Saturday, December 31, 2011

Top 10 of 2011

Well it’s the end of the year, happy new years and all that. Since most of you won’t be spending this evening reading my blog, you’ll probably stumble onto this in 2012. Apparently the world is supposed to end, but well people are often wrong about these things.

Like last year I made a couple of promises/goals. You may even use that dirty word “resolutions”. The first was that I’d see at least 50 films before the year was up, and the other was that I’d have a top ten list made to go along with it. As one would expect there are more than a fair share of films I’m still very eager to see. I’ll admit that I haven’t gotten to see A Dangerous Method; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Weekend; Le Havre; Take Shelter; Margaret; or either of Spielberg’s newest. In other words another month when these films come around, or I get time to see them and my top ten list might look very different. Often times though I find that usually these 11th hour viewings don’t do much to make me stop the presses. So if you see another top 10 list with my name on it months later, it may or may not look exactly the same.

2011 I will honestly say wasn’t that great of a year for cinema in general. I’m not going to get into “why in god’s name did they make Jack and Jill?” or discuss the many cons of the Transformers franchise. As for blockbuster big budget films they weren’t all a waste. In fact in the many releases based on Marvel comics characters, they struck a new all time high with X-Men: First Class which is one of three highly rated films featuring breakout star Michael Fassbender. Perhaps I’m sounding like a high school nerd picking this film over say Shame or A Dangerous Method (still haven’t seen remember), but well as a long time X-Men fan I couldn’t have been more pleased with the film they released in June. Along with positive reviews for films like Super 8, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Bridesmaids summer blockbusters might not be such a dirty word anymore.

It is funny though that three of my top five films of the year I saw before July 4th. There’s something to be said about having time to let good movies sink in. Studios vying for Oscar glory however rarely put out any worthwhile movies before say mid-December. I doubt either of those three films get serious Oscar buzz, but oh well doesn’t make them any less great. Anyways if you haven’t heard of some of these films, then go see them. As of last check, only two of these films are unavailable somewhere on the internet and still very much in theaters. Several of these films were technically from 2010 but weren’t distributed in the US until this year, but as always my list is of the ten best films released in the US in 2011. Anyways less talk more list.

10. Restless, directed by Gus Van Sant, US

Like Please Give last year, this is the “when the hell did this come out” movie of the year. I’ve been a big Van Sant film since well I’ve been into movies. After making a series of very grim films like Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days, Paranoid Park seemed damn near uplifting. That movie was overshadowed by the a-list subject of Milk. However his follow up was even more off the radar. So much so that I didn’t even know he was making a movie until a DVD popped up of it. Starring Henry Hopper (Dennis’ son) and Mia Wasikowska (whose in serious danger of overkill) it is simply a delightful and rather offbeat love story. It seems to be rather polarizing and within about 20 minutes you’ll know what side of the fence you stand on, but I just loved it. Sometimes Van Sant can really wow you with how good a simple film can be.

9. Aurora, directed by Cristi Puiu, Romania/France/Switzerland/Germany

The Romanian film movement is still very much healthy and alive. Along with Tuesday, After Christmas this was one of the best reviewed films of the year, and I think it’s just a bit better. Cristi Puiu who broke through with The Death of Mr. Lazarescu a few years ago is back and starring in the film as well. A great day-in-the-life film it follows a man Viorel (Puiu) as he goes around and slowly lets his violent impulses develop until well, interesting things happen. Very few of the Romanian films are really about plot so much as ambience, and like his previous breakthrough this is shot with extensively long takes. Certainly not for everyone, and the 3 hour running time can certainly make a few people steer clear but easily among my favorite foreign films of the year.

8. The Descendants, directed by Alexander Payne, US.

Following a 7 year layoff Alexander Payne is back. After a trio of well received films that seemed to peak with Sideways a lot of people were curious to see what he’d come out with next. Like nearly all of his films there’s something tragic yet hilarious throughout so you never really feel depressed but never quite laughing out loud (possibly with the exception of Election). George Clooney is as busy as ever this year, and although his directorial effort Ides of March was quite good, I’d have to give this film the edge.

7. Martha Marcy May Marlene, directed by T. Sean Durkin, US.

Not the easiest title to say 10 times fast, this film has been unfairly called “This year’s Winter’s Bone”. For starters it’s better than Winter’s Bone, and I might also add it has nothing at all to do with it. Newcomer Elizabeth Olsen deserves an Oscar nomination because this was damn near the best female performance I’ve seen this year. The film isn’t terribly easy to figure out and quite awhile goes by where you don’t even know what’s happening. Ambiguity is commendable and the way this film bounces around keeps things interesting. I wouldn’t call this a film you can take a passive interest, although the pace and mood might seem to lull you into a false comfort zone, there are plenty of jarring moments and John Hawkes is certainly one of the best at being sinister.

6. The Robber, directed by Benjamin Heisenberg, Germany/Austria.

And the award for “what the hell film is this?” goes to . . . That’s right The Robber, an honest to goodness German film in my top ten, been awhile hasn’t it? I knew nothing about the film or it’s filmmaker but saw it on a list of the best undistributed films of 2010. When it was released here in April I decided to check it out and was completely blown away. The film is about a marathon runner who just happens to rob banks. He doesn’t seem to do much with the money, and has no desire to get a real job but the bank money just finances his marathon training. Not the most common premise, which helps at to it’s novel appeal but one of those films you may stumble upon and I hope give a shot at.

5. X-Men: First Class, directed by Mathew Vaughn, US.

The years best blockbuster and probably the best Marvel movie yet made (not like the bar has been set too high) was this film. Perhaps I lowered my expectations a lot after four rather bland X-Men related films as well as a enjoyable but ultimately empty Thor film, but this film amazed the hell out of me. It captures all the political subtext of the mutant situation far better than any previous adaptation. Fassbender’s Magneto is one of the screen’s most fascinating characters and rather than portraying him as a cartoonish evil mastermind it’s hard not to be completely on his side for the entire film. Vaughn does an excellent job as director making everyone sympathetic, except perhaps some humans, while keeping things fun and entertaining. The cast may have seemed like largely unknowns but it makes for a much better film since they got actual actors instead of “stars”, and with enough references and in jokes to amuse the most nerdy of comic fans.

4. A Separation, directed by Asghar Farhadi, Iran.

An Iranian film in 2011? Yeah I was surprised too. After last year’s Abbas Kiarostami film A Certified Copy (released in the US in 2011) got so much festival praise I was a little disappointed. The film wasn’t bad but wasn’t nearly as good as many critics were calling it, and had nothing at all to do with Iran. I wondered if that golden age of Iranian classics were over. It seemed in the early part of the 2000s every year great films were coming from Iran, but for several years I haven’t seen anything of note. Then I saw this film on a few critics lists, and although it’s not hitting Chicago until next month, I have my ways. This film is absolutely incredible. You think from the opening scene and the title that this will be another “women have no rights” story about difficult marriage laws and then the film makes its central plot about what seems like a minor incident where it seems everyone is lying yet somehow telling their version of the truth. I haven’t seen such a delicious ethical quagmire in a film since Rashomon and well it’s truly something to behold.

3. The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, France.

Technically this is a foreign film, despite being a silent movie set in Hollywood with several American actors in it. Please don’t make me type the director’s last name again, but my goodness this film is fantastic. Is it a “gimmick” film? Sure but so were some of Hitchcock’s best. Maybe I’m insanely in love with silent movies, or maybe after watching Singin’ in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard recently it’s only strengthened my love of this films premise. Or maybe just the way it was done impressed me so damn much. From the preview I saw it essentially tells the entire film, but I was on board. After watching it there were pretty much no surprises and it didn’t matter it was just that damn good. Jean Dujardin is fantastic as the title character who looks like a French Gene Kelly with a mustache. Besides how can you not like a film with John Goodman playing a studio boss? I would gladly watch this film again right now if I didn’t have champagne to drink (or if I had it on DVD already).

2. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, France/Germany/Spain/UK/Thailand.

With a title like that you might be thinking pretentiousness is abounding. Apichatpong has been steadily making great films since 2000’s Mysterious Object at Noon. All of his films seem to tell one long story and there were references to Uncle Boonmee as early as Tropical Malady (possibly Blissfully Yours as well). Taken together his films are a rich and diverse mural, separately they are somnambulistically profound. I know I made up a word but his films almost seem like you’re sleepwalking through them, and when ghosts show up here you feel like your having a surreal dinner with the dead. I couldn’t wrap my head around the film entirely the first time I watched it and I might not be able to catch everything after ten viewings but my goodness when a director just gets better with each film and then delivers his best yet it is something to behold.

1. Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick, US.

None of you should be surprised at this. I’m sorry that 3 of my top 4 agreed completely with Film Comment’s poll, didn’t expect that honestly. There was no way this wasn’t going to top my list. Seeing this in the theater, despite the projection breaking down half way, and the lights never being turned back on, while I was on my one and only date with a girl I never saw again couldn’t diminish the fact that I have NEVER seen anything this good in a movie theater. I’m not saying this is the greatest movie of all time, but probably the greatest one I’ve seen in a movie theater. This film is profound like 2001 was and very few movies since. Some of it’s images are burnt in my brain, I was spellbound the entire time. The audacity to make a rather epic film with this loose of a plot structure is incredible. My thoughts are this film is a cinematic equivalent of Joyce’s Ulysses. Not in terms of theme but simply feel or structure, as well as brilliance. Terrence Malick has done some great work in the past, but no matter how high my expectations were (and they were pretty high, nothing could have prepared me for how god damn brilliant this is. Stop reading and get this on Netflix, go to your video store, or just buy the damn thing outright you will probably never see another movie this good come out again.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Overanalyzing North by Northwest

Greetings, a new month is upon us and we are in the 11th hour for 2011. I’ve seen 45 films as of now from this year, so I’m well on pace to get to 50 by the end of the year. However in between these new features I’ve been revisiting a few of the classics, partially as extended research for that essential film list, but mainly because I’m educating someone on the finer points of classic cinema. Last night I watched North by Northwest for the third or fourth time and well it got me thinking.

I’d wager to say no filmmaker invites overanalyzing quite like Alfred Hitchcock. There’s a reason why he’s probably had more books written about his films than anyone in Hollywood history (with possible exception to Marilyn Monroe). His films are not just the mark of one of cinema’s most certifiable auteurs but layered with subtext, hidden meanings, and enough fat to chew so that no two people will have quite the same reaction.

Hitchcock's requisite cameo

North by Northwest was from what is now regarded as Hitchcock’s most iconic period. Sandwiched between Vertigo and Psycho it sometimes gets overlooked but by many people’s standards it holds up as well to those two films as any. For starters it is the least ambiguous out of that unrelated trilogy. Ernest Lehman wrote a very concise script and covered up most of the holes and faults in logic that often plague Hitchcock’s films. Whereas Vertigo relies on style over substance (Samuel Taylor’s screenplay has countless holes in it) and Psycho’s strength is primarily in it’s shock and at the time novelty, North by Northwest is driven almost entirely by plot.

Now that doesn’t mean that this is simply Hitchcock doing his best to film Lehman’s script as is and his only directorial flourish is his standard cameo. What I’m trying to say is that the main strength of this film is in the scenario. According to legend Hitchcock visited Mt. Rushmore and thought it would be interesting to film on the monument and with that little thread gave it to Lehman who fashioned the plot. This isn’t entirely unique to Hitch, who based the earlier Saboteur on a climatic Statue of Liberty finale. There’s always been some debate as to the “authorship” of Hitchcock’s films, but there is no doubt that once he was in his prime scripts were written specifically for him. He had some input but most of the nuts and bolts and nearly all dialogue was the result of the screenwriter.

In the dialogue department, Lehman’s script is about as memorable as any Hitchcock ever had. The diner cart sequence on the train between Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) and Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) is some of the most jam packed innuendo laced dialogue in cinema history. Even when the sequence ends Eve says “You better skip dessert” leaving a laugh as we realize Roger is thinking she’s all too eager, but knowing what he doesn’t know is that some police detectives just got on board at the unscheduled stop. This sequence is an example of our “right-to-know” as an audience. Throughout the film we are given some information, sometimes put directly in Roger Thornhill’s shoes, often knowing more than him, often seeing things from his eyes exactly. The master manipulator Hitchcock is able to play with the viewers emotions by giving us occasional bits of info denied other characters.

For example, we know that Cary Grant isn’t George Kaplan, but Philip Vandamm (James Mason) doesn’t. Following their intercourse where he plays it so cool, we don’t even know who Kaplan is supposed to be. After all Vandamm took the name and home of Mr. Townsend, who is a UN diplomat. This information is denied us at the time, giving us the Thornhill perspective because we are just as confused as him.

Another example is the strange enigma of Miss Kendall. When we meet her she seems like a kindly stranger who thinks Thornhill “Has such a nice face”. During their dining sequence we get the feeling this girl might be a total slut with the things she’s suggesting to Thornhill. Maybe she’s turned on by the prospect of sleeping with a wanted fugitive, especially one who killed a man. We have no idea that she’s the mistress of Vandamm nor do we even know Vandamm’s name or whether he’s on the same train. We couldn’t possible know her real affiliation, just that she seems all too willing to help Thornhill, he’s trusting to the kindness of strangers. We’re left little doubt even with 1959 censorship standards just what those two were up to in her room after the dust had settled. In this regard I’m giving the credit to Lehman who beats that horse to death with his racy dialogue. This is one of those “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” moments because today’s film, we’d see them have sex and be done with it, but in 1959 they had to get a little more creative.

Like Rope there is more than a hint of gay subtext as well. Leonard (Martin Landau) is more than just a little jealous of Eve. At the time they could just follow the bro-code that follows that all dames are no good in movies. The type of rampant sexism quite prevalent in films of the day (see King Kong for the most obvious example I can think of). However we never see Leonard with a woman, and he seems more than a little attached to Vandamm. Younger audiences who first saw Landau as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood might be surprised by his rather sinister turn here. Let’s just say there’s something not quite right about him. Lehman himself freely admitted to that subtext in his audio commentary for the DVD.

Gay? Surely you jest

Now let me take a minute to discuss the film’s most famous sequence, the crop duster scene. Those of you who’ve had to take a film class might have watched this sequence a dozen times and analyzed every shot. I have had this “pleasure” which does more to suck the fun out of everything, but also got me thinking far too much about it. For starters, like The Birds Hitchcock realizes that things can be far more tense with no music. Bernard Hermann is allowed free reign throughout the film, contributing a very memorable theme and no doubt he and Hitchcock had one of the best and more mutually beneficial director/composer relationships in film history. However this is one sequence where Hitchcock didn’t use his services.

For those who know Chicago, the sequence shows a sign for Route 41, which runs north from Lake Shore Drive all the way up to Milwaukee. Seeing how it’s 1959 I made the joke that it’s probably only about 10 miles out of the city, because that area was as rural as you’d expect as little as 50 years ago. The fact that most of the field is barren brings up the sequences’ first clue when a man waiting for a bus (who Thornhill initially suspects might be the real Kaplan) points out that that crop duster is dusting where there aren’t any crops. Even without looking at the cover of the DVD you know that nothing happens for no reason in a Hitchcock film, and that’s going to be important.

Not to dig too deep into this sequence, the more I think about it the more questions I have. For starters, who in their right mind thinks a crop duster is a good way to kill someone? Is it to have a getaway, being able to fly where cops can’t pursue? The fact that after a couple of swoops the plane starts firing shots at Thornhill seems to make a little more sense. Again this is probably one of those “don’t think too much” moments where they probably just thought it would be a novel idea and look cool.

My questions don’t stop there though. Who the hell is flying the plane? Is it one of Vandamm’s men whose hell bent on getting rid of Thornhill? That makes sense, but what about the government. Finding out that Kendall works for the government she’s the one who technically sends him out there. Did she check in with Vandamm to set him up, or is Uncle Sam trying to get him out of the way? We’ve seen authority be very callous in Hitchcock films so I wouldn’t put it past them.

Last and probably the biggest one to stick in my craw, is how the hell the damn plane crashes into that gas truck? I mean clearly the plane was flying low and pulling up throughout the sequence, all of a sudden a truck that’s stopping somewhat slowly (considering it nearly runs over Thornhill) is too much for the plane to fly over? Again I’ll answer my own question by saying two things, one don’t think too much it’s a cool explosion, and the sequence had to end someway and it wasn’t like it was actually going to kill Thornhill. This is one of the problems that arise when I start peeling back layers in Hitchcock films, so my apologies.

I will applaud the narrative of the film again though. There aren’t really that many holes to be found. We can write off the fake shooting of Thornhill at the Mt. Rushmore observatory because after all movies in 1959 never showed blood. This wouldn’t tip us off that Leonard and Vandamm knew it was a fake. After all Vandamm didn’t even find out until Leonard found Kendall’s gun. We may also point out that Leonard might not have done any snooping if there wasn’t that overwhelming suspicion that he was very gay for Vandamm.

The statue that they were so eager to bid on winds up tying a lot together. It explains why they were in Chicago. After all it might seem like they were following Kaplan around, when in reality we know that through Kendall Kaplan’s fake hotel bookings are tipping them off to where Vandamm is headed. Now the statue filled with microfilm is a classic Hitchcock MacGuffin, a term he used to describe a meaningless plot device. It could be microfilm, it could be drugs, it could be secret blueprints, classified documents, whatever. The point is that statue and what’s in it are important. Hitchcock was famous for coming up with any meaningless thing to motivate a plot. Perhaps none more famous in film history than the mysterious glowing suitcase from Kiss Me Deadly (later referenced in Pulp Fiction).

Thornhill in an elevator with his mother

One more point to nitpick at is the casting. Joyce Caroll Landis plays Cary Grant’s mother in the film. After looking this up, she was actually 11 months younger than Cary Grant when the film was made. Of course in old Hollywood (still today to some degree) younger actresses were always paired with older men. Unfortunately 55 year old Cary Grant seemed perhaps too old for the role. Perhaps the Grant of Notorious would have suited the part better. Eve Marie Saint who plays Kendall was 35 at the time the film was made. Now I’m not going to get all crazy saying the love affair of people 20 years apart is preposterous by Hollywood standards. After all Humphrey Bogart married Lauren Bacall who was more than 20 years younger than him, and that was real life. Since Mason was 50 at the time, it could easily be explained that Kendall just had a thing for older men. Perhaps my complaint is that the script actually specifies that she is 26 years old. Does anyone really think Eve Marie Saint looked 26 when that film was made? That said if we’re to take her at her story age then that would imply a 30 year gap between her and her romantic lead. Again that’s Hollywood for you, I should stop complaining, just pointing it out.

Perhaps I’m getting older myself, but after a few viewings I have no problem putting North by Northwest among my favorite Hitchcock films. The central premise used to irritate me, but I think it’s ingenious now. After all for decades Hitchcock made numerous “wrong man” films, and this is easily the best of all of them. That early sequence where Vandamm’s men identify him as George Kaplan is directorial brilliance. It’s so slick and subtle that the first time you’re watching the film there’s no way you would think to pay attention. After all Thornhill is talking about wiring his mother about the theater that evening, and just the precise second he calls to the waiter, he’s paging George Kaplan. An insignificant detail, but the second time you watch the film you realize that once again there is nothing out of place in a Hitchcock films. This is a very concise and jam packed 136 minutes.