Thursday, December 29, 2011

Year in Film: 2011

Each film on this list had at least one public theatrical screening in Milwaukee for the first time in 2011.  Some of these films were released in other areas of the world in 2010, while some won’t be released until 2012, and some won’t be released in certain places at all.

Here is a list of movies that I really wanted to see that I missed:
Aurora (Cristi Puiu, Romania, 181 min.)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, USA, 158 min.)
Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog, Germany, 107 min.)
Mysteries of Lisbon (Raoul Ruiz, Portugal, 272 min.)
The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 117 min.)

Here is a list of movies I really want to see that didn’t make it to Milwaukee this year:
Carnage (Roman Polanski, France, 79 min.)
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, UK, 99 min.)
The Future (Miranda July, USA, 91 min.)
House of Pleasures (Bertrand Bonello, France, 122 min.)
The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium, 87 min.)
Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo, Mexico, 113 min.)
Project Nim (James Marsh, UK, 93 min.)
Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman, USA, 121 min.)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran, 123 min.)
Shame (Steve McQueen, UK, 101 min.)
Tabloid (Errol Morris, USA, 87 min.)
This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran, 75 min.)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, UK, 127 min.)
The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr, Hungary, 146 min.)
The Woman (Lucky McKee, USA, 101 min.)

I also haven’t seen a number of the holiday season’s prestige films, although most of these strike me as conventional biopics (My Week with Marilyn), light entertainment for Clinton democrats (The Descendants), gimmicky schlock (The Artist), or pandering awards bait (War Horse).  I’ll probably get around to seeing these films in time to do a “Catching Up with 2011” post in early spring, and it’s possible that I’ll even like some of them, but I’m less excited to see these Oscar front runners than any of the twenty films listed above.  Below is a ranked list of the feature films that I saw this year, with brief comments on a number of them.

A   Masterpiece
1)  Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 104 min.)
The best new film that I’ve seen since starting this blog is Kelly Reichardt’s quietly intense tale of settlers stranded on the Oregon Trail.  Reichardt’s previous films have each been at least partially about people on the road struggling to survive with limited resources, but the stakes have increased here dramatically, with every move the settlers make bringing them one step closer to death from dehydration and heat exhaustion.  Adopting a you-are-there approach, the director engulfs the actors in enormous shots of dry desert land, restricts our access to important decisions by filming the men from a distance and making their voices barely audible, and doesn’t translate the dialogue of a Native American who becomes the group’s slave after possibly trying to attack them.  The overwhelmingly naturalistic feel of the film is complimented brilliantly by Jeff Grace’s somber, creepy score, the stunningly claustrophobic cinematography of Chris Blauvelt, the lived-in performances of the ensemble cast, and the brave decision to film the movie in some of the harsh locations where the real-life settlers met their demises.  This is an arduous journey film to set next to Aguirre, the Wrath of God, The Wages of Fear, and The Naked Spur.

B+   Special
2)  Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy, 106 min.)
At first glance, this would appear to be Abbas Kiarostami’s most conventional film to date – his first narrative feature in a decade, the first with a fully written script, one of the first to feature a professional actor (Juliette Binoche),  and the first to be filmed entirely outside of the director’s native Iran and in the more arthouse-friendly Italy.  But in reality this is the most intellectually demanding (and rewarding) film of the year.  Kiarostami takes a seemingly straightforward plot – a French antiques dealer (Binoche) and a touring British author (opera singer William Shimell, making a surprisingly strong debut as an actor) meet up for a date – and runs it through a blender, altering the protagonists’ relationship to each other without warning.  Are they on a first date or are they a married couple celebrating their fifteenth anniversary?  It seems that their reality changes every time they are placed in a new frame (in a car, in a restaurant, in a bedroom), but Kiarostami pointedly avoids giving any concrete answers.  Given that we never know the precise nature of the couple’s relationship, their meltdown toward the film’s end is surprisingly emotionally affecting, a credit to the quietly virtuosic performances of Binoche and Shimell.  While Certified Copy isn’t quite as strong overall as Kiarostami’s ‘90s masterpieces Close-Up, Taste of Cherry, and The Wind Will Carry Us, that is more a comment on the greatness of those films than any failings of this one.
3)  Melancholia (Lars von Trier, Denmark, 136 min.)
Antichrist found provocateur Lars von Trier diving head first into self-parody, and the result was embarrassing enough to make me question my positive reaction to some of his previous films.  Melancholia is as operatic and bold as Antichrist, but it is also a powerful course correction that finally addresses and deals with the most problematic elements of the director’s aesthetic.  Heroines Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg are clearly figures whom the director identifies with, rather than the fearsome martyrs of previous von Trier films.  While von Trier, who famously suffers from bouts of depression, has a keen understanding of his heroines’ psychology, he is also painfully aware of the toll that their self-centeredness takes on the people around them, and seems to view many of the supporting characters with more affection than his ostensible stand-ins.   That mature attitude, combined with a lack of the ironic distancing that muddled many of his earlier films, makes this von Trier’s best and most spellbinding film to date.
4)  Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, USA, 102 min.)
This creepy mood piece about a woman attempting to readjust to “normal” society after spending nearly two years in a cult derives its considerable power equally from Elizabeth Olsen’s commanding lead performance and writer-director Sean Durkin’s cleverly deployed disorientation techniques.  While a film this technically assured and psychologically harrowing would be impressive coming from any well-known auteurs, the fact that this is Olsen’s first lead performance and Durkin’s debut feature makes the effort all the more monumental.
5)  The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, USA, 139 min.)
Terrence Malick releases films so rarely (he’s made four after his 1973 debut, Badlands) that every one feels like an event, the promise of something huge and unapologetically cinematic in the age of instant streaming and cellphone apps.  The Tree of Life doesn’t disappoint on that front, as Malick tackles nothing less ambitious than a variation on the story of Job, and he even has the nerve to include the parts where God is talking about creating the universe itself (represented here by a series of gorgeous mini experimental films within the film, and also a CGI sequence featuring a merciful dinosaur).  That grandeur is played against an evocatively remembered, deeply personal story about a child’s conservative upbringing in small-town Texas, with a stern father (Brad Pitt, in his best performance to date) and a saintly mother (Jessica Chastain) providing conflicting influence.  The contrast between the family scenes and the epic, literally world-building scenes is sometimes as awkward as it is fascinating, and the final, surprisingly banal depiction of Heaven is a disappointing climax to a film that is otherwise so steadfast about putting the mystery back into God.  But if Malick occasionally stumbles, it is mostly because no one is aiming as high as he is.
6)  13 Assassins (Takashi Miike, Japan, 125 min.)
Never one for understatement, cult director Takashi Miike fills his punk samurai epic with as much blood and guts as you’d expect to see in one of his gonzo horror movies.  But he hasn’t been this smart about building to the payoff since Audition.  In keeping with samurai film tradition, the first half of the film is about establishing the threat (a sadistic warlord who threatens to take the throne) and putting together the team that will take him down.  The second half is a ruthlessly nonstop action sequence that adds moving walls, primitive explosives, a comic relief character who fights with a tree trunk instead of a sword, and flaming boars to the expected swordplay. 
7)  Hugo (Martin Scorsese, USA, 126 min.)
Martin Scorsese is perhaps not the most obvious choice of director for a 3D, French-set adaptation of a children’s story, but he is the only person who could have helmed Hugo.  Applying the technical innovations of James Cameron’s Avatar to a story that’s actually worth telling, Scorsese uses the extreme depth of focus offered by digital 3D to create impossibly sweeping tracking shots, to add extra punch to already visceral action sequences, and, most movingly, to restage some of the most memorable moments from Georges Melies’ oeuvre.  With this celebration of cinema’s inception, Scorsese may have made some history of his own.
8)  Marathon Boy (Gemma Atwal, India/UK, 98 min.)
This look at a four-year old Indian marathon runner is hardly the year’s flashiest or most high-profile documentary, but it may very well be the most gripping.  Far from the faux-inspirational “real-life Slumdog Millionaire” story that it is advertised as, this is a complicated and layered story about the limited opportunities for Indian slum kids, the thin line between exploiting said kids and giving them a chance at a better life, and the political structure that often prevents the poor from improving their situation.  First-time director Gemma Atwal pursues all of these questions to their logical end, never allowing the film to become a conventional sports documentary. 
9)  Into Eternity (Michael Madsen, Denmark/Finland/Sweden, 75 min.)
Few of this year’s fiction films were as haunting or as purely cinematic as Michael Madsen’s conceptual documentary about the ongoing construction of Onkalo, an underground Finnish facility that is intended to store nuclear waste for one-hundred thousand years – which would mean that it would have to last ten times longer than any man-made structure ever built.  Madsen uncovers a fascinating and disturbing debate about how to properly warn a theoretical future society to avoid entering Onkalo, and asks scientists and scholars the tough questions about potential problems with the experiment.  Meanwhile, he and cinematographer Heikki Farm capture some of the most beautifully creepy shots of the year from inside the caves where Onkalo is being built.  The filmmakers are working almost entirely inside the Werner Herzog school of documentary-making, but there is no reason to complain when it’s clearly the right approach to the material. 
10)  Viva Riva! (Djo Tunda Wa Munga, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 96 min.)
This energetic modern Blaxploitation film about small-time Congolese hoods battling for oil drums suggests what Mad Max would be like if it took place in the real world – and also hauntingly suggests that we may already be living in such a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  First-time writer-director Djo Tunda Wa Munga keeps the plot unpredictable and the pace lively, and also shows a good instinct for dismantling potentially sensationalistic moments with shocking moments of brutally realistic violence.
11)  The Redemption of General Butt Naked (Eric Strauss & Daniele Anastasion, USA/Liberia, 85 min.)
The most fascinating character in any film this year was General Butt Naked, formerly a ruthless warlord in Liberia’s civil war and now a Christian preacher hoping to atone for the atrocities he’s committed in the past.  Documentarians Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion follow the newly-christened Joshua Milton Blahyi as he attempts to reunite with, and receive forgiveness from, the people whose lives he’s ruined.  It’s never clear how sincere Blahyi’s quest for redemption is, and the filmmakers avoid any editorializing about whether a man who has committed so many atrocities even deserves to be forgiven.  The film’s neutrality is almost frustrating at times, but with a subject as complicated as Blahyi it may be more important to ask questions than to give answers. 
12)  The Interrupters (Steve James, USA, 125 min.)
The latest documentary from socially-minded director Steve James (of Hoop Dreams fame) is a moving look at a Chicago organization that hires former gang members to diffuse violent situations and help current gang members find better opportunities.  Riveting whether it’s showing the interrupters getting in the middle of a hostile scene or simply documenting the progress of people trying to get through the day, the film nevertheless feels less in-depth than expected from a filmmaker of James’ status.  It would be nice to know more about issues like the interrupters’ relationship with the police, and the ending seems a bit too abrupt.  Still, this is trenchant, essential stuff, and one of the best documentaries of the year.

B   Very Good
13)  City of Life and Death (Lu Chuan, China, 132 min.)
Lu Chuan’s epic recreation of the Rape of Nanking falls into the same trap as many films about holocausts, with the perpetrators being portrayed as evil, mustache-twirling villains, as if the film is saying “they treated us like animals – those monsters.”  But perhaps we should be glad that the film at least has enough nuance to include one token conflicted Japanese soldier, considering that that small acknowledgement of the “enemy’s” humanity was enough to get the film banned from many Chinese theatres.  What the film lacks in nuance it makes up for in sheer cumulative tragedy.  Few works of art have given such a convincingly brutal depiction of the devastation that an occupying force can have on a nation, and the stunning widescreen black and white cinematography of Cao Yu really puts across the full scale and crushing weight of the tragedy.
14)  Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, USA, 100 min.)
I’m not sure that there’s any point to this throwback to ‘70s and ‘80s action movies beyond being cool.  Fortunately, it is genuinely cool.  Every element of the film – from the simple “small time crook gets in over his head” narrative to Ryan Gosling’s commandingly subtle lead performance to the refreshingly visceral, non-CGI action scenes – is stripped down to its absolute bare essentials, giving the film a straightforward power that is sadly lacking in most of Hollywood’s bloated action epics.  Of course, director Nicolas Winding Refn’s streamlining also prevents the film from being anything deeper than a forceful punch to the gut, but sometimes that’s enough.
15)  Poetry (Lee Chang-dong, South Korea, 139 min.)
In his character study about an elderly woman’s attempts to fight back Alzheimer’s by enrolling in a poetry class, director Lee Chang-dong not only avoids all of the saccharine clichés that such a story seems to suggest, but winds up going into some of the darkest and most compelling social commentary of any film in recent memory.  It would be a shame to spoil too much of this film’s content, as one of the director’s master strokes is allowing the audience and the lead character to simultaneously experience the shock of her tragic situation, but suffice to say that this film has plenty to say about the marginalization of women in contemporary South Korea, and a keen psychological understanding of both the victims of that situation and the men who abuse it.  The film also contains a memorably fragile lead performance by Yun Jeong-hie, an effectively leisurely pace that puts the audience inside her character’s head, and a powerful moral conclusion that is hard to shake off.
16)  Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, USA, 120 min.)
Jeff Nichols’ second collaboration with lead actor Michael Shannon is a compellingly tragic story of a construction worker slowly but surely succumbing to the paranoid schizophrenia that runs in his family.  The occasional attempts to visualize Shannon’s apocalyptically violent nightmares are a bit hokey at times, but his uncharacteristically restrained, life-sized performance powerfully conveys his character’s increasingly brutal struggle to hold onto his sanity for the sake of his family.  Even a clumsy final scene that contradicts the previous two hours of film can’t take away the potency of Shannon’s utterly convincing portrayal of a man losing his grip on life.
17)  Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean, Romania, 95 min.)
The realistic, low-key performances and long takes typical of the Romanian New Wave are put to great use in this heartbreakingly uncomfortable look at a marriage destroyed by an affair.  While the film never loses its grounding in believable, everyday reality, it nonetheless manages to be as unbearably tense as a high-stakes suspense film.
18)  The Last Circus (Alex de la Iglesia, Spain, 108 min.)
This phantasmagoric, genre-defying sensory explosion recalls the epic patchworks of Terry Gilliam and Emir Kusturica.  The latter director’s Underground is perhaps the closest analogue to The Last Circus’ mix of political allegory and outrageously baroque imagery.  Unfortunately, the new film has a lot less to say about the Franco era than Underground does about the political divides in the Balkans; anything particularly thoughtful or nuanced in writer-director Alex de la Iglesia’s vision is drowned out by his wildly excessive style.  But that style is enough to keep the movie consistently compelling, with every corner of every frame being crammed with things that you haven’t seen before. 
19)  The Sleeping Beauty (Catherine Breillat, France, 82 min.)
Provocateur Catherine Breillat has been in an enjoyable classical period for a few years now, and her second straight adaptation of a Charles Perrault fairytale would seem to promise more of the same.   While the opening scenes of The Sleeping Beauty seem like a perfectly logical (if slightly safe) follow-up to 2009’s Bluebeard, Breillat begins departing from the original story and wildly defying expectations as soon as the princess’ finger is pricked.  The film turns into a ramblingly episodic, and frequently baffling, essay on puberty, the battle of the sexes, and aging.  Perhaps Breillat could’ve made a more coherent film about all of those themes by sticking closer to her source material, but it is exciting to watch her follow her muse down the least predictable paths, and it is truly impressive to see her capture so many magnificent images without ever breaking the film’s casually surreal tone. 
20)  On Tour (Mathieu Amalric, France, 111 min.)
The great French actor Mathieu Amalric has been directing films on the side since the ‘90s, and the feel of his latest behind-the-camera effort perfectly matches the nervy tone of his best performances.  On Tour follows a group of eccentric American burlesque performers (portrayed by actual practitioners of the craft) as they travel around the homeland of their unreliable French manager (Amalric).  There isn’t much more to it than that – the film is basically divided between bizarre stage performances and scenes of the manager having awkward reunions with people from his past – but there is almost always something interesting happening between the actors, and the boozy, semi-improvised aesthetic compares favorably to late-‘70s Cassavetes. 
21)  The White Meadows (Mohammed Rasoulof, Iran, 93 min.)
Mohammed Rasoulof’s ravishingly beautiful mix of folklore and poetic surrealism has less in common with the films of fellow Iranian New Wave masters Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi (who is credited as an editor on this film) than it does with the ecstatically personal ethnography of Sergei Paradjanov.  The quasi-documentary, self-reflexive style of many modern Iranian films is replaced here with a series of lovely tableaus that have the primal force and potency of fairytales.  Though the film is a bit too episodic for its good, its most beautiful moments more than make up for its brief periods of downtime.
22)  Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino, Italy, 88 min.)
Architect-turned-filmmaker Michelangelo Frammartino’s dialogue-free visualization of Pythagoras’ theory of the four stages of the soul (human to animal to plant to mineral) seems to have been made solely for the purpose of putting a bunch of beautiful images on the screen.  While the resulting film may be a bit shallow – not particularly moving or thought-provoking – the strength of cinematographer Andrea Locatelli’s richly composed long takes and Frammartino’s deceptively complex choreography is impossible to deny, with the animal stage being particularly well realized.
23)  A Good Man (Bob Hercules & Gordon Quinn, USA, 86 min.)
24)  Beats, Rhymes & Life:  The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (Michael Rapaport, USA, 97 min.)
25)  The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (Goran Olsson, Sweden, 100 min.)
There is nothing particularly unique about this documentary as cinema, but any overt stylistic flourishes would only detract from the riveting and extraordinary footage culled from nine years of foreign news reports documenting the black power movement.  The Swedish footage has the benefit of a clear-eyed, relatively unbiased view on still-controversial figures such as Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, and Louis Farrakhan, covering not just their impassioned speeches but often providing glimpses of their daily living conditions, while also putting their complicated positions on violence into a proper context.  Occasional present-day narration from the likes of the Last Poets, Harry Belafonte, and Talib Kweli is handled with more elegance, grace, and restraint than is usually offered in this type of film, never taking the focus away from the issues at hand.  Still, director Goran Olsson’s approach could use a bit more passion and a bit less intellectual distance.
26)  Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, USA, 124 min.)
Bridesmaids has many of the expected flaws of a Judd Apatow production, from its overlong running time to the reliance on improvisation rather than structured scripting.  But it’s still the most winning film to come out of the Apatow factory since Funny People, because of the natural chemistry between stars Kristin Wiig and Maya Rudolph, the incredibly game supporting cast (largely filled with unknowns and character actors playing against type, as opposed to the usual parade of big star cameos), and a wonderfully executed vomit and diarrhea gag that might be the funniest thing I saw all year.
27)  Give Up Tomorrow (Michael Collins, USA/UK, 95 min.)
28)  Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, USA, 95 min.)
There are plenty of flaws in this reboot of the beloved Planet of the Apes franchise, from the inherent goofiness of the premise to James Franco’s sleepy lead performance as a scientist who is inexplicably unaware that apes become less friendly as they reach puberty, to the few cringe-worthy references to the original films’ most famous lines of dialogue.  But the combined power of the exquisitely realized CGI ape effects and Andy Serkis’ moving motion-captured performance as head ape Caesar turns a lot of potentially silly moments into genuinely moving ones.  And the final apes vs. men action sequence on the Golden Gate Bridge is the kind of exciting spectacle that big budget action movies always promise but so rarely deliver.
29)  Enter the Void (Gaspar Noe, France/Italy/Germany/Canada, 143 min.)
It is thrilling to watch Gaspar Noe push at the limits of what the filmic medium is capable of, as he sends his camera flying hurtling past neon skyscrapers, floating across the ceilings of decrepit nightclubs, into and out of a moving plane, and finally through human orifices.  Too bad that Noe’s impressive formal innovations seem so far out of proportion with his simplistically nihilistic viewpoint.  Surely the ghost of the drug dealer who provides the film’s POV could’ve found something more interesting to watch than various clubbers indulging in random debaucheries.  Still, even if this is one of the dumbest (and most overlong) arthouse movies of the year, its level of technical achievement and sheer audacity make it impossible to dismiss, and it is arguably the most genuinely original film of the year.
30)  We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, UK, 112 min.)
We Need to Talk About Kevin demonstrates that director Lynne Ramsay hasn’t lost a step in the near-decade gap since her last film, 2002’s Morvern Callar.  She handles the new film’s nonlinear structure with grace, and maintains a consistently creepy aural and visual atmosphere that really puts the viewer inside the head of Tilda Swinton’s main character, the mother of the perpetrator of a Columbine-style massacre.  Unfortunately, Ramsay’s portrayal of the violent offender as a born sociopath is a shade too purple for this otherwise impeccably crafted film.  She mostly gets away with it because the film is a psychodrama told entirely from the point of view of Swinton’s character, and the son more or less functions as a manifestation of her fears of motherhood (in the scenes set before the tragedy) and her failings as a parent (in the scenes set after).  But the film’s depiction of Kevin as pure evil prevents it from having anything substantive to say about school killings, even as it powerfully captures the fears and neuroses of his mother. 
31)  Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui Hark, Hong Kong, 119 min.)
This massive action blockbuster features talking deer, makeshift transfigurations, underwater catacombs, spontaneous combustions, and fight choreography by Sammo Hung, yet my mind was too busy trying to keep up with the absurdly labyrinthine plot to be consistently blown by the lavish visuals. Still, this is undeniably the most eccentric big-budget action movie of the year, and its sheer lunacy is enough to keep it compelling, even if the film as a whole is too frenetic to allow many of the individual moments to have the impact they deserve.
32)  Source Code (Duncan Jones, USA, 93 min.)
33)  Red State (Kevin Smith, USA, 88 min.)
Kevin Smith is far from a great filmmaker, but he does have a distinctive voice.  So credit him for stepping way outside of his comfort zone and abandoning any signs of his usual aesthetic for this offbeat horror/action/satire hybrid about violent events surrounding a Westboro Baptist Church-style cult.  The cast (which includes John Goodman, Melissa Leo, and Michael Parks) is strong, the plotting is unpredictable, and the pacing is lively, all of which goes a long way toward making up for the skin-deep political commentary and the sloppy camerawork. 
34)  Weekend (Andrew Haigh, UK, 97 min.)
35)  A Cat in Paris (Alain Gagnol & Jean-Loup Felicioli, France/Belgium/Netherlands/Switzerland, 65 min.)
This charming, lighthearted action movie for children eschews the frantic pacing, cynical pop culture referencing, pointless celebrity voiceovers and lazy computer animation of most contemporary animated films.  The tale of a polite cat burglar, his feline companion, and the mute young girl who inadvertently gets wrapped up in their adventures boasts a handsome hand-drawn style that looks like a series of oil crayon pictures come to life, a style that taps directly into childlike imagination. 
36)  The Muppets (James Bobin, USA, 108 min.)
37)  I Love You Phillip Morris (Glenn Ficarra & John Requa, USA, 102 min.)
38)  Buck (Cindy Meehl, USA, 88 min.)
39)  Louder Than a Bomb (Greg Jacobs & Jon Siskel, USA, 99 min.)
B-  Good but flawed or insubstantial
40)  Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, Canada/USA/France/Germany, 90 min.)
Take away Werner Herzog’s typically hypnotic narration and a fanciful epilogue involving albino alligators, and this History Channel-sponsored documentary about the world’s oldest known prehistoric art is surprisingly dry and straightforward.  (In fairness, Herzog’s use of 3D probably also enhances the experience greatly, but only the 2D version made it to Milwaukee).  Still, some of the old cave paintings are truly beautiful, and the French cave that houses them is undeniably a fascinating space.
41)  Beginners (Mike Mills, USA, 104 min.)
42)  El Velador (Natalia Almada, Mexico, 72 min.)
Natalia Almada’s film about the night watchman of a Mexican cemetery plays more like an experimental short film than a conventional feature documentary.  Long, static shots observe the watchman’s banal workplace rituals, as he tends to the elegant mausoleums that house some of his nation’s most brutal drug lords.  The largely silent scenes are punctuated by aural reminders of the violence that keeps the titular figure in business, with muffled gun shots interrupting distant musical performances and news reports occasionally filling us in on the latest murder.  Almada certainly knows how to build a creepy atmosphere, and her shot compositions are truly impressive.  But El Velador suffers from comparison to the similarly moody Into Eternity, which not only creates a creepy atmosphere but also leaves you with something to think about long after the credits role. 
43)  X-Men:  First Class (Matthew Vaughn, USA, 132 min.)
44)  Horrible Bosses (Seth Gordon, USA, 98 min.)
45)  Page One:  Inside the New York Times (Andrew Rossi, USA, 91 min.)

C+  Decent
46)  The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet, France, 80 min.)
Jacques Tati was one of cinema’s greatest and most unique comedy directors, and Sylvain Chomet is one of the leading lights in the endangered world of hand-drawn animation, so one would think that a Chomet adaptation of a never-realized Tati script would be a guaranteed winner.  But Chomet’s frenzied surrealism is a poor match for Tati’s bemused naturalism, and it quickly becomes clear that the two artists have little in common besides a predilection for long dialogue-free sequences and a passion for depicting busy cityscapes.  Glimpses of each man’s distinctive charm pop up intermittently, but their aesthetics ultimately cancel each other out and make the film feel surprisingly bland and low-energy, despite the loveliness of Chomet’s animation and the bittersweet elegance of Tati’s storytelling.
47)  Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, Australia, 100 min.)
48)  The Beaver (Jodie Foster, USA, 91 min.)
Even before its release, The Beaver seemed destined to become one of those notorious passion project flops.  Yet perhaps the strangest thing about the film is that no one involved with its production seems to have been aware of how insane its premise is.  Jodie Foster and her crew give the film a feeling of bland competence, as if they thought they were making a middle of the road indie drama a la The Kids Are All Right and not a psychodrama about a man whose self-invented depression therapy involves communicating entirely through an Australian-accented beaver hand puppet.  Oblivious to the film’s essential absurdity and fiercely committed to his role, Mel Gibson delivers his most magnetic performance in recent memory, his nervy screen presence serving as a reminder of why he was once one of the world’s biggest movie stars and not merely a pathetic tabloid fixture.  To Gibson’s credit, he treats his character’s condition as an unhealthy mental disorder rather than a cutesy quirk, and the filmmakers follow suit by dealing with the subject matter as seriously as possible given the ridiculous and unintentionally hilarious storyline.
49)  Super 8 (J.J. Abrams, USA, 112 min.)
50)  I Saw the Devil (Kim Jee-woon, South Korea, 142 min.)
This mega-revenge thriller about a secret agent (Lee Byung-hyun) sadistically hunting down his wife’s murderer (Oldboy star Choi Min-sik) was vaunted by some critics and genre fans for its “the man hunting the monster becomes a monster himself” moral.  But isn’t the lesson about vengeance being a pointless, soul-corroding pursuit pretty obvious, especially after so many other films have covered this same territory?  Granted, few revenge films have taken their depictions of ultra-violence to the extremes that I Saw the Devil does, and director Kim Jee-woon’s talent for preserving the grisliness of his murder and torture scenes (rather than pumping them up to operatic levels) does set the film apart from some of its contemporaries.  Still, the fact that most of those (admittedly impressive) setpieces have clearly been framed for maximum Fangoria fan impact completely undercuts the tiresome and clichéd lesson that the film attempts to impart.
51)  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part Two (David Yates, UK, 130 min.)
The Harry Potter films have their share of flaws – chief among them the odd feeling that the dramatic moments are being rushed even as the plot is being dragged out interminably, which is perhaps the inevitable result of making (apparently) faithful adaptations of dense, mythology-heavy novels.  While the series as a whole has been too tightly controlled to allow for much variation between installments, the eighth and final film (adapted from the second half of the seventh novel) is perhaps the least satisfying for casual fans.  The emotional climaxes of many of the character arcs feel unearned, half-realized, confusing, or absent.  And while the CGI-heavy action scenes are handled with the series’ customary skill, only hardcore fans (or people who have specific memories of part one) will understand the stakes involved.
52)  An Earthly Paradise for the Eyes (Irena Pavlaskova, Czech Republic, 114 min.)
53)  How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? (Carlos Carcas & Norberto Lopez Amad, UK, 78 min.)
54)  Pianomania (Lilian Franck & Robert Cibis, Germany/Austria, 93 min.)
55)  Kinshasa Symphony (Claus Wischmann & Martin Baer, Germany, 95 min.)
56)  The Green Wave (Ali Samadi Ahadi, Iran/Germany, 80 min.)

C   Mediocre
57)  Outrage (Takeshi Kitano, Japan, 109 min.)
Takeshi Kitano’s films have always been baffling – even his relatively watered-down take on Zatoichi ended with an inexplicable musical number – but this is the first time that it seems like there’s nothing to “get.”  The prolific writer/director/actor/editor’s latest consists almost entirely of scenes of yakuza members discussing who they are going to kill, followed by scenes of the hits taking place, that pattern repeated until virtually every character is dead.  Some of the variations are interestingly staged, but seeing them piled on top of each other with almost literally no time devoted to anything else is ultimately numbing and tedious.  Kitano does manage to wring some pitch-black laughs by contrasting the utter pettiness of the convoluted gang rivalry with the brutal violence of the executions, but he doesn’t even seem to be aiming for any larger point.
58)  Insidious (James Wan, USA, 103 min.)
59)  The Green Hornet (Michel Gondry, USA, 119 min.)
The eccentric crew assembled for this would-be blockbuster seemed to promise, at the very least, an interesting mess.  But the shaggy, semi-improvised comedy of Seth Rogen fails to gel with the charmingly imposing villainy of Christophe Waltz, and Michel Gondry’s distinctive handmade aesthetic is swallowed whole by standard-issue CGI.  Rarely have studio notes and endless rewrites been so evident in the final cut of a film; each scene displays the germ of a different, potentially interesting approach to the material, but none of those ideas are followed through with anything approaching consistency or coherence.  The Green Hornet should’ve at least been an offbeat collision of styles, but it is ultimately just another in an endless assembly line of superhero movies.
60)  The Strange Case of Angelica (Manoel de Oliviera, Portugal, 97 min.)
61)  The Bengali Detective (Philip Cox, India/UK, 101 min.)
62)  King of Devil’s Island (Marius Holst, Norway, 115 min.)
63)  Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga, UK, 120 min.)
64)  Natural Selection (Robbie Pickering, USA, 90 min.)
65)  Black Death (Christopher Smith, UK, 104 min.)
66)  The Trip (Michael Winterbottom, UK, 107 min.)
67)  Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (Rodman Flender, USA, 89 min.)
68)  The Woman with the Five Elephants (Vadim Jendreyko, Switzerland/Germany, 93 min.)

C-   Below Average
69)  Bibliotheque Pascal (Szabolcs Hajdu, Hungary, 111 min.)
70)  Dragonslayer (Tristan Patterson, USA, 74 min.)
This grungy look at the life of a skateboarding burnout has style to spare, with joltingly abrupt edits, intimate moments being suddenly interrupted by speaker-destroying blasts of punk, and even some casually beautiful shots of urban wastelands.  It’s too bad that first-time director Tristan Patterson wasted his evident skills on a documentary about Josh “Skreech” Sandoval, a giggly stoner type who neither seems like a particularly strong skateboarder (most of the skate footage involves him falling down) or a remotely interesting human being.
71)  The Athlete (Davey Frankel & Rasselas Lakew, Ethiopia/Germany, 93 min.)
72)  Anita (Marcos Carnevale, Argentina, 104 min.)

D+   Bad
73)  Vincent Wants to Sea (Ralf Huettner, Germany, 96 min.)
74)  Young Goethe in Love (Philipp Stolzl, Germany, 102 min.)

D   Awful
75)  The Twilight Saga:  Breaking Dawn – Part One (Bill Condon, USA, 117 min.)
The first three Twilight films were bafflingly (and somewhat amusingly) incoherent.  But the explicit moral of the most recent entry in the series – “deliver your baby at all costs, even if it’s a supernatural being whose birth is going to kill you, thereby necessitating your revival as a vampire” – is as blunt as it is repellent and stupid.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Top Ten Albums of 2011

1)  An unabashedly melodramatic double-album may be an anachronism in the Itunes era, but M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is a powerful argument for the concept of the album as an art form.  M83 have been building up a potent Prince-meets-Phil Spector wall of sound for years, but this is by far their most varied, focused, epic, and beautiful collection of songs to date.  It’s true that some of the album’s weirder diversions – the cinematic instrumentals that provide brief transitions between the bigger tracks, the song where a kid narrates a psychedelic dream about frogs – might not have made the cut on a single-disc album, but it’s also true that those moments would’ve been missed on a more straightforward album.  That M83 put as much care into a track labeled “Intro” as they do their ridiculously catchy single “Midnight City” is a big part of their success, and what makes this the best album of the year.

2)  It is ironic that Thurston Moore’s solo album Demolished Thoughts was overshadowed by his high-profile divorce from Sonic Youth bandmate Kim Gordon (and the subsequent dissolution of that band), since its nine tracks are clearly haunted by the singer-songwriter’s awareness of what he was about to lose.  The spare acoustic guitar-plus strings arrangements are aided beautifully by Beck’s sensitive production, making this the best “breakup album” since Sea Change and Moore’s best set of songs since Daydream Nation.  While it is sad to see Sonic Youth go, Demolished Thoughts suggests that Thurston Moore might get better artistic results on his own.

3)  Perhaps Gang Gang Dance's pan-cultural fusion of various world and electronic musics will never catch on with the masses, but Eye Contact finds a very impressive middle ground between accessible pop and the band’s trademark weirdness.  Eye Contact is to Gang Gang Dance as Bitte Orca was to the Dirty Projectors.

4)  Oneothrix Point Never took most of the samples for his album Replica from a bootleg compilation of 1980s commercials, but the moody, impressionistic results are so distinctive that they’re hard to compare to the work of any other artist, or even classify in a specific genre of electronic music.  Too unsettling to be ambient, yet not obviously rhythmic enough to be techno, and too unpredictable to get a firm grip on even after multiple listens, Replica is simply great.

5)  While relatively young acts like Bjork, Mastodon, Radiohead, and TV on the Radio were content to rest on their laurels and deliver the most basic versions of their aesthetics on their respective 2011 releases, 62 year-old Tom Waits infused Bad as Me with a passion and vitality that makes most metal bounds sound weak and cowardly by comparison.  Waits didn’t do much to distinguish the material on his latest album from his usual swampy carnival barker R&B, but how many artists would be able to make a seventeenth album as consistently ferocious and catchy as Bad as Me?

6)  There may not be another young act with as distinctive or as fully formed an aesthetic as Tune-Yards, whose extremely specific sound (cartoonishly soulful vocals over layers of looped ukulele, saxophones, and drums) found its first full expression on their second album, whokill.  The band manages to get an amazing variety of material from its seemingly limited sonic palette, and their songs are always as catchy as they are strange.

7)  A lot of musicians split their time between their main band and their solo work, but Bradford Cox is one of the few who gets equally great results from both his work with Deerhunter and his solo material as Atlas SoundParallax, Cox’s third album as a solo act, could be criticized for sounding so similar to Deerhunter’s 2010 release Halycon Digest (whereas previous Atlas Sound albums featured more varied genre exploration), but it’s hard to complain when the final product is this hypnotic and creepy.

8)  Watch the Throne, the heavily hyped album-length collaboration of Jay-Z and Kanye West, is a little disappointing lyrically, hewing more toward Jay’s trademark celebration of conspicuous consumption than Kanye’s brutal honesty.  Fortunately, the production follows in the ambitious yet pop-smart footsteps of Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, with freakishly outlandish details making even the most radio-friendly tracks sound like borderline avant-garde curiosities.  A famous Otis Redding sample is chopped up into a series of unintelligibly funky grunts, Nina Simon’s voice is run through Auto-Tune, a Blades of Glory sample is used to surprisingly self-deprecating ends, and Midwest folk artist Bon Iver contributes a manly R&B breakdown on something called “That’s My Bitch.”  The relentless materialism of the lyrics may grate, but all will be forgiven if the music stays this defiantly, confidently weird.

9)  St. Vincent, aka Annie Clark, is well-established as a daring and ambitious singer-songwriter, but Strange Mercy provides the first real indication that she is also one of the best and most daring electric guitarists in pop music today.

10)  British electronic artist Andy Stott’s two 2011 EPs, Passed Me By and We Stay Together, pull maximum sonic detail out of minimal, slow-paced soundscapes.  The relentlessly dark (and sometimes frightening) tone of these 13 songs might have become monotonous if they were released on a single LP, but the individual tracks are each impressive enough to suggest that if Stott can figure out a way to vary his material a bit more, he might find himself at the top of this list in a year or two.


James Blake made a surprising (and convincing) evolution from master of minimal electronic beats to modern R&B singer-songwriter with his self-titled full-length LP.  While I miss the more rhythmically complicated material from Blake’s earlier EPs (particularly high-water mark CMYK), this is more a matter of personal preference than actual quality, and Blake may have the best “ghostly vocals over dark backgrounds” act this side of Thom Yorke.

Though he hasn’t caught the attention of the mainstream press, Julian Lynch’s brand of studio-crafted folk continues to be more interesting and haunting than that of Bon Iver.  Lynch’s third album, Terra, isn’t any sort of great leap past last year’s Mare, and I’m not even sure what a “major work” in such a modest aesthetic would sound like, but the singer-songwriter’s unpredictable yet organic slides into jazz, electronic, and world music continue to impress.  He makes some of the best mood music since Brian Eno’s ‘70s heyday, even if few of us are paying attention.

Remix albums are rarely as strong as their sources, but Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx’s reinvention of Scott-Heron’s final album of original material, 2010’s I’m New Here, may actually constitute an improvement.  What We’re New Here lacks in the original album’s focus, it more than makes up for in the scope and variety of Jamie xx’s soulful production work.  The album often feels like a conversation between soul/poetry veteran Scott-Heron and electronica whiz kid Jamie xx, and it works as both a career retrospective (with elements of some of Scott-Heron’s ‘70s work hauntingly mixed in, and occasional samples of contemporaries like Gloria Gaynor) and a eulogy for Scott-Heron, who died shortly after this album’s release.


Tomboy isn’t as monumental as Panda Bear’s 2007 release Person Pitch, or as moving as his earlier Young Prayer album, but its best tracks (mostly contained in the album’s first half) are as otherworldly, hypnotic, and beautiful as his best solo work (or the best work of his band Animal Collective).

Gonjasufi’s The Ninth Inning EP (offered freely on his website) is too short and slight to be considered one of the year’s top albums, but the combination of soulfully demonic vocals and gruff hip hop beats is too unusual to be ignored.  (Incidentally, his outstanding LP A Sufi and a Killer might have topped my 2010 list if I’d been aware of it at that time).

Prog supergroup Battles blew adventurous music fans’ minds with their debut LP, Mirrored, back in 2007.  Since then, they’ve lost founding member Tyondai Braxton, whose bizarre pitch-shifted vocals were perhaps the most distinctive element of the band’s sound.  None of the guest vocalists on this year’s Gloss Drop feel like a convincing replacement for Braxton, and the album’s slight emphasis on Caribbean rhythms seems like a step sideways rather than a leap forward, but the band’s hyper-virtuosity and knack for mesmerizingly complex melodies remains impressive. 

The Black Keys and Wilco didn’t offer any surprises on their respective 2011 releases, El Camino and The Whole Love, but Camino is a strong arena-ready follow-up to last year’s Brothers, and The Whole Love is Wilco’s first fully engaging set of new material since 2004’s A Ghost is Born

Beirut are coming dangerously close to sounding like a typical indie rock band as their sound gets further refined.  But while The Rip Tide doesn’t have quite as many interesting world music flourishes as its predecessors, it is a reminder that Zach Condon possesses both one of the best ears for melody and one of the best voices in contemporary pop.

It was another good year for electronica, with AraabMuzik (Electronic Dream), Modeselektor (Monkey Town), Sebastian (Total), and Sepalcure (self-titled) each releasing compulsively listenable discs that were nonetheless not quite distinctive enough to make the top 10.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Understanding Auteurs: Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away)

Hayao Miyazaki has spent much of the last two decades of his career attempting to refine and perfect the types of films that he made as a young director.  Porco Rosso (1992) felt like a return to the rambunctious action of Castle of Cagliostro (1979), but with a stronger personal stamp and a greater emphasis on bizarre character quirks.  Princess Mononoke (1997) was in some respects a remake of the eco-themed epics Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Castle in the Sky (1986), but with an even larger scope and less reliance on fantasy genre clichés.  Spirited Away (2001) continues the pattern by returning Miyazaki to the theme of adolescent maturation previously explored in My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989).  But where those films were markedly kid-friendly and charmingly simple, Spirited Away is a darkly surreal work that may top even Princess Mononoke with its wildly baroque animation.  The result is Miyazaki’s best film to this point, and one of the very finest films of its decade.

The basic outline of Spirited Away’s plot is similar to My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, with a young girl moving to a new town and gradually learning to overcome her insecurities until she becomes a self-reliant, mature individual.  But the menacing form that the new film’s protagonist’s fears take makes the stakes feel much higher than in the earlier stories.  Where the heroines of Totoro were simply struggling to come to grips with their mother’s (ultimately minor) illness, and Kiki was trying to fit in with the other kids, Spirited Away’s Chihiro is separated from her parents (who turn into pigs after eating too much food) and thrown into an Alice in Wonderland-style world full of inexplicable rules and terrifying beasts.  Though virtually everything that happens in the film, from the moment Chihiro’s parents’ car breaks down on their way to their new home, could be interpreted as a dream, Miyazaki does nothing to encourage that reading of the story, and the unclear distinction between the “spirit world” and everyday existence gives the film’s strange world a weight and power that wouldn’t be possible in a more conventionally plotted animated movie.

Of course, the sheer quality of Studio Ghibli’s animation plays the biggest role in selling the illusion of the film’s spirit world.  Their technical skill has improved with every subsequent film, and though Princess Mononoke brought them to what seemed to be the absolute peak of excellence in hand-drawn animation, they have once again outdone themselves with Spirited Away.  What Mononoke had in breathtaking scale, this film has in ornate, unforgettable character design.  A six-armed, bushy-mustached boiler room worker provides some of the film’s early visual highlights, but his memorable scene is merely a warm-up for the many fantastic sights to come.  These include a gang of man-sized talking frogs, a mute but imposing “radish spirit” that is essentially a more sinister version of Totoro, three green severed-yet-living heads that bounce around like jumping beans, an enormous baby whose full girth isn’t revealed until late in the film, and a number of kabuki-masked spirits whose shadowy bodies can change size and shape almost at random.  The most striking figure of all may be Chihiro’s bath house boss, an elderly lady with a tiny, bird-like body that is usually hidden by her preference for baggy dresses and gaudy jewelry, and is dwarfed by her massive, wrinkled head. 

The bath house is also the site of a vividly strange scene in which Chihiro is tasked with washing an enormous “stink spirit,” a creature that appears to be a mobile, sentient hill of dripping mud.  Chihiro’s efforts to clean him up result in a surprisingly intense action scene that is a true tour de force for Studio Ghibli’s animation team, and arguably Miyazaki’s most impressively directed scene to this point.  After being cleaned, the stink spirit reveals itself to be a polluted river that has been ignored the spirit world’s inhabitants for years.

Environmental messages are nothing new in Miyazaki’s oeuvre, but they haven’t always been well stated in past films.  Spirited Away’s generalized message about protecting the earth and overcoming greed threatens to become a bit too blunt for the film’s dream logic plotting (Chihiro’s parents literally becoming pigs after eating too much is hardly subtle), but Miyazaki gets away with his criticism of careless materialism by depicting the characters in the film as misguided rather than villainous, and by sticking to a coherent point of view (thereby avoiding the muddled moralizing of Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky).  As usual, Miyazaki does not shy away from presenting the natural world as an ominous and dangerous place even as he revels in its beauty and wonder.  The other spirits’ fears of the stink spirit are entirely understandable.

While some of the morals that Miyazaki is imparting may seem simple, he consistently states them in the least obvious and most mesmerizing ways possible.  A long sequence involving a masked spirit known as “No Face,” who is allowed to consume and destroy as much as he wants in the bath house as long as he keeps throwing gold at the employees, simultaneously provides the film’s most obvious moralizing (“don’t be greedy”) and some of its most stunningly bizarre nightmare imagery (No Face’s body rapidly growing as food dribbles out of his mouth and plates smash all around him).  The combination of a clear moral and vividly animated dream-logic plotting makes Spirited Away a wonderful modern fair tale.  It is Miyazaki’s most powerful and beautiful film to date, and one of the greatest triumphs in the history of animated film.

UP NEXT  Howl’s Moving Castle

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

TV on DVD: The Shield (Season Six)

Episodes coveredOn the Jones, Baptism by Fire, Back to One, The New Guy, Haunts, Chasing Ghosts, Exiled, The Math of the Wrath, Recoil, Spanish Practices

As The Shield has progressed, its storytelling has become tighter and more intensely focused, with each episode illuminating the themes of its respective season while advancing the series’ overall study of the nature of corruption.  But because Vic and his Strike Team have been hurtling toward doom since literally the end of the pilot episode, with the crimes continuously piling up from there – and drawing increasing suspicion from both honest law officials and violent gang members – it has become more and more difficult to accept that the Strike Team could’ve stayed (relatively) intact for as long as they have.  The plotting and the pacing of The Shield both suggest a show with a logical timespan of four or five seasons.  Yet here we are in season six.

By this point in the series, the convolutions required to keep the three surviving Strike Team members out of jail (or even alive) are so knotted that it would be almost impossible to give a brief synopsis of the season’s plot.  Of course it is essential that the show focus on the fallout of Shane’s murder of Lem and the continuing IAD investigation of the Strike Team, and Claudette’s attempt to replace Vic with a new Strike Team leader named Hiatt (Alex O’Laughlin) is a logical development that adds extra pressure to an already-compelling storyline.  But in order to keep the show’s master plots from reaching their logical conclusions, the writers have also reintroduced story elements involving Salvadoran gangs, former Chief Gilroy’s widow, the rape of Aceveda, and Dutch’s frustrated longings for various female co-workers, while introducing a shady businessman with probable gang ties, an undercover FBI agent deeply embedded in one of the show’s many criminal organizations, yet another serial rapist, and the ruthless heiress to the Armenian gang that the Strike Team robbed several seasons ago (played by Franka Potente, of all people). 

Presumably this dense plotting is supposed to make the show seem less predictable and more exciting, and none of these storylines are exactly a waste of time (though I am tired of watching Dutch hunt down rapists at this point).  But with only ten episodes this season, none of the stories have the proper room to breathe, let alone come to any sort of conclusion.  And so “Spanish Practices” ends with all of the aforementioned plot points dangling, and with seemingly too much going on for the show to be able to do justice to the Dutch and Claudette vs. the Strike Team finale that has always seemed like the series’ natural endgame.  I know that The Shield has a reputation for “sticking the landing,” and that its seventh season is generally considered to be its best, but the journey there has been frustratingly uneven and unnecessarily convoluted.  

The sixth season is the show’s most frustrating since season three, largely because the writers don’t seem to have been confident enough in the ongoing master plots’ ability to hold the audience’s interest.  But those scenes that actually pushed the character arcs forward rather than simply adding incident were by far the most compelling moments of the season.  Shane’s desperation following his actions from the end of season five has allowed Walton Goggins to do his most intense work on the show to date, with his confessions of guilt to his wife (in “Haunts”) and to Vic (at the end of “Chasing Ghosts”) being particularly wrenching moments.  Vic’s feud with Kavanaugh ends somewhat anticlimactically in “Baptism by Fire” – and I suspect that the storyline was rushed to accommodate Forest Whitaker’s schedule or the show’s budget rather than the demands of the plot – but seeing the IAD investigator put himself behind bars before he bent the rules too far in pursuit of Vic offered a nice contrast in that character’s honesty to that of the Strike Team leader.  The thorny relationship between Vic and Hiatt also plays out interestingly, though it’s a little disappointing that the show makes it clear by the end of the season that the latter is an easily corruptible pretty boy who is no real threat to replace Vic. 

I hope that somebody – whether it’s Claudette or Dutch or Shane or Ronnie or new Strike Team member Julien – steps up to present a credible and stable threat to Vic’s well-being in season seven.  At this point, the show is really missing the righteous moral force of Kavanaugh, and it’s disappointing that the writers haven’t replaced him with someone who seems similarly capable of (or on the right path to) take Vic down.  Here’s hoping that the writers have a clear plan for cutting through the many seemingly unnecessary plot threads to bring the main arc of the show to a satisfying end point.

Quick Thoughts:

 -   Steve Billings (David Marciano) has become the show’s first reliable source of comic relief.  His rapport with new partner Dutch is excellent, as he seems in some sense like the sleazy dark side of his partner (as Shane is to Vic), yet he is also fully realized enough to occasionally register as a devoted family man.  His slow evolution from bumbling background character in season four to inept Captain in season five to Dutch foil in season six has been very well handled.

-  Though it’s obviously an important plot point, I’m not sure that the death of Lem has affected the show’s dynamic all that much.  Shane has certainly become more unstable, but was always obviously capable of coming unhinged, and Lem’s relationships with the show’s other characters weren’t clearly defined enough for us to really feel the weight of his loss.

-  It doesn’t put a big enough exclamation point (or question mark) on any of the season’s storylines to really feel like an appropriate ending for a finale, but the scene where Vic leaps into the moving car of a lawyer who has piles of paperwork evidence against him is one of the show’s best action scenes to date.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Understanding Auteurs: Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke)

Hayao Miyazaki seems to be treating his ‘90s films as a chance to do better and more ambitious variations on the kinds of films that he made in the earlier part of his career.  Porco Rosso (1992) is in some respects a return to the wild and messy action of Castle of Cagliostro (1979), but the newer film is far more odd and perverse than Miyazaki’s feature debut.  The great animator followed Cagliostro with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Castle in the Sky (1986), which expanded the scope of Miyazaki’s visual aesthetic and the complexity of his animation considerably, while putting a noticeable strain on his storytelling abilities.  Princess Mononoke (1997) feels like an attempt to remake those widescreen eco-themed epics, but with a considerably darker tone and less reliance on fantasy genre clichés. 

The improvements over Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky are apparent from the first scenes of Princess Mononoke.  Studio Ghibli’s animation has been improving steadily with each new project, and as gorgeous as Porco Rosso is, the new film feels like a quantum leap over it.  Every frame is dynamically composed and filled with rich, colorful detail.  The epic scale of the film, which often has as much action going on in the background as the foreground, recalls masterpieces of live-action cinema such as Seven Samurai (1954) and Andrei Rublev (1966).  But unlike Kurosawa or Tarkovsky, Miyazaki has the advantage of working in an animated medium where literally anything can happen.  And although Mononoke is considerably more serious and grounded than Porco, it still features an embarrassment of fantastical riches, with eccentric settings and character designs populating the edges of the screen at practically every moment.  Miyazaki’s early films featured breathtaking backgrounds, but the characters tended to be a bit nondescript (as seems to be customary in anime).  But since Porco Rosso, Miyazaki has been lavishing as much care on the look of his heroes and villains as on the design of their dwellings.  The titular character of the new film has some particularly striking early appearances in her battle garb, which includes a maroon tribal mask and a caveperson’s loincloth. 

Princess Mononoke is Miyazaki’s most visually lavish and impressive film to date, but it doesn’t find him making many advances as a storyteller.  The movie’s eco-friendly message is largely indistinguishable from those in Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky, and it is simultaneously unsubtle and muddled, frequently buried under an unnecessarily convoluted plot surrounding a battle over control of the forest.  Here is the story, as far as I understand it:  a hunter, Ashitaka, is forced to kill a demon-infected giant boar that is rampaging through his village.  The demon curse is transferred to Ashitaka, whose left arm is now imbued with a super strength that will eventually overwhelm and possibly kill him or lead him to kill others.  Banished from his village, Ashitaka is advised to travel to a mountain range that is the home to a forest spirit that may be able to remove the demon curse.  When Ashitaka reaches the area, he is thrust into a complicated conflict involving the giant beasts who populate the forest, a town of weapon-makers, a group of prize-hunting monks, an army of samurai, and Princess Mononoke, a wolf-raised girl who has turned against her own species.

There are at least one or two too many factions involved in this conflict.  While none of the characters feel as thoroughly pointless as some of the supporting figures in Miyazaki’s early films, the conflict really could’ve been stripped down to the weapon-makers and Mononoke and her animal friends, with Ashitaka caught in-between.  Not even all of the animals really needed to appear in the film; as cool as the menacingly shadowy red-eyed gang of apes are, they seem to show up just to add extra color to a movie that doesn’t need any extra eccentricity, and they have no real bearing on the outcome of the final battle.  The purpose of the samurai army is never entirely clear; they threaten to take the weapon-makers wares, which makes the potentially villainous craftsmen more sympathetic than they otherwise would be, but the samurai are never fleshed out enough for the viewer to care about their role in the fight. 

But although Miyazaki clutters his script with too many unnecessary subplots, he does deserve credit for creating a number of vividly realized and fleshed-out characters.  The weapon-makers from the industrial Iron Town feel particularly human and interesting.  It would’ve been easy to turn these battle-ready people into mustache-twirling enemies of peace (as the equivalent characters in Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky were), but Miyazaki makes their need for self-defense understandable by depicting the gigantic wolves and boars that populate the nearby forest as genuine threats; these are not the cuddly, anthropomorphic singing and dancing creatures of Disney films, but hungry, sharp-toothed beasts whose tempers can turn dramatically at the first sign of a threat.  The denizens of Iron Town are not merely defined by their need for self-defense, either.  Lady Eboshi, the leader of the town, has turned her home into a haven for some of Japan’s less fortunate citizens, with lepers and prostitutes earning a second chance in life by becoming weapons manufacturers.  Although Eboshi may be misguided in some ways – and it was her hunting that unleashed the boar demon that caused Ashitaka’s dilemma – she is scarcely less sympathetic than Princess Mononoke, whose desire for vengeance against the humans who killed members of her wolf family seems simultaneously noble and insane.  Mononoke is unsurprisingly revealed to have a kind heart, but she is memorably introduced as a near-feral threat with blood-smeared lips.  There are no real villains in Princess Mononoke, and while this has more or less been the case in all of Miyazaki’s films since My Neighbor Totoro (1988), it is especially impressive to see that kind of moral rigor in a violent adventure film.

Princess Mononoke is perhaps the most action-packed of Miyazaki’s films to this point, and it features quite a few stunningly directed setpieces.  The opening sequence involving Ashitaka’s battle with the demon-enhanced boar is as thrilling a chase sequence as exists in cinema, and the surreal details in the animation – the demon curse is depicted as a mass of worm-like figures slithering over the boar’s body as it runs at top speed – only make the action more riveting.  Mononoke’s attack on Iron Town is an equally dynamic scene, with Ashitaka struggling to keep the peace between the psychotically revenge-obsessed wolf girl and the gun-happy citizens of the town.  Even the incidental details of the action scenes are powerfully realized.  After Ashitaka gains his demon strength, his arrow shots become strong enough to remove limbs from his attackers; the fact that Miyazaki doesn’t linger on the resulting gore only makes the action seem more visceral and brutal.  The raw physicality of these scenes provides a wonderful contrast to the elegant, confidently surreal moments of tranquility, with the final appearance of the forest spirit being a particularly transcendent moment.  Though Miyazaki could have edited his script down a bit, it’s hard to begrudge him a few excesses in a film where he’s finally achieved the epic fusion of relentless action and otherworldly beauty that he has been aiming for throughout his storied career.

UP NEXT  Spirited Away

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Masterpiece Test: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Year of Release  1962
Country  USA
Length  123 min.
Director  John Ford
Screenwriters  James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck (story by Dorothy M. Johnson)
Cinematographer  William H. Clothier
Editor  Otho Lovering
Cast  John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, Edmond O’Brien, Andy Devine, Woody Strode

No one did more to define and redefine the traditional cinematic western than John Ford.  With his breakthrough Stagecoach (1939), Ford created what could be considered the definitive western film, and also established John Wayne as the genre’s biggest screen idol.  Later Ford westerns (many of which featured Wayne as their star) functioned as much as “state of the western” addresses as actual films.  Ford was at the forefront of virtually every technical breakthrough or stylistic change in the traditional western during the genres late-‘30s to early’60s heyday.  John Ford was to the popular western as Miles Davis was to jazz.

So it is entirely appropriate that Ford would be among the first to break down the archetypes and tropes of the western, challenging the very ideologies that he had played a massive role in establishing and popularizing.  It might not be accurate to call 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance the first anti-western (a couple of Anthony Mann’s ‘50s westerns could reasonably fit that description, as could Ford’s 1956 film The Searchers), but the fact that it is directed by Ford and structured around the offscreen funeral of Wayne’s character gives it a profound air of authoritative finality that wouldn’t have been possible under different circumstances.  Though Ford went on to direct several westerns after Liberty Valance, and Wayne starred in quite a few more, this may as well have been the last time that either of them worked in the genre.  They are saying goodbye to what they are best known for in much the same way that Charlie Chaplin marked the death of silent cinema with Modern Times (1936).

 Ford goes about dismantling the myths of the Old West by establishing a ragged settlement called Shinbone that is basically a physical embodiment of the traditional western – a place full of saloons, cowboys, and random gunslingers (and the home to many of the notable members of Ford’s stock company of actors, such as Andy Devine and Woody Strode) – and then introducing a city-boy outsider (Jimmy Stewart) whose personal set of values challenge and confound those of Shinbone (and therefore the genre itself).  Before he even gets into town, the outsider’s stagecoach is held up by a trio of bandits led by a notorious criminal named Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, in the performance that justly made him a star).  The outsider finds that nobody in Shinbone is particularly interested in getting in Liberty’s way; the local sheriff (Devine) is too cowardly to go after Liberty, while the area’s top gunfighter (Wayne) seems to enjoy having a near-equal around to compete with, and the rest of Shinbone’s citizens seem to accept that the Liberty situation is the way that things always have been and always will be.  Early on, Wayne mocks Stewart’s idea that Liberty can be brought to justice through legal means, and suggests that the crook will only be taken down the old-fashioned way – with a gun.  Ford spends the rest of the film asking the audience whether Wayne or Stewart have the right solution to the Liberty problem, and to his credit, he makes both sides of the argument seem equally valid.

Both sides of the argument are given extra weight by the audience’s knowledge of what John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart represent as screen icons.  While the actors are playing characters named, respectively, Tom Doniphon and Ransom Stoddard, what matters in this film is that they are the embodiment of all that John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart represent.  Wayne of course is the definitive western hero, a no-nonsense man of action with enough conviction is his black-and-white sense of morality to defend it with bullets.  Though Wayne was never a particularly skilled actor, he had screen presence in spades and usually excelled in roles that required him to be a stand-in for the idea of the Old West.  This is perhaps Wayne’s best performance, outpacing even his work in Rio Bravo (1959) and True Grit (1969), two other films in which Wayne was asked to essentially be the physical embodiment of the ideals he represented.  Stewart was a much more skilled and versatile actor than Wayne, and his extensive list of credits did include quite a few westerns – including several Anthony Mann westerns such as Winchester ’73 (1950) and The Naked Spur (1953) where he played Tom Doniphon-style roughnecks – but he was (and is) most frequently identified as the gentlemanly and idealistic Democrat of Frank Capra films such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).  It is this polite version of Stewart that wanders into the outlaw world of Shinbone.

Stewart’s disruptive presence allows the film to get into some complicated and highly nuanced moral territory.  The risky ethical line that Ford is walking with this film – asking the audience to sympathize with a gruff redneck (Wayne) whose way of life is becoming obsolete, while making the kindly progressive (Stewart) occasionally seem like a weakling with unrealistic goals – is very intriguing, and forces the audience to engage in the film’s moral quandaries in a way that recalls Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).  Wayne’s way of life allows thugs like Liberty Valance to function with relative impunity, but Stewart’s more modern viewpoint leaves Shinbone feeling a lot less lively. 

 Surprisingly, it is the gentle Stewart who finally comes to accept that Liberty can only be dealt with through force and decides to get the gun that will supposedly kill Liberty.  But everything comes to a head during a flashback that reveals that it was in fact Wayne who ambushed and killed Liberty from behind while Stewart and Liberty had their face-to-face showdown.  The legend of “the man who shot Liberty Valance” propels Stewart to the U.S. Senate, and presumably allows him to pursue his noble ideals, but it is a brutal act by Wayne that allows it to happen.  While it is shocking on a visceral level to see the traditionally heroic Wayne shoot the bad guy in the back of the head from a safe distance, what is really interesting about the scene is the way that it makes Wayne’s action feel simultaneously noble, cowardly, and tragic.  The last gasp of traditional western heroism is a primitive act of violence that paves the way for the modern form of legislative justice.  By the end of the film, Stewart is a famous and apparently well-liked politician while Wayne is a dead and forgotten soldier, and the film makes it clear that each man is in some way responsible for the other’s fate.

In addition to seriously grappling with some intriguing and complex moral ideas, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is simply a very entertaining and well-crafted film.  While critics of the time complained that the film lacked the epic visuals often associated with Ford – and it is true that there is nothing as memorably gorgeous in Liberty Valance as the Technicolor Monument Valley vistas of The Searchers or the fog-drenched final shootout in My Darling Clementine (1946) – it is still a well-shot film by any reasonable standard, and the lack of big widescreen setpieces is appropriate for this intimate, human-scale story.  Some people have complained about the film’s prominent use of studio sets as opposed to Ford’s typical location shooting, but the settings don’t seem any more or less artificial than in the average film – and even if they did, it could be argued that the phoniness of the surroundings reinforces the point that places like Shinbone no longer exist.

 For all of its formal pleasures, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance perhaps deserves to be best remembered for its engaging look at complicated issues of justice, legend, and progress.  Ford spends plenty of time pointing to the many positive aspects of the modern era that Jimmy Stewart ushers in, such as giving most of Shinbone’s citizens their first formal education, but he also conveys a profound sorrow for the lost world of John Wayne.  Ford acknowledges the best and worst aspects of both eras, and understands that the progress of democracy doesn’t ensure equality for everyone.  As Keith Phipps notes in his DVD review at the AV Club, “African-American actor Woody Strode recites the opening of the Declaration of Independence, as a portrait of Lincoln watches in the background.  Later, when the town meets to take a vote, Strode waits outside.”  Ford clearly loves the democratic principles that the United States was founded on, but The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance demonstrates his keen understanding that not everyone who fights for their freedoms will get to enjoy them equally – and that some will have no place in this new world at all.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance passes the Masterpiece Test

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