Greetings, friends and fellow movie lovers. I struggled over my top ten list more than usual this year; there were lots of films I enjoyed, and then even when I narrowed it down to ten I struggled over the order. In fact, I've seen all of the films in the top ten at least twice just so I could chew over them and savor their effect on me. Yes, it's a bit of an obsession, though a sweet one.
Here's the list itself (more portable than the list with my comments, which follows):
2. Pan's Labyrinth
3. Little Children
4. Stranger Than Fiction
7. The Queen
8. The Departed
9. Little Miss Sunshine
And a few more that I admired, in no more particular order:
The Ground Truth
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
The Heart of the Game
Dave Chappelle's Block Party
1. "WATER" has remained my favorite film of the year since I first saw it last May, in part because it has so profoundly affected my thinking since that first viewing. The film is the third in a trilogy by visionary director Deepa Mehta about modern India (the others are "Fire" and "Earth"), but each of the three also stands alone. This one tells the fictional story of three widows in 1938 India (pre-independence, during Gandhi's rise in influence)--an eight-year-old, Chuyia, who is apparently married and widowed in brief succession; a beautiful young woman, Kalyani, who also met the same fate as a child; and Shakuntula, a devout, middle-aged woman who also was widowed very young and is the true leader in the ashram along the Ganges River where they live with a dozen other widows of all ages. In Hindu religious tradition, a woman is considered half her husband, and when he dies she must either die with him, marry his younger brother (if any), or live an ascetic life as an outcast, without sweets, socializing, or color, wearing only white, shroud-like widow's weeds. In this story, a bitter, portly harridan (the ostensible leader) presides over the ashram and pimps Kalyani (as tradition demands) to support the house. But the arrival of spirited Chuyia, with her innocence and questions, puts the ashram into a tailspin, eventually leading both Kalyani and Shakuntula to question the role they have accepted as thrust upon them.
The story unfolds with quiet, wrenching patience. Hope rises, then is dashed, then flickers again; we see how the women have adjusted to their fate, some with an unquestioning resignation that arrests their personal development forever (especially tragic given that many appear to have been widowed as children, like Chuyia), some by reinforcing the oppression, some by devotion to the religious ideal that purports to justify it. Without histrionics, the film also lays bare how various other segments of the culture benefit from the injustice, including liberal thinkers willing to question it as an abstract matter. I was impressed enough by Mehta's artistry (she wrote, produced, and directed the film, which is beautifully shot and, though not a Bollywood film, makes wonderful use of the music and color of that tradition)--but was even more impressed when I read that the production had to be shut down and moved from India to Sri Lanka and completed in secret after fundamentalist extremists destroyed the film's original sets. "Fire" likewise met with violent mob protests.
In the face of such opposition, Mehta has produced a film worthy of her remarkable courage. A powerful protest film, it nevertheless tells its story with beauty, restraint, and potent imagery, particularly scenes of the river along which the women reside and on which they depend. Mehta has commented that the stagnant water is meant to suggest the rigid life of the depicted community, prescribed by a religious text more than 2000 years old. In the film, rain coincides with the emergence of hope. "Traditions should never become rigid," she has said. "They should flow like good water." Part of the power of the film for me is not just what I learned about Indian culture or how I was moved by watching the women struggle and become transformed, but also how profoundly the film depicted the struggle of a person of true faith, here represented by Shakuntula. Her faith has sustained her in the ascetic life that has been thrust upon her through no choice of her own, but as the events in the story force her to question the underpinnings of that faith, she must struggle for a path of devotion that includes the more complex understanding of truth that she has gained. The powerful last moments of the film create a hopeful image of that struggle that has given me lingering inspiration. [In Hindi; not rated but mature themes; on at least two major 10-best lists and nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film; available on DVD.]
2. "PAN'S LABYRINTH," the new film written and directed by Mexican Guillermo del Toro, is the most stunningly original film on my list, and really is my other number one film. Although it has been favorably compared to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I think it far surpasses those films in import and artistic vision. It is an absolutely incredible work of art.
The visionary del Toro sets his film in 1944, five years after Franco emerged the victor in Spain's brutal civil war; by this time the rest of the world had tragically abandoned Spain to endure the nightmare of fascism. Del Toro tells two interconnected stories (one based in the "real" world and one in the fantasy or spiritual world, depending on your will to believe) involving Ofelia, a somber girl on the cusp of adolescence. Her father has died in the war, and she travels with her mother to a military outpost to be with her new stepfather, the brutal Captain Vidal (chillingly portrayed by Sergi Lopez, the sinister hotel manager of "Dirty Pretty Things"). Vidal is at work wiping out the last pockets of republican resistance, but has insisted that Ofelia's mother make the journey in the last stages of a difficult pregnancy because, in his view, a son should be born near his father (the child will, it seems, be a boy because Vidal wills it so). Ofelia instinctively distrusts Vidal, preferring to bury herself in her beloved books of fantasy--but soon she is inhabiting a world like the ones she reads about when a buzzing insect transforms into a tiny fairy and leads her to a deep labyrinth near the military headquarters, where she encounters a faun who introduces her to a sinister world that parallels the real one.
Ofelia's fantasy seems to reflect the darkness of the real world. The fairy is not dainty, but itself looks like an insect, and the 7-foot faun (a figure straight out of del Toro's dreams, he has said) speaks even friendly words in an ominous tone, and appears to be made of earth and roots and shrubbery, with tree-like, twisted, knotted legs, an etched forehead, and wide-set eyes. According to del Toro, the faun of mythology was meant to be a neutral figure, as savage and benign as nature. Here the faun informs Ofelia that she is believed to be the long-lost princess of an underground kingdom ("where there are neither lies nor pain"), and sets her off to perform three tasks that will verify her authenticity. Soon she is receiving her instructions from a blank volume whose fanciful illustrations appear only to her, and finds herself crawling through muck and grime, covered in millipedes, to confront a monstrous toad leeching on a giant fig tree, and encountering a hideous, shrunken pale man with skin hanging in folds and eyeballs that he squishes into his hands. Scenes of Ofelia's grave heroism in the underworld are interspersed with scenes in her life above, where the lonely child finds a kindred soul in her stepfather's housekeeper, Mercedes, and soon discovers that Mercedes is quietly aiding the republicans under Vidal's nose.
One of the wonders of the film is that it seems to bypass straight narrative for the territory of dreams and the unconscious; its secrets and the connections between the two stories are profound but are depicted and sensed rather than explained. The voluptuous fantasy world that del Toro has created (down to the illustrations in Ofelia's blank book, which are his handiwork) seem somehow both unexpected and yet perfectly apt; they reminded me of Goya's fantastic, dark later paintings (the pale man resembles Goya's Saturn) or Picasso's Guernica, similarly evoking the evils of war and fascism that are the stuff of Ofelia's real life. Indeed, del Toro, in a wonderful interview with Terry Gross, has talked about a lifelong fascination with monsters and the supernatural world, which he sees as an expression of spiritual reality; born in a family ruled by a strict form of Catholicism, he "accepted monsters into [his] heart" as a child in much the same way other people accept Jesus, and believes that we are better people when we deal with the dark side of life. In the film, the fantasy sequences somehow reinforce the horror of the scenes with Vidal, whose obsession with the immaculate order of his vision of a "clean Spain" hardly obscures his world's bloody filth and brutality. As Ofelia's mission in the fantasy world begins to affect her life in the real world, her struggle with evil powerfully evokes a connection between the spiritual and physical world. And Ofelia and the determined housekeeper (as well as the captain's kindly doctor, who is also aiding the republicans) suggest the path of the idealist in a hopeless situation. In the real world, Ofelia is powerless--but once she finds her purpose in the labyrinth, she grasps at it with the same fervent faith as do the rebels, pursuing it with a grave determination that parallels Mercedes' surreptitious rebellion against Vidal. Both Ofelia and Mercedes require a key to carry out their subversive actions, and each takes risks with her key that have consequences in both realms. A pivotal moment in the real world involves Vidal telling the doctor that he should obey without questioning; the doctor's response is echoed by Ofelia in her climactic encounter with the faun.
The film affected me profoundly; its violence is appropriately upsetting, and the images wouldn't let me go. I found myself thinking of the film for days after first viewing it, and felt compelled to see it again to wrestle with what it had stirred up in me. Del Toro, whose previous work (including "Hellboy" and "The Devil's Backbone") has been imaginative but not nearly so profound, proves to be a genius here, and has assembled an absolutely unforgettable cast: Lopez is one of the most fully-realized villains I can remember (there is something about a late scene when he stitches up his own sliced mouth that perfectly expresses the steely resolve that makes him almost admirable, yet firmly places him as a monster in Ofelia's Guernica-like world of the subconscious); Ivana Baquero, the 11-year-old who plays Ofelia, is miraculous, perfectly self-contained, an old soul and a wide-eyed innocent (she never cries, but evidences her fear only through her breathing, valiantly proceeding no matter what she encounters); and Maribel Verdu (who you might remember as the sexpot in "Y Tu Mama Tambien") is every bit Baquero's equal as a heroine of the real world. The film perfectly evokes its tagline ("Innocence has a power evil cannot resist"), and its score, whose theme is often hummed by Mercedes, beautifully captures the film's sense of hope and heroism emerging from darkness. Strong, haunting stuff. [In Spanish; rated R for graphic violence and some language; on at least 32 major 10-best lists and nominated for six Academy Awards, including best foreign language film, best original screenplay, and best cinematography; still in theaters and really ought not to be missed on the big screen.]
3. "LITTLE CHILDREN" is aptly named, though not for the reasons that are first in evidence. In the manner of an anthropological study (reinforced by the wry and unusually effective narration voiced by Will Lyman of PBS's "Frontline" series), it tells the story of a suburban Massachusetts community in which, like similar communities all over the U.S., the residents' lives revolve around their children, creating a seemingly perfect little insulated world for them. The quietude of that world is disrupted when a convicted sex offender, Ronnie McGorvey, moves into the neighborhood--to live with his devoted mother--and a resident ex-cop makes it his personal mission (for the children, of course) to broadcast McGorvey's presence and, apparently, to make his life sufficiently miserable so that he will leave.
The story slyly unfolds to reveal that all is not as it appears. For example, life is not about the children in the way the adults tell themselves it is--if anything, their children are, as one critic put it, "tiny loci of anxiety, resentment and redirected ambition." (Chocano, LA Times) Without glossing over the danger that McGorvey represents, the film depicts (through a sympathetic but clear lens) the misbehavior that abounds in such communities; McGorvey simply becomes the focus of the fear and guilt and misdirected desire that plagues so many people in a culture where people have so much yet bear such profound emptiness. As another critic put it, "Silent desperation can be worse if there's no material bar to happiness. A sex offender in the neighborhood at least represents an excuse to be agitated. The point 'Little Children' makes is that, without the external threat, people would be forced to look inward. They'd have to notice they're starving--and for lack of something they can't even name." (LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle)
The parents, then, are among the children referenced in the title--giving in like children to their basest urges but (except for McGorvey) to varying degrees protected by the veneer of privilege and respectability. As the narrator puts it, "We want what we want." Kate Winslet's character, Sarah, a restless former Ph.D. candidate who is unhappily married to a man lost in work and internet porn, feels herself badly miscast in the role of state-at-home mom to an alien three-year-old. In a further departure from the life she envisioned for herself as an idealistic feminist graduate student, she finds that she wants Brad, the handsome stay-at-home dad dubbed "the prom king" by the other mothers at the local playground. Brad has failed the bar exam twice and, though ostensibly preparing for a third try, spends his prep time wistfully studying a group of local teenage skateboard daredevils. Brad, too, wants Sarah; she isn't as beautiful as his drop-dead-gorgeous wife Cathy (well-played by Jennifer Connelly), but Sarah accepts what he offers her instead of regarding him with subtle disapproval.
These and other characters are fully, gently realized, even while they behave in ways one can't condone. My reaction to them reminded me of how I reacted to the film "Happiness" (which is an excellent but much harsher and more difficult depiction of similar themes)--I felt saddened and at times repelled by, for example, McGorvey's treatment of a vulnerable woman during the date arranged by his hopeful mother; Sarah's neglect of her daughter; Brad's irresolute longing for his lost youth; Cathy's reaction to her dawning comprehension that Brad is sleeping with Sarah; the gaping blind spots in McGorvey's mother's otherwise admirable love for her son. Yet the sadness did not feel like judgment so much as recognition. Their dilemmas are real and even familiar.
And in Sarah's case, at least, there is by the end a glimmer of transformation. Listen for her speech at a book-group meeting late in the film; she understandably finds herself identifying with Emma Bovary (denounced by another of the participants as "selfish" and "a slut"), but her defense of allowing oneself to sense one's longings and to reach for something more expresses insight that she has not yet lived into but might. ("It's not the cheating; it's the hunger" that makes Emma Bovary a hero, she observes.) Among a host of wonderful performances, Winslet's is particularly remarkable and subtly expressive (she deserves her Oscar nomination), and Jackie Earle Haley (also Oscar-nominated) as McGorvey and Phyllis Summerville as his mother are also especially good. [Rated R for strong sexuality and nudity, language, and some disturbing content; on at least 12 major 10-best lists and nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress (Winslet), and Best Supporting Actor (Haley); still in second-run theaters]
4. "STRANGER THAN FICTION" was somewhat underappreciated by the critics but was for me a deeply satisfying rumination on the difference between self-consciousness and consciousness. I was attracted to the film because of its clever premise, which is worthy of comparison to the work of Charlie Kauffman (the writer of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Being John Malkovich," and "Adaptation"): a mild-manned IRS auditor named Harold Crick (played to perfection by Will Ferrell, turning his usual antics inside-out) begins hearing a woman's voice in his head that seems to be narrating his humdrum existence, in a crisp British accent and, as he observes, "accurately and with a better vocabulary" than he would use. She observes him "counting brush strokes" as he brushes his teeth; counting the steps to the bus stop, where he catches the same bus every day; timing every element of his routine to the precise second; and altogether substituting obsessive orderliness for actually engaging with the world. The voice, so present that Harold is genuinely surprised that no one else seems able to hear it, begins to shake him out of his stupor, and his concern turns to alarm when the voice intones a reference to his "imminent death."
In desperation, finding no help from the healing professions, Harold turns to a literary critic (a broadly amusing Dustin Hoffman), the only person who takes him seriously enough to ask and help him answer the pivotal question: what kind of story is he in? To me, this was not just a clever plot gimmick--it was a wonderfully sideways approach to the very question most of us avoid asking about our lives. Though perhaps most of us are not so obsessive-compulsive as Harold, a similar kind of somnambulism is not only common but even required in some contexts; there is every reason to remain asleep so that we don't question why we are settling for so little or wonder what conflicts may exist between the values we mean to hold and those that our lives express.
As soon as Crick begins asking these questions, he finds that he is a little less successful in his work as an auditor, a little less satisfied with his ordered life. He finds, too, that he has yearnings--chiefly, for the politically radical baker Ana Pascal (a deliciously adorable Maggie Gyllenhaal) who he is assigned to audit after she refuses to pay all but the taxes she can connect to social causes. One of the true joys of this film is watching these two react to and watch each other; Gyllenhaal plays Ana with a mixture of alertness and ease that is understandably inspiring to Harold, as she awakens him to the pleasures of her cookies (!) and to his own inner life and then responds to the purity of what she sees in his tentative awakening. In time, as Harold transforms from a person paralyzed by self-consciousness to one whose consciousness includes awareness of both the power and the limits of his own free will, it turns out that he has a gentle lesson or two for Ana as well.
All this occurs against the backdrop of Harold's search for the voice in his head who, it turns out, is a celebrated but reclusive author (wonderfully played by the great Emma Thompson) who is engaged in a decade-long battle-to-the-death with writer's block. Without giving too much away, I'll say only that her literary calling card (and, purportedly, the secret to her literary greatness) is to kill off all of her main characters--and yet the breakthrough in her paralysis can be read to include a reordering of her own sense of what makes a worthwhile story. In short, her encounter with Harold Crick's transformation has a transforming effect on her as well.
The film is funny, and charming, and well-executed in every respect. It's quirky enough that it took me a bit to decide that I liked it the first time I saw it--but I was hooked when Dustin Hoffman's character, engaged in his quest for the nature of Harold's story, asks him for his favorite word and Harold responds, without missing a beat, "integer." From there I surrendered to the story's quirky sensibility, only to be delighted by how deeply it delved into the territory of ultimate questions. And where else can you find Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Queen Latifah all in the same movie? [Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, sexuality, brief language, and nudity; on at least three major 10-best lists; still in second-run theaters and to be released on DVD on February 27]
5. "BABEL" garnered the best director award at Cannes for Mexican director Alejandro González Iñarritu--well-deserved when you consider that it was filmed in four countries (Morocco, Japan, Mexico, and the U.S.) and in seven languages and tells four interconnecting stories with depth, clarity, and intensity. But this is not just a feat of technical brilliance or gimmickry, as some critics have suggested; in fact, I am getting a little frustrated with the oft-repeated comments that interconnected storylines are a gimmick that has somehow been overdone after Iñarritu's two prior films ("Amores Perros" and "21 Grams") and last year's "Crash" and that the interconnections somehow strain plausibility. Interconnecting stories done well, as they are here, are no more a gimmick than is chronological narrative; rather, like chronological narrative, the use of interconnecting stories reveals something essentially truthful about how life unfolds. Indeed, some stories can only be told this way. And perhaps even more so than "Crash," which I admired, this film uses this method of storytelling to profound effect, revealing how the actions of people on one continent can have ripple effects literally around the world. Honestly, I think those who found anything about this film implausible should open their eyes a little wider.
The stories here involve a well-to-do American couple traveling in Morocco after losing a child to sudden infant death syndrome; their two other young children, left with the devoted Mexican nanny who has cared for them since birth; two Moroccan boys whose father sends them off to protect his goats from jackals with a rifle purchased from a neighbor with cash and a goat; and a troubled deaf-mute teenager in Japan, whose fury is provoked not only by the usual adolescent grievances but by her mother's recent suicide and her profound social isolation. Ostensibly, at least, the Moroccan boys set off the pivotal chain reaction by foolishly testing the rifle's range by shooting at a tourist bus, unwittingly causing serious injury to the American woman (Cate Blanchett). Her husband (Brad Pitt) desperately seeks help while the American embassy and his fellow tourists, suspecting terrorism, overreact and spin the event into a much bigger crisis. When the couple's return home is delayed and alternative child care falls through, the husband orders the nanny, who is undocumented but has called the U.S. her home for many years, to remain with the children even though that means missing her only son's wedding in a Mexican border town. Desperate to go and unable to find any other solution, the nanny enlists her hotheaded nephew to drive them all to Mexico for the wedding, predictably but tragically encountering problems at the border on her return. The Japanese teenager's connection to these events takes longer to unfold, though the eventual link is foreshadowed by occasional flashes on Japanese television reporting the international incident sparked by the shooting in Morocco.
But the connections here run deeper than cause-and-effect. There is dangerous but unintentional foolishness in all the stories (the Moroccan father's charge to his sons and his unwitting provocation of their sibling rivalry; their childish target practice; the nanny's miscalculation and the reaction of her loose-cannon nephew to the trouble they encounter at the border; the teenager's recklessness with men). There is also cruelty, though some of it is subtle or, if not subtle, at least understandable (the brutality of the Moroccan police and the coldness of the American border guards; the American father's treatment of the nanny; the reaction of the other tourists to the American couple's plight; the treatment of the teenager by her peers). The vulnerability of the foreigner abroad is remarkably similar across class lines, but also different, as we see by contrasting the treatment of the Americans by the inhabitants of the village where they are stranded with the treatment of the nanny at the U.S. border. Ultimately, neither the American and Japanese characters, who enjoy relative privilege, nor the more obviously disadvantaged Moroccan and Mexican characters, are spared moments of intense anguish. (It is particularly poignant in the children--I can't remember seeing fear so convincingly portrayed as by the two American kids.) Most thematically, given the title's reference to the biblical story of the tower of Babel, there are profound misunderstandings, and not just across language lines--they occur between the husband and wife and between the teenager and her father, as well as between the nanny and the border guards, the American government and the Moroccan police. Finally, there is hostility where kindness is expected (as from the fellow travelers with the Americans and from the apparently Mexican officer who the nanny thinks is her salvation) and kindness where hostility or exploitation is expected (as from the Moroccan villages who shelter the American couple and from a Japanese policeman who is perhaps the kindest and least exploitive male ever depicted on screen).
The film jumps back and forth in time and between stories, yet I never lost the thread and never lost concern for the characters. Their foolishness and their anguish is real and true not only to their particular stories but to the bigger picture the film presents--which is that our connections and our misunderstandings are equally profound and that not only language but cultural assumptions and biases keep us from seeing reality. And the casting is uniformly inspired--the actresses playing the nanny and the Japanese teenager both were justly nominated for Oscars, and the casting of two movie stars as the American couple among a mostly non-professional cast of Moroccan characters nicely highlights the way Americans stand out in third-world countries. Honestly, it will be a shame if people decide that this film is too similar to "Crash" to reward them both in consecutive years. Of the Oscar-nominated films, I'd pick this one as best picture. [In English, Spanish, Japanese sign language, Japanese, Berber, Arabic, and French; rated R for violence, some graphic nudity, sexual content, language, and some drug use; on at least 17 major 10-best lists and nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and two Best Supporting Actress nominations; still in second-run theaters and available on DVD]
6. "VENUS" is not only a beautiful film but features my favorite performance by an actor this year: the great Peter O'Toole playing a charming London thespian in his 70s. He is a man who was once prominent but is now reduced to playing the occasional TV deathbed scene or small period-picture speech, formerly a ladies' man but now, due to the ravages of time and prostate cancer, capable of "only a theoretical interest" in sex. As much as I love Forest Whitaker and admired his work in "The Last King of Scotland" (really only worth seeing for his astounding performance), O'Toole deserves the Best Actor Oscar. Nominated seven times, it is his turn (as he hoped upon receiving an honorary Oscar three years ago) to "win the lovely bugger outright."
Why, you might ask, is O'Toole worthy of tribute for playing a character apparently so much like himself, at least as we know him on screen? Because his performance here is a masterpiece of subtlety, generously stripped of vanity; he gives us a vision of a man wholly himself even while physically broken and enduring the indignities and betrayals of aging. And portraying a very strange sort of courtship, of a woman more than half a century his junior, O'Toole dances lightly on the precarious edge of what would have been purely creepy in lesser hands (Woody Allen comes to mind); without shying away from all that troubles about his character's pursuit of young flesh, O'Toole and his wonderful co-star, newcomer Jodie Whittaker, manage to create a relationship worth savoring.
O'Toole's Maurice is in the habit of a daily rendezvous with a couple of old cronies, to trade quips (including my personal favorite, "Oh, just kill them, kill the young, exterminate their disgusting happiness and hope") and to peruse the obits ("another one down"), measuring column inches in relation to what each of them might expect, in a late-life reverberation of that essential male tendency toward comparison. On one such outing, his fussy actor chum Ian (Leslie Phillips) announces that his grandniece, Jessie, is coming to stay with him. Ian envisions a solicitous young woman eager to learn to cook a nice piece of fish exactly to his liking, which he will reward by introducing her to Bach's St. Matthew's Passion over dinner; he has even purchased a little bell for summoning her so she will not have to wonder when she can satisfy some small whim. Ever the drama queen, however, Ian is "screaming for euthanasia" within a day of Jessie's arrival; slovenly and uncouth, she demands beer and guzzles packaged noodles, parked in front of the TV in a truly awful pair of sweats clearly not used for exercise. Intrigued, Maurice, fancying himself a "scientist of the female heart," jumps at the chance to take Jessie off Ian's hands.
What he is after--and what Jessie, in turn, thinks she can get from him, is the question on which the movie turns. When she tells him she is interested in a clearly improbable career in modeling (which sounds like "yodeling" in her coarse, lazy accent), he finds her a job posing nude for art students, thinking that will entitle him to a look. (She bans him from the studio, however, not wanting anyone she knows to get a look at "me chuffs and bumps.") He springs for jewelry and a tattoo, assumes an interest in her cultural education (treating her to her first experiences with live theater and the art museum, where he dubs her "Venus"), and lavishly admires every part of her body. You feel as though you should worry for her--but you don't exactly, so capable is she of fending off his advances with a barb or a swift kick. And, as Maurice puts it when Ian inquires about what he does with Jessie, mostly he is simply "nice to her."
My conclusion, at last, is that Maurice is attracted to Jessie's youth and vitality, wasted though it might presently be, and to the simple joy of pursuit, an ardor that has been part of his essential character but probably long denied him. I was surprised to find myself feeling actual joy at some scenes, most particularly when Maurice takes Jessie to a movie set in a limo that he has demanded from the producer and savors a look up her skirt while she glories in the view and the open air through the sun roof. There's a strange loveliness to their interactions--thanks as much to Whittaker as to O'Toole. (As one critic wrote, "[w]ith her strange northern dialect . . . and the way she lets a compliment be reflected across her face before quickly resetting her features to sullen distrust, she creates the fire that Maurice dances around like a caveman." [Smith, New York Post]) Maurice seems aware that Jessie is using him (it would be hard to miss); perhaps he recognizes himself in that too. In a former day, he would have done the same, one senses, but it is as though age has declawed him, leaving only his lustful attentiveness with none of its destructive power. The surprise is, his attentions do transform Jessie, though not in a Pygmalian sort of way. His kindness exposes her selfishness, and because he (by the experiences they have shared and by simply being who he is) has given her a taste for beauty, she begins to aspire to it.
Much of the credit for how deeply satisfying this film is goes Hanif Kureishi (who also penned "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "My Son the Fanatic," which I thought was one of the best films of 1999) for his beautiful script. The actors seem to savor the words like fine wine. It helps to have such good actors doing the savoring; for example, besides his scenes with Whittaker, O'Toole has splendid scenes with the great Vanessa Redgrave as the wife he abandoned for a comely co-star years before. The two share an understanding that is tender but not at all sentimental (he notes, for example, that he can see how leaving her with three young children "must have been . . . inconvenient"; when he answers her question about his latest role by telling her he was playing "a corpse, more or less," she responds simply, "typecast again"). And his scenes with Phillips are also delightful, whether they are bickering or sharing a dance in a church. The movie makes you appreciate such connections, and celebrates Maurice, who approaches life with such easy charm and twinkling good humor that he makes everything else seem insignificant. [Rated R for language, some sexual content, and brief nudity; on at least five major 10-best lists and nominated for one Academy Award (best actor); still in theaters]
7. "THE QUEEN" pulls off the impressive feat of making a closely-observed behind-the-scenes view of the cloistered life of Queen Elizabeth and her relationship with Prime Minister Tony Blair absolutely riveting. It focuses on the royal family's somewhat clueless reaction to Princess Diana's death--and whatever your feelings were about Princess Diana and whatever your level of interest in the royal family, this uncommonly observant and insightful film keeps you absorbed in the every slight flicker of emotion on Queen Elizabeth's face (and they are all only flickers). More than that, it leaves you grappling in the best possible way with questions about the role of the monarchy in the post-modern era.
As it happens, I was in England and Scotland the week after Diana's death in 1997 and witnessed close-up the public events depicted here. During that week, you almost could not find a channel on TV that was not showing clips of old Diana interviews or of interviews with mourners who were standing in long queues to sign condolence books all over Great Britain. It was baffling--but clear that some great historic shift was happening. This film reflects on the nature of that shift--a clash between the traditions and stuffy assumptions of the monarchy as embodied and symbolized by Her Royal Highness, and the more modern, expressive, personality-driven style of leadership symbolized by Tony Blair, who had just taken office. More than that, the events of that week revealed a cultural shift, perhaps a change in the national identity. One wonders if that inherently British love of formality and pomp is what has kept the British royal family in power (if you can call it that) for so long--and yet the public so fiercely identified with Diana, with her beauty and stylishness but also her weepiness and her bulimia and her loneliness and what seemed at least to be her open-heartedness. So much anger was focused on the royal family's treatment of her--and yet, how could it have been otherwise? She was the antithesis of the institution. Which is, of course, the point.
These conflicts are brilliantly portrayed here, and from several angles. There is the contrast between Diana and Elizabeth, thrust into power as a very young woman and very nearly unshakable in her view of her duties as queen. What HRH viewed as selflessness and sacrifice--setting aside emotion in order to maintain the dignified and reassuringly implacable front necessary to function as a symbol--"the people" had come to view as cold and heartless. The theory of this film--which I must say I found quite convincing--was that she might well have missed the cultural shift had not Blair practically forced her to see it. A much more current expression of the British personality, he is shown as casual, informal, and a skilled politician, adept at reading and responding to the political landscape. The contrast between the queen and Blair is fascinating--not least because one comes away, as Blair apparently did if you believe this version, with a newfound respect for the value of the queen's way of seeing things. She has, after all, as she tells Blair, worked with ten prime ministers; she carries a piece of the cultural memory that might otherwise be missed.
The debate about the royals is portrayed in part in dialogue between Blair and his wife Cherie, both very well played here. Cherie barely stifles giggles and an eye roll at the protocol demands of her first ceremonial meeting with the queen and dismisses the royal family as "freeloading, emotionally retarded nutters." As Blair moves from exasperation with the queen to a kind of admiration, Cherie ribs him about his "girlfriend"--and part of the fun of the film is wrestling with the question whether Blair's emerging respect for the queen is well-founded insight and a nuanced respect for history or, as one critic suggested, an early example of what would later prove to be a rather dangerous tendency to defer to authority that would lead him to back a considerably less worthy world leader. (Edelstein, New York Magazine)
But the most fun of all comes from watching the queen resist and resist (surrounded as she is by a bulwark of servants and protocol) and finally swallow hard to respond to the change that has overtaken her. As portrayed by the great Helen Mirren (who absolutely deserves the best actress Oscar), shifts in her perspective somehow become apparent from the barely perceptable lift of an eyebrow, a slight pursing of the lips, the merest widening of her eyes. It's a wonder to behold, and an insightful portrayal of how it is possible to be both clueless and the smartest person in the room. Mirren's absolute transformation (down to the way she walks and tilts her head and the cadence of her speech) into a living historical figure goes beyond mimicry; she inhabits the woman so completely that you feel as though you know her. From the opening scene, where we watch her sitting for a portrait, you feel as though you are being let in on the secret of her iron will and regal bearing, so that you know to watch for small changes in her carriage and grieve a little as small bits of her must be laid aside. The rest of the cast is superb as well, especially Michael Sheen as Blair and Helen McCrory as Cherie, both of whom overcome a lack of physical resemblance by convincing you of the story their characters have to tell. And the depiction of a sniveling Charles here by Alex Jennings is great--again, no real physical resemblance, but as one critic put it, you see him "through his mother's eyes, not so much flexible as boneless." (Edelstein) Stephen Frears' subtle direction and a terrific script by Peter Morgan also deserve accolades. [Rated PG-13 for brief strong language; on at least 37 major 10-best lists and nominated for 6 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actress (Mirren); still in theaters]
8. "THE DEPARTED" is the best on my list for crackling, crafted entertainment-- if you don't mind movie violence, that is. It's the latest from Martin Scorcese, and violent crime dramas are his specialty, after all. To me, this is one of his best because, in addition to the dark heat found in his best earlier films (like "Goodfellas," "Taxi Driver," and "Mean Streets"), this one has an interesting, suspenseful plot that gives the film a relentless pace and some genuine heart and soul. Those earlier films, though inarguably great, are less about plot and more about plumbing the depths of dangerous or disturbed men; it's not cool to admit it, but I admired those films from more of a distance and actually got a little bogged down in them. Even though I'd already seen the Hong Kong thriller "Infernal Affairs," on which this film is based, this remake hooked me from the first frame; in fact, I was tensely perched on the edge of my seat even during my second viewing of it. And the characters--particularly Leo DiCaprio's tortured undercover cop, Billy Costigan (his best work and a more worthy subject for an Oscar nomination than the film that did score him one, "Blood Diamond")--are richly and absorbingly realized.
Like "Infernal Affairs," the film is based on the conceit of parallel stories of two rats: Costigan, who infiltrates the ranks of a mob syndicate, and Colin Sullivan, hand-picked as a youth by the organization's boss (Jack Nicholson in a fun, showy, performance) to infiltrate the police department. It's the rare movie remake that takes the essential elements of the original and adds enough new ones to improve upon it and make it fresh. For all its complicated plot twists, I found this one easier to follow than the original, perhaps in part because it is so chock-full of interesting characters that shine in roles that would have been afterthoughts in a lesser film. Nicholson's crime boss is fun in ways you might expect, for example (so long has he gorged on power and violence and money that he is somehow compelled to keep his fingers in, taking risks simply for the glee of it when he could insulate himself). Then, too, Alec Baldwin positively gleams as a wise-cracking, self-satisfied state police boss, and Mark Wahlberg deserves the Oscar nomination he got for playing a hard-ass detective who is one of only two people in the world who know DiCaprio's undercover identity. There is a lot of quick, witty dialogue that gives the film texture, particularly between Baldwin's and Wahlberg's characters (in fact, Wahlberg spouts nothing but flinty gems). Martin Sheen is also memorable as the good cop to Wahlberg's bad, plodding but tough and kind. And in the middle of this testosterone overdose, there's a terrific, textured performance by Vera Farmiga in the improbable role of a crime psychiatrist, Madolyn, who, unaware of their connection, becomes emotionally involved with both Sullivan and Costigan. In a lesser film, this part of the film would have been an annoyance, the obligatory romantic side-plot--but here it provides an important means of exposing the differences between the two men. Farmiga also creates a fascinating, tormented character who asks some of the film's most central questions about the nature of human connection, how lying erodes a person, and how one discerns who is dangerous and who is safe.
The script by William Monahan (also credited with the far inferior Kingdom of Heaven--but perhaps that ended up a studio project) absolutely crackles. It has been compared to the work of David Mamet, who I find annoying--but here (unlike in Mamet's work) you have just the right amount of wit and style without overindulgence (I can actually imagine people saying these words), and with a soul. And setting the film in Boston (where Monahan and several of the actors are from and where English is spoken with particular grit) is a brilliant stroke; it makes the most of the particular race and class differences that divide that city (despite its liberal reputation) and effectively mines the thin line that divides thugs on both sides of the law.
The film is an editing masterwork, deftly flipping back and forth between the parallel lives and moral dilemmas of Sullivan and Costigan and cops and the mob in a way that illuminates without feeling heavy-handed or forced and that builds the tension by keeping us one step ahead of the characters. Damon puts his frat-boy looks to good use, showing flashes of style and apparent vulnerability (we see why Madolyn is attracted to him), and yet conveying the essential crack in his soul which allows him to manage his anxiety by resourcefully sacrificing anyone who stands in his way. But DiCaprio is the film's true soul; it's his mounting torment as his morals are increasingly compromised and the depth of his isolation becomes evident that raises the stakes so high and makes us care about what would otherwise be just a crackin' crime drama. [Rated R for strong, brutal violence, pervasive language, some strong sexual content, and drug material; on at least 35 major 10-best lists and nominated for 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Wahlberg); still in theaters and just released on DVD]
9. "LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE," a film about losers, was, ironically and deservedly, the break-out winner of 2006, sweeping festival awards and nominations and scoring big at the box office. The work of a first-time screenwriter (Michael Arendt) and a couple co-directing their first feature film (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris), it succeeds where many, many other family road-trip pictures have failed, at being quirky, laugh-out-loud funny, and surprisingly poignant.
Carina Chocano of the Los Angeles Times pointed out a connection between this film and Alexis de Tocqueville's prescient writings about democracy in the 1830s, in which he posited the existence of a foundational problem with our American view that success at anything is open to everyone. Promoting that view sets most people up for failure, or at least for a form of what philosopher Alain de Botton has termed "status anxiety," in which all but a fortunate few feel like failures for not attaining the achievements that are supposed to be within everyone's grasp. As de Tocqueville put it, everyone "fanc[ies] that they have been called to great destinies. But that is an erroneous view corrected by experience every day."
Of course, part of the problem is the definition of success promoted by our culture. Here that is embodied by the family patriarch, Richard (Greg Kinnear at his smarmy best), who has risked everything to promote "Refuse to Lose," a nine-step motivational program that appears to be simply a compilation of every irritating self-help slogan you can imagine. It seems that Richard is succeeding only at driving his family crazy by channeling all of those phrases in his daily discourse--but as much as the family scorns him, each member seems to be driven by his or her own similarly-unattainable vision of success. Richard's stepson Dwayne (silent but expressive Paul Dano, his eyes mostly buried under dyed-black hair), professes to "hate everyone," and has turned his room into a shrine to Nietzsche and his will to maintaining a nine-month-old vow of silence until he achieves his goal of attaining acceptance to the Air Force Academy. Richard's father (Alan Arkin) freely dispenses his own accumulated wisdom, spiced with expletives, and justifies his newfound taste for heroin (not to mention his apparently longer-standing taste for porn) as the logical choice for someone who is "old." He is apparently the only one taking seriously the aspiration of Olive (Abigail Breslin), a plucky, slightly chubby 7-year-old, to win the prepubescent beauty pageant for which the film is named. Grandpa is coaching Olive's talent routine rehearsals (which the rest of the family would know is not a good idea if they were paying any attention) and, charmingly convinced of her beauty (which is refreshingly unlike JonBenet Ramsey's but not at all destined for pageant recognition), is encouraging the visions of tearful victory that she practices in front of taped TV pageant finales. Mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) is keeping the family afloat financially (barely) and fraying in her attempts to hold them together with buckets of chicken and a cheerful "pro-honesty" reaction to temporary setbacks like the suicide attempt of her gay brother Frank (Steve Carell, better than ever), who has been released from the psych ward into her care. Although Frank professes to be the foremost Proust scholar in the country, his title appears to be in doubt; he has just weathered the indignity of losing the graduate student he loves, as well as a McArthur "genius grant," to the second-most-renowned Proust scholar--and now, he observes ruefully, he has failed at suicide as well.
The directors make the most of their stellar cast and a witty script, as the family embarks on a road trip from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Redondo Beach, California so that Olive can seize an unexpected chance to compete in the pageant finals. Because airfare and leaving Frank and Dwayne alone are out of the question, they are forced to travel together in a ramshackle VW bus that is the same sunny-yellow color as the smiley-face puzzle with which Olive amuses herself along the way. Some of the film's funniest bits occur after the bus's clutch gives out and the family is forced to literally jumpstart this inspired symbol of their ramshackle dreams after each rest stop by pushing it, chasing it, and hopping aboard like hobos onto a freight train. Along the way, each confronts the limits of his or her dreams, culminating in a freakish pageant finale that stretches credibility in some respects but nevertheless seems the perfect response to what the pageant (and the journey) has revealed about the hollowness of the success dreams the family members have been chasing. By this time, the film, with its comically framed shots, impeccable pacing, and memorably quirky characters, has earned the right to defy conventional good taste--and really, in a contest where little girls are tarted up to look like prostitutes, who is in a position to judge what that is? [Rated R for language, some sex and drug content; on at least 18 major 10-best lists and nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Breslin), Best Supporting Actor (Arkin), and Best Original Screenplay; available on DVD and in second-run theaters]
10. "QUINCEAÑERA" won awards at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006 (including the audience award) and, had it gotten the chance, would surely have charmed a wider theater audience. Set against the rich backdrop of Mexican-American culture, it tells a story that in some ways could occur in any culture--of two teenagers struggling to find their place in a close-knit community that is not quite so warm and accepting as it purports to be, and the one person in their world who quietly loves them into being.
The film has a wonderful underdog back story. The directors, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, are a couple who live in Echo Park, a Latino neighborhood in Los Angeles that is changing quickly due to gentrification. In 2004, they served as photographers at a neighbor family's quinceañera celebration, a sort of coming-out party that marks a girl's entrance into womanhood on her 15th birthday and looks a lot like a lavish wedding without the bother of a groom. The experience sparked the idea for a film that the couple would make together; they formulated the story in January 2005, wrote it in February, cast it in March, and shot it in April with a cast of mostly unknowns on a budget of $400,000.
The result is a satisfying little film that gets everything right. It starts with a particularly over-the-top quinceañera celebration, complete with church ceremony, the ride of the celebrant, Eileen, and her teenage attendants in a Hummer limo, and a dance party including a mix of traditional and salsa dancing. One of Eileen's attendants is her cousin, Magdalena, whose own quinceañera will be next, but whose father, a storefront preacher, has neither the means nor the inclination to throw her such an expensive bash. No need, he thinks, in any event-- Magdalena is a responsible girl who does her homework, sings in church, and will be grateful to have her cousin's dress altered for her own celebration. He is right--Magdalena doesn't put up much of a fight on the dress (we can see that she is annoyed but she is too sensible to pick that fight), though she surprises him by angling for a Hummer limo. But if he didn't expect such foolishness from Magdalena, it is at least within the range of foolishness he is prepared to resist.
The dress fittings reveal, however, a bigger surprise: Magdalena's girth is expanding and, sure enough, she is pregnant. Although she insists that she has never gone all the way with her studious boyfriend, Herman, her father refuses to believe her and casts her out for bringing shame on the family. She packs up her few belongings and heads to the home of her great uncle Tomas, a gentle old bachelor who is already sheltering Magdalena's cousin (Eileen's brother), Carlos, in the little cottage where he has lived for 28 years. Rumor is that Carlos's dad threw him out for being gay, though the truth is something short of that. He first appears crashing Eileen's quinceañera, or at least that is how it is viewed; he looks the part of the tattooed cholo (gang member) and is roughly tossed out.
Magdalena and Carlos at first eye each other with resentment and distrust Each knows the purported offenses of the other and, even as pariahs, they see each other through the lense of the community. And the truth is, they are both in trouble. But living with Tomas works a subtle change in them. It's clear that Tomas knows why they are there, but it's also clear that he believes these are good kids who can be trusted to come out all right. Indeed, his little house and garden are so filled with mementos that they seem almost a shrine to those he has loved, and there are little hints that some of them particularly needed loving. The three come to form a little family, with Tomas occasionally sharing stories of his life--and though there's no hidden agenda in Tomas's retelling, the stories quietly impress the two kids. Tomas has suffered loss, made sacrifices, been misunderstood.
Tomas's kindness to the two young people is believably contrasted with the behavior of their parents and the community, whose love is more showy but also more conditional. [It's an interesting parallel to the gentrifying community around them, best exemplified by Tomas's landlords--keeping what they find charming and junking what doesn't suit their taste.] That contrast plays out again when Tomas finds himself in crisis--the help the family offers seems to miss the meaning of the event to him, not to mention to extent to which he has been shouldering the family's responsibility of nurturing the two teenagers. But the response of Magdalena and Carlos shows just how much he has influenced them. Without being didactic, it's an inspiring picture of the transformative power of genuine love. [Rated R for language, some sexual content, and drug use; on at least one major 10-best list; available on DVD]
And finally, some additional films that really stayed with me:
"SHERRYBABY" didn't get much of a theatrical release (as near as I can figure out, it wasn't released in Portland at all) but is a hot DVD rental, thanks to a powerhouse performance by the great Maggie Gyllenhaal as a recovering heroin addict adjusting to life outside prison after three years inside and struggling to find a way to reconnect with the five-year-old daughter that her brother and his wife have been raising as their own. It's worth seeing for Gyllenhaal's incredibly truthful performance (she has a sulky way of holding her body that perfectly captures the sense that she simultaneously knows that her body gives her what little power she has and yet somehow feels lost inside it), but also for its unflinching depiction of the untenable life of a woman who is typical of so many in our culture. I felt as though my heart was breaking as I watched her brace against the craving for heroin that never leaves her, the scrappiness that she flashes at the slightest affront, her sincere wish to erase five years of neglect and absence in order to be everything to her daughter (their scenes together are astonishingly truthful), her daughter's confusion and vulnerability, her brother and sister-in-law's understandable but painful distrust and their attachment to her daughter, and just how hard it is to carry out her best intentions when thrown back into the very context that broke her down in the first place. The writer-director, Laurie Collyer, whose only previous film is a documentary, displays a documentarian's steady gaze and observant eye; I felt as though I was seeing the story of the women whose cases I read every day, along with those of the children and their foster parents. It humbled me to think that I'm called upon to decide the fates of people like this without even meeting them. This one should be required viewing for anyone whose work touches the lives of such people. [Rated R for strong sexuality, nudity, language, and drug content; on at least one major 10-best list; Gyllenhaal deserved an Oscar nomination; available on DVD]
"DREAMGIRLS" won me over--a difficult thing for a musical to do, as I'm not big on them. This one, however, really works, partly because its story needs be told through music. As a result, the numbers don't feel forced or tacked on to a cynic like me; they thrillingly capture the rise of Black popular music and the losses and compromises made along the way. The biggest reason to watch the film is Jennifer Hudson, the American Idol reject who absolutely rocks the house like nothing I'd ever seen; she literally took my breath away and, particularly in her show-stopper number, "And I Am Tell You I'm Not Going," brought me to tears. Eddie Murphy is the other revelation of the film; his performance as a charismatic singer performer reminiscent of Little Richard and James Brown is absolutely stunning and by far his best work. Both Hudson and Murphy deserve the Oscars for which they have been nominated, and this terrific film far exceeds "Chicago," not to mention "Rent" and "Phantom of the Opera" in translating the stage musical to the screen. It really is not to be missed. [Rated PG-13 for language, some sexuality, and drug content; on at least 10 major 10-best lists and nominated for 8 Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actress (Hudson) and Best Supporting Actor (Murphy); still in theaters]
"LADY VENGEANCE" is firmly in the "not for everyone" category. It is very violent and very troubling. But if you, like me, can appreciate a film that is shockingly original, that challenges you and gets under your skin, then and only then, give it a try. This is the third of a "vengeance" trilogy by the thrilling Korean director Chan-wook Park (the others are "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" and "Oldboy," the latter of which I wrote about last year). Like the other stories, it tells the story of someone who was horribly wronged and devotes ferocious energy to obtaining vengeance. Here, it's a young woman who confessed to the kidnapping and murder of a young boy, then spends the next 13 years behind bars working a vengeful plot to be put into action on her release. The actress who plays her, a hugely popular South Korean movie and TV star, Lee Young-ae, is astounding; she must convey sweetness, vulnerability, anguish, brutal determination, iron courage, and fury in turn, and she is utterly fascinating to watch. And Park has spared no detail of intricate plotting and harsh and beautiful images, each photographed as if it were a painting. His use of the vengeance story to explore themes of evil, pain, and redemption is nothing short of brilliant. [In Korean, English, and Japanese; rated R for strong violent content, some involving children, and some sexuality; on at least two major 10-best lists; available on DVD]
"THE GROUND TRUTH" should be required viewing for every American. It tells the story of the current Iraq war entirely from the perspectives of those who have fought it and their families. All these soldiers express grave doubts about and, some outright opposition to, the war, but I defy anyone to dismiss the story that they here tell simply and without commentary. As one of them puts it, Americans want to honor vets with yellow stickers and slogans, but if you really want to honor vets, you should listen to them. The film begins with stories of why these vets enlisted (to obtain money for school, to escape a dead-end life in the ghetto, out of patriotism inspired by 9/11 or the movie "Top Gun"), and exposes the hypocrisies of the recruiting machinery. Then the soldiers describe basic training and its methods for instilling "a sustained desire to kill." Their stories of combat in Iraq are wrenching and put the lie to the idea that civilian casualties have been minimized; it also is painful to see how the lofty purpose that inspired them dissipated in the face of their actual experience. For me, the worst of it was their description of the return home to a country that doesn't want to know about their experience. The soldiers struggle to find words to describe their inner demons, and their spouses and family members tell what it is like to lose the person you believe has returned. They tell tale after tale of PTSD, shattered dreams, broken relationships, and the frustrating red tape they must contend with in order to obtain the most minimal benefits and help. One soldier is told that the VA doesn't treat "conscientious objectors" when he complains of recurrent guilt over civilian deaths, and later is diagnosed as "personality-disordered" (apparently a frequent phenomenon that supposedly excuses the military from treating these people). Suicides are dismissed as unrelated to the war experience; those people would have killed themselves anyway. All these stories are told simply, without histrionics, and the film is dedicated to Jeff Lucey, who killed himself six months after returning from Iraq, leaving on his bed the dog tags of two Iraqi soldiers he had killed. Whatever your feelings about the war, you owe it to yourself to hear these people out. [Rated R for disturbing violent content, and language; on at least two major 10-best lists; available on DVD]
"SOPHIE SCHOLL: THE FINAL DAYS" was an Academy Award nominee last year for best foreign language film, and tells the story of a 21-year-old German university student who, along with her brother Hans and their friend Chrisoph Probst, was arrested, tried, and executed for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets in a university building in 1943 Munich. Scholl is a national hero in the reunified Germany, and this account is based in large part on recently declassified transcripts of her grueling three-day interrogation by Robert Mohr, whose rise in the Gestapo looks to have been a career move from the life he otherwise would have led as, in his words, "a country policeman." In an excellent, icy performance by Alexander Held, Mohr is portrayed as the type of opportunist on whom totalitarianism depends, giving way to a kind of evil that is possible for many if not most of us. Much of the film consists of the interrogation's struggle-to-the-death, a fight that Scholl cannot win in one sense but from which, in another sense, she emerges the stronger in terms of will and integrity. As played by Julia Jentsch in one of the best female performances of the year, Scholl's youthful idealism, her fear and defiant courage, her terror and her strength, provide one of the most inspiring examples of faith-in-action that I have ever seen on screen. I appreciated the way the film takes Scholl's faith seriously but does not minimize its cost or overplay the help it gives her. And finally, what's most disturbing about this historical account is not its outcome, which we know already, but how closely the words of Mohr and the furious judge who fairly spits out the death sentence of Scholl and her compatriots seems to echo current political rhetoric denouncing criticism of the so-called "war on terror." [In German; not rated but an excellent film for teenagers and mature middle-schoolers; nominated for an Academy Award in 2005 and on at least two major 10-best lists for 2006, when it was released theatrically; available on DVD]
"THE HEART OF THE GAME" is a rousing documentary about girls' high school basketball. It starts out as a story about a lovable University of Washington tax professor, Bill Resler, who began coaching at a Seattle's Roosevelt High School after years of supporting his three daughters from the bleachers and has some pretty interesting and unorthodox methods for toughening up the girls and getting them comfortable with physical play. It morphs into a compelling story of one of the players, Darnellia Russell, an African American girl who Resler recruits to mostly-white Roosevelt based on her stunning middle school record in a mostly black district. Her middle school coach and her mother encourage the move, thinking Roosevelt will offer her better opportunities but, despite her potential, she struggles to adjust to the alien environment of a mostly-white school, skipping classes and practices, and earning grades far below her potential. Resler pushes her, believes in her, and she eventually rises to the occasion--until she gets pregnant and has to drop out temporarily. When she returns to complete her senior year, the Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association rules her ineligible to play, and as she fights that decision her team fights with her, risking forfeiting its many wins for allowing her to play. Russell's story, and that of the team, follows the usual trajectory of good sports films--but with the added twist that these players face not just bad calls and sloppy plays but also the gender divide, evident not only in Russell's struggle but also in the experience of another team member preyed upon by a sexual predator. The basketball scenes are a treat to watch and, against the backdrop of the experience of women athletes, the personalities here are particularly fascinating, and the story provocative. This one is especially good to savor with your favorite teenager. [Rated PG-13 for brief strong language; on at least two major 10-best lists; available on DVD beginning on February 27]
"DAVE CHAPPELLE'S BLOCK PARTY," the documentary by Michel Gondry (the genius behind a favorite film of mine, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") traces a party that looks to me like a modern reenactment of the banquet described in Jesus' parable, in which the ruler sends out his servants to gather the downtrodden for a huge bash (after the original invitees can't find a reason to come). Here Chappelle, the iconoclastic ruler of the comedy airwaves, gathers his favorite rap and R&B artists for "the concert I've always wanted to see," in the context of a free block party at the dead end of a street in Brooklyn's ramshackle Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Inviting New Yorkers to wander on over, Chappelle also does a significant part of the gathering himself, returning to his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, and chartering a couple of buses to take the locals to Bed-Stuy, affably coaxing them via megaphone to get on board. He recruits a thrilled local university marching band to make the trip, along with a lot of his working class white neighbors who likely would not otherwise find themselves at a rap concert. Don't let your lack of interest in rap music keep you, like the first invitees to the parabolic banquet, from partaking of this feast: Many of the acts featured (including Kanye West, Mos Def, Jill Scott, and Erykah Badu) sing socially conscious music, and though I wasn't a fan of or even familiar with most of thatmusic before seeing the film, part of the sheer joy of the experience is watching its unifying effect on the gathered masses; there is real power in the sight of thousands of arms bobbing to the refrain of "Jesus Walks With Me." Most of the film cuts between preparations for the concert and concert footage, spiced throughout by Chappelle's sly, ambling humor. I think I grinned through the entire film. [Rated R for language; on at least five major 10-best lists; available on DVD]
"NIGHT WATCH," in its story and style, resembles one of my favorite movies, "The Matrix" but, set in modern-day Moscow, it is less slick and more grimy--as L.A. Times film critic Kenneth Turan put it, "a popcorn movie with a Vodka chaser." The first in a planned trilogy, it was the highest grossing film ever in Russia (though by now the second film, "Day Watch," may have surpassed it). I'm a sucker for stories about a world that exists outside the world that we see; in this one, a battle rages under the nose of the general populace between the forces of good and evil, each of which has special enforcers, the "Others," who police the activities of their opposites. The Others seem to everyone like regular people, but possess special power to see and affect the world outside the observable world. The good Others, including Anton, the movie's scruffy and likeable hero, are the Night Watch, protecting humankind in the dark hours. Their counterparts, the Day Watch, strike blows for evil during daylight. This is all part of an uneasy truce worked out between the two sides, but which appears to be in jeopardy. The story, though confusing, is imaginative and gripping, and is told with lots of visual panache. Though I'm not sure it ultimately made sense, I had too much fun to care. I hope the sequels fare better than those for "The Matrix"! [In Russian; rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, and language; available on DVD]
Thanks for reading, and happy viewing!