Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top Ten of 2010

What strange trickery is this? A top ten list actually made by the end of the year? Surely this isn’t the same David Holland who took 11 months to post last year’s top ten list. Well hell has been known to freeze over, hey even the Cubs won back to back world series, even if it was 102 years ago. So enough about the pure absurdity of actually seeing enough films to qualify this year, point is I did what comes naturally to so many critics, without nearly the same resources.

This year was an interesting one, but well isn’t every year in it’s own way? A few months into the year I had seen a few films and thought I was in decent shape. In a fairly short amount of time I saw Inception, Toy Story 3, and Mother and thought this year was off an running. Not surprisingly I hit a wall sometime later and before I knew it the “it’s still early” mindset turned into “I better get my ass in gear”. If I told you how many films I’ve watched from this year in the past month I’m sure my picture would appear in Webster’s under the word “obsessed”. Well frantically racing to the finish turned out to be more of a marathon than anything else, and I made it, a few minutes ago to be honest.

Looking at my list from 2009 I was amazed how few foreign language films made the cut. It didn’t seem like I wasn’t watching them, but films like Summer Hours, 35 Shots of Rum, Tulpan, The Headless Woman, and The White Ribbon didn’t seem to impress me as much as everyone else. Don’t misunderstand I didn’t dislike any of these films but when it came to list time they weren’t even under consideration for me. From an early time this year foreign films seemed to be singing a different tune. Bong Joon-ho’s Mother got the ball rolling quite nice. By the time it had come out in theaters here in Chicago the DVD/Blu-Ray was about to be released and mercifully my library got it instantly. After becoming a fan with his previous Memories of Murder and The Host, this was a most looked forward to film, and it certainly lived up to my expectations.

Unlike the majority of American product that gets shoved upon us all at year’s end in order to be fresh in everyone’s brain for Oscar season, foreign films seem to trickle out whenever. Distribution is bad, and getting worse, after all how many foreign language films can you go see right now if you checked your paper. Even a local art house is showing King’s Speech and Black Swan on two screens a piece even if both of these films are now in wide release. Thanks to the wonderful world of region free DVD players, often times DVD’s of current foreign films can be had before they even hit US theaters. I first discovered this phenomenon when I grew tired of waiting for Zhang Yimou’s Hero to come out, and bought a bootleg DVD. Turns out the film was released about a month later, but my patience was already gone. Point is this is happening all the more, and well if you’re resourceful enough it isn’t hard to locate these films, which is wonderful considering how obscure and buried they often get especially for cinephiles living in the suburbs. For movie theater purists though, well get bent.

I was amazed though that this time many of the films popping up on critics top ten lists were released quite early in the year. I left the theater after seeing Black Swan wondering just when the hell all the Oscar bait was going to be released, not realizing that most of the year’s best films trickled out so gradually that I hadn’t even noticed. Early releases like Roman Polanski’s excellent Ghost Writer, Scorsese’s Shutter Island, Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg all hit theaters long before Memorial Day weekend. Even a pair of summer blockbusters worked wonders with critics and both Toy Story 3 and Inception have earned plenty of year end recognition. Perhaps the year’s best reviewed film, The Social Network was released in September which doesn’t often happen for most Oscar hopefuls.

In the next few weeks some more films will trickle out. I’m looking forward to a few, but many of the films I’m keeping an eye out for came and went and now the wait for DVD is on. It’s virtually impossible to see “everything” from any given year. Long ago I set up the 50 film benchmark, and consider it last year’s New Year’s resolution but I hit that benchmark this year. The mark of any good year of cinema is whether or not I find 10 worthy films before I hit that 50 film mark. To answer your query, I found more than enough. Rather than cop out and deliver a top 15 or 20, or split it up amongst foreign and domestic, I’m sticking with ten. Read on and there just might be a supplemental list of add-ons that were good but not quite up to par.

I realize that every list is going to draw some dissention. There’s going to be a film that you might think is the best of the year that I don’t have on my list. The odds are I liked it but perhaps it didn’t hit me hard enough. After all History of Violence didn’t make my top 15 of 2005 list and five years later I have a hard time thinking of a film better than it from that year (aside from Sin City). Time will shape this list, perhaps as I see more films, maybe when I revisit a few with some perspective, or maybe my mood will change, who knows. As of today though this is the list:

10. Wild Grass - France/Italy Alain Resnais

Still got it, could be a theme of some very veteran directors this year. Manoel de Oliveira didn’t let turning 100 slow him down from making several films, so by comparison Alain Resnais seems wet behind the ears at a youthful 87. Wild Grass is part of a wonderful re-emergence of Resnais which brings back a large portion of the cast of his excellent Private Fears in Public Places. As with that film, he sets up wonderfully pedestrian plots and then with a mind blowing subtlety completely avoids every expected twist. It’s that type of mastery of craft that can only come with six decades of making films. He doesn’t seem like he’s lost any of that anarchistic bravado that made Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad art house classics 50 years ago. Here a plot about an older man who finds a middle aged woman’s wallet and begins to develop a fascination/obsession with her that avoids all the trappings of stalker obsession that we’ve grown accustomed to. Months later I still don’t know how he did it, but for an exercise in how to remain relevant into your 80s, hunt this film out.

9. The Ghost Writer - Germany/UK/France Roman Polanski

Guess whose back on the scene? The world’s most infamous director is still not welcome in America and is still finding a way to craft masterpieces. Perhaps I misjudged and assumed The Pianist would be his final triumph back in 2002. His follow up was a somewhat flawed and very unnecessary adaptation of Oliver Twist, but don’t overlook the early release. Typically anything that can be construed as a “political thriller” usually bores me to tears and has me running for a good zombie film as an antidote, but Polanski did the very limited genre a service here and had forced my hand to possibly re-examine the whole lot of these films. That might be a misstep after all how many Roman Polanski’s are there in the world. This is the director of Chinatown doing what he does best, slowly involving a protagonist and us as viewers into a story that is bigger than we could imagine, pulling the rug out from under us a few times. He keeps us in the dark as Ewan McGregor is, and we never know more than he does, in fact often it seems we know less. The excellent cast easily makes you overlook Kim Catrall’s British accent, in fact she had me believing. Polanski has always allowed for longer takes and his actors room to breath, with a sharp eye for focus. The sky never, ever seems to show a ray of sunlight and well isn’t that just as it should be? It may have been decades but this film, along with Wild Grass have shown that the older generation can still crank out the masterpieces with the best of them.

8. Air Doll - Japan Hirokazu Kore-eda

It may come as no surprise to any of you that Hirokazu Kore-eda is my favorite Japanese director working today. If you are in the minority and wonder “who the hell is that?” then proceed to your Netflix cue and put all of his films in it. For me 2010 was as much about rebounding as ever. I wasn’t overly impressed with Kore-eda’s Still Walking which was disappointing considering how great Nobody Knows and Hana were. This brought me back to his corner. None of his films seem to be anything alike, but he has a sense of delicacy where even the most horrific of acts seem downplayed. I know others might think him overly obvious, but there’s a subtlety to his obviousness if that makes any sense whatsoever. Well let me explain the plot quickly for you, a sex doll gets a heart, and becomes a living person, sort of. It’s not quite the Pinocchio tale that you imagine, after all her owner eventually relegates her to the closet in favor of a new doll. The plot seems ridiculous but I couldn’t help buying into the perverse sense of magic in the film. It’s as absurd as any fairy tale but with a mature sensibility. She gets a job at a local video store where she finds a kind soul but the potential “cool movie references” are downplayed tremendously. Things work out the way you’d almost expect in a Kore-eda film but the journey is certainly something.

7. Mother - South Korea Bong Joon-ho

There has been a great deal of love for South Korean cinema in the past decade. I’d say a large part of that has to do with Bong Joon-Ho who probably would be elected most likely to be co-opted by Hollywood, although I’m surprised the Old Boy franchise hasn’t been bastardized by Hollywood yet. After all they’ve already helped ruin Let the Right One in for everyone. Mother isn’t a horror film, but then again was The Host? This picks up a little with the grim murder plot of Memories of Murder and takes on a whole new dimension. An overprotective mother wouldn’t be a great subject for a movie, after all Psycho kinda did plenty for everyone. However a mother protecting her accused son whose actually mentally retarded gives it a new twist. For her to simply assume her boy is innocent because what mother wouldn’t, takes the story into an interesting who-done-it that like most of those stories isn’t terribly important who the guilty party is because often no one’s hands are clean. Kim Hye-ja is excellent as the title character who is our hero but often hard to really root for. Can’t help feeling she’s a little unstable and certainly won’t allow anything to alter her course. Keep ‘em coming Bong, I’m a fan.

6. Dogtooth - Greece Giorgos Lanthimos

Dogtooth easily gets my award for strangest film of the year. Sure Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void is the most “tripped out” film of the year, but that film was about an hour too long and lost a lot of steam. This is a film where you’re slowly adjusted to the strange world and little by little it starts to make sense in a way that defies common logic. Basically a wealthy Greek man has decided his kids aren’t suited to enter into the real world . A very blatant and easy parable of not just over protective parents, but the constant stream of misinformation and giant wall recalls plenty of Iron Curtain parallels. Early on we wonder just what the hell is going on. We hear English words being translated completely wrong and wonder if something is wrong with the subtitles, but no that’s the parents and their steady stream of misinformation they’re feeding their kids. At times it recalls Salo, but not in a disgusting way, and it’s subtle surrealism is more along the lines of Bunuel and Ripstein but I can’t say I’ve seen anything quite like this. Of course European films have been known to occasionally throw some graphic sex in to get anyone outside of an art house to notice, but it’s effective and certainly not as gratuitous as other films of the kind. The few outbursts of violence however are truly shocking, including one related to the title of the film which has to be seen to truly be understood. Don’t expect this to hit any theater near you ever, but it can be found and for all those people looking for something a little out of the ordinary you’d do well to hunt it out.

5. Please Give - US Nicole Holofcener

I remember in 1996 hearing it was the “Year of the Woman” mainly because everybody seemed to REALLY like Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill. In the world of film some people are applying that here. In the wake of Katheryn Biegelow’s Oscar I’m sure plenty of people were wondering what doors would open for females in film. For most people Lisa Cholodenko’s film The Kids Are All Right was the one to top the non-existent list of best female directed film of the year. It had some star power, made it to a few theaters in your neighborhood and was one of those films that Hollywood loves to take credit for making. Truth be told that film was so powerfully liberal it made me sick, and I tend to lean towards the left. That aside slipping through the cracks was Nicole Holofcener’s vastly superior Please Give, which had some recognizable faces if not outright stars. I was turned on to the film from watching The Kids Are All Right and hearing it described as the film you wished Woody Allen was still making. A novel approach it’s a film where no one is entirely good or bad, everyone gets a few laughs, and everyone is able to gain our sympathy at various times. Easily juggling an ensemble cast that never seems to wear thin on you. Perhaps Oliver Platt was a precarious choice for a man who’d have an affair with anyone let alone someone attractive, but his face betrays his skill as an actor who still manages to emit a wonderfully laid back warmth that helps to anchor a cast of largely neurotic women. By all means this film deserves to be seen by more people.

4. White Material - France Claire Denis

Well I almost wanted to call Please Give the best film directed by a female this past year, but well Claire Denis had something to say about it as the art houses resident Queen Bee for two decades. White Material might very well be her best film, certainly impressed me far more than any other film of hers I’ve seen. For this she returns to her roots somewhat by setting it back in Africa, but this is nowhere near the safe haven for white’s that Chocolat was. In fact it’s quite doomed, and we know it. A few fragmentary shots at the beginning show us the end of it all, but it isn’t until she backs up a bit that these start to make sense. There is an aura of death and foreboding throughout the film largely because of it’s cryptic opening, but there is no hiding from the ensuing insanity. Perhaps it is a criticism that should be levied that nearly every white made film about Africa features whites in all the lead roles, but here that white meddling doesn’t go unnoticed or unpunished. Isabelle Huppert is the perfect choice to play a domineering and woefully stubborn matriarch whose determination gives her a feeling of invulnerability here. She’s no stranger to strong willed and often wrong women in movies and although it’d be presumptuous to say this is her finest performance, it is at least among her best. Denis rarely seems to work on a scale this large, and her films usually steer away from violence, with a few very notable exceptions, but it strikes all the harder when you see it. She can make a film whisper quiet and then bludgeon you over the head before you even know it. Like the best films, this is an experience one that will envelop you into its world rather than simply visiting it for a brief time. This can get my official vote as the year’s best film from a female director.

3. The Fighter - US David O. Russell

Sometimes a preview for a film can really send you the wrong signal. I first saw a commercial for this and saw Mark Whalberg sweeping a street in a working class neighborhood on the East Coast and thought “Oh boy, it’s Invincible part 2”. Although Christian Bale looking cracked out, the fact that David O. Russell was directing it, and an appearance in the Chicago Tribune’s top ten list made me think maybe this film was a little better than let on. I went and checked it out and was instantly blown away. Many have tried to make their mark on the boxing film but few have really succeeded. I mean Million Dollar Baby, Raging Bull, Rocky, and you have to go back a long time before that. On it’s surface though this is something of a typical sports movie. Everyone loves an underdog especially one who makes good after years of heartache and disappointment, overcoming odds etc. However in this film it’s the supporting players who really mix it up. Melissa Leo is incredible as the loving mother who simply doesn’t get it, and the cast of sisters make for a grotesque Greek chorus. Christian Bale should get an Oscar for his work here because honestly I haven’t seen a better performance from anyone all year. Amy Adams has earned a reputation as one of the best actresses working today for a reason. Wahlberg has a difficult role because he has to be essentially an emotional pushover for the majority of the picture, and it’s not always easy being meek, especially when the rest of the room is in hysterics. The fight scenes are all shot excellently, and all seem to have their own unique feel ala-Raging Bull. If there’s anything you should be going to the theater to see right now, this is it.

2. Inception - US Christopher Nolan

Well the first great film I saw this year was damn near the greatest. Like 2008 this was not the best year for American films, by comparison, and like that year it was a summer blockbuster from Christopher Nolan that won my heart. Inception showed that there was more than a few grand, or very, very grand ideas kicking around Nolan’s brain. The script reportedly took 10 years to write or finish, and well it seemed worth the wait. As high concept narrative acrobatics the film is incredibly fun to dissect, and it’s had more written on it than even Shutter Island and the Black Swan. However at it’s core it’s closest comparison is probably D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance. After all that was high concept with a simple message, simply running on a theme of intolerance for four stories, crossing them together with a few rescue scenes. That is belittling arguably the greatest silent film ever made, but you can see the parallels. The dream within a dream and so on structure of this is what you might call a heist film but there is a rescue to be had, just like the man needed to be saved from the gallows in Intolerance. Along the way Nolan playfully cuts between multiple storylines each with its own unique look, feel, and subplot and somehow we manage to care about every one of them. There’s just a whole lot of everything going on, but it’s the simplicity of it broken down into the foundations of cinematic language that make it so appealing, an art film with a James Cameron budget, something usually costly for any studio to venture out at, but after The Dark Knight how could you say no. The beauty is people actually seemed to get it, the film worked and although South Park may have taken it’s obligatory poke at it, you can’t diminish the wonderful audacity of this film and the success at which it was pulled off.

1. Carlos - Germany/France Olivier Assayas

Well here it is, up until I started writing this I didn’t know what was going to top my list, in fact I actually started the intro to this post before settling on the ranking. Perhaps it seems that I am a fan of the audacious, the pretentious, the ludicrous, well sometimes. Inception may have been high concept with an epic feel, but Olivier Assayas’ film is just plain epic. Coming in at 333 minutes it’s a tour-de-force broken up into three separate films. To me this is what I wished Steven Soderbergh’s Che was. The fact that this is compelling from start to finish is unbelievable, there are some films that can’t sustain interest for 30 minutes let alone 5 hours. Narratively speaking this is among Assayas’ most strait forward films. He doesn’t jumble us around, things follow a logical order, we don’t get confused and we always seem to know what’s going on. Perhaps he knew his subject was compelling enough to sustain our interest. It’s never easy making a film about a real life terrorist or serial killer, and its even harder to get us to sit through his actions for any extended period of time. Rather than witness a bright young man succumb to his own demons, this film shows us multiple sides of Carlos. We see him as a very flawed person very early on. His ideals seem right, but his personality leaves something to be desired. You can understand his charm and at the same time his repulsion. A commitment to ideals yet a streak of villainy. This is grand stuff and the type of thing that makes for the most profound of cinema. Olivier Assayas bit off quite a bit, but in the end he managed to produce a masterpiece, and the year’s best film.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Stanley Kubrick - Lolita (1962)

Well sorry for the lack of posts this month, holidays and all if that's a viable excuse. My 90s research has come to something of a complete halt while I play catch up with 2010 releases. I've seen quite a bit this year, and anticipate that I may in fact get a top ten list done before the year ends, so go ahead an pat me on the back, but I understand if you would rather wait until you can see it. I didn't think the decade lists would take anywhere near as long as they did, and will take longer still. Unfortunately the more films I see from a decade the more I have to revisit to "double check" and well it just makes it more complicated. So continuing on, here's another Kubrick review to tide you over for the holidays, and perhaps this time next week I'll have my top 10 of 2010 ready to go.

Lolita (1962)

Well now controversy is something that has floated around Stanley Kubrick throughout his career. The fiasco of Spartacus was bad enough, having most of his film brutally cut to appease censors and virtually deny the very essence of the work. Following it up, Kubrick however chose to tackle the era's most popular, and by far most controversial book, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. Nabokov's book was remarkably successful, but the common perception was that it was completely unfilmable. At this point in time the production code was still in effect (it would be another few years before the GMRX system was put in place), and how on earth could you make a movie about a middle aged man's love affair with a "nymphet" as Nabokov named them? The answer seemed to be impossible, and many critics of the time held that opinion when they saw the final product. Nabokov, despite being the only credited screenwriter was likewise disappointed with the resulting film, and accused Kubrick of running rampant with his original idea.

The truth is, the film is largely faithful to the book. Most of the plot points are there, albeit some things were trimmed for length (the film is already a whopping 153 minutes). However there weren't any particularly large changes, with one exception. Naturally the film had to use some clever cuts and trimmings to make it street legal, but one rule of the old code was sinners needed to be punished, and particularly a murder in cold blood had to somehow be avenged, an unofficial “eye for an eye” rule if you will. In this regard I almost cringed at the end when the epilogue states (in titles) that Humbert Humbert died of a coronary while awaiting trial. How else would he have been narrating this? I also might have to fault Kubrick (or Nabokov) for the sporadic use of narration. The book was written entirely in a first person tone, and although all the scenes in this film take place from Humbert's viewpoint, his commentary and narration are extremely sparse. Also the mingled language of French verses periodically thrown in is completely excised from the film, a change that I don't particularly object to.

The casting is absolutely perfect. Shelly Winters shines extremely well as the vulgar, boisterous, and criminally unrefined Charlotte Haze. True to her character, Kubrick sets her up early as she butchers the pronunciations of all the artists recreations she has in her bedroom. James Mason typically delivered stellar performances, but aside from perhaps Bigger Than Life he has never had a better opportunity to shine than he does here. This is the first time Kubrick worked with Peter Sellers, and like their future collaboration in Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick is giving Sellers free reign to create as many interesting and quirky characters as he can. Nearly every time Quilty is on camera he is under a different guise and using a different voice. Aside from that I think Sellers completely captures the character as he was in the book, and the same can be said for the rest of the cast.

Kubrick's scale was remarkably smaller on this film after the mega-budgeted Spartacus, and I always chuckle in the beginning when Quilty refers to himself as "I am Spartacus, come to free the slaves". I'm not sure who the credit for this line can be given, but it certainly deserves a nice chuckle. This inside joke is one that permeates the film and its numerous references to Hollywood (which were included in the book as well). Ironic then that this being the only film of Kubrick's to directly mention Hollywood was the first film he made outside of the US. Lolita began Kubrick's British exile, where he would remain making films for the rest of his extremely brilliant career. The nature of the story however, allows Kubrick to take quite a scenic road trip, as the film bounces all over the place.

Kubrick's style that began being cultivated from his first feature is even more accomplished here. The Haze household is first shown in an Ophuls like tracking shot that obliterates walls and defies ordinary perception. Perhaps it calls attention to the house being a set, and therefore artificial, but it makes for an impressive introduction. Kubrick was already getting to be well known for his tracking shots, and this film supplies quite a few of them, setting up one of the modern trends in film making to open with a long shot. The economics of it are there, but Kubrick never being a director to call attention to economics, sets the shot up more as a breakdown of the geography of the house itself. True to form, his style of shooting, was one already evident in many director’s work, making it yet another playfully self aware reference when Lolita complains about European films.

One of the things that I felt was easier to grasp here in the movie rather than the book was the similarities between Charlotte and Lolita. Humbert makes a reference to how Charlotte resembled Lolita at that age in the book, but here acting takes over. The tantrums of Lolita's are done almost exactly like Charlotte's outbursts. The two lose their temper consistently and when they do you can almost sense that they are the same woman just at different ages. This is due to fantastic work from both Winters and Lyon. I must also commend Mason for his complete naiveté during the early scenes when Charlotte is trying to seduce him. He plays it so clueless and "European" that you have to laugh. I wasn't sure exactly how to take his blatant chuckling at Charlotte's "Confession". Sure the letter was ridiculous, but perhaps his contempt for her was being made overly clear, and the loud laughing was a touch overdoing it.

The film is a disintegration, just like that of Alex in A Clockwork Orange. The film progresses and Humbert gradually loses grip on everything. At first he is well responsible and marries into the family still very much in control. Despite Charlotte's domineering personality, he very clearly is able to dictate how things should be in the house. However when he becomes under Lolita's spell he is hopeless. He gives into every one of her whims and charms, and of course his jealousy is his natural downfall. It is steady however, and his casual loss of control isn't completely culminated. In the novel it is after Quilty is murdered that he drives his car off the road and is found by the police. Kubrick ends the film before this, allowing him to be slightly redemptive in his murder. It is clear though when he begs Lolita to come back with him and starts crying when she says no that he has reached the end of his rope. As if to throw one more character trait in, I laugh as Lolita shouts out "Let's keep in touch huh?" after getting the money from Humbert. Lolita is a film that could have very well been one of the all time greats, but unfortunately suffers only slightly by the constraints of the time, and what I feel is a miscommunication between the director and writer.