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.