of Mohammed. My favorite sequence of the film, and the one that best demonstrates this tendency, has been much discussed but I think it’s best experienced cold so I’ll do my best to tiptoe around the details while assuming anyone who has seen the film knows what I’m talking about. When it looks like Mohammed is about to do something that would completely sever any empathy an audience might bear towards his plight he commits an act that feels both comically bizarre and entirely necessary. While the act isn’t completely innocent, it feels incredibly human and deepens the audiences feeling for him.

Turnarounds like these are what make Essential Killing so engaging from moment to moment. None would be possible without Vincent Gallo’s performance. I’ve never been a huge fan of Gallo’s but it would seem all he’s needed to do all this years was keep his mouth shut. He doesn’t utter a single word during the course of the film, but his command of the film is never in question. For me it was a good introduction to Skolimowski, whose painterly compositions and nuanced view of morality provide plenty of food for thought.


The Best Films of 2011: #8 We Need to Talk About Kevin
February 27, 2012, 7:16 PM
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If we were allowed to break movies up into segments, the first 30 minutes of We Need To Talk About Kevin would have been my favorite film of the year. It’s absolutely effortless filmmaking, bouncing from one memory to another, with an internal logic that connects directly with the viewer’s subconscious. The cinematography is stunning, vast swaths of color (most often red) are thrown across the screen, leaving it resembling a Jackson Pollock. Jonny Greenwood’s score is both unsettling and instrumental to the intoxicating effect this sequence possesses. Another sense subtly overwhelmed to the point of surrender.

It’s inevitable that a narrative begins to emerge, but it’s intriguing to think of the film Kevin could’ve been if it were to remain an immersive barrage of images. The film we do get is nothing to lament. With the sole caveat that as we surface from the dream state it offers viewers a way out. Kevin as he appears in the film is a construct of Eva’s mind and taken at face value his behavior can border on the cartoonish. Likewise, John C. Reilly’s Franklin seems almost impossibly aloof at times. It’s important to remind oneself that these caricatures are colored and distorted by Eva’s experience and even then it can be difficult to reconcile them with our own experiences.

But Lynne Ramsay has never made films that were easily digestible or openly inviting, and We Need to Talk About Kevin only reaffirms her rare cinematic gifts. Despite what some may term narrative missteps there is no denying her masterful mise-en-scene. Of course this review would be incomplete without mentioning another in a series of singular performances by Tilda Swinton, but in the end it comes back to Ramsay and the ease with which she relates her vision. Hers is a talent that shouldn’t have been allowed to sit on the shelf for so long, and we can only hope we won’t have to wait 9 years for her next film.

The Best Films of 2011: #9 Weekend
February 25, 2012, 1:29 AM
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It would be easy to offhandedly call this film a gay Before Sunrise and in some ways I suppose that’s what I’ve just done. I’m not sure how fair it is but the plots are remarkably similar. However, watching Weekend I got an impression of Mumblecore done right. A film that looks in on the same milieu but with actors that are not only competent but exceptional and a measured aesthetic sense. I suppose this leads one to ask just how much of an influence Linklater, and by extension Cassavetes, have had on Mumblecore but that’s for another time.

Weekend is just one of those films that so poignantly captures a feeling. In this case, that of a playful fling becoming something more than that. The feelings of longing and uncertainty, accompanied by a very real sense that this is, as all things are, only temporary. That last bit is of course imposed on the film by the plot device it borrows from Linklater’s Sunrise, but I think it taps into something deeper. It’s during the moments that you are living life most fully that you are most clearly away of it’s impermanence, while those very moments can suggest the infinite.

These are things that were going through my head as I saw this very visceral portrait of two people realizing they have feelings for one another and trying to figure out exactly what that means. As I’m stretching for length here I might as well touch on another aspect of the film I found unique and that is its portrayal of drug use. I’m in no way suggesting doing cocaine is a good idea and the film does use it to signify the characters confusion and dissatisfaction with their predicament. Yet, it’s somewhat refreshing to see a film that doesn’t portray drugs as inherently evil, it feels more genuine (and conflicted) than so many films that are haunted by the ghost of Nancy Reagan.

The Best Films of 2011: #10 Pina

I feel like it’s possible I’m overrating this film slightly because the profound effect it had on me is more a product of Pina Bausch’s choreography than Wim Wender’s filmmaking (and in fact I question a few of his decisions). I approached the film with a bit of trepidation, because I had convinced myself that I wasn’t a fan of dance. I enjoy dancing, don’t get me wrong, but I was under the impression that this was a film about a ballet company and my previous exposure to ballet had left me bored and unengaged. I took this feeling into the film and it wasn’t until the second segment, “Cafe Mueller”, that I completely let go of it, becoming fascinated by the choreography and deeply moved by the performances of the dancers. After I saw the film I read an interview with Wenders (on AVClub I believe) where he claimed to have shared my preconceptions about dance until a girlfriend drug him to a performance of “Cafe Mueller” and “Le Sacre du Printemps” (also in the film) in the 80s, which left him in tears.

The sole problem I have with his approach to the material isn’t easily rectifiable. The pieces are too long to be shown in their entirety (the final piece, “Vollmond”, runs 150 minutes with an intermission), so he chooses to cut to dancers performing bits of Bausch’s choreography in public and cut back in at a later point in the piece. These inserts are valuable in their own right, but they occasionally have a disruptive effect on the perfection of Bausch’s pieces. Which isn’t to downplay how well Wenders captures what is special about these pieces. It’s one of two 2011 films, the other being Cave of Forgotten Dreams, that I deeply regret not going out of my way to see in 3D. A regret I’ve never felt watching other such films in two dimensions.

The film is lent an elegaic tone by the untimely passing of Pina Bausch. Wenders has included “talking heads” with each of Tanztheater Wuppertal’s dancers commenting on Bausch’s methods and the influence she had on them. Talking heads is in quotes because Wenders films them looking upon the camera in silence, we hear their comments on the soundtrack over their faces but do not see them speak. It’s a subtle but unique touch that adds a note of sadness to the film. If the third piece didn’t move me as greatly as the first two, I do think Wenders saved the best piece for last. “Vollmond” is certainly the most bombastic, as the stage floods and dancers fling buckets of water, streams trailing from their feet as they leap into the air. I can only hope that an eventual DVD release will preserve Wenders’ recordings of these pieces in their entirety and that some day I’m lucky enough to witness a performance of “Cafe Mueller” or “Vollmond” in person. The film as it stands is still a remarkable achievement in its own right, it’s just that Wenders’ cinema is overshadowed by the genius of what he’s preserving.

The Best Films of 2011: #11 Midnight in Paris
February 15, 2012, 12:09 AM
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Even the biggest Woody Allen fans (like myself) are willing to admit that his output has been woefully inconsistent over the last 20 years. For every Husbands and Wives or Vicky Cristina Barcelona there have been three or four Celebritys or Cassandra’s Dreams. It’s with a sense of duty that I wander into the theater every summer to see his latest film, bracing myself for the worst while hoping for the best. So to be greeted with a career highlight in Midnight in Paris was something of a surprise. As I left the theater I held the door for an elderly man and he asked me what I thought of the film, when I said I enjoyed it he replied with a sense of delight “It reminded me of the old Woody Allen, like Purple Rose of Cairo, which has always been my favorite.”

It shares a lot in common with that film, not just the magical realism but also a sense of wide-eyed wonder and endless possibility, an aspect that had seemed lost in the misanthropy that’s dominated the late period of Woody’s career. Even if it’s ultimately dulled by the realities that undermine Gil’s nostalgia it still helps him find opportunity in the present day. Like Gil and several others (including Woody Allen it would seem), I’ve long been fascinated by the Paris of the 1920s. Artists the world over migrating to the banks of the Seine to fraternizing and creating works of art in nearly every field that would prove to be among the best of the decade. It’s easy to understand the desire to be a part of that world.

A common complaint is that the film primarily consists of knowing in jokes. I’m not sure that’s completely fair, but I really enjoyed them nonetheless, from Dali’s obsession with Owen Wilson’s nose to the piss take on Ernest Hemingway’s overdone attempts at asserting his masculinity. Paris has to be among the most filmed cities and unlike New York City in Manhattan it’s impossible to say it’s never looked better than it does in Midnight in Paris (Flight of the Red Balloon immediately jumps to mind in protest). But if one aspect of Allen’s filmmaking has improved over the last decade it’s his attention to visual detail, as divisive as films like Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona are (I seem to fall on opposite sides of their fences–or tennis nets as it may be–than the general consensus) it would be hard to imagine someone arguing they weren’t exquisitely photographed. That trend continues here with the beauty in everything from the Eiffel Tower to the glint in Lea Seydoux’s eye working as a vital antidote to Gil’s perpetual ennui.

The Best Films of 2011: #12 Hugo

I haven’t been overly fond of Scorsese’s output over the last decade or so, building to a head with last year’s Shutter Island placing second on my worst films list. Add that to a mess of a trailer that made Hugo look like an over the top Sacha Baron Cohen vehicle and I very nearly passed up seeing it in the theater. Then Von Samuel, notorious hater of children, told me it was rather exceptional and I needed to see it, so I gave it a shot. Color me surprised to find it Scorsese’s best outing since 1993’s The Age of Innocence and one of the most enchanting films of the year.I’ve heard the first hour of the film derided as boring and aimless, but I enjoy the way Scorsese slowly lowers us into the Parisian milieu. Ingratiating us with the day to day going-ons in the train station Hugo calls home with an almost Tatiesque sense of awareness. For a film so overtly about cinephilia I think this is a key point, as Hugo is observing these people unawares drawing on the subtle humor and eliciting tenuous plot strands, editing their lives and characters into brief arcs and recognizable traits. This runs parallel to his attempts at restoring his father’s automaton, a further manifestation of the impulse to play god and create life that inspires much artistic creation, certainly in the realm of cinema.

For a film that seems at a surface level very un-Scorsese it’s hard to think of another director that would make a 130-minute children’s movie about the importance of film preservation. Another charge I’ve heard leveled at Hugo is that it becomes rather didactic near the end, this was also said about the environmental themes in Miyazaki’s Ponyo a few years back and in both cases I feel it’s defensible because the target audiences are children. More importantly, both films remain entertaining and even moving at times. Scorsese’s trademark camera work is also noticeably present. The tracking shots maneuvering through the crowded train station and the clockworks Hugo maintains make 3D for once feel integral to the experience of a film. The technology also serves to put a damper on the rapid fire editing that has plagued some of his more recent outings.

It would be a mistake to forget the actors among the technology and the firm directorial signature Hugo possesses. It’s a brilliantly cast film. Asa Butterfield is admirable enough playing in the role of the cipher, but Chloe Grace Moretz is positively magnetic, stealing every scene she’s in even when she’s acting alongside veterans like Christopher Lee. It’s a sign of Scorsese’s clout that he’s able to get people like Emily Mortimer and Ray Winstone to fill out what are essentially glorified cameos but it really helps in cultivating the film’s celluloid-tinged view of Paris. Not to mention Ben Kingsley, without whom it’s hard to imagine the film carrying the weight it does. All these pieces (and many I’ve failed to mention) go a long way towards creating the fully realized environment that is such a joy to inhabit for two hours and change, in a moving tribute to the art of cinema.

The Best Films of 2011: #13 A Separation
February 11, 2012, 10:41 PM
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I hadn’t heard of A Separation until seemingly out of nowhere it started sweeping all the Critics’ Circle awards for Best Foreign Film. It’s a film that addresses the political through the personal and it’s especially poignant coming out of Iran in 2011, with Jafar Panahi sitting in an Iranian prison. One would wonder how much that played into its reception if it wasn’t such a remarkable film in its own right. Examining how, as Panahi learned, in an unforgiving culture the slightest perceived misstep can have life-altering consequences.

Focusing on the dissolution of a marriage between characters portrayed by Peyman Moaadi and Leila Hatami, A Separation initially appears to be a gripping domestic drama. We start getting hints that there is something more going on, hints the audience will be asked to recall in detail later on, and the film suddenly transforms into something significantly more grave and incisive. Director Asghar Farhadi wisely sits back and lets the actors do their work, utilizing long reserved takes and using the doorways and partitions in their apartment to generate a feeling of surveillance, further commenting on Iranian society.

The writing is similarly restrained. Focusing in on the personal drama and letting the viewer come to the political on their own. It requires a great deal of talent but it’s something many American dramas could learn from, often being lessened by the overt political aspects of films like Syriana and The Ides of March. Gently guiding the audience to their own conclusions is a more effective, and memorable, way of making a point, and getting there via character creates a sense of personal involvement that is often absent in films with such aims. This approach gives the second half of the film an immense amount of weight. Leading to an ending that, in a year of several half-baked ambiguous endings, feels completely earned and appropriate.