Thursday, December 24, 2009

Top Films of the Decade: #2 In the Mood for Love

In the Mood for Love

My heart can't quite endorse this ranking. It believes In the Mood for Love is no less than a gift from heaven. It considers this movie infallible, perfect, beyond criticism. It gets violently defensive when people put it down, be they critics or message-board trolls. It palpitates at the sound of this movie's score. It bathes in its quixotic images. It shatters and dissipates at its ending. With dogged romanticism, it cannot fathom a better movie from this decade, or really any other.

My heart, you see, can get carried away. Especially when it sees pretty things.

Wong Kar Wai's seventh feature lingers with me like no film I've seen. From the striking compositions to the elegant costumes, In the Mood for Love is all about, well, mood. Its every detail seems fashioned to evoke sweet, lasting sorrow. Like unconsummated love itself, the film stays with you. It perverts your thoughts the longer it stews, taking on a seismic sense of importance. The film loiters in the mind, forcing you to ponder the what-ifs of an unfulfilled romance. It understands that we, as humans, have an unyielding urge to romanticize what we don't have. A love that never begins can never end. It goes on forever, looping in your head. A mental security blanket for the realities of modern living. A trumped-up splinter of perfection. A go-to thought for the emotional masochist in you. What if, what if, what if. If only, if only, if only.

In the Mood for Love presents a romantic, almost twee vision of love. In real life, things would probably play a lot crasser. The film's protagonists would meet, flirt, fuck, and deal with the consequences. Alcohol would likely be involved. But In the Mood for Love has no interest in realism. It uses fantasy to arrive at truth. In this way, it embodies cinema's most primal appeal: seeing our desires acted out in an idealized world.

To depict this world, Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle craft images that look beamed in from some faraway dreamscape. You can't oversell In the Mood for Love's visual gorgeousness. The film repeats shots, gestures, and songs to mimic the rhythms of a lingering love that won't go away. It circles around this love like a jazz composition infatuated with one blistering riff. Wong uses cinema's everyday tools (slow motion, montage) to capture obsession and loss, leading to a climax of almost unbearable beauty.

That climax, set to a devastating composition from Michael Galasso, moves me like no other moment in cinema. If the first nine-tenths of In the Mood for Love exist in a dream world, one in which coy would-be lovers exercise inhuman restraint, then the film's final minutes show the harsh awakening to reality. Our protagonists may have won the moral victory by shunning infidelity, but that doesn't make them any less alone. One disappears from the film; the other releases his love into the ether. Wong refuses to give us gratifying closure. Instead, he leaves our wounds open, so that we may feel like his characters: helpless; our heads filled with dreams of an ideal love that never was. We relish in fantasy, just as we do most nights when we go to the movies.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Top Films of the Decade: #3 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Few films capture the funny/sad cycles of romantic relationships like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Like the two remaining films on this list, Eternal Sunshine tells a love story both moving and cerebral. It toys with cinematic norms to showcase the rhythmic ways humans love and hurt one another -- over and over again. The film wrings emotional trauma for laughs, forcing us to smile at the neurotic ticks that make relationships crumble. It, in short, ranks alongside Annie Hall as the most insightful romantic comedy ever made.

The comparison to Woody Allen's film comes easy. Both Annie Hall and Eternal Sunshine present an epic romance in jumbled chronology. Both feature flighty, borderline-manic female leads. Both depict relationships as an inescapable folly, as something "totally irrational and crazy and absurd," despite their magnetic appeal. A direct lineage links Woody and Eternal Sunshine; the film's screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, "aspired to be like [Woody]" as a young man entering showbusiness.

Most striking, Annie Hall and Eternal Sunshine end with scenes of remarkable beauty and truth. In Woody's film, his protagonist famously concludes that humans endure relationships because they "need the eggs." Most of us know -- from experience and elsewhere -- that relationships often end in turmoil, but that doesn't stop us from swan-diving into them, if given the chance. Meeting someone new tends to pulverize our cynicism. This one won't be like the others, we tell ourselves. I've learned, I've grown. This time will be different.

In Eternal Sunshine's closing moments, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet embody Einstein's theory of insanity: They're ready to do the same thing over again, expecting a different result. The entire movie exists to service this scene. Kaufman has two budding lovers hear the awful things they'll come to say about one another. Imagine, for a second, how terrifying that would be. Imagine returning from a dizzying first date, only to hear your tape-recorded voice from the future, muttering hostile complaints about your object of desire. Could even such an impossible scenario as this convince you of love's folly? Could your future self rein in your early-relationship euphoria? My guess: Not a chance. Nothing at that point -- not even material proof of your eventual misery -- could lower your high. That's the beauty, the irrationality, of human love, crystalized for all time in one movie moment.

Director Michel Gondry gives life to Kaufman's musings, crafting the film as a flurry of gorgeous visual fragments. Eternal Sunshine is one of the great achievements in special effects, digital or in-camera. Gondry's aesthetic trickery propels the narrative and creates a unique, dreamlike world; he never lets style usurp the film's emotional core. Every virtuoso flourish helps posit the movie's primary question, one first proposed in another Woody Allen film: Are memories something you have or something you've lost?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Top Films of the Decade: #4 Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds

"If I reach high points with Inglourious Basterds, it is partly because Paul [Thomas Anderson] came out with There Will Be Blood a couple years ago, and I realized I had to bring my game up." (full clip)

Quentin Tarantino, like the films he makes, is nothing if not self-aware. He must have known something was off in 2007. Paul Thomas Anderson, his dear friend and competitor, unleashed There Will Be Blood as he drooled out Death Proof, a masturbatory and insular B-movie homage. One was an instant classic; the other a Tarantino-dialogue vehicle, this time with chicks. To some, the movie marked his "creative death." By 2009, Tarantino didn't just need to bring his game up. He needed a veritable game-changer.

Inglourious Basterds, his almost unclassifiable WWII picture, was that and so much more. A European art-house film. A revenge crowd-pleaser. A slap in the face to self-serious cinema. An uncompromising thriller. A joyous slice of entertainment. A Leone-style western. A men-on-a-mission throwback. A substantive tale on the powers of myth-making. Not to sound cute, but it might just be his masterpiece.

Inglourious Basterds is a postmodern movie about the importance of images in society. In almost every scene, characters broadcast images and conceal true aspects of their real selves. They lie, exaggerate, and hide in the name of escaping death (if on the defensive) or spreading fear (if on the offensive). Some, like Goebbels, use visual media to propagate myths about themselves and their enemies. Others, like Brad Pitt's Lt. Aldo Raine, take a viral approach. They roam the woods, terrorizing Nazis, and leaving survivors to speak of the horrors. Both share the same goals: rallying supporters and scaring the shit out of foes. At its core, Inglourious Basterds unfolds like a murderous PR battle. No surprise, Tarantino uses the film-within-the-film to quote another piece of cinematic propaganda, Battleship Potemkin.

In two of the film's show-stopping scenes, characters appear under direct interrogation. They sit in countryside cabins and basement barrooms, crafting false images to survive. Characters must lie, and convincingly. Here, the movie's preoccupation with image-building plays on a person-to-person level.

Tarantino hints at his themes everywhere. Just look at these two stills, which echo his obsession with the difference between truth and image-level deception:

The first shows truth. That man is a real Nazi, and you can see it in his skin. The second shows a simulacrum. That man isn't Edgar Wallace. He's a fake, a copy. But, as postmodern theorists argue, in a society inundated with images, The Truth and The Image become indiscernible. It's all "real" if you can convince people it's real.

I've taken a pretty academic approach here because, well, most of this movie's pleasures don't take much analysis. This movie is fist-pumping fun. Tarantino's dialogue remains as vibrant as ever. His characters speak in artful, memorable rhythms ("Au revoir, Shosanna!"). Scenes come equipped with satisfying payoffs. Villains possess disarming charisma. Bizarre titles and freeze frames intentionally shatter the film's tone for laughs. Brad Pitt talks in a funny accent. Nazis get killed. These delights -- of which there are many, many more -- don't take much to appreciate.

Lastly, Tarantino's love of Jean-Luc Godard and the French New Wave registers here in powerful ways. Just as Godard and others rejected the stuffy "quality films" of their elders -- the so-called "Cinema de Papa" -- for a youthful, of-the-moment approach to filmmaking, Tarantino mocks self-serious period films through a barrage of devices to distance viewers. Where a film like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button does everything it can to immerse viewers in A Serious Movie, Inglourious Basterds prefers a self-aware approach. Tarantino sprinkles his story with randomly-timed Samuel L. Jackson narration, David Bowie interludes, and other self-conscious devices to distance us. Like Godard, he wants us to know we're watching a movie. Unlike Godard, he actually cares to entertain. Tarantino brings postmodern filmmaking (and, with Inglourious Basterds, theory) to a wide audience.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Top Films of the Decade: #5 No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men

Image #1: Close up. A hand clenches a loaded revolver. Its index finger begins to squeeze the trigger.
Image #2: A flock of birds rise in unison, leaping into flight.

What happened here? Well, we know loud sounds startle birds, and we know guns make loud sounds. Therefore, we deduce that someone fired a gun. Yet we never see the trigger pulled, the gun fired, or the bullet reach its target. And, because these shots stem from The Docks of New York, a 1928 silent film, viewers don't even hear the gun go off. But the images make perfect, intuitive sense as a pair. The first shot informs the second to create a concrete idea in our heads: Someone fired a gun. The filmmaker conveys this information cinematically, not literally. As art critic Rudolf Arnheim wrote in 1933, "What is particularly noteworthy in such a scene is not merely how easily and cleverly the director makes visible something that is not visual, but by doing so, actually strengthens its effect."

Joel and Ethan Coen continue this tradition like no other directors working today. I call it the Cinema of Smoke. If a house burns to the ground, most directors show you the fire; the Coen brothers show you the smoke. We see the consequence (smoke) and deduce the action (fire). The duo make the most of the medium; they use images, sounds, and the clashes between them to tell stories in inventive, uniquely cinematic ways.

No Country for Old Men is the apotheosis of this style. At every turn, Joel and Ethan Coen either visualize the unvisual or leave visuals implied off screen -- all in the name of mastering suspense. Here's just one example of the former: In this instant-classic scene, watch how the filmmakers visualize an abstract idea (a long pause within a conversation of mounting tension) with, of all things, a plastic wrapper (jump to the 2:37 mark).

Here's the opposite effect at work. In this scene, the directors convey narrative information (the death of a hotel clerk) not by showing his death on screen, but by the dim, evocative ringing of an unanswered phone (58-second mark).

Imagine the tension this scene would lose if it began with a shot of Anton Chigurh murdering the clerk.

Even the explosions in No Country for Old Men appear in the periphery.

These stylistic choices all speak to the Coens' careful control of image and sound. Nothing appears accidental in No Country for Old Men. Cameras don't shake in the name of realism. Characters don't mumble inanities to capture how people talk "in real life." Instead, the Coens fully embrace artifice; they're out to craft the most compelling, heart-stopping thriller they can.

Aside from its formal delights, No Country for Old Men offers the decade's great movie villain in Anton Chigurh. Like Hannibal Lecter in the '90s, Chigurh is a mythical, quotable machine. He grounds the film's foggy nihilism in one frightening bowl cut.

No Country for Old Men plays best as a straight-up suspense film, one designed to reflect an era of anxiety and panic. If you find a stronger genre movie from this decade, please do tell.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Top Films of the Decade: #6 Distant


The men of Distant lead lives of quiet desperation. One drifts through life, guided by apathy, married only to his meaningless daily routines. The other, a villager displaced in Istanbul, floats around town, ogling women and hunting for work. His neuroses (and illiteracy) render him unemployable and unattractive.

Like the other Nuri Bilge Ceylan film on this list, Distant shows the stuff of everyday life. It's a film of small moments, detailing how two introverted men long for external joy yet remain shackled by inertia. The film captures that unfortunate truth: Human beings will always fear change, no matter how mundane their circumstances. Things could always get worse. Rejection and failure lie one misstep ahead. The day-to-day institutionalizes us, until we act not out of desire, but out of sheer habit.

Ceylan arrives at these themes through Mahmut and Yusef, an odd couple living together in Istanbul. The guys watch a lot of TV. They bicker about cleanliness. They debate the proper way to terminate pests. In short, the men interact on autopilot. They speak only when necessary, sidestepping human interaction for the easiest exit to their respective bedrooms. They remain alienated from the people and places around them. Fitting "The Individualist" personality type described by The Enneagram Institute, Mahmut and Yusef "long for someone to come into their lives and appreciate the secret self that they have privately nurtured and hidden from the world." That's the sad way many of us live. We seek genuine interaction yet recoil at its onset.

By showing a friendship that never sparks to life, Ceylan articulates the absurd ways we choose to pass the time. Mahmut and Yusef, like so many of us, live life like a losing team running out the clock. In the end, one man makes a bold decision, while the other sits on a park bench, alone, fantasizing about a life he'd never dare lead.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Top Films of the Decade: #7 Wendy and Lucy

Wendy and Lucy

We witnessed a quiet mini-movement in American independent cinema this decade. Films set all across the country -- from the Pacific Northwest to New York City and the Mississippi Delta -- offered unglamorous glimpses into the lives of working-class and impoverished outsiders. Think Slumdog Millionaire, stripped of the frenetic style and gratifying closure. Shot with a poetic minimalism, films like Ballast and Chop Shop typify what A.O. Scott dubs "neo-neo realism."

Wendy and Lucy flaunts the American minimalist M.O. at its finest. The movie addresses unspoken political concerns through a single tragic story, much like the post-WWII films of Italian neorealism. It preys on our emotional pressure points -- the fear of unemployment, the helplessness of losing a pet -- to convey the relentless horrors of poverty in America.

Wendy and Lucy is a parable of sorts, though its agenda barely registers when you actually watch the movie. Director Kelly Reichardt imbues her film with such subtlety and grace; it never plays like a liberal sob story on the ills of capitalism. Like another film on this list, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Wendy and Lucy presents a case study of one person's turmoil given their sociopolitical surroundings. It lands a one-two punch to the head and the heart, hanging its politics on a bittersweet fable fitting for a children's book. The unassuming performances, plotting, and visuals culminate in a devastating scene of dramatic resolution. We're left with some answers, some questions, and an unshakable sense of sorrow.

Wendy and Lucy
is a piece of anti-escapist social commentary, only devoid of the hard-edged antagonism found in many art films (including the one mentioned above). It doesn't conflate seriousness with punishing the viewer. Reichardt's sympathy, for her characters and audience, make this a film as satisfying as it is sober.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Top Films of the Decade: #8 Climates


Few artists trigger my tear ducts like Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Climates, his sublime fourth film, elicits pure awe -- the stuff of Stendahl syndrome. This movie hit me like a panic attack. Watching it, I felt my chest balloon, as though Ceylan himself had stuck a bike pump in my heart and pushed down with all his weight.

Confession: When it comes to Nuri Bilge Ceylan, I have a problem with hyperbole.

In Climates, Ceylan trains his photographer's eye on expressive facial close-ups and ominous Turkish landscapes. Note the image above, as well as this one:

Faces (and the environments in which we see them) speak louder than dialogue in this film. Such images riff off a central thesis: Seasons change and so do hearts. Summer transforms into fall; lusty looks become apathetic glances. Vibrant eyes grow vacant. Love fades. Resentment, boredom, and alienation take its place.

Ceylan's fixation with the human face echoes one art-house master (Ingmar Bergman), while his fascination with those alienated by their vast surroundings recalls another (Michelangelo Antonioni). But the similarities end there. Climates, unlike many movies by those directors, feels like the work of a real human being, not a detached observer spotlighting mankind's flaws. There's nothing cold, clinical, or nihilistic about Climates. Ceylan reveals our weaknesses, not to prove that love is futile, but to portray an honest, adult depiction of our species. His findings ring authentic, not misanthropic. Ceylan actually wants his characters to find happiness; he doesn't mock them for trying. To dive in despite the odds, after all, is only human.

A simple story about love and loss, Climates is a feature-length poem on the funny/sad patterns you'll find across romantic relationships. It's the work of a natural filmmaker emulating his idols (Andrei Tarkovsky and the above-mentioned directors) while injecting a humanism all his own. Climates captures the conflicting emotions of love: the euphoria, the bittersweet, the catty, the crash. Like Josh Brolin said, there's "a helluva a lot of truth in it."

Monday, November 16, 2009

Top Films of the Decade: #9 There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood

"All of life's questions and answers are in [the film]," Paul Thomas Anderson, director of There Will Be Blood, said in 2007. "It's about greed and ambition and paranoia and looking at the worst parts of yourself."

Taken out of context, as I've done so here, that sounds like a self-flattering synopsis for his own movie, doesn't it? Those words -- greed, paranoia, ambition -- trigger distinct images in my head, namely ones of Daniel Day-Lewis browbeating a gangling zealot in a bowling alley. But Anderson isn't talking about his movie; he's talking about his favorite movie, The Treasure of Sierra Madre.

I mention this because, as with Quentin Tarantino, Anderson is a filmmaker guided by his cinematic obsessions. He hails from the "video store" or "VCR" school of American indie cinema. That is, he learned his craft through osmosis, by exposing himself to tape after tape, DVD after DVD, of the classics. Films like The Treasure of Sierra Madre comprise the foundation of his filmmaking powers.

There Will Be Blood stands among his best work because it satisfies on so many levels. The movie succeeds as a sociopolitical screed, a period drama, a family drama, an acting showcase, a rise-and-fall epic, a compelling yarn, and, of course, as a cinephile's wet dream. Anderson channels his influences (Malick, Kubrick, Madre) into a seamless, coherent whole. There Will Be Blood never feels like a highlight reel of Anderson's favorite movies. Watching a film like Kill Bill Vol. 1, on the other hand, feels akin to sitting in a friend's living room, swirling my drink in silence, as he manically shuffles through records, letting 30 seconds play, only to chirp "oh, OH!" before pulling a new vinyl out of its sleeve. It sure seems fun for him.

There Will Be Blood doubles as an immersive character study and an origin story of American values, both familial and political. It grounds Big Themes with concrete specifics; who can forget Plainview's bromides, Eli Sunday's impish requests, H.W.'s silent sadness, or the film's anamorphic visual beauty? As such, the movie approaches that holy grail of storytelling: allegorical potency coupled with the immediate pleasures of a gripping narrative. There Will Be Blood is a standalone work of modern art indebted to, but never reliant on, the thousands of cinematic images swirling in Anderson's head.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Top Films of the Decade: #10 Finding Nemo

Finding Nemo

Finding Nemo is just about perfect. Memorable voice acting? Tight script? Quotable jokes? Childlike whimsy? Timeless lessons? This is the stuff of Pixar, distilled here into one remarkable story.

As with all the Pixar greats, Finding Nemo is a masterclass in commercial screenwriting. The film feels effortless, like floating 'round a lazy river, from start to finish. Writer/director Andrew Stanton establishes his characters (their motivations, flaws, and quirks) with efficient grace, then sends them whirling downstream with constant narrative motion, like an underwater road movie. We love the characters so the stakes are high. We escape into the film. For 100 minutes we care only about Nemo, Dori, and Marlin.

As David Bordwell and many others have written, classical Hollywood films strove for an elegantly invisible style. Directors wanted to immerse you in the film; they didn't want you analyzing how they constructed the individual shots and plot points. They wanted every detail to appear natural. Finding Nemo achieves this effect like few films I've ever seen. The form disappears when I watch this movie. I don't look at the screen and think, "Hmm, that was a clunky line" or "Hmm, this scene goes on a little long." Just like I don't look at a picture of the Lotus Temple and think, "Hmm, a little indulgent, don't you think?" I don't see the individual windows and slabs of marble; I only see the gorgeous whole, about which I wouldn't change a thing.

Where some Pixar titles border on the esoteric (Ratatouille, WALL-E) and others on the juvenile (Cars), Finding Nemo best exemplifies what the studio's all about -- creating entertainment that everyone can enjoy. Like the Beatles to a family road-trip, Finding Nemo is always a safe bet, no matter who you're bunking with.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Top Films of the Decade: #11 Caché



Though I've never had Michael Haneke bury his fingers in my throat for two hours, I think I can approximate what that sensation must feel like after viewing Caché. Few films have exercised such sadistic control over an audience's emotions. Haneke's grasp waxes and wanes, draws blood, and even gets a little boring. The German director equips cinema's cruel devices (extreme long takes, bursts of violence, Kubrick-like coldness) to punish his characters and — to an even greater degree — his viewers.

Caché, like many of my favorite French-language thrillers, transcends its genre to explore the abstract notion of "bourgeois complacency." You can read Caché as a tight suspense film, a political allegory, both, or neither. At its core, the movie shows a man who refuses to believe that the wrongs of his past have any relevance to the horrors of his present. This disbelief, the film argues, stems from the systematic way upper-middle-class families become hermetic, depoliticized enclaves from the outside world. Caché's protagonist feels no guilt for wronging an Algerian child in his past, just as French citizens feel no guilt for the Algerian War, or Americans remain detached from the foreign policy decisions that preceded 9/11. When you've spent your life repressing past mistakes, locked safe in a comfortable suburban setting, you tend to greet the social ills of the 21st century (namely, racism and terrorism) with utter bafflement. Why is this black man so angry? Why do the terrorists hate us?

Or so Haneke's argument goes. It's a conversation-starter, to say the least. What impresses me is how he imbues such academic material into a riveting, plot-driven film. In this way, Haneke is heir to the past masters of the French-language thriller: Henri-Georges Clouzot and Claude Chabrol. Just as Clouzot subverted the genre with 1943's Le Corbeau and Chabrol with 1995’s La Cérémonie, Haneke uses thrillers to reveal the ugliness humans are capable of given their political environment. Unlike those directors, though, Haneke antagonizes his viewers, prodding them to draw connections between themselves and his protagonist on screen. Caché draws us in with its premise, only to lead us to the very places we go to the movies to ignore.

(p.s. I hope you'll forgive the slight font change. Blogger and accent marks really don't get along, from my experiences).

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Top films of the Decade: #12 -- 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

For my money, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days contains the single most powerful shot of this decade. I've written about the image before. About halfway into the film, director Cristian Mungiu has mounted enough visceral dread to rattle even the most jaded viewers of Euro art-house cinema. We've watched his protagonist, Otilia, sacrifice her body and sanity. We've witnessed the queasy minutiae of an illegal abortion in 1980s Romania. And, just as tensions have peaked, we see Otilia abandon an ailing friend to have dinner with her boyfriend's chattering family.

So Mungiu treats us to a five-minute take of the above image. Five minutes of Otilia's blank stare, as the surrounding elders trade inanities. Five minutes of a woman who must sit still, despite her body's cries to shiver, scream, and run out the door.

I love this scene, and the film as a whole, for how it weaves the personal and the political. Consider all the reasons Otilia must sit at that dinner table -- the gender and generational politics that force a young woman to sit quietly while her friend whimpers across town from a slipshod abortion. The film offers no easy antidotes to patriarchy or totalitarianism. Instead, through one harrowing case study, it shows us just how terrifying the invisible sociopolitical norms of a specific time and place can be.

(p.s. I can testify, through experience, that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is one of the worst date movies of all time).

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Top Films of the Decade: #13 Children of Men

Children of Men

Children of Men is a film of stunning individual moments. The operatic car chase. The countryside escape. The breathtaking birth. The frenetic war zone. The infant whose mere presence -- if at least for a minute -- sparks a cease-fire.

Those fucking long takes. They kill me every time.

Like another one of this decade's greats, Inglourious Basterds, Children of Men parades scenes of walloping cinematic power like marquee floats in one grand, ticker-tape spectacle. I'll focus here on the film's strongest selling point: its visual bravura. These images, of course, propel a dystopian story with clear allusions to Bush-era politics, but I'll leave those musings for someone else.

At its best moments, Children of Men connotes key information not in any traditional way (i.e. dialogue, close-ups, music cues), but through its images alone. This approach forces viewers to remain alert and active, to not let the film wash over them. It also creates a dense visual world, one where peripheral billboards, TV screens, and graffiti harbor as much meaning as the expression on a character's face.

Director Alfonso Cuaron rewards us when we give him our full attention. Consider the birth scene, shot in a long take with substantial distance from its subjects. Clive Owen's character, an established alcoholic and burnout, scrambles to deliver the first child born in decades. He begins by sterilizing his hands. Look closely, and you'll see with what: a splash of his beloved Jack Daniels.

It took me four viewing to notice this detail. Cuaron could have highlighted the motion with any number of dramatic cues -- a close-up, a look of pause on Owen's face -- but, instead, he presents it as just another action in the frame. The moment, of course, signifies his awakening from boozed-out apathy. It's the kind of moment most commercial directors would sledgehammer, but, in Children of Men, it remains buried. And here's why:

"Cinema has become a medium you can watch with your eyes closed," Cuaron argued while promoting this film. With that in mind, I read Children of Men as an interjection. As movies gravitate toward a televisual style that stresses the 3 C's (Conversation, Cuts, and Close-ups), Children of Men illustrates the unique powers of purely visual storytelling. Unlike escapism, this film makes you work. Cuaron packs his frames with meaningful objects and gestures, then leaves us to spot and decipher them ourselves. Our eyes must remain open. His images, meanwhile, leave us wide-eyed.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Top Films of the Decade: #14 WALL-E


Really, praising Pixar's a little unnecessary at this point. Who can deny the studio's output? In 15 years, Pixar has released 10 features -- nine critical darlings, 10 box-office behemoths. Can you think of another studio (or director, or actor, or producer) in the history of moving images whose work brings critics and their children to tears, in equal measure, time and time again?

WALL-E offers so many of Pixar's trademark treasures. All the obsessions are here: The Old versus The New, the value of collective action, the ills of materialism. Let's unpack those.

1) The Old and The New. Clearly, WALL-E is a love story between two machines -- a relic of the past and an emblem of the future. Analog and digital. Mechanical and computerized. Squint and you've got Woody and Buzz. But notice also how the film's structure mimics this divide. WALL-E begins as a throwback to silent-era storytelling, complete with broad comic and emotive gestures. With dialogue-free images of barren landscapes, the first half-hour echoes another cinematic depiction of the past: Kubrick's "The Dawn of Man" sequence from 2001. The film, much like 2001, then catapults into space, hurtling viewers out of the past and into a foreign future. We move from WALL-E's quaint, Chaplin-like world to a dystopian image of our current society. The effect is beautiful.

2) The Value of Collective Action. WALL-E attacks convenience culture like few films I've ever seen. Today, in 2009, we lurch more and more toward an individualistic society. We like cell phones, not landlines. Water bottles, not public taps. iPods, not the outside world. WALL-E takes a funhouse mirror to these tendencies, presenting a warped but not impossible logical extreme to our current lifestyle. We see a world of maximum comfort, convenience, and efficiency -- all at the expense of genuine human contact. WALL-E's climax, like Finding Nemo's, shows the positive outcomes of collective behavior, the kind that forces you to interact with your fellow man.

3) The Ills of Materialism. Convenience culture, like a living organism, creates waste. WALL-E forces viewers to confront this fact. It still amazes me, the audacity it takes to set the first half-hour of $180 million summer movie in a landfill. If the movie's critique of materialism is a bit on-the-nose, I for one forgive it. What a striking image: A society, founded on consumption and waste, leaves its ultimate mark on Earth -- skyscrapers of shit.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Top Films of the Decade: #15 United 93

United 93

In his unassuming way, director Paul Greengrass reshaped English-language cinema this decade. Many, I'm sure, would argue for the worse. His jittery-cam technique, pejoratively labeled run-and-gun by David Bordwell, has become the go-to tool for crafting tension and urgency. Greengrass' imprint marks even the biggest of blockbusters (i.e. Star Trek). No doubt, the trend infuriates lovers of classical cinematic norms. I won't mount a defense of shaky-cam here; such matters often fall on taste, anyway. I will, however, argue for United 93 as the perfection of the form.

In a way, United 93 was a sequel to Greengrass' Bloody Sunday. Both films used the same techniques -- nonprofessional actors, hand-held cameras, location shooting, naturalistic lighting -- to present an ambiguous historical event with documentary-like claims to authenticity. Both movies also portray a dichotomy between personal heroism and institutional incompetence. The Battle of Algiers and Italian neorealism have clearly shaped how Greengrass makes films, while this decade's love of reality TV gives United 93 its uncompromising sense of dread. You can't really defend jittery-cam on intellectual grounds; cinema, after all, is artifice. A shaky image is as constructed as a stable one. But, employed as a technique like any other, the Greengrass style hits you with enormous visceral shock. Just as noir lighting evokes moodiness, the Greengrass style evokes immediacy, terror, the unexpected -- even the cameraman could get knocked to the ground. Commercial cinema means manipulating audiences for a desired emotional effect. Given the amount of time we spent watching reality TV and YouTube this decade, I can't imagine a more direct way of achieving that emotional reaction than what Greengrass has done here. United 93 shook me in ways I didn't know films could.

Counting down the top 15 films of the 2000s

Later today, I'll begin a top 15 countdown of what I believe to be the best films of the 2000s. So let's get right to it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Biden Birther Manifesto featured on "The O'Reilly Factor"

In my obituary, this will likely get mentioned in the first four paragraphs.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Thoughts on Funny People

Funny People is a bizarre, 146-minute dramedy about dying and dick jokes.

(Minor spoilers)

Let's start from the beginning: I adore Judd Apatow's previous work. His first two features (The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up) were unambitious and beautiful for it. Both had logical beginning- and end-points from which to hang a narrative based on improv comedy. In Virgin, the story begins when Steve Carell's friends learn about his virginity. It ends when Carell loses it. With Knocked Up, we start with Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl having unprotected sex. We end with Heigl giving birth.

These plots sound facile on paper, but Apatow's genius lies in how he riffs off a simple premise. Judd's work is strongest when he crafts a charming story, fills it with believable characters, collects a pool of razor-sharp comics, and lets them loose on his material. Within this formula, Apatow acts more as ringmaster than director. His films unfold like a form of controlled chaos. Effortless, plot-driven stories collide with the sloppiness of individual scenes. Such is the pattern with Judd's first films: Tight overarching narrative, loose distinct sequences.

And, for me, this works. The films are long, but their narratives remain in perpetual motion. Judd drives the story, while his actors -- through their breathless asides about Munich, Steely Dan, and pot -- careen it into a ditch, scene after scene. The sequences breathe with the slow-flow of real life; they don't feel like mere plot points.

After two films, Judd already seemed like an auteur. Both his features explored this idiosyncratic structure, creating a style of American comedy uniquely Apatow-esque.

Which brings us to Funny People. Judd's apologists will applaud this movie for its "mature" and "complex" narrative. But the difference between complex and incoherent, mature and self-serious, is a big one. With Funny People, Judd bites off a miniseries' worth of material and streamlines it into a feature. Imagine "Freaks and Geeks," Judd's beloved 1999 TV show, as a feature film. Imagine the character arcs and narrative turns paraded one after another. Much of the charm would evaporate, wouldn't it? Suddenly, each scene must have an overt purpose, because when you're dealing with a half-dozen characters in a shorter run-time, those Apatow-esque digressions give way to the bottom line: plot.

Let's take one scene from Funny People to illustrate. Toward the end of the film, Adam Sandler, Leslie Mann, and Seth Rogen watch a video of Mann's daughter performing a Cats number. As they watch, Sandler repeatedly flips open his phone to read texts, then cracks a crude comment about how the clip would have been even funnier on acid.

More than any moment from Judd's previous films, this sequence paints in broad strokes. The scene exists solely to illustrate how Sandler can be a jerk. It functions as a plot point, nothing more. Later in the film, Mann uses this moment as ammo for why she should stay with her husband -- because Sandler didn't cry during her daughter's performance. Had Sandler just faked interest like a normal person (his character is, after all, a "good actor"), it follows that Mann wouldn't have had second thoughts, and the course of the film would have shifted dramatically. But, instead, Sandler play the scene like an ass, because that benefits the plot. Sandler acts illogically for the convenience of our story. Judd then overplays an already-dismal hand, cutting to multiple reaction shots of Rogen and Mann looking disgusted. With zero subtlety, Judd telegraphs his plot point: Maybe Sandler isn't ready for a family after all. Maybe Mann should stick with her husband.

Not every scene plays this clumsily, but the greater point remains: Large Cast + Commitment to Character Development + Multilayered Plot + Limited Run Time = Corners Cut. At least in this case.

Had I made Funny People, I would have cut the number of scenes and padded the length of the ones remaining. Apatow, god bless him, is the only director working in mainstream comedy who provides too much character development. As an extreme reaction to There's Something About Mary's brand of surface-deep comedy, Judd adores his characters and their every motivation. And, here, it's to a fault.

For the sake of telling a modest story effectively, I'd cut the follow scenes and subplots:
  • Rogen's romance. I'd cut the entire thing. Again, this feels like one giant plot point. These scenes exist because Apatow wants to establish that Rogen has a stronger moral compass than Sandler, at least when it comes to women. He needs to do this, of course, for the convenience of his plot. Rogen takes the moral high ground in the film's climactic airport sequence, and Judd wants to avoid having this character trait come out of left-field. So, he uses Rogen's romance to show that Seth has a traditional, romantic streak. He's the kind of guy who thinks asking a girl on a date means you're officially "dating." I'd tone down Rogen's moral hysteria in the last 45 minutes, thus eliminating the need to prime viewers for his antics with a forced romance.
  • Sandler's family. Cut the scene with his sister and the one with his parents. Unlike the conversations in Knocked Up between Seth and his dad, these scenes play like lifeless, obligatory stabs at character development.
  • Eric Bana's affair. This doesn't eat up much screen time, but it's lazy and a cheat. To make viewers feel better about Mann's behavior, Judd throws in a few lines about Bana straying. Develop this further, and you'd have something. As is, it's a shortcut to show that Mann is unhappy in her marriage, and a cheap ploy to create viewer sympathy for her. Plenty of people have feelings for past lovers, even if their current partner isn't a schmuck.
  • iTunes playlist scene. No human being would storm out of a room because 30 seconds of some acoustic guitar ballad (one which they've presumably never heard) sends them reeling. Further, no one would ever put an acoustic guitar ballad on a mix designed to cheer up a friend.
  • Celebrity cameos. Judd has a lot of power these days, and with a $70 million budget he can afford to indulge in excess. But these scenes rarely added to the story, and, even worse, they weren't particularly funny. One of Knocked Up's clunkiest moments involved a Ryan Seacrest cameo. Here, we get Eminem taking easy stabs at his anger-management issues. Scenes and entire characters feel rushed, but boy was that Norm Macdonald cameo worth it.
  • Dick jokes. I've yet to hear a good argument for the movie's wild tonal shift between sentimentality and crude humor. Some might say the tension between the two is "interesting," but I'd more call it nonsensical. What are dick jokes meant to signify? The man-child mentality? If so, why does the film's mature character (Rogen) pop just as many dick quips as the movie's adolescent anti-hero (Sandler)? These jokes flesh out the film's unique tone -- subdued and languid, with the occasional burst of juvenilia -- but my question is why? I fear Judd inserted them to keep our attention, which doesn't say much for his meandering, aimless storyline.
  • Opening credits. You have video of Sandler making crank calls when he was a young comic, and I'm sure this footage means a great deal to you. So does the whole film. Funny People is clearly your labor-of-love project, your Synecdoche, New York. But just watch the clip again, Judd. It's just not that funny. Would have been hilarious if you were there, no doubt. But, on screen, to open your film, it's a red flag for what we're about to get: a heaping scoop of self-indulgence.Save yourself 90 seconds and cut it. It'd make a killer special feature for the DVD.
Now, I've been pretty hard on the film, but this comes from disappointment more than anything. Were this Judd's first film, I might be writing about an uncompromising new voice in American comedy. And there's a lot to like here. The film does have laughs and a few touching moments, including a lovely scene with Sandler at Thanksgiving dinner. Jonah Hill makes me laugh every time he opens his mouth. But, in the end, I'd have to agree with the critical community: Funny People is a shambles. It's one big cauldron of Judd's trademarks, taken to the extreme, and with little regard for coherence.

Perhaps this comes down to taste, but I tend to prefer modest films that execute their goals with precision over behemoth, mixed-bag ambition projects. I prefer Eternal Sunshine to Synecdoche; No Country for Old Men to There Will Be Blood, The Orphanage to Pan's Labyrinth. I'd call Funny People a failure, but one worth seeing.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Andrew Sarris: Lion of film critics

The New York Times just published a great profile on Andrew Sarris, the legendary 80-year-old film critic who was laid off by the New York Observer earlier this year. Sarris is known for importing the auteur theory of film criticism from France to the US. I've been reading his 1968 book The American Cinema off and on all summer, almost as bathroom reading (the longest chapter is about five pages). In it he asserts, among other questionable claims, that Kubrick was a charlatan and Wilder was a knee-jerk cynic.

If nothing else, Sarris provokes, and does it well. In old age, I've found him a little insuferable (here he is dismissing Children of Men like a curmudgeon on life support). Historically, Sarris is a fascinating figure. He's emblematic of a different era, when cinema was not yet considered an artform. It took Sarris and Pauline Kael's torrential bickering to elevate the medium in the eyes of many.

The Times article is a great read and a terrific gateway into '50s-'60s film criticism.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Jerry Schnoor on CGRER and sustainability

Dr. Jerry Schnoor argues for an interdisciplinary approach to sustainability, using the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER) as an example.

Video shot by Ben Hill of the University of Iowa Center for Media Production and edited by myself. Learn more about Schnoor's work here.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Jerry Schnoor on the dangers of continuing coal

Dr. Jerry Schnoor discusses why Iowa can't afford to build new coal-fired power plants.

Video shot by Ben Hill of the University of Iowa Center for Media Production and edited by myself. You can learn more about Schnoor here.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Dr. Jerry Schnoor on "sustainability tax"

Jerry Schnoor, my boss at the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER), argues for a sustainability tax to supplant the income tax.

Video was shot by Ben Hill of the University of Iowa Center for Media Production and edited by myself. You can read Schnoor's scroll-like resume here.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Sonic Youth at The Vic in Chicago

This Sunday, I saw Sonic Youth play The Vic in Chicago.

Here is a blurry image from said show. Thurston Moore is on the right. Kim Gordon, the sexiest 56-year-old on earth, is smack in the middle.

The band closed their second encore with "'Cross the Breeze," my absolute favorite Sonic Youth song.

Right outside The Vic, Chicago's largest gay pride parade had taken over the streets.

A fun time was had by all.

Mark Johnson performs "Love Scripts"

Mark Johnson, singer/songwriter of the Chicago-based band Tough but Fair, performs his song "Love Scripts" at the Awake Cafe in Chicago.

Mark is one of my very good friends. When I was 18, I wrote and directed a 20-minute movie called "Singer/Songwriter" that starred Mark. For the role, he wrote a handful of spectacular songs from the perspective of his character -- a morose indie troubadour who alienates his obsessive fans with a series of saccharine sweet records. Mark knocked these songs out of the park, creating parody tracks that were hummable and enjoyable on their own terms.

Listen to songs by his band Tough but Fair here.
Listen to his solo material here.

Video was shot June 27, 2009.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Iowa City mourns Iranian protesters

Below are two photos from a gathering last night to mourn those who've lost their lives in Iran. The event was held in downtown Iowa City. Over 75 people held candles in honor of Neda and other protesters who've died on the streets of Iran.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Bill Callahan live at The Picador in Iowa City

Bill Callahan, aka Smog, aka (Smog), played a show at The Picador in Iowa City on Saturday, June 20. I saw Callahan perform at the very same venue (then called Gabe's Oasis) six years ago -- my very first concert in a bar.

Below, you'll find videos I took of Callahan performing two of his bigger singles, "Sycamore" and "Cold Blooded Old Times."

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Plastic bottle consumption

Earlier this week, The Daily Iowan published an op-ed I wrote on plastic bottle consumption. You can read it here.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Bike sharing

I wrote a guest column for today's Iowa City Press-Citizen on campus bike sharing programs. You can read it here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

New Politics, New Media

Iowa City's alt-weekly Little Village just published an article of mine on Barack Obama's new media campaign.

You can read it here.

The piece features quotes from scholars Doug Kellner and Jennifer Stromer-Galley, as well as the authors of 2007's Netroots Rising, Nate Wilcox and Lowell Feld.

I hope you enjoy it.