Sunday, January 22, 2012

My Top 10 of 2011

More than any other moviegoing year in recent memory, 2011 was a year of emotions. The films I loved most were the films involving me completely in their stories, their characters. Such an outgrowth of great films, I believe, hasn't happened since 2007, when No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood rendered me so speechless I could hardly muster my praise for them. Since then I had been yearning for another cinematic experience of that kind. This year, I saw many wonderful films, and I can say with certainty that at least one of them rendered me speechless.

For the past three years, it seems, I've been rather cynical in my selections for the best movies of each respective year. In 2008, I was so disillusioned with the majority of the year's output that my favorites were two critically-panned box office flops, Synecdoche, New York and Revolutionary Road. In 2009, I embraced two films (A Serious Man and The Road) that got slightly better reviews, but were still largely ignored by critics and audiences, perhaps because they were rather gloomy, Kafkaesque works. In 2010, same thing: Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer topped my list, and they were so pessimistic and politically-vicious that it's no wonder audiences walked out of them feeling miserable. All of these were great films, but the fact that I kept praising them above sunnier, more energetic works may be proof that my faith in humanity must have been slipping a bit.

Now, of course, There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men were angry movies as well, but those two milestones came out during a year (2007) when I was still in high school, and well-situated in society. 2008-2010, however, was less certain, because I was about to graduate from high school and had to think seriously about my future. Those three years weren't exactly bright. Some difficult day jobs, some severed relationships with friends, some uneasiness at having to go to community college (although I do not regret the latter at all; it was cheap, and it got the hard part of college out of the way for me)... all of that made those three years less-than-satisfactory (aside from one experience that was life-changing). I guess you could say I was an angrier young man during those years than I am now, so, naturally, my taste in movies was different.

2011 was another story. I began it with an amazing trip to Sundance, and, gradually, it only got better from there. In the fall, I got accepted into film school. And, well, now, life is good. Really good.

So maybe it was just perfect timing, but somehow I really, really liked a lot of the movies released in 2011. I think a large part of it is because some of my all-time favorite filmmakers made fantastic comebacks this year, some of which I didn't really anticipate. If you'll remember, 2007 was such a year; a year in which some notable directors (Coen Bros., P.T. Anderson, Fincher, Cronenberg, De Palma, Coppola) made some outstanding films.

Similarly, consider the directors who came out with all barrels blazing this year: Spielberg, Scorsese, Malick, Cronenberg, Fincher, Polanski, Godard, Von Trier, Herzog. Some of their movies I didn't see (and some I didn't even like), but c'est la vie. Many were great.

As always, the ones I can't thank enough for such a good year are my friends and family. That includes those of you in the blogosphere who have supported my site since its conception. You guys are the ones keeping me energized.

1. War Horse (Steven Spielberg)

We need more American directors like Steven Spielberg, and we need more American movies like War Horse. It's a masterpiece, pure and simple. Rarely have I ever loved so much a film that is so unabashedly classical, Romantic and, yes, even a little optimistic. But in 2011, I could make an exception.

Spielberg and screenwriters Richard Curtis and Lee Hall have succeeded in locating a highly compelling, cinematic narrative in Michael Morpurgo's book. In telling the stories of the Narracotts (Peter Mullan & Emily Watson), their son Albert (Jeremy Irvine), his horse Joey, and the nightmarish struggles faced by both Albert and Joey in the trenches of World War I and beyond, Spielberg is, somehow, finally able to reach a profound catharsis of love and survival at the end—without ever shying away from the carnage of it all. "It would not be enough for me to say that this is my favorite movie of the year," I wrote in my review. "This is one of the best movies I've ever seen."

2. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)

I walked out of Martin Scorsese's fantasy with stars in my eyes, and then wondered how much of it was true. I then decided that it didn't matter. Scorsese had accomplished his mission: to bring back the sad story of Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley) to the public limelight in a way that could be both moving and entertaining—not to mention the best experience with 3D I've ever had in a theater.

Because this was released around Thanksgiving, I was too lazy to write an official review, but in the meantime check out the glowing reviews by some of my colleagues: Craig Simpson, Jake Cole, Tom Hyland and Kevin J. Olson. Like me, they came away enchanted.

3. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (Steven Spielberg)

The year's greatest entertainment. Speaking as a born-again fan of the Herge comics, this movie gave me everything I wanted from it, and more. It's also the collaboration between Spielberg and Peter Jackson we've been waiting for, after their god-awful The Lovely Bones (2009).

I've only seen The Secret of the Unicorn once, and someday plan to write an official review of it, but for now, these words of praise by David Edelstein will suffice: "Spielberg’s punchy foregrounds and multiple planes of action (a joke or nutty curlicue on every plane!) will have you goggle-eyed...You can imagine Alfred Hitchcock — who famously praised the young Spielberg as the first director who "doesn't see the proscenium arch" — rocking with laughter, belly heaving, coughing out cigar smoke."

4. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

I saw Terrence Malick's latest feature twice in theaters. That is almost a moral necessity when dealing with films as unique as this: you cannot see them just once and expect to formulate a credible opinion afterwards. And I expect my appreciation for it to deepen in the years to come. My review here.

5. The Descendants (Alexander Payne)

Sometimes you don't realize just how much you love a movie until weeks after you've seen it. I saw The Descendants over holiday break, found a great deal about it to admire, rated it positively and moved on. But the fact is that the personal tragedy suffered by Matt King (George Clooney) and his grieving daughters stayed with me; I hadn't even realized, until fairly recently, how strongly I identified with them, and how greatly I wanted to see them find happiness in the end.

What it boils down to is this: Alexander Payne is one of America's most exciting living directors. He is often accused of being condescending and, yes, even sympathetic towards characters who are normally undeserving of our sympathy (in this case, rich people). But because I recognize so much of real-life in his fictional stories, I have no reason to complain. He's one of the last filmmakers alive who truly, honestly understands people, their demons and their difficulties.

6. A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)

In his 1983 cult classic Videodrome, one character asks another, "You know what Freud would've said about that dress?" So, in many ways A Dangerous Method is the film David Cronenberg has been working up to his entire career, although I'd argue it's most characteristic of the films he made in the mid-90's: M. Butterfly (1993) and Crash (1996). Like those films, it's about desires that cannot be satisfied and loves that are lost forever.

As with many other films on this list, I've only seen A Dangerous Method once, but I expect my appreciation of it to grow with repeated viewings. Cronenberg also showcases five outstanding performances: Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung; Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud; Sarah Gadon as Emma Jung; Vincent Cassel as the perverted Otto Gross; and Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein, in a performance so masterful in the way it captures hysterics (and wild facial expressions) that it reminds me, oddly enough, of Thandie's Newton's performance in Beloved.

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

This documentary may have only been released on HBO in 2011, but I don't care: it deserves a place on this list, theatrically-released or not. I saw it at Sundance last year, after it won the U.S. Documentary award. It's a very important film, one that is unafraid to tackle the subject of physician-assisted suicide but respects the patients (like Cody Curtis, pictured above) who decide to go through with it, and honors their right to choose.

8. If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (Marshall Curry)

Another great documentary that I had the pleasure of seeing at Sundance last year, If A Tree Falls covers the little-known activities of the Earth Liberation Front, an organization that once made its living going around burning down lumber factories in order to help save forests.

In particular, the film covers the life of one Daniel McGowan, who has been branded a "terrorist" for his crimes and is facing a long prison sentence. The film finally asks us: is "terrorism" a fair charge for individuals, like McGowan, who seek to conserve, not to kill? As the great critic Steven Boone writes in his review, "It's so moving, the way it all plays out, in hugs and tears and the remorse of a man in his mid-30s, still young, still radiating decency and idealism, but branded for life."

9. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

It's only been a few days since I watched this, but I'm having a hard time shaking some of its images. And I don't intend to, either (you got to admit it: that whole catfish-sex thing is pretty original). It's the first film by Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul I've seen, and hopefully one of many more in the future.

Although it has slow stretches here and there, as a whole it finally comes together as a film so surreal, so haunting, that it's near-impossible to dismiss. In short: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is one hell of a trip, and I'm happy to have watched it.

10. Melancholia (Lars Von Trier)

Or, as I like to call it, The Legend of Lars von Trier: Majora's Mask. Believe me when I say that Von Trier's latest psychosexual epic is the real thing. Forget those idiotic comments he made at Cannes. Forget all of that. If it helps, I hope I should hasten to add that Melancholia is NOT the work of "a Jew who found out that I was actually a Nazi." Not at all. It's a serious attempt to envision what it would be like if the world did, indeed, come to an end someday (with, yes, some striking similarities to a certain Zelda videogame). On top of that, it showcases the best and bravest performance Kirsten Dunst has ever given.

As my colleague Tom Hyland wrote in his own review, "The end of the world has been the subject of many books and films before; now Von Trier gives us his vision, one that's deeply satisfying, especially in terms of trying to understand the human psyche."

Honorable Mentions

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird)
Moneyball (Bennett Miller)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)
The Future (Miranda July)
The Conspirator (Robert Redford)
The Artist (Michel Hazanavicus)
Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois)
Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
Corman's World: Exploits of A Hollywood Rebel (Alex Stapleton)

Some Great Movies I Saw at Sundance That Still Haven't Been Theatrically Released

Vampire (Iwai Shunji)
Jess + Moss (Clay Jeter)

Guilty Pleasures

Cars 2 (John Lasseter, Brad Lewis)
Don't Be Afraid of The Dark (Troy Nixey)


Film Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard)
Margin Call (J.C. Chandor)

I Might Have Been Too Hard On...

Super 8 (J.J. Abrams)

Still Need to See...

Shame (Steve McQueen)
Carnage (Roman Polanski)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog)
Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog)
Pina (Wim Wenders)
Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood)
Kinyarwanda (Alrick Brown)

Proud to Admit I Did NOT See...

Machine Gun Preacher (Marc Forster)
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Rob Marshall)
The Iron Lady (Phyllidya Lloyd)
Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder)
Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Michael Bay)
The Help (Tate Taylor)
Breaking Dawn (Bill Condon)

Alrighty, folks, that just about wraps it up! Now bring on 2012, the year in which we will, hopefully, see the light of day of Francis Ford Coppola's Twixt, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, William Friedkin's Killer Joe, Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Brian De Palma's Passion. And, of course, the year in which... the world may end?

Monday, January 16, 2012

My Exciting Live-Tweeting of the Boring 69th Golden Globe Awards

It was the most boring Golden Globes telecast I've ever seen, and I say that as one who remembers those disastrous 65th Golden Globe Awards from 2008, in which the awards were announced at a "press conference" instead of on an actual show. But at least that horrorshow was short and to the point. This one--the 69th Golden Globes--was so boring, so dreadfully BORING, that it was redeemed only by a handful of pleasant and surprising wins. To borrow a completely unrelated quote from Roger Ebert, "Some great winners, a nice distribution of awards, but the show? Dead. In. The. Water."

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

On Torture and Revenge in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" (2011)

I sort of enjoyed David Fincher’s new remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, up to a point. What bothered me a little [spoilers] was the way Fincher handles the climactic scene at the end, in which the movie’s villain finally gets his comeuppance. In the scene, the villain, Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgard), has just escaped, and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) asks her partner, Mikael (Daniel Craig), “May I kill him?” Mikael nods. What follows is a high-speed chase between Martin and Lisbeth that ends with Martin’s car tumbling off the road and catching on fire. Lisbeth approaches the overturned car, gun in hand, and is about to shoot the wounded Martin when the car suddenly blows up. He’s dead.

Those of you who have seen the 2009 Swedish version, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, will recall that this scene played out a little differently in that film. In that version, Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) walks towards the overturned car while a dying Martin (Peter Haber) starts crying out to her for help. She is not sure what to do. Should she help him? No, she decides to let him burn. Later, Mikael (Michael Nyqvist), who—in this version—did not give Lisbeth permission to kill Martin, wonders how she could be so insensitive. “He was an evil motherfucker who hated women!” she roars. Mikael is startled by her outrage and decides to back off, realizing that Lisbeth probably acted the way she did because of her own personal experiences. She did not rescue Martin from the burning wreck because she has been too wounded by men, in the past, to allow her heart to bleed for sadistic criminals like him. And she is grateful to Mikael when he decides not to question her motives any further.

Even though I wasn’t a huge fan of the 2009 film, I appreciated the inclusion of that small little argument between Lisbeth and Mikael because it addressed a genuine concern: the morality of killing. And torture. And revenge. Oplev’s film finally asked audiences: if you were watching even the most despicable criminal dying in a car wreck, would it really be okay to simply let him burn to death? Wouldn’t it be more righteous to save him instead, and turn him over to the authorities? Or do our personal biases color our decisions either way? Oplev’s film seemed to engage this question, but Fincher’s film seems not to.

In all fairness to Fincher, that scene in Oplev’s film—where Mikael and Lisbeth argue about Martin’s death—was written on the spot by the screenwriters and was not, in fact, present in the original Stieg Larsson novel (which I haven’t read). And yet I was greatly disappointed that Fincher decided not to include the scene in his own version, because without it, the two films are saying two wildly different things about the morality of killing. In Oplev’s film, Mikael is appalled by Lisbeth’s indifference at the scene of Martin’s death; in Fincher’s film, Mikael is the one who gives her permission to let Martin die in the first place.

I'm not giving Fincher enough credit, though. There are other areas of his version that are actually a vast improvement over the Oplev version, even as a commentary on torture and revenge. In particular, I think Fincher has done a better job, than Oplev did, in his handling of the controversial scenes between Lisbeth and her sadistic guardian Bjurman, a conflict that begins with Bjurman torturing and raping Lisbeth and ends with Lisbeth doing the same to him. You will recall that these scenes in the Oplev film were rather simplistic; Bjurman (Peter Andersson) seemed overwhelmingly sinister—and deprived of all humanity—before Lisbeth finally reduced him to tears in the big torture scene. The filmmakers did not provide him with any background or any redeeming factors.

Fincher’s version improves on these shortcomings significantly, perhaps because screenwriter Steven Zaillian has humanized sex-crazed psychos in his scripts before; think Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List or Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. Fincher and Zaillian have a much different take on Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen). In an earlier scene, when he’s harassing Lisbeth in his office, we notice that there is a photograph on his desk of what appear to be his kids. I don’t recall this detail in the Oplev version. By including it in his own version, I think Fincher is trying to make a point that Bjurman is not just some random rapist pig. No, he’s an otherwise normal man who’s most likely had evil rape fantasies built up in his psyche for quite some time now. Later in the film, after he’s already raped Lisbeth, he is surprised when she turns up on his doorstep again. If you listen very carefully, you’ll hear a slight whimper in Yorick van Wageningen’s voice; it’s like he’s under the deluded impression that his rape of Lisbeth has made her fall in love with him or something. He even tries to express a little guilt for the way he treated Lisbeth the last time. And then—BAM! She tazes him.

Well, I’m not sure about the rest of you, but this kind of reminded me of David Lynch’s forays into similar material; think Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, or Leland Palmer/BOB in Twin Peaks. I believe the reason why Fincher and Zaillian wanted to humanize Bjurman a little more is because they see him, like Lisbeth, as a victim of sorts, though obviously not in the same way. Rape is more than just a cultural atrocity—it’s a cultural disease. It poisons the minds of men who fall under the spells of their own hideous fantasies, believing that violent domination of women will somehow convert them into falling for them. It’s disgusting stuff, but it’s necessary to comment on it. Mass audiences will no doubt cheer when they see Lisbeth torturing Bjurman and sticking a dildo up his rectum, which isn’t an entirely misguided response; after what Lisbeth has just gone through, a little audience catharsis in her vengeance is to be expected. But when Lisbeth stares into Bjurman’s eyes and forces him to nod his head and confirm that she’s insane, I think Fincher and Zaillian are finally asking us: what do you, as an audience, think? Is torture an effective antidote to rape? Or is it just another problem?

I don’t know. I have very mixed feelings about this movie. At times I loved it, with its eerie Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score, sublime Jeff Cronenweth cinematography and stark performances by all (including a wonderful Christopher Plummer as Henrik Vanger), while at other times I wasn’t so sure how it was supposed to make me feel. Faithful readers will recall I was troubled last year by what I perceived to be a pro-capital punishment stance in True Grit. But now, despite some lingering reservations, I guess I don’t have a lot of problems with the way The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo addresses cultural practices I detest (like torture and revenge), because I think Fincher and Steven Zaillian know exactly what they’re doing. I especially like the way they end the film. Lisbeth is about to return to Mikael, with a gift, when she spots him in the arms of his lover (Robin Wright). Heartbroken, she throws her present into the garbage and speeds off into the darkness, isolated. It turns out Mikael isn’t so grateful, after all, for Lisbeth rescuing him from Orinoco Flow-induced suffocation. We probably shouldn’t be surprised, of course, since he spends most of his time in the movie flirting with a house cat instead of her.

It’s a sad and poetic ending, one that not only improves on the icky happy ending of the Oplev version, but also confronts us with the consequences Lisbeth will have to endure. Fincher and Zaillian play fair. They let Lisbeth have her vengeance, they let her torture her guardian, they even let her have the pleasure of watching a serial killer die in a car explosion, but there is a price to pay. For the life she lives and the ruthless methods of justice she embraces, she will have to go back to her solitary existence—without Mikael—and wander the streets alone.