Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Top 10 List of 2008

2008 - a so-so year. But enough about that. Let's look at the ten best films.

1) Man on Wire - In four years of reviewing film, I have twice awarded the number one slot on my yearly top ten list to a documentary. I've been known to say that if I had to show aliens one film as a slice of humanity, I might choose Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man. Now I think that's a touch cynical; I would give them a two-fer with Man on Wire. I want them to see the best of us, as well.

The film captures all the details and the breathtaking accomplishment of Philippe Petit, a French daredevil, who illegally sneaked up the World Trade Center towers in 1974 and crossed the space between on a steel wire. The word artist is overused. And yet it's hard to say this stunt doesn't qualify. And director James Marsh brings it to full artistic fruition with energetic cinema.

For certain, Man on Wire is the year's best documentary. It's also the year's best heist film (my apologies to the very satisfying The Bank Job); the best human spirit story; the best New Wave film; and it uses Petit's eerie resemblance to Malcolm McDowell to recall an era when he was a primal, youthful force of nature. The film is a celebration of youth, an enconium for innocence, a song of memory and loss, and an ode to humanity.

2) Rachel Getting Married - "It's about sisterhood." Surely, this isn't true. You know it. Rachel knows it. Kym must knows it, too, even as it passes from her ever-moving mouth. And yet when the former family superstar turned career drug rehabber tries to swipe the maid of honor role at her studious sister's wedding, it might surprise you that Rachel gives in.

You won't understand it. Nor will I. Nor most of all will Emma, the deposed maid. And yet that is the beauty of Rachel Getting Married - the Buchman family relations field a current of the unexplained, the weight of an indefinable, unseen history beyond the page or the print. When I seek to praise Rachel Getting Married, I note that I can think seriously and easily about these lives, the pasts and the futures that technically do not exist.

History tells Rachel that Kym's coup comes from her neverending selfishness and need for attention. Yet it will slip past her, and perhaps you, that it stems from something more and deeper than vanity. For deep in her heart, Kym feels the desire to love and be loved, and the fear of being cast out, for a sin for which she cannot ever fully atone.

This is a film that makes it easy to hand out the praise. To an electric Anne Hathaway and the perfect bookend in Rosemarie DeWitt. To Jonathan Demme and Declan Quinn, for giving cinematic zest to a story that could settle for a normal outing; to Bill Irwin for his belief that hot dogs can save the world; to Debra Winger for being there. And to Jenny Lumet, for giving us a script of three complete women with distinct voices and desires. If she were a former stripper who wrote in blogspeak, we would be hearing more about the emergence of an exciting new screenwriter.

3) 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days - This year, I found myself with nine films for 10 spots. So in choosing the tenth from a list of slightly problematic possibilities, I decided to go with a film with a pinky toe (a one week run) in 2007. If you're going to break the rules, you might as well break the rules for the best film.

And among those contenders, 4 Months is clearly that. Reduced too often to the phrase "the Romanian abortion movie," director Christian Mungiu's Cannes winner is a jolt of unyielding realism crafted as a horror story. Every run-in for the terrifically earthy Anamaria Marinca smolders with understated tension, as she helps her roommate seek the services of a shady abortionist in Communist-era Romania. You expect the secret police at any second. And rarely have nighttime walks seemed like such life-and-death propositions.

4) The Dark Knight - Who said, "I've had, hell, a lot of serious challenges. What matters to me is I didn't compromise my soul to be a popular guy."

So no, it's not Batman. At least not technically. The quote comes from President George W. Bush. That the statement recalls the final choice that Batman makes - to accept villification by society in order to save it - is a credit to the film's creators - the writer-director team of Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. Whether or not the film is a paean to the Bush presidency or a scathing critique remains an open question.

The Dark Knight is not only this year's box office champ. It's the best film of its genre. It's a meditation on heroism, the heros we want versus the heroes we need. It's an examination of vigilantism. And it's one of the few Hollywood films this year of real scale and ambition.
Through the pretense of its comic book masquerade, The Dark Knight asks the most important question of our time - how far can a civilized society go in fighting the most destructive threats and still consider itself civilized? A Dirty Harry for our times, and I mean that in the most complimentary way.

5) The Wrestler - It would be enough for The Wrestler to be an interesting character study about a down-and-out professional wrestler scratching out a meager post-fame existence. Yet Darren Aronofsky makes Randy "The Ram" Robinson a martyr for the modern world. All that and Quiet Riot, too.

6) Entre Les Murs - Never would I think that going back to school would be as riveting as in this year's Cannes Palme d'Or winner. French director Laurent Cantet squeezes human drama from every sliver of school life, from routine staff discussions to raw-nerve teacher-student confrontations. Written and acted by Francois Beaugadeau, a longtime Parisian teacher, this near-documentary speaks clearly and closely to the truth.

7) Let the Right One In - Is Tomas Alfredsson's snowbound vampire flick a horror film or a dark comedy? Well, I laughed, anyway. Thank goodness for vampires who do suck. Blood, that is.

8) Speed Racer - I'd love to be able to tell you that the candy-colored Speed Racer is a devastating intellectual landmark about the relationship among men, machines, and monkeys. But it isn't. It's simply a flashy, exuberant cornucopia of the visceral joys of watching a movie. But if you need some artsy meat to let you sing its praises at a dinner party, I've got this for you: it radicalizes visual space and liberates the viewer from the camera to a degree rarely seen in a popular film. That should make the forks return to the fondue.

9) In Search of a Midnight Kiss - In a rebound year for indie filmmaking, this is the moment I'm supposed to salute a minimalist micro-movie, like Wendy and Lucy or Chop Shop. Nah. I'm going with Alex Holdridge's splashy little New Year's Eve Internet dating romance. Why this one? Because it embodies the best values of indie filmmaking - spunk and drive and creativity and energy.

10) Snow Angels - It's been a big year for David Gordon Green. The box office success of his Judd Apatow collaboration The Pineapple Express means the longtime indie auteur can now pick up the check at dinner. Meanwhile, his domestic indie examining the thrills and torments of love was a (dis)comforting winter blast in early spring. Sam Rockwell is King of the Indies for a reason, and people forget that Kate Beckinsale arrived as an indie critics darling.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Film Comment

According to AwardsDaily:

these are the top 20 films of the year, according to Film Comment.

1. Wendy and Lucy Kelly Reichardt, U.S. 580
2. Flight of the Red Balloon Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan/France 564
3. A Christmas Tale Arnaud Desplechin, France 557
4. Happy-Go-Lucky Mike Leigh, U.K. 538
5. WALL·E Andrew Stanton, U.S. 534
6. Still Life Jia Zhang-ke, Hong Kong/China 521
7. Paranoid Park Gus Van Sant, France/U.S. 465
8. Waltz with Bashir Ari Folman, Israel/France/Germany 424
9. My Winnipeg Guy Maddin, Canada 406
10. Milk Gus Van Sant, U.S. 356
11. Let the Right One In Tomas Alfredson, Sweden 351
12. The Duchess of Langeais Jacques Rivette, France/Italy 335
13. The Class Laurence Cantet, France 334
14. Synecdoche, New York Charlie Kaufman, U.S. 297
15. Hunger Steve McQueen, U.K. 289
16. Silent Light Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/Netherlands 286
17. Ballast Lance Hammer, U.S. 283
18. Man on Wire James Marsh, U.K. 282
19. The Exiles Kent Mackenzie, U.S. 257
20. Gomorrah Matteo Garrone, Italy 253

I've been railing lately against arthouse critics who seem to be retreating increasingly into a eliltist shell. This top 20 basically states my case. Even if I would agree with the brilliance of a number of these choices, this is a list of films headed to the My Dinner With Andre Land of Insignificance.

I worry about the increasing gap between the taste of the elitist critical establishment and the public at large. In the end, this is a public art form, and I think the desire to turn film criticism into an elitist pursuit is ultimately detrimental to the form.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Ben Lyons, quote whore

Did Ben Lyons really say that I Am Legend was one of the greatest movies ever made? That's not even quote whore territory. That's a parody of a quote whore.

Hudson and Hawn

Looking at the cover of Modern Bride magazine this month, I was struck by how much Kate Hudson is starting to look like her mom, Goldie Hawn. No biggie. Just a randon blog thought.

Ann Savage, rest in peace

Ann Savage, star of 40s B-pictures like Detour, passed away yesterday. She apparently, at 87, has a role in Guy Maddin's much-praised My Winnipeg.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Two box office notes

I'm sorry, while some critics are up in arms about Marley and Me, I just find it hard to hate a dog movie. I have better movies to spend my energy disliking.

Meanwhile, a strong box office showing for Benjamin Button (projected mid-40s) should be welcomed. Until this happened, if The Dark Knight were not to be nominated, it could have meant exactly zero hits among the Best Picture nominees. I'm glad to see a film pointed at an older audience with so many respected people involved do so well. And I think it's great that Cate Blanchett draws flies.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Counter-Revolutionary [Revolutionary Road]

Revolutionary Road [R]
Grade: B
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates
Director: Sam Mendes

We’ll start our review of Revolutionary Road with something everybody knows – that half of all American marriages end in divorce.

Like many good statistics that everybody knows, it has one basic problem. It’s not true. Divorce rates have fallen in recent years, according to the AP, to the lowest levels since 1970, about the time they started to skyrocket. Meanwhile, the number of first marriages that succeed has always been higher. It takes seven Ward and June Cleavers to make up for one Larry King.

Once you control for other factors such as age, race, income and education, the numbers change again. Divorce rates are lowest among wealthy, educated white women. The modern equivalent of women like April Wheeler, the chafing 1950s housewife at the center of Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road.

The 1961 novel Revolutionary Road, written by Richard Yates, arrived with the rise of the suburb and before the rise of divorce. At that time, a novel about the emptiness of the new mass suburban lifestyle would seem racy and prophetic. Give Mr. A a dull job and a mistress. Give Mrs. A a meaningless existence of child-rearing and community theater. Let them scream at each other about their vanishing youth and lost ideals. Add crushing insight, typeface and water. Presto, you have the great American novel, circa 1960.

Now, I don't mean to belittle it. I just want to indicate that it wrestles with the social millieu of a certain time and place. In re-creating this world for the screen, Mendes mounts a handsome rendition. The British director scrubs the crassly sophomoric elements of American Beauty and effectively expands its humanity. Cinematographer Roger Deakins makes the leafy environs both sing and menace, haunted perfectly by Thomas Newman's simple score. And Mrs. Mendes, aka: Kate Winslet, delivers a magnetic performance as the story’s unhappy heroine.

Yet I mentally scrounge for any crumb of innovation, indeed anything revolutionary, that the film adds to the modern fictional suburban landscape. Revolutionary Road might succeed on its own anachronistic terms. If you consider watching two hours of the eternalized Titanic lovers going all Liz Taylor and Richard Burton entertainment. Yet I wonder if we should be making different suburban movies for a different age.

I also wonder whether these characters, Frank and April Wheeler, are the right ones to unmask the spiritual desolation of suburban culture. They would seem at least a regular fit – urban-dwelling bohemians who move out to The White Picket Wasteland due to pregnancy. Hitting the Big 3-0 (which no one thinks of as "big" anymore), they begin to take stock of where their lives are – Frank at a nowhere sales job in his father’s company, April in what she considers a suburban prison of unenlightened domesticity.

To save the family from its malaise, April dreams up a plan to move to Paris. Seeking a spiritual renewal for the couple, she’ll work as a secretary. That will give Frank time to "figure out what he really wants to do." Such a daunting prospect leads Frank to realize he has no big dreams. That leads April to realize Frank was never the special young man she thought. The Paris fantasy stabilizes the marriage for a while, before the reality of American life drags them back into unhappiness.

Mendes makes one genius decision and one tragic decision. Unfortunately for him, it's the same decision – to place his wife at the film's center. Genius because she lights up the screen. There isn’t a day that I wouldn’t pay to watch Winslet smoke a cigarette. That’s good, because there are moments when that’s all she's doing here. Her performance is one of false joys and suppressed anxiety, slowly hardening into a cold nothing.

Yet I agree with what others have noted - the film is in love with her, and that fact distorts its outlook. It has trouble admitting that April’s scheme is a delusion. An understandable and sympathetic delusion, yes. A delusion with reasons. Yet during one fight, when Frank looks like a cruel bastard for telling April she needs a shrink, I couldn't help but agree with him. All this raises an interesting question - how seriously should I take a message about the oppressive nature of marriage, Mr. Mendes, when your camera is so goopily in love with your wife?

As I watched the Wheeler marriage descend into chaos, I was reminded of a quote from the late author David Foster Wallace, a quote I admittedly can’t recite exactly from memory. In assessing an Updike protagonist from the same era, Wallace suggested maybe his misery comes not from some inherent sadness of life. Maybe he’s miserable because he’s an asshole. Perhaps the Wheelers would be more biting guides to our great wrong world if they had any social skills whatsoever. Sometimes the problem isn’t "the system" or "the culture." Sometimes the problem is you.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

On the Button [The Curious Case of Benjamin Button]

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button [PG-13]
Grade: B
Cast:Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Tilda Swinton, Elias Koteas
Director: David Fincher

A deep premise with facile tendencies.

An emotional story at times detached.

An interesting character with only so much to do. I mean, besides aging backwards. Which is a pretty neat trick, if you can get it.

All these things are true about David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a movie inspired by a famous F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. Everyone was rubbing the rabbit's foot to make it this year's great film. It settles for good, instead.

Abandoned at birth on the doorstep of a New Orleans old folks' home, Benjamin Button begins his curious case as a pint-sized old man, a white and white-haired child cared for by a black mother (Taraji P. Henson). The doctor diagnoses him with accelerated decrepitude and gives him only a short time to live. Instead, Button starts to grow younger and stronger with each passing year. He works on a tugboat, sees the war, inherits a textile empire, slowly finds love with Daisy, the woman he's always adored (a game Cate Blanchett), and soaks in life.

We learn of Benjamin's story from a journal he kept. It remains in the possession of his lifelong love, to her dying day (with Blanchett narrating the story under heavy makeup in a hospital bed). Daisy's daughter (Julia Ormond) reads from it, while her suffering mother fights for life. From the words, we join in on Benjamin's adventures. Yet their deeper meanings are left to the page.

From this premise, we should be able to gather pithy observations about life. Yet late in the film, we speed through Benjamin's twenties and thirties, when his motorcycle travels, his wealth, his youth and his lifetime of wisdom would most fully tell us about the world in which we live. Certainly, the story fulfills the George Bernard Shaw quote "Youth is wasted on the young," and touches on what it is like to age and to love. Yet the second and third levels of wisdom are not there. And while Button's heartbreaking story might leave the family short on dry eyes and dry hankies, many will awaken to its tender manipulations with time.

Among the film's curious cases is why Fincher, the director of Fight Club and Zodiac, would choose such a heartwarming project. Written by Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth (and bearing a noticeable resemblance thereof), it would seem to go against his darker nature. Certainly his impressive skill with creating obsessively perfect images, lathered here in CGI effects, lends the movie the feel of a tall tale. And yet it sometimes seems like the year's second case of a dark-natured filmmaker moonlighting artificially in the world of happiness. Like Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, it can seem like a person feeling around an emotion as an outsider.

So what can we take from Button? That more than any other high-wattage star, Pitt nobly never takes on less than interesting projects. That Blanchett is never less than good, even when she isn't quite the Great Cate. That Taraji P. Henson, playing Pitt's warm doorstep mother, has a very solid career ahead. That the Academy is likely to bestow upon Fincher a makeup call for the omission of Zodiac last year (as it likely will for that film's star, Robert Downey Jr.). In the end, I really can't complain about such a call. Even if I can't quite summon love, this is a respectable effort with a story that is difficult to convert to the screen. If it finds a place in America's heart, I would have no objection. It could age well.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

IndieWire ruins my dating life

Reading through the IndieWire Critics Poll comment section, I wonder it is possible to have a more distilled sampling of intellectualized stupidity and people who take themselves too seriously. Are these happy people? Why do people hate us? Could you all stop ruining my dating life?

Scott: Received Wisdom

The key words in AO Scott's review of this year's films is "received wisdom." I love his point about it - that even the allegedly thoughtful films operate on pre-pressed narratives and premises. I think that's the biggest ailment in the film industry at the moment. I can mention any number of films that his statement reminds me of. I'm not sure about the minimalist micro-stories being the solution, however. I haven't seen Wendy and Lucy yet, but having seen Kelly Reichardt's previous laconic outing Old Joy, and having seen Chop Shop recently, I'm just not convinced that's the way out. While I'm happy to see films like these, I wouldn't want every film to be like them.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Love and marriage on film

[Possible spoilers]

After watching the marital strife in Revolutionary Road, I've been thinking, in nearly four years as a film critic, how many films have I seen with happy or at least loving marriages? I don't mean films that end in weddings. I mean films where mature main characters experience a significant length of the story as husband and wife. The ones I can come up with off the top of my head:

The New World (the last section)
The Fountain (although cancer keeps it from happiness)
Tell No One (but separated for most of the film)
World Trade Center
The X-Files: I Want to Believe (technically not married, and takes place in a rough patch)

I'm sure I'll think of more. But it's a rather distressingly small list. Mike Leigh has said that Happy-Go-Lucky was his attempt to see if you could make an interesting film about a fundamentally happy character. I've been wondering, can a modern filmmaker make a film starring a happily married couple? I don't know. But I'm surprised that few have tried.

UPDATE: The Namesake

Don't call it a comeback

I keep seeing "the return of Mickey Rourke" talk about The Wrestler. Which makes me wonder, when exactly was he gone? He was a highlight of Sin City. He was good as a bounty hunter in the terribly misunderstood Domino. That's not exactly Will Smith, but it's not exactly being idle.

Ten means ten

One thing I dislike intensely: critics who can't pare down their top ten lists to ten films. This is not exactly an onerous occupation. Why make one of the few semi-hard things you do each year any easier?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Beyond the walls [Entre Les Murs]

Entre Les Murs (aka: Between the Walls; aka The Class)
Grade: A
Cast: Francois Begaudeau
Director: Laurent Cantet

If you’re Christmas shopping for your favorite film critic, give him three good films from a single country and let him declare a “New Wave.”

There is nothing a film critic more likes to do. Yet the recent proliferation of supposed New Waves obscures one fact – the majority of classic films have come from two nations, the United States of America and France.

While Italy and England and Japan pitch in, these two nations consistently produce the greatest share of excellence. They also seem to trade decades. When Hollywood was down in the early 1960s, the French New Wave filled the gap. The American indie shaped the nineties, a down period for French film.

In most eyes, that down period has ended, and French film is once again peaking. The French resurgence was consecrated this year by the selection of the classroom drama Entre Les Murs as the Palme d’Or winner at Cannes. Root, root, root for the home team – it was the first Frog victory in more than 20 years. In film years, that seems almost as long as the French army’s last victory. Under Joan of Arc.

Portraying a year in the life of a middle school in a tough Parisian immigrant neighborhood, Laurent Cantet’s feature isn’t a documentary. But it looks like one. And it feels like one. The students are real students, chosen from volunteers at a real Parisian school. The teacher Francois Marin is played by Francois Begaudeau, a longtime educator who wrote the screenplay and the memoir on which it is based. The Socratian teaching methods that he demonstrates are the same that he used as a teacher. The situations often are based on real events. This is perhaps as close as one can come to real life and remain technically fictional. For verisimilitude junkies, it’s hard to get a more powerful hit.

Entre Les Murs literally means “Between the Walls” (although in English countries, it is going by the title The Class). We join Francois briefly at a coffee shop on the first day of school. Thirty seconds later, he and we enter the school doors. The camera never leaves. All drama is generated within the school grounds by its residents, and the resolutions take place there, as well.

We’re conditioned to the Stand and Deliver tropes of the high school film. This one only occasionally succumbs to those rules. It finds drama in what one might think are mundane details of school life – staff meetings, parent conferences, philosophical disagreements. Most of all, the drama comes from the interaction in the classroom, from the give and take between the teacher and 20 curious minds. Only towards the end does the film take on a traditional schoolhouse dramatic conflict, the disciplining of the school’s biggest miscreant. Yet the final showdown erupts not from drugs or guns or gangs, but from an overreaction to a teacher’s moment of weakness. Even the needed discipline presents unexpected moral questions for the teaching staff.

With its methodical commitment to getting things right, the film captures the routine joys and frustrations of teaching. It presents both the classroom and the emerging multicultural French society as organic entities. It gives us the most realistic, least sentimental sense of the true profession that we’re likely to find onscreen.

Sam Bottoms, rest in peace

Corporal Lance Johnson will either fight or surf in Heaven, as actor Sam Bottoms dies of brain cancer at an all-too-young 53 years of age. Aside from his memorable role going up river in Apocalypse Now, he also had significant roles in The Last Picture Show and The Outlaw Josey Wales. Coppola, Bogdanovich and Eastwood. Not a bad roster of seventies classics at all.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Passion of the Ram [The Wrestler]

The Wrestler [R]
Grade: A
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood
Director: Darren Aronofsky

Using unorthodox strangleholds, filmmakers have long wrestled with the figure of Christ. Few achieve the full body slam as strangely as The Wrestler, an outstanding tag-team combo of professional wrestling, Rocky, and The Passion of the Christ.

The French director Robert Bresson presented Christ as a mule in 1966’s Au Hasard Balthasar. Here, Darren Aronofsky presents the Savior as a Ram – Randy “Ram” Robinson (a superb Mickey Rourke), a gentle-giant pro wrestling star of the 1980s. Left now in poverty somewhere in Pennsylvania, he scratches a meager living from a warehouse job and small weekend wrestling events, set in ill-lit halls before a couple hundred men screaming for blood.

We’re tipped to his holy bearing in his favorite strip club. His lone adult friend, an exotic dancer played by Marisa Tomei, gushes about The Passion of the Christ during a lap dance. She insists the long-haired Ram looks like Jesus. Ram pays the Son of Man the highest tough-guy compliment – “He was one tough dude.” Soon, Ram will suffer disgusting wounds in an all-out, hardcore wrestling match – courtesy shattered glass, barbed wire, and a staple gun – bleeding profusely for the audience’s lust and gluttony.

Sidelined permanently by health and given a small reprieve from fate, Ram is tempted with a normal life. He finds momentary satisfaction with earthly things – a new job that better fits his personality, a rapprochement with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), a possible normal future with his stripper Mary Magdalene. Yet Ram will instead choose to tempt death in the only manner that stays true to his calling –as a turnbuckle martyr for the sins of American violence and excess.

Much has been made of Aronofsky’s stylistic departure. He replaces the eyeblink editing style of Pi and Requiem for a Dream with long takes and character study. The down-and-dirty realism seems like a head-snapping change from those films’ hyperrealism, as well as the fanciful sci-fi surrealism of The Fountain. However, the differences are less than meet the eye, as The Wrestler shares thematic consistency. By misusing damaging steroids for temporary glory, Ram, like Requiem’s junkies, takes the drug-fueled, self-annihilating shortcut to the American Dream. The Wrestler also revisits The Fountain’s dilemma – whether to hold on to life as a medical miracle or to gracefully accept death on your own terms.

For Rourke, Ram is faintly autobiographical. A boxer before he was a thespian, few remember that the actor took a break for a brief boxing career in the nineties. A genre unto himself two decades ago, Rourke is a relic of a type of film, the racy erotic thriller, that fundamentally no longer exists. Thus, he knows what it is to be an athletic showman and a vicarious warrior for a snarling crowd. Likewise, he brings pathos to a decent man's search for dignity in the gap between obsolescence and death.

DFWFCA awards

The Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association revealed its year-end awards. The Organization has a longstanding track record of picking the Oscar winner as its number one picture. So this year looks like Slumdog Millionaire.

TDK, Emerson and Cinema Blend

So I was reading this disagreement between Jim Emerson, a talented critic best known for work on Roger Ebert's web site, and Josh Tyler, a Dallas based guy who run Cinema Blend. Here's the post sparking the disagreement. I find Emerson to be way off base. Here was my response.

The Dark Knight asks this question:

To what lengths can a "civilized" society go to fight the most destructive threats and still look itself in the mirror?

If a critic or a viewer doesn't appreciate that this is one of the central questions of our time, I can't help.

It is also a film of unusual scale and ambition, as well as the best film in its genre by a significant margin, a genre of which I am not a particular fan and certainly not a fanboy. In fact, I didn't think much of Batman Begins.

It clandestinely touches on generational issues, which makes it and its predecessor a favorite of those who follow generational theory. It's also a neat diagnosis of the Bush administration, which led to some of the most interesting film conversations I've had this year.

For these reasons in my little Top Ten list, nine out of ten will be indies and docs. And the tenth will be The Dark Knight.

I think some critics have difficulty appreciating that public taste has as much say in determining classics as critical support. There's a reason for this - often the public has its finger on the pulse of what's going on in society. For that reason, I think a critic ignores popularity at his or her own peril. You're an excellent critic, Jim, but I think it would behoove you to appreciate this, if you don't. Unless you sit around on holidays watching My Dinner With Andre rather than The Terminator.

As to Josh, I know him a little bit, from screenings and his work. Maybe he doesn't currently write for The New York Times, but he's hardly the death of film criticism. I find him a conscientious viewer and writer, and a guy who likes good films for the right reasons.

In fact, the real threat to film criticism comes not from its democratization but from the reactive desire on the part of the best critics to retreat into a cinematic monastery. The fact that common people love the medium enough to regularly sit in the dark for two hours and write about their experience is a sign of health, not sickness. If there isn't a space for the Josh Tylers at the film writing table, then film criticism deserves to die.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

DaMN, Startlegram to pool critics

Interesting. The Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram are pooling their critic resources with plans for joint reviews. I assume this will apply to the film critics. It's smart. It beats as much wire copy as they run. The Morning News is down to one staff film critic, Tom Maurstad, as Chris Vognar is currently doing a year at Harvard. Still, they should hire me as a stringer. :) I wonder if the Denton boys are in on this. Belo owns them, too.

Hugh Jackman?

Hugh Jackman might be People's Sexiest Man Alive. But he's also the Leading Man of Last Resort. Whenever I see him starring, I wonder which actors turned down the role. Now I wonder who turned down the Oscar host gig.

Regardless of the job he might or might not do, I'm not sure who is going to tune in to see Hugh Jackman. Especially in comparison to my choice, Tina Fey. I'm guessing the AMPAS people are now really, really hoping for a BP nom for The Dark Knight. Because Jackman hosting a BP race with Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, Frost/Nixon, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Revolutionary Road/Doubt ain't gonna draw flies to the telecast. It will be easily the lowest rated Oscars telecast ever.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Doubt, doubt, doubt, doubt [Doubt]

Doubt [R]
Grade: B
Cast: Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
Director: John Patrick Shanley

What do you do when you’re not sure?

It’s rare that a film sums up its theme so neatly in the first paragraph. Such is the case with Doubt, in which writer/director John Patrick Shanley adapts his award-winning stage play to the screen. Despite a couple of natural warning signs – a pretentious subtitle (A Parable) and a writer who goes by all three names – Doubt fashions a certainly good story.

Doubt is a story of possible pederasty set in a Massachusetts Catholic church and school. It’s also a story about the direction of the Church in the 1960s, in the approaching era of Vatican II. Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the boyish new priest, believes in a friendlier church and a gospel of love. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the old-school nun who thinks ballpoint pens are the work of the devil. Their battle sparks over the Father’s interest in one boy, the first black child to enter the school. Is the priest merely putting his kindness into practice, or is there something more and improper?

Are those enough cultural flashpoints for you? The story is painstaking in developing a clash of old and new ways. Streep even symbolically uses the phrase “winds of change” to refer to downed limbs. We are spared the Scorpions showing up to perform their tune. But barely.

This subtle, hushed story is painstakingly intelligent, too. In our current movie climate, that’s a hard virtue to ignore. Unfairly jumping to conclusions that might be right, its hero might be the unlikable shrew, and its villain the lively, amiable sort whom we would normally warm to immediately. Or maybe not. It’s careful not to fully convict, thereby leaving actions and righteousness in a shroud of mystery. Cinematographer Roger Deakins adds much to the mood with drab colors and careful framing, although a film about church in-fighting could use a stronger dose of pervasive doom.

Streep in particular does an excellent job feeling out her character. Yet I thought she and Hoffman, two of our finest performers, lacked something during their all-important confrontation scenes. Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt feel like sisters in Rachel Getting Married. Leo and Kate feel like warring spouses in Revolutionary Road. Streep and Hoffman feel like actors, lost in their own individual orbits and methods.

Viola Davis adds power with a very small role that’s generating Oscar talk. Yet, her character’s motivation comes across as unrealistic. It seems like a dramatic curveball for the sake of a curveball. As a teacher, Amy Adams does well in her characteristically mousy role, but there’s no actress more in need of playing an edgy prostitute.

Still, if you’re looking for an intelligent late-year selection, this would be a hard film not to recommend, beyond all …. uh, yeah, you know.

Golden Globes and awards season inertia

I don't have much to say about the Golden Globe nominations, beyond my acceptance that I'm not going to have much to cheer for come Oscar time in the Best Picture category. Unless The Dark Knight is nominated, it's possible that not one of my top ten films this year will be in the race. This year seems like it has a serious case of inertia. Other than Slumdog Millionaire, these are the same films that have been talked up since the end of last Oscar season. It's like quality doesn't matter.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Kate Winslet, sex kitten

One thing that has struck me in my nearly four years of writing film reviews - how few sex scenes there are nowadays in movies. And I would guess that Kate Winslet has been in about 1/3 of the ones that I've seen. One that I recall in Little Children (is there more than one?) and two in Revolutionary Road. I'm going to see The Reader this morning. Will there be one there, or just implied? We'll see.

Anyway, there's something reassuring in this. Winslet isn't the anorexic beanpole that some stars are.

NYFCC awards

The New York Film Critics Circle made its award selections, naming Milk as Best Film to the sound of a collective "eh." At least it's a pretty good film. And it's something other than Slumdog Millionaire. But it's odd when their Best Foreign Film (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days)and their Best Documentary (Man on Wire) are both better movies.

Outside of that, I was surprised by both the selection and the quickness of selection of Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky) as Best Actress. She's good, but the role of the ever-sunshiny teacher doesn't offer much range. Winning both LA and NY awards makes her seem like a lock for an Oscar nod. I'm guessing it will come at the expense of Kristin Scott Thomas, who has been blanked so far for I've Loved You So Long in a role that probably would need critical support for the Oscar nod.

I also liked the selection of Jenny Lumet for her Rachel Getting Married script.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Man on Wire, please

Why is it that all these critics groups are choosing Slumdog Millionaire over Man on Wire? Why are they choosing the phony human spirit movie over the real-life one?

LA Film Critics Circle awards

LA Critics are known to be funky with their annual awards. Sally Hawkins' Oscar fate was sealed and she will clearly not be getting an Oscar nomination after snatching the LA Film Critics Circle's Best Actress award. Melissa Leo was runner-up, so she still has a chance.

They chose Wall-E for Best Picture rather than Slumdog. I guess I can live with that. Although it's hardly 2001: A Space Odyssey or anything.

For the record, Hawkins was fine, but it's mostly a one-dimensional role.

Why wasn't ......

I informed?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

DC Critics

DC critics have made their choices, according to Ropes of Silicon. Slumdog wins. Sigh.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Tricky Dick [Frost/Nixon]

Frost/Nixon [PG-13]
Grade: C
Cast: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Rebecca Hall, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Matthew McFayden, Kevin Bacon, Toby Jones
Director: Ron Howard

Like the president at its center, Frost/Nixon has a difficult time being honest about itself. So it's a useful exercise to break down what the film is and isn't.

It is not a film about how BBC celebrity interviewer David Frost drove a confession out of Richard Nixon during a 1977 sit-down interview. It is the story about how Frost wrestled Nixon into enough of a half-assed apology to partially satisfy the American public.

It is not about the most important episode of Watergate journalism. We’ve seen that film. When it was called All the President's Men. It is a satisfactory anatomy of a widely watched media event.

It is not a “two men enter, one man leaves” confrontation, despite the film’s groin pull from trying to sell it that way. While deservedly never cleared of Watergate, Nixon went on to be a respected voice in foreign policy, a clandestine presidential adviser, and a riser in historian presidential rankings. Frost went on to a career of PBS interviews that Americans have to mentally squint to remember. Tell me who got the better deal, again?

Most of all, it isn't a legitimate Best Picture contender. Not in a sane universe. Which means it still is one on this planet.

Of course, that's the thing about dealing with Ron Howard films - separating the truth from the hype that inevitably accompanies them. For Howard lovers, it is not enough to have a nice film with interesting characters about a well-known event. It must be a soaring drama about one of the biggest landmarks in the history of broadcast journalism. Ever. Period. End of story. They only give out Oscars for that.

And if you fail to immediately grasp the enormous magnitude of the events found in this monumental cinematic achievement, don’t worry. Howard will do cutaway “interviews” with the characters, who will make dead certain you are completely aware of the importance of what you're watching. If you don’t believe it, just ask no less of a historical expert than Sam Rockwell. If Howard had directed Citizen Kane, it would end with an interview of Joseph Cotton. He would look right into the camera and tell you that yes, indeed, Rosebud was Kane’s childhood sled. And that its loss made him the man he became. And that it symbolized his vanished innocence. And that it was the single greatest sled ever made.

The Japanese author Kenzaburo Oe wrote about the first time he heard the emperor’s voice, how his childhood friends made fun of it, and how in the space of one day he had gone from a deity to a human. As the writer of the screenplay for The Queen, this seems to be Peter Morgan’s mission as he adapts his stage play – reducing even the most powerful figure into human size. Frost/Nixon’s goal is to show the power of television to level and democratize.

The film gives Frank Langella the opportunity to bring his well-regarded stage performance to the screen. Film people have been looking for a reason to hand him a small trophy for a while. This will be his best opportunity. Unlike the usual portrait of the paranoid schemer, he paints Nixon as almost fragile – a flawed man trying to outrun his misdeeds.

After losing the 1962 California gubernatorial race, a seemingly retiring Nixon famously told the press, “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.” And yet here we are, 15 years after his death, getting in a last lick. I’m not sure what this film has to say to people under 35 years of age. Some are trying to sell it as relevant to the Bush presidency. That shows the danger of doing historical analogy without a license. Nonetheless, for those old enough to remember, it is a credible re-visit to an earlier time.

National Board of Review honors

The choices of the National Board of Review, the mysterious organization that puts out the first round of end-of-year awards, came out Thursday. I'm sure venom is spreading, but Idon't think this is too bad of a list. Obviously, Film of the Year Slumdog Millionaire isn't my thing, but I recognize I am in the minority and hold no real hostility. The acting choices and Man on Wire are pleasing choices. I was surprised to see Anne Hathaway as the choice over actresses with longer track records. I don't mind the Josh Brolin selection for Milk, although Heath Ledger clearly was the top supporting performance of the year. The only major raised eyebrows for me are the top ten selection for for I Want My Son Back: The Christine Collins Story (aka: Changeling) and Slumdog's Dev Patel as "Breakthrough Actor." I haven't seen Gran Torino yet, so I have no opinion on its selections, although I'm skeptical.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Violin season

This Oscar season, there are a lot of emotionally manipulative moments, the type that take you out of the film. As a consequence, most of the Oscar contenders so far are a little underwhelming. Expect that to be an ongoing theme over the next few weeks.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Tina Fey

Tina Fey reveals the origin of the famous scar on her cheek. This is my excuse for saying something obvious - Fey is the natural choice to host the Oscars.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire [Slumdog MIllionaire]

Slumdog Millionaire [PG-13]
Grade: D
Cast: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Irfan Kahn
Director: Danny Boyle

At one point in the much-praised crowd-pleaser Slumdog Millionaire, the poor child siblings scratch out a small living by appointing themselves as tour guides at the Taj Mahal.

For a small fee, the young Muslims lead white tourists through India’s most famous monument. They tell them what they know. When they don’t know, they make otup. The reflecting pool, it turns out, has always been a nice place for a swim. When one couple asks to see “the real India,” they take them to the banks of a river, perhaps the Ganges, teeming with human ardor. As they walk to the beach, criminals loot the car. Welcome to the real India.

Do we ever see the “real India” in Slumdog Millionaire? Scripted and directed by two Brits (Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle, respectively), too much feels like a tourist’s version. The film never advances beyond a ripped-from-the-headlines level of Indian experience. Anti-Muslim riots, child exploitation, call center culture. One wonders who cut the tragic tsunami.

On the verge of winning the grand prize on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Jamal (Dev Patel) suffers shocking treatment in the custody of the Mumbai police. They do not believe that a poor Muslim orphan could possibly know the answers without cheating. As the interrogation continues, Jamal spins out the tale of a tough life and hard-earned knowledge. His mother dies in a religious riot. He and his brother come under the malicious care of a gangster using orphans as beggars. The pair later runs a gauntlet through the ancient and modern faƧades of Mumbai. Jamal also pines for his childhood sweetheart Latika (Freida Pinto), whom a gangster takes as a wife.

While presenting itself as an authentic Indian tale from the slums of Mumbai, Millioinaire is rife with foreign cultural impositions. The storyline lifts the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn – two drifting innocents, living on luck, pluck, and thrift, dodging the cruelties of the adult world. Others will say Oliver Twist. Its world of two young brothers – one righteous and one streetwise – also owes a debt to Boyle’s Millions. It’s true, it’s hard to question the authenticity of the depiction from a computer in North America, especially when it’s based on a book by Indian author Vikas Swarup. Yet it’s up to the film to convince me. And I don’t feel convinced in the way that I feel about Peter Weir’s Australia. Or Fernando Meirelles’ Brazil. Or Boyle’s Britain, for that matter.

In fact, Meirelles’ City of God is the most direct comparison, and in its deficiencies Slumdog Millionaire highlights the superb details of that film. City of God doesn’t just run symbolic innocents through the metaphorical evils of Brazilian favelas. It grasps the politics, the personalities, the histories, the rivalries, the secret deals, all the things that make its slum a distinctive place. When things happen in City of God, they feel like the nasty result of decades of buried psychology and history. When things happen in Millionaire, they feel like literary conceits.
That artificiality extends to the movie’s star-crossed romance. If you’re going to have an epic love story, it pays to have two young lovers who actually feel like they are in love. The phrase ”There are other fish in the sea,” should not enter your mind. Patel and Pinto are as spotty in delivering electricity as the nation of India itself.

Since his breakthrough with the Scottish druggie film Trainspotting, Boyle has found himself in the familiar position of trying to live up to early greatness. Since then, he’s bounced around that territory without fully realizing it. The zombie flick 28 Days Later has been tremendously influential. Millions is underrated. Sunshine is intriguing before falling apart at the end. If Slumdog Millionaire is his vehicle to greater acclaim, I don’t begrudge it. I just won’t be on board.