Thursday, December 30

2010: The Year in Review

Last year, I threw some miscellaneous, mostly nonsense "awards" at the end of my Top 15 list, but this year's batch of recognitions is considerably larger, so I decided to give it its own separate post. In an attempt to beat the awards season (and anti-awards season) alternate lists, I'll go ahead and give lists for direction, acting, etc., and then get back to my old style of spotlighting some curious tidbits that caught my eye this year.

I tried to adhere to the usual four nominees and one winner format for the usual awards categories, and I mostly succeeded with some exceptions where I could not help myself. Otherwise, enjoy, and, as ever, feedback is welcome.

Best Director
Olivier Assayas, Carlos

Coordinating multiple location shoots, various languages and a big cast who all have to handled specifically, Olivier Assayas managed to turn out a 330-minute epic in which the huge scale never becomes the focus over the smaller story of a man’s constantly warping idealism and commitment. How he managed to go all over the place and keep his budget at a lean $18 million is impressive enough, but the balance he attains between blockbuster spectacle and character-driven television drama puts Assayas well ahead of any challenger.

Edgar Wright, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
David Fincher, The Social Network
Gaspar Noé, Enter the Void
Miguel Gomes, Our Beloved Month of August

Best Actor
Édgar Ramírez, Carlos

Under almost as much pressure as Assayas, Ramírez commanded the role of Carlos, from his svelte, seductive early years to his end as a fat, vainglorious idiot upset that his arrest will prevent his liposuction instead of fearing incarceration. Ramírez is funny, repugnant, egonmaniacal yet charismatic to the nth degree. You’ll believe that Carlos is the rock star he thinks he is by the end, all thanks to Ramírez.

Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Leonardo DiCaprio, Shutter Island
Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Jeff Bridges, True Grit

Best Actress
Kim Hye-ja, Mother

Despite her age, Kim’s face still resembles that of a doll, and as mad as she proves herself through Bong Joon-ho’s Mother, the flashes of stunted youth when her face pulls tight and removes its few wrinkles are most disturbing of all. Like the film itself, she is darkly funny without being cruel toward her character or the addled son she’s meant to care for. This was a great year for intense female performances, but she stands head and shoulders above the rest, even Binoche’s tortured divorcée and Portman’s psychotic ingénue.

Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
Greta Gerwig, Greenberg
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

Best Supporting Actor
Dominique Thomas, Bluebeard

Though he does not appear often in the film named for him, Bluebeard makes one hell of an impression. Next to the minuscule Lola Créton, the massive Thomas looks even larger, a stocky vision of brutish masculinity whose mere presence launches off half of the film’s sexual themes. But Thomas is not some raging tyrant, and the sadness he puts into his voice when he threatens violence suggests he feels as trapped by gender codes as the young wives he murdered for not completely conforming to socially acceptable behavior for women. That softness makes him believable and tragic, and when Créton undeniably falls for her new beau, the romance is not as absurd as you might think.

Jeremy Renner, The Town
Justin Timberlake, The Social Network
John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone
Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech
Andrew Garfield, The Social Network
Kieran Culkin, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Best Supporting Actress
Dale Dickey, Winter’s Bone

Looking as if she walked out of a Depression-era photograph and grabbed the nearest bag of meth, Dale Dickey is as terrifying in her outsized Greek terror as anything Odysseus faced on his journey home. No one symbolizes the close-knit yet individualistic and unforgiving Ozark community seen in the film like her, and when Dickey creeps her face against Lawrence’s own and croaks that the girl should go on home, one wonders how Ree Dolly could ever defy the order.

Nora von Waldstätten, Carlos
Olivia Williams, The Ghost Writer
Rooney Mara, The Social Network
Ellen Wong, Scott Pilgrim vs the World

Best Original Screenplay
Bong Joon-ho & Park Eun-kyo, Mother

Mother avoids so many pitfalls that it’s script alone is worthy of the effusive praise most reserve for Bong’s directorial side. Only his camera can pull off his mixture of comedy, drama, suspense and oddball humanism, but what's the problem with writing something no one could manage but its creator?

Olivier Assayas & Dan Franck, Carlos
Giorgios Lanthimos & Efthymis Filippou, Dogtooth
Claire Denis, Marie N’Diaye & Lucie Borleteau, White Material
Chris Morris, Jesse Armstrong & Sam Bain, Four Lions

Best Adapted Screenplay
Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network

I mean, no shit. Funny, insightful and moving in ways one would never suspect, Sorkin has delivered his tightest script. After his early film scripts came off as if they were made for television and his television writing displayed a scale that the medium couldn’t contain, he finally gets one of his cinematic works on the big screen, What resulted was the breeziest courtroom -- or at least deposition -- drama I’ve ever seen. Weaving in themes of loneliness, social programming, Ivy League entitlement and more into the deftly paced drama, Sorkin made an old-man rant into something far deeper.

Michael Arndt, Toy Story 3
Roman Polanski, The Ghost Writer
Edgar Wright & Michael Bacall, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini, Winter’s Bone

Best Cinematography
Benoît Debie, Enter the Void

Bolstered by overwhelming but subtly rendered digital effects, Debie’s kinetic, epileptic cinematography makes for an assault on the eyes, an explosion of taste maintained by the graceful fluidity of the camera and the formal daring of the ever-shifting compositions. Debie helped Noé out on his equally beautiful/disgusting Irreversible, and he enjoys the same boost from the less repellent subject matter as the director. It’s a pleasure to watch his work without peering through fingers.

Roger Deakins, True Grit
Yves Cape, White Material
Matthew Libatique, Black Swan
Éric Gautier, Wild Grass
Robert Richardson, Shutter Island
Jeff Cronenworth, The Social Network

Best Editing
Gaspar Noé, Marc Boucrot & Jérôme Pesnel, Enter the Void

Jonathan Amos & Paul Machliss, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Yann Dedet, White Material
Chris Lebenzon & Robert Duffy, Unstoppable
Kirk Baxter & Angus Wall, The Social Network

Best Visual Effects
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Enter the Void
Shutter Island

Best Score
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, The Social Network

How much more can I write about this score? It is a masterpiece until itself, a textured electronic score that does not simply hum and burp but displays a range of emotions that Fincher’s removed aesthetic prevents the characters from expressing. It mixes with the director’s inky blacks to make a near-thriller of Sorkin’s Kane-like intercrossing of narrative. Tense, snarling, somewhat mournful and -- in the case of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” -- uproarious, the Social Network score will go down as one of the great film accompaniments.

Clint Mansell, Black Swan
Alexandre Desplat, The Social Network
Hans Zimmer, Inception
Stuart Staples, White Material

Best Ensemble

Best Short Film
Plastic Bag

In a year that has seen the release of a new Don Hertzfeldt animation, it somewhat pains me not to spotlight the most brilliant animator working today, but Ramin Bahrani’s magical tale of a sentient plastic bag that floats aimlessly through the world searching for its purpose was just a superior achievement. The mise-en-scène of trash drifting through the air and sea raised environmental concerns the director did not stultify with overt preaching. And by casting Werner Herzog as the bag’s voice, its philosophical ramblings take on the importance and gravity of the deepest musing. By turns amusing, political, poetic and heartbreaking, Plastic Bag, like the best of short films, has as much to say as a movie 10 times its length.

Guiltiest Pleasure
Piranha 3D

Until the 3-D biopic of Lady Bathory comes to the big screen, I shall reserve use of the word “bloodbath” for Alexandre Aja’s hilarious glorification of exploitation cinema. Featuring, among other things, a Joe Francis stand-in castrated, Christopher Lloyd in pure exposition mode and endless breasts, my guilty pleasure this year may not be the sly cinematic deconstruction that last year’s pick (the transgressive, brilliant Crank: High Voltage) was, it’s still a riot. I felt the need to scrub my soul afterward, but as goofy sub-satire, I’ve seen a whole lot worse and not a lot better.

Best Trend
Fresh, youthful films by old directors

How amusing it was that, in a year of enjoyable, but often dry, movies, many of the most vibrant films came from directors well into the late stages of their careers. First, Martin Scorsese moved beyond his Oscar-baiting run of the ‘00s with one of his most effervescent stylistic exercises. Abbas Kiarostami continued to play with the idea of “returning” to cinema and with the notion of the director from the oppressive regime going mad in Europe by creating a film that simultaneously fit into the stereotypical Euroart genre and his own canon, and then proceeded to have a laugh with subverting both. Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass was a slight as Shutter Island from a different approach, and as invigorating an entry into the stale genre of romantic comedy as Marty’s movie was for the psychological thriller. Roman Polanski released one of his finest films with The Ghost Writer, while 102-year-old Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira put out the anachronistic yet immediate Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (and that’s last year’s film; his latest, The Strange Case of Angelica, is still on the festival circuit). They may not all be masterpieces, but they were all entertaining and proof that old dogs may not learn new tricks, but why would they need to when they’ve practiced enough that they blow the young pups out of the water?

Worst Trend
The return of the ‘80s

To be fair, our culture's obsession with what may be the worst decade in human history -- if you could show footage of the '80s to 14th century European peasants, they would say thank you but if it's all the same I'll just die of plague, please -- extends far beyond the temporal boundaries of 2010; the '80s have seeped back into our pop culture vernacular throughout the decade. But it reached its nadir this year, with updates of the decade's emptiest bits of entertainment (The A-Team, The Karate Kid, Preadators), unimaginative throwbacks to that decade's wanton cinematic violence (The Losers), horrific appropriations of Reagan-era values of capitalist supremacy (Iron Man 2, Sex and the City 2), and inexplicable returns to Cold War-era Soviet foes (Salt, Iron Man 2 again). Even the movie that worked (Salt) excelled only by focusing on other areas than its tired Soviet fearmongering – in this case its subversive sexual imagery. And I never even did see The Expendables.

Let's consider for a moment what the 1980s really means to us right now: the 1980s means that BP could pass around blame for its oil spill without facing the punishment it should have because of deregulation. The 1980s means Afghanistan still posing a significant threat as insurgents once trained by U.S. agents to drive out the Soviets now use those tactics to drive us out, killing our soldiers and driving up the defense budget. The 1980s means crushing numbers of immigrants because of C.I.A. operations conducted in the '80s that destroyed the infrastructure of Central and South American nations just to prevent communism from taking root (or to protect the interests of American businesses with stakes in these countries), forcing them to accept unfavorable trade agreements and eventually driving now-destitute people to seek a new place to try to eke out some kind of life, that place being America. The 1980s means the current economic crisis, set in motion through the worship of Wall Street and the unchecked power given to those who control the money. The 1980s means the modern Republican Party, poisoned by the religious fundamentalists it courted to win Congress into a spiteful, disgusting body whose gifted and intelligent individuals have been squashed into a conformist nightmare that stymies every bill just to make the other party look bad. Oh, and if you're in my age group, the 1980s means your parents snorting coke, putting on a cassette of Toni Basil’s “Mickey” and conceiving you.

Between all that and the leg warmers, can we all please just shut up about the '80s and stop trying to revive a creatively, socially, politically and ethically barren time in our history? Now, if anyone needs me, I'll be listening to Prince.

Best “How Did They Get That Into a Kid’s Film?” Joke
The “breast hats” in How to Train Your Dragon

Best Deflation of Tension
The “Hey” near the end of Black Swan

Most Surprising Film Reference
The Ikiru nod in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Most Unexpected Bit of Visual Splendor
The “Three Bothers” segment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

One could expect gorgeous, mesmerizing aesthetics from Scorsese or Noé, but David Yates’ primary contribution to the Harry Potter franchise thus far has been to suck what minor visual invention had previously appeared in the film series. But lo, in the middle of what was already the best film of series, Yates makes the humble decision to cede the helm to animator Ben Hibon, who puts a remarkable three-minute sequence on the screen that contained more magic and allure than anything in the franchise to that point. Based on Lotte Reiniger’s silhouette animation, the computer-animated segment was advanced yet medieval, like woodcarvings come to life. My jaw hit the floor when this sequence started, and it stayed there for minutes after the film had moved on.

Biggest Disappointment
127 Hours

Though I have earned my share of snide remarks from some over my enjoyment of Danny Boyle’s frantic, overwhelming direction, I can finally understand their perspective fully with 127 Hours. Taking the emotional, harrowing mental process of a man coming to terms with the necessity of amputating his own arm, Boyle throws out any heart and settles for adolescent, cruel humor, constantly mocking his protagonist as he moves from calm and collected to hallucinating madman. But to phrase it like that would suggest a logically paced evolution of dread instead of a haphazard scramble between fleeting sincerity and editing trickery designed to keep the audience entertained. Not gripped or invested, mind you, just paying attention. At last, Boyle moves to tip his hand, and the aces up his sleeve spill out awkwardly on the table. I was thunderstruck by how bored I was, especially considering how desperately it tries to hook the audience.

Worst Part of a Great Film
Andy’s animation in Toy Story 3

The Pixar animators slyly used the uncanny valley to heighten the level of creepiness of the toddlers who abused our favorite toys, but they failed to make Andy the symbol of longing and unrequited love he was supposed to represent to Woody, Buzz et al. One look into that disturbingly real/unreal face and the magic the film otherwise attained shattered. But damn it all, somehow those Pixar people redeemed themselves at the end, managing to put the final, devastating words into Andy’s mouth and sell the finale beautifully.

Best Part of a Bad Film
Kevin Pollak & Adam Brody in Cop Out

Cop Out suffered from a pat script and a crippling lack of chemistry from its two lead players, but the second double act, between Kevin Pollak and Adam Brody, was fantastic. They commanded every second of time they got, the only people who looked as if they truly had fun the entire way through. By their second all-too-brief appearance, you’ll be wishing the film was about them instead.

Best Trailer
The Social Network

Opening with a montage of eerie close-ups of Facebook surfing set to a choral version of Radiohead’s “Creep,” this perfectly paced short film unto itself builds in intensity until every snide dismissal of “the Facebook movie” is purged with fire. Saying everything and nothing about the film’s true aims, the trailer managed to explode the hype that had started to accumulate behind the derision and helped set the stage for the film’s global press takeover, for better or worse. Now that the dust has settled, I return to the trailer and am still amazed by how much it conveys through the most graceful of elisions and teases. I don’t generally like trailers, but this was as masterful as the full product.

Actually, The Social Network takes the cake for overall marketing. I tend to avoid press as much as possible before I see a movie, but with my favorite tagline in a decade, The Social Network hooked me long before I saw it. The people in charge of selling that film recognized the potential of that tagline, so they made a brilliant poster that worked solely by featuring it. (Even when it was later marred by the wholly unnecessary and absurdly long pullquote from Pete Travers, that poster was dynamite.)

Best Poster
Enter the Void

Psychedelic, intoxicating, slightly off-putting yet utterly engrossing, Enter the Void’s poster encapsulates the film perfectly. With the entire credits of the companies involved listed along the side, even the official stuff adds to the poster’s ability to say everything and nothing, and frankly I’m just writing things right now to hopefully say something more substantive than WHAT IS THIS I DON’T EVEN.

Worst Poster
Sex and the City 2

Gauzy, airbrushed, digitally enhanced and then possibly airbrush again for good measure, it’s a wonder the posters didn’t come out looking like worn Egyptian papyrus from all the tampering that had to have been done to the image that adorned them. Proof positive that the Establishment consumed Lady Gaga’s ironic, sub-avant garde inversion of fashion before she even got off the ground, Carrie’s solid gold glasses reflect less her bright future than a once-burning star now collapsing in on itself in blinding nova. The poster somehow manages to convey the tackiness within while totally avoiding the film’s change of locale to Dubai, which suggests that, like me, even the marketing campaign couldn’t make it halfway through the movie before building their campaign.

Worst movie
The Last Airbender

I considered Sex and the City 2 for this, but thought it was only fair to mention a film I actually managed to finish, since it’s certainly possible that movie did something to redeem itself in the last half. Besides, I’m fascinated with M. Night Shyamalan: somehow, he has managed to make his fourth film in a row worse than his previous one. What's more, each of the other three stank so badly that, in all cases, we all allowed ourselves to think, "Well, he's got nowhere to go but up." Following the downright laughable execution of what was meant to be a commentary on man's relationship with the planet in the form of a thriller, Night appeared genuinely shaken by The Happening. The ego that had led him to ignore the whispers of dissent over the ending of Signs and write an even worse conclusion for The Village, the same self-absorption that even drove him to cast himself in his execrable Lady in the Water as a master storyteller whose work could save the world, dissipated. He took on a project that had "studio job" written all over it in an attempt to rebuild some of the reputation he enjoyed with his back-to-back hits a decade earlier.

That's what makes The Last Airbender's failure all the more overwhelming, even enraging, than his others. Having rid himself of the one trait that supporters pinpointed as a tragic flaw, Shyamalan reveals himself to be just as clueless, stilted and inept with someone else's established work as he is with his self-penned scripts. Catering to Hollywood's racial bias in casting, The Last Airbender's slights extend beyond all ethnic barriers. Every line describes what is happening in the frame, save for the few that come from outer space in the ill-fitting inanity. The story never stops for reflection, yet it drags mercilessly. And when the time comes for action scenes, Night takes shortcuts as if he ran out of money, which might explain why a $150 million film features such shoddy visual effects. The low-rent conversion to 3-D after production serves as the glue holding together the bad visuals, writing and acting, truly creating one of the unpleasant experiences I've suffered at the movies, rivaled only by Michael Bay's Transformers 2.

Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2010
Hi, Mom!; The Intruder; Platform; Red Desert

Best Film Just Now Getting a U.S. Release in 2010 But Came Out Years Ago
Secret Sunshine (full review forthcoming)

Films I’m Most Looking Forward to in 2011
Tree of Life, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Poetry, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Meek’s Cutoff, Paul, Take Shelter, The Grandmasters, A Dangerous Method, Red State, The Turin Horse, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

The Top 20 Films of 2010

Few, if any, would argue that 2010 offered as many cinematic delights as last year, a particularly damning comparison since most critics railed against 2009’s own slate of films at the time. I happen to think last year served up some keenly underappreciated fare, whether it was Inglourious Basterds, the finest piece of termite art posting as white elephant spectacle since Gangs of New York, or an adroitly observed coming-of-age dramedy boosted by tone-perfect actors and one of the best soundtracks ever (Adventureland). Granted, with the exception of The Hurt Locker, the Oscar-bait fell flat, but 2009 had copious offerings for those who knew where to look.

The same is true for 2010, of course, but there weren’t nearly as many nooks to examine. Monetary concerns limited my access to the theater -- even with Netflix rentals and the occasional screener, I logged fewer than 60 films, a sizable step down from last year’s 80. The lack of spare cash ensured I sought out only the films that interested me, not simply everything I could take in, and even with that in mind I only found about 25-28 films that I fully enjoyed even after I distanced myself from them a bit. However, when it came time to whittle the list down, I remembered why I enjoyed so many of these movies and, as ever, forming a list proved harder than I would have thought. Rather than use all kinds of warped justifications for maintaining a top 10 while including even more movies, I've decided to simply list the 20 best, even though I could still stand to add a few. These were the delights of a disappointing year, a combination of sensual delights and intellectually rigorous features that teased and pleased long after the dust settled from their viewings. Without further ado, let's get down to it. (All entries contain links to their respective reviews.)

1. Certified Copy

A typical European art romance that is rendered anything but conventional, Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy represents the boldest examination of the Iranian director’s blend of reality and fiction since his early ‘90s work. Juliette Binoche walks the line between sanity and madness as she teases us with the possibility that the man she just met may be her estranged husband. Kiarostami has an uncanny ability to delve into the intellectual realm of metaphysics at will, but to do so in such a way that he uses the layers of reality to map a path to the purest human emotion. The commentary he makes on love, loss and art are provocative, but Certified Copy’s true power lies in its searing insight into pain.

2. Carlos

Ironically, Olivier Assayas' five-and-a-half-hour epic serves to show how fleeting fame and notoriety really is. Carlos the Jackal is a joke, a self-absorbed attention junkie whose radial politics are quickly subsumed into the creation of his own myth, a myth that dies like an old god when the world moves beyond him. For all the farce and irony of Carlos’ slow, unimpressive downfall, there is a serious statement on the way that radical politics always get absorbed and forgotten. Timothy McVeigh and Eric Robert Rudolph have already become footnotes in less than a decade, and the best a radical can hope for is that the memory lives on long enough to become mainstream. After all, the Founding Fathers were freedom fighters, and who invokes them these days but the most reactionary members of society?

3. The Social Network

For something derided long before its release as “The Facebook Movie,” The Social Network has almost nothing to do with social networking. Instead, it focuses on the mindset behind organizing one’s life online: Facebook is merely the extension of tools that allow someone as driven but awkward as Mark Zuckerberg to reconfigure the minefield of social maneuvering into the more rigid, clearly defined hierarchy of professional coding. One could argue that an alternate title for the movie might be “White People Problems: The Motion Picture,” but The Social Network breaks through Fincher’s remove to sympathize with the terrors of defining oneself in a globally connected world. Not even the well-deserved condescension leveled at the vicious entitlement on display can undermine that.

4. Bluebeard

Catherine Breillat drops her shock and awe and goes for straight storytelling. Hilariously, she ends up with one of her most devastating commentaries on gender relations and the cage into which women are routinely placed. Never has an Elektra complex been so glaring, with the petite farm girl pouring out all her issues with her father onto the gargantuan creature that is Bluebeard. Breillat’s static tableaux recall the old scrolls that used to tell epic tales centuries ago, but they also make plain the erotic undertones inherent in each composition. Quietly hilarious, gently terrifying and wholly brilliant, Bluebeard is so masterful I went from skeptic to Breillat faithful in just 80 minutes.

5. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

At once a return to Edgar Wright’s stomping grounds (it heavily recalls the sensitive but surreal sitcom Spaced) and an aesthetic marvel that not only represents Wright’s biggest leap forward but an impressive progression of the capabilities of commercial cinema, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is an avant-garde work posing as blockbuster. Its cinematic quotation ranges from Phantom of the Paradise (Jason Schwartzman’s villain looking and sounding like Paul Williams’ producer) all the way up to Ikiru (the swing set in the cold, black night), and its mash-up of comic book, video game and Saturday morning cartoon is exhilarating. I’ve devoted more viewings of this film than any other in 2010, and while it has its limitations, it’s rare to get progressive cinema that also happens to be an utter joy to watch endlessly.

6. True Grit

The Coen brothers remove their snarl but not their bite. True Grit pulls off a coup, bypassing the 1969 original to more faithfully transcribe the actual source novel, it honors the material even as it subverts it without ironic commentary. Under their piercing lens (made all the more haunting and elegiac by Roger Deakins’ cinematography), Mattie Ross’ quest for revenge is emotionally resonant but also self-defeating and deliberately undercut. John Wayne’s drunken but lovable Rooster is replaced by Jeff Bridges’ repellent, mumbling alcoholic who can attain redemption only through kindness, not the glorified bloodshed of the original. When Michael Dukakis was mocked for his liberal views on justice when someone asked him what he’d do if his wife were raped and murdered, most agreed he should have responded that he’d want to flay the man alive but that such feelings were proof of the necessity of an impartial system. True Grit visualizes this: it empathizes with pain and rage, never condemns people for feeling bloodlust at being wronged, but it also demonstrates how vengeance and sadism consume those who channel them. It is not the Coen brothers’ finest meditation on moral reckoning, but it is certainly their most magical and touching.

7. The Ghost Writer

From its stark but unconventional opening, Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer is an exercise in style par excellence, a thriller that delights in confounding its audience just to play with them even as it serves as a potent political fable in the age of Guantanamo and legalized torture. For a Holocaust survivor to gently but devastatingly point out the fascist policies in Western democratic powers make his attack all the more vicious, and even the slight air of self-martyrdom for America’s view of Polanski’s cannot bring down the larger political view. For two hours, one of the world’s most acute directors traps us behind glass, putting us in the same situation as the unnamed ghost writer who edits memoirs in front of a massive, transparent wall that reveals but obscures by playing tricks on us. It’s the dominant visual metaphor of a film that always finds a way to surprise and enrapture by showing everything and nothing all at once.

8. Toy Story 3

You can accuse me of being its target audience, but since when has an animated film been squarely aimed at the collegiate young adult? Toy Story 3 builds upon the second film’s existential musings with a heartbreaking rumination on the nature of letting go and moving on. The vibrancy of its color palette turns a limited number of locations into myriad of shifting moodscapes, while the climax brings back an element of horror to family-friendly viewing the like of which could challenge even Coraline for pure suspense. The ending is poignant and affirming in its tragic tone, a release that sidesteps the arrogance of equating its characters with the whole of Gen-Y childhood and earns its tears. When you get down to it, Toy Story 3 is as relevant to its young audience as The Social Network.

9. Our Beloved Month of August

A failed movie-cum-documentary-cum-revamped fictive film, Miguel Gomes’ Our Beloved Month of August frames questions of truth vs. fiction in ouroboric terms, compounding an otherwise sweet, if warped, comedy into one of the more provoking entries in reflexive cinema. Gomes may portray himself on-screen as a pretentious hack whining out in the forest, but his graceful and curious overview of the rural Portuguese landscape and the characters who populate it is anything but removed. Sashaying and twirling as if caught up in the irresistible dance of the rollicking, romantic folk music that plays throughout, Our Beloved Month of August is one of the year’s most delightful films, even as it is also one of the smartest and most evocative.

10. Black Swan

If it is ultimately as shallow a psychosexual commentary as Enter the Void, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan also channels that film’s spellbinding construction. The missing link between the garbled but fitfully poetic The Fountain and Aronofsky’s first genuinely emotive film (The Wrestler), Black Swan fails to say anything all that provocative but succeeds wildly in portraying the exaggerations of stage fright, repression and the effects of a parent’s living vicariously through children. Natalie Portman has never been better, funnily enough because she’s never been so loose and sloppy. It mash-up of early Polanski claustrophobia and Red Shoes phantasmagoria has no right to work, and perhaps in a way it doesn’t, but this is a powerful movie that kept me more spellbound than a number of films I would say were “deeper.” As with The Wrestler, Black Swan is essentially constructed from various clichés. When put together, however, it is vastly greater than the sum of its parts, a vivid, unique experience that practically left me stuck in a blob to the theater ceiling by the end.

11. Shutter Island

After months of consideration, I’ve decided that the Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle I most enjoyed this year is, when you get down to it, the more oneiric of his two hallucinogenic movies. Shutter Island is a barnstorming return to form for Martin Scorsese, who finally won his Oscar, of course, by watering down his style and themes to something that the average teenager and disinterested adult could digest and quote without thinking. Shutter Island is alive, his most vibrant since Bringing Out the Dead and his most meaningful and moving since the messy, beautiful Gangs of New York. Scorsese takes the Master of Suspense and recontextualizes Hitchcock’s style around an emotional core, leading us on a wild-goose chase to a predictable ending with an unpredictable resonance. Just because it’s a B-movie doesn’t mean it isn’t a sharply made work, and Shutter Island makes me look forward to Scorsese’s next decade of filmmaking more than nearly anything in the last one.

12. Inception

It may have dropped somewhat in my estimation since I first saw it back in July, but Chrisopher Nolan’s ambitious dreams-as-filmmaking allegory/weirdo heist movie allows the director to literalize a dreamscape while still playing just out of reach. For all the headiness of its exposition, Inception works primarily on an emotional level, from the protagonist’s inability to let go of his guilt -- woefully misidentified as reductive sexism when clearly Dom is the one being judged for his failure -- to the inception itself, an emotional release for the tormented heir who would gladly give up the secrets Dom usually steals to get his father’s love. Even when Nolan’s movies have holes (and they all do), his desire to tell epic, intelligent stories in a way that encourages the mainstream to actually think about what they’re seeing is commendable. Besides, isn’t part of the nature and frustration of dreams that some things just never add up?

13. Winter’s Bone

An intimate epic, Winter’s Bone has been derided by some -- and by some I of course mean Armond White -- as a “white Precious.” But where that film preyed on stereotypes and exploitation to get at a wholly un-earned “happy” ending, Debra Granik’s sophomore feature digs into cardboard characters to get to the human traits that eventually became stereotypes, straddling the line between Gothic, apocalyptic thriller and chilly but invigorating character study. Magnificent turns from character actors such as Dale Dickey and John Hawkes flank a powerhouse performance from Jennifer Lawrence, almost as big a breakout start this year as Christoph Waltz was in 2009. She breaks the mold and facilitates the humanization of character types, all the while commanding attention on her quixotic quest. Downbeat but far from nihilistic, this is a story about perseverance and sacrifice that recognizes the small yield for great effort, but decides that the alternative is too horrible to consider.

14. White Material

The weakest of Claire Denis’ last three films is still a superior work by one of the world’s greatest living directors, a political tract that never lapses into full polemics thanks to the grace of her camera. White Material, like The Intruder and 35 Shots of Rum, works chiefly as a tone poem, its haunting imagery functioning in the magic realist realm and drawing an almost spiritual response from docudrama. Denis can turn the pedestrian into the poetic, the concrete into the abstract. White Material is no less masterful than her previous works, and it has a reason for not touching us as profoundly and emotionally as her last movie.

15. Enter the Void

Its plot may be all but nonexistent and its sexual commentary little more than a host of skin-deep Freud, but one typically doesn’t go deeper than a few inches when sex is on the brain. Enter the Void is the first Gaspar Noé film that is watchable, which isn’t necessarily a condemnation of his confrontational Irreversible but at least opens the option of getting his commanding formal daring without the urge to vomit. A phantasmagorical romp through the afterlife, Enter the Void makes bold, original use of digital effects, layering explosions of colors and light over Tokyo’s already vibrant cityscape. For all the misleading emptiness of its psychological ramblings, the film makes up for it by presenting them in evocative visual terms instead of clunky speech, and the results are surprisingly moving for a film I think I should hate but feel I love. I’ve thought about Enter the Void incessantly since I saw it, and that’s gotta count for something, right?

16. Mother

What I neglected to sufficiently mention in my full review of Bong Joon-ho’s latest is that, despite the black comedy and the impeccable suspense, the most striking feature of the Hitchcockian twist Mother is how graceful and sympathetic it is. The same fluidity that permits Bong from moving seamlessly between comedy and drama also allows him to poke fun with genre conventions while withholding any bile for its touching, if deeply disturbing, parental relationship. A deft hand guides the swirling moods, and if nothing else, Mother further shames me for not getting around to this South Korean maestro sooner.

17. Unstoppable

Tony Scott’s most solid piece of entertainment in ages may not reach the emotional and intellectual heights of his compromised masterpiece Déjà Vu, but it demonstrates just how smart he can be even at his most gloriously thick. Unstoppable is a rush, but its statements on corporate fat cats who balk at doing the right thing because of how much it could cost them -- even when the wrong thing will ultimately cost them so much more -- are blistering without being polemical. But it’s the ingenious digs at the embarrassment of the 24-hour news cycle that most entertained me, a satirical lashing of the lengths reporters will go to for a good bit of TV and how quickly they will abandon the chase when something approaching actual journalism is involved. Taken with the believable chemistry between Denzel Washington and Chris Pine that keeps the main plot chugging along, these political touches elevate an already exhilarating film beyond the simplistic limitations so many action films operate within for no reason.

18. Wah Do Dem

Oh, to go back to November 4, 2008, the night when anything seemed possible, when the world loved us again after Bush had torn foreign relations to tatters. This anti-mumblecore feature slyly captures the cessation of American isolation, if only for a moment, on that night. Its protagonist, a New York hipster played by a real-life New York hipster, takes a cruise to Jamaica, where mishaps force him out of his self-absorbed shell and incorporate him into local life of Jamaica (never so vividly captured by American cameras). It culminates in a bar on election night, and the screams of seemingly the entire country when Obama’s name is called is as beautiful proof as any that, for one night, we truly were all Americans. A beautiful subversion of isolated, hip mumblecore that also reminds us of one of the most uplifting moments in recent history.

19. Wild Grass

Alain Resnais' delightfully whimsical, darkly humorous romantic comedy breaks about as many rules as Gaspar Noé, Darren Aronofsky and Martin Scorsese did with their respective descents into the subjective. By placing the rampaging id into the body of an older gentleman, he better exposes the absurdity of our baser desires, but he also adds an amusing false front of respectability. It's a shaggy-dog story to the nth degree, but any regular reader of this blog knows how I love my shaggy dogs. There is a massive gap in my Resnais knowledge, but this makes me as eager to catch up with his filmography as his '60s work.

20. How to Train Your Dragon

After stopping their free-fall descent into sub-mediocrity and endless puns with Kung Fu panda, Dreamworks Animation finally delivered a film to challenge a number of Pixar movies, even if that studio stole the thunder by releasing one of their finest works a few months later. How to Train Your Dragon rips up its source material, switching a Viking tribe's actions toward dragons from domestication to genocide, allowing for the emergence of a kinder soul to teach the wisdom and advantage of living in harmony. It knows to make humans goofy enough to avoid the uncanny valley (something the Toy Story franchise still stuck to through the end -- Andy bordered on the terrifying), and the animation of the dragons is wonderfully varied to show off a host of different creatures. But beneath it all is a message of looking beyond the feeling that you're supposed to hate something or someone just because your community always has, and that we are stronger and happier for reaching out to others in understanding and friendship. What better message could there be for a child in such turbulent times?

Films I Wish I’d Seen Before Making This List
Alamar, I Love You Philip Morris, Inside Job , Another Year, Everyone Else, Blue Valentine, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Poetry, Film Socialisme, Amer

(Miscellaneous awards coming soon...)

The King's Speech

Though it features the sort of rousing, uplifting score one expects for a movie about an underdog overcoming an obstacle, the dominant sonic motif in Tom Hooper's The King's Speech is a light, choked gargle, the sound of the base of the tongue splashing around the back of the throat in tremulous preparation for a performance it would like nothing more than to not give. The tongue in question belongs to Albert Frederick Arthur George, the Duke of York and second in line of succession to the king of England, a man whose stammer might never had been an issue were he blessed with the good fortune to have been born before the popularization of radio.

The film opens in 1925, at the closing of the Empire Exhibition at Wembley. Albert's father, King George V (Michael Gambon), charges him with delivering the closing speech on radio, himself and the primary heir to the throne, Prince Edward, having already made their wireless debuts. As he arrives, his wife and their confidants reassure Albert that he will do wonderfully, but the look of fear in his eyes creates a tense mood before he even says a word. At last, aides send him in front of the microphone at the head of the stands, and all in the audience turn reverently to hear him. The pause is deafening, and when Albert finally speaks, the crackled stutters that escape his lips echo through the sound system, mocking him as the crowd maintains their respectful silence but look around uncomfortably in that way people need to make eye contact to share pain but must also avoid it at all costs to prevent an errant titter.

It's an excruciating moment, and as someone who does not stammer but has often felt the hot sting of apprehension -- no, pure, unrelenting terror -- at the simple notion of public speaking, the seemingly contradictory combination of agoraphobia and claustrophobia that creeps into the mise-en-scène rang painfully true. Of course, the damned thing about a stammer or any other display of anxiety is that, once aware that others have picked up on the trait, the sufferer can never right, spiraling further into a pit of self-revulsion and embarrassment that magnifies the first slip into a cascade of tics and halting pronunciation. The first scared pause, the dreaded "ums" and "likes," never come in one aberration. They only ever lead to more mistakes.

Humiliated by the experience, Albert tries a series of speech therapists, all of whom display a knowledge of medicine so arcane one expects them to break out leeches and suggest a blood-letting. As ashamed by the experiences of failing with countless doctors as the public performances themselves, Albert swears off speech therapy and banks on a public life held largely out of view as his father and elder brother can handle the speeches. But the king knows better. He realizes that an occasional appearance in procession with a regal wave will no longer do; with every household turning to radio for news, entertainment, and general social guidance, it is imperative that the royal family take advantage of the airwaves lest they become an inanimate relic alongside the other trinkets in their castles for fat American tourists to come marvel at year after year. "We've been reduced to the most vile and loathsome profession of all: actors," sighs the king with grim irony.

Behind Albert's back, his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), finds a middle-class therapist, one Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Whatever danger this movie was in of being a stuffy period drama is obliterated by Rush's entrance, heralded by a toilet flush before that magnificent mass of a head enters the frame and, unaware of who Elizabeth really is, makes plain, frank chat with her. His puckish grin, mischievous bow tie (and since when has a bow tie been mischievous?) and quick wit disarm the somber proceedings instantly, though it's just as amusing to see his boyish looks blanch when his upfront candor is returned in kind and Elizabeth reveals her identity and that of her husband.

The scenes between Lionel and Albert -- or Bertie, as his family (and Lionel, to his extreme annoyance) call him -- play as a tug-of-war between stale, Academy-pleasing montage of uplift and determination and something fresher, more spontaneous. Lionel insists on a first-name basis to make his therapy work, and his direct manner so stuns the royal member used to even his closest advisers speaking to him with reverence and cowed expression that he starts answering back in spite of himself. Rush's humor is infectious; Bertie tells him about the other doctors who prescribed cigarettes to relax the lungs, to which Lionel replies, "They're idiots." "They're all knighted," replies Bertie smugly. "That makes it official, then," says Lionel with a wide grin.

Rush and Firth attain an instant chemistry that shows off each individually but also creates a certain hollowness when they're apart. Rush, with his giant, triangular face, is at once boyish and refined, his elocution and perfect diction clashing with his more laid-back attitude. He plays off Firth, who once again gives a fantastic performance. Like Tilda Swinton, Firth is seemingly incapable of giving anything less than a mesmerizing performance, and he's the sort of person who can oscillate between homely and strikingly beautiful depending on they compose themselves. Firth spends most of the film contorted in mental agony, squashing his throat into a makeshift double chin as if compressing a bellow, hoping to stoke the words out of his lungs. He looks uncomfortable with the very thought of existence, his eyes darting nervously even when secluded from the public eye.

Had Hooper the confidence to stay entirely with their interplay, The King's Speech might have deserved the fevered hype that has greeted its release. But he gets mired in the cliché of the genre. His edits border on the sporadic at times, eliding over the more intimate and affecting moments to get to necessary stopgaps in plot. Bound to tell the historical narrative, Hooper must devote time to Prince Edward, a feckless, irresolute cad governed by his emotions, all of which are petulant and self-centered. Casting Guy Pearce in the role makes all the Australian jokes lobbed at Lionel throughout the film that much more amusing, but not even Pearce can work with the weakling. Nothing exposes the ludicrous nature of the monarchy like Edward's ascension and ultimate abdication of the throne: he falls in love with an American woman working on her second divorce, and his passions lead him to propose marriage. As the head of the Church of England, the king could not marry a divorcée, and what's more, neither the characters nor the people behind the camera suggest his rashness comes from true love. And so, Edward drains the film's middle section, simply occupying time until he can at last drop out and let his younger brother assume the throne.

Furthermore, Hooper and writer David Seidler get stuck with the proposition of successfully building dramatic tension to the titular speech, delivered when Britain declared war on Germany. Though Lionel features prominently and the camera spends some time in his modest domicile, this is a film that essentially roots itself in the hermetically sealed world of the monarchy, a faded, anachronistic relic that effectually ended long before the Russian tsars and German emperors mentioned nervously as Albert and others ponder the fate of the dynasty. But this creates the issues of building social tension through the group of people most oblivious to popular malaise and the nuances of international relations. After all, this monarchy sent its subjects to die en masse in the previous Great War even though they, being of inbred "pure" stock, were related to the German nobility they were meant to be opposing. The film wouldn't work if it suddenly sprang WWII on the audience without tying Albert's story to the mounting international turbulence, but it also seems clumsy for the characters to mention him only in the most terse and suggestive way possible, as they do throughout the 30s before Albert becomes George VI. Only when war is at England's doorsteps do the references to "Herr Hitler" becomes anything less than thudding moments of forced relevance in an otherwise sharp script.

The film has its other flaws. For the note-perfect work from the main cast, some of the supporting parts, though played by heavyweights border on the laughable. Timothy Spall, my dear Timothy, puts in such a bad Churchill impersonation I kept waiting for, Monty Python-style, someone to walk in from behind the camera and say, "No, stop, this has gotten far too silly." Derek Jacobi plays the Archbishop of Canterbury, one of the more morally superior to hold the position, as an unctuous but snippy sycophant, wanting to be villainous without being able to twist the real man that far without snapping him from his base in reality. Long after Hooper's direction settles into its refined grace and settles the aesthetic issues near the start, these two drag down all of their scenes. Taken with some of the more obvious lines, these nagging issues too often distract from the keen, hilarious and moving double act shared by Rush and Firth and expertly moderated by Carter.

Yet if The King's Speech is ultimately unable to transcend the restrictive boundaries of its awards-baiting genre, it overcomes any disappointment by being so full of verve and energy that it at least stretches those confines to the breaking point. This is the kind of film made to show off its actors, but the main players are all so excellent that they would all deserve awards, were they given based on merit instead of marketing ability. Fortunately for the cast and crew, The King's Speech has enjoyed plenty of that as well. I do not think the term "Oscar-bait" necessarily connotes a bad film, but it does speak to the increasingly stale formula guaranteed to please the artistically conservative members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. What typically makes an Oscar-bait film unbearable is when it was clearly made to reap platitudes.

The King's Speech works because it cares for its characters and understands the symbolic but vital importance of George VI. A whole other movie could be made about the courage he and his wife displayed during the war, never leaving London even when a bomb went off at Buckingham Palace. The pauses he put into his speeches as he ensured each word came out clearly gave his voice a solemn gravity, and though his inspiration gets overlooked in favor of Churchill, George too played a key role in the war effort. Rush's Lionel looks compassionately but sternly upon his subject, aware that Albert could be a great man if he could only get over his fears. It is a testament to how well Rush goads Albert and how well Firth responds that, when the speech came at last, though I knew the ending, a tiny knot had formed in my stomach. Whatever else holds back the film, that effect was earned, and this break from the usual, priggish nature of period drama made The King's Speech an unexpected pleasure to watch.

127 Hours

I have previously been open to the occasionally vicious criticism leveled at Danny Boyle. I can sympathize with those who say Sunshine falls apart in the third act though I feel that was the only logical development of the story to that point, or with the Slumdog Millionaire detractors who say it's too glitzy a look at extreme poverty and it appropriates Dickens' optimism and sentimentality without the keen, detailed eye for social commentary that kept his stories serious (though I tend to view those calling Slumdog racist with much more skepticism). At last, I am faced with what must seem de rigeur for the haters: 127 Hours is shameless, garish and so falsely confident that its air of smug self-assurance only makes the experience more intolerable.

The story of Aron Ralston, the man who got trapped while hiking alone and -- SPOILER ALERT! -- ultimately amputated his own crushed arm so he might get to safety, 127 Hours gets off to a particularly offensive and callous start with an inexplicable series of split-screen shots showing people engaged in activity that prominently features hands. Whether it's crowds waving (or doing The Wave) or swimmers cutting through the water with their arms moving in angular precision, these moments seem an odd, cruel jab at Ralston, conveying no sense of foreboding, only a sneering irony. The shots continue as the film's Aron (James Franco) suddenly takes over one of the three strips of film on the screen, rapidly packing a backpack full of snacks and some gear as he prepares to head out to Blue John Canyon in Utah. In the final moment of hyperkinetic foreboding, the camera stays inside a cupboard as Aron's hand blindly fishes around for a Swiss Army knife that stays just out of his reach. Without peering in to have a look, Aron shrugs and moves on, throwing his crap in a beat-down truck and heading out to the wilderness before the sun breaks.

Out at the canyon, Aron tears across the place on a bike for 17 miles before hopping off and going for a run. He meets and entertains two young women (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) before setting off again on his own. He climbs around a bit and tries to ease his way down a moderately deep crevasse when the rock he puts weight on snaps from its perch and sends him plummeting. The rock comes to a stop when the canyon walls narrow, and it just so happens to stop with Aron's right arm pinned between it and the wall. Ten minutes or so in, and the title card flashes on-screen. Set your

The initial moments of Aron's attempts to free himself may be the only seconds of the film that work, the hand-held camera shuddering with every shove and grunt he makes attempting to pry his hand out from beneath the stone. It captures a feeling of helplessness, claustrophobia and the dread of morbid realization more acutely than anything else in the 85 or so minutes left in the film's running time. Never again does it so viscerally take hold of emotions, nor even does it find the same encroaching feeling of the walls closing in, though one would normally expect such moods to enhance as time wears on.

Even at 97 minutes, 127 Hours is a bit long for a story that can be essentially summarized as, "Man gets trapped, stays there a few days, cuts off arm, Fin." To keep the audience's attention, he throws every trick he's ever learned into the mix. Water deprivation leads to reveries, then outright hallucinations, on Aron's part. Apropos of the aesthetic curbs from music videos and commercials, Aron's fantasies of liquid refreshment contain such product placement that one wonders why any of these companies let their stuff get shown. What odd marketing strategy is Pepsi devising for Mountain Dew now? (The lack of capitalization on Snickers' "Need a Moment?" campaign was a missed opportunity, though.)

These fantasies are themselves dull and distracting, but their worst contribution is the annihilation of the mood Boyle managed to capture in seconds, that desperate isolation and fear. Having gone along willingly, gleefully, with his previous films, I would easily have fit into the film's cramped groove had it bothered to stay with it for even a moment. But hell no; if it's not a fantasy devised as commercial, it's a mad morning talk show playing out entirely in Aron's head. Perhaps there's a commentary in here on the depth to which pop culture has invaded our thought process, to the point that even an unspooling brain can regurgitate nuggets of entertainment-infused semi-coherence, but the truth is likely no more complex than Boyle wanting to dump out the contents of his own mind onto Ralston.

To be sure, Aron is Boyle's ultimate stand-in, a brash, cocksure young man who is so smart he does not always realize how stupid he can be. (Not even Jake Cole, erstwhile committed fan of Mr. Boyle, would go out of his way to defend The Beach.) Aron loves to film himself, unburdening himself of being accountable with another party present but damned sure to bring back something he can use to brag to others with. His loopy, obnoxious playfulness can be charming when kept on a tether, but at his worst he comes off as a simpering child. Even at his best, Boyle has always flirted with this side of his own personality, and the biggest delight of Sunshine and Slumdog Millionaire, in this writer's opinion, is the manner in which he veers ahead of his flaws to maintain the giddier aspect of his boyishness. But this, this is interminable. I felt guilty for looking upon a man forced to drink his own urine and stare at his putrefying arm as a whiny brat, but not even the endlessly charming James Franco could salvage Boyle's self-portrait of the Dorian Gray variety.

Careening from arduous pacing to attention-deficit, bordering on epileptic frenzy with all the flow of a sputtering faucet, 127 Hours employs so many tricks that it never places faith in its own material, much less the audience to invest emotionally in Aron's plight. Ralston routinely checks his watch as he tracks how long he's been in the crevasse. Sometimes, hours pass in the blink of an eye; in other moments, Aron comes out of his torpor, only to find that mere seconds have elapsed. One sympathizes. By a certain point, I found myself thinking, "Oh, just cut you arm off already. How much more must I suffer?"

Boyle makes the film a grueling ordeal, but never in the manner it should be. The material does not lend itself to cinema, but Boyle trusts Ralston's story less than it deserves. He frames the actual narrative as one of pure inspiration, not a hard-won determination that arises from Ralston's actual story but a lump of incoherent flashbacks and visions that suddenly dump into one of the sleaziest, exploitative "uplifting" endings I've ever seen. A.R. Rahman's score is bombastic, intrusive and nearly as clumsy as Boyle's direction, which is almost an accomplishment. Whenever Franco, the lone bright spot in the film, if an overhyped one, starts to convey a genuine panic and a creeping sense of resignation, Rahman's score forces the point, destroying any subtlety, any humanity, that might have taken root.

At least Boyle captures some aspects of the story that stuck out when I first heard it on a news documentary some years back. The real Ralston discussed the ordeal and mentioned the first time he plunged his dull knife into his crushed hand and heard a terrible hiss of escaping gas. Boyle preserves that, though that horrible sound is frustratingly buried in numerous other sounds. Also, Ralston's mention of cutting through the nerve cluster, frustratingly the one part of his arm that still worked, sent shivers down my spine when he related it. Boyle both honors and bungles that moment as well, using an electronic, crackling feedback to suggest pain where he never did before. But there are simply no stakes in the entire amputation, no build-up to the moment where a man decides to maim himself to live. Boyle's Aron simply wallows around in a hallucinatory stupor, and then he suddenly gets to work hacking off that arm, as if to say, "Oh to hell with it, there's a new CSI on tonight."

Nothing in 127 Hours couldn't be said by a PSA featuring Smokey the Bear or some other equivalent wildlife mascot. "Hey kids, Climby the Mountain Goat says don't go hiking without a buddy and an emergency beacon! Not telling people where you're going is a baaaah-d idea!" It has the temerity to beat up its audience for 90 minutes, then tell them they should feel helpful. A "where are they now?" credit at the end suggested that the recurring vision of a child that appeared before Aron, the vision that motivated him to keep going, came true when he married years later and had a son just this year. I'm sure we're supposed to be touched by this moment, but the clumsiness of saying "Aron's premonition came true" when he eventually had a son (that most likely did not look like the one he envisioned, is indicative of the lazy stabs Boyle makes. If I had a dream about making a sandwich and eventually made one, I wouldn't believe in the power of the subconscious.

For a film receiving so much acclaim, I was surprised, if pleased, to note that the general audience reaction matched my own. As people shuffled out of the theater, they remarked to each other how glad they were it was over. Not that they'd been drained, that they felt Aron Ralston's story. They were just happy to be able to leave. Maybe that is the entire point of 127 Hours, to punish its audience until they want to tear off their own limbs to get away. But the sheer, unrelenting boredom surely could not have been the manner in which he intended to torment us. All his worst ideas, from his scatalogical fetish (a "urine cam" showing stowed waste being sucked down for nourishment is especially heinous) to his ill-advised use of flashbacks, are presented without the goofy, gonzo charm that normally balances them out. I have embraced Boyle's spastic rhythms before, and I imagine I shall again, but 127 Hours is one of the most unpleasant experiences I've had in a long time, not because of its grueling material but because of its abhorrent, exploitative, manipulative and hypocritical nonsense. Perhaps I can take a leaf from Boyle's erratic style and shift suddenly from pleonastic scribbling to more direct terms: Fuck this movie. The end.

Wednesday, December 29

I Am Love

I Am Love combines beautiful evocations from various media -- art, design, fashion, opera and especially food -- yet it never offers much lucid inspection of any one of them, and the whole is too messy to gel into a working film. It wants to be operatic, elegiac on the epic scale of Visconti's The Leopard. But that was a film that never let its passion dip below a rolling boil; Luca Guadagnino has made his film in a time wherein "melodrama" has become a four-letter word, so he attempts to cover his bases by trapping the swirling emotions this type of film should contain underneath the glacier of classical European art drama.

The opening shots underline this split, as the camera moves through images of post-industrial factories blanketed in snow with the ornate scrawl of the title card placed over the drab backdrops. These shots are graceful but unimpressive, and the occasional quick cuts that randomly shatter the mood without warning or meaning set a precedent for some sloppy editing here and there. The camera at last settles on a mansion, tracking with geometric precision until it moves inside to document the Recchi family, a group of people as outdated as the palatial home in which they live.

Servants clean dishes alongside Emma (Tilda Swinton), a Russian who married the Italian Tancredi and moved into this lavish villa to spend her days not doing much of anything. She, like her husband and children, always dress impeccably, even when they clearly have nothing planned that day and some only leave the house for minor errands. They could have fallen out of one of Bergman's more stately films, and the alignment of the family on the poster recalls similar blocking in Distant Voices, Still Lives, an attempt to capture the same sense of familial imprisonment.

But I Am Love only fleetingly conveys these feelings. One could attribute the more objective aesthetic to a reflection of Emma's own alienation from her emotions, but she does not appear to be unhappy in any way with her life. At a birthday dinner for the family patriarch, Edoardo, Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti), she is as delighted as everyone else when the old man names his son, Tancredi, and grandson, Edoardo, Jr. (Flavio Parenti), as the new owners of the family textile factory. Everyone celebrates though they must have known ownership would pass down the family line, and Emma swells with pride. That textiles are a relic does not matter: this is a family business, and it has already provided enough generational wealth to make inevitably dwindling profits a concern for the middle-class person they no doubt hired to sort out financial affairs.

The only indication of something inside of Emma yearning for change comes when a chef who beat Edoardo, Jr. (also called Edo by most of the family), comes by to offer a cake as a conciliatory measure. Edo is delighted by the man's kindness and insists he come inside, but Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) politely declines, not wishing to intrude on the festivities. A passing Emma gets a look at him, though, and when Antonio quietly slips back out into the snow, a light comes on in an upstairs window, and Emma floats to the portal, peering outside of the curtain as if trapped in a Bröntean prison. Her old life did not constrain her previously, but a mere glance has put something into her mind, a faint pause where one did not previously exist. But is that dissatisfaction with the old way, or a sudden desire to try something fresher, more unknown?

I Am Love modestly scales down The Leopard's mournful commentary on changing times to a simpler look at the intoxicating allure of the new. The family itself has already survived the changing times that would have claimed anyone else: the factory still churns out fabric, still turns some kind of profit and the family enjoys aristocratic opulence. Only a mild comment from the younger son, Giancula, to his older brother about their grandfather exploiting forced Jewish labor during World War II hints at a darker past. By casting Ferzetti, star of Michaelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura, as the patriarch, Guadagnino recasts the modernity of that film as the old hat, the past he and others must now overcome to make their name when Antonioni is still praised even in death as the greatest of modern cinematic poets. It's a deft touch that opens up interpretations of the struggle of the Italian filmmaker to follow in the patriarch's footsteps or try to make a new way, an themes that are sadly unexplored.

For the rest of the movie is about Emma, played brilliantly by Swinton. Most filmmakers use her androgyny, that otherworldly aspect of her unconventional beauty. Because they allow for the more masculine attributes of her angular face, many often give her more traditionally "masculine" parts, and Swinton has shined in recent years with meaty, talky parts in which she controls much of the action. Her Oscar-winning turn in Michael Clayton threatened to overshadow the host of solid performances in the film, her conniving lawyer providing an icy, villainous logic to offset Tom Wilkinson's crumbling sanity and George Clooney's slowly seeping gallantry. I was so torn on Julia I've yet to review it, but her portrayal of the title character's fleeting ability to stay just ahead of her impending self-immolation fluctuated between dramatic intensity and a glorious flourish of overwrought melodrama in a way that made her irresistible even if the movie's mood swings and unnecessary length dragged the proceedings down.

But her role here recalls her extended cameo in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Also a socialite wife in Fincher's fairy tale ode to classic Hollywood. In that film, as this one, her life is comfortable and not particularly repressive, but the entrance of a force she cannot explain, a whisper of new, fresh life in the form of a man she does not particularly know. Emma comes across as an even more frigid and poised version of Elizabeth Abbot, the Russian winters of her youth having imbued her with a frosty countenance even at her most jovial and kind.

If nothing else, Guadagnino does us the service of presenting Swinton in purely feminine terms, never feeling the need to remind the audience that, just because she does not fit the narrowly defined guidelines of Hollywood attractiveness, Swinton must be considered weird (her weirdness is a whole other matter entirely). She looks even paler than usual from pancake makeup, a streak of red lipstick a tantalizing burst of color, as if all the blood in her face drained and pooled in her lips. After playing so many hard-edged characters lately, she displays an intense matronly warmth, treating her daughter's sexual identity with compassion and understanding and supporting her son's advancement within the company. But that look of longing in her eyes is piercing, when Antonio reciprocates she looks as if she might explode with pleasure in his presence.

Sadly, everything else borders on parody. Guadagnino's close-ups on art and food morph from a beautiful evocation to the most pretentious slide show in human history, a constant cutting between immaculately composed but lifeless shots that suck the air Swinton breathes into the film. Her lust is nakedly unlocked by a prawn dish Antonio prepares for her, a scene that unfolds with such unintentional hilarity that I half expected it to end with the punchline cutaway to a woman at another table saying, "I'll have what she's having." The other characters are rigidly divided along "old" and "new" lines, from Elisabetta's lesbianism and her pursuit of the arts representing more modern viewpoints and Edo, his named tied to the grandfather and patriarch, adheres to the more chauvinistic and greedy style of his father. Except when he doesn't. There's no consistency to these caricatures even though they are uniformly two-dimensional.

One cannot deny that Yorick Le Saux's cinematography is crisp and gorgeous, nor that Swinton isn't, as ever, at the top of her game. But it's all for naught. All of the beautiful shots of food and faces and art and nature lose their luster, and they drag on Swinton's lush and exotic performance. It's like seeing a Ferrari with a boat trailer attached to it, and just because the boat in question is a yacht doesn't make the setup any less lugubrious and absurd. The music of the excellent American composer John Adams is used throughout -- contrary to some reports, he composed no new music for the score -- but it does not fit. Guadagnino wants to make this an opera, but his use of Adams' actual operas clashes horrendously with the slowly paced, uneventful narrative.

Laughable juxtapositions abound, from Adams' ill-fitting score to some edits that would have gotten me thrown out of a theater for laughing so hard. When Emma discovers a note written by her daughter admitting to her lesbianism, the director cuts to shots of Milanese cathedrals surrounding Emma, the implications of old-school religious condemnation lazy and inarticulate, the equivalent of a rakishly raised eyebrow and a gentle nudge to the ribs. Having rewatched Black Narcissus the same day, I found Powell's cutaways to flowers, vibrant explosions of the passion that seeped out of every frame of that film, meaningful and evocative in a manner that Guadagnino aims for but does not reach. His close-ups on flowers during his distant and cold shots of sex (which still manage to get in some male gazes for all their stiffness) are desperate grabs for the same emotion, but all they amount to are sub-Georgia O'Keeffe evocations of a vagina.

Only at the last moments does the film finally play into the operatic tone it wanted to attain throughout. There are those who would criticize the ending from breaking totally from the tone of the rest of the film, its euphoric leap into boisterous music and epic framing wholly at odds with the progression to that point, even the melodramatic climax. But that is a drawback of film criticism, the need to justify each scene within the narrow context of how it fits everything else in the movie. Never mind that literature has enjoyed such breaks for centuries -- Hamlet featured a freaking play within a play, after all. The best parts of great movies can be total separations from the more objective moods for a flash of intense subjectivity (or the other way around, providing sudden clarity the character does not have). The last three minutes of I Am Love so happen to be the best part of a mediocre movie, and for that I am grateful.

Tuesday, December 28

Our Beloved Month of August

Miguel Gomes' Our Beloved Month of August is a Möbius strip of swirling contradictions and questions of reality in the vein of Abbas Kiarostami's work, a mix of documentary and fiction that ultimately renders meaningless questions about what is true and what is not. But where Kiarostami's films generally peel back broader emotional truths by lying, Gomes uses his 147-minute triumph of lemonade-from-lemons to lovingly put to screen a part of the world many neglect, including some of the residents of the places spotlighted.

Gomes originally planned to head out to the small but vibrant resort village Arganil in rural Portugal to film a drama that he'd already scripted. But he ran into issues with producers, and when he arrived in town to shoot, Gomes discovered that he lost what meager funding he thought he'd secured. Reasoning that he was already there and might as well shoot something, Gomes switched gears and decided to focus on the music festivals he originally intended to use as backdrop.

Almost instantly, however, Gomes splits the film's diegetic lines, opening with a documented concert and the soundbites of musicians complaining abut power outages and the folk bands playing their danceable tunes to a shot in a cabin miles away. Inside, Gomes is carefully arranging dominoes for an ornate credits sequence, but a "producer" enters in a huff and knocks over a domino, sending the intricate design sprawling. He demands to know what is delaying shooting, unable to see the irony of himself being the reason for the setbacks, his latest involvement on delaying further by ruining the credits setup. (Hilariously, the film then cuts to an every day title card, thwarting Gomes' "intentions.")

For the first half of the movie, Gomes wanders around Agarnil and some surrounding villages as the locals prepare for then have to deal with the incoming tourists. He captures the bacchanalian tone of the endless celebrations, which oddly always seems to follow right behind a religious procession carrying icons of the Blessed Mother. Musicians must make a season's worth of income during August alone, as every village erects a stage where bands play a mixture of rock, folk and dance music, the constant stream of music only stopping for technical difficulties. "There is no dance music," says one musician speaking off-camera as couples head out in a space by the stage to start grooving. "All music is made for dancing." The Portuguese folk is romantic, lovesick entreaties laden with pastoral imagery that celebrates the rustic setting rather than use the throwback sound to focus on something like the working man -- how out of place would a Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie tune sound here, where even the working class can enjoy a month of light debauchery?

If you're paying attention, you can see Gomes laying the foundation for what's about to come, but his earnestness and love for the community he documents is genuine, preventing those reflexive touches of the occasional returns to Gomes and his "producer" motifs rather than intellectualizing removes. In one of those asides, the director talks of moving beyond the script he can no longer shoot -- the exaggerated mass of paper always sits between them like the 800-lb gorilla in the room -- and moans, "I don't want actors, I want people," the sort of pretentious thing Barton Fink would say. But Gomes clearly goes out and finds those people and lets them ramble nostalgically for the camera, all of them relating tall tales of drunken exploits that might just have happened in such a crazy place. A loving but fiery old couple cannot remember how old they even are but have tons of gossip to impart, while another man recalls pissing off some Moroccan vendors who ran him over. When the man awoke from his coma, he discovered he had a new son. It would work as a killer joke in a Coen brothers film, but Gomes lets the moment happen, a half-farcical, half-touching remembrance from a man who still smiles though his teeth were shattered.

A lightly surreal image develops from the various sights on display, from children running through a mass of suds in the town square to the overlapping of motorcycle horn beeps as mopeds zoom down country roads with the big brass of the philharmonic orchestra that marches in the religious procession. These backwoods areas of Portuguese where Iberian hillbillies live are dusty and drab, but the locals create hidden pageants, adding lush texture to dull locations by dint of their lifestyles.

Yet the director's eye for detail also leads him to delve into some of the mild, almost imperceptible issues that such a lifestyle evokes. A city-dweller from Lisbon discusses the xenophobia rural folk feel for outsiders, though her English husband amusingly disagrees. Still, she has a point: Gomes' camera glides fluidly between villages, revealing the shared customs, modes of entertainment and types of people between them, yet there is an undeniable sense of isolationism among these communities against others of their own stripe. Some complain about money issues, but Gomes gently suggests through his visuals that perhaps financial woes might be a result of the incessant drinking and dancing and a certain lackadaisical attitude toward work ethic. By the same token, he rejoices in this love of entertainment and joie de vivre over mind-numbing commitment to work. Seemingly everyone in these villages owns a guitar, and even regular people may burst into song when the mood strikes.

This caring documentation continues through the end of the first half, at which point the entire film folds in on itself. In some of the asides, the producer laments that Gomes' unwieldy screenplay actually grows as the director starts adding more characters inspired by his work in the villages. At last, he decides to film his script after all, using some of the musicians and other locals he spoke to in the first half. Suddenly, what were supposed to be talking heads of real people morph into auditions for the film proper, and the integration of Gomes' observations on village life infuse the narrative with a verisimilitude he surely could not have captured if he simply arrived in town and started projecting onto the residents.

The use of nonprofessional actors telling their own story is nothing new, but Gomes also shanghais them into performing his story, a lurid melodrama with overtones of incest between a musician father and his daughter/muse, Tania. Their constant proximity sets tongues wagging, just as the residents engaged in whispers and rumor throughout. The music Tania and her father play, romantic as all the other Portuguese folk, does not help perceptions, and music gets used against them when two drunken partygoers engage in a duel of insults through song. One man defends the family and attacks the challenger's own familial shame, but the other lout retorts by asking in verse whether the two are father and daughter or husband and wife. To get away from the shame, Tania turns to Heider, a teen ever-clad in an AC/DC T-shirt and slinging a guitar. But Heider is her cousin, and the love she finds to distract herself from the confusing devotion of her father's potentially worrisome adoration could itself be just as harmful.

A few critics have charged the second half of the film with being meandering and too improvisational, but Gomes has too clear a goal in mind for the Our Beloved Month of August to spin off its axis. Despite having no money and a hastily re-assembled screenplay and cast, he inserts some shots that betray a filmmaker who knew exactly what he wanted from the movie. Heider and Tania walk on a bridge, pause and kiss, and as they do, that damned Mother Mary procession comes walking by. Gomes captures them in extreme long shot, the passing line of priests and penitent speaking to the the dogmatic repression that might have shaped these two. But the shot lingers, and behind the usual procession are two giant puppets being walked in line, as if Carnival floats themselves got up in the morning and atoned during Lent like everyone else. The revelry, too, has had its effect. A forest fire that tears through the surrounding area just as sexual tensions may lack for subtlety, but as a comic explosion of visual innuendo, it was as welcome as the close-up of the lava lamp in Talk to Her. Tinier details, such as a stain on Tani'as clothing after a night with Heider that answers whether her father ever touched her inappropriately or the mural of the solar system where Tania occasionally goes with either her father or Heider (suggesting she might be star-crossed lovers with either one), caulk the cracks. If Gomes truly did have to throw out his first idea, he quickly solidified another one.

Our Beloved Month of August examines a well-known fact, that fiction comes from truth, but it also suggests that the reverse is true. Some of the villagers' stories are clearly exaggerations, fish tales delivered to the camera to impress, and the falsity surrounding the truth gets funneled into the film within the film, complicating the fiction until an insight into rural Portuguese life emerges. I admit I'm growing increasingly tired of self-reflexive cinema, mainly because it's become a cheap tool for bad writers to project an aura of multilayered genius when, in effect, they simply recognize their inability to tell a story and try to beat critics to pointing this out. Yet Gomes' film, like the best of reflexive, questionably diegetic filmmaking, gets at emotional truths through the use of intellectual falsehood.

In the ingenious and riotous end credits, Gomes gets into a minor argument with his sound designer for recording "phantom sounds" in the forest fire. Gomes, still clad in that damned, loud red jacket and poor boy hat, allows himself to come off as a petulant auteur, screaming for perfectionism in a movie assembled piecemeal from disparate elements. The crew, who get their credits on-screen next to their actual faces, reassure the boss that no errant sounds are there, but we can hear faint music underneath. The interplay between image and sound that makes Our Beloved Month of August such a delight comes to a head, and the tormenting buzz of barely audible music will drive its mock-severe maker 'round the bend even as it reminds the audience of the music contained seemingly in the hills and trees around these villages. It's both the punchline and the reassurance that this was not all just some joke: the rumble is the soul of the villages Gomes captured, and it will imbue his film whether his pretentious doppelgänger wants it to or not. The perfect bookend to the opening shot of a fox searching for a way into a chicken coop -- the outsider seeking entry for exploitation -- the moment signifies that it is the village that ultimately conquered the outsider, not the other way around.