Wednesday, February 24, 2010

SHUTTER ISLAND (2010)


MAJOR to MINOR spoilers herein, depending on your aptitude in figuring out puzzle-box narratives.

***

As Roger Ebert is apt to remind us, it’s not always what a movie’s about that’s important, but how it’s about. Such an approach benefits some pictures more than others; it’s practically a prerequisite to engaging with Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese’s goose-pimply good (if wholly unsurprising) adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s potboiler of a pageturner. From a narrative perspective, this is the shaggiest of shaggy dog stories. Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo play U.S. Marshalls brought in to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a mental patient, a young woman who’s taken flight from a cuckoo’s nest off the coast of Boston Harbor, circa 1954. Leo immediately suspects foul play, and if you can’t guess the awful truth that awaits him at the bottom of the rabbit hole than (a) you haven’t seen the trailer or (b) you haven’t seen many movies released in the last twenty years. In a post-Sixth Sense/Usual Suspects/Fight Club world, the biggest shocker Shutter Island has to offer is that it’s headed exactly where it appears to be from the very start. What’s nifty about the film is the way that Scorsese scarcely seems concerned with throwing us off the scent—how, in fact, the sheer inevitability of the “big reveal” lends the narrative a kind of fatalistic charge, with a gumshoe hero too blithely (and willfully) ignorant to catch the clues piling up around him.

From its opening frames, wherein a mighty vessel emerges from the thick and billowy fog of Boston Harbor, Shutter Island has begun to blur the line between the real and the unreal, between immaculate period detail and classic Hollywood affectation. It’s a waking nightmare of a film, one that permits Scorsese, ever the playful aesthete and giddy genre aficionado, to indulge in some of his most gloriously opulent imagery. In one technicolor transmission of dream dread, a bittersweet reunion is buried in a torrential downpour of ash. Another stunning set-piece, filmed in monochromatic tones and littered with bodies, conflates personal tragedy with the horrors of World War II. (There’s that famous catholic guilt again, so integral to Scorsese’s warped vision of American history.) Bad dreams comingle with faulty memories, while personal phobias—of steep plummets, of squealing vermin, of stormy weather—are inflated to grotesque proportions. Like Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel, this mighty asylum is a “real” place that doubles as a landscape of the mind, and Marty populates its long, labyrinthine corridors with game grunts from the studio trenches. (Patricia Clarkson and Jackie Earl Haley, for spooky example, sear their single scenes onto your synapses.)

From the vaguely unnatural zing of its hard-boiled dialogue to the throb and shriek of the Hitchcockian compositions, Shutter Island colors its boilerplate plot machinations in the tones and textures of noir, and of old dark house movies. These masterfully recreated trappings have a kind of thematic resonance—what we’re seeing is a headspace informed by era-specific mythmaking, an interior world personified as Hollywood homage. It’s a nifty trick, but also a sneaky act of misdirection: at its core, Shutter Island is a police procedural so predictable that its red herrings actually register as telltale hints. Scorsese makes the ride down this predestined path a bumpy one, but he can’t obscure from our sight the disappointing destination, and the film’s final moments are a long trudge through endless exposition. Thank God, then, for the actor who can make such a familiar arc feel so jaggedly authentic. Boasting a Bostonian accent thicker and slightly less convincing than the one he sported in The Departed, Leo simmers and contracts with sweaty conviction, grounding the film’s phantasmagoric fantasies in a wealth of genuine feeling. We’re always two, three, ten steps ahead of him, but it’s a credit to his tortured commitment that we want to hang back, to experience each baldly telegraphed “twist” with him, and to hope for a final fate less tidy than the one Scorsese rapidly realizes around him. At least it’s all a little more than just a dream.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The 100 Best Films of the Decade: Wrap-Up


And that's all she wrote. The fat lady has sung her last song and is packing it in. Stick a fork in us, we’re done. After months of retrospective re-evaluation—and two hair-yanking weeks of writing and editing—InRo’s The 100 Best Films of the Decade has officially gone live. It was a maddening process, through and through. When I wasn’t scrambling to catch up on all the great movies I missed these past ten years, I was agonizing over the process of narrowing them down into an even one hundred, then ranking them, then tackling the impossible duty of qualifying my love for these pictures in as little as 200 words. And that was just my process. What made this an especially daunting undertaking was all the coordination—tallying the lists, setting and re-adjusting deadlines, assigning the writing duties, and hounding contributors for their work. And then, of course, there was the endless editing process.

Needless to say, I’m glad to be through the woods… and that a decade only ends once every ten years. Learned a few lessons and gained a newfound respect for Sam C. Mac, head honcho of InRo, who was there every step of the way on this project. He saw us through lots of late nights, early mornings and down-to-the-wire updates. I couldn’t have done it without him, or without the twelve other writers who contributed. Big thanks to them all, as well as Ryan “Miracle Worker” Walters, who did all the superb original artwork for the project. Despite all the headaches, the end results speak for themselves—in the highly subjective, some might say arbitrary game of retrospective list-making, I think our little collaborative celebration benefits from an overflowing of passion and know-how. I’m genuinely proud of it.

A few stats and statistics. French cine-poet Claire Denis is the most well-represented director on our list with five films. Four other filmmakers clocked in with three movies apiece: Pedro Almodovar, Arnaud Desplechin, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Gus Van Sant. Lest I’m mistaken (which is totally possible) only five actors appear more than two times on the list: Mathieu Amalric, Christian Bale, Juliette Binoche, Catherine Deneuve, Danny Huston and Tony Leung. Though we all prided ourselves on our oh-so-hip international tastes, 45 of the 100 selections are American films. Thirteen more are from France, six are from Taiwan and five hail from Japan. The rest belong to: Spain (4), Hong Kong (3), The United Kingdom (3), Mexico (2), Denmark (2), China (2), Thailand (2), and one apiece from Austria, Australia, South Korea, Israel, Portugal, Italy, Iran, Norway, Romania, Hungary, and Sweden. While the bookend years of the decade produced only six placers each, 2008 led with fourteen films. Only three honest-to-God documentaries made the list—Capturing the Friedmans (#94), Grizzly Man (#84) and Los Angeles Plays Itself (#77)—though more than a few films spiked their fictional narratives with documentary intrusions. And barring a crazy upset by Tarantino or the Coen Brothers at this year’s ceremony, only one Academy Award winner for Best Picture made the cut. Call it, Friendo.

Finally, to bring all this decade chatter to a close, here’s my own Top 100 ballot, just one of the twelve that was tallied to create our master list. About two-thirds of these films ended up making the cut, which suggests either that I had some serious influence over the end results or that my tastes are impossibly generic. (Don’t answer that, peanut gallery.) I was toying with writing a sentence on each of these, Glenn Kenny style, but instead have just linked to every movie I wrote about, somewhere, in any capacity. Bring on the new decade!


1. Yi Yi [Yang, 2000]
2. Werckmeister Harmonies [Tarr, 2001]
3. Y Tu Mama Tambien [Cuarón, 2002]
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [Gondry, 2004]
5. The Royal Tenenbaums [Anderson, 2001]
6. In the Mood For Love [Wong, 2001]
7. Memento [Nolan, 2001]
8. There Will Be Blood [Anderson, 2007]
9. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts [Lee, 2006]
10. The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford [Dominik, 2007]
11. George Washington [Green, 2000]
12. Beau Travail [Denis, 2000]
13. WALL-E [Stanton, 2008]
14. Offside [Panahi, 2007]
15. Tropical Malady [Weerasethakul, 2005]
16. Los Angeles Plays Itself [Andersen, 2003]
17. The Proposition [Hillcoat, 2006]
18. Tokyo Sonata [Kurosawa, 2009]
19. Lake of Fire [Kaye, 2007]
20. Who’s Camus Anyway? [Yanagimachi, 2005]
21. Children of Men [Cuarón, 2006]
22. Dogville [Von Trier, 2004]
23. Gerry [Van Sant, 2003]
24. In the City of Sylvia [Guerin, 2008]
25. Bamboozled [Lee, 2000]
26. Synecdoche, New York [Kaufman, 2008]
27. Ratcatcher [Ramsay, 2000]
28. A.I. Artificial Intelligence [Spielberg, 2001]
29. Code Unknown [Haneke, 2001]
30. 24 City [Jia, 2009]
31. Inland Empire [Lynch, 2006]
32. No Country For Old Men [Coens, 2007]
33. Reprise [Trier, 2008]
34. What Time Is It There? [Tsai, 2002]
35. Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father [Kuenne, 2008]
36. The Squid and the Whale [Baumbach, 2005]
37. Conversations With Other Women [Canosa, 2006]
38. Clean [Assayas, 2006]
39. Esther Kahn [Desplechin, 2002]
40. Where The Wild Things Are [Jonze, 2009]
41. Café Lumiere [Hou, 2005]
42. 35 Shots of Rum [Denis, 2009]
43. The Host [Bong, 2007]
44. Trouble Every Day [Denis, 2002]
45. Adaptation. [Jonze, 2002]
46. Lost In Translation [Coppola, 2003]
47. Notre Musique [Godard, 2004]
48. Audition [Miike, 2001]
49. My Kid Could Paint That [Bar-Lev, 2007]
50. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring [Jackson, 2001]
51. Friday Night [Denis, 2003]
52. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days [Mungiu, 2007]
53. Regular Lovers [Garrel, 2007]
54. Summer Hours [Assayas, 2009]
55. Mulholland Drive [Lynch, 2001]
56. Rachel Getting Married [Demme, 2008]
57. Zodiac [Fincher, 2007]
58. A Christmas Tale [Desplechin, 2008]
59. Paranoid Park [Van Sant, 2008]
60. Munich [Spielberg, 2005]
61. The Dark Knight [Nolan, 2008]
62. Still Life [Jia, 2008]
63. Million Dollar Baby [Eastwood, 2004]
64. Nobody Knows [Koreeda, 2005]
65. Junebug [Morrison, 2005]
66. Dave Chapelle’s Block Party [Gondry, 2006]
67. Requiem For a Dream [Aronofsky, 2000]
68. Chop Shop [Bahrani, 2008]
69. Talk To Her [Almodóvar, 2002]
70. Let the Right One In [Alfredson, 2008]
71. Late Marriage [Koshashvili, 2002]
72. All the Real Girls [Green, 2003]
73. Three Times [Hou, 2006]
74. Morvern Callar [Ramsay, 2002]
75. Ghost World [Zwigoff, 2001]
76. Grizzly Man [Herzog, 2005]
77. I’m Not There [Haynes, 2007]
78. In America [Sheridan, 2003]
79. Before Sunset [Linklater, 2004]
80. Primer [Carruth, 2004]
81. May [McKee, 2003]
82. Fat Girl [Breillat, 2001]
83. Minority Report [Speilberg, 2002]
84. The Son [Dardenne, 2003]
85. Kings and Queen [Desplechin, 2005]
86. The Witnesses [Techin, 2008]
87. Brick [Johnson, 2006]
88. The Science of Sleep [Gondry, 2006]
89. Capturing the Friedmans [Jarecki, 2003]
90. Ratatouille [Bird, 2007]
91. Casino Royale [Campbell, 2006]
92. Volver [Almodóvar, 2006]
93. Amores Perros [Iñárritu, 2001]
94. Time of the Wolf [Haneke, 2005]
95. My Winnipeg [Maddin, 2008]
96. Marie Antoinette [Coppola, 2006]
97. The Return [Zvyagintsev, 2003]
98. You Can Count On Me [Lonergan, 2000]
99. The Intruder [Denis, 2005]
100. The Departed [Scorsese, 2006]

Friday, February 19, 2010

The 100 Best Films of the Decade: #10-1


At long last, here she is: the top ten of InRo's The 100 Best Movies of the Decade. Not a lot of huge surprises here, I'll grant you, though at least one counts as a love-or-hate-it phenomenon (#7) and another (#4) hasn't found its terrific way into too many other decade top tens. I'll say this too: I vastly prefer our #1 choice to our #2, and am proud to have helped reverse that order. Quick, anyone want to take a stab at our ten before heading over to the big reveal?

To those who kept pace with our postings, thanks for the continued interest. To those just checking in now, you can see the entire 100 selections (plus 10 honorable mentions) over at the main InRo site. I wrote three of the top ten, including the #1, which puts my total capsule count at 16. Also, I penned the introduction. Whew. Gonna go fall into a three-day coma now.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The 100 Best Films of the Decade: #40-11


Today we count down numbers 40-11 of The 100 Best Films of the Decade. This set is a doozy, and I wrote seven of them : odes to restless bohemia and disconnected youth, an outback oater and a backwards-unfurling noir, a coming of age and the coming of the apocalypse.

Tomorrow: the mighty top ten.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The 100 Best Films of the Decade: #71-41


A little late on this update tonight, seeing as though our posting went live about nine hours ago. Regardless, our countdown of The 100 Best Films of the Decade continues with number 71-41. Remarkably, I didn't pen any of these capsules, but that shouldn't stop you from scooting over and reading what my very capable compatriots came up with.

Tomorrow we take this beast all the way to 11. Some truly great films in that block, including my second favorite of the whole decade. (Hint: It's got less shots than any other film on the entire list.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The 100 Best Films of the Decade: An Introduction and Honorable Mentions


And so, after months of anticipation and planning and polling and writing, here it is: InRo's The 100 Best Films of The Decade. The whole thing rolls out this week, counting down to the top 10 on Friday. I'll be posting a link right here at Wild Lines every day.

To kick things off, an introduction penned by yours truly and a list of ten honorable mentions. (I wrote about two odes to community, one a joyous jamboree, the other a mournful lament. ) Check back tomorrow for #100-71.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Guest Essay: BEAUTIFUL DISASTERS OF THE 00s


With the big InRo Decade In Review just days away, allow me to proudly present an extra special supplementary piece, a guest essay by fellow film buff Ezekiel Ornelas. In a ten-year span that saw studios taking less risks, investing more money in sure thing franchises and remakes and sequels, the following ten movies (uber-flops, all of them) represented a kind of glorious anamoly. These were the Beautiful Disasters of the Aughts, and this is their affectionate reappraisal.

***

In an age when the filmmaking industry, especially Hollywood, is dominated by figures like Ryan Kavanaugh and other fiscally conservative moguls solely motivated by an ambition to produce the next Avatar, it has become increasingly difficult for filmmakers to secure the capital to finance more interesting projects. Beautiful Disasters is a list of ten films from the past decade that were fueled by a sort of reckless ambition, often detrimental to both critical and commercial success. This is a list celebrating those individuals that didn’t believe in the myth of Icarus, those that aimed high and missed, fell hard (or maybe didn’t). Many of these films are flawed, without a doubt, but none of them are deserving of the overwhelming, universal disdain they initially garnered. They were called too weird, too long, unfocused and uncomfortable. But there’s something supremely admirable, beautiful even about such resolute filmmakers and their uncompromising visions.

This is a process of re-examination, rotating the prism in which a film is viewed in order to see if there’s something we missed on the other side. A handful of these pictures are undeniable messes (Southland Tales, My Blueberry Nights, Freddy Got Fingered). Others are partially redeemed by moments of formal mastery or innovation (Lady in the Water, Speed Racer). A few of them fully succeed, without qualifiers, at that which they have attempted to do (It’s All About Love, Bamboozled, The Fountain). Each of them was a commercial or critical failure, and many of them were both. What is on display in these films is unwavering fearlessness—a desire by the artist to challenge himself and maybe film language itself, to explore new boundaries of the human experience or just tinker with the tools of narrative. None of the films on this list cost less than $10 million dollars, which makes one wonder how they ever got made, how they accomplished what they did within the studio system, where profit motive is the guiding principle. All ten of these movies are examples of what happens when nobody is willing to or capable of saying “No, you can’t do that.” If only filmmakers were told “no” less often.

Bamboozled [Spike Lee, 2000]

What an interesting little monster Spike Lee’s Bamboozled is, especially in the same decade in which Paul Haggis’s Crash took home an Oscar for Best Picture. Haggis’s portrait of American racism is simplistic and casually reductive. If that’s what it takes to make audiences and critics heap praise upon a piece of work, it’s certainly no surprise that nobody felt like acknowledging Bamboozled’s damning interests. The film is definitely abrasive and uncomfortable. Whereas Crash’s showcase of race relations is easy and digestible (“Everyone’s racist.” The End.), Lee’s film openly embraces and explores virtually every imaginable facet, argument or question about race in America today. Sparing no feelings and taking no prisoners, Lee points his finger at everyone: the whites who think that “nigga” is their word to use too, the “socially-conscious” hip-hop community that still falls prey to capitalist propaganda, the well-educated, upper-class blacks that seem to have virtually no understanding of the black community at large, and the so-called “satirists” that traffic in harmful, racist caricature. The film is remarkably unparalleled in its ambition and scope. Is the rebirth of the minstrel show okay simply because a black man decided to bring it back? In an epilogue that Von Trier seemed to have noticed, Lee provides a wordless argument maintaining the necessity of understanding the cultural scars left behind after centuries of oppression and dehumanization.

Freddy Got Fingered [Tom Green, 2001]

Anchorman set the stage for a monumental shift in American comedy. The characteristics: non sequiturs, narrative divergences, threadbare or virtually nonexistent plots, and a full-on embrace of the bizarre and the absurd. Though generally unfunny, Freddy Got Fingered seems to have laid the groundwork for Anchorman and its ilk. The film works best when it simply revels in Tom Green’s weirdness: skinning a dead deer on the side of the road and wandering around wearing its flesh; tying sausages to strings wound through a pulley-system in his living room; or grabbing a small flower-pot in between his teeth, flapping his arms around and making bird noises. Kudos to Green for having the balls to allow plot to come to a screeching halt (literally, in one scene) any time he feels the urge to do something bizarre. The inspired insanity also veers into some metaphysical acknowledgement of the film’s financing. Green seems slyly aware that he’s burning money onscreen, and every grotesque or inane “comedy routine” he performs—playing with an erect horse-penis or wearing a suit backwards on his body—registers as a kind of Fuck You to everyone who funded the film. Too bad Green only half commits to his transgressive aims—Freddy Got Fingered is frequently boring and, when concerned with exposition, incredibly unfunny. C’est dommage.

HULK [Ang Lee, 2003]

This is not a good movie, by any stretch of the imagination. Its too boring, too poorly acted and, at a whopping 138 minutes, much, much too long. This is Ang Lee’s Daddy Issues - The Movie, complete with a misguided attempt to visually implement comic book panels into the language of film. It’s an inspired idea that quickly becomes tiresome in practice. There’s a fascinating disconnect between Lee’s clashing sensibilities. On one hand, the color palette and comic book dissolve trickery suggest an adherence to a graphic-novel-coming-to-life aesthetic. Problem is, Lee also insists on grounding the film in some semblance of reality, exploring the challenges many adults face when trying to reconcile who they are with who their parents were. In the film’s oddball climax, Nolte’s David Banner absorbs his son’s rage and suffering—the source of the Hulk’s power—and finds the pain too much to bear. An interesting idea, that a desire to distance ourselves from our parents can become a motivating life energy. But the movie never fully commits to it. Stuff does occasionally blow up though.

It’s All About Love [Thomas Vinterberg, 2003]

In the not-so-distant future, the world has become an unusual place—a place where people drop dead out of nowhere (“It’s the heart,” one man explains), certain individuals in Uganda miraculously float away into the atmosphere, and figure-skaters are worldwide rock-stars. Vinterberg’s film is one that wears its heart on its sleeve, without reservation or hesitation. Joaquin Phoenix plays a Polish man, just dropping by New York City to sign divorce papers with his figure-skating, world-superstar wife, played by Claire Danes. With the gradual end of the world as the film’s backdrop, highlighted by the onset of an ice-age, Phoenix’s character is pulled into an elaborate plot to dispose of his spouse. Her managing staff has cloned her three times and intends to use these doppelgangers as replacement stars. The film’s climax reaches a sort of fever pitch when Phoenix has to watch his wife murdered four times in quick succession—the three clones skate with her on the ice, and he can’t tell them apart, even when the killing starts. It’s All About Love utilizes its futuristic setting as a means of expressing heightened, exaggerated emotion. Lushly photographed, powerfully heartfelt, and featuring three American actors who slip in and out of bad Polish accents, the film was simply too emotionally transparent for critics and audiences to appreciate.

The Fountain [Darren Aronofsky, 2006]

Like It’s All About Love, Aronofsky’s The Fountain seems to have been rejected because of its emotional sincerity, its exploration of hopes and fears regarding love. Our protagonist, played by Hugh Jackman, is an experimental research doctor desperately struggling to find a cure for an unnamed illness that his wife, played by Rachel Weisz, is quickly succumbing to. Aronofsky’s formal mastery is deftly on display here—every image seems to revolve around the central conceit. Thematically, the film is about grappling with the realization that everything will eventually die, including those you’ve chosen to spend your life with. A simple thing to make a movie about, but The Fountain’s immaculate construction, its honesty and sincerity, help it transcend this seemingly banal premise, reaching something greater. Virtually every shot in the film is a symmetrical image, subservient to the idea that life is a cycle: birth-death-rebirth, extolling the virtues and beauty of the notion that someday everyone will return to that from which they came. Metaphysically ironic, one might suggest, that the film’s conception of the cosmos is realized via microscopic images of cellular reactions. Perhaps Aronofsky is on to something here: does the universe exist in all of us?

Lady In the Water [M. Night Shyamalan, 2006]

Only a douchebag would cast himself as the savior of mankind in his own film. The Village, Lady in the Water, and The Happening, that trifecta of lousiness, whisper the awful truth about M. Night Shyamalan: he shouldn’t write his own screenplays anymore. Lady in the Water’s got a superb performance by Paul Giamatti as an apartment complex’s super. It also features consistently gorgeous photography (excluding shots of those hideous CGI-creatures) by my favorite drunken Aussie Christopher Doyle. The film scarcely earns or deserves these merits, which lend it more legitimacy than necessary or appropriate. What Shyamalan does have going for him is a terribly terrific grasp of filmic language, the ability to compose striking images and then pair them together in interesting ways. Just as in The Happening, the filmmaker’s voice is clear and present in every single frame of the film. Doyle’s status as a photographic auteur is on full display here, as he documents the interaction between nature and this monstrosity of apartments. If only the movie had anything else going for it.

Tideland [Terry Gilliam, 2006]

One thing’s for sure: Tideland is easily a more coherent and interesting fable than the highly-overrated Pan’s Labyrinth. With that out of the way, the experience of watching the damn thing is honestly an overwhelmingly unpleasant one, a real ordeal punctuated by a few fleeting moments of honest beauty. Gilliam’s sensibilities lend themselves exceptionally well to the insane, dingy lifestyle of Jeliza-Rose and her junky parents. Eventually, the film jumps the rails, and it feels as though Gilliam’s tics and tendencies begin to work against what he’s attempting to convey. The director’s insistence on framing close-ups with a wide-angle lens anytime two characters are on screen is a great example of how he undermines what little beauty he has managed to create in the film. Gilliam’s aesthetic is perpetually grotesque, but credit where credit is due: he creates a genuinely moving portrayal of bourgeoning romance between nine-year old Jeliza-Rose and a mentally-handicapped man-child named Dickens. That alone is worth mentioning and kudos to the filmmaker who can bring to life such an utterly uncompromising vision.

Southland Tales [Richard Kelly, 2007]

Richard Kelly has absolutely no idea what exactly he wants to say, but he sure does have a lot that he’d like to talk about. Southland Tales is a sprawling, ambitious, confused, gigantic mess of a film that Kelly created in the process of trying to say “something.” As a strict narrative, the film fails in many respects. There are too many characters, too much background exposition, too little time, and no notion where it’s all headed. What the film does function as, rather effectively, is a time capsule: these were the fears and concerns of our nation immediately after Bush’s unthinkable re-election happened. (The War on Terror, still raging on in Iraq and Afghanistan, has expanded to Iran, Syria, and North Korea.) The film manages to briefly touch upon just everything Kelly is concerned with in this country: not just war, but also the looming energy crisis, an emerging police state, the inane banter of pop stars and their “social concerns,” cloning, and, of course, time travel. Riddled with pop culture references that will probably inspire head scratches in the next decade, the film is content with simply existing in the moment. Featuring some rather bizarre performances from a motley crew of character actors that time has somewhat forgotten—not to mention a few slightly more famous folks—Southland Tales is exactly what happens when there’s nobody there to say “No.” And it’s a total blast.

My Blueberry Nights [Wong Kar-Wai, 2008]

This is not America. This is an outsider’s view of America. Wong’s In the Mood for Love depicts two protagonists who are inhibited by their inhibitions—repression is the key to their downfall. My Blueberry Nights presents the exact opposite: hard-drinkin’, hard-workin’, hard-livin’ folks who cannot succeed because of their lack of inhibitions, their lack of control, their excess of feeling. The film is not without its flaws. Natalie Portman was woefully miscast as a veteran poker player, Rachel Weisz cannot pull off a believable Tennessee accent, and Norah Jones is a painfully boring nonentity. Otherwise, Jude Law gives a terrific performance as an owner of a New York diner and David Strathairn pulls off the alcoholic Memphis cop thing quite well. In the last decade, America has been criticized for its impetuous behavior, specifically in world affairs. My Blueberry Nights rather boldly posits that there might be something to admire in such a mindset. America as a nation of hope, where one can pick up and move on, grow and change with each shift in scenery. It may not be true, but we can always dream, can’t we?

Speed Racer [The Wachowskis, 2008]

Speed Racer is a bit of an oddity. It clocks in at a hefty 135 minutes, a rather mammoth runtime that could have easily been whittled down by a good half hour, no damage done to its narrative. (The superfluous, endlessly grating shenanigans of the chubby little kid and his chimp companion should have been the first passages to get the snip.) That being said, the Wachowskis deserve a great deal of credit for some of the formal techniques used throughout the film. The opening race establishes that a wipe, traditionally used to convey the passage of time, no longer strictly serves this function alone. The wipe is used universally here, in lieu of standard cuts and dissolves. The race sequences are the film’s most striking and kinetic examples of formal innovation. In one instance, the cars approach the audience by moving across a series of swinging, two-dimensional planes, creating a shorthand for expressing the travel through actual space. Any other filmmaker would’ve simply created a montage of quick images to present the same information. The Grand Prix race eventually turns into a series of borderline abstract images just before its conclusion. This is not a great movie, but boy does it have balls. -Ezekiel Ornelas

Monday, February 8, 2010

Link of the Day: The 100 Best Albums of the Decade


You can't stop what's coming. In seven days, Wild Lines, in partnership with In Review Online, will begin unveiling a (highly subjective) list of the best movies of the 2000s, complete with commentary on each selection and some snazzy original artwork. I'm sure the anticipation is killing you, so tide yourself over with InRo's complimentary music retrospective, The 100 Best Albums of the Decade. It'll be be rolling out all week, counting backwards to Friday, when the top ten will be dramatically revealed. Check back daily for updates. Yours truly is responsible for six of the capsules: an honorable mention, #78, #67, #57,#38, and #8.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Best Scenes of 2009: Final Thoughts


Okay, so remember when I said I was going to put 2009 to rest before the beginning of February? Well, I lied. But this is it, I promise. Really. Out with the old, in with the new, etc. etc. Still gearing up for the big decade project, which I should probably be working on this very instant. Consider this an indulgent act of procrastination and one more belated salute to the long, last year of the decade that was. (Besides, the Skandies just began too.)

Rather than write a short novel on each of the following scenes (as I did here and there) I'm just going to post them and give a very quick rundown of their merits. SPOILERS abound, especially in the discussion of the endings, so heads up there.

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Heartbreak on the Line: two deeply flawed films (The Boys Are Back and A Single Man), two terrific actors emoting into telephone receivers, transmitting their grief to a phantom voice on the other side. In The Boys Are Back, Clive Owen calls his estranged teenage son to tell him that his wife—the stepmother the boy never met—has passed away. Clive loses his composure for a moment (echoes of that great woodland meltdown in Children of Men) before immediately relocating it. A Single Man boasts a flashback that's even more heartwrenching: Colin Firth gets some very bad news broken to him, his shock and overwhelming sadness compounded by the cold rejection of his beloved's family. Both of these films are about men who have been prohibited from publicly grieving the death of a lover—Owens because he has to be "strong" for his youngest son, Firth because he lives in a culture that scorns the type of love he has just lost. These are the sole moments in their respective films where our wounded protagonists let their true feelings slip out. How sad, how resonant to the world we now live in, that these breakdowns can only occur through a safe technological conduit, sent long distance to a disembodied voice on the other end.

I couldn't find The Boys Are Back clip. The scene from A Single Man is posted below, though its tail end is conspicuously absent, an ill-advised trim that effectively eradicates the terrible pregnant silence after Firth hangs up the phone. It's still a bravura bit of acting, of course. This moment also demonstrates director Tom Ford's greatest shortcoming: his insistence on undercutting superb performances with superfluous stylistic gestures. There are two cuts here, both extraordinarily distracting. That Firth's heartache survives them is a testament to his go-for-broke commitment.



Expectation vs. Reality: how appropriate that the best scene in (500) Days of Summer is the one that literally divides the screen into two quadrants, one devoted to naïve fantasy, the other to harsh reality. Isn't that a perfect metaphor for the whole film, which seems divided against itself, its methodologies split evenly between bullshit rom-com convention and razor-sharp insight into the games of love and attraction young people play? There are a few scenes in the movie that employ aesthetic gamemanship to reinforce shrewd thematic conceits. This is the best of them all, a perfectly timed, brilliantly conceived set-piece that demonstrates the sometimes wide discrepancy between how we think an evening will go and how it actually does. And it's the little details here that matter, small mannerisms that speak volumes. The clip is below, unfortunately quite abridged, but you get the idea.



Night Dance to "Night Shift": so much has already been written about this scene, the emotional fulcrum of Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum. It's an obvious pick, but really, what other moment in 2009 cinema defined its conflicts, the complicated relationship between its characters, with such grace and clarity? There are so many beat shifts in this scene, slyly linked to the swapping of dance partners, deeply embedded in the almost-impenetrable facial expressions of its four participants. A great scene in a great movie, and extra points for building something so moving out of a freakin' Commodores song. The clip is below. YouTube fails me again, though. Not only is it a pretty dark transfer (brighten up those monitors, folks) but the crucial final moment—where Joséphine pulls away from her (maybe) former flame, sits down, then instinctively pulls him close again—is missing in action. Fail.



The Sniper Scene: there are so many nerve-shredding, blood-pumping, pulse-pounding set-pieces in Kathryn Bigelow's acclaimed war picture that I was halfway tempted to do a Top Ten Hurt Locker scenes of 2009. The movie is at its queasy best when it's simply tossing us headfirst into the fold, making us the silent fourth man in James' EOD unit. (It's at its worse, incidentally, when it's giving Renner a prototypical "flawed hero" arc. But that's a story for a different piece.) Hard to pick a favorite among the film's breathless skirmishes—car bomb? road bomb? person bomb?—but this is the one I've settled on, largely because it's the best demonstration of how thoroughly these men have been hardwired for the job. Patience and steady nerves is the key, and Renner and Mackie become almost machine-like in their unflappable, steely professionalism. (See: the fly that literally lands on Mackie's unblinking eye.) Clip is below. As usual, it cuts a bit too early, and misses some crucial backend—part of this scene's impact lies in how long the two men sit and wait and watch after they've essentially accomplished the mission. Regardless:



Nic Cage Goes Wild: this one pretty much speaks for itself. If you haven't had the pleasure of partaking in Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call-New Orleans, let me just tell you: the entire movie is like this. Were you to rank the craziest scenes, this would have to fight to make it onto the top ten. Two hours of inspired lunacy.



An Affair To Remember: Jane Campion's Bright Star is a cornucopia of lovely, evocative images, its central romance inflated by sumptuous photography and elliptical montage. I couldn't find a clip of my favorite scene, an everfescent bit of physical comedy where Keats and Fanny kiss behind her sister's back, playfully freezing every time the little girl turns around. I'll settle with these two breathlessly beautiful moments. Get thee to a video store:





He's got a hunger... a hunger for freedom: way back in April, I prematurely proclaimed this scene, from Steve McQueen's Hunger, the year's best. (I wasn't alone.) Watching it again now, I'm almost sure I was right all along. The sequence, a very long conversation between IRA prisoner Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender, who had a hell of a year) and a visiting priest (Liam Cunningham), operates beautifully both in and out of context. Which is to say, it's both essential to the film's architecture and wholly successful as a standalone piece—two superb actors, one room and, for the lion's share of its marathon runtime, one static shot. I've grappled with what feels like an apolitical approach to the film's subject matter; having only seen it in its entirety once, I've yet to make my mind up completely about that. Regardless, this single scene, a debate about the morality of a hunger strike, does a pretty stellar job investing the movie around it with questions. It's also the best bit of acting I saw all year. I'd need another 500 words to extrapolate further, so here instead is the scene, broken into three parts.







The Ending Is the Thing: I've never been one to let a lousy ending spoil a movie for me. Make it all the way to the tail-end of your third act and then blow it, I'll cut you some slack. Hell, it's better than most movies manage. Paradoxically, though, a great ending can really sell a whole film for me—or, at the very least, elevate it significantly in my estimation. In 2008, for example, I did something of a 180 on Waltz With Bashir, a film I was fairly surely I kind of hated while watching... and then its last sixty seconds happened. This final (widely and wildly misunderstood) moment forced me to retroactively reassess everything that came before it. Now that's an ending.

No such dramatically disruptive conclusions this past year, but we did get a few pretty stellar final scenes. (BIG TIME SPOILER ALERT!) Thirst ends on a note of delirious, macabre slapstick, a fight for survival and a race against the sun. Summer Hours passes the metaphoric torch to a younger generation in its rapturous, long-take party sequence, and then gives one of the grandchildren a moment of quiet, melancholy reflection. (Love of rap music aside, the kids are all right.) But it was the year's best film, appropriately enough, that featured the year's most transcendent coda. Tokyo Sonata's titular recital is not just a warm and poignant restoration of the family unit, but also a big show of faith in our collective future. Like the Summer Hours exit, it paves the way for a new generation, but it does that movie one better: not only are the kids all right, they're the key to a better tomorrow, the promise of possibility on the horizon. A salute to art as catharsis, as a survival tool of our nightmare age, Tokyo Sonata's delicate dénouement was so profoundly moving that you could easily overlook its transparently CGI-ed hands. Check it out, keeping in mind that its power lies mainly in whole-film context:



Best of the Rest: as far as I'm concerned, Inglorious Basterd's best scene is not its opening one—though that does crackle with conversational tension—but its looooong, mid-film saloon sequence. It's both supremely suspenseful and completely integral to the film's interests, the telling intricacies of culture and language. It's not just the best scene Tarantino has staged in years, but maybe his best ever. (Couldn't find a clip, natch. It's, like, a half hour long.)

Can a great scene be an actual cut—can it be the space between scenes? If so, Lorna's Silence, a film I didn't especially care for, has a best scene of the year contender. It's pretty difficult to describe, except to say that it deliberately bypasses the pivotal murder of a key character, leaping from a moment of fleeting, outdoor happiness to one of dour, oppressive, indoor guilt. Again, if you haven't seen the movie, you'll have no idea what I'm talking about. Those who have are probably still grappling with the suddenness of this reveal, the jarring dislocation (both moral and narrative) that the cut incurs.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Link of the Day: CRAZY HEART


This month, InRo rolls out it's Best of the Aughts coverage, a pretty massive retrospective of the decade that was. The music list is going live next week, the film one right on its heels. I'll be posting links and updates as they go up, as well as a few supplemental pieces right here at Wild Lines. Can you feel the excitement?!

In the meantime, to tide you over, here's a review of Crazy Heart.