Sunday, February 27, 2011


It's time again for my annual ritual of recognizing the best films I've seen this year. The top five are fictional stories that for me rang deeply true, four are documentaries, and one is an animated film that I wish more people would see. There's a notable lack of comedies, but all are stories of courage, or transformation, or unearthing difficult truths, or all of those things--so for me, it was the year of inspiration. I've written on half of these films before, so some of this will sound familiar, but I've added to all these reviews, including bits about who deserves Oscar recognition. Here's the list:

1. Biutiful

2. Winter's Bone

3. The King's Speech

4. True Grit

5. Animal Kingdom

6. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsburg and the Pentagon Papers

7. Raw Faith

8. Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

9. How to Train Your Dragon

10. Wasteland

I've added my picks for the Oscars at the end. Happy movie day!

1. One of the things that frequently bugs me about Hollywood films is that they nearly always present such a prettied-up version of life, mostly unattainable even here in the wealthiest country of the world--where, for example, a woman can be a raging alcoholic with no discernable income and still manage to live in an expensive suburb, to always be dressed to the nines, and to serve gourmet meals to her four impossibly gorgeous daughters. (See "The Upside of Anger," directed by Mike Binder, one of the worst peddlers of this kind of crap.) I often wonder about the distorted view of life in the U.S. that people in other parts of the world get from Hollywood--not to mention how Hollywood films, bleached of emotional honesty, distort the perspective of people here.

My theory is that it's our acclimation to that level of distortion that has caused so many U.S. critics to complain that "BIUTIFUL" (10), my favorite film of 2010, is a "gloomfest" or a manipulatively dark film. I would hasten to point out that the version of life depicted in Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu's masterpiece is a lot closer to the experience of the majority of the world's citizens than what you see in most American films. Poverty, mental illness, moral compromise, needs that outstrip physical and emotional resources--this is simply life for so many people. To me, though, Iñárritu has aptly named (complete with a child's misspelling) his vision of a world that includes such struggle and loss. Both times I saw it, his film left me deeply moved and filled with love and hope for meaning that transcends the struggle of human existence.

The film is anchored by an astounding performance by Javier Bardem (he won the best actor prize at Cannes and is my pick for this year's Best Actor Oscar) as Uxbal, an underworld businessman mixed up in an array of illegal activities involving undocumented Chinese sweatshop workers and pirated goods and drugs sold by undocumented African street peddlers. He spends his days mostly in the seedy parts of Barcelona that tourists never see, negotiating the unreasonable and irreconcilable demands of the police who he must bribe to look the other way and the exploiters of all kinds who take their cut from immigrant labor. Uxbal is also a devoted father to his young daughter and son, struggling to manage his and their complicated relationship with their estranged bipolar mother (beautifully played by Maricel Alvarez). And he is a spiritual sensitive, accepting money from those desperate for him to communicate with their recently departed loved ones. His life, then, is already untenable when he learns that he is dying of prostate cancer and has only a short time left to put his affairs in order, whatever that could possibly mean.

As Uxbal navigates the treacherous waters of his existence, he is constantly confronted by crises, by the need to compromise or to assert control, by people in desperate need of protection, his children chief among them. He is not a typical movie hero--he sometimes makes poor choices and, indeed, often has only poor choices available. Yet his choices make sense; they are animated by an essential goodness and clarity of purpose.

The level of chaos is high, shifting from the children to the illegal workers to the police to Uxbal's troubled ex-wife. But the film's perspective, to me, felt God-like--sympathetic, specific, and yet from a sufficient distance that one can see past the moral compromises of all the characters to what is most essentially true about them. Decent, afraid, lost, desperate, evil, good--in truth, the underworld depicted in this film struck me as more like the world most of us in the American movie-going audience live in than we would care to admit.

Suffusing it all is the question of life after death. A real estate development forces Uxbal and his brother to exhume the body of the father Uxbal never knew, who fled Spain to escape Franco, and Uxbal asks to see his father's long-ago embalmed corpse. Like so many of his encounters with sorrow, this one also is tinged with tenderness, and by Uxbal's willingness to be present. His encounters with a fellow seer are also especially potent--she shares his resoluteness, and prods him to continue to look steadily at the truth of his life and death. A recurring image of water pervades the film, a metaphor for the waves of chaos that envelop the world's inhabitants, but also for a comforting, enveloping divine presence that surrounds them all.

Iñárritu has assembled all the right elements to tell this story--wonderful performances (the children are especially poignant); a grave and haunting score by the masterful Gustavo Santolalla; cinematography so sweeping and yet so intimate that it perfectly captures Uxbal's visceral experience of walking through a frenetic ghetto while lost in anxious thought; Barcelona, its fierce beauty still evident even away from the touristed areas, La Sagrada Familia Basilica rising up through the chaos. And then, Bardem, whose intense performance suggests that he is, himself, spiritually sensitive. [In Spanish; rated R for disturbing images, language, some sexual content, nudity, and drug use; on at least one other critic's top ten list; nominated for, and should win, the Oscars for best foreign language film and best actor (Javier Bardem); still in theaters]

2. The best American film this year is "WINTER'S BONE" (10), director Debra Tanik's searing depiction of a teenager who quickly acquires wisdom beyond her years in a family crisis. Set among people living way off the grid in the Missouri Ozarks, it captures a world of poverty, crime, and hardship with more particularity than any film I can remember; its command of gritty details is complete and utterly convincing. Even more remarkably, its clear-eyed insight extends to the spirituality and inner workings of the individuals and the culture it depicts. By the second viewing, I had the powerful sense that, though I haven't lived in a context like this, its dangers are eerily familiar. And the courage of its heroine (played by a remarkable newcomer, Jennifer Lawrence) inspired me. (I'd give Lawrence the Oscar for Best Actress, though Michelle Williams' more showy performance in a lesser film, "Blue Valentine," is also deserving.)

I should admit that it took me two viewings to fully appreciate the film's power. It's not that I didn't admire it on first viewing; it's that the story is so harsh that I had a hard time hanging in there with it at first. I'm a pretty empathetic viewer, and felt intensely the darkness with which this stolid girl must do combat, so much so that I felt a little nauseous by the end. It helped on the second viewing to know what to expect so that I could enter into the film's world more fully. Even without the benefit of true surprise, I was absolutely blown away the second time through.

The teenager at the center of the story is Ree, a smart and resourceful 17-year-old who stoically devotes herself to the day-to-day survival of her silent, lost soul of a mother and her two younger siblings. Her father, a notorious meth cooker, has been missing for a couple of weeks, which apparently is cause for no more concern than the daily struggle for food and heat. But when the local sheriff informs Ree that her missing dad has posted as bond their land and the roof over their heads upon his latest release from jail, Ree's bleak daily struggle suddenly becomes more urgent; she must find her dad before his upcoming court date or she loses the struggle for good.

The hills are full of her kin, which she thinks should mean something. Problem is, as part of her seems to suspect, what it means is not necessarily good. Those relatives seem to know much more than they are willing to say; all are in the grip of a harsh world that keeps them at odds with the law, a world rigidly ruled by demands of loyalty and silence. Ree's need to know the truth in order to ensure her family's survival so conflicts with the dictates of custom and code that her own survival is threatened.

From the very first frame, the film feels immediate and raw. Every detail is right: the kids sleep in their clothes, and desultorily amuse themselves by skateboarding in the dirt or bouncing on a riding horse atop a large trampoline. Their hair looks like Ree probably cuts it herself with blunt scissors just enough to keep it out of their eyes; she teaches them to find and shoot squirrels and pull out their guts, and when her brother asks if they eat that part she says simply, "not yet." Ree tramps all over these hills on foot and when she needs to go further than is practical on foot she has to beg the use of a married friend's truck, who has to beg its use from her husband on the promise that Ree will pay for the gas. The men in the community seem to run things, but the women make things go, following up the threats of the men folk by either showing Ree the way around them or warning her to heed them or offering her food or cash when they can do no more.

Yet all of this is depicted with a kind of dignity and even respect. The people are not treated as oddities, nor do you have the more usual sense of filmmakers throwing dirt on actors and filming them lying around on dusty furniture and looking slovenly. There's a kind of order to this world, as brutal as it is, and there is kindness to be found in the ways people find to operate within its rigid code. In one scene, Ree begs her silent mother for help, "just this one time," in discerning what to do--but finds help instead from her uncle Teardrop (Deadwood's John Hawkes in a particularly memorable performance that deserves an Oscar), a menacing crank sniffer who is one of the first to urge her that she'd best leave the truth alone. Eventually Teardrop helps her find it, though when she confesses that she has always feared him, he comments, "That's because you're smart." There is also a group of women who offer help and brutality, sometimes in the same moment; they are protecting themselves, for sure, but at times you catch a glint of a motive to school Ree. For her part, Ree almost never flinches, watchful, perceptive, adjusting her eyes with each new revelation.

There isn't a wasted line or mannered detail anywhere; the storytelling here is as clear-eyed as the heroine. The most profound revelation for me was that this world, for all its brutality, seemed in some ways less dangerous than the worlds I know better--as a friend put it, everything looks broken down, but it functions. And without access to the artifice one can acquire with money and respectability, there's a kind of truthfulness to the way things work. People don't pretend to be serving some higher goal when they are stabbing you in the back; at one point when Ree asks, "Are you going to kill me?" the response is simply, "That idea was talked about." I admired the honesty of this world even while I was gripped with fear at the thought of what this child is meant to learn. And I found her courage--her ability to look hard, and to act on what she sees--inspiring, and instructive. [Rated R for some drug material, language, and violent content; on at least 56 other critics' top ten lists; nominated for, and deserves to win, the Oscars for best picture, best adapted screenplay, best actress (Jennifer Lawrence) and best supporting actor (John Hawkes) and should have received a nomination for best director (Debra Granik); available on DVD]

3. The film on my list with the most universal appeal is "THE KING'S SPEECH" (10), a surprisingly stirring depiction of the struggles of King George VI (the current Queen Elizabeth's father) to overcome a stutter so that he can assume the public persona demanded of him. It is directed by Tom Hooper, whose brilliant cable series "John Adams" was one of the richest treatments of history I have ever seen on film. As with that series, in "The King's Speech" history becomes intimate, personal, immediate, and relevant; we find ourselves identifying with people (a British monarch and his wife) whose lives don't remotely resemble the lives of most of the audience. (Of those nominated, I think Tom Hooper deserves the Oscar for Best Director.)

It was news to me that King George (who took the throne when his brother abdicated to marry a twice-divorced American in the 1930s) struggled his whole life with a crippling stutter--crippling because, as a member of the royal family during the early years of radio, when broadcasts were mostly done live with no editing, he could not escape the nightmare of public speaking. And for an otherwise quite capable military man, a speech disability was particularly shameful and inexplicable; surely his sheer force of will should have been sufficient to overcome it, or so it was thought.

The screenwriter, David Seidler, himself a stutterer, found inspiration from King George's story as a child and for years wanted to turn that story into a film. He actually asked the Queen Mother (the king's wife Elizabeth, who lived for decades after his death) if she would be alright with the story being told in that way, and she requested only that he wait until after her death, because it was still quite painful for her many years later. Without being manipulative or heavy-handed, the film makes sense of that pain--George (known to his family as Bertie) is presented as a decent, strong, and thoughtful man who sincerely wants to do right by his office, quite a contrast with his more self-absorbed older brother. Having subjected himself to a series of quack speech therapies with no success, Bertie has lost hope of finding help--and one senses that he is also somewhat imprisoned by the distance his royal status places between him and almost everyone else, and by the curious combination of deference and infantilization that seems to come with the royal territory.

Hope arrives in the unlikely form of Lionel Logue, an Australian who comes highly recommended. Only desperation could have inspired Elizabeth to suggest Lionel, who is entirely self-taught and uncredentialed and whose unconventionality (not typically tolerated in royal circles) is immediately apparent. Bertie quickly finds Lionel exasperating and rejects him as a therapist--and yet circumstances drive him back and the two begin working together.

One of the things that makes Lionel so compelling--and ultimately, so successful--is that he relentlessly insists on what he knows even when he can't explain how he knows it (at least not in a way that Bertie could hear). Lionel operates out of his own way of knowing, not respected by Bertie's world--and yet Bertie's world doesn't have a way of addressing his condition. Lionel gently but firmly requires that he and Bertie be on a first-name basis--part of his method, for sure, but perhaps also particularly necessary given the sense that the forced formality and deference of Bertie's world is part of what keeps him unable to speak. Lionel's method includes some vocal exercises, but it also includes friendship and attentive listening, a sort of ministry of presence that helps Bertie find his voice. Lionel's is the kind of knowing that is little understood and rarely recognized, but always effective where healing is longed for.

The film is observant about how class affects what is possible and what can be seen. Bertie is trapped by his class, yet insists upon the trap. Lionel is a no-account Australian (gasp!) with no credentials and is seen as not deserving of any deference. His attitude toward class distinctions seems disrespectful and, in one sense, it is--and yet, in another sense, he is offering Bertie a more genuine respect. The contrast is especially apparent when it comes time for Bertie's coronation, and we see the difference between the "deference" shown to him by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the kindness and patience shown by Lionel. By then, Bertie insists on respect for Lionel, something only Bertie can enforce.

The film is anchored by three resonant, Oscar-nominated performances. Colin Firth is just the person to play a quietly troubled but stolid monarch; it is no small feat to so grippingly convey the pain of a stutter, and also to pull off the very clipped way of speaking that was formerly common but has long since fallen out of fashion in Britain. Firth conveys Bertie's depths less with words than with the resolute set of his jaw, the pain in his eyes, the sense that his voice is not his own. Geoffrey Rush captures the sense that Lionel is comfortable with what he recognizes as his own awkwardness, compelled by the sense of what he sees and can demonstrate but can't always explain. And Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth is at her best as a woman who chooses to be cheerful and resolute and always quite appropriate, even while she is in agony over the suffering of the good man she loves.

Eventually, Bertie honored Lionel by inducting him into the Royal Victorian Order, a knighthood recognizing personal service to a monarch. It was a fitting tribute, but no more so than the friendship that the two maintained until Bertie's death. This film speaks profoundly of honor, and of friendship, and of shared humanity that has the capacity to heal what has seemed hopeless. [Unjustly rated R for a string of profanity that Bertie unleashes without stuttering--but I think this is perfectly fine for middle-schoolers on up; on at least 36 other critics' top ten lists; nominated for, and deserves to win, the Oscars for best director, best original screenplay, best art direction, best costume design, and best original score; also nominated for Oscars for best picture, best actor (Colin Firth), best supporting actor (Geoffrey Rush), best supporting actress (Helena Bonham Carter), best cinematography, and best editing; still in theaters.]

4. "TRUE GRIT" (10), the latest from Joel and Ethan Coen, is not so much a remake of the John Wayne-Glen Campbell-Kim Darby vehicle from 1969 as it is a new adaptation of the novel that inspired both films. Not having read the novel, I can't really comment on which is a more faithful adaptation (though I understand from other critics that the Coens win on that score by sticking with the novel's bleakness and its focus on Mattie Ross's character). What I can say is that the new film has it all: it's funny and warm and spare and colorful and, to me, inspiring in all the right ways.

To begin with, the casting is inspired. Matt Damon is delightful as La Boeuf (which he hilariously pronounces "La Beef"), a Texas ranger whose exaggerated pride makes him into a buffoon--until he turns out to be quite brave and true. Damon manages to make La Boeuf laughable while still imbuing him with dignity. Jeff Bridges far outdoes his Oscar-winning turn in "Crazy Heart" (the Coens have, of course, written him a much better part) as Rooster Cogburn, an unredeemable cuss who is half drunk most of the time and doesn't care what anyone else thinks, but whose unparalleled instinct and determination kicks in in a crisis. And newcomer Hailee Steinfeld shines as 14-year-old Mattie Ross, the determined girl who hires Cogburn to hunt down her father's killer on the non-negotiable condition that she be allowed to come along and help him finish the job. It took me a bit to decide how I felt about her clipped line readings--but ultimately I thought she perfectly captured the assuredness of a Victorian-era girl who has done her learning from books and also from observation that most adults don't live up to their billing. Her Mattie is determined without being cocky; she simply knows what she knows. She chooses Cogburn for the job over a candidate who comes more highly recommended, uncannily spotting in him what she rightly senses is needed: true grit.

The chief inspiration I drew from the film was its depiction of that rare and precious thing. It shows three characters who you wouldn't necessarily want on your side--an arrogant buffoon, a profligate drunkard, and a preternaturally confident child--and reveals that they share in common a sort of focus that kicks in when it is most needed, an ability to suddenly know and do exactly what must be done, even if that thing seems and is impossible. There really isn't a way to describe it better than the film's title does, and how that quality manifests in these three disparate people is a sight to behold. When Cogburn springs into action late in the film to save Mattie's life, I wept at the beauty of it.

Where does it come from, this quality that Portis's novel, and the Coens' film, celebrates so well? Mattie Ross is the lens through which the answer to that question is revealed. She has cannily observed by the age of 14 that most people don't follow through with what they say they will do, or pay attention long enough to see what is really going on. She stands out--and, among other things, can best a grown man in negotiations--because she does both of those things. Whatever she lacks in experience and maturity, this girl is awake; her eyes are open, and she looks hard at what appears in front of her. That focus gives her the ability to see a pathway through situations that nearly everyone else would deem impossible--and she has the will and the courage to act on what she sees. Likewise with Cogburn, though he has grown old and fat and "loves to pull a cork," and even La Boeuf, though one senses that might be a result of Mattie's influence in this case. The two men (first Cogburn, then La Boeuf) come to realize that they have misjudged the girl, and find in her a worthy ally who brings out the best in them.

Though some may be disappointed that the Coens have omitted the cynical wink characteristic of most of their films (which I happen to love), I think they wisely chose to play this one clear-eyed and true. It's not that they have presented an unquestioning homage to the Western ideal; rather, they have presented the genre in all its stark beauty and its contradictions--the barren landscapes (beautifully captured in Roger Deakins' cinematography, which deserves the Oscar); the cold; the strangely precious-yet-profane language almost entirely stripped of contractions (a la "Deadwood"); the rough and even lurid qualities of frontier justice--as the perfect backdrop for showing an admirable quality rarely seen and rarely understood. This film left me inspired to fight another day. [Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of Western violence including disturbing images; on at least 28 other critics' top ten lists; nominated for, and should win, the Oscar for best cinematography; also justly nominated for Oscars for best picture, best actor (Jeff Bridges), best supporting actress (Hailee Steinfeld) (hardly a supporting role), and best adapted screenplay; deserved an Oscar nomination for best original score; still in theaters.]

5. I first saw "ANIMAL KINGDOM" (10) alone and late at night, and my heart was still pounding as I walked the two blocks to my car. It scared me more than any horror film--not in the sense of expecting someone to jump out and attack me, but rather from the tension of spending two hours in a world of violence and treachery. First-time Australian director David Michôd (who also wrote the excellent screenplay) is officially on my list of directors to watch out for; he handles this complex material with a very sure hand.

Like "Winter's Bone," the story involves a teenager's coming of age. Newcomer James Frecheville as Josh is one of the most believable teenage boys I've ever seen on film, a man-boy who mumbles and instinctively doesn't give too much away. In another family, he might be an endearing, hulking presence, focused on hanging out with his friends and not much else. But in the film's first scene, we see him staring blankly at a television game show as the police come to retrieve the body of his mother, who's just died of a drug overdose. Not knowing what else to do, Josh calls his grandmother, Janine Cody, to pick him up, though he hasn't seen her in years because his mother was afraid of her and the rest of their family.

With good reason, as it turns out. Janine, innocuously nicknamed "Smurf," presides over a gang of bank robbers consisting of her three sons and their mate. The compact 60ish woman with the strange gleam in her eye looms large in the lives of her sons, not least because of her disturbing habit of planting lingering kisses on their mouths. She bribes dirty cops, orders hits, and soothes her volatile sons, all while maintaining a relentlessly cheery veneer that fits her suburban grandmother image but feels a good deal more sinister. There is little doubt that she will engineer the demise of anyone who stands in her way. Jacki Weaver's eerie performance deserves the Oscar for best supporting actress.

The sons she has raised are dangerous too, particularly the eldest, Pope, a menacing sociopath. They, and she, superficially welcome Josh into their household and even make noises about schooling him. And they do, after a fashion--but mostly that means acclimating him to violence and lawlessness. Offers of help to Josh clearly are leeched of any genuine concern for his education or safety.

The dangers don't end there. It turns out that the Cody gang is at war with the brutal and corrupt Melbourne police, who apparently would rather simply shoot a suspect to death than be bothered to arrest and mount a case against him. Tensions mount as brutal police action provokes a particularly brutal response from the gang--and this time Josh is involved.

Part of the genius of the film is that we are discovering this treacherous terrain at the same time as Josh is--yet he's only 17 and not obviously equipped to fend for himself. Eventually an apparently decent detective, Leckie (well-played by Guy Pierce), sees in Josh an opening to break past the family's unyielding wall of silence and save Josh from the fate that inevitably awaits him. But can Josh really trust the detective? As Leckie himself asks, where does Josh fit in the animal order of things? Josh's answer to that question is surprising.

The machinations here are intricate, but one of the strengths of the film is how handily Michôd navigates them. The plot is nearly as complex as a whole season of "The Wire," though easier to follow. Michôd maintains an undertone of tension and inevitability; things play out as it seems they must. Shot almost entirely inside gray bars and the confining, dismal rooms of the Cody household, you feel intensely how limited Josh's options are, and cast about in your mind for what to hope for him.

Along the way are pearls about the nature of this world, many of them contained in Josh's narration, though you wonder if that narration is coming from beyond the grave. The chief of these: "Crooks always come undone, always, one way or another." Even with that premise, the film maintains suspense as to how and when its dangers will materialize, and wows with its insights about how dangerous the world actually can be. [Rated R for violence, drug content, and pervasive language; on at least 12 other critics' top ten lists; nominated for, and should win, an Oscar for best supporting actress (Jacki Weaver); should also have been recognized with nominations for best director, best picture, and best original screenplay; available on DVD.]

6. "THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA: DANIEL ELLSBURG AND THE PENTAGON PAPERS" (10) was the best documentary I saw this year, although, like all four on this list, it did not receive wide distribution. More suspenseful and gripping than most fictional films, it finds in the events surrounding Ellsburg's release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 a tale of transformation, unusual courage, and the costs of telling the truth.

Daniel Ellsburg was the ultimate insider, a former Marine officer and architect of the Vietnam war who shared responsibility for propagating some of the bad information that fueled the war for many years. He personally advised Robert McNamara, and spent time serving in Vietnam himself. He narrates his own story here, explaining all the personal satisfaction and respect he got from his role as a strategist, a job he was good at.

As time went on, Ellsburg began to doubt his own thinking about what he was doing. But for years, he ignored those doubts. He describes in particular an occasion when he spent a plane ride discussing with McNamara reasons why the war was doomed to fail. McNamara agreed with him--and then stepped off the plane and assured the public that we were winning. A decades-long edifice of lies and justification kept the war going, complete with a long list of reasons why it was inevitable and in the national interest.

Finally, though, the very rigor and strong will that made Ellsburg such a cunning strategist--and, perhaps, a hard person to like--eventually made it impossible for him to ignore the mounting evidence that the war was untenable. Those same qualities enabled him to, as Mick LaSalle put it, "get fed up and stay that way" (San Francisco Chronicle). His description of the change in his thinking really qualifies as a spiritual transformation, culminating in one pivotal day spent with people willing to serve jail time in order to avoid military service. Listen to the conviction of those people, and their willingness to sacrifice for what they believed, left him sobbing. "It was as if an axe had split my head," he says, still visibly moved at the memory. "But what had really happened was that my life had split in two. And it was my life after[wards] that I've lived ever since."

Ellsburg knew that the Pentagon Papers revealed the lies and fallacies that had been used to keep the war going because he'd helped to construct those lies himself. He also knew that he faced a risk of significant jail time, not to mention loss of reputation, if he released them. The determination, and sheer time, that it took to copy all 7000 pages on the copiers available in 1971, and then to convince the New York Times to publish them, was considerable. The Nixon administration played hardball in response--but ultimately, when the administration obtained an injunction against the Times' and later that Washington Post's release of the information, scores of other newspapers carried forward publication of the papers. Meanwhile, a brave junior congressman read them into the congressional record. Ultimately, the Supreme Court's decision that the Nixon administration could not stop the Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers is widely viewed as the preeminent free press decision in our history--and one wonders if we still have a press that would function with that degree of courage and independence today.

You won't find a film that does a better job of laying bare the complicated facts surrounding this part of our history; for that reason alone the film should be required viewing for all American citizens, especially those too young to remember these events. What the film does even better is to impart what this story has to teach us about the costs of telling the truth.

One of the things that is most remarkable about what Ellsburg did is the personal cost he paid--and just how rare it is to find people willing to pay that price. He did not serve any jail time; the film presents the argument that he did not break any laws, but in any event the government's case against him ended with a mistrial after it was revealed that members of the Nixon administration had broken into Ellsburg's psychiatrist's office and had offered the judge presiding over Ellsburg's trial a job as head of the FBI. But Ellsburg did pay dearly in terms of friends and reputation. He was 40 years old at the time he released the papers, and was at the height of a very successful career--and afterwards, he was a pariah in the very community in which he had achieved that success. A psychiatrist advised his trial team that their worst jurors would be middle-aged men, because they might well have sacrificed principle for the sake of career and family and would have disdain, even contempt, for men who risked those things for the sake of principle. "I've come to realize," Ellsburg reflects forty years later, "the fear of being cut out from the group of people you respect and whose respect you want and normally expect, that keeps people participating in anything, no matter how terrible."

Another sobering part of this tale is how little impact the release of the Pentagon Papers had on public opinion, at least in the short term. Ellsburg had fully expected that once the information was out there, people would demand an end to the war. Instead, Nixon was reelected in a landslide the very next year, and the war was escalated. Every time he was interviewed, Ellsburg would publicly decry the bombs still being dropped on Vietnam in a war that was demonstrably unjustifiable and unwinnable, but those comments were not even reported. It was only after Nixon's impeachment in 1974 that Congress finally began to cut back funding for the war. "I gave up my job, my career, my clearance, and I staked my freedom on a gamble: if the American people knew the truth about how they had been lied to, * * * that they would choose against it. And the risk that you take when you do that, is that you'll learn something ultimately about your fellow citizens that you won't like to hear. And that is that they hear it, they learn from it, they understand it--and they proceed to ignore it." A person who acts in furtherance of the truth in the face of those realities is, indeed, a very dangerous man. [Not rated; nominated for an Oscar for best documentary in 2010; available on DVD.]

7. "RAW FAITH" (10), the first feature-length documentary of Portland director Peter Weidensmith, is still making the rounds of film festivals and, I'm told, will have a limited theatrical release and will air on television. I will do my best to keep you informed of a DVD release or other opportunities to see it.

I despair of describing the film in a way that will really convey its power. Its subject is Marilyn Sewell, a beloved minister of a large Unitarian congregation in Portland . As Sewell contemplated retiring from her post, a couple of her parishioners proposed the documentary as a way of shining a light on her prophetic perspective, which they greatly admired. What Sewell brought to the enterprise was her characteristic commitment to profound honesty, which enabled Weidensmith to find a story that goes beyond Sewell's compelling family history and her thoughtful approach to her ministry and retirement. What he finds is a portrait of transformation that is specific, and uncommonly rich with inspiration and insight.

The film really sneaks up on you. It begins by conveying Sewell's approach to her ministry, something I can't recall seeing done before. Effective ministry is not well understood, in my experience--but here the attempt to depict it is helped by Sewell's own clarity of intention and by her obvious and genuine love for her congregants. You see her dedication, and get an inkling of the focused energy it takes to do her job well. Her sermons are authentic and clearly spring from a life of personal devotion.

The film acquires power as it mines Sewell's troubled childhood and finds how the pain of her early life fuels her desire to experience love in the context of ministry. The losses she experienced feel fresh; one senses how grappling with childhood suffering can and sometimes must become the work of a lifetime. Most films, like most people, miss entirely the nuances of a lifelong journey and suggest instead that one's issues can be somehow solved like a math problem or tidied like a messy room. Here we see a life lived with intention, and how that intention regularly requires conscious and painstaking effort. Often when one attains a certain degree of professional success it becomes easier to focuses one's efforts on less challenging pursuits, especially for someone who can comfort herself in the knowledge that she devotes herself to doing good. But Sewell is unwavering in her devotion to seeking truth, not only for her congregants but for herself.

And here lies the film's real power: Sewell's choice to be honest and appropriately but courageously vulnerable in front of the camera ends up giving us a front-row seat to an experience of transformation. Her journey to retirement takes twists and turns that she and presumably the filmmakers were not expecting; she confronts her deep loneliness and loss, her longing for an intimate partner, her fear of the unknown. We see that goodness and devotion does not insulate one from genuine confusion and struggle. Sewell's navigation through these waters is powerfully instructive. [Not rated; deserved a nomination for an Oscar for best documentary--maybe next year? No DVD release yet.]

8. No one does better work telling a complicated story than director Alex Gibney, as he already demonstrated in "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" and "Taxi to the Dark Side," both of which received Oscar recognition (the latter won for best documentary in 2008). I find it interesting that his latest film, "CLIENT 9: THE RISE AND FALL OF ELIOT SPITZER" (10) has not received similar recognition because, to me, it's his best and most illuminating film yet. Perhaps there is a connection.

Gibney has chosen the best of complicated subjects, excellent partly because we think we already know the story of this rising politician who was undone in a sex scandal. But there's a lot more to the story than what we think we know, not least of which is a compelling and complicated hero/villain. Eliot Spitzer's best and worst qualities endlessly fascinate; his utter courage and clarity in exposing and going after Wall Street excesses as New York Attorney General catapulted him to the governor's office and diagnosed the rotten core that brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy after Spitzer left office. But Spitzer's cunning pursuit of previously untouchable targets appears to have been fueled not only by righteous determination, but also by unparalleled arrogance that made it very difficult for him to govern as an executive. His legendary tirades inspired staffers to refer to his evil twin, Irwin, and his scorched earth tactics left him friendless when his questionable extracurricular activities were revealed.

Yet many politicians have continued their careers in the face of similar or even worse scandals. Why did this one bring Spitzer down? What fueled the investigation itself? What drove Spitzer to engage in such high-risk activities that he himself had prosecuted? None of these questions can be answered definitively, but that does not mean they don't deserve attention--and Gibney's triumph is that he sheds light where definitive answers are not possible and illuminates what is true in a deeper sense.

He largely does this by his ability to access people at every level of the story, who appear on camera and speak, at length and with evident vigor and satisfaction, for themselves. The giggly young former CEO of the Emperor's Club, Spitzer's preferred supplier of "escorts," provides a fascinating window into how this sort of business works. Several other Emperor's Club employees also speak on camera, most notably "Angelina," a frequent Spitzer companion, whose interview is delivered verbatim by an actress since she is now a successful commodities day trader and did not want to appear on camera. Her description of her encounters with Spitzer is illuminating rather than salacious, as is her account of being interviewed by FBI investigators. Ashley Dupree, who turned her one date with Spitzer into a career launcher, is seen through a selection of her many interviews with other journalists, including one in which that faux-muckraker Geraldo Rivera invites her to sing on camera. (I love David's Edelstein's comment in New York Magazine that her rendition of "Let It Snow" "lingers through the credits like a richly fricative fart"). The media's handling of Dupree raises a whole different set of questions about who was using whom.

Spitzer's political enemies not only criticize Spitzer on camera with surprising glee, but wax eloquent about how much they personally despise him. Joe Bruno, the Republican state senator who was one of Spitzer's main opponents in Albany, fares best, though he makes no secret of his distaste for Spitzer's tactics and can hardly contain his glee at the memory of reading those "Luv Guv" headlines. Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot and, as head of the New York Stock Exchange's compensation board, a target of Spitzer's campaign against excessive CEO pay, is more chilling to watch, as he speaks with utter conviction about his hatred of Spitzer and even blames Spitzer for that. "I'd like to think I'm not a vindictive person," he says in a confidential tone. "And a basic tenet of my faith is forgiveness. The most harm that Eliot Spitzer's done to me is, I am defying my faith. I can't forgive him." Hank Greenberg, former chairman and CEO of insurance giant AIG and also a Spitzer target, smugly attacks Spitzer on camera and has the temerity to suggest, in the face of compelling evidence otherwise, that had he (Greenberg) not been ousted from his job as CEO, he could have prevented what happened at AIG. Self-described "GOP hit man" Roger Stone's role, if any, in bringing Spitzer down is unclear, but he is happy to talk about how morally compromised Spitzer is while crowing about his own excesses. One of the film's many ironies is the apparently justified attacks on Spitzer for his hubris, coming out of mouths like these.

Gibney mines the prosecution itself for clues as to the reasons for and meaning of Spitzer's downfall, noting that the clients of escort services are never targets of criminal prosecution and that the indictment reads like a detective story, full of salacious details with no apparent purpose other than to lead the press right to Spitzer (as, of course, it did). The very same Bush-appointed U.S. attorney who warned Spitzer off his prosecution of some Wall Street wrongdoing headed up the investigation of the Emperor's Club--and two Republican congressman caught in similar scandals during roughly the same time period are still serving in Washington.

Ultimately, the most interesting footage is of Spitzer himself. He makes no excuses for the spectacular lapse in judgment that most obviously brought him down, correctly noting, "I brought myself down." But he is not as contrite, or as forthcoming, about his famous tirades against his political opponents. For example, the CEO of Goldman Sachs claims that Spitzer screamed at him, "You have fired the first bullet, but believe me, by the end of this war, I will fire the last one, and you will be dead!" Confronted with that claim, Spitzer hems and haws and then says, "He and I had a heated conversation. I will leave it at that." Nevertheless, he does display some capacity for self-examination and for sitting with the unanswered questions about himself. When asked why he sought the company of hookers rather than engaging in affairs, Spitzer comments, "You cave in to temptations in a way that perhaps seems easier, and perhaps, in some very twisted way, less damaging." And, asked about what drove him to such high-stakes subterfuge, he offers no explanation: "Those are the mysteries of the human mind, I suppose. I don't think I can answer that question because I don't think I know." I give him, and Gibney points for staring this and other questions in the face. [Rated R for some sexual material, nudity, and language; deserved a nomination for an Oscar for best documentary; available on DVD.]

9. Although I also loved "Toy Story 3," my favorite animated film of the year is "HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON" (10). It's remarkable not only for its spectacular envisioning of a world of Vikings and dragons and fire and dramatic sky, but for its extraordinarily insightful depiction of a cultural paradigm shift. In this story, it's the people, not the dragons, who are really dangerous.

I can't say that I've made a study of criticism of this particular film, but it appears from my brief perusal that film critics, while admiring the film's inventive animation and worthy use of the 3D format, dismissed the story as pleasantly pedestrian. I find that baffling. In my view, it's one of the best depictions I've ever seen of the perils of a changing a community's values, and a virtual how-to manual for being an agent of such change. I left the theater not only moved and inspired, but smiling to myself at the thought that children would carry away such excellent instruction on the value of being an outsider and on the mechanics of cultural change.

The story involves a teenager named Hiccup who is an embarrassment to his dad, a leader in their macho Viking community. Hiccup is scrawny, and curious, and more prone to devising experiments that will explain to him how things work than to simply smash them if they don't. In a culture that loves brawn and brute force and chutzpah, Hiccup's inventiveness (which admittedly could use some polishing) makes him look like an idiot. He exacerbates that problem with his ambitious but ill-conceived adolescent efforts to fit in on his culture's terms, which always end in failure.

Hiccup's Viking culture is built around subduing the local dragon population, and all dragons are hated and feared. One day in yet another solitary ambitious attempt to achieve notoriety, Hiccup invents a catapult and succeeds in shooting down a Night Fury, the most feared and least understood of all dragons. The weapon succeeds--and yet, finally faced with the opportunity to redeem his reputation, Hiccup sees something in the dragon's eyes that keeps him from killing the dragon. Fear.

Thus begins a relationship with the dragon (whom he nicknames Toothless) that leads Hiccup to the realization that everything his culture believes about dragons is wrong. It's a dangerous thing to know, and Hiccup instinctively keeps this knowledge a secret, rightly sensing that he has stumbled onto realities that no one is ready to accept. Meanwhile, he follows the first revelations where they lead him, to a deeper understanding of the dragon's world and to a collaboration that will itself be transformative for the community, all things only an outsider is liable to be able to see in the first place.

I know I'm using spiritual terms here--and there is no question that this story can be enjoyed simply on the level of a dragon-flying fantasy. The filmmakers have conceived a visually stunning world, even enlisting the Coen brothers' crack cinematographer, Roger Deakins, to help them depict gorgeous and rugged mountain scenes and soaring flights through fire and clouds.

But the content here really is profound. My only criticism of the film (which may be a product of how the story morphed from its source material, a children's book that I haven't read) is that the title misses the power of the story. It really should be called something like "How You and Your Dragon Can Train Each Other." Because at the heart of this story is an example of the kind of mutual mentoring that is necessary to bridge differences and open worlds of possibilities never before envisioned. Then again, maybe people are ready for that yet. [Rated PG for sequences of intense action and some scary images, and brief mild language; on at least four other critics' top-ten lists; nominated for, and deserves to win, the Oscar for best animated feature; available on DVD. ]

10. "WASTELAND" (9.5) was audience award at several film festivals and, of those nominated, should win the Oscar for best documentary. It's a story of the power of art to transform, and of the impact of personal involvement that empowers people to see their own worth.

Vik Muniz grew up in poverty in Brazil and is now a respected artist in Brooklyn known for making use of unusual objects--dirt, chocolate syrup, sugar--in his portraits. Having achieved a great deal of professional success, he envisions a project for giving back to his native country by creating art out of ordinary objects important to the lives of some poor Brazilians and then using the proceeds of the art sales to benefit them. He decides to locate his project in Jardim Gramacho, the world's largest garbage dump, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, where some of the city's poorest denizens eek out a living collecting recycling. His idea is to create art using recyclable materials culled from the garbage.

The evolution of the project is fascinating. In the beginning, there is great distance between Muniz and his subjects--he scouts the location on Google Earth and discusses safety concerns with his wife. When he arrives there, he marvels at the scale of the dump, and notes how quickly one acclimates to the awful smell. The resourcefulness of the recyclers is impressive, and he slowly comes to know them--a charismatic labor organizer who reads discarded books; a trained restaurant cook who feeds the workers using discarded produce; a teenager already parenting two children. Soon Muniz is photographing them; the photos will be the basis for the finished pieces, which involve blowing up the pictures and then adding materials to them. Finally, he involves his subjects in the actual creation of the works (which are stunning).

Muniz had been motivated by a sense that exposing people to art, even if briefly, allows them to reflect on their lives differently. His wife wonders if that is a good thing given the realistic limits of their power to changes their lives, something I have wondered about while traveling in developing countries. I often notice that the poorest of the poor nearly always possess television sets (as do these Brazilians), and I have wondered what is the effect of constant exposure to lifestyles that one has no real hope of attaining.

But it is apparent from the film that the experience the recyclers have working with Muniz is not at all like watching television. It is for them a full body, transformative experience. They are engaged in recycling themselves. As we come to know the recyclers, we see the evidence that work in the studio and being involved in the creation of art enables them to step back and to see their lives, themselves, with new eyes. They begin to value themselves, to want things, to aspire. As they watch themselves literally being transformed into works of art, they come to see themselves as valuable. And the work has a transformative effect on Muniz as well; I related to his sense that he received so much more than he gave.

Garbage-to-art ends up being the perfect metaphor for the transformation at work, and Lucy Walker's beautiful film challenges and inspires in all the right ways. [Not rated; in English and Portuguese; nominated for, and should win, the Oscar for best documentary; DVD release scheduled for March 15, 2011.]


Best Motion Picture of the Year (in English): Winter's Bone

(Bad nominations: 127 Hours, Black Swan, The Kids Are All Right, The Social Network)

Best Performance By An Actor in a Leading Role: Javier Bardem for "Biutiful"

Best Performance By An Actress in a Leading Role: Jennifer Lawrence for "Winter's Bone"

Best Performance By An Actor in a Supporting Role: John Hawkes for "Winter's Bone"

Best Performance By An Actress in a Supporting Role: Jacki Weaver for "Animal Kingdom"

Best Achievement in Directing: Tom Hooper for "The King's Speech" (though both Alejandro González Iñárritu and Debra Granik deserved nominations for "Biutiful" and "Winter's Bone" and both are more deserving)

(Bad nominations: Darren Aronofsky for "Black Swan" and David Fincher for "The Social Network")

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen: David Seidler for "The King's Speech" (though Iñárritu and his co-writers deserved a nomination and win in this category)

(Bad nominations: Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg for "The Kids are All Right")

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published: Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini for "Winter's Bone"

(Bad nominations: Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy for "127 Hours" and Aaron Sorkin for "The Social Network")

Best Animated Feature Film: "How To Train Your Dragon" (though I also loved "Toy Story 3"

Best Foreign Language Film: "Biutiful"

(Should have been nominated: "Of Gods and Men" from France and "The Light Thief" from Kyrgyzstan.)

(Bad nominations: "In a Better World" and "Incendies." I have not been able to screen the other two nominees.)

Best Achievement in Cinematography: True Grit (Roger Deakins)


Katherine said...

What a great list. I always enjoy the way you describe the emotions and the story. I agree, Winter's Bone should have won best picture.

Onedia said...

Just recently saw Winter's Bone, a movie that I had not heard though I live within an hour of the setting of the film. It is an amazing film with an amazing performance. Truthful without hyperbole but with a definite nod to the possibilities that I fear go unnoticed by many of the young people who live in Ree's world.