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).