Saturday, December 31

A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, 2011)

David Cronenberg throws the audience for a loop from the start of A Dangerous Method. The stately opening credits, unfolding gracefully over close-ups of ink blotting the pages of correspondence, is so elegant that it cannot even be taken for a sort of proto-Rorschach test. It is as conventional and soft a commencement to a costume drama as credits can be. Then, Cronenberg cuts straight to a shot of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) shrieking, cackling and hissing against the glass, resembling less her usual, composed and corseted ladies than Jane Eyre's Bertha, the embodiment of the repressed female id. In an instant, the director pushes under the "proper" surface of the period drama to confront its twisted secrets. The fact that most of the film occurs in bright daylight is no coincidence; the monsters that eat at these characters are not creatures that come out in the night. They are in all of us at all times, whether they're visible or not.

Cronenberg's style has always been formal, but A Dangerous Method is so classically composed that a newcomer would never guess its maker had also directed such body horror classics as Videodrome and Crash. Yet by placing Sabina's "hysteria" upfront, the director clues us in on his basic aim: the film is merely the psychological root of his horror movies. As Knightley writhes around in mental agony, Cronenberg fully subsumes his tumorous grotesqueries fully into the mind, which can torment the body well enough without tumorous growths or other icky, hyperbolic infections. As Glenn Kenny rightly put it on Twitter shortly after the film's premiere, Sabina, and her sexuality, is the traditional monster in a typical Cronenberg film.

Taken to the Burghölzli clinic outside Zurich, Sabina is placed under the care of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbener), then the assistant to the hospital's director. Jung decides to treat Sabina with the "talking cure," a theory developed by Sigmund Freud but potentially never applied to a patient. Sabina's case will eventually bring Jung into contact with his idol and, for various reasons, help tear them apart. Their interaction, along with Jung's increasingly unethical relationship with Sabina, subtly brings out the theories of both psychiatrists, even as the director gradually reveals that the doctors themselves embody these same prototypical ideas about the workings of the human mind.

Viggo Mortensen plays Freud with such paternalism that he casts himself as the Oedipal father to be destroyed by Jung, something that the Austrian even voices aloud later in the film. Freud looks to Jung as a potential successor but urges the man to stop bringing "mysticism" into psychoanalysis just as the field is finally beginning to be accepted by the scientific community at large. But Freud's anti-religious streak has a clear personal impetus: he confides in Jung that the Jewish identity of the Viennese psychoanalysts will make the struggle to be taken seriously that much harder. A confused Jung asked why that would matter, to which Freud dryly responds, "That, if I may say so, is an exquisitely Protestant remark." Jung comes to resent what he perceives to be Freud's close-mindedness on this issue,  but Freud's little jab has a point. Not that the man can't be unreasonable: having to support a wife and six children on a modest income, Freud casts petty sideways glances at the wealth into which Jung married, tacitly sniping the opulent house and travel conditions the Swiss doctor enjoys.

Sabina's own mental state is more explicitly revealed through Knightley's performance. Her bony, angular frame is perfect for Spielrein's wracked, involuntarily self-punishment, her uncontrollable sex drive clashing with her virginity until it seems as if her body thrashes in such fits because that drive is looking for an alternate escape. (The blood of her broken hymen shown later in some ways seems like the remains of some felled mythical beast, or at the very least the opening of a release valve.) She exhibits the animus, the male within the female, when she takes the initiative in kissing Jung, and it's amusing that the progressive psychiatrist would take the all too traditionally male excuse of subsequently blaming her for "seducing" him. Later, Sabina finds herself directly and indirectly trapped between Jung and Freud when she becomes a psychiatrist in her own right and must write her own dissertation with the divergent theorists' views. Her heart favors Jung, but her head tends to side with Freud, who at one point conspiratorially tells the Russian Jewish Spielrein of Jung, "Put not your trust in Aryans," asking for her allegiance out of the same religious identity he buries in public.

Cronenberg uses split diopter lenses to crush characters against each other while still emphasizing distance. It makes Jung, Freud and Spielrein into each other's dualities, even their shoulder angels. It also has the effect of making every bit of dialogue resemble the setup for Jung's approach to Freud's talking cure with Sabina, in which he places the woman looking forward as he sits behind asking questions for minimal distraction. This turns every conversation into a therapy session, which somewhat resembles a Catholic confession, a wry twist given Freud's overt objection to religious influence in his scientific approach.

Long, generally static takes drag out these forms of therapy to excruciating lengths. When Sabina finally voices what it is that torments her, Cronenberg lingers on Knightley's face, horrified at herself for speaking aloud her demons. Indeed, it can be harder to watch her come clean about her sexual hangups than it is to see Seth Brundle catalog his own rotted-off body parts in The Fly; at times, Cronenberg moves in so close and refuses to cut for so long that my eyes darted every which way but toward the screen in sheer discomfort. But that's the point; Knightley, aghast at herself for revealing her kinks, is not so different from people today, who continue to hold such open conversation about sex taboo a century later. By breaking through the social barriers that cage her, Sabina is set on the path to recovery. As utterly agonizing as it can be, opening up can be healthy, and sometimes talking really can be a cure.

There are jokes sprinkled throughout A Dangerous Method—Freud in particular is wry and witty, and he is always seen with a cigar in hand or mouth—but the film has an air of quiet tragedy to it, the important breakthroughs made by Jung, Freud, even Spielrein (her dissertation on the links between sex and death almost certainly influenced some of the two men's later theories) nevertheless unable to fully overcome their fears and desires. Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), the brief prodigy of Freud, advises Jung "Never repress anything," but as the closing text of the film reveals, he'll die penniless and hungry by the end of the decade. That places Otto at one extreme, and the totally inhibited Sabina of the film's beginning at the other. But the medium between the two, Freud's assertion of a necessary level of repression, is anything but a happy one. A Dangerous Method closes with Jung sitting in empty social comfort, paying a dear psychic price for that normalcy, the full extent of which is borne out with the revelation of his subsequent breakdown. We also learn that Freud had good reason to worry about his ethnic and religious identity, him being kicked out of Vienna in 1939 and Spielrein murdered by the SS in 1942. The sense of barely suppressed pain and sorrow that ends the film is only worsened by these intertitles, making for one of the most tragic of Cronenberg's films. But there is hope for the future: as Jung's expositional title card notes, the same nervous breakdown that incapacitates him during the First World War will only make him emerge a stronger psychiatrist. As he says to the equally troubled but accomplished psychoanalyst Sabina has become by the end, "Only the wounded physician heals."

2011: The Year in Review

The last year-end post, I swear. Last year I did a similar round-up separate to my best-of list, but this year I had even more reason to hand out "awards" for various accomplishments. I joined the Online Film Critics Society in October, and just last week I sent in my first ballot for their awards. Since I had all that written down, why not post it here along with other final mentions I wanted to make to close out this excellent year in film? Besides, this year has been so wonderful that I'm almost reluctant to let it go without one last good celebration. So without further ado, the awards:

Best Director
Terrence Malick, Tree of Life

Reaching the apotheosis of his fragmentary, personal and universal side, Malick moves beyond Emerson into the realm of Joyce, finding a mix between the microcosmic and universal that shouldn't work (and doesn't, for many) but makes for the most deeply felt experience I can recall at the movies. Malick folds time and space onto his humble Texan family, at once emphasizing their unremarkable perpetuation of eternal cycles and their own variations and decorations that make them singular among the other links of this chain.

Raul Ruiz, Mysteries of Lisbon
Apicatpong Weerasethakul, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Kelly Reichardt, Meek's Cutoff
Pedro Almodóvar, The Skin I Live In

Best Actor
Peyman Moaadi, A Separation

Simultaneously selfish and selfless, defiant but quietly despairing, Peyman Moaadi is frustrating and heartbreaking as the estranged husband trying to care for his daughter and Alzheimer's-ridden father. But his self-righteousness slowly fizzles as he inadvertently brings more stress and potential ruin upon his splintered family. Moaadi never loses the character even as Nader moves the story into darker, more complex moral realms, and when he sins, he does so with wrenching believability. Much of the film relies on him, and Moaadi pulls it off flawlessly.

Michael Shannon, Take Shelter
George Clooney, The Descendants
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Hunter McCracken- The Tree of Life

Best Actress
Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia

Capturing depression better than practically anyone I've ever seen on the screen, Kirsten Dunst's bravura performance in Melancholia is the endothermic opposite of the usual von Trier heroine. Where his other leads suffer, she seems to inflict suffering, not in the grisly and loony way of Gainsbourg's She in Antichrist but in a cosmic sense. The chickens come home to roost for the world that so viciously tore down previous protagonists, as Dunst's powerfully detached, numbed woe brings about the planet's destruction. Payback's a bitch, and Dunst is subtly terrifying as she presides over the apocalypse with a silent approval for the end of days.

Mia Wasikowska, Jane Eyre
Rooney Mara, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Charlize Theron, Young Adult
Michelle Williams, Meek's Cutoff

Best Supporting Actor
Christopher Plummer, Beginners

There are huge gaps in my familiarity with Christopher Plummer's filmography, but this is the brightest and most touching role I've seen him take. And what a performance it is: seen in the protagonist's flashbacks, Plummer's newly out dad is alive and energetic even as we mostly see him in hospitals. Having hid his real self behind a wall of emotional remove, Hal basically has to live his denied life in the four years between his confession and his death, and Plummer grounds the man's newfound joie de vivre in a half-spoken past of deep pain and misguided decisions. His son, who remembers only an almost professionally loving man, cannot comprehend his dad's sudden sweetness, but that doesn't stop him from being completely devastated by Hal's death. Hell, I was too.

Nick Nolte, Warrior
Albert Brooks, Drive
Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life
Patton Oswalt, Young Adult

Best Supporting Actress
Elena Anaya, The Skin I Live In

Even without the film's twist, Elena Anaya gives a powerful performance as a compliant prisoner of a madman. Once the full truth is revealed, however, Anaya becomes the crux of the film's gender politics and its ingenious statements on the way gender roles have been socially ingrained into our biology. Anaya is as mysterious and affecting after the reveal as she was before, and she helps The Skin I Live In become one of Almodóvar's best.

Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life
Hayley Atwell, Captain America, The First Avenger
Shailene Woodley, The Descendants
Rose Byrne, Bridesmaids

Best Ensemble
The Descendants

Alexander Payne's film is not only stacked with great actors, they each get a moment to shine as friends, family, and even a few enemies filter through a hectic time in Matt King's life. The leads are superb, with Clooney giving his best performance to date and Shailene Woodley offering up one of the best youth performances in years, but the supporting cast rises to meet them at every turn. I can't discuss Judy Greer's performance without spoiling it entirely, but she is but one of many fantastic side-players, along with Beau Bridges' Dude-esque burnout with a buried edge and Robert Forster's father-in-law, who deals with his grief in anger. I can't help but love a film that knows the value of a good set of character actors.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Best Screenplay
A Separation

There's no way to summarize Asghar Farhadi's A Separation without leaving out a massive part of its essence. To call it a marital drama misses how quickly it becomes a more complicated legal narrative, which also omits certain twists and turns that deepen it. And to call it a social critique of Iran is accurate but limiting, leaving out the universal truths of humanity it explores. No one in this film is fully pitiable, but neither are they loathsome. These characters are the most absorbing and compelling of the year, all thanks to Farhadi's script.

Worst Screenplay
Green Lantern

My head says Red State, with its belligerent but directionless tweet-ready screeds, but my heart calls out for Green Lantern, which proves that comic-book writing is clearly much harder than some snobs think. Four (four!) writers worked on this abhorrent mess and demonstrated an incompetence with the material that borders on willful disrespect. Unable to conceive of the dramatic possibilities of a man so fearless he is stubborn, they rewrite him as a smarmy coward who fall into heroism solely through plot holes. How can Hal Jordan quit the Lantern Corps before he's even finished training but keep the ring? Why does an eons-old rule about the ring seeking out the fearless suddenly change to the ring simply believing in someone to become fearless after a while, like some supportive chum? And why does the script have Hal beg the Guardians to let him defend his planet when no one has even remotely objected to this? Not a damn thing in this horrid screenplay makes sense, even with its own internal logic.

Best Editing
Film Socialisme

It actually wasn't easy to vote for Godard given the competition. Terrence Malick's battery of editors made outright tone poetry of the director's usual over-coverage, while Carlos Madaleno and Valeria Sarmiento made Raul Rúiz's 266-minute epic as fleet as a blockbuster. But no other film was as intellectually provocative and dense as Film Socialisme, and the editing serves as the foundation for its various dialectics and visual puns. Godard does not simply treat editing as a means of progressing or even just juxtaposing, and he generated a puzzle to be mulled over for years with his work here.

The Tree of Life
Mysteries of Lisbon

Worst Editing
Red State

Not only is the linking of the shots a prime example of the worst kind of "realism" action, the overall pace is so erratic that the film never establishes itself before its sudden upending. The film has no remote sense of pace, slamming on the brakes instantly for a monologue that was, amazingly, even longer in earlier cuts and should have been trimmed more. Smith's film suffers enough from its muddled messaging, but the editing only makes everything worse.

Best Score
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Not as instantly classic as Reznor and Ross' Social Network soundtrack, this bleak soundscape is nevertheless head and shoulders above a generally weak year for scores (I was surprised that none of Alexandre Desplat's scores won me over as they usually do). Where both Williams' and Bource's compositions were giddy, ebullient throwbacks, this all-too-modern digital howl was as cold and static as ice. This has the effect of generating not even dread but a simple numbness that affects the extremities like a bitter winter day. Impressively, the pair totally avoid rehashing their previous work, and indeed this score is less thriller-like, despite the film's subject matter, than The Social Network's. God only knows how long they can keep this up, but for the moment, no one can touch Reznor and Ross.

John Williams, The Adventures of Tintin
Basement Jaxx, Attack the Block
Cliff Martinez, Drive

Most undervalued player
Oscar Isaac, Sucker Punch and Drive

As the villain in Zack Snyder's unbearable sub-feminist romp, Isaac actually did a great job of capturing oily misogyny and power-hungry masculinity as Blue, creating a more concrete and tactile sense of danger and menace than Snyder's huge but weightless CGI sequences. In Drive, he was even better. The second his character comes on-screen, freshly released from prison, a dread rises in the throat that he will be the bog-standard bad father and obstacle in the budding romance between Driver and Irene. But Isaac sidesteps that pitfall by making Standard into a decent, loving man who got mixed up in the wrong crowd and is now desperate to protect his family. In what may be that film's most touching scene, he describes meeting Irene and falling in love, speaking with wistfulness, a twinge of humor, and a lot of regret that creates a character's whole life in just a few minutes.

Best Heroes
1. Ameena Matthews, The Interrupters

In a film about real-life heroism, none emerge more iconic than Ameena Matthews. The daughter of a notorious gang leader and an ex-con like all the rest of the interrupters, Matthews is not some ivory tower do-gooder merely looking to help out. She has been the people she castigates and lectures, and she can speak to them with a familiarity that is unforced because it is genuine. As witty and maternal as she is forceful and passionate, Matthews is one of the most compelling figures to appear before Steve James' camera, and the director does not want for dramatically captivating subjects.

2. Moses, Attack the Block

Introduced as a common ghetto thug robbing equally poor people, Moses seems an unlikely choice to be one of the most inspiring action heroes of the year. But when aliens threaten to tear apart his already run-down hood, the young man fights back hard for his community, clearing getting out aggression on all the other things that kept him and others down for so long. John Boyega's hard face is still lined with just enough baby fat to make him convincingly naïve, but then, no one expected the first Moses to deliver anyone from harm, either.

3. Peggy Carter, Captain America: The First Avenger

With Natalie Portman's astrophysicist in Thor turning into a drooling, jelly-legged schoolgirl at the sight of Chris Hemsworth's abs, I had no hope for any engaging blockbuster heroine this year. Then along came Peggy Carter to right so many of Marvel Studios' wrongs. Attracted to Steve Rogers' sweetness as much as his super-soldier bod, Carter can nevertheless get along perfectly well without him. Strong, hard-willed, and human, she is not only one of the most complex female characters to appear in a superhero film but one of the most complex characters, period. There was much to love about Captain America, really the only summer blockbuster that worked, but nothing in it was half so good as Peggy.

4. George Smiley, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

George Smiley handles his enemies with elegantly inelegant practicality, gauging their weaknesses and finding the path of greatest ease and efficiency to taking care of the problem. Oldman is so still he could double for the coat rack, nor does he raise his voice in the explosive outbursts we've come to expect from the actor. Looking like an accountant more than a tuxedo-wearing, lady-bedding Bond figure, Smiley is carefully modeled to be unremarkable, but it seems as if even those close to him have been sucked in by the persona, and the loneliness he feels as a cuckolded and forcibly retired old horse gives his investigation of British intelligence an air of wounded betrayal. But even with his preoccupations, he still proves deftly able to corral a group to hunt down the traitor among them, and if there is no joy in Alfredson's film, there is a sad sort of satisfaction in seeing Smiley prevail.

5. Marcel Marx, Le Havre

It takes a talent of Aki Kaurismäki's level to make something original and genuinely poignant out of a selfish white man who learns responsibility through helping a disenfranchised black child. But damned if Marcel Marx isn't one of the freshest characters in some time, so removed from the insistent messaging of these sorts of movies by Kaurismäki's deadpan that the viewer has a rare chance to simply see a human being help another one. Oh, the political commentary is overt, but the handling of it is graceful and naturalistic, more so even than the similarly complex reading of like material with Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor. André Wilms enduring puckishness ensures that Marcel remains funny and peevish, but his ability to ingratiate himself upon others only makes his consideration

Best Villains
1. Loki, Thor

Cunning, deadly, and the only truly Shakespearean element of Kenneth Branagh's Thor, Loki single-handedly elevated that film from an elaborate commercial for Bod Body Spray into something occasionally compelling. Tom Hiddleston makes an instant, breakout impression as the god of tricks, his heartbreaking feelings of neglect and not belonging keenly felt on Hiddleston's boyish but wracked face. Less brutish than the other Marvel villains thus far assembled in their run-ups, Loki works instead through intellect and sedition. It's no wonder Joss Whedon would want him to square against the Avengers instead of some giant, lunkheaded killing machine.

2. Robert Ledgard, The Skin I Live In

In his own way, Ledgard messes with an audience's sympathy regarding rape and loss more than Lisbeth Salander. Almodóvar's melodramatic horror constantly redraws the lines with revealing flashbacks, shifting attitudes for the character from revulsion to empathy. Eventually, however, the full scope of his insanity is revealed, turning an unbalanced man into a mad scientist who brings about one of the most transgressive films about gender politics ever made.

3. Bernie Rose, Drive

With the exception of the protagonist, every character in Drive carries huge gulfs of baggage and half-spoken backstory that makes them frighteningly tactile. Well, none is more tangible (or frightening) than Bernie Rose, played by Albert Brooks in a performance that is at once easy playing against type and something far more sinister. Brooks, as I said in a chat under my original review, plays a shlock movie producer-cum-gangster like a Jewish mother, always vaguely exasperated by "having" to kill someone and complaining about the mess. Smart enough to avoid trouble, he's also the last person with whom you want to get in too deep.

4. Lord Shen, Kung Fu Panda 2

Voiced with insane hubris and frenzy by Gary Oldman, Lord Shen is also so fluidly animated as to be scary in his grace. Hollowed out by soulless ambition, Shen is almost as tragic as Po, even as the same events that make the heroic panda's life sad were initiated by the evil peacock. Occasionally reflective, mostly power-hungry and occasionally even a bit funny, Shen was a huge step up from the previous Kung Fu Panda's villain, so good the writers could hang a much deeper, yet more action-packed, story on his cannon-obsessed feathers.

5. Chad, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil

A riotous inversion of the usual hillbilly horror movies, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil cast not a pair of cabin-dwelling good ol' boys as terrorizers of pretty young things but the kind souls who find themselves misunderstood by prejudiced and judgmental kids. Leading them is Chad, a twisted sadist with an axe to grind against rednecks who will sacrifice all of his friends to kill these two hapless fellas. It's a superb twist, and one that only gets crazier as more of Chad's background is revealed.

Best Catchphrase
"Rhinoceros!" Salvador Dalí, Midnight in Paris

Best Use of 3D That Finally Made the Technology Palatable Just When It Was Thankfully Dying

Most Welcome Surprise

Besides Attack the Block, of which I heard only vague hype before getting passes to a free screening, the film that blew me away with the least amount of pre-viewing interest was Warrior. Sports movies aren't my bag, a sports movie about the new fad of mixed martial arts fighting even less. But Warrior will soon go down as one of the best the genre has to offer, a Greek tragedy on steroids that complicates the audience's sympathies and stages its fight scenes with brutal precision that feels triumphant and abhorrent in equal measure. Buoyed by three excellent performances, Warrior is also the most unexpected actor's showcase of the year.

Biggest Disappointment

A great many of the year's big awards-baiting films failed to win me over, but none tackled more complex themes than Steve McQueen's Shame. The film addressed psychic wounds, confused desires, and the social stigma of a natural function that turns something beautiful and pleasurable into a sinful act (even when viewed secularly). But the disservice the film does to this material makes it more disappointing than the more ho-hum letdowns of, say, The Artist or Martha Marcy May Marlene. But not even Fassbender's mesmerizing, frightening performance by a man consumed by his demons can add much texture to McQueen's overly fussy direction, which recalls not so much the modern alienation of his hero Antonioni so much as the fatuous, emptily erotic fashion shoots of that director's protagonist in Blow-Up.

Best Scene
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: opening credits

David Fincher's opening credits are so varied and well-crafted that Matthew Zoller Seitz did a fantastic series of video essays on them last year. I hope he sets aside the time to do one for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo when it comes to home video, as it may be Fincher's best. Like the sequences for Se7en (which generated a sickly, unstable atmosphere of recorded murders) and The Social Network (which indirectly toured the landmarks of America's creation myth in Boston), the hyperedited animation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's opening sets the tone, plot, and themes for the rest of the film. USB cables entwine characters into an embrace that asphyxiates them with the forced proximity, while penetrative and groping actions speak to the misogynistic elements to arise. Some might fairly criticize Fincher's film for being overlong, but he proves here that he has the story down in under three minutes.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: dealing with the mole
Drive: elevator beating
Adventures of Tintin: Bagghar chase
Take Shelter: shelter climax

Worst Scene
That agonizing, comically self-absorbed close-up during the world's slowest, mostly unintentionally hilarious rendition of "New York, New York" in Shame.

Best Part of a Bad Film
The bromance in Paul

It's weird to celebrate the defining aspect of a film without liking the movie as a whole. But if Paul never congealed into a working, fully engaging picture, the hetero-life mate chemistry between Simon Pegg and Nick Frost is so strong that I couldn't be mad at the film for fizzling. And even though Seth Rogen occasionally made me laugh as the titular alien, I often found myself wishing I could just keep watching these geeky oafs bumbling around America without the awkward extraterrestrial comic-thriller tacked on.

Worst Part of a Good Film
The opening narration of The Descendants

The Peaks and Troughs Award for Same-Year Quality Gaps
Gary Oldman, Red Riding Hood and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Breakout Stars
Jessica Chastain: The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, The Help, every third film released in 2011
Michael Fassbender: Shame, A Dangerous Method, Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class
Tom Hiddleston: Thor, Midnight in Paris, War Horse

Most Inspiring Critical Impact

Kenneth Lonergan's long-delayed and -litigated follow-up to 2000's You Can Count on Me came out for barely a few weeks in Atlanta, at which time I was stuck in Auburn and unable to see it. My regret was only compounded by its near-total disappearance from discussion until a small band of film writers started trumpeting its merits and pushing for the film to have a more reasonable distribution to other critics. Though Fox Searchlight seems almost opposed to supporting its own film in any way (those lawsuits must be acrimonious indeed), the efforts of these impassioned people on Twitter got the film screenings it otherwise never would have seen. Almost certainly the most visible example of the lingering power of film criticism to effect some kind of influence, it is also a great demonstration of the supposedly cynical and bilious profession's capacity for celebration and championing of unsung art.

Best Poster

The Ides of March

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

13 Assassins


Midnight in Paris

Best Film That Would Have Been on My Best-Of List Had I Not Seen It Last Year
Certified Copy

Abbas Kiarostami's cryptic, witty comedy-drama was far and away my favorite film of 2010, and seeing it on a big screen this year only deepened its many layers. Even in this much better year for film, it would have appeared at number 2, had I waited to count it among U.S. release dates. One of the best works by perhaps the world's greatest living filmmaker, Certified Copy is as dense as his self-reflexive '90s work even as it is one of the director's most accessible films, and I hope that rumor of Criterion's unwillingness to release it on home video is just that.

Best previously released film I saw for the first time in 2011
Love Exposure

Sion Sono's sui generis collision of extremities and pop culture is at turns gonzo, repellent, high comic and remarkably affecting. The fleetest film to stretch well beyond the three-hour mark since Seven Samurai, Love Exposure uses its wild setpieces, beyond-Buñuel religious satire, gore and fixation on erections to capture something approaching the teenage experience of modern, desensitized youth and the deep yearning beneath the façade. It's offensive and bewildering, but also brilliant and beautiful. One of the great works of the previous decade.

Most Anticipated Films of 2012
This is Not a Film; Kill List; The Raid; Django Unchained; The Turin Horse; Moonrise Kingdom; The Avengers; The Master; The End; The Deep Blue Sea

Friday, December 30

The Best Films of 2011

[Note: Films chosen by non-festival U.S. release date]

With best-of lists having trickled in since the start of the month, I've seen more than one critic alleging this year to be a particularly weak one for film. A great deal of this list contains films I watched after reading such statements, and I still couldn't believe the lunacy of those proclamations. I have known since September that I wouldn't be able to limit my selections to a mere 10 or even 15 picks, and the intervening months have given me such an embarrassment of riches that to even make a selection of 25 films feel constricting. Indeed, there are more than 10 other features that I shuffled around for days, more than willing to give them a spot on this list but unable to remove others. Admittedly, much of the Oscar bait fell flat, or succeeded in much smaller, human ways than the insipid, spoon-fed Academy crowd likes to honor. And yet, 2011 also featured more grand artistic statements than any year in recent history, sporting two films that potentially redefine the possibilities of the artform itself (and maybe even three, if, unlike me, you managed to see This Is Not a Film). And heck, one of the best of the year's films, Certified Copy, isn't even on my list, because I saw it last year and put it on that year-end round-up.

More than that, this year has been fun too. Oh, not with the summer blockbusters, which, with the exception of the surprisingly fine Captain America, were lifeless and dull. But this has been a great year to simply see great directors play in the sandbox, whether it was Gore Verbinski and Steven Spielberg playing around with animation to beautiful effect or David Fincher making something of a career summary out of an unnecessary remake or Martin Scorsese making a family film that reveled in the timeless ability of cinema to make us all kids. In fact, Scorsese actually made the best Spielberg film in a year where that director made two movies of his own! And no one made a movie half as playful as Raúl Ruiz, whose final release (but not final completed work, the prolific bugger) before his death sent him out in glorious style. Any way you slice it, 2011 ruled, and I can only feel pity for anyone who can't find at least a few items to love among these 25 excellent works of film.

25. Warrior (dir. Gavin O’Connor)

This unexpected triumph won me over instantly, and it’s only grown in my estimation since. Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton are heartbreaking as damaged, viciously estranged brothers each fighting in an MMA tournament for a cash prize that they each want for equally sympathetic reasons. This forces the viewer to actually appraise these characters, studying their flaws and their redeeming facets, rather than focusing simply on who wins. But more wrenching than either brother is the father who drove them to this state and now wants forgiveness more than both of them. Nick Nolte gives one of his best performances as a man trying to go straight and baffled to learn that, sometimes, that’s just not good enough. Nolte’s gravelly voice and lumbering frame has always made him imposing, and indeed he is still intimidating even when set against his muscle-hardened sons, but here he is devastating, a broken man who has placed himself beyond reconciliation. At times, Warrior generates such soul-emptying sorrow that one understands why these men would need to beat someone else to a pulp just to feel anything at all.

24. Rango (dir. Gore Verbinski)

Entire sequences of this film—see: the “Ride of the Valkyries” scene—work only as deflated pastiche, but Gore Verbinski’s Rango is a rousing liberation for a talented director who let things get out of hand on the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels but finds his groove again with even less attention to physics. Gorgeously animated with some surrealist touches scattered among the Western homages, Rango is also the best showcase Johnny Depp has had in a while, free to ham it up while finding more nuanced expression through a CGI chameleon’s face than, lately, his own. It might go over kids’ heads, what with its so-detailed-as-to-be-frightening character design and a plot ripped, of all things, from Chinatown, but Rango is so full of invention that it is better marketed to those who enjoyed the ambition of the Pirates films but wanted a more coherent story to go with them.

23. Attack the Block (dir. Joe Cornish)

Cornish’s feature debut isn’t quite so clever as it thinks it is, but its premise was one of the higher concepts of the year: aliens only ever seem to crash in Manhattan or, as Bill Hicks used to say, out in the middle of nowhere, but what if they landed in the ghetto? Well-shot and paced to be perhaps the most jot-inducing film since Sam Raimi went hog-wild with Drag Me to Hell, Attack the Block rarely moves through a scene without a jump scare, a laugh, or both. Even in the shots where everything grinds to a halt to deliver The Message are so corny as to seem deliberately hokey, though that might be the affection talking. Cornish’s film features fantastic performances from a cast of mostly unknown kids, and there are more stand-up-and-cheer moments in any one act than there are in any of the blockbusters that received a proper release this year.

22. Young Adult (dir. Jason Reitman)

Being anti-narrative doesn’t inherently make one clever, but the sheer savagery of Diablo Cody’s and Jason Reitman’s second collaboration is balanced out by its unmistakable recognition of humanity’s all-too-real inhumanity. More sociopathic and emotionally maladjusted than Lisbeth Salander, Charlize Theron’s Mavis unsuccessfully remakes the present into the past and will not see reason when her flimsy world collapses. Neither will Patton Oswalt’s daringly unsympathetic Matt, who further complicates the already confrontational decision to make a woman a rom-com anti-heroine and offers an equally unlikable (kind of) hate crime victim. Cody takes post-Office discomfort to its zenith, which you could be forgiven for mistaking for its nadir. Reitman wisely stays out of her way, perhaps out of fear. Who can blame him?

21. Drive (dir. Nicholas Winding Refn)

A throwback to early Michael Mann with the flecks of Mann’s later maturation sprinkled throughout, Refn’s Drive cites countless other films yet is never truly defined by its references. Boiling down the existentialist driver so much that even the existentialism evaporates, the film leaves a series of perfectly shot vignettes of emotional isolation and indentured servitude, where every character must constantly atone for someone else’s actions, or at least settle them. Calculated to the nth degree and occasionally held for so many beats that I wondered if the hard drive might have frozen, Drive nevertheless set me on edge more than nearly any modern thriller. Heck, I might have been even more stressed out with subsequent viewings. Drive makes for the perfect continuation of Valhalla Rising’s unsettling questions of man’s preternatural need for violence even as, by way of embracing the beauty of L.A. with the bad, moves beyond such fixations.

20. The Arbor (dir. Clio Barnard)

An unorthodox documentary that cuts the waffle of talking heads and reenactments by combining the two, The Arbor instantly transcends its gimmick to present a gorgeously shot rumination on a troubled artist’s life and the ripples of abuse and hardship emanating from it. Despite its florid, perfect cinematography (it could easily be mistaken for an Angela Arnold film), The Arbor makes for a more harrowing kitchen-sink drama than Paddy Considine’s more explicitly graphic Tyrannosaur. The most pessimistic, yet honest and necessary, documentary about art not always being enough to save the gifted but tormented since Crumb analyzed its subjects insane brothers.

19. A Dangerous Method (dir. David Cronenberg)

Cronenberg at last reverse engineers his gory body horror back to its purely psychoanalytic roots, making a film about Freud and Jung themselves as they meet and eventually fall out over the theories rising from a special case. A surprisingly talky picture for a Cronenberg film, A Dangerous Method nevertheless uses its classical form to probe around the characters and their inner demons, be it the wracking sexual desires of Sabina, the Jewish insecurity of Freud or the Oedipal aspirations of Jung to unseat the "father." Bright light fills the screen, reminding us that the world that looks so sunny and normal is populated with people struggling with their subconscious urges at all times. That's as true, if not more so, of the doctors engaging in this early form of mental treatment as their patients. As Jung said, in the film and in real life, only the wounded physician heals.

18. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (dir. David Fincher)

To some extent, all of David Fincher’s films are about alienation and isolation, going back to Ripley being left friendless in a religiously zealous, all-male prison colony in Alien 3 (another film about a strong but vulnerable woman forced to contend with misogyny and sexual abuse). The Girl With the Dragon is perhaps his most alienated yet, set on a frozen, secluded island and steeped in Mikael Blomkvist’s obsolescence (the film employs a more current distrust of all journalists than could be seen in the book) and Lisbeth Salander’s social incompetence. This is the second film in a row Fincher has toyed with the effects of a digital world, wherein an unprecedented level of connection only serves to separate us more than ever. And speaking of The Social Network, by the end of his detached layering of information, Fincher reveals Harriet Vanger herself to be just another legend, real but abstracted into an apocryphal cultural memory used to scare local children into behaving, not all that unlike the creation myths at work in "the Facebook movie." Fincher cannot overcome certain fundamental flaws, but the fact that he turns an author's ludicrous wish-fulfillment fantasy into something of a creative summary of his own work makes The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo a marvel even beyond the level of its unexpected playfulness.

17. Poetry (dir. Lee Chang-dong)

Even if one didn’t know Lee Chang-dong was an author, the word “novelistic” would spring to mind for his elegant, wrenching movies. Poetry embodies its titular subject with a visual grace of composition that foregrounds the complex issues its protagonist must overcome while always rooting these stomach-turning situations in a world of calming beauty. Its finale, like poetry itself, alters reality by honoring it, by absorbing it until one passes through to the other side of limitless possibility where agony and ecstasy co-mingle. Even at its most troubling, Poetry is still affirming, powered by a low-key but profound performance by its lead and a mature evaluation of art as a means of escaping reality without simply ignoring it.

16. Take Shelter (dir. Jeff Nichols)

A character drama wrapped in psychological horror, Take Shelter is by turns frightening and devastating, driven by Michael Shannon’s agonized performance as a man aware of his madness but unable to control its effects on him. Nichols’ stark direction leaves gulfs of space around Shannon but makes everything feel small, as if all that area around the actor were just a solipsistic projection. I’m still thinking about the enigmatic coda, but it’s the climax, inside Curtis’ fortified shelter with his family, that stands as the most disturbing and wrenching scene of the year, an extended play of suspense, despair and crippling fear so wracking and claustrophobic that it cannot be walked off when exiting the theater.

15. The Descendants (dir. Alexander Payne)

If you can get past that tedious opening narration, which barely lasts a few minutes but feels like an hour’s worth of exposition, The Descendants undergoes a fast chrysalis into a beautiful, internal film that makes for one of America’s most subtly written and acted films about family, of dealing with the dead and dying as well as the living. Even when the characters dip back into expositional speech, they leave details unsaid that speak volumes, with George Clooney giving a beautifully old-school performance that restricts his pain to a few open expressions but leaves that overwhelming pain in his eyes for the audience to see on their own. Blessed with a dynamic supporting cast, Payne’s film occasionally falters but always regains its footing with the addition of a new voice or the closure of an old one.

14. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (dir. Tomas Alfredson)

Alfredson paints a huge canvas of proscenium-lined sets and big stakes, but nothing summarizes the film’s true tone like seeing the confining, secretive pods that house each spy within the gargantuan, spacious warehouses. These people work in a vast world but compartmentalize their tasks and, ultimately, themselves. Alfredson blends sex and politics, using strained, secretive relationships to capture the intense loneliness of this isolated life. Cold and reserved with a dense plot, Alfredson’s film nevertheless emerges the unlikeliest tearjerker of the year, its muted pains of personal and national betrayal mixed until an attack on the Crown becomes indistinguishable from a lover's unfaithfulness.

13. The Adventures of Tintin (dir. Steven Spielberg)

According to Hitchcock, Spielberg was the first director not to see the proscenium arch. Yet it takes a film like Tintin to show even the limitations of the filmmaker’s previous works. Physically impossible (and yet, logically sound, in an unexpected way), Tintin, like Rango and Fantastic Mr. Fox, demonstrates what happens with gifted live-action filmmakers turn to a format that offers them infinite possibilities. Action sequences unfold in epic scale and length, with the camera always moving in and out of various focal points as the frame collapses and reforms without cuts. The witty script by British heavyweights Wright, Moffat and Cornish is cheeky fun, but it takes a backseat to watching a great filmmaker simply having the time of his life. The exuberance is so infectious that all is forgiven for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

12. Another Year (dir. Mike Leigh)

Mike Leigh’s latest is one of his best, a character drama that strikes a human balance between his more miserable depictions of British life and the desperate joy of Happy-Go-Lucky. The married couple at the center of everything are so in love that their chemistry feels developed over decades, their unflappable kindness persevering even at the most stressful times. Then there’s Leslie Manville’s whirlwind performance as Mary, the alcoholic burnout who’s subconsciously given up on happiness and seeks to tear everyone else down to her level. It’s a terrifying, acutely real performance (we all know someone like Mary, and if you don’t, it’s because you’re that person) that impresses as much as the shifting photography that brings wildly different moods with each change of season.

11. Le Havre (dir. Aki Kaurismäki)

Kaurismäki’s tale of an old man helping an African immigrant on his way to London is hardly a stylistic change for the director, who continues to employ dry, even dehydrating wit and muted but precise visual schemes to match. But its tone is certainly far more optimistic than the usual fare, with Kaurismäki clearly looking at his scripted interactions not as his usual surreal scenario but as a model for proper, ethical human behavior in a global community. It’s still funny as hell and, as ever, there’s time for some rock ‘n roll, but Le Havre is an unexpectedly graceful film from one of the great comic writer-directors of our time.

10. The Strange Case of Angelica (dir. Manoel de Oliveira)

Protuguese maestro de Oliveira has lived so long that his own life doubles as an oral history of political and artistic evolution of the 20th century, and The Strange Case of Angelica makes for a summary for the now 103-year-old. Returning to his home region, the director fears for the passing of the ways of life he remembers and the rising of new issues, be they global warming or mere industrialization. His hope for escape comes in the form of a young, dead aristocrat, who visits the young but old-fashioned protagonist in reveries that seem to have come from silent film. Every shot is its own tableau vivant, enshrining the people of the film with an immortality the director thinks will outlive us all.

9. Hugo (dir. Martin Scorsese)

Derided by some as nothing more than a $150-million advertisement for Scorsese’s various film preservation projects, Hugo instead presents a love of art (literature is mentioned as often as movies) as a redeeming force for broken, lonely people. Tying 3D to the cinema’s beginnings as a kitschy curiosity limited only by its makers’ imaginations, Hugo finds a balance between old and new that makes both more exciting, tangible and affecting. The unfortunate use of blue/teal color schemes aside, the cinematography is crisp and meticulously calculated to explore both the advantages and drawbacks of 3D, and Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing gets to be more playful than usual, her unfailing abilities used here to create wonder and giddiness rather than tension. This project is so unlike Scorsese’s usual stuff, yet few of his films more wholly capture who he is as a filmmaker and a person.

8. A Separation (dir. Asghar Farhadi)

The best-written film of the year by a mile, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation explores the stubbornness, the deflected responsibilities, and the weighty lies people tell to maintain a sense of comfort and order that speak to universal human behavior. No one is evil in this film, but everyone is guilty, and they all know it too. That’s why no one will apologize for anything; it would be a sign of weakness for the rest, all ready to pounce on the first to turn his or her back on the pride. Even the film’s denying last shot constitutes an act of selfishness on behalf of the one character who previously had shown none. If this sounds like a cynical film, it isn’t, but its view of the lies we tell ourselves and others to feel superior is nevertheless unsparing.

7. The Skin I Live In (dir. Pedro Almodóvar)

Almodóvar has played with Hitchcockian ideas and shots before, but The Skin I Live In strikes me as perhaps the boldest step forward with gender identity and brutalized norms in film since Vertigo. Both films are, in essence, about a madman’s attempt to remake the living into a facsimile of a dead lover, but Almodóvar’s twist takes the gender commentary even further, and it proves one of the most shocking touches in a career largely defined by unabashed effrontery. It’s also a perfectly constructed film, so fluid it never becomes clear you’re watching a horror-thriller until some new revelation creates a sinking feeling in the stomach.

6. Melancholia (dir. Lars von Trier)

Lord knows how, but Lars von Trier made his most honest movie out of his most self-aggrandizing. Split into two distinct halves, one a Dogme-esque beourgeois satire, the other an epic acceptance of the apocalypse in response to such stultifying life, Melancholia holds together by the power of Kirsten Dunst’s performance. The endothermic core to every tortured woman in von Trier’s filmography, Dunst’s Justine is not the put-upon sufferer but the void of suffering itself, so vast and dense that she can draw a hidden planet to Earth with her own gravitational pull. Both she and von Trier present one of the most accurate, recognizable portraits of introverted depression put on screen, even as they work on a massive canvas.

5. Meek’s Cutoff (dir. Kelly Reichardt)

The un-ending will infuriate many, but I continue to hold Meek’s Cutoff as the finest anti-Western since Dead Man, and the purgatorial wandering to that film’s pure hell. The wandering souls move across parched Northern plains and rocks in an increasingly desperate search for food and water, and the native they capture may well be leading them to their doom as vengeance. Reichardt’s intimate neorealist/quasi-mumblecore trappings proved the perfect background for an unromantic period piece, the weathered cinematography and agonizingly long takes having the look of being coated in dust. A taxing film, but also one from which I could never avert my eyes.

4. Mysteries of Lisbon (dir. Raúl Ruiz)

Ruiz’s penultimate film is a triumph of directing qua direction, with the camera utterly uninhibited as it elegantly, but puckishly, passes through various tales that subvert its narrative bildungsroman further and further with each new tangent. At four-and-a-half hours, it feels a third the length, with Ruiz’s chiaroscuro tableaux and his ever-wry camera placement such a visual feast that the hours whizz by. But even for all the self-aware artiness of it all, Mysteries of Lisbon gently, empathetically tackles weighty themes of inherited sin, doomed romance, a lack of filial and national identity, and more. The prolific Ruiz managed to complete one film after this and start on a second, but even to a neophyte, Mysteries feels like a grand, gorgeous summary.

3. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul has topped himself so many times now that I cannot even bring myself to call this film his masterpiece in spite of its supreme aesthetic grace and its rich thematic commentary. A Buddhist rite of passage for film stock to Inglourious Basterds’ Viking funeral, Uncle Boonmee uses its protagonist’s lives as an excuse to pay tribute to Thai film history, as well as to look ahead to the unknown, scary but potentially rewarding digital frontier. The film also expands the boundaries Joe previously set for himself in nearly every respect, from thematic ambition to structural experimentation. Joe looks upon the death of film, as of Boonmee, with somber regret, but in the film’s enigmatic but mystifying coda, he looks forward to the next stage, tacitly accepting digital as but the next incarnation of cinema.

2. Film Socialisme (dir. Jean-Luc Godard)

Jean-Luc Godard’s latest is surely one of the most divisive releases of the last few years, its fragmentary “narrative” and even aesthetic sure to piss off more people than it attracts. But even as someone who still has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to Godard, I was fascinated by the film, even when I was frustrated with it. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her showed Godard trying to find a socialist aesthetic, one that did not privilege any one narrative or shot pattern, and Film Socialisme seems its endpoint, where the film itself is given to everyone. An unexpected companion piece to David Fincher’s mainstream remake of a bestseller, the film digs into Godard’s long-running desire to make a path for cinema to unite the world by despairing that the increased ubiquity of methods of recording and documentation have only further distanced people. But that only makes Godard try harder to find a new kind of film, and his experimentation here is as poetically resonant as it is challenging. Indeed, for all the intellectualism of the obscure references (what narrative there is depends on an apocryphal myth told to the director by Jacques Tati) and challenging construction, the film is deeply, almost painfully beautiful at times, with the civil war between a shot’s image and sound as vicious, radical, forging, and hopelessly sad as the conflicts Godard routinely references. At 80 years old, Godard can still push the boundaries of possibility, not just of his own craft but cinema as a whole.

1. The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick)

Malick’s magnum opus collects the pieces of a sparse but rich 40-year career into a summarizing collage of autobiography and cosmology. Yet the grandeur of its images and the minutely remembered suburban, postwar Texas only serve to make the director’s vision more tactile and intimate, and I can think of no film ever to make me feel as if I were watching my own memories when nothing in it comes close to my time period. Malick’s Joycean construction eschews clarity of speech, action and thought, yet few films are as lucid and instantly understandable, even if the meaning drawn from its direct appeal is different for each viewer. No film has ever affected me as strongly, or in so deeply personal a way.

Other films I loved (no order): The Interrupters (Steve James), Somewhere (Sofia Coppola), Kung Fu Panda 2 (Jennifer Yuh Nelson), The Woman (Lucky McKee), 13 Assassins (Takashi Miike), The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (David Yates), Hanna (Joe Wright), Beginners (Mike Mills), Weekend (Andrew Haigh), Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Mundean), Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)

Update: To see a ranked list of all the films I saw this year, check out this post I made at MUBI.

Thursday, December 29

War Horse (Steven Spielberg, 2011)

Like his other release this year, The Adventures of Tintin, Steven Spielberg's War Horse indulges in the best and worst of a particular facet of the director's talent. Tintin lacks a proper dramatic arc and works largely without any stakes, yet it showcases Spielberg's talent for choreographing dynamic, vast setpieces of eye-popping visual marvels. War Horse, the more low-key, Oscar-friendly picture, contains moments of such beauty as to border on the poetic, matching the most abstract and haunting shots of the director's canon. But it is also such a hand-holding, tedious affair as to display the most immature, irritating traits of Spielberg's storytelling. In other terms, if Tintin displays Spielberg at his most childlike, War Horse shows him at his most childish.

War Horse barely even gets started before it's in your face with forced wonder, opening on a young English farm boy, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), watching the birth of a foal with fascination. But the film moves through a quick series of shots that continue to convey Albert's instant love of this creature, even as the edits clearly hop over a significant portion of time. Within seconds of screen time, the foal grows into a yearling, but Albert has that same dopey look on his face. Does that mean he walked around like the village idiot for weeks, even months, gawping at a damn horse? And when Albert's lovable alcoholic father (Peter Mullan) buys the horse at an auction just to get one over his landlord, the lad is so overjoyed that the very real possibility his dad just made them homeless matters nothing next to owning "Joey," All the while, John Williams score insists you take a handkerchief, regardless of whether your eyes are wet. This is not the organic Spielberg who could masterfully manipulate an audience to genuine reaction; this is a battering ram methodically slamming against the portcullis until it can break through and shove the intended emotional response down everyone's throat.

A few treacly, minor triumphs categorize this first segment, as Albert trains Joey to plow in order to satisfy that landlord, played by David Thewlis in a one-note sneer he occasionally tries and fails to deepen. But even the small victory of plowing a rocky field Bought by a sweet, naïve captain (Tom Hiddleston) as his personal war steed, Joey gets steered into the battlefront, where the cruelty of WWI will wrench him constantly into new ownership and halt the film once more to let some other character give off a whiff of emotional heft before moving off again.

Spielberg excels at investing audience sympathy in non-human subjects. E.T. is equally as worthy of the audience's love and worry as Elliot, while David the robot is more recognizably human than any of A.I.'s actual homo sapiens. But as one can see by the initial focus on Albert over "Joey," the horse in War Horse is not really the star, merely the vehicle for dragging along the plot like that plow he must tug while still on the farm. If Spielberg innovates anything here, it is to at last make a non-human character as much of a blank canvas for projection as poorly written human ciphers. David and E.T. come with their own personalities, but Joey is just there, smoothing the narrative transitions between perspectives as the POV is handed off with the horse's reins. When Joey at all features front and center, it is either to get a laugh for his cheek or a tear for his hardship. Yet the only true subjugation of this poor creature is by the director, who puts Joey in precarious situations simply for the empty rush of concern the audience might feel for him.

Shot with a refreshing amount of color, War Horse moves so far away from the "realism" of so many Spielberg-Kaminski pairings that the director and cinematographer move into near-Technicolor levels of old Hollywood filmmaking. When the horse finally goes to war an hour into the film, Spielberg treats us to images that survey war with formal remove instead of handheld verisimilitude, and his shots are stunning. The sudden mounting of horses hidden in a wheat field, sending grains flying into the air like a blizzard as a cavalry materializes, is gorgeous, thrilling, but also tense. Likewise, Spielberg's method of eliding over the deaths in the resultant charge into machine guns, by showing now-riderless horses bounding past the gun placements, is oddly serene despite the horror of what it depicts. Furthermore, the shots of trench warfare manage to top even Stanley Kubrick's ability to evoke sheer, senseless carnage in Paths of Glory. The trenches are claustrophobic death pits clouded over by gunsmoke and rendered chaotic by constant bombardment, but no man's land makes these sweltering, overcrowded holes look like Xanadu. Crisscrossing webs of barbed wire become clotheslines for fallen soldiers, festering puddles of stagnant rainwater splashing god knows what bacteria on the few who wade through them without dying. War in War Horse despite its lack of desaturated film stock, the omission of blood, and the perfection of its craftsmanship, occasionally looks more hellish and insensible than battle in Saving Private Ryan.

But as much as the film might show off the director's clear mastery of classical filmmaking, it also reveals the oversimplifying limitations of that method of storytelling. Richard Curtis, who co-wrote the magnificent Blackadder Goes Forth (still my favorite work of fiction, humorous or otherwise, on WWI), helps pen a depressingly thin portrait of WWI-era Europe. The opening segment is a cut-out of prewar English life: Mullan looks more like an old comic-strip drunk than Captain Haddock himself, while Emily Watson makes Important Statements about everything from the folly of buying the horse to the heroism her husband hides from the world. (At all other times, she stands in front of the homestead as if she forgot what continent and time period she's in and is expecting Sherman to burn the farm to the ground any second.) Class, a key factor in the outbreak and strategies of the war, is here reduced to a few broad sketches, which might have been permissible if the story were really Joey's. But our beloved war horse is on the other side of the battlefield when the fleeting grasp at class commentary in the British trenches is made, making the half-hearted attempt at depth all the more meaningless.

The fatuous, hollow manipulation of so much of the film is all the more frustrating for the moments where everything comes together and Spielberg shows his talent for hooking an audience. After denying the Germans humanity in Saving Private Ryan, here they get to be as real as the Englishmen, which is not saying much, but still. A sequence of a young soldier using a captured Joey and another English cavalry horse to abduct his younger brother from going to the front lines, trading certain death for a merely probable one for going AWOL, is both stirring and bleak. And one scene in particular will go down as one of Spielberg's best moments: Joey finds himself ensnared by barbed wire in no man's land between German and British trenches, and a soldier from each side heads out in peace to help the beast. It's a beautiful, unforced exchange, the teasing conversation that the two men strike up more like the taunts of rival football fans than soldiers sworn to kill the other for king (or kaiser) and country. Highlighting the pointlessness of WWI without having to make any big speech, this scene finds real affirmation in the momentary ceasefire, a reminder that war is something "other people" declare, and that those sent to die in it often share more with the people shooting at them than the high command that keeps pushing them forward.

But even this magnificent scene is hobbled by a simperingly dumb visual gag of nervous Germans chucking their wire cutters over the top when the two exposed men ask for a second pair. Like that unnecessary extra scream in Jaws involving the severed head, this one shot shows Spielberg getting greedy, doing a disservice to his own greatness by trying too hard to get one more reaction out of the audience. And that is but the least egregious example of Spielberg's awkward, counterproductive attempts to elicit some form of response from the audience he used to know how to play like a symphony. In my review for Tintin, a mechanical but spectacular delight, I noted that Spielberg made his first film since Jurassic Park that made me feel unabashed, "How did he do that?" wonder. But War Horse aims to be more moving fare, which Spielberg has made more regularly in the second half of his career. Empire of the SunSchindler's List, A.I., and Munich all make for complicated and ambiguous dramas that find the doubt, even the incurable pain, in their subject matter. War Horse ends with the most contrived happy ending since everything magically turned out OK for the main family in War of the Worlds.

Spielberg has long been able to tell children's stories that set kids on the path to growing up, often in harsh terms. War Horse tours the audience through the horrors of the first War to End All Wars, only to dump us off unchanged at the end. Like the horse it pretends is the protagonist, the film has no understanding, no insight, into what it sees. Its most affecting moments seem to occur almost in spite of the movie as a whole, which routinely finds ways to maintain the audience's overall comfort level while milking them for sympathy. It's just a crying exercise, something to cleanse the body of toxins to send back out into the world, none the wiser but vaguely refreshed. There is merit in that kind of film, but War Horse wants to be so much more, to be so captivating and resonant from start to finish, that even its ephemeral pleasures must be considered a failure.

Wednesday, December 28

Books I Read in 2011

I fell shamefully behind on reading when I went to college, first overburdened by an engineering course load then spending so much time writing stories for journalism assignments or delving deeper and deeper into film to tend to my literary interests. This year I vowed to get back into the groove and challenged myself to read 40 books before New Year's. Just last week, I succeeded. For the most part, I read a lot of great books over the year, so I thought I'd share some brief thoughts for them after the jump.

1. The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy — Bill Carter

Less dramatically intense and straightforward than The Late Shift—in part because of the more diverse late-night field that now exists and because so much of the central conflict occurred on television and in constantly updated Internet stories—New York Times television writer Bill Carter’s investigative look at the latest fiasco at NBC is nevertheless well-researched and narratively assured. Perhaps a bit too unwilling to lay blame at anyone’s feet, Carter points out the surprising ties that bind Conan and Leno, from their mutual sense of company loyalty and work ethic to their worship of the Tonight Show franchise and overriding desire to be a part of its legacy.

Carter presents the issue of the Tonight Show as the product of so many compounded mistakes that no one, not even Jay Leno and Jeff Zucker, can be held responsible for the resultant train wreck. But even setting aside my own Team Coco bias, it seems as if that tangled web was primarily woven by NBC executives and Leno, but the depth of Carter’s reporting ensures one cannot stay mad at anyone for a series of decisions made in the attempt to please everyone. But those in entertainment should know you’ll never be able to make everyone happy, and as much of a White Person Problem as this whole saga is, I continue to marvel at how gripping the story can be.

2. Absalom! Absalom! — William Faulkner

William Faulkner’s writing is hilarious, poignant, allegorical, immediate and, quite often, borderline infuriating. It took me three goes with this novel before I finally understood the truth: stop trying to figure it out. Yes, Absalom! Absalom! is allegorical and symbolic, but it works by letting its endlessly overlapping and conflicting histories add up to an emotional, even semi-spiritual, portrait of the post-Reconstruction South. The “truth” of Quentin Compson’s assembled chronology of the Sutpen clan is irrelevant: what matters is just what the contradictions say about them, and of Compson, and of the entire Southern sensibility. Most importantly, though, it speaks to the desperation of the soul, that terrible need in all of us to know ourselves, to know and make our place.

Faulkner’s structure is breathtaking: you cannot even call it ouroboric because that would imply a circular movement. This is less the sight of the snake eating its own tail than the excreted remains of self-consumed serpent. Nearly everything one needs to know is located in the first chapter, but different perspectives encroach, all of them adding, at least, characters’ subjective interpretations and, at most, their freewheeling speculation. There’s Rosa Coldfield’s ingrained hatred casting nightmarish shadows over Thomas Sutpen, Mr. Compson speaking more analytically but also reverently, Sutpen’s own words passed through several generations of lips or, most hilariously, Shreve’s conjecture, an outgrowth of his intense fascination with the corkscrewing story as well as his fed-up attempts to get to the damn point (rarely has a character served as a better stand-in for the audience). And at the center of it all is Quentin, so discombobulated by the Sutpen legacy and what it means to him that he’d eventually throw himself off a bridge, though in true Faulkner fashion, he’d technically already done that.

There are few things more gratifying than wrestling with an accepted masterpiece until you find that when you stop trying to appreciate it, it’s a damn sight easier to love it. It’s till a challenge, but I couldn’t put it down, finally enthralled by Faulkner’s most towering work, even if I still prefer Light in August.

3. Blood Meridian — Cormac McCarthy

Review here.

4. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — Mark Twain

Huck Finn is a serio-comic masterpiece, one of a handful of books in any language to truly contain a laugh a page, but also that rare comedy that can step outside itself in horrifying moments of clarity that do not derail the comedy even as they deepen the text. I remember disliking the final chapters when I read this my freshman year of high school, utterly failing to see Twain’s intention: by reintroducing Tom Sawyer, he completely changes our view on that erstwhile protagonist by divorcing us critically from antics that now seem less precocious than sociopathic and deranged. Furthermore, Tom contrasts the absurdity of romanticism with the meaningful drama of Huck’s realism.

I re-read this over the latest censorship fuss to plague the novel, and as ever I remain in the camp arguing it should never be altered. Twain knew exactly what he was doing using that word, and it makes his satire all the more lastingly piercing.

5. Silence — Shusaku Endo

With Martin Scorsese finally on-track to adapt this long-gestating project, I decided to give the source material a go. I discovered two things: 1) It's obvious why Scorsese would want to film it, what with its themes of religious doubt and suffering lining up neatly with his own preoccupations and 2) As good as the book is, there is room for improvement. Endo's writing segues awkwardly from an epistolary collection of writings from his protagonist, Rodrigues, to limited third-person, a shift that would work better in film where perspective can more smoothly change. By the same token, Endo's direct but resonant prose contains an undeniable power.

The best art dealing with faith is made by those grappling with belief. Endo's priest hero heads to Japan unable to comprehend the rampant apostasy of the recently converted and even a few European priests, despite the reports of horrid, unimaginable torture placed upon them. Once he arrives, however, the unforgiving attitude of the ruling daimyo toward Christians, and even the harsh terrain, confront the zealous missionary with the first resistance to religion he's ever experienced, and all he can notice after a time is the deafening silence of God in response to atrocity. But Endo, who presents Japan as a nation inhospitable to the vision of a Christian God, intriguingly reveals his own unique (and culturally Japanese) take on God/Jesus as a being that sufferers with his followers instead of simply looking down from above. A fascinating, moving book that will certainly rank as one of my favorite artistic endeavors to wrestle with faith

6. The Awakening — Kate Chopin

Read for my American literature class. Before it was assigned, I’d never even heard of the book, or Chopin, despite her groundbreaking influence on my favorite Southern writers. Though her writing only flirts with the stream-of-consciousness Gothic qualities that Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner would later perfect, you can still see the germinating seed here. Still, the novel itself is a bit dry, restrained by its Victorian sentiment of freeing a woman solely by having her act like the selfish, lustful image of man and not by truly probing femininity and gender rebellion. I enjoyed it more as a tongue-in-cheek version of a horror story (Egads! A woman declaring independence!) than as an examination of what it means to be a woman, but that may have been Chopin’s intent all along.

7. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man — James Joyce

Having read only the tiniest excerpts of Joyce in high school, I figured it was high time to dive into that most celebrated (and feared) of 20th century writers. Despite the lengthy annotations (nothing compared to his two biggest works, which contain hundreds of pages of notes), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man alerted me quickly to the rhythm of Joyce’s prose, a bouncy livelihood which more than compensated for his dense lingual experimentation. Given the novel’s focus on a young man who finds himself through his talent and rejects what he considers the banalities of the world, I’m surprised this doesn’t get mentioned alongside The Catcher in the Rye more often, but Joyce goes far deeper than Salinger ever dared, not only conveying Stephen’s growth through the narrative but the text itself. The book starts with a children’s tale using children’s words, and it ends with a well-articulating, radical artistic manifesto (an expression of one’s thoughts made more literal in the epistolary last chapter). Some might accuse Stephen of arrogance, but Joyce is simply refusing to apologize for presenting a truth: an artist, a true artistic genius, must step outside normalcy to better create. Political and religious imagery runs through the book, but Stephen rejects both to pursue creation.

There’s simply too much here to spotlight, but I would like to register just a snippet of Joyce’s gift for wordplay: Stephen Dedalus, a combination of the first Christian martyr and the mythological architect of the labyrinth in Crete, a dichotomy Joyce circles around throughout. Stephen’s father’s name is Simon, and when Stephen has a rush of spiritual shame that leads to a brief dalliance with Catholic living he briefly considers using money to atone for his sin, thus making him guilty of simony. And I cannot quite put into words why I am so affected by one of the last passages in the book, written in the terse bullet-form of a journal entry but full of meaning, as it addresses the genuine humility underneath some "know-it-alls": “Mother indulgent. Said I have a queer mind and read too much. Not true. Have read little and understood less.” I find this passage as beautiful as the novel’s most flowery runs, and there are many. A masterpiece.

8. Notes from Underground — Fyodor Dostoevsky

A terrifying outpouring of bile that at every turn reveals the unutterable sadness beneath the unnamed narrator's screeds. So short it barely constitutes a novella, Notes from Underground nevertheless troubles me more than nearly any other work of art. But its cathartic honesty only makes it more necessary; writing it probably kept Dostoevsky from killing someone.

9. Pride and Prejudice — Jane Austen

Few things in life are more delightful than sitting back and watching Jane Austen work her magic with the English language.

10. Jurassic Park — Michael Crichton

God, this might be even more awkwardly anti-human than the special-effects bonanza movie.

11. Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 — Paul Tingen

Tingen makes some weird diversions into talk of Zen Buddhism, and he is occasionally too eager to use all of the notes he collected (every journalist knows you never use all your research) but otherwise his meticulous cataloguing and interviewing adds invaluable insight into the neglected and even mocked late-career of an American icon. I love Electric Miles, and some of the revelations here only made me appreciate Miles' daring sonic explorations even more.

12. Jane Eyre — Charlotte Brontë

HATED this in high school, couldn't put it down this time. I still don't quite cotton to its almost emo romance, of two insular people basically retreating from the rest of the world to live their Gothic life, but the mash-up of social romance with Gothic horror is not only entertaining but often riotous. Brontë gets in a number of fantastic jabs.

13. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 — Hunter S. Thompson

One of my all-time favorites, densely involved in the minutiae of political wheeling and dealing to the point that it can be hard to follow, yet so ingeniously scribbled by Thompson that it is compulsively page-turning. I reread it all the time, and you can be damn sure I'll be breaking it out in this upcoming election season, which promises to be an outright farce .

14. The Dirt — Motlëy Crüe

I've never hated the members of a band so thoroughly, nor have I ever been so unable to put down a book. The confessions here are demented and disgusting, but the occasional moment of clarity of the addict makes for harrowing self-evaluations. Vince Neil's self-loathing over his fatality-inducing drunken driving is particularly brutal in its honesty. A trashy read, but a revealing one.

15. Ulysses — James Joyce

Life-altering. My collection of posts for each chapter can be accessed here.

16. Leviathan — Scott Westerfeld

Intriguing take on steampunk that also explores a what-if? history re: Darwinian theory and genetic engineering. Shame it's a YA novel, as the story constantly moves away from its fascinating world to focus on clichéd storytelling elements further restricted by the age of the intended audience.

17. The Sirens of Titan — Kurt Vonnegut

One of Vonnegut's best. Surreal and silly, but often so piercing it hurts. Up there with Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat's Cradle for me.

18. Swamplandia! — Karen Russell

Half of this book is a masterpiece. The magic realist chapters with the daughter make prose poetry out of banal, even ugly, tracts of land. Sadly, the stuff with the brother rates as dimestore anti-capitalist satire, and a garish plot-twist that launches the final act is a predictable and cheap ploy for shock. It's a shame; Swamplandia! started out as one of the most lyrical, intoxicating reads of recent years, only to end up an all too typical disappointment.

19. The Great Terror: A Reassessment — Robert Conquest

Review here.

20. Hitch 22 — Christopher Hitchens

Even his damn memoir is combative. I still can't really write about Hitch yet. Maybe I'll try if and when I get through that massive final collection of essays.

21. The Lost World — Michael Crichton

If Spielberg's poorly aged Jurassic Park is nevertheless an improvement over Crichton's original, it's hard to say who came out worse with their respective sequels. Spielberg's Lost World is a soulless, pedestrian waste of time and perhaps the director's worst film. Crichton's book may be even worse, a lethargic trudge through a pointless plot that exists only to posit how the dinosaurs went extinct. Because we were all on pins and needles to hear what Crichton thought about that.

22. What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years — Ricky Riccardi

Riccardi can be a bit too defensive of Armstrong and defend some questionable career decisions, but his book is as vital as Tingen's on Miles' late career. He makes a compelling case for the artistry, even the barrier breaking of Satchmo's mainstream success, and it sent me scrambling to save up the cash for the new 10-CD collection of Armstrong's post-Hot Fives & Sevens career. It's sad how many supposed music lovers seem to think that Armstrong's legacy stops after those short years near the start of his professional life.

23. The Age of Innocence — Edith Wharton

Succeeds at capturing the rule-ordered social world of the setting that the pain of forbidden love never quite breaks through. I actually prefer Scorsese's film of the work.

24. Dubliners — James Joyce

A suffocating portrait of Dublin, but one that also finds meaning and occasionally even beauty in the characters trapped by Ireland's necrotic past. "The Dead" is, of course, a masterpiece, but I'm still captivated by most of the stories, which can be so cynical, yet so human. It's an inexplicably attained balance, and it's no wonder Jennifer Egan recently failed so badly at writing a postmodern Dubliners for America (more on that later).

25. Franny and Zooey — J.D. Salinger

I never took to Salinger in high school, but I should give him another try now that I'm no longer around people who are, like, TOTALLY inspired by Holden Caulfield. This bifurcated novella was a refreshing reentry into the late author's work, a slightly precious but intensely moving account of genius children in serious danger of falling into incurable waste as young adults. Its short length gives the work a brevity that gets to the heart of the story quickly without sacrificing style.

26. The Brothers Karamazov — Fyodor Dostoevsky

One of the most psychologically rich novels ever written. Whole pages of neurotic word soup pass without so much as a single paragraph break, but I never once got tired of Dostoevky's epic. Overwhelming in the best sense, Karamazov covers so much ground that only a book like Ulysses, which chased profundity by running in the opposite direction, to minute observation over cosmic melodrama, could find something else to say about the human condition in its wake. The "Grand Inquisitor" chapter is one of the most incisive, brutal things I've ever read.

27. The Help — Kathryn Stockett

An insipid bit of revisionist nonsense that allows a white woman to kind-of, sort-of, not-at-all address her own upbringing by a black maid. But Stockett is so invested in learning that she was actually loved by her own help that she won't let anything in the book that even hints at the possibility that a black woman forced to neglect her own children might only not love a white baby but could utterly resent it. Stockett even talked to former maids who expressed this view while conducting research, but funnily enough that didn't make it in the novel. And why should it? Her deceptive structure only gives the impression of telling black women's stories.

28. Light in August — William Faulkner

I had to wash The Help out of my mouth with a book by a white person that actually gets racism right. Faulkner's novel is a harrowing reckoning of the South's racial past, its shuddered waves of shame and self-repulsion more suffocating even than his works on the South's broader issues with self-identity and lack thereof. My favorite Faulkner.

29. Culture and Anarchy — Matthew Arnold

Keeps all the good bits from Plato and leaves out that whole "censor and punish the artists" chestnut. I still think there's a limiting view to Arnold's philosophy, but this a nice stepping stone to more engaging (to me) philosophers like Levinas.

30. Twilight of the Idols — Friedrich Nietzsche

I love Nietzsche. He's so easy to misconstrue that I'm afraid to even say what I think he believes on any topic, but he is so witty and combative that his philosophy is fantastically readable. As something of a self-summary of intent, Twilight of the Idols is accessible even by his standards, and I loved his thoughts on religion.

31. Lolita — Vladimir Nabokov

As I recall, Lolita was the one Stanley Kubrick film I didn't like, and I was reluctant to delve even into its lauded source material for fear of its potential romanticization of a repellent affair. Happily, Nabokov's playful prose subtly undermines its rhapsodic narrator, carefully making clear that Humbert's self-justification is just that, and that his perceived romance with a girl wise beyond her years is actually a psychologically scarring event that tears down that old-young pairing that runs through literary history. I toed the water with this at first, but I emerged as ready to sing its praises as the host of more qualified literary critics.

32. Elective Affinities — Goethe

Too odd for me to even go into. Not entirely sure what the book is saying beyond the idea of human chemistry being as irreversible and natural as elemental chemistry, but then maybe that's the whole point. I was intrigued throughout, but I don't necessarily know that I enjoyed it.

33. Hitchcock’s Films Revisited — Robin Wood

This critical assessment, split between Wood's original edition and a revised evaluation not only of other Hitchcock films but his own previous writing, is indispensable. Wood's knowledge of various critical theories and his ability to fluidly connect them to practical, demonstrable examples not only deepens our understanding of one of the great directors but also makes complex academic theories more palatable and cogent to a layman like me. This book makes me want to be a better critic, and I think that reading it while taking a class on critical theory helped me understand some of the writers I was reading in that class so much better.

34. A Visit from the Goon Squad — Jennifer Egan

I should have a full review up for this on another site sometime in January, but for now I'll just say that Egan's sub-Joycean stylistic exercises left me underwhelmed, and her characters were so crudely drawn that I could not believe anyone could see any humanity in this work. As social critique, it is laughably clueless, and as literary experimentation, it is infuriatingly safe.

35. Images: My Life in Film — Ingmar Bergman

A surprisingly bouncy read that offered enjoyable insights from the director into his own work, and not always positive self-assessments. Naturally, the autocritique lacks the more layered study a detached critic could bring, but Bergman is sufficiently candid that Images is never just a parade of compliments and self-justification.

36. James Joyce — Richard Ellmann

Review here.

37. Catch-22 — Joseph Heller

I'm going to make a habit of reading this every few years. I first read it in high school and found it funny. Now, I couldn't make it past a page without laughing, even as the more traumatized segments of sheer horror affected me more profoundly. Christopher Hitchens once advised readers to "stay on good terms with your inner Yossarian," and I have a better idea as to why after rereading this all-too-sane farce on the sheer madness of war and the bureaucracy that carefully orders that madness into official insanity.

38. Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings — ed. Adriaan T. Peperzak, Simon Critchley, Robert Bernasconi

I had a hell of a hard time understanding Levinas at first, even compared to my normal difficulty with philosophy. Yet once he clicked, I found I delighted in his thoughts more than just about any other thinker, his beliefs on our innate ethical responsibility to others the most affirming philosophy I've ever heard. There are still huge gaps even in this introductory collection of essays I found impenetrable, but I was not only stimulated by what I understood but utterly moved.

39. Mirroring People — Marco Iacoboni

My critical theory professor gave us this final read as, I suspect, his idea of a reward for getting through various philosophical essays over the semester. Whatever the reason, this fleet, intelligent but layman-targeted explanation of mirror neurons was a great read, and one that offered empirical biological data to support Levinas' assertions of ethics. The notion that we are neurologically predisposed to engage in mimetic and empathetic behavior is exciting, not merely for its revelations of human communication but its implications for treatment of disorders like autism.

40. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — Stieg Larsson

I touched on my feelings on this book with my review of David Fincher's adaptation of it (which not merely surpasses the Swedish version but improves on this source material). Larsson broaches so many interesting ideas but constantly pulls back to rant about the state of investigative journalism, even using an extraneous act after the mystery climax to settle Mikael's scores. Furthermore, Lisbeth Salander, so tragically seen as some kind of feminist action heroine, is so blatantly the fetishized projection of this male author that I couldn't help but feel embarrassed at times. Still engagingly page-turning enough to keep me going, but I was amazed that someone managed to make a near-great film out of this, given what a near-abysmal novel it is.