Of course Shakespeare, the ever resourceful bard, recognized the inherent dramatic power of young, star-crossed lovers and the over-protective parents who would vainly attempt to get in their way, but he had the good sense to make it a tragedy.
In his creative heyday in the ’80s, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven was a tricky cuss. He achieved early success in his native country subverting genres (a wacked-out noir in The Fourth Man; an earnest-seeming teen motocross flick in Spetters) before making a gleeful hash of things in the U.S. with cleverly satiric sci-fi films like Total Recall and his first American success, RoboCop.
In which we explore the filmic concerns of a given theme, and find new and novel ways of putting together yet another Internet-based list of movies. The wrinkle here, is our fifth pick will actuall…
In which we explore the filmic concerns of a given theme, and find new and novel ways of putting together yet another Internet-based list of movies. The wrinkle here is our fifth pick will actually…
Dir. Sebastián Lelio
There is a moment late in Sebastián Lelio ‘s film where our titular heroine, a 50-something divorcee played exquisitely by Paulina García, wakes up on a beach outside Santiago, hung over, bewildered and disheveled, and has to wobble barefoot back to the swank hotel in which she had been staying with the older man (Sergio Hernández) she’d just started dating. The previous night, she had freaked him out by intentionally destroying his ever-ringing cell phone and he had responded by excusing himself and cowardly driving away, leaving her there alone. Staggering up to the front desk, she has to beg to use the phone in order to call her housekeeper, who eventually comes by bus to rescue her. In a different sort of film, this could easily have been played for broad, pratfalling laughs, but such is our connection to the character, all we really feel is a smoldering burn against the pathetically non-confrontational Rodolfo for putting her in that predicament in the first place.
Gloria isn’t some mousy, withdrawn woman in need only of some flashy new friend to give her a Hollywood make-over; she’s complex and vibrant. A woman who loves dancing in discos, singing along to bad Chilean pop songs in her car, and spending quality time with her two grown children, one of whom, her daughter Ana (Fabiola Zamora), is soon planning on moving away to Sweden in order to be with the father of her unborn child. She’s not suffering any kind of pathetic post-midlife crisis; she’s just being open and available to all new experiences. Offered pot by a friend at a party, she demurs for feat of “losing control,” but when the loudly suffering neighbor in the apartment above her accidentally drops a large packet of weed by her door, she happily puffs away in the privacy of her own space.
This is quite by contrast to Rodolfo, the more recently divorced amusement park owner she starts to date. He’s divorced, he explains, but is still the main provider for his now ex-wife and their two daughters, and can’t bring himself to take the terrifying plunge with Gloria, even though he’s madly in love with her.
What’s most impressive about the film — aside from the celebrated García’s deeply felt performance — is Lelio’s command of the character. She might be older and, with her hideous clear glasses, somewhat dowdy at times, but she works exceptionally hard to not fall into the many cracks youth-dominated culture lays out for her. She lives in the moment, unlike her ex-husband, who at a family gathering with his new wife in tow, gets drunk and begins to lament how little he was present for his family, now lost forever to him.
Things might not necessarily always turn out right for Gloria, but she doesn’t let her previous lack of success dictate her potential future happiness, either. She might wake up alone on a beach in her rumpled evening wear, but she also knows how good a story this is going to make someday.
Dir. Jason Reitman
Bad prose commits many offenses, but its worst sin is one of trite convenience: Things happen not because they make character sense, they happen because they make things easier on the writer — they don’t have to work as hard to cover their contingencies, and can just get on with dragging you to the place they want you to end up.
Jason Reitman’s new film — first screened at TIFF and decidedly not a comedy — is filled with the kind of flimsy suppositions and transparent maneuvering that signify, more than anything else the overwrought source material from which it was hatched. In this case, that being the soggy novel of former J.D. Salinger paramour Joyce Maynard, which seems little more than middle-aged female fan fiction. It concerns a nervous woman named Adele (Kate Winslet), a lonely New Hampshire divorcee; her sensitive 14-year-old son Henry (Dylan Minnette); and Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped convict who bursts into their lives at the local supermarket one day and ends up spending a long weekend at their house, fixing things, baking exquisite pies and, naturally, falling in love with Adele.
You read right about the pies. It turns out he can bake like a French chef, in addition to being able fix all the broken stuff in the house, get the car to run smoothly, teach the otherwise nonathletic Hank how to throw a proper fastball, and to teach Adele how to dance. You only think I’m kidding. Shoved unceremoniously in between those bits of claptrap, we also get a series of vignette-like flashbacks that show us Frank’s tortured backstory (serving his country bravely, only to come home to a two-timing wife who smiles cruelly while calling him a fool when he questions the legitimacy of their offspring — the film is at exceedingly great pains to show us just how much of the resulting tragedy wasn’t his fault).
For a ham handed story as flawed as all this — keep in mind it takes all of about half a day for Frank to move from terrifying figure of menace to Adele, to the two of them dancing an impressive Cha Cha together in front of Hank— it’s surprising how much the lead trio bleed themselves into their roles. At least until you consider the actors themselves. Brolin, a chameleon-like thespian, gets to inhabit a rough-and-ready man’s man with skill in nearly every area and a secret heart of unblemished gold; the young, talented Minnette gets to work with two giants and play off his own generous earnestness; and Winslet, so often the single best element in almost any movie she makes, has seemingly yet to read the role of a deeply wounded, anxiety-laced matriarch she hasn’t coveted.
The film does have a certain visual sumptuousness. Not surprisingly, the pie-making scene, in which Frank extols the virtues of well-made crust (“pour dry tapioca like salt on the road to avid sogginess” — helpful!), snaps with visual acuity, but everything else, from the acting to the carefully crafted mise-en-scene gets mauled by its laughably clumsy script. If it were a pie, it would be a maraschino cherry number from Shoprite.
Emanuel isn’t a bad kid, but only, rather too typically, a teenager who shoulders her burdens with displays of flip melodrama.
Dir. Asghar Farhadi
When we first meet the estranged couple Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) they are in a Paris airport, on opposite sides of thick glass partition separating new arrivals from the people there to meet them. Ahmad is returning to the city after mysteriously cutting out on Marie and her two children four years ago to return to Tehran, so the overt symbolism of the two of them trying to communicate silently through a thick wall of impenetrable, sound-proof glass is more than telling. In fact, there are many such loaded moments in Asghar Farhadi’s scintillating follow-up to the brilliant A Separation. In that film, a couple was forced to decide between trying to appease one another or splitting up and following their own necessary paths. This film considers the aftermath of such a split, which in this case has left an enormous amount of complication in its wake.
Ahmad has finally returned on behest of Marie, who wants him to sign their divorce papers in person, and, at the same time speak with his former stepdaughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), a fiery teenager seemingly headed out of her mother’s fragile control. Part of Lucie’s anger, it turns out, is directed at Marie’s boyfriend, Samir (Tahar Rahim), who has moved into their house with his young son (Elyes Aguis), even as his wife lies in a coma in a Paris hospital. Lucie, it turns out, is convinced Samir’s wife attempted to commit suicide because of her mother’s affair with her husband.
Into this den of drama, Ahmad is left just trying to do right by everyone. Put into an incredibly awkward situation by Marie, who never bothered to tell him she was now living with someone else, he struggles to stay out of everyone’s way. Speaking soothingly, cooking authentic Iranian food, he wants to close out his time with Marie and her children in as civilized and caring a manner as possible under the circumstances, but the twisted family dynamics keep threatening to embroil him even as he does his best to clear the air for everyone else.
Much as he did in his previous film, Farhadi remains the most skilled sort of narrative artist, one who refuses to take sides with his characters: Everyone is eventually given the same even-handed treatment, even with someone such as Samir, who we are bound to loathe at first, if for no other reason that we pull so much for the soft-spoken Ahmad. However, Farhadi is far too skilled to leave us with such an obvious villain: What first appears to be cold bluster and unsympathetic harshness with his son melts into something else altogether in a single moment outside a subway train in Paris, and with it, our sympathies begin to collide in complicated ways. Everyone can partake in some of the guilt, but they also can make a strong case for their point of view on the matter.
As noted earlier, Farhadi also enjoys working in lengthy, satisfying metaphor. The house the family shares is a shabby mess when Ahmad first arrives, in constant disrepair, desperately needing the new coat of paint the couple are haphazardly slapping up on the walls, even as the fumes cause Samir’s sensitive eyes to swell up and tear. The sinks get clogged, the yard is unfinished and loaded with junk, and the space is too small by half, but over the course of things, it begins to look more and more homey. During the course of things, Samir and Marie begin to remake it into something they can comfortably share together.
Farhadi’s plots, which he describes as tiny mysteries, are also clever, intricate things, built in small moments and telling gestures, but able to withstand a thousand pressures, like an erector set dipped in titanium, as sound and well-built as a Roman aqueduct. One detail leads to a character’s understanding of something, which, in turn, leads to further questions until, at last, the whole apparatus is revealed by the end.
His frame is filled with the stuff of life, sustaining a threadbare lived-in quality — from the car windshield that remains fogged over even after a character wipes it with his hand, to the claustrophobic, chemical confines of Samir’s dry-cleaning shop — that permeates through his characters and works in subtle ways to render everything imminently believable and as natural as a documentary-style home movie — just, in Mahmoud Kalari, with a much better cinematographer.
Not a shot is wasted, not a dramatic moment unearned, the film is a triumph of art, even as what it points to is nothing less than the insurmountable human condition, our collective method of calibrating our pain and longing and guilt to survive another day. The title is also more than a simple lamentation for things gone by: The film deals with the very complex way in which we, by concise act or circumstance, are forced to live with our tragically selective memories, shutting out those things that would topple us over if their full weight were placed on our shoulders. In Farhadi’s work, answers are always there in front of us, waiting for those moments we are finally able to see them clearly enough as to be recognizable.
In which we explore the filmic concerns of a given theme, and find new and novel ways of putting together yet another Internet-based list of movies. The wrinkle here, is our fifth pick will actuall…
The Brothers Coen, Ethan and Joel, enjoy a rarefied designation among American filmmakers.
In which we explore the filmic concerns of a given theme, and find new and novel ways of putting together yet another Internet-based list of movies. The wrinkle here is our fifth pick will actually…
Dir. Spike Jonze
So for once, we have a vision of the near future that doesn’t involve a dystopian, post-nuclear holocaust, or filthy beggars in dirty shrouds preaching about the new god they made. No, this vision features a clean, airy L.A., populated by relatively normal seeming people dressed in bright primary colored shirts and slightly high-waisted pants. Hell, there even seems to be a reasonable abundance of creative-type jobs for people to work (depressingly, that’s how we know it’s a fantasy).
It’s also true, writer/director Spike Jonze’s vision of L.A. isn’t entirely a utopia, at least for poor, bedraggled Theodore (a mustachioed Joaquin Phoenix). He’s a depressed writer for a website devoted to crafting sweetly personal letters for people who don’t have the time or ability to do it themselves. He’s also estranged from his beautiful wife (Rooney Mara), who is anxiously waiting for him to sign their divorce papers. Listless and mopey, Theodore spends a majority of his time in his gorgeous high-rise apartment playing giant, all-encompassing video games, and calling a virtual lonely-hearts sex line late at night when things get too jammed up in his head.
He’s not a bad dude, by any stretch, in fact he’s sweet natured and intuitive, he’s just on a bad run, and can’t see his way out of it. That is, until on a whim he invests in a new OS boasting of an impressive AI. When he first logs in, he’s not sure what to make of the expressive, throaty female voice he hears, who names herself Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johanson), but before too long he becomes entranced by her kindness, humor and devotion to him. Soon, the two begin to embark on a romantic relationship of sorts. And yes, I know exactly what kind of movie you’re picturing now: Some kind of loony James Carey comedy where he has to hide this peculiar secret and everyone finds out anyway and a bunch of people end up falling into a swimming pool at the company party.
But nothing could be further from this film’s intention. Rather than Theodore and Samantha’s romance being some kind of twisted outlier, it becomes clear that with the release of this ground-breaking OS, many such couples have sprung up. It’s become a thing, you see, one not too far out of the realm of possibility, given our ever-increasing devotion to technology and our increased solipsism as a result.
Not only does Theodore’s best friend, Amy (Amy Adams), totally understand his new relationship, she herself has embarked on a similar course with her OS in the wake of her marriage crumbling. As far as Theodore and Samantha’s relationship goes, it has all the elements of new romance we’ve all dearly experienced, including the many soaring highs and the crippling, confusing lows. Understandably, Samantha starts out as a romantic neophyte, soaking up as much information about the life going on around her as possible (a very advanced system she can read entire books on the subject in a matter of microseconds), but being both blessed and cursed with a human-like self-awareness, she eventually grows beyond those basic parameters and begins to challenge Theodore in much the same way his ex-wife did, forcing him to open up to new possibilities.
Jonze, who’s made a career out of putting his vivid visual metaphors into work — in the ’90s, some of his music videos for Weezer and Beastie Boys became the standards of the genre — has crafted a powerful and potent analogy for our tech-obsessed age, but the true power of the film comes from its emotional complexity. Jonze is not content to play a one-note melody, he follows the concept to its logical conclusion, his beautiful, touching film becoming ever more poignant in the process. It might have a simple enough logline (a man falls in love with his computer), but that barely suggests the depth and range of compassion steeped into its frame.
Beyond the striking visual production — Jonze is an inveterate visual stylist able to make salient use of small visual tropes (steam emanating from a manhole cover, the swirling dust motes in a strong band of sunlight) to suggest his character’s mental state — the film lives and dies on the strength of its leading man, and here, Phoenix proves yet again to be one of the more dynamic and soulful actors in the current Hollywood canon. Theodore is easy to misjudge — as evidenced by a blind date with a gorgeous beauty (Olivia Wilde) that goes horribly wrong — a sweetly perceptive man who could come across as creepy and unsettling if misinterpreted. His nature is far too sweet to lose our sympathy, but he’s real enough to make horrible, callous-seeming mistakes and have to live with the consequences.
Equally significant is the chemistry between Theodore and Samantha, and that too is pretty flawless. Johansson, though never seen, does absolutely superb voice work, a performance that has made more than a few critics suggest she should be considered come awards season. Does it help that the audience can readily picture the gorgeous Johansson, one of Hollywood’s sexiest starlets, as she speaks? Of that I have no doubt, but so deftly rendered and relatable is their relationship this knowledge does not detract one iota from the significance of their connection. As things begin to change and their relationship starts to falter (“You sound distracted,” Samantha says mournfully towards the end, “so we’ll talk later?”), the pain is all-too-real and recognizable. Even as the film is actually pointing out just how far removed from our basic humanity our technology is taking us.
Jonze has made a stunning love-story for the techno age, and despite the obvious pulls otherwise, he avoids hiding behind either direct satire or cheap laughs (although he himself plays a small cameo as a rude, abusive video game character that’s absolutely hilarious), and in a pleasingly understated manner goes for something a good deal more elusive and sacrosanct: The very nature of human love itself.
Somewhere in the annuls of film lore, I suspect 2007 will go down as one of the more magical cinematic years in two decades. 2009? Not so much. Not there weren’t some solid contenders, but let’s just say the words “banner year” don’t come to mind. Nevertheless, here are our picks for the best (and worst) of 2009.
The Top Ten Films of 2009
Dir. Lee Daniels
New actress Sidibe astutely portrays Precious with a resigned detachment, and an endearing sense of humor. Lighter touches pepper the film and keep it from being unrelentingly dejecting, like the scenes with Precious and her classmates at the alternative school or her interjectory fantastical daydreams. In these moments, Precious and her world even more tangibly authentic; the light helping to offset the dark. -Janday Wilson
9. Where the Wild Things Are
Dir. Spike Jonze
The wild rumpus soon devolves into a bit of a pity party, as the Wild Things (voiced by such luminaries as James Gandolfini and Forrest Whitaker) begin to exhibit too many of their king’s frailties. They bicker, become jealous, and begin to doubt Max’s kingly credentials. This melancholy dreamscape is a bit too wispy at times, lacking the continuity and meaningful plot points that make for a truly great story. But it is a figment of a child’s imagination, after all, and the nostalgia trip hits home with such heartwarming authenticity that it is well worth the somber tones and unconnected dots. -Lance Duroni
8. The Hurt Locker
Dir. Kathryn Bigelow
Screenwriter Mark Boal has created a kind of war film/horror picture, with an almost unceasing crush of tension, and long, involved scenes of the three main protagonists searching through cavernous desertscapes and menacingly deserted buildings. The film hinges on William James, who remains fascinatingly inaccessible to us. Like Melville’s Bartleby, he is at once separate from and creator of the narrative’s thrust. We see him on his own, drinking, smoking, rassling with his compadres, shopping for cereal back at home with his young family, but never get more than a glance inside his head (where, one supposes, the closed-off pain the title suggests is all stored away).
7. An Education
Dir. Lone Scherfig
What sets this brilliant small film apart from its standard-sounding trappings is the intelligence and rectitude of its main character. Jenny might be young, but she is not so easily seduced. Part of David’s insidious charm is he finds that which is most compelling to people and uses that against them. Jenny is a young woman who “wants to know things.” She doesn’t become something she’s not, in the manner of a country mouse/city mouse fable, rather, she begins to experience all the things she will later come to find, but far too quickly. She takes a shortcut, in other words, not a detour.
6. The Limits of Control
Dir. Jim Jarmusch
Director Jim Jarmusch’s never really been one for the climatic, three-point film. Here, he further proves his plot defiance and again positions his family of characters around brief encounters and vague dialogue. In short, it’s everything you love about Jarmusch and, frankly, it’s pretty bad-ass.-Abigail Bruley
5. The Class
Dir. Laurent Cantet
Despite the setting, though, this isn’t a facile paean to the sublime power of teaching, a la Dangerous Minds or Dead Poets Society, rather Bégaudeau, who wrote both the book and screenplay adaptation, culls from his own experience, using a classroom filled with non-actor students (though not his own), to achieve something closely approximating documentary. Using mostly handheld cameras and keeping the lens in tight close-up to the characters, director Cantet dispenses with the standard classroom platitudes and clichéd arcs, to find something new and fresh to reveal.
4. Boy Interrupted
Dir. Dana Heinz Perry
If nothing else, the film really does an admirable job capturing the ups and downs of the disease of bipolar disorder, which tends to yo-yo its victims in a never ending surge and crash. The idea that Dana and her husband Hart were able to deal with their child’s death in order to make this film is almost beyond comprehension. At one point, Dana admits that she first went into the project seeking closure but, ultimately, it’s not what she wants you to get out of the film. “It’s not about who he was or what happened to him,” she explains, “its about knowing that someone loved him enough for you to remember his name.”-Robby Stillwagon
Dir. Atom Egoyan
At his best, Egoyan deftly delves through the dangerous depths of human feeling, the catacombs where many directors fear to tread, expertly inspecting psychological causation in most unexpectedly effective ways. The film manages to mine issues of fault, circumstance, personal origins, and religious self-sacrifice within the miniscule confines of one family. The result is jarringly intimate. Egoyan has viewers exactly where he wants them — on a tight leash — throughout the film, a film noir-type exercise in mystery not so much concerned with whodunit but why, exploring both the ethics of terrorism and the allure of becoming a victim, where lies are rooted in lonely desperation and the simple search for human connection overwhelms nearly everything else.-Alison Greenberg
2. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Dir. Wes Anderson
There are only a few summations that matter about the Wes Anderson puppet animation picture: The first thing you need to know? It’s just a masterpiece. Maybe not in the Pride and Prejudice manner, but rather in the way one hundred individually-snot-nosed adolescent boys could come together and form an angelic choir: It’s harmoniously constructed by several smaller, scruffier parts.-Abigail Bruley
1. A Serious Man
Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
Working along similar lines as the Talmud-like fable that opens the film, the subsequent narrative arc allows for simultaneous arguments for and against the methodology of the higher power. Regardless of your perspective, the brothers Coen have certainly lost none of their cinematic power. It also has echoes of some of their earlier work, including an exchange with Danny and his friends that, in pace and execution, spools out like something directly lifted from Lebowski, but rather than make another film out of these expertly honed details, one gets the sense they are digging a bit deeper into their own philosophical anguish. Whatever the case, this quiet film still builds into a startlingly moving crescendo. The Coens’ stalwart lack of pity has never been more effective.
And the Bottom Five:
Dir. Mira Nair
As an icon of feminine strength and resolve, the screenwriters give precious little for their Earhart to connect with, and even less to do, other than force everyone in her life to grant her the freedom she’s forever rhapsodizing. The curious effect is to actually diminish what Earhart managed to accomplish in her life. By the time she and George reconnect after a separation amidst the crashing surf and rolled up khakis of a Viagra ad, you realize the film has almost nothing in its core.
4. Couples Retreat
Dir. Peter Billingsley
This film is the story of three boring white guys; their insanely hot, yet soulless wives; and a black guy who pretends to enjoy hanging out with douchey white dudes so that Vince Vaughn’s character will cosign for his new crotch-rocket. A chick flick in Old School clothing, Couple’s Retreat is the kind of insipid Hollywood trash that leaves you praying for earthquakes in the hope that vengeful forces of nature might demolish Tinseltown and allow us to restart the American film industry from scratch.-Lance Duroni
3. Angels & Demons
Dir. Ron Howard
It is not giving away much to say that the kidnapping scheme is only but a small part of a larger — absolutely, spot-on idiotic — caper that turns everything on its head at the expense of any conceivable plausibility. As for the Church, they come across far more benevolent and wise than in Brown’s previous novel, culminating in an absolutely embarrassing monologue about the power of the Church by the acting Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor) to the Cardinals deep in conclave. Not sense James Earl Jones asinine “the one constant is Baseball, Ray” speech in Field of Dreams has any mouthful of uttered dialogue rang as completely false and unjustified.
2. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
Dir. Tony Scott
It’s a simple thing, really. We don’t require much of our cinematic supervillains other than they have a plan that goes beyond something we could have come up with on our own, standing in the office cafeteria line. If, on top of that, they also manage to be believably intelligent, cutthroat and despicable, that’s pretty much icing. So, here’s your basic problem with casting John Travolta as the aforementioned bad guy: He can’t pull off intelligence or believability. In fact, he can’t even seem to find the right cadence to say “motherfucker” without sounding vaguely embarrassed, like someone’s elderly aunt.
Dir. Pierre Morel
The film, co-written by Luc Besson, who should certainly know better, is inexcusably lazy, laying out a facile series of elements for Bryan to trail in order to recover his daughter, whom he rescues more or less by herself, leaving all the other poor daughters not lucky enough to have a skilled assassin for a pop to their own devices. If the film is trying to make a statement against Bush-era diplomacy, it’s far too dimwitted to avoid getting caught up in the exact opposite, making a dubious case for achieving one’s goal by any violent means necessary. Still, the film won’t be hated by everyone, much as it may deserve; Dick Cheney will certainly like the cut of its jib.
We laughed, we cried, at other times we heaved, both emotionally and physically. And sometimes, we even left the theaters utterly transfixed. Herewith, our picks of the best (and worst) of the 2008 cinematic panoply.
The Top Ten Films of 2008
10. In a Dream
Dir. Jeremiah Zagar
Son Jeremiah’s searing document of his father, the ceramics artist Isaiah, captures many painfully intense intimate moments, including the very time that Isaiah tells his wife, Julia, of his adultery — we see the picture of the man, bearded, often grinning, gleaming, juxtaposed with the images of his life’s work, the walls, doors, ceilings, basements that have been completely encased in his eclectic, vibrant art. Indeed, nothing is perhaps more heart-wrenching in the film than watching Julia walking through the corridors and rooms of her house after kicking Isaiah out: Each room is so thoroughly covered with his art, and his reflection, you wonder how she didn’t want to tear it all to pieces and start over in an empty condo somewhere.
9. Snow Angels
Dir. David Gordon Green
Midway through this devastating film, with all the plot elements still juggling in the air, you get the sense that Green could almost go anywhere with his set up, so tight and well-grounded are his characters. Unfortunately, as far as you think he can push the scenario, the film still manages to cross a few emotional boundaries that feel slightly out of reach. Though certainly not for lack of trying — especially on the part of the wholly excellent cast, with Sam Rockwell putting in another virtuoso performance. The cast help bring these miserable, lived-in characters shimmering to life, difficult to watch at times as they struggle against each other, helpless to defend themselves against their own true nature.
Dir. Sergei Bodrov
“On the edge of a beautiful Mongolian plain, two young lovers, just reunited and married, spend their honeymoon night under the stars. The next morning, the woman, Borte (Khulan Chuluun) has just enough time to tell her beloved, Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano) that she always wants to stay by his side, before they are attacked by a neighboring tribe on horseback. Running away on their horses, Temudjin is hit with an arrow, so Borte stays behind, appeasing the angry tribe as her new husband, prone and near dead on his horse, rides away from her. Welcome to the brutal, unruly world of Mongolia at the close of the 12th century.”
Dir. Lance Hammer
“Writer/director Lance Hammer’s film, shot in and around rural Mississippi, is as austere and poignant as the flat, unpromising terrain in which it was filmed. Shot in brief hand-held camera snippets with minimalist dialogue and only ambient noise serving as a soundtrack, the film cuts into its deeply felt characters’ lives with the precision of a straight edge.” “
6. What Just Happened
Dir. Barry Levinson
As a film producer, “just the mayonnaise on a bad sandwich,” Ben’s life almost entirely consists of placating everyone else’s ego, largely at the expense of his own. In turn, he has to be a shrink, a drug dispenser, a coddler co-dependent, enervator and showman, and he gets to do the vast majority of his work in the car on the ever-jammed 405, speaking into his earpiece and telling lie after lie to whomever is still around to listen to him on the other end.
5. Taxi to the Dark Side
Dir. Alex Gibney
Perhaps the most chilling of the interviewees, Damien Corsetti, an interrogator brought to Bagram and, later, Abu Ghraib, speaks his mind in a clear, conscienceless voice, explaining “You put people in a crazy situation; and crazy things will happen.” Corsetti, who sports a black button-down shirt with a small “Social Distortion” logo over his heart, is a fair stand-in for many of the ill-educated military personnel forced into interrogation duty with little or no actual training, dealing with a set of vague regulations designed to give maximum wiggle-room to achieve their results.
4. The Wrestler
Dir. Darren Aronofsky
“Director Aronofsky, coming off a critical drubbing for the obtusely hallucinogenic The Fountain, here turns to a much more simple and elemental kind of story: The washed-up hero longing for past glories. As far as the wrestling goes, the film is spot-on, from Rourke’s impressive performance, to the bizarre camaraderie between the combatants in the dressing room (“Work his neck,” one wrestler helpfully offers to another), where the film is far more shaky is in the Ram’s personal relationships.”
Dir. Gus Van Sant
It’s both an edgy elegiac for a not-so-far-removed time and an emotionally accessible account of the beginning of a movement, never more necessary than now in the age of California’s Prop 8 bill passing. The key to the film is Van Sant and Penn never losing sight of the deep humanity of the man they are representing. Milk was, after all, such a powerful figure precisely because he was so charmingly self-effacing. He put people — gay or straight, believers or firm dissenters — at ease.
2. The Fall
As much as Tarsem’s previous film, The Cell, got panned, no one could impugn his stunning visual acuity: Here, with a far-superior script, he successfully welds his incredible visual sense with a charge of emotional power. Showing considerable restraint, he reigns in his more flighty instincts, leaving a film that is both gorgeous and inexplicably moving. Similar to Guillermo del Toro’s brilliant Pan’s Labyrinth, the film plays off of the intersection of childish imagination and real-world heartbreak in ways that plunge the depth of feelings.
1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days
Dir. Cristian Mungiu
A Dogme-style naturalistic masterpiece, as intricately woven and delicately put together as an ancient tapestry. The lives of the characters are fully invested, imbued with ambiguity and shimmering with verisimilitude. They won’t soon leave you. By the time the screen cuts to black at the end of this harrowing night, you get the sense that the characters will continue on in their haphazard fashion without us: Only the camera gets shut off.
And the Five Worst Films of 2008:
5. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Dir. Steven Spielberg
Pity poor Dr. Jones. It’s one thing, after all, to be shot at by a passel of Russian KGB agents through a maze of government storage boxes, or sent careening down a series of increasingly violent waterfalls in the Amazon; and quite another to have your creators have so little faith in your character that they give you an albatross of a son to lug around in the process.
Dir. Stuart Gordon
True, plausibility is clearly pretty low on the short list of necessities in writer/director Stuart Gordon’s semi-satiric gore fest, but since so much of the film is set in the mendacity of the real world, and since the film itself, is indeed based on a notorious case of moral neglect, to have these gaping holes in logic and credibility only reduces an admittedly low-budget affair into true schlock.
3. Zack and Miri Make a Porno
Dir. Kevin Smith
“On the surface, it would seem as if Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow have much in common: They make comedies in which their protagonists are profane, self-obsessed and often immature well beyond their years; they often use rotating cast members in a kind of ensemble; and they like a good dirty joke and saying the words “fuck” over and over again. Where the similarities end is where Apatow clearly pushes ahead of Smith: His characters are, at least on some level, believable and he doesn’t compromise their integrity for the sake of quick one-off.”
2. The X-Files: I Want to Believe
Dir. Chris Carter
Fans of the show — which were certainly legion at one point in time — might thrill to seeing their heroes resurrected for another go round (and marvel at Duchovny’s fake beard grown in FBI exile), but everybody else can probably find something better to do. In the day and age of the Patriot Act, Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, the idea that there’s something out there our government may or may not be hiding from us is perhaps a bit too fanciful to take very seriously.
1. Righteous Kill
Dir. Jon Avnet
To begin with, Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino are pretty much in cruise control here — two long-time partner cops on the trail of a potential cop serial killer. While its true both men have been known to overindulge their thespianism when working with spineless directors (“HOOO-ah” indeed), they both seem subdued here, and, frankly, flat. They aren’t helped much by Russell Gewirtz’s script, which lurches from scene to scene, telegraphing its punches like an aging fighter on the take.
The Ten Best Films of 2007
Dir. Anton Corbijn
“This is the type of film that carries with it so much weight and gravitas, every creak and sniffle in the theater feels like an intrusion of an unwanted guest into an intimate conversation. The story of Ian Curtis, late singer of the seminal post-punk band Joy Division, is fairly well known, even to casual observers of the British music scene, but here, in Anton Corbijn’s moving biopic, you feel as if you get to know him on an entirely other level — down from the heavens of dead rock star iconography and into the oft- mundane reality of dismal living in Manchester in the ’70s.”
9. The Devil Came on Horseback
Dir. Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg
As powerful a document on government cruelty, neglect and damnedable inaction as you are likely to see this year, the title of this unflinching and powerful documentary refers to the Janjaweed (“man on a horse”), the Arab militia force employed and trained by the Sudanese government to eradicate Africans in the Darfur region of the country.
Dir. Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi
“Let’s get this part over with quickly: Yes, the film is animated, based on Marjane Satrapi’s excellent graphic novels, but this is hardly kids’ fare. Satrapi, who grew up with progressive parents in pre-revolutionary Iran, wrote (and drew) her autobiographical novels as a way of connecting her past with the fate of her highly-oppressed country, and as a way of remembering those relatives and friends whom weren’t as lucky as she to get out in time.”
7. The Boss of it All
Dir. Lars von Trier
“Like David Mamet with State and Main, comedy appears to have allowed von Trier the auteur to lighten up for a little while and have some fun. So at ease is he, he’s not even afraid to poke holes in his own mythos. As Kristoffer’s ex-wife explains to him at one point: ‘Life is a Dogma film. It’s hard to hear but the words are still important.’”
6. The Diving Bell & The Butterfly
Dir. Julian Schnabel
“Here’s a cinematic conundrum: How do you film the internal dialogue of a man who is nearly completely paralyzed? How do you give life to his (true) story in such a way that conveys, like his prose, the active and vibrant inner life of someone so stricken they can only move one eyelid? Director Julian Schnabel, himself a veteran of the New York art scene for years, has reached back into some of his artistic bag of tricks to visually convey some of the despair — and hope — of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a 42-year-old successful editor at Paris Elle, who suffered a massive stroke and experienced an almost-total brain stem separation that left him paralyzed.”
5. Deep Water
Dir. Louise Osmond & Jerry Rothwell
“…reality is just as capable of putting a protagonist in an unearthly mess as any writer’s imagination. Through snippets of 16mm film and audio cassette tracks that Crowhurst made on his voyage, as well as lines from his log books, and exhaustive, meticulous research and interviews, Osmond and Rothwell manage to explore the hellish world Crowhurst had made for himself. It’s as gripping as any adventure yarn, but with the pathos of a biblical allegory: A good man who made a reckless choice and forced himself to live with the consequences.”
Dir. David Moreau and Xavier Palud
The directing team that made this low-budget Romanian horror film hold dearly onto the principle that nothing is scarier than what your mind can conjure up in a sinister vacuum.
3. Michael Clayton
Dir. Tony Gilroy
As an actor, George Clooney has the rarest of combinations: He’s charming beyond measure and has the intelligence to twist that charm into any number of convincing alternatives. He’s a star who takes his work very seriously, in other words, and this film — the directorial debut of Tony Gilroy, who also wrote the screenplay — is a fine vehicle for what is undoubtedly one of his better performances.
2. There Will Be Blood
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
“The marriage of early 20th Century novelist Upton Sinclair, known for his grinding prose and searing melodrama, and filmmaker Anderson, who’s singular American vision has taken him from the porn industry (Boogie Nights) to a rain of frogs (Magnolia), might seem slightly odd, but shortly into the film (the first 17 minutes or so, sans dialogue) you see how the connection works. Plainview is a rough-hewn self-made man, who goes from digging his own small wells by hand alone in the desert, to a sprawling empire of concerns, spread all over the southwest.”
1. No Country for Old Men
Dir. Ethan & Joel Coen
“But what sounds like a standard tale of money, power and death in the prairie, under the Coens’ practiced eye, takes on much deeper set of ruminations. It’s not really until the film hits it’s complete anti-climax climax about two-thirds of the way in, and you are forced to wander around the remains of the original plotline like a staggered elk for the very extended denouement, that the real message of the film — no one knows for sure how things will turn out in their lives — begins to hit home.”
The Five Worst Films of 2007
5. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Dir. Tim Story
“Yay, summer blockbuster sequel season. Let’s just go down the list, shall we? Quippy, prattling dialogue? Check. Vapid characterizations? Check. Overdone CGI effects that cost half the GNP of Denmark, yet still look crappy and fake? Check. Sell-out product placement that only seems like a good idea to marketing suits? Check. Supervillains who keep improbably returning because the writers can’t be bothered to create new ones? Check. No matter what happens during the course of the film, everything is exactly back to normal by the end? Check and mate.”
Dir. Kenneth Branaugh
“There is an essential difference between film and theater: In the former, the form more or less apes our sense of reality, meticulously recreating our world in make-believe; in the latter, the whole contrivance is so artificial, it dispenses with ‘reality’ and puts in place what we’ll call hyper-dramatic reality. In this theater reality, then, characters aren’t just larger than life but also far more emotional, which, on film tends to come across as overwrought and precious.”
3. Live Free or Die Hard
Dir. Len Wiseman
“There are a lot of things flying around in this film, bodies, cars, slabs of concrete, but perhaps the thing that hits you the hardest is the pathos you suddenly feel for an older man, playing in a field of young turks, no longer master of the game and becoming, ever-so-slowly, beaten up, lonely and obsolete.”
2. The Invasion
Dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel
“This film, a rare triple remake, treads on very thin ice for one irrefutable reason: The first two previous versions, the 1956 Don Siegel-helmed original, and the 1978 Philip Kaufman remake, were absolute classics of the genre. Spooky, unnerving, political without being polemic and, best of all, open-ended, the first two films helped frame their respective decades, staking a flag for each era’s zeitgeist.Here, in 2007, all Oliver Hirschbiegel’s toothless adaptation signifies is that Hollywood, ever the whore-monger, has no business trying to make a truly unsettling thriller: In this day and age, all they want is to rake in the opening weekend easy money (apparently, they so loathed Hirschbiegel’s cut, they reshot massive amounts of the film with the “keen” eye of the Wachowki brothers in control).”
1. Goya’s Ghost
Dir. Milos Forman
Featuring a casting menagerie that only Godard could love, Milos Forman’s overwrought film offers an Israeli (Natalie Portman) as a Spanish merchant’s well-to-do daughter, imprisoned by the Inquisition; a Frenchman (Michael Lonsdale) as the Spanish Bishop responsible for keeping her there; a Swede (Stellan Skarsgard) as world-famous painter Goya, hoping to free the daughter from the clutches of the Church; assorted Brits playing various henchmen of both the Spanish Church and Napoleon’s French army; a Spaniard (Craig Stevenson) playing Napoleon; and, perhaps most jarring of all, an American (Randy Quaid) playing the bloody King of Spain.