Saturday, February 26, 2011

My Top 10 of 2010


There was a lot of fuss last year about how 2010 was shaping up to be a mediocre year in movies. throughout the year, I was in the minority in maintaining not only that I thought it was shaping up to be a great year for movies but that, indeed, I thought it was a better year than 2009. Mind you: it was an all-around bad year for politics, world affairs and my own issues with employment and education, but that's besides the point. 2010 offered plenty of fantastic titles--so many, in fact, that I often found myself constantly rearranging my top five. Movies would go in and out time and time again. On some days I would love a movie, on other days I would merely like it. It was a neverending cycle, but I always knew I was in good hands. Rarely did I ever feel like I was appreciating a movie only because I was being pressured by the majority to appreciate it, which happened to me a lot in 2009.

Anyway, here is the list (for your reading pleasure).


1. Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese)

At first I walked out of Shutter Island in awkward disappointment, thrown a bit for a loop by the ending. It took me a while to comprehend the fact that I had just sat through a Scorsese film, since it didn't leave me with the feeling I normally get from seeing his movies (certainly not from any of the theatrical ones he made in the last decade). But a revisiting of the film paid off, and I realized to my pleasure what Scorsese was actually doing: recycling one of his favorite themes, post-traumatic veterans' stress disorder, and giving it a film noir injection. My review here.



2. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski)

Polanski's film cuts deep into contemporary subjects like torture and government corruption, but it's so much more than that, too. There are familiar Polanski elements that we may recall from some of his earlier films like Knife in the Water, Frantic and The Ninth Gate, but he's got something unique up his sleeve. My review here.



3. Another Year (Mike Leigh)

The first time I've ever witnessed a Mike Leigh film on the big screen, and hopefully one of many more. I admired the heck out of Leigh's last two features, 2004's Vera Drake and 2008's Happy-Go-Lucky, but nothing quite prepared me for this film--which left me in a long, ponderous silence after it was over. Has Leigh been building up to a film like this his entire career?



4. The Social Network (David Fincher)

Of all the movies nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, this is the best, and I'd like to see it win both. Fincher and Aaron Sorkin do complete justice to Ben Mezrich's excellent novel The Accidental Billionaires, and more: in Sorkin's own words, Fincher literally makes sequences of computer-hacking "look like bank robberies", which makes the film a visually sensational experience. Jesse Eisenberg, splendid as Mark Zuckerberg, has obviously grown as an actor since his nice performance as the alienated son in Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale (2005).


5. Chloe (Atom Egoyan)

I saw this last spring, and I was absolutely dumbfounded once I learned that there were only three people in the entire world who actually loved it: Roger Ebert, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and me. Egoyan's style is over-the-top, no doubt about it, but it's great to finally see Julianne Moore (who's never been better) and Liam Neeson playing a couple; and Amanda Seyfried is quite sexy as the callgirl who meddles in their whole family's business.



6. In A Better World (Susanne Bier)

Does this film count? I didn't actually get to see it until it premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, in January 2011. And yet it's being nominated as a 2010 film at this year's Academy Awards. Therefore, I'll have to consider it a 2010 film, despite the fact that many won't get to see it until later this year. Bier's film is a shocking examination of bullying, masculinity and vengeance; the Swedish title is pronounced "Haevnen", which, contrary to initial assumption, actually means "revenge" in English. Note to the Academy: the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film belongs right here. I wrote about it last January.




7. True Grit (Joel & Ethan Coen)

I've made enough racket about this film in various areas of the blogosphere, so I can do nothing more but turn you to my review as well as some of the great reviews published by my colleagues: by Craig Simpson, by Jake Cole, by Ryan Kelly and by Ed Howard and Jason Bellamy. I caused some controversy with some of the criticisms I had of the Coens' work; at one point, somebody even called me a "troll" just because I thought certain elements of the film warranted further discussion. But it's a good movie, flaws and all, and the debate on it is far from over.



8. Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich)

Is it as great as the first two films? Maybe, maybe not. It's obviously going to win Best Animated Film, but I'd like to see it net an extra Oscar for Randy Newman's catchy song, "We Belong Together." Anyway, I had a hell of a time--both times I saw it.



9. Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)

Call it silly, call it grotesque, call it whatever you want. Aronofsky's film is, like Egoyan's, over-the-top. But it provides for a cinematic experience that is at once intoxicating and incredible, and Natalie Portman deserves Best Actress, hands-down, At times it feels too tasteful, and maybe if Aronofsky had studied the early films of Polanski a little bit more he might have come up with a Repulsion for our time. Still, this is the most satisfying Aronofsky film since Pi.



10. Green Zone (Paul Greengrass)

A lot of people despised this film and found the uber-liberal politics of Brian Helgeland's screenplay to be obnoxious. But hey, sue me: I got a visceral rush out of it, and I thought the extreme liberalism was a nice way of getting mass audiences to wake up and smell the coffee--this is the most successful "commercial" movie that Hollywood has ever released about the war in Iraq. And I agree with Ebert that it's also one hell of a thriller.

Honorable Mentions: Casino Jack (George Hickenlooper), Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (Oliver Stone); Winter's Bone (Debra Granik); The King's Speech (Tom Hooper); Hereafter (Clint Eastwood)

Favorite Male Performance: Leonardo DiCaprio, Shutter Island
Favorite Female Performance: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Favorite Male Supporting Performance: Pierce Brosnan, The Ghost Writer
Favorite Female Supporting Performance: Lesley Manville, Another Year

Worst Movies of the Year: Alice in Wonderland; Robin Hood; She's Out of My League; Easy A; Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Anyway... the Oscars. This is the second time in a row they're not telecasting the Honorary Lifetime Achievement award. What the fuck? It's like they knew that Jean-Luc Godard wasn't going to come and accept the award anyway.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Act of Violence (1949)



Fred Zinnemann begins Act of Violence (1949) with a sequence that every movie buff should be familiar with: the opening shot of a limping Robert Ryan, dragging his way down the lonely city streets at midnight. He walks up the stairs to his apartment, and Zinnemann’s camera follows him as he limps across his room, bends down and opens up a dresser. The camera zooms in to reveal him taking a handgun out of the bottom drawer, and then the title flashes across the screen. There are no beginning credits.

It is anyone’s guess how Zinnemann was ever selected to direct the picture. Act of Violence is one of the great postwar film noirs, but nobody could have anticipated that Zinnemann—who had never directed a film noir before—was practically tailor-made for the job. Zinnemann was notorious in Hollywood for being one of those “arthouse” directors at MGM. He had achieved success directing Spencer Tracy in The Seventh Cross (1943) and Montgomery Clift in The Search (1948), but in between those years he had had a reputation for turning down jobs, rejecting bad screenplays and rebelling, constantly, against a Hollywood system that was always trying to conform him into a studio hack. By the end of the decade it seemed like he would never again get the chance to direct another quality film. Then Act of Violence fell into his lap, and his career officially took off.

The movie is currently only available on DVD through a Double Feature with John Sturges’ Mystery Street (1950), which is a shame; it deserves a DVD of its own, and there is so much about it that warrants continued discussions for future generations of moviegoers. A Criterion is perhaps too much to ask, but isn’t the unfortunate treatment of Act of Violence in recent years not unlike the treatments bestowed on every other film made by its director? Zinnemann is one of the most grossly neglected cinema auteurs of the 20th century; critics like Andrew Sarris have charged that he made “anti-movies for anti-moviegoers”, and this might account for the lack of public desire to examine Zinnemann’s work in the present.

But such contrarian arguments against Zinnemann would not hold water in critiquing Act of Violence, one of the first films to have confirmed his artistry. The screenplay by Robert L. Richards, based on a story by Collier Young, takes one of Zinnemann’s favorite themes—society’s crushing and unraveling of the individual—and puts it on display most beautifully. We follow the limping Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan) as he boards a bus to a small town, checks into a hotel, flips through the phone book and finds two matching names of the man he is going to hunt down. His target: a building contractor named Frank Enley.

What is Joe’s motive? We don’t know. When we first see Frank Enley (Van Heflin), he is carrying his baby boy up on his shoulders, smiling joyously in front of a large crowd in celebration of his latest completed housing project. He has a beautiful wife, Edith (Janet Leigh), and seems like an innocent family man. But later in the afternoon, Joe will track Frank all the way out to Redwood Lake, where—in the film’s first sequence of intense suspense—he rides a boat out into the middle of the lake; spots Frank fishing on another boat with his neighbor, Fred (Harry Antrim); hides behind a rock; takes his gun out and readies for the kill. Fortunately, Frank’s boat just misses him, and Frank and Fred return to the dock unscathed; but when Frank learns from the dockman (Will Wright) that a man went out on the lake looking for him, he frowns, packs up his gear and heads home. He knows who the man with the limp is. He knows that he’s still waiting for him out on the lake.

“Anybody been around while I was gone?” Frank asks his wife. Edith at first says no, but then pauses and remarks, “Oh, wait a minute! There was a man here—just after you left!” It is here when cinematographer Robert Surtees photographs Frank shrouded in darkness, with the shadows concealing the obvious fear on his face. He behaves strangely throughout the evening, refusing to answer the phone, refusing to talk about why he came home early, blowing up at Edith (“I just don’t want to talk to anybody or listen to anybody! I don’t want to see anybody! I want to spend a quiet evening in my own home! Is that asking too much?”), and then panicking even further when the doorbell rings. We can hear Joe Parkson’s creeping footsteps outside, and we can see the locked doorknob turning unsuccessfully as he tries to force his way into the house. The Enley’s baby son screams in the night because of a bad dream. Now the entire family is aware of the presence of the limping man with the gun.

From here, the pieces begin to fit together. We find out that Frank and Joe were together in the army, that Joe might be deranged, and that he might be holding Frank responsible for everything that went wrong between them during the war. Edith asks Frank, “When we packed up, all of a sudden; came out here from Syracuse; 3,000 miles across the country… was that on account of him?” But Frank continues to be maddeningly elusive—he even flees to an LA convention and pathetically leaves Edith to confront Joe herself. We finally get to hear Joe’s side of the story when he breaks into the Enley home and starts questioning Edith about her husband. "What did he tell you about me!??" he angrily demands. "What did he tell you? Did he tell you that I'm crippled because of him? Did he tell you about the men that are dead because of him? Did he tell you what happened to them before they died?" He tells Edith something truly bizarre: that he and Frank were POWs in a German prison camp, and that Frank was "a stool pigeon for the Nazis" who ratted out on his fellow inmates after they tried to hatch an escape plan.



Unfortunately, Joe is telling the truth. Frank did everything Joe says he did, which Frank confirms to Edith in a blistering monologue: “Do I have to spell it out to you? Do I have to draw you a picture? I was an informer! It doesn’t make any difference why I did it; I betrayed my men! They were dead! The Nazis even paid me a price: they gave me food, and I ate it… I ate it!” One of the flaws of Act of Violence is Frank’s rather irrational insistence on refusing to go to the police and have Joe arrested. True, what Frank did at the prison camp was stupid, and it will no doubt attract unwanted press. But the fact that Frank sold out his men in hopes that they wouldn’t be harmed during the prison escape does make a big difference; and his position as a POW who would do anything to survive is equally understandable, even if Frank is not the most sympathetic character around. But, then again, if Frank were so rational, there would probably be no story. The rewards of Act of Violence are endless—provided that the audience is willing to suspend some of its disbelief.

Consider the ways in which the film is structured, and then compare it to the director’s later works. Zinnemann specialized, more or less, in movies about hunts, and told his stories from the points of views of the ones being hunted. Frank Enley—like Will Kane in High Noon (1952), Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons (1966) and Lillian Hellman in Julia (1977)—is thrown out by society and left to be devoured by the hyenas. He’s paranoid, and quickly becomes delusional himself, as evidenced during the sequence in which he walks down a dark tunnel, hears the echoes of the massacre at the prison camp and cries out, “DON’T DO IT, JOE!” It is a plea not just to the Joe of the past, but to the Joe of the present who is hunting him.

The women in Act of Violence are like a blissful light in the darkness conjured up by the men in this criminalized noir underworld. Edith stands by Frank as long as she possibly can; she refuses to give up on him, even when she finds out that he is guilty of some incredibly serious things. Joe’s former flame, Ann (Phyllis Thaxter), wants to put a stop to Joe’s mission, and attempts to convince him to wash down his thirst for blood. Pat (Mary Astor), a friendly hooker, spots Frank in a bar, takes him to her place and offers her support. “What is it: love trouble, or money trouble?” she asks him. “Listen, Frankie, I’ve seen ‘em all. I’ve seen all the troubles in the world; they boil down to just those two. You’re broke, or you’re lonely. Or both.” Like Edith, Pat believes that Frank shouldn’t be penalized just because he made one mistake—this is one of the film’s principal themes. She introduces Frank to the old lawyer Gavery (Taylor Holmes), believing that he can help sort out Frank’s problems. But when Frank spills out his troubles to Gavery in a private room, we can see the shadows of the hitman Johnny (Berry Kroeger) creeping under the door, as he sits outside and listens. Pat immediately catches on that these two men may not be so trustworthy after all.

This is another one of the principal themes of Act of Violence: the class difference between hired killers and self-made killers. Johnny and Gavery, like the Jackal in Zinnemann’s The Day of the Jackal (1973), have no qualms whatsoever about their jobs; they see killing not as a moral issue, but as a business. In a slick sales pitch, Gavery warns Frank, “It’s up to you: he dies, or you die. It’s him… or you.” On the other hand, Joe Parkson is like Artiguez in Zinnemann’s Behold A Pale Horse (1964): he’s wrestling with a bit of self-doubt. Should he kill Frank? Should he not? Ann lectures Joe nonstop about the error of his way of thinking. “What are you going to prove anyway, with your vengeance, your violence?” she cries. “You aren’t going to bring those men back—you’re just gonna smash a few more lives!” The movie also considers what happens when innocent Americans are faced with the possibility of having to defend themselves with guns; this is represented when Edith buys a gun, brings it home and mutters, “I don’t even know how to shoot it.” Well, neither would most people.

Every actor is cast to perfection. Van Heflin had previously worked with Zinnemann on Kid Glove Killer (1942), and here, as Frank Enley, he paints a shattering portrait of one of the most tragically flawed protagonists in film noir. Robert Ryan, as Joe Parkson, trudges on throughout the film with his unforgettable limp; like Thornton, the character Ryan would go on to play most memorably in The Wild Bunch (1969), Joe Parkson holds a vengeful grudge against an old friend and is hellbent on chasing him down—and yet, by the end of the film, is left regretting his failure to be a little more forgiving. Mary Astor has great fun as Pat, the kind of dame that Brigid from The Maltese Falcon (1941) might have eventually become (had she not been hung by her sweet neck). As the hitman Johnny, Berry Kroeger, an Orson Welles lookalike, fills every scene he’s in with an uncomfortably poisonous aura. And Janet Leigh, with her brunette hair, is almost unrecognizable at such a young age; she makes Edith a character who is warm, brave and understanding. “Ever since I first knew you, Frank, and up until yesterday, I thought you were the finest, most wonderful man in the world,” she tells Heflin, in their last scene together. “Now I know that you’re like everybody else. You have faults and weaknesses… that doesn’t mean I don’t love you, or that I don’t want to be your wife—because I do.” It is one of Leigh’s very best performances.

Is there redemption at the end? I think so. The finale of Act of Violence takes place at a train station in which Frank and Joe find themselves striding dangerously towards each other, Johnny lurks in a car off to the side, and a train ominously comes barging into the scene screaming off its whistle—sort of like the train in High Noon. There is a struggle, and it ends in disaster. But when Act of Violence closes, we are left confidant that heroes who could not find a way to redeem themselves have finally done so; that villains who persisted in their taste for blood have taken that taste with them to the grave; and that antiheroes who initially could do no right, from here on out, will be determined to do no wrong. We are also left with the sense that a director who was not finding happiness in Hollywood at the time had found it at last. “This was the last movie I directed for MGM,” wrote Zinnemann in his autobiography, “and the first time I felt confident that I knew what I was doing and why I was doing it. Personally, I like this picture very much.”

This piece is a contribution to the For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted by Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films and Farran Smith Nehme of The Self-Styled Siren. The blogathon runs from February 14 - 21. Please make a generous donation whenever you can.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sundance Film Festival: January 26-30, 2011 (A Recap)



It's been two weeks since I returned home from Park City. I promised everybody photos, so here they are for your viewing pleasure.



On the right: Clay Jeter, the director of Jess + Moss. On the left: Sarah Hagan, who plays Jess in the film.



Waiting in the freezing dark for a shuttle bus to... well, nowhere, apparently.



What a shuttle bus looks like on the inside.



Ty Burr!



Wait-Listing (unsuccessfully) for Take Shelter



Up on Main Street



The Times Talks session at the Egyptian Theatre, in which Ray Liotta, Greg Kinnear and Vera Farmiga were all being incredibly arrogant and giving mean-spirited responses to nearly each and every one of Melena Ryzik's thoughtful questions.



Ray Liotta, up-close



Director Susanne Bier during the Q & A for In A Better World



The Film School Student Group at the midnight showing of Vampire



Director Peter D. Richardson during the Q & A of How to Die in Oregon



The Miner's Tour in which a handful of Film School students attended



More of the Miner's Tour



John Cooper



Director J.C. Chandor during the Q & A of Margin Call



Inside the Wait List tent near the the Holiday Theater.



Film School Roundtable. On the far left is Orlando von Einsiedel, the director of the excellent short film Skateistan. Sitting in the middle is music video director Thomas DeNapoli.



Director Alex Stapleton during the Q & A of Corman's World.



Me with some friends after the midnight showing of Meek's Cutoff.

And now for a recap of all of the films I saw at Sundance, in order of my most favorites from top to bottom.



1. Vampire (Iwai Shunji)

I'm not familiar with the previous work of Iwai Shunji, but now I know for sure that he is a filmmaker to look out for. Vampire is a masterful piece of filmmaking from beginning to end: not only did Shunji write and direct the piece, but he also edited it, photographed it and even composed the musical score; as a result, everything about the film is gorgeous. It's a splendidly-acted film, too, with Kevin Zegers' Simon Williams being by far the most likable movie vampire in a long time, in part because he doesn't kill his victims in the old-fashioned way, in part because his intent is not to murder but to put willfully suicidal souls out of their misery. Other impressive cast members include a surprising comeback by Keisha Castle-Hughes (what happened to her after Whale Rider?), as well as another by Trevor Morgan (the bratty kid from Jurassic Park III) as a rapist vampire with homosexual fetishes. The most radiant performance in the film is by Adelaide Clemens as a young, glacial blonde who may very well be the key to rescuing Simon from his dreadful existence.

The movie is extremely gory (I saw a couple of squeamish moviegoers flee the Yarrow auditorium in a panic), but never to an exploitive degree. It's a lovely, poetic film that takes its material very seriously. If there's a flaw, it's that it doesn't quite know when to end: Shunji treats several shots as if they're meant to be the final shot of the film, and a concluding scene with Smallville star Kristen Kreuk feels superfluous. Still, I'm probably just missing something essential about Shubji's approach, and when this movie hits theaters nationwide I'm DEFINITELY seeing it again. You should, too.



2. The Future (Miranda July)

A screening I will never forget. When I rented her 2005 debut feature Me and You and Everyone We Know a couple years ago, I knew that July was an interesting filmmaker who would be going places. Now that I have seen The Future, I realize that she is something more: one of the wisest filmmaking voices of our generation.

Though it has dozens of side-splitting moments that had the audience laughing for minutes, The Future is not a full-blown quirky comedy like Me and You and Everyone We Know; and, as a result, I actually think it's a much better film. Miranda July has confirmed her incomparability as a poet of desperation--her films are about aging, wandering souls whose only longing is for love and security. In The Future, she and Hamish Linklater play Sophie and Jason, a couple that decides to adopt a stray cat from the pound and, then, make the most of their lives in the next 30 days waiting before they're allowed to take the cat home.

But that doesn't even begin the incredible scope of July's 91-minute film, which eventually becomes the most surreal and intoxicating independent movie of its kind since Charlie Kaufmann's Synecdoche, New York. As pleasant of a film as Me and You and Everyone We Know was, it followed a typical linear narrative that all first-time independent filmmakers generally adopt for their debut projects. Five years later, July is a much more experienced filmmaker and has chosen this time to play around with narrative structure and, what's more, blend the line between reality and imagination. This seemingly small movie packs a wallop: a talking moon, a litle girl buried in dirt from the neck down, a yellow shirt that literally crawls a across neighborhood street, and characters who have the ability to freeze time.

All of this anchored by a most ingenious plot device: a track of narration by the lonely stray cat, named "Paw Paw", that waits patiently in its cage for the day when Sophie and Jason will finally come to bring it home. We never get to see what Paw Paw actually looks like; we only see her giant paws, which gesture like regular human hands (one of the film's funnier moments). And her voice (by July herself) sounds like the dialect of Norman Bates' crotchety old mother: it's creepy, it's hilarious, and it's even sad. I will not spoil the events that ultimately unfold from Sophie and Jason's anxious wait to adopt Paw Paw, but I can't rave enough about how much of a must-see experience The Future is. When it opens worldwide later in the year, I hope to see it again, maybe even to review it. I have a very good feeling it's the kind of film that improves with repeated viewings.



3. Jess + Moss (Clay Jeter)

This film is not your average romantic drama, as it involves the strained rleationship between a 12-year old boy and an 18-year old girl who spend their days frolicking in the Kentucky fields and backwoods, creating their own dreamworld that is isolated entirely from the society outside.

Because Jess + Moss has all the aura of a Robert Mulligan coming-of-age drama, I asked the film's director, Clay Jeter, whether Mulligan had been an influence. Jeter was amused with my insights but replied that he was more influenced by the likes of Terrence Malick and David Lynch and added that, storywise, he had been influenced heavily by Carson McCullers' novel of The Member of the Wedding.



4. In A Better World (Susanne Bier)

A masterful Swedish film that previously won an award for Best Foreign Language Film at last month's Golden Globes, and has recently gotten an Academy Award nomination for the same category. Because it's an absorbing cinematic experience on the same level on The Lives of Others, I'd prefer not to give away any plot details, but I will say this: it is a movie about revenge. Not a movie that celebrates revenge but, instead, a movie about how revenge cripples good people. Some are going to find it sanctimonious, but I would beg to differ. Note to the Academy: the Oscar for Best Foreign Film belongs right here.



5. If A Tree Falls (Marshall Curry)

An absolutely engrossing documentary about the life and times of Daniel McGovern, an "eco-terrorist" responsible for arson attacks that led to the destruction of dozens of American log factories and artificial tree markets. Though nobody was in fact killed during his attacks, McGovern was eventually tried by the government as a terrorist and sentenced to life in prison. The film also documents McGovern's allies in the far-left "Earth Liberation Front" and reveals how they were able to dodge harsh prison sentences after they had caved in to plea bargaining. We also get to hear the story from the perspectives of the businessmen who lost their companies to McGovern's acts of arson, and the film takes an unbiased view in deciding whether or not McGovern's crimes were acts of terrorism. What we know for sure, after seeing the film, is that McGovern's crimes are undeniably serious, but so are the ruthless acts of the National Guardsmen who took disgusting measures against the non-violent environmentalists who were protesting alongside McGovern and his accomplices.



6. How to Die in Oregon (Peter D. Richardson)

I felt myself welling up with tears throughout this film. It's a touching, eye-opening documented account of the physician-assisted suicide system that is legal in Oregon and has recently been legalized in Washington and Montana. The movie's narrative is centered around a woman in her 50's by the name of Cody Curtis, who has been diagnosed with a terminal liver cancer and spends the next six months pondering over whether she should appoint the Death With Dignity program to end her life early and spare her family any more needless pain.



7. Corman's World: Exploits of A Hollywood Rebel (Alex Stapleton)

A lot of fun. Director Alex Stapleton has made this film look like a gritty Roger Corman film in itself, and certainly has made it just as entertaining. The film includes splendid interviews with Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Ron Howard, John Sayles, Bruce Dern, Jack Nicholson and Peter Bogdonavich, as well as interviews with other Corman protogees who passed away in the previous year (George Hickenlooper, Irvin Kershner, David Carradine) and of course, interviews with Corman himself and how he longed to be taken seriously as a filmmaking artist.



8. Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)

An Oregon Trail thriller starring Michelle Williams. None of us in the audience were prepared for the kind of film it would actually turn out to be: an extremely slow-moving study of what it means to be lost in the wilderness, with minimal character development in favor of a strong emphasis on abandonment by civilization and God. Kelly Reichardt could not be at the screening, which disappointed me a great deal: there were so many questions I would have liked to ask her about the film. At the same time, Reichardt might have done herself a favor by not attending; some of the audience members were so bored with Meek's Cutoff that they walked out halfway through the picture. So uncertain is the movie that [spoilers] it even ends on a note of sheer uncertainty, with the characters still lost in the wilderness--their situation still unresolved. While I didn't think Meek's Cutoff was perfect--I wanted to know a little more about the characters, and wasn't sure about how successful the ending was--I admired the way the movie emphasizes that feeling of being so utterly lost. I couldn't think of another film where I had felt that.



9. The Green Wave (Ali Samadi Ahadi)

A fascinating documentary about the outrageous events surrounding the Iranian election of 2009, when Ahmadinejad and his totalitarian cronies fixed the elections, put his democractic opponent Musavi under house arrest, and subjected thousands of protesting voters to horrible raping and torturing during the months that followed. The movie is less successful during the animated sequences that cover certain events that were never captured on camera--while the animation itself has an intriguing comic-book vibrance, it feels like something out of a different movie.



10. Margin Call (J.C. Chandor)

Revolving around a firm that is being forced to cut several of its employees or else it runs the risk of collapsing in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, this movie is somewhere in between Up in the Air and Glengarry Glen Ross. While a superior effort in comparison to the former film, it lacks the character depth of the latter--Chandor becomes so caught up in crafting a "financial thriller" that he keeps the people in the story at a strange emotional distance; and he lacks the snappy dialogue of Glengarry Glen Ross because his language is devoid of life (he's no David Mamet). Some of the actors in the A-list cast perform admirably (Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany), while others don't do nearly as well (Demi Moore, Simon Baker, Zachary Quinto). By far the most effective sequence in the film is the introduction of Jeremy Irons as the head executive who can make or break careers at the drop of a hat.

*****

Day 1
Days 2-3
Day 4

There were other films I had wanted to see at the festival, namely Take Shelter, Bobby Fischer Against the World and the Reagan documentary. And after having heard all the outraged fuss over Lucky McKee's The Woman, it sounds like another title of interest.

Anyway, though, be honest: did I do the blogosphere proud in my ventures? :)