It's time again for the ritual that started me writing reviews: the annual list of my favorites for the year. This year I give you a top 11 (including two terrific stop-motion animation films in the 10th spot), along with two films I saw at the 2009 Portland International Film Festival that never made it beyond the festival circuit and haven't been released on DVD in the U.S. They are hard to come by, but I mention them for the motivated among you since they might be available in specialty video stores like Movie Madness--plus I own both and am happy to loan them out.
I've written on all these films before, so much of this will sound familiar, though I've added to all these reviews, including bits on who deserves Oscar recognition. Here's the list:
1. Bright Star
2. Precious, Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
3. A Single Man
4. The Class
5. A Serious Man
6. The Cove
7. Unmistaken Child
8. Inglourious Basterds
9. In the Loop
10. A Town Called Panic/Fantastic Mr. Fox
And for the particularly motivated:
The Necessities of Life
1. "BRIGHT STAR" has been almost entirely ignored this awards season--but if I were deciding the Oscars, it would receive the awards for best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay (Jane Campion), best cinematography, best actress (Abby Cornish), and would receive nominations for best actor (Ben Winshaw) and best supporting actor (Paul Schneider).
It's an ode to John Keats and the young woman who inspired and loved him in the last couple of years of his short life before he died of consumption at the age of 25, and is based on a celebrated biography that I'd love to find the time to read. I've admired Keats's poetry since my own youth, but it took Campion, the middle-aged Australian best known for directing "The Piano," to help me actually envision what his genius might have looked like and to begin to understand it and even to believe in it.
A tall order, with me as her audience, because the story involves young love, generally a tough sell for me. No offense to my young readers, but romances, particularly those about youthful lovers, generally inspire eye rolls from me. Most romances are totally unbelievable, written with no real insight about what actual love looks like (see, e.g., "500 Days of Summer"), and the emotional excesses of young screen lovers tend to annoy me even more. Keats's story involves his love for a young woman whom he met when she was 19 and her family moved into the house where he was also a boarder. Much flirting (all very restrained, since this is England in the Regency-era) and swoony romance ensues.
Yet this film could not be more lovely, or, in its way, more believable. Campion's cast helps. Winshaw is a compelling and utterly convincing Keats--tragic, a little frail, yet with a grave intensity that infuses his lush poetry with a surprising sincerity. Abby Cornish is miraculous as his love, Fanny--bright, petulant, determined. A charming young woman who designs her own clothes, quite edgy for their day, and who seems quite comfortable with the fashionable balls and coquetry that are expected of her as a young woman of marriageable age, she seems an unlikely match for Keats. One senses that she pursues him at first to spite his roommate and friend, a boorish Scotsman named Brown who is himself an aspiring poet and who mercilessly teases Fanny for her frivolous pursuits and disdains her as a person of no conceivable substance.
Brown is the toughest role in the film, and Schneider (brilliant in "Lars and the Real Girl" and becoming one of my favorite actors) displays amazing range here. His place in the film confused me at first, but I eventually concluded that he grounds a story that might otherwise have floated away. Brown treats Fanny and her artistry as ridiculous and silly, far beneath the heights which a poet dares to scale. As Fanny and Keats begin to form an alliance, he warns Keats against her feminine wiles and finds it inconceivable that she would be a fitting match for him. He fancies himself Keats's equal, if not in talent at least in substance, warning Fanny and her family not to disturb them when they are thinking great thoughts.
Fanny's sharp tongue is quick with retorts to Brown's barbs, and one admires her spunk and wit--but truthfully, it's not at all clear in the beginning that Brown is wrong about Fanny. Yet as the story unfolds, it seems as though Keats awakens something in her. She understands beauty, and responds to Keats' depths with depths of her own. One senses that her interest in fashion might well be how a heart for loveliness might find expression in a young woman in Regency England. Before long, it is Brown whose essential callowness is revealed.
The look of the film befits its subject. Fanny's fashions are arresting (the costumes did receive well-deserved Oscar recognition), the colors are sensual, and the cinematography at times caught my breath, particularly with close-up shots of bits of embroidery or small touches and looks between the lovers. Keats climbs a tree rich with blossoms and rests in its branches; Fanny gulps a longed-for letter sitting in a meadow awash with blue flowers. The film's lushness evokes how colors appear to be more intense when one is deeply in love.
Fanny's family, too, is so dear. She has two younger siblings who shyly adore Keats and tenderly look after Fanny (the younger sister, Toots, with her red curly locks and rosy cheeks, looks as though she just stepped out of a painting by Fra Angelico). And rarely has maternal love been portrayed more sensitively than in Fanny's scenes with her mother, who justifiably worries for her (due to the unyielding social conventions of the time, a marriage between Fanny and the penniless Keats was quite out of the question) and yet responds to the progression of events with steadfastness and practical generosity of spirit.
All of this, finally, brings Keats' poetry to vivid life. Never have those words sunk so deep into my soul--until, in the closing credits, the sound of Winshaw's voice reciting "Ode to a Nightingale" left me quite undone. Ah, bright star. Would I were as steadfast as thou art. [Rated PG for thematic elements, some sensuality, brief language, and incidental smoking; on at least 11 other critics' top ten lists; nominated for--and should win--an Oscar for costume design; should have received nominations for best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay (Jane Campion); best actress (Abby Cornish), best actor (Ben Winshaw), best supporting actor (Paul Schneider), and best cinematogrophy; available on DVD]
2. "PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL PUSH BY SAPPHIRE," the wrenching story of a morbidly obese, illiterate African-American teenager barely surviving abject poverty and unthinkable abuse at the hands of both her parents, is my pick among the nominated films to win the Academy Award for best picture. . It amazes me to say that--although I teared up every time I saw the preview for this film and knew I'd have to see it, I didn't hold out much hope that it would rise above the typical Hollywood shortcuts and clumsy exposition. But it most certainly does.
I saw the film at Portland's Lloyd Mall, in a very diverse audience of mostly older upper-middle-class whites and mostly younger African Americans, and the two hours we spent together in this movie's thrall were strangely unifying; nearly everyone sat in stunned silence with me as the credits rolled and waves of grief and admiration and amazement washed over us.
I don't have a clue how second-time director Lee Daniels figured out how to tell this kind of truth--and indeed, Sapphire, who wrote her novel in the early 90s, told Terry Gross in a recent interview that she for many years turned down requests from Daniels and many other directors to make this film because she doubted any director's ability to tell it well. She also wisely doubted that audiences were prepared to understand the story in the way that she meant it. She finally dared to hope for more after seeing Daniels's work as a producer in "Monster's Ball"--and, in an era when a more diverse array of African American stories have infiltrated popular media than when she originally wrote the book, she thought perhaps we were ready for one in which not all the oppressors are white.
The reality the film depicts is so harsh that I am amazed (and heartened) that audiences have had the temerity to sit still for it. Many of those connected with the film--producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, comedian and actress Mo'nique (fearless in the role of the Precious's abusive mother, Mary), and Daniels himself--were themselves abused as children, so they understand that experience from the inside out. But understanding it and depicting it are two different things.
The truth they manage to convey is specific, unrelenting, and unendurable. Sixteen-year-old Clareece Jones is crassly nicknamed "Precious," though everyone treats her as worthless and she knows it. Stalled in the eighth grade and functionally illiterate, she is invisible in plain sight, enormous but ignored except for the occasional taunt by a neighborhood kid. She speaks rarely and only in a congested mumble, as though she is buried in those mountains of flesh, and returns each night to a squalid apartment that she shares with a mother who hurls insults, orders, and the occasional frying pan at her. She is pregnant with her second child by her drug-addict father, who is otherwise mostly absent; the first, a girl with Down's Syndrome who is cruelly named "Mongo," lives with a grandmother who brings her to the apartment only as a necessary prop for visits from a welfare worker.
In crumbling prose, Precious narrates her inner life, including glittery, TV-addict fantasies where she wears ball gowns and has a "light-skinned boyfriend" and "good hair." A thin blonde white girl looks back at her in the mirror. She is someone people see but don't see, "her massive body at once a prison and a hiding place" (A.O.Scott, NY Times)--yet glimmers of a fighting spirit flicker. "The other day I cried," she recounts at one point. "But you know what? F--- that day."
Her second pregnancy gets her kicked out of the eighth grade, but a defeated guidance counselor hangs in there long enough to refer her to an alternative school for pregnant and parenting teens. The fact that Precious follows up on the referral indicates another flicker of unaccountable self-regard, a small seed of potential that finally can be nurtured by a teacher, Ms. Rain, who actually sees her and doesn't look away.
That first day, Ms. Rain pushes her to read a page from a children's book, and confirms that Precious can barely sound out the simplest words. "It all looks the same to me," she says. It's a perfect metaphor for her neglected soul, her utter inability to articulate a point of view. The rest of the film is devoted to her painstaking climb out of the rubble to form an identity, fueled by genuine caring and by the simple instruction that she write, and keep writing, every day. She acquires the ability to assert herself, along with the ability to name her experience, until she can actually cry out that all "love" has done for her is to beat her, rape her, and make her feel worthless. It's hopeful, but doesn't spare you the arduousness of the struggle that lies before her.
There are some remarkable performances here. The task of bringing Precious to life is no small feat, because she is so blank most of the time and yet has such a colorful, TV-dream-fueled inner life; newcomer Gabourey Sidibe captures her blankness yet seizes your attention so that you don't look away in the way that most people naturally would in Precious's actual experience. (I'm delighted that she is nominated for best actress, though I think Helen Mirren's remarkable performance in "The Last Station" deserves the award.) Paula Patton is quietly effective as Ms. Rain, and the scenes with Precious and her classmates avoid the treacly over-simplification of so many stories of classroom triumph, showing the distance these girls must come and how completely they have acclimated to chaos and violence. Mariah Carey is unexpectedly convincing as a social worker who is in way over her head. Most remarkably, Mo'nique pulls off a miracle in her portrayal of Mary, brutal, self-pitying, and malevolent. It's nearly impossible to depict a person this evil without making her into a cartoon, but her Mary is complete, true, believable, and complex. She totally deserves the Oscar for best supporting actress for this astounding performance.
Daniels manages to convey a lot without explaining it directly: the failures of the education system; the ineffectual efforts of the welfare system to provide the poor with meaningful help; the complexities of the resulting cycle of dependence; and the intractable, unrelenting nature of family violence, particularly in a culture that bears the scars of slavery. As Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly observed, "Mary is raging and defeated, a woman who treats Precious as a slave--* * * these two are living out patterns of cruelty that go back for generations." Daniels tells this story so well that the film earns the payoff of a devastating final scene between Mary, Precious, and Mariah Carey's well-intentioned but misguided social worker in which Mary's true character is utterly revealed. Never has this type of abuse been so truthfully deconstructed.
Ms. Rain asks the girls in class, "What does it mean when the author describes the protagonist's circumstances as unrelenting?" The film asks that question too, yet somehow manages to avoid shortcuts that would turn Precious and Mary into stereotypes. The hope that emerges, then, is earned, and yet also challenging. It's a painful journey, work to sit through, but it will change you. This story deserves the attention it demands.
As Precious begins to acquire an identity, she begins to glimpse signs that Ms. Rain has her own sadness, her own struggle. She muses that "some folks has a lot of things around them that shines for other peoples. I think that maybe some of them was in tunnels. And in that tunnel, the only light they had, was inside of them. And then long after they escape that tunnel, they still be shining for everybody else." Those of you who know me best might understand how profoundly that struck me; we who have managed to rise out of unimaginable darkness know that, as scripture says, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." This film captures how high those stakes actually are, because the truth can just as easily kill you--but what doesn't might actually set you free. [Rated R for child abuse including sexual assault, and pervasive language; on at least 17 other critics' top-ten lists; my pick of the Oscar nominees for best actress in a supporting role (Mo'Nique), best adapted screenplay, best picture, and best director; also nominated for best editing and best actress (Gabourey Sidibe); still in theaters]
3. Perhaps the fashion designer Tom Ford is insufferable, but the great care he has taken with his first film, "A SINGLE MAN," deserved more attention that it got. The film is a meditation on grief and invisibility that he directed and wrote based on a seminal 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood (author of the source material for "Cabaret"). Each shot is carefully composed, every detail of wardrobe and scene scrupulously art-directed, and the camera lingers lovingly on mascaraed eyelashes, smartly tailored suits and, especially, toned masculine flesh. I disagree, however, with critics who compared this film to a too-perfect perfume ad--Ford's gift with style serves a purpose here, and as far as I am concerned, he has not put one foot wrong.
It helps that his film is anchored by the best lead performance by an actor this year. (Jeff Bridges is considered for the favorite for his performance in "Crazy Heart," and I am a huge fan of his--but the script doesn't give him nearly this much to work with.) Colin Firth (who I previously loved best for his performance as Mr. Darcy in the 6-hour 1995 PBS version of "Pride and Prejudice") here portrays George, a 50ish British expat and English professor who is sinking under the weight of his grief over the death of Jim, his lover of 16 years. Because it is 1962, this man's solitude is total; each day he puts, as he says it, the finishing touches on the nearly perfect persona that passes as George, carefully insulating the world from what it would see as filthy and unspeakable: his deep love for Jim; the lustful stirrings he is now too weary to indulge; and a grief so profound that he can no longer find a reason to go on living. Yet even while going through the motions of what he has decided will be his last day, and carefully planning every detail of a death that he is determined will be as carefully arranged as the life he has led so scrupulously, his gentleness and essential goodness shine through.
That goodness is part of what makes George so compelling. His relationship with Jim is revealed in flashbacks that radiate the warmth between them. We notice, too, the small pause each time a student or colleague asks him a question and the way he genuinely listens before making a thoughtful reply. He is kinder to women than most straight men would be, utterly sincere in his expressions of appreciation for his housekeeper's attentions and his secretary's lovely skin and hair style. And he is loyal and affectionate to his best friend Charley (wonderfully played by Julianne Moore), a boozy divorcee' and fellow expat with whom he had a years-ago brief romance. Although it meant more to her than to him (she obviously still carries a torch for him, without really understanding him), their last evening together is characterized by little kindnesses and gentle admonitions characteristic of a long friendship.
The attentiveness that characterizes all his interactions makes the completeness of George's isolation all the more devastating; he gives lavishly the very thing he is utterly denied. Very early on, the film flashes back to the phone call when George learned from one of Jim's family members (a day-and-a-half later) of his death in a car crash; before George has a chance to absorb that blow, he must endure the news that the memorial service is "for family only." A charming neighbor girl innocently tells him that her father would like to kill him, minutes before her mother sweetly invites George over for cocktails. Even Charley, to whose arms he fled the night of that awful phone call, asserts that, despite what Jim meant to him, George must surely want a "real relationship." In a rare push against the bounds of his isolation, George offers a coded lecture to his students about the perceived threat posed by invisible minorities, but is not surprised when it goes straight over their heads. "I am exactly what I appear to be, if you look closely," he tells the one young student whose flirtatious attention he has captured. He says this with the rueful smile of someone who expects that no one will.
It's rare for a film to portray so completely and truthfully such private, invisible suffering. Ford, and Firth, manage the feat not in spite of the film's somewhat artificial, staged beauty, but making full use of it. As Bob Mondello (NPR) put it, "George is a man who manages his feelings, and visualizing him in such pristine terms lets Ford highlight the tiniest of gestures: the finessing George does to navigate a can't-ask-can't-tell world; the veiled '60s hints and glances that would never even register today; and the glimmers of hope that flare unexpectedly at the edges of despair."
Any number of films have attempted to portray this type of painful history (from which we have yet to fully evolve) with much less success--in "An Education" or "Mona Lisa Smile" or "The Changeling," for example, oppression of women is portrayed so clumsily that these films add to the myth that we have solved that particular problem. The success of this film is in its completeness, its utter dedication to truth, even while clothed in unearthly beauty. Isherwood's source material, Ford's attention to detail, and Firth's soulful insight bear careful witness to a type of suffering that is sadly common not only to gay experience, but also to the experience of other outsiders. Somehow these artists know, as one character puts it, that "sometimes awful things have their own kind of beauty." I left this film grateful and affirmed by that approach to telling an otherwise invisible story. [Rated R for some disturbing images and nudity/sexual content; on at least 8 other critics' top ten lists; nominated for and should win Oscar for best actor (Colin Firth); should also have been nominated for best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay, best art direction, and best cinematography; still in theaters]
4. "THE CLASS" (originally titled "Between the Walls" in French) is far and away the best and most hard-hitting film I've ever seen about teaching. It's also a profound exploration of the challenges of multi-culturalism. Though filmed in France, it could hardly be more relevant to the American experience. It's a must-see for educators and for anyone who cares about bridging the cultural gulfs that divide us in America.
As you might have begun to expect from that description, this film is not light nor is it exactly entertaining, though it is never less than engaging. My first viewing felt like hard work; I felt a bit wrung out at the end. It is really like spending two hours right in the thick of the most challenging teaching job imaginable. But unlike typical Hollywood fare like "Freedom Writers," and "Dangerous Minds"--also about relatively affluent white teachers trying to reach angry, at-risk, inner-city kids from poor and immigrant families--this film does not take sides, nor does it attempt to explain or solve the kids' anger, nor does it depict a teacher who, alone among his checked-out colleagues, finds the hope and vision to connect with his students. Instead of easing the tension that drives the conflicts in this junior high French class, the film examines that tension and invites you to live in it for awhile. The kids' behavior and antagonism toward their teacher is not excused or softened, and the hard-working teacher is not exactly a hero, nor are his efforts particularly richly rewarded. He can't ever be sure when and if he is getting through to his students, and if he is it seems almost by accident.
The film stars Francois Bergaudeau, himself a teacher and author of a book that inspired the film, as Mr. Marin, a teacher in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Paris. The book documents one school year, with no real plot; the film takes a similar approach, allowing you to just live with the class. The effect is appropriately unsettling; you wonder what will happen, if the film (the class) is going anywhere in particular. In that way, it's a wonderful approximation of the experience of Mr. Marin and his students, as he struggles to persuade them that there is some value in learning to conjugate verbs, use the imperfect indicative, and speak French in a manner that they are convinced no one actually does. How do you tell what is for writing and what is for speaking? a student asks, accepting for the moment Marin's argument that there is a need to learn written French. Use intuition, he explains. But what's intuition? And what if you don't have it?
The director and Bergaudeau started with a loose script and then created the film over a year of improvising with the kids themselves, who developed the characters from composites of themselves and the kids described in Bergaudeau's book. Many of the exchanges depicted arose from this process of improvisation, in their attempts to express their world to him. Most of the action takes place in the classroom, with one camera trained on Mr. Marin, one on the student(s) currently at the center of the dialogue or action, and one recording other reactions. It is as though you are there, even when you may not want to be.
Mr. Marin's teaching style is confrontational; you see the huge quantity of energy he expends navigating a line that involves pushing and engaging his students, working with what they throw at him, but not getting drawn in by their attempts to trap or anger him. He's fairly successful at it, and is pretty good at getting them talking, but he also misses them a lot. Watch for one exchange in which a Chinese student, Wei, new to France, notes that other students don't feel enough "shame." Mr. Marin, thinking Wei has chosen the wrong word, turns the discussion to what people do feel shame about--and it turns into a cacophony of different ideas about shame that don't connect and that it is clear Mr. Marin doesn't understand. Often what they are trying to say really is beyond his ability to grasp and their ability to express; the gulf of culture and language and class seems impossibly wide. We see their distrust of him, a distrust they nurture, which causes them to miss or discount his attempts to reach them, but also a distrust that is in some ways quite well-founded. There often is a kind of condescension in Marin's responses to their challenges, though one wonders if it is in some ways like the psychological callouses a surgeon needs in order to cut into the human body on a regular basis.
The teachers, for their part, struggle to bring some order to the chaos, reaching for rituals like requiring students to stand when an adult enters the room to reinforce a sense of decorum. They struggle aloud with each other (though never in front of the students) over how to mete out discipline, debating the merits of point systems and varying degrees of flexibility in applying the rules. Mr. Marin is conscientious, usually arguing for a flexible approach--so it is particularly frustrating when his students pounce on any evidence that he is insulting or discounting them. They have him pegged as an oppressor--the empired striking back--but their assessment of him is not entirely fair. It's tough to watch how quickly they unite in attempting to get him into trouble when he finally takes the bait and says something he shouldn't.
The misunderstandings here run deep. In addition to the usual adult-vs.-adolescent disconnects, here you have the additional layer of cultural difference complicating matters. I came away with such a profound sense that the education system as it has been set up is woefully ill-equipped to provide for these kids, who already resent being pre-judged and cast-off by a culture that has no use for them, yet resist identifying themselves as part of it, calling themselves Malian or Caribbean rather than French--or, as one Arab student says, "I'm French, but I'm not proud of it." The rules and efforts to control them don't really work--as one student retorts after Mr. Marin forces her to apologize for a classroom affront, "I didn't really mean it"--and yet how to reach these kids with classes this size and differences this profound? Even when it's clear that some learning is taking place in the midst of it all, it's not necessarily what these kids need or what Mr. Marin hopes for. As Richard Schickel puts it in Time magazine, "the educational machinery * * * clank[s] onward, in the largest sense indifferent to the needs of its charges, the best efforts of its functionaries."
In the end, this wonderful film (which won the Palme D'Or at Cannes and should have won the Oscar for best foreign language film last year instead of the dreadful "Departures") is not only a rich meditation on the challenges of teaching in a broken educational system but also a master class on cultural difference. Here's what happens when one's best intentions are tested by the real world, "when the underprivileged don't show gratitude the way they do on TV shows" and where teaching is "moment to moment, an endless series of negotiations that hang on intangibles--on imagination and empathy and the struggle to stay centered." (David Edelstein, New York Magazine) I laughed to myself thinking how diversity education is considered a "soft" subject; bringing real understanding into the arena in which we now find ourselves is nothing if not hard. Right now most majority culture people can avoid these front lines, but not for long. Time to listen, and struggle. [In French; rated PG-13 for language; on at least 9 other critics' top ten lists in 2008 and 2009; nominated for and should have won the Oscar for best foreign language film in 2008; available on DVD]
5. My predominant reaction the first time I saw the Coen Brothers' film, "A SERIOUS MAN," was delight and gratitude that the brothers had thought to make a film about a part of American culture that hasn't really been portrayed in our popular media. Who else would even think to make a film depicting life in a fairly enclosed Jewish American community in the Midwest, circa 1967? Who else would begin their film with a seemingly disconnected Yiddish fable set hundreds of years ago in a shtetl somewhere in eastern Europe? Who else would have viewers scratching their heads in the very first scene, and yet fill their film with so many fascinating bits of detail that they never lose their audience's interest?
The Coens love to riff on familiar stories ("The Odyssey" in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is the best example) and the homage here is to the biblical story of Job, a righteous man whose experience with a series of tragedies leaves him questioning what God is doing to him, and who receives unhelpful advice on his situation from a series of religious advisors. Here he is embodied by Larry Gopnik, a gently befuddled college physics professor who is up for a difficult tenure vote and whose life is beginning to unravel. His inexplicably bitter wife has taken up with an unctious older man; his brother, who appears to be struggling with mental illness, is living with him and engaging in increasingly worrisome behaviors; his son, soon to celebrate his bar mitzvah, has developed a somewhat problematic fondness for marijuana and Jefferson Airplane; and an oddly menacing student is attempting to bribe Lary to change an "unacceptable" grade.
All of this throws Larry into reverie. Appropriately, he is an admittedly tenuous expert on baffling ideas like Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle which, as A.O. Scott points out, more or less translates into "God knows" since we can't. The problem is, God (or Hashem--"the name"--in Jewish parlance) doesn't appear to be taking questions. What does Hashem want? Is he trying to teach us something? Larry grasps for a way to make sense of it all, visiting three successive rabbis for answers, and each time comes up empty. God knows, but apparently He's not telling.
An earnest struggle for meaning takes particular shape in the context of Jewish culture--indeed, what better place for such a struggle? As one character memorably exclaims, "Thank heaven we're Jews, and we have access to such wonderful traditions to help us sort out the answers." When she urges Larry to talk to a rabbi, he wonders aloud, "What's the rabbi going to say?" Her response: "If I knew that, I'd be the rabbi."
That exchange is a perfect example of what Larry's pondering yields him. He poses the right questions, and asks them with an apparently pure heart. As he puts it, he tries to be a "serious man." Yet, despite the promise of meaning to be found in his religious tradition, the promised answers disintegrate in his hands.
The Coens do not dishonor their Jewish heritage, however. Indeed, it's hard to imagine a more careful, loving tribute. They revel in so many small details: the potty-mouthed kid on the bus home from Hebrew school; the fables about everything and nothing; the rabbi whose office is filled with odd and vaguely menacing artifacts and is too busy "thinking" to see a desperate Larry but is surprisingly present and even wise with his 13-year-old son; the complex mix of loving attachment and offhandedness with which members of the community treat its traditions. I also admired the Coens' willingness to sit with the questions the story raises; faithful to their biblical source material, they have honored the story, the culture the film depicts, and the questions themselves. [Rated R for language, some sexuality/nudity, and brief violence; on at least 25 other critics' top ten lists; nominated for Academy Awards for best picture and best original screenplay (my pick to win the latter); should also have been nominated for best director (the Cohens) and best actor (Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Larry); in second-run theaters and on DVD]
6. "THE COVE" deserves the Oscar for best documentary feature. This daring film, itself an act of subversion, sets out simply to show (not just tell--since telling so far hasn't worked) the truth about the appalling treatment of dolphins in a Japanese village that portrays itself as a center of dolphin love, complete with monuments and a dolphin museum.
Every year in Taiji, Japan, thousands of dolphins are forced into captivity. Hundreds of them are sold into the very lucrative but inhumane international dolphinarium trade--and the rest are lured into a secluded cove by a wall of sound, brutally slaughtered by the thousands, and sold as mislabled, mercury-poisoned meat. This senseless and violent deception is carried out under secrecy enforced by a fierce and highly organized network of police, corporate interests, officials at all levels of government, and petty thugs. It is downright shocking how much energy is devoted to lying about what is happening and to preventing anyone (by any means necessary) from photographing or even seeing what is going on. I am always complaining about how movie villains are way oversimplified to eliminate any ambiguity or any risk that we won't hate them (e.g., "Avatar"); this film certainly portrays the complexity of the web of forces protecting this senseless slaughter--but I must admit, there isn't any ambiguity here about the evil of these particular villains.
Ric O'Barry, the man who got rich creating the "Flipper" show in the early '60s that, according to him, sparked the dolphinarium trade, recounts how, after a decade, he finally came to realize just how profoundly cruel it is to keep these exceptionally intelligent, even soulful creatures in captivity. For him, the moment of truth came when one of the "Flipper" dolphins died in his arms in what he is convinced was a suicide. He since has spent more than 35 years trying to break down what he feels responsible for starting--and in the process found the walls of protection around the industry impossible to penetrate by legal means.
He eventually found an ideal collaborator in first-time documentary filmmaker Louie Psihoyos, formerly a still photographer for National Geographic, who brings to the enterprise an exuberance for cloak-and-dagger strategy and risk and an eye for powerful images. I like Ella Taylor's comment in the Village Voice that Psihoyos "possesses the showboating instincts and righteous rage of Michael Moore, but without Moore's bile or self-importance." Psihoyos assembled a dream team of champion free-divers, a military reconnaissance expert, and Hollywood special effects designers who built fake rocks to hide cameras, and the group set out to mastermind an operation that aims to simply show the truth of what is happening. The group filmed clandestinely in the middle of the night under extraordinarily dangerous conditions, in a natural fortress that is nearly impossible to reach, hounded by thugs who wanted to kill them. The footage they captured is profoundly disquieting and absolutely essential viewing.
It also provokes difficult questions (which is how you know they've portayed the villains correctly). How can people shield themselves so completely from recognizing how lying destroys their humanity? How can they fail to see that deliberately and forcefully squelching the truth rots one's insides? As Andrew O'Hehir asks (Salon.com), "Why [have we] treated the species closest to us in intelligence with such cruelty and contempt?" How did O'Barry find the courage to look so square in the face of a wrong that he helped to perpetrate and to never look away in 35 years? Watch his eyes for evidence of the pain he absorbs as he devotes himself to a life of bearing witness to unspeakable evil. Attend to the filmmakers' struggle to anticipate the objections to their attempt to make sense of what is happening. The details and explanations they lay out so carefully are important--but such details cannot truly account for such senseless evil. One must look at the bigger picture--and the courage it took to collect the images necessary for us to bear witness to that picture is hard to fathom. Especially since the lies continue. (Rated PG-13 for disturbing content; on at least 9 other critics' top-ten lists; nominated for, and should win, the Oscar for best foreign language film; available on DVD.)
7. One documentary that was unfairly overlooked this awards season is the miraculous "UNMISTAKEN CHILD," which I saw and loved at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in April. The first feature film of Israeli director Nati Baratz, it tells a profound and complex story, of Buddhist monks searching for a reincarnated master, with delicacy and a remarkably sure hand.
In the Buddhist tradition, when a master, or lama, dies, it is believed that signs may indicate his intention to be reincarnated, and that the "rinpoche," or reincarnated master, may be located by spiritual practices of divination. In this case, Tenzin Zopa, a gentle young man who for 21 years (since childhood) was the closest "heart disciple" of a beloved departed lama, is charged with the task of locating his master, receiving direction from his own dreams, from signs discerned from the ashes of the lama's cremation, and from discernment by Zopa's superiors regarding the region where the rinpoche will be born and the first letter of his father's name.
Zopa, still grieving the loss of his master, feels unworthy of the task, but sets out, as directed, to the valley where he himself was born, visiting along the way the mountainside retreat where he spent beloved years with his dear master. He then goes from house to house in the valley, inquiring after any children between the ages of a year and 18 months. He sits with the little candidates one by one, asking each whether he recognizes the lama's prayer beads, looking for signs that the child harbors the spirit of the revered master. Once he locates a one-year-old who shows signs of being the "unmistaken child" who will now embody the master's teachings and bring enlightenment to the people, Zopa must guide his now-diminutive master through the various processes for confirming that he is indeed a rinpoche, including an audience with the Dalai Lama, and must prepare the child's parents to release the little master to the care of a monastery far from their mountain home.
It's hard to convey just how profoundly this film works on you--but take my word for it, it is not to be missed. Its rich pleasures involve how simply it conveys the devotion of these believers, particularly Zopa, with his tender attention to the little rinpoche, and its patient observance of the signs of greatness in the toddler. I wondered as I watched what god-likeness should look like in a person so young (a provocative question for a Christ-believer) and marveled at the faithfulness, devotion, and strength of the gentle Zopa, who seems always to be fully present to whatever is happening. With gorgeous cinematography and exquisite grace, this story will inspire you no matter what your religious tradition. (In English, Tibetan, Hindi, and Nepali; not rated but accessible to mature kids; on at least 2 other critics' top-ten lists; should have received an Oscar nomination for best documentary feature; available on DVD)
8. Quentin Tarentino's latest and greatest, "INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS," provokes controversy, but I still have to include it in my top films of the year. It contains the very best performance of the year by a supporting actor (Christoph Waltz). I've always admired and enjoyed Tarentino's work, particularly his wonderful dialogue and visual inventiveness--but have found his last few films to be not quite up to the promise of "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction." This one exceeds all his prior work, in my book. He always strikes me as playful--but here the mix of emotions and ideas he evokes is more complex and deep rather than just dark.
I hesitate to say anything that would give away much of the plot to those who missed it on the big screen (where it deserves to be seen) because I am convinced the movie is best enjoyed with no advance information that could undercut its tension and suspense. I saw it the first time without even knowing that it was set in German-occupied France in the 1940s, though you figure that out early on. Tarentino weaves an array of fascinating characters in and out of a multi-chapter story--some appear only once, and others appear in mixed combinations throughout the film--and the first couple of chapters use spaghetti-Western conventions to introduce the essential conflicts, between the Nazis (and, in particular, a chilling and vivid officer who has been nicknamed "the Jew Hunter" and has been given the task of hunting down the last Jews remaining in occupied France); a fictional band of American Jews led by a Tennessean of Apache descent played by Brad Pitt, who set out on a vigilante mission using Apache methods (including scalping) to terrorize the Nazis; and a young Jewish woman who is the only member of her family to survive slaughter by the Nazis. Along the way, Tarentino plays on and then remakes interesting and disparate movie conventions (the proper British officer sporting nerves of steel, German officers who are frequently unfailingly polite as they twist the knife, and the Americans behaving like uncouth ruffians and callously expecting everyone to speak their language). He also plays with the whole convention of film--an important French character owns a movie theater which is variously coopted by the Nazis, and Joseph Goebbels's ambition to create a film industry that would surpass what he saw as a Jew-dominated Hollywood machine plays prominently in the film, which also involves a revenge plot that plays out in a film-within-the-film and an act of destruction that involves a literal use of film.
In every case, Tarentino has an absolute ball with these conventions and ideas. The story and characters feel fresh, the connections arise naturally, and the outcomes surprise yet seen somehow right. The dialogue is characteristically rich and often funny--yet the emotions feel genuine and often powerful. The acting is first-rate across-the-board, except for Pitt (who is clearly having a ball but is not up to par with the rest of the cast); Tarentino has otherwise wisely cast mostly European actors unknown to American audiences. The portrayals of Hitler and Goebbels are particularly good, and the French actress who portrays the young Jewish woman conveys a delicate balance of steely vulnerability and determination.
The best, though, is Waltz, an Austrian television actor, who won the best actor award at Cannes for his role as the Jew Hunter. I consider his performance to be one of the best I have ever seen. From the very first scene (one of the most riveting opening scenes of any film I can remember), his combination of exaggerated courtesy and chilling coldness is so rich and complex that you both hate him and live for the moments he is on-screen. With a facial structure that, to my mind, strangely and coincidentally resembles Tarentino's, he functions as Tarentino's surrogate, in a way--like Tarentino to the audience, Waltz's character can barely contain his glee as he engages in wordplay and exaggerated courtesy while his listeners wait for him to lower the boom, inspiring both admiration and foreboding. Waltz owns the Oscar for best supporting actor is there is any justice in Hollywood. (In English, German, French, and Italian; rated R for strong graphic violence, language; and brief sexuality; on at least 23 other critics' top-ten lists; received Academy award nominations for best supporting actor (Christoph Waltz--and he should win),best picture, best director, best cinematography, best film editing, best sound mixing, best sound editing, and best original screenplay; available on DVD)
9. "IN THE LOOP," a biting and bitterly insightful comedy that takes as its inspiration the lead-up to the Iraq war, has earned more respect from me each of the four times I have seen it. By means of the most artful profanity imaginable ("Deadwood" is the only thing I've ever seen that comes close to this), the film depicts how functionaries embroiled in the political process can each become so focused on their own vanity and personal self-interest that they lose sight of any coherent principle or defensible version of reality, struggling mightily to stay in the game of contenders--but for what? Even if profanity offends you (it doesn't me), that may in fact be the point--one should be offended by lying that comes this fast and furious. And yet the film is utterly hilarious. The laughs come so relentlessly that it takes several viewings to feel like you're getting anything like the full effect of this exceedingly clever script, which was justly nominated for an Oscar. I'm planning my DVD purchase so that I can watch it with subtitles; it is that good.
I love A.O. Scott's observation that "[i]t is somehow fitting that [this] sharply written, fast-talking, almost dementedly articulate satire * * * should also commence with a verbal slip-up." In a period of confusion and military build-up in the Middle East, a British international policy minister bungles a BBC radio interview by opining that war is "unforeseeable." The stupid but seemingly minor comment is sufficiently off-message for the British government that it sends the prime minister's director of communications, Malcolm Tucker (particularly brilliant), into a seething rage (though it is soon evident that he is always in a seething rage). Soon, media bloodhounds smell blood in the water and begin hounding the minister for further explanation--and he, under pressure to walk the statement back, instead trudges deeper into the hole he has dug for himself and feeds American hawks their new slogan by opining on camera a few days later that, while peace is of course desirable, it sometimes becomes necessary to "climb the mountain of conflict." Newly infuriated, Tucker dubs him a "Nazi Julie Andrews," and communication on both sides unspools from there.
Director Armando Iannucci is a British TV veteran expanding here on "The Thick of It," a series about British politics. He wrote the script with four other screenwriters--for once a group project that feels amazingly unified--and gets a lot of comic mileage out of the differences between the Brits and the Americans. The Brits veer from sycophantic to apoplectic (particularly Tucker and another Scot who have the best and most furious lines in the film) while the Americans are boorish, entitled, or, as Mick LaSalle put it, "cheerfully psychopathic." (San Francisco Chronicle) There's a hilarious running joke in which the Brits are persistently appalled that the American government is basically run by a "master race of highly gifted toddlers."
Beneath all this acerbic humor lie some pretty profound observations about the shockingly empty rhetoric of bureaucracy and how groups of people vying for power can hurtle toward decisions that no one really believes in, heedless of the devastating consequences. Having observed close-up less far-reaching but still disturbing examples of this same phenomenon, I found myself wishing I was clever enough to generate an internal commentary even half this funny and apt, so that at least I could keep myself entertained. (Not rated but surely deserves an R rating for rampant but artful profanity; on at least 21 other critics' top-ten lists; nominated for an Academy Award for best adopted screenplay; available on DVD.)
10. Finally, I'm including two brilliant stop-motion animated films in my number ten spot: "A TOWN CALLED PANIC" and "FANTASTIC MR. FOX." The former is the first feature-
length film of two Belgian animators, and received a very limited release, though it is still playing in Portland. Where the delight of "Fox" is in the meticulous care in every detail, the joy of "Panic is in its zaniness, its absurd sight gags that come fast and furious, and its general mischief that seems random (though of course it's not). It's an absurdist tale starring a dashing plastic toy horse and his hapless housemates, a plastic toy cowboy and Indian, both on awkward little stands, living in an idyllic village improbably called Panic. The jerky movements of these figures suggest what naughty kids might play at when adults aren't looking--except these kids picked up a few ideas the adults didn't expect them to overhear.
Beginning with the daily toilette of Horse, Cowboy, and Indian, in which all three shower and brush their teeth, and continuing through a manic adventure that includes a botched internet shopping order, a raucous party, a romance between the suave Horse and a sultry equine music teacher, a journey to the center of the earth, the discovery of an alternative underwater universe, and a giant robot penguin who hurls perfect snowballs from one universe to the other, the film is endlessly inventive and laugh-out-loud funny. Each detail is riotously imagined, the rudimentary, childlike dialogue uttered in exaggerated adult voices is a hoot (I especially loved the constant shout of the plastic farmer next door, and hearing the dialogue in French punctuated with American slang made it somehow more amusing), and the action is joyously frenetic. Even if you don't normally go for animated films, give this one a try--it's utterly original and fun. (In French; not rated but fine for any child who can read the subtitles; not on any other critics' top-ten lists, though perhaps because it wasn't widely distributed; deserved an Academy Award nomination for best animated feature; still in theaters--look for it!)
"FANTASTIC MR. FOX" is less reckless, more mannered, but just as joyous. Speaking as a fan of writer-director Wes Anderson (except for his ride off the rails in "The Life Aquatic"), I think this is some of his best work, second only to "The Darjeeling Limited" (which others did not appreciate quite as much as I did). Who could have guessed that his quirky, self-conscious dialogue would sound so genuine and natural coming out of the mouths of scruffy animal puppets voiced by the likes of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, and Jason Schwartzman? Here Anderson, his co-writer Noah Baumbach, and a team of skillful designers and animators have lovingly conceived a world in which each character is so authentically who he or she is that it is not only funny and whimsical but also inspiring.
As envisioned here, Mr. Fox (a perfect Clooney) is a dashing corduroy-clad gentleman bandit who was born to steal (chickens, mostly). Upon learning that the practical Mrs. Fox (Streep) is pregnant, Mr. Fox attempts to squeeze himself into the role of a family man by trading his life of crime for a job as a newspaper columnist. I haven't read the Roald Dahl book on which the film is based, but from the film reviews I've read, it is more a survival story; Anderson and Baumbach have ingenuously grafted onto it the more existential question of what it means to be oneself: "Who am I? Why a fox?" he asks. And, "can a fox ever be happy without a chicken in its teeth?"
The question is more fun when asked in the context of raising a child who is sulkily struggling with his own questions of identity. Ash (Schwartzman doing his best work), the son who inspired Mr. Fox's retirement from his life's work as a chicken-stealer, grows into a moody misfit 12-year-old who keeps failing in his attempts to fit into his father's mold and win his approval. Ash resents the arrival of the golden-boy cousin, Kristofferson, who easily follows into Mr. Fox's footsteps (that is, after his daily yoga meditation ritual). Scrawny Ash's misfired attempts at assembling an identity are amusing--he sports a superhero cape and tucks his pants into his socks, tries out for the absurdly complicated sport at which his dad and Kristofferson excel, and begs to be taken seriously and to be include in the newest adventure dad is plotting. Ash yearns to be good at something, but can't seem to find his niche.
All these characters, as well as Mr. Fox's wily lawyer Badger (Bill Murray), his spaced-out sidekick Possum, and the three very rich and very mean local farmers, are lovingly imagined in every detail. I understand that Anderson had a very particular vision of what he wanted (perhaps driving the animators crazy, since he was directing from his apartment in Paris)--but the film's folk-art feel and the scruffy puppets with their crazed porcelain eyes, jerky movements, and real, matted animal fur work brilliantly. The tiniest props are arranged with infinite care--acorn-patterned wallpaper, cutlery made from deer hooves, Mrs. Fox's Indian-inspired tunic like those worn by groovy moms everywhere. As Dana Stevens of Slate Magazine observes, "You don't want to watch this movie[;] you want to climb inside it and play." I love how the foxes have a kind of refined elegance before they turn into wild animals; as Stephanie Zacharek (Salon.com) describes, "They hover over exquisitely prepared platters of food, savoring the delicate blend of aromas--and then descend upon them, suddenly realistically foxlike, snuffling and snarfing and sending food flying all over the place."
The point of it all, of course, is that each "fox" should be exactly who he or she is. Mr. Fox is, as his wife finally realizes and comes to embrace, a charming and ingenuous rogue, a "wild animal," and that's what he should be. And Ash? Like 12-year-olds everywhere, he needs time--but he'll get there. (Rated PG for action, smoking, and slang humor; on at least 24 other critics' top-ten lists; nominated for Academy Awards for best animated feature (which it should win) and best original score; I would have added a nomination for best adapted screenplay; DVD release slated for March 23, 2010)
As I noted above, I'm tacking on two films that never got a U.S. release either on the big screen or on DVD. Both of these brilliant films are well worth the effort to find--and I will happily loan out my copies (which I had to order from the Czech Republic and Canada, respectively):
KARAMAZOVI was hailed as the best Czech film of the year, and with good reason. The story revolves around a drama company from Prague that comes to Krakow to present a play adapted from Dostoyevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov" as part of an alternative theater festival. They are staging it in the local steelworks as an experiment to place art in the midst of real life. The film then places a rehearsal of the production in the midst of the everyday lives of the actors and a mill employee, whose young son is fighting for his life after a fall from a below-code conveyance in the factory. The worker is attracted siren-like to the production, whose themes so clearly resonate with his own tragedy, contributing to the edgy sense present in the original work. Dostoyevsky's themes of guilt, faith, and doubt come to life amidst the building sense of foreboding for the millworker.
I can't recall ever seeing a filmed stage production that made such brilliant use of the setting and was so powerfully acted. Accompanied by a particularly marvelous score, the film is consistently riveting, provocative, and rich from the very first scene--I actually wanted to see it again immediately, and with each of three viewings I have had that sense that there are more riches for me to find in this gem of a production. [In Czech, Polish, and English; not rated but probably would be R for mature themes; certainly among the best foreign language films I saw this year and should have received an Oscar nomination in 2008; available on DVD from a Czech website or from me.]
THE NECESSITIES OF LIFE was actually Canada's submission for the best foreign language film in 2008, and I'm disgusted by some of the inferior films that received nods instead, as this one is a perfect gem from start to finish. It tells the story of an Inuit hunter, Tivii, who leaves his northern home when he is stricken with tuberculosis in 1952 to recuperate in a sanitarium near Quebec City. Surrounded by people yet utterly alone in an alien land and unable to communicate, his despondence is palpable. Never have I seen the effects of racism so clearly and honestly portrayed, without oversimplification. It is finally his connection with an orphaned Inuit boy who is transferred to the hospital that brings him back from the brink. Only after someone can finally translate for Tivii does he begin to exist in the eyes of his caregivers and fellow patients, and we (and they) discover that the person who they had seen as an uncouth idiot is actually intensely perceptive and bristling with intelligence.
Some of the backstory behind the film is especially interesting. The screenplay was written in the early '90s by an anthropologist and veteran Quebecois filmmaker and documentarian who spent several years working for Inuit television. The director, Benoit Pilon, was given the script and recognized its relevance to current problems, remarkable because it is set in the '50s; I had the sense that the difference in time actually helps to overcome resistance that might arise from a more contemporary story. What Pilon didn't learn until later is that his star (Natar Ungalaaq, who also starred in the marvelous film, "The Fast Runner") is the grandson of a man who had a very similar experience of being sent south to be treated for tuberculosis. Ungalaaq's naturalistic style is perfect, as is Pilon's documentary approach and patient pacing. He reportedly told the crew that they were shooting in Inuit time: "I wanted to respect [Ungulaaq's] pace, his timing," Pilon said in an interview with Eye Weekly. "It's all through him--it's through his looks, it's through his face, it's through the way he breathes." That is, in fact, what makes his experience as an alien in a strange land come alive in a way I have never seen done so well. The film offers a profound depiction of how a dominant culture can unknowingly repress the humanity of outsiders. [In Inuit, French, and English; not rated but I wouldn't expect anything more than a PG rating; fine for middle-schoolers on up; should have received an Oscar nod for best foreign language film in 2008; available on DVD from independent sellers, or from me.]