Greetings, friends –
Here’s my ten favorite films of 2007. Like last year, I’ve seen all of these at least twice and they’ve held up on repeat viewings. My more in-depth comments follow.
1. No Country for Old Men
3. The Darjeeling Limited
4. The Lives of Others
5. Red Road
6. Lars and the Real Girl
7. The Savages
10. Across the Universe
And here’s a few more I admired, in no particular order:
a. Day Watch
c. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
d. La Vie En Rose
1. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN - I’ve had an interesting time reflecting on the differences that explain why “Sweeney Todd” left me so cold while this film has become my favorite of the year. Both films depict serial killers (not a topic predisposed to draw me in) and both tell their stories with style and a cohesive artistic vision. Yet a kind of sorrow and foreboding permeates “No Country” that is distinctly appropriate to the material, along with a sort of restraint. Although the film depicts a brutal story, it doesn’t show some of the key moments of violence, as though the filmmakers sense that the pit in your stomach is by now deep enough to absorb the meaning of what follows. And some of the most frightening moments in the film don’t involve any violence at all.
It’s the latest from Joel and Ethan Coen, whose most recent films have left a little to be desired but whose body of work (including “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “Raising Arizona”) includes some of my very favorite films. This one most resembles “Fargo,” though its humor is more deeply buried. Based on a Cormac McCarthy novel, it tells the story of Anton Chigurh, a killer whose evil is as unfathomable as his unpronounceable name. Though tall, Chigurh seems somehow larger than his actual height; he wears a creepy page-boy haircut and cuts a swath over the barren Texas landscape wielding his weapon of choice—a tank of compressed air that is typically used to slaughter cattle. He seems grimly propelled by an internal sense of order and some dark purpose, but it’s hard to say what that could be. Whatever drives him is cold, and relentless. Indeed, his most terrifying scene involves a conversation in a convenience store that profoundly conveys his remorseless drive to that apparently unknowable end.
On the surface, Chigurh’s object appears to be to recover some drug money that has been taken from the scene of a violent shoot-out by a taciturn welder named Llewellyn Moss, who found the carnage and the suitcase full of money while hunting and decided to keep the cash. Returning home to his trailer to prepare to protect it, Moss tells his wife, Carla Jean, “I’m fixin’ to do somethin’ dumber than hell.” In truth, he’s no dummy, but his assessment of the merits of his choice turns out to be much truer than he imagines.
The film ostensibly tells the story of Chigurh’s pursuit of that money, but seems more deeply to be a mournful reflection on the implications of implacable violence. It seems fitting somehow that the story is set in 1980, as the “war on drugs” in the U.S. is gaining momentum, a time when (like now) villains seem to be emerging whose ruthlessness seems beyond imagining. The film watches and wonders at Chigurh’s murderous passage, punctuated by the observations of Tommy Lee Jones as a world-weary sheriff whose pursuit of Chigurh seems only to deepen his conviction that he is no match for the evil that is out there. It’s a pitch-perfect performance; he conveys the character’s sense that life has taken an incomprehensibly sinister turn with a stoic gravity, and the courage not to look away. He functions as a kind of cowboy Greek chorus, wise, sardonic, and sad. (“It’s a mess, ain’t it, Sheriff?” a deputy declares, to which the sheriff responds, “If it ain’t it’ll do till the mess gets here.”)
The other performances are also excellent. Javier Bardem, a Spanish actor who I have greatly admired in more sympathetic roles (including a tragic Cuban poet in “Before Night Falls,” for which he received an Oscar nomination), deserves to and probably will win a best supporting actor Oscar here for delivering one of the most terrifying characters ever depicted on screen. Josh Brolin as Moss (in a mostly wordless but forceful performance) is another stand-out, as are Woody Harrelson as a cocky bounty hunter and Kelly MacDonald as Carla Jean, whose steadfastness and peculiar strength are oddly inspiring.
As with all the Coen brothers’ films, the dialogue is cunning and crisp, the details richly observed (the sight of tracks in the dust of a crawlspace or condensation on the outside of a glass of milk shared, unwittingly, by hunter and hunted; the silence that hangs in the air after Chigurh snuffs out the life of a victim, or the dread that arises when his silence while in cold pursuit of another is broken by the sound of a tracking transponder). Also, the Coens make some very interesting choices about what not to depict, realizing, as few films do any more, that what you don’t show increases the impact of what you do.
This film is so dark that it is probably not for everyone. Nevertheless, I loved it and wanted to see it again immediately. It just got under my skin. After the second viewing, I sat with my two friends for almost an hour discussing it, peeling back the layers of its effect on us. A lot of films depict evil and violence from a kind of remove, even making them fun or at least fascinating (or gorily artistic, as in “Sweeney Todd”). This one really is a kind of meditation. How can such evil exist? Where does it come from? Is there any kind of power that makes a response possible? Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle commented that to see this film “is like encountering some elemental, wordless truth that everybody knows inside but tries not to face. This movie puts a big hand on your head and forces you to look.” And somehow, it seems right that you should. [Rated R for strong graphic violence and some language; on at least 40 other critics’ ten-best lists and nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Bardem), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing; I’d give it the award in each of those categories; still in theaters.]
2. JUNO is an observant comedy about 16-year-old Juno MacGuff, who ends up pregnant after a single impetuous episode of experimentation (initiated by her) with her bandmate and not-quite-boyfriend, Paulie Bleeker. After several “pee sticks” confirm that she is pregnant, Juno finds that she can’t go through with an attempt to, in her words, “procure a hasty abortion,” so she decides to have the baby and give it to a well-appointed childless couple, Vanessa and Mark (wonderfully played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman), whose pennysaver ad impresses her. But there are a few months in between that decision and the time when she can finally, as she says, “squeeze the baby on out and hand it over,” and her ensuing journey turns out to disrupt her life more than she had hoped--not only because of the “fat suit [she] can’t take off” but because the couple, who clearly expect Juno to flake out on her decision (and not without reason), turn out to be flakier than either she or they expect.
The refreshingly spirited script by first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody (who should win the Oscar for best screenplay) sings with a voice far more distinct than the usual studio committee product. She gives lines to everyone, but especially Juno, that are so bitingly funny that at first I wasn’t sure if I believed anyone would say them (not that I cared especially). And yet, the snappy dialogue is delivered with such low-key, almost deadpan, perceptive timing that as the movie wore on, I did believe it. Better yet, the film’s humor contains a slow burn of insight that makes it a richer pleasure than most comedies; it takes you to a much more authentic place that its snappy one-liners at first lead you to expect. In fact, Juno’s wry tone is, if you’ll pardon the expression, really a sign of her finely-tuned bullshit detector at work—though she can’t always articulate why she does what she does (why she decides against an abortion and chooses an adoption, for example, or what it is that she increasingly responds to in Bleek), she is always fully engaged, poised for the sound of what’s really true. As one critic put it, “This kid can hear false notes pitched too high for most human ears to discern.” (Richard Schickel, Time Magazine)
Directed with a surprisingly sure hand by Jason Reitman (he directed the decent but inferior “Thank You For Not Smoking,” and both he and screenwriter Cody are about 30 years old), “Juno” is full of wonderful performances, especially from J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney as Juno’s realistic but solidly supportive dad and stepmom, Mac and Bren, the obvious role models for Juno’s highly-tuned bullshit detector. Michael Cera (the gentle nerd of “Superbad”) likewise is perfect as Bleek, a nerdy, bewildered track runner who pops Tic-Tacs and, in his soft-spoken way, longs for Juno but also knows how to stand up to her. He is incredibly sweet, if a little slow to react, and Juno’s quick, sarcastic wit makes her dawning admiration of him a particular joy to watch. (“You’re the coolest person I’ve ever met, and you don’t even have to try,” she confides in one scene, to which he replies, almost under his breath, “I try really hard actually.”) Watching their relationship’s unusual, downbeat progression from thoughtless to connected, via Juno’s odd experience of unwanted pregnancy, is one of the film’s many gifts.
Another is its surprising depth, which sneaks up on you; its early quip-laden tone (which I quite enjoyed) gives way to humor that is wise and heart-felt. That’s especially exemplified in the relationship between Juno and the prospective parents. Mark, a commercial jingle-writer who works from home and still nurses the rock-star dreams of adolescence, understandably appeals to Juno but also to us; he at first seems refreshing and real next to tightly-wound Vanessa, a control freak who, though sympathetic, needs motherhood a bit too much. But Garner reveals in slight shifts of Vanessa’s unfailingly pleasant demeanor hints of insecurity and doubt, and the surprising goodness and poignancy latent in her longing becomes increasingly apparent at the same time that Mark’s too-keen interest in discussing hip music and slasher movies with Juno reveals his essential immaturity and selfishness. Juno, likewise, despite her flippant attitude toward the pregnancy and the prospect of an adoption, is a lot more intentional than she first appears; her problem isn’t so much the mistake that landed her pregnant or her choice to have the child, but her adolescent assumption that she understands the world better than she actually does and can easily manage the consequences of her decisions. In time, though, as she comes to recognize that she is “dealing with things way beyond [her] maturity level,” her response to her deepening awareness of Vanessa’s and Mark’s limitations as parents is perceptive and right. Mark seems to have put no more thought into the consequences of the pennysaver ad than Juno did into her experimentation with Bleek—but unlike Mark, Juno rises to the occasion.
In a way, the film ends up being both refreshingly realistic and also idealistic about parenthood. Janney (an actress who can do no wrong) and Simmons wonderfully portray parents who keep their sense of humor intact, despite their exasperation, and convey acceptance without indulgence. Juno and the suburban couple become, in turn, a vivid spectrum of parental talent, ambition, and emotion. In a year of three comedic films purporting to depict unplanned pregnancy from the female point of view (the others being “Knocked Up” and “Waitress”), “Juno” is not only by far the best but, in its way, the most hopeful and real. Many have commented on the fact that, in all three comedies, the women decide against abortion--it’s pretty hard to deal with that subject in this culture without being viewed as taking a political stand. But I think “Juno” has no polemical bent, nor is it attempting a realistic depiction of how most teens would handle an unplanned pregnancy. It’s a comedy, after all—but a hopeful one, bearing a kind of truth about what’s possible; as one critic noted, it’s “not anti-abortion but rather pro-adulthood.” (A.O. Scott, NY Times) [Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content and language; on at least 17 other critics’ top-ten lists; nominated for Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best actress in a leading role (Ellen Page) and best original screenplay; still in theaters]
3. THE DARJEELING LIMITED - My next pick is a whole lot more iconoclastic if you pay attention to movie critics and maybe even to viewers, in whom Wes Anderson seems to inspire either deep affection or deep irritation. Many seem to find him too self-conscious or precious or mannered, and I sometimes agree, though I loved “The Royal Tenenbaums” and enjoyed “Rushmore.” I found this film, though, to be a pure delight and by far Anderson’s best film. It improves upon his odd sensibility with a story that is not only amusing but also profound and rather underrated by the critics.
The film follows three brothers, wonderfully played by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman (who co-wrote the script with Anderson and Roman Coppola while traveling across India) on a train journey across India, a year after their father’s death. They (or at least, Wilson, who is the self-appointed leader and lead over-thinker of the group, complete with laminated itineraries) intend it to be a spiritual journey; Wilson’s character is forever announcing what comes next (that they will bond, be “brothers like we used to be,” and “be completely open and say yes to everything, even if it’s shocking and painful”) and then asking, rhetorically, “Can we agree to that?” Yet they are each so stuck and so fundamentally arrested in their development that they devote simultaneous energy and focus to disembodied ritual and souvenir acquisition and can’t see past themselves—that is, until something happens along the way that finally clicks them out of their self-absorption. Brody’s single-word line appropriately marks that sudden departure with exactly the right decisiveness.
If you can relax into the movie, its many pleasures will work on you and open you up, too. The grin on my face steadily broadened as I watched what felt like a wonderful study of how transformation actually works. This fantasy version of India—slightly more colorful and off-kilter than the actual place, but depicted in a way that captures something quite real, including what one of the brothers identifies as its “spicy” aroma—operates as a kind of Oz, the perfect setting for a magical mystery tour. All three men (armed with a pharmacopeia of drops and pills and the colorful heirloom luggage passed down from their father, which possesses them and weighs them down on their journey) are especially good here—Wilson, all psychoblather and overthinking and battlescars; Brody, with his hangdog looks and loping grace; and Schwartzman, in a career-best performance, managing to be both whiny and apt at the same time. While the metaphor of a spiritual journey bogged down by emotional baggage isn’t subtle, the reality depicted here is not so simple as some critics have made it out to be. What Anderson has captured is really tricky stuff, and his artificial style peculiarly brings profound reality into vivid relief. Like the brothers at the end of the journey, I left the film feeling both enriched and lighter. [Rated R for language but fine for most middle-schoolers; on at least 2 other critics’ top-ten lists; still in second-run theaters. Be sure to see the accompanying short, “Hotel Chevalier,” a little gem that serves as a prologue and features a great performance by Natalie Portman; it will be included in the DVD release, due out next week.]
4. THE LIVES OF OTHERS--Winner of the 2006 Oscar for best foreign film, “The Lives of Others” wasn’t even released in Portland and most other cities until late February 2007, so I wasn’t able to consider it for my 2006 list, though it ended up on a lot of critics’ lists in 2006 (and 2007). It’s a brilliant piece of work from a (shockingly) first-time writer and director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.
Set in the German Democratic Republic in 1984, five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the film begins with a portrait of a cold-blooded Stasi officer, Wiesler, who is a master at surveillance and painstaking interrogation, unswerving in his dedication to ferreting out enemies of the state, living in an antiseptic apartment, eating only for minimal sustenance, having “shed all traces of nonessential humanity” (David Edelstein, New York Magazine). His superior, a former classmate of Wiesler’s who has risen more quickly through the ranks due to his opportunitism, invites him to attend a theater performance at the behest of the Minister of Culture. Wiesler is less interested in the play than in the playwright, Georg Dreyman, a handsome and, to his mind, arrogant sort who lives with the beautiful lead actress, Christa-Maria Sieland. Wiesler instantly distrusts Dreyman and suggest that they begin surveiling him—an idea that his superior dismisses until he discerns that such surveillance is exactly what the Minister of Culture has in mind. Seizing the opportunity for political advancement, the superior sets the incomparable Wiesler on the task.
Up to that point, the story seems like a fairly typical Cold War thriller. But as Wiesler begins the surveillance, we discover that he is not merely a mindless follower, but a true believer; he is motivated by dedication to the Republic’s stated ideals. And though he has up to this point justified destroying people in the service of those ideals, listening in on the lives of Dreyman and his lover awakens something in Wiesler. Though neither of his subjects is a hero, Wiesler cannot help but be struck by the beauty and goodness that reside in them—in their work, their friendships, their love for each other, imperfect though it is. That goodness (expressed at one point by a piece of music, written for the film, entitled “Sonata for a Good Man”) grips Wiesler’s soul just at the same time that he cannot escape the recognition that his work really serves only the greed and opportunism of his superiors, who are actually betraying the ideals to which he has dedicated himself. We witness a barely perceptible but profound shift in him as he hears Dreyman, playing the sonata in elegy to a blacklisted director friend, commenting that no truly good person can listen to the music, really listen to it, and not be affected by it.
The film patiently unfolds a story about the transformative effect of beauty and goodness observed in others, anchored by three especially stunning performances. Dreyman is successful because he has played it safe, even while some of his less careful colleagues have suffered—but he is not as callow as he first appears; he is attentive to those he loves, and their suffering eventually changes him and deepens his resolve. Christa-Maria is beautiful and talented, but far more vulnerable than she would be in a free society and, though possessed of a conscience, she does not possess the strength of character that life in the G.D.R. demands. Most stunning is Weisler, utterly self-contained and impassive, virtually encased in the concrete of his convictions yet managing to convey subtle yet seismic shifts in his character. We are told (cynically, through a particularly odious character) that Dreyman’s work expresses faith in the capacity of humans to change; that capacity is depicted here as an outgrowth of the yearning that makes us human and connects us with the lives of others. [In German; rated R for some sexuality, nudity; winner of the 2006 Academy Award for best foreign film and listed on at least five 2006 top-ten lists and eight 2007 critics’ top-ten lists; available on DVD]
5. RED ROAD, the best film I saw at the Portland International Film Festival in 2007, is another one that some of you probably would not enjoy, but really only because of an unusually explicit sex scene late in the film. It’s a risky scene, but one that I think contributes mightily to the film’s power and belongs there (more than I can say for most movie sex scenes). But this film does demand trust from the viewer. If you are willing to give it that, it’s a profound and gripping experience.
This unsettling thriller keeps you on edge from the very beginning with its tale of Jackie, an angular and unassuming woman whose job involves scanning a bank of video monitors used for security surveillance. Images of particularly gritty, crime-ridden parts of Glasgow are beamed to a control center where she works, and her job is to keep a close watch for anything that seems amiss to give law enforcement a jump on the action. She can toggle a joystick to pan and zoom the view of each camera, and observe everything from the mundane to the prurient to the alarming. Her view is ours; we are immediately implicated in her sanctioned but queasy spy game.
Something about watching her watch the city quickly establishes Jackie’s profound isolation. Other than occasional perfunctory sex with a married co-worker and even more occasional interaction with a family from whom she is clearly profoundly estranged, watching those monitors is the extent of Jackie’s connection with the outside world. Her stolid melancholy suggests this is by choice. Much of what she sees is routine, and some of it brings a quiet smile of recognition—a man’s habitual walk with his aged bulldog, an office janitor dancing with her headphones on. Watching Jackie’s silent vigil creates a tightly confined sense of space, and the film rarely allows us to see anything Jackie can’t see. But one day, she is startled by the sight of a red-haired man skulking the Red Road district, and she springs into action. She thinks she recognizes him as someone who should be in prison, and makes a call to discover that he’s been released early. Her reaction tells us this means something to her, but we don’t learn what almost until the end. Whatever it is gets her out of her chair and into the story on the street; she enters the action of the gritty high-rise housing projects that she usually monitors from a distance, taking baffling risks on some inscrutable mission. We become the voyeurs, but what are we watching?
I can’t remember many films that have kept me so unsettled for so long. The film’s steady and very deliberate pace and close-in sound design keep you watching for any small clue of Jackie’s intent, and Jackie so insistently keeps her own counsel that there is almost no dialogue to usher you into her inner world. Most of the dialogue we do hear is from others to whom she is listening, but we don’t know the clues for which she is on alert. Yet she increasingly and very intentionally involves herself alarmingly in the world she has only watched, building a nameless sense of fear. At first you adopt her sense that the red-haired man is dangerous; he seems to move with the assurance of the habitual criminal. What is he up to? But as Jackie grows bolder in whatever inscrutable objective she is pursuing, your fear for her occasionally flits to fear of her. What is she about?
The answers come, but only very late, and it’s important that I don’t give anything away. Suffice it to say that all of these careful elements profoundly convey the depth and even violence of Jackie’s grief and isolation. The outcome of her pursuit of the red-haired man is to put her back into the action of the world, something she has fervently sought to avoid. So much of the film’s power comes from conveying realities, like Jackie’s grief, from which you want to look away but can’t. In the end, the experience moved me to my depths. [In a Scottish dialect so hard for Americans to follow that it is subtitled in English; not rated but probably NC-17 due to the one scene I mentioned; winner of a special jury prize at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival and listed on at least one other critic’s top-ten list; available on DVD]
6. LARS AND THE REAL GIRL demands fortitude and a leap of faith, but rewards that investment handsomely. It tells the story of Lars, a broken loner who relentlessly avoids human connection and finds physical touch toxic. He lives in the garage of the family home occupied by his older brother Gus and pregnant sister-in-law Karin, and rebuffs all their efforts to reach out to him. Naturally, they are delighted when he unexpectedly announces that he has met a girl, Bianca, on the internet and asks to bring her home for dinner. Their hopes turn to horror, however, when Bianca turns out to be a life-size, anatomically correct sex doll, which Lars treats as a real girl.
Lars imbues Bianca with a vivid personality; she is a missionary from a Brazilian-Danish family and shares Lars’s convictions against premarital sex. She also is in a wheelchair and is in poor health. That gives Gus and Karin an opening to take Bianca (and Lars) to the family doctor and psychiatrist, Dagmar. An unflappable healer perfectly played by the great Patricia Clarkson, Dagmar informs Gus and Karin after observing Lars and his new friend that Lars has formed a delusion(!), and that the best thing they can do is to support him in it. As she blandly puts it, “Bianca’s in town for a reason.” Indeed, it becomes evident without anyone saying so that Bianca is the only kind of companion that Lars can tolerate. In a rich performance by Paul Schneider, an actor I’d not seen before, Gus, the tender but realistic heart of the story, refuses at first, and tries to force Lars to face reality, giving voice to the misgivings everyone else is thinking. When that fails, however, Gus grudgingly succumbs, obviously furious and uncomfortable and afraid—and so, eventually, does the entire small community in which they live, inviting Bianca to participate in various activities with a warmth they have been reserving for Lars, despite his inability to reciprocate.
I know, it sounds just awful—and I must admit, it’s hard to watch at times. But unlike most films that wiggle out of the hard parts of telling a difficult story (or even much easier ones), here the director, the writer, the production designer, and the wonderful cast fully commit, presenting a picture of kindness and a gentle ministry of presence that broke my heart. The wonder of the story is that, as one critic said, it “moves from the cheerfully ludicrous to the quietly momentous.” (J. Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal) Without being able to explain what was happening to me, I found myself weeping through the last quarter of the film, moved to profound gratitude at the thought that someone as broken as Lars could find a way to need something that would actually help him, and at the image of how offering that help could transform not only him but the community. The power of the film goes way beyond the Frank Capraesque American dream story that a lot of critics celebrated or criticized; I took the story not as a comment on actual life in America but rather as an inspiring and hopeful vision of what might be possible.
Ryan Gosling pulls off a small miracle in his portray of Lars, somehow managing to convey him as outwardly immobilized but inwardly in constant motion. Against all odds, his Lars displays such serene devotion to Bianca that the audience, like the town, is swept up in the healing power she brings him. And the screenplay is the first by Nancy Oliver, who wrote for the excellent “Six Feet Under” series and deserves an Oscar just as much as Diablo Cody does for “Juno”; she definitely knows what she is doing in this risky terrain. Original, and wonderful. [Rated PG-13 for some sex-related content, but really a clean film; nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay; on at least three other critics’ top-ten lists; still in second-run theaters.]
7. THE SAVAGES is a triumph of truthfulness and tone. It tells the story of Jon and Wendy Savage (their names a faint reference to the Darling children of Peter Pan fame), siblings who are, chronologically, straddling 40 but live in a kind of arrested adolescence. She is an unproduced playwright, living in a cramped New York apartment, carrying on a joyless affair with her married downstairs neighbor, and getting by on the money she can earn and the office supplies she can steal from temp jobs while spending her work hours putting together applications for grants that will enable her to finish a “semi-autobiographical” play about her childhood (“Wake Me When It’s Over”). He’s more successful, in a way, but at being a sort of perpetual grad student; he teaches theater at a university in Buffalo, is struggling to finish a book on Bertold Brecht, and can’t bring himself to marry his girlfriend, for pragmatic reasons that have nothing to do with his feelings, even though it would save her from being deported to Poland. The floundering lives of the two siblings are disrupted first by the news that their irascible father, so far out of the picture that they’ve lost track of where he lives, has declined to the point of scrawling messages on the bathroom wall with his feces. Shortly thereafter, they are informed that dad’s live-in companion has died and that he is being effectively evicted by her children just as his health is declining from vascular dementia.
The scars of their own childhoods still demonstrably unresolved, Jon and Wendy quickly join forces to assume the task of caring for the father who never cared for them—which sounds like a real bummer of a premise for a film. But this one manages to avoid the pitfalls of sentiment and self-pity one typically encounters in similar films and to be both clear-eyed and genuinely funny. The laughter is mostly that of recognition (funny-ouch as opposed to funny-haha)—even though the story is a difficult one, about a familiar and depressing situation, you never feel dragged through the mud just so that some screenwriter can work out her own family angst (a common experience I have with my-family-was-hell stories, and a pitfall that you suspect Wendy’s planned play would not avoid). The story is worth telling not only because it is truthful but also because it is funny, in its way, and because the humor actually delivers perspective on its more universal themes. It’s written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, in her second such effort; her first feature, from a decade ago, was “The Slums of Beverly Hills,” also quite funny and, like this film, based on her personal experience. For someone whose work is “semi-autographical,” Jenkins’ writing and direction is remarkably fresh, apt, and free of self-indulgence. In a year less strong than this one is for screenplays, I’d give her the Oscar for which her screenplay was nominated.
It helps that the great Laura Linney (also nominated) and Philip Seymour Hoffman play Wendy and Jon. Linney has an amazing way of making a genuinely annoying character both real and likable—Wendy tells little fibs to gain advantages that even she seems to know will be temporary, and has a flair for the dramatic (“We are horrible, horrible, horrible people,” she wails to Jon upon leaving their dad at the depressing nursing home that Jon has found). It’s pretty clear that her concern for their dad is really just one of many manifestations of her wounded narcissism, and she has a way of constantly trying to adjust reality to fit whatever will make her feel best about herself. Jon, on the other hand, is more practical but also closed off, disheveled, and sad; he doesn’t ask for sympathy, but stolidly goes forward, unable to solve the emotional dilemmas he’s been left with and deceiving himself with the notion that he is living without any illusions. It’s my favorite of Hoffman’s many and varied characters, understated and without flash, and totally believable.
Like John and Wendy Darling, these siblings have avoided growing up, but their means of escape, literally and figuratively, involves theater, which gives the siblings a shared language and comic sensibility and us a particularly rich metaphor: Jon’s home is cluttered with the literature of theater of the absurd (which expresses the view that life is without meaning) and a framed poster promoting a Richard Forman play called “Panic! (How to be Happy!),” while Wendy the aspiring playwright seeks recognition for the tragedy unspooling in her head in which she is the perpetually aggrieved heroine. Watching the two siblings spar is richly satisfying, not the least because Jenkins doesn’t over-analyze their problems or drum up a too-tidy solution to them. Instead, she just shows who they are through, as one critic put it, “realistic-sounding snippets and strings of dialogue, through sentences (not speeches), questions (not confessions) and silences as lived in as the story’s recognizably real and revelatory spaces.” (M. Dargis, NY Times) Jon and Wendy bicker, and call each other’s bullshit (sometimes quite unkindly)—and, ultimately, work together a bit better than might be expected.
The trailer wryly describes the picture as depicting “what happens when everyone in the family finally starts acting their age.” It’s an accurate description; something about this family crisis, even though it brings out their worst, ultimately kickstarts Jon and Wendy into acting more maturely and consciously. Nothing too easy or dramatic, just the kind of slight but significant shift that can make all the difference in one’s life direction. [Rated R for some sexuality and language; nominated for Academy Awards for best lead actress (Laura Linney) and best original screenplay; on at least 11 other critics’ top-ten lists; still in theaters.]
8. PROTAGONIST was my favorite of the 14 or so films I saw at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in North Carolina last April, indeed, my favorite documentary of the year. The writer-director, Jessica Yu, also wrote and directed “In the Realms of the Unreal,” which I wrote about in 2005, and is, to my mind, a true visionary. “Protagonist,” like Yu’s earlier film, is among the most original I’ve seen—but also, like that one, is hard to describe in a way that captures how riveting it is. Yu uses rod puppets and the work of 5th-century Greek dramatist Euripedes to Illustrate the common and timeless elements of the stories of four disparate extremists—a German terrorist, a “reformed” gay Christian, a martial arts enthusiast, and a bank robber. What emerges from these men’s journeys are remarkable insights about modern manhood and the mechanics of radical transformation from what Yu terms “the trap of destructive righteousness.”
Hans Klein was a child of Nazi Germany; his Jewish mother killed herself after surviving the Ravensburg concentration camp and his brutal policeman father thought Hitler was a hero. Klein turned to left-wing activism in the ‘60s before falling in with a terrorist group. Mark Pierpont, a self-described “crybaby” from a stoic religious family who was always told that he was “different,” found solace in his relationship with Jesus and forcefully subdued his homosexuality to become an anti-gay televangelist. Mark Salzman, who was weak, anxious, and frequently bullied as a youngster, was inspired by TV’s “Kung Fu” to pursue freedom from fear through martial arts, becoming a devotee of a sadistic instructor. And Joe Loya, the son of a Mexican-American pastor who began systematically beating him and his brother after their mother became ill and died, reacted to his father’s savagery by becoming a bank robber.
All experienced childhood trauma, sought control and mastery in extreme ways, leading to destructive, even disastrous results, and eventually experienced cathartic transformation after realizing in a moment of clarity that they had become the opposite of what they set out to be. Each had to accept the necessity of uncertainty, and the courage it took each to change course is palpable in the retelling. They narrate their stories with clarity and conviction, and the parallels between Euripedes’s tragedy of the extremist and the subjects’ stories are emphasized using the puppets as a surprisingly effective Greek chorus, reciting in Greek from Euripedes under topics such as “Character,” “Catharsis,” and “Reflection.” The puppets also on occasion reenact the events of the stories themselves, their masked faces and stilted movements eerily expressive. The additional layer of abstraction somehow makes the stories seems more powerfully immediate.
I had the pleasure of participating in a discussion with the director after the festival screening that I attended and was really impressed by her method. She settled on Salzman and Loya as subjects early on (Salzman is her husband), but found the other two men as the result of an eight-month search in which she considered about 200 people. Only about five of those were women, interestingly enough; Yu reported that men appeared to be “far more likely to experience the particular brand of obsessive pursuit—and crashing revelation” that she was looking for. (You can read her director’s notes at www.protagonistthemovie.com.) The end result is a story of men told by women (the producers are also female), which perhaps accounts for the perspective and curiosity that seems to have allowed Yu to inquire so deeply into the subjects’ experience of manhood. It’s fascinating, provocative stuff. [Parts of the film are in Greek, with subtitles; rated R for language; on at least one other critic’s top-ten list; available on DVD.]
9. ONCE is the ultimate crowd-pleaser on this year’s list. Simple, dear, and true in its construction, it lets you on a week in the lives of a street musician and a young woman with whom he strikes a connection. He sings Van Morrison on the streets by day, in between working at his father’s “Hoover” repair shop, but in the evenings belts out his own songs with endearing, fervent abandon. No one seems to notice—but she does. She loves his music, discerns that he sings of a lost love and asks, in her disarming and forthright way, of whom he sings, since it is clear “you play this marvelous song to get her back.” An immigrant who speaks with an accent, she hawks flowers and newspapers on the street to support her mother and baby daughter and, it turns out, has a husband on hold in the Czech Republic. Something about her forthrightness, her resourceful practicality, and her musical gifts, nudges him out of his mooniness to make the demo tape he’s been thinking about making, so they cobble together a band and make good, raw music over a weekend of long nights.
You sense that the week these two spend together will reverberate in their lives for a long time, and yet the film doesn’t make more of their relationship than can possibly be true for people who have just met and don’t really know each other. Most films portray that type of heady initial connection in a way that reinforces wishful thinking about how relationships actually work in real life, which is why I’m not a big fan of movie romances. This film is different—it mines the small but real moments of admiration and recognition with awareness of how tenuous such moments are, and of how a week that feels so vital occurs in a whole lifetime of other connections. The relationship is what it is, no more—and if the film doesn’t deliver the typical happy Hollywood ending, it still leaves you with a full heart. In fact, both times I saw it, no one seemed to want to leave the theater.
The film also outdoes every other movie musical I can remember. That’s another genre that I frequently don’t care for—but here, music is so completely necessary to telling the story of the connection between these two characters that there is no story without it. I can’t remember ever feeling happier in a movie than when he discovers that she is an accomplished pianist and teaches her one of the songs he has written. They sit in a music store; he plays a few bars; she joins in on the piano, then sings along, “I don’t know you, but I want you all the more for that.” Not just the words but the music itself captures exactly what is true for them in that moment, and you fall in love with them just as they fall for each other.
He’s played by Glen Hansard of the popular Irish band The Frames, and she is played by Marketa Irglova, a musician and songwriter who Hansard actually met while touring. She was only 17 when the film was shot, but possesses the poise and gravity of an older soul. The film is directed by John Carney, a former member of The Frames, who originally asked Hansard to write songs for the film before deciding to cast him and Irglova. They are a wonderful, unaffected pair, and Carney’s film reflects the insider knowledge of people who actually make music and understand the intimacy that arises from coming together over a song.
The film won audience awards at Sundance and the Dublin International Film Festival, and most of the people I know who have seen it have instantly gone out and bought the wonderful, heartfelt soundtrack to prolong the experience. See this film; it’s an hour-and-a-half of pure simple joy. [Rated R for language, but it contains nothing every teenager hasn’t heard and is really a clean film; nominated for an Academy Award for best original song (“Falling Slowly”), which it deserves to win; on at least 22 other critics’ top-ten lists; available on DVD.]
10. ACROSS THE UNIVERSE--As much as I love the music of the Beatles’ and director Julie Taymor’s visually innovative style (she directed “Frida”), I’m too cynical for most movie musicals, and setting one to covers of the beloved songs of the Fab Four is a pretty risky thing to do. Plus, though I was too young to call the sixties my decade (I was born in 1962), I often feel like movies about the sixties view the decade through too current a lens.
So I was pleasantly surprised to find that I loved every minute of this movie. The music, set to a simple Liverpool boy-meets-sweet-American-girl story, aims to evoke the events, mood, and meaning of the decade, and suggests why the Beatles came to be the voice of a generation. Like good covers should but rarely do, these versions of the songs made me hear them anew—I heard many of the lyrics as if for the first time, even while I was singing along in my head, and the arrangements beautifully realize the music’s essential power. I actually teared up at several points—and really, it was the music that moved me, reminding me of the peculiar capacity of music to catch your heart unawares. Often, with the first few bars of a song, I’d catch my breath, and think, “yes, this song Is just right.”
Taymor’s bold, often hallucinogenic visuals greatly assist this effect—“I Want You” set to a choreographed basic-training sequence where the robotic heads of all the drill sergeants evoke conformity; cuts to the chorus “She’s So Heavy” in which inductees in Jockey shorts hoist the Statue of Liberty through a Vietnam battlefield; cross-cutting between Beatles clone bands at an American high school prom and in a Liverpool pub. Characters fall in love leaping and sliding down the lanes of a bowling alley, and the open-hearted experimentation of young hippies is captured in scenes of young people running through fields and riding a psychedelic bus. Some of it is over-the-top, but I wanted to go wherever Taymor would take me.
Some stories, I think, are best told indirectly. A lot of films have tried to depict the curious mixture of idealism and experimentation and radicalism and hedonism that was the 60s by adorning people with wigs, peace signs, and anti-war placards, to much less evocative effect. Here it’s the music that tells the story; everything else serves the music. So, for example, a cheerleader who longs for a girl on the squad evokes the sadness imbedded in “I Want To Hold Your Hand” as an expression of the closeted sexuality that would be unleashed in the era of free love; a gospel arrangement of “Let It Be” leads into scenes of dual funerals of a suburban boy killed in Vietnam and a boy killed in the Detroit riots. And when the sweet American girl becomes radicalized while her Liverpool boyfriend paints in their New York apartment, the Beatles canon narrates their conflict and the conflict of the decade (“But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow”). By the time a solo voice on a rooftop begins “All You Need is Love” in the film’s closing moments, the line fittingly captures what endures from the heady mixture that went before. [Rated PG-13 for some drug content, nudity, sexuality, violence, and language; on at least two other critics’ top-ten lists; available on DVD.]
Here are a handful of other movies that left a lasting impression:
DAY WATCH is the second in a terrific Russian trilogy (“Night Watch” just missed my top-ten last year, and “Dusk Watch” or “Twilight Watch”—I’ve seen both titles—is in production and expected to have a 2009 release). It contains all the edgy elements that made the first “Matrix” movie great, adding in some grit that feels uniquely Russian. I freely admit that I have a little crush on the troubled hero, Anton. Critics here in the U.S. don’t seem to care much for the trilogy, but it has earned a loyal underground audience and is a must-see for those who like action, fantasy, creative effects, and nifty spiritual themes. Definitely watch (or re-watch) “Night Watch” first; in fact, the two are best enjoyed together. [Rated R for violence; in Russian and, if you’re lucky, you’ll see it subtitled in English with some very creative subtitle effects. However, I’ve only been able to find “Night Watch” dubbed, though fortunately the dubbing is pretty good. Available on DVD.}
PERSEPOLIS is an animated retelling of the young life of writer-director Marjane Satrapi, based on her graphic novels. Born in Iran, she begins her story when she was very young and the Shah was still in power, and depicts subsequent events in Iran, including the Islamic Revolution and extended war with Iraq, through her youthful eyes. The animation is fairly simple, mostly in black and white, and is a potent vehicle for expressing her innocent questions, her rebellion in a context where the stakes are particularly high, and her adolescent struggle as the culture around her undergoes cataclysmic changes. Satrapi spent much of her adolescence in school abroad, away from the family who loved her and feared for the safety of their cheeky daughter in repressive Iran, and she depicts that lonely period of alienation as well. Satrapi tells her story with humor and astonishing perspective; she’s a fierce and resilient heroine. [Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including violent images, sexual references, language, and brief drug content; in French (Satrapi now resides in France); nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film; on at least 12 other critics’ top-ten lists; still in theaters]
THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY is an especially impressive adaptation of a book written by the former editor-in-chief of Elle magazine after he suffered from a massive stroke that left him only able to move his left eyelid. He was a victim of “locked-in syndrome,” meaning that his mental faculties were fully intact but he was basically unable to move. His caregivers devised a method of communication that involved a painstaking method of spelling out words by blinking, and he eventually wrote a celebrated book. Much of the film depicts his visual perspective; we see only what he would see, even when (in a particularly difficult scene) his immobile right eye is being stitched shut. The camera work provides a startlingly inventive way to explore the perspective of a man cut down in his prime who lived to watch the world go on without him; though not exactly a fun experience, the film is an enriching one, opening the way to daring emotional exploration about what it means to be human. [Rated PG-13 for nudity, sexual content and some language; in French; nominated for Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Adapted Screen Play, Best Film Editing, and Best Cinematography; on at least 31 other critics’ top-ten lists; still in theaters]
LA VIE EN ROSE features what I believe was the best performance by a leading actress this year. Marion Cotillard, who looks nothing like Edith Piaf, transforms herself so completely into the tiny, strange woman known as “the little sparrow” that you almost believe she is Piaf. Over the course of this flawed but compelling film, I often felt deeply frustrated by Piaf’s self-destructive behavior—and yet my admiration for her grew so profound that the final scene left me completely undone. Please give Marion Cotillard the Oscar! [Rated PG-13 for substance abuse, sexual content, brief nudity, language, and thematic elements; in French; nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actress (Cotillard) and Best Make-up; on at least two other critics’ top-ten lists; available on DVD]