Archive for December, 2009

Eight for 2009, and Many More From Other Years

Posted in film, Lists with tags , , on December 31, 2009 by N.W. Douglas

I realized something this year: unless I am working a 9-5 job that allows me a) regular income to spend on movies and b) plenty of evenings to catch up on everything released in a year, or I’m working at a video store that includes free viewings of said releases, I don’t get to see everything, or even a good amount of everything.  At this point in my life, trying to wait until I’ve gotten a firm grasp on the majority of film releases for a year before compiling a favourites list is useless.  It’s taken me a year, but I’m finally getting around to 2008’s leftovers (turns out The Wrestler really was good).  So, this list is not comprehensive at all, and is merely a preview of the longer list I will publish in, oh, say, 2012.

As of the end of 2009, these are my eight favourite films to receive Canadian theatrical distribution.  If Letters To Father Jacob, which I saw at VIFF, had been seen in such a way, it would probably be #1 or #2.  Festival or not, it was my single favourite cinematic experience of the year.

1. Where The Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze) – Outside of my festival experience, this was the most exhilarating thing I saw in a movie theater.  Messy, difficult, dark, frustrating – all that, orchestrated to provoke one of the most extraordinary emotional climaxes I have ever seen in a Hollywood picture.  It is a masterpiece, one that is angsty but honest, uplifting but true.

2. Public Enemies (Michael Mann) – The more I think about this film – and I’ve been thinking about it a lot  – the more I’m convinced it’s Mann’s best work since The Insider. Bold and transcendent, with a powerhouse finale.  The most formally refreshing American film released this year.

3. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas) – Masterful, refreshing, and deeply-thought provoking.  Of the films on this list, I think this one will prove to have the longest legs.  The only reason it isn’t higher is due to the emotional (and in Mann’s case, formal) sledgehammer that those two films deliver.

4. Up (Pete Doctor) – You’ve already heard it a million times, but I’ll say it one more time: the opening montage is a feat unto itself.  The rest of the movie is no slouch, either.

5. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow) – A penetrating study of men at war, anchored by Jeremy Renner’s magnetic performance.  An intimately focused companion piece for Black Hawk Down.

6. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino) – I’m well overdue for another look at this, but few films I’ve seen this year proved so effortlessly entertaining.  I’m not convinced the film is as morally sound as I want it to be – as I thought during the screening, I want to think that Tarantino is exposing our own culture’s bloodlust, but it’s not an open-and-shut case, hence the need for another watch – but I can’t deny that, on a formal level, this was the most satisfying of the year.

7. The Road (John Hillcoat) – There is a great film lurking outside this very good one; let’s hope for a longer cut.  My favourite male performance of the year, by Viggo Mortenson as a loving father trapped in hell on earth.

8. Moon (Duncan Jones) – For once, a story that truly surprises, envisioned with care and economy and a great performance from Sam Rockwell .  Refreshing in its use of practical special effects to support the narrative, not create the reason for it.

Not the whole deal, but worth remembering: The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (Werner Herzog), District 9 (Neill Blomkamp).

Non-2009 Films I’m Glad To Have Caught Up With (in the order in which I watched them):

  • All That Heaven Allows (1955) Douglas Sirk
  • Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) Elia Kazan
  • Floating Weeds (1959) Yasujiro Ozu
  • Rachel Getting Married (2008) Jonathan Demme
  • Au Hasard Balthasar (1966) Robert Bresson
  • Miami Vice (2006) Michael Mann
  • Night and Fog (1955) Alain Resnais
  • Black Girl (1966) Ousmane Sembene
  • Overnight (2003) Tony Montana & Mark Brian Smith
  • Do The Right Thing (1989) Spike Lee
  • Strangers On A Train (1951) Alfred Hitchcock
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) Joel & Ethan Coen
  • Ace in the Hole (1951) Billy Wilder
  • Baraka (1992) Ron Fricke
  • Koyaanisqatsi (1983) Geoffrey Reggio
  • How Green Was My Valley (1941) John Ford
  • Youth of the Beast (1963) Seijun Suzuki
  • Don’t Look Now (1973) Nicholas Roeg
  • Contempt (1963) Jean-Luc Godard
  • M. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) Jacques Tati
  • The Third Man (1949) Carol Reed
  • The Virgin Spring (1960) Ingmar Bergman
  • Alphaville (1965) Jean-Luc Godard
  • Foreign Correspondent (1941) Alfred Hitchcock
  • Cloak & Dagger (1984) Richard Franklin
  • Alice (1988) Jan Svankmajer
  • Gosford Park (2001) Robert Altman
  • Faust (1994) Jan Svankmajer
  • Seven Up (1964) Paul Almond
  • 7 Plus Seven (1971) Michael Apted
  • Capturing the Friedmans (2003) Andrew Jarecki
  • The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) Carl Theodor Dreyer
  • Man Hunt (1941) Fritz Lang
  • Elephant (2003) Gus Van Sant
  • The Rules of the Game (1939) Jean Renoir
  • The Thin Man (1934) W.S. Van Dyke
  • Babette’s Feast (1987) Gabriel Axel
  • A History of Violence (2005) David Cronenberg
  • Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1973) Werner Herzog
  • Manhattan (1979) Woody Allen
  • Mon Oncle Antoine (1971) Claude Jutra
  • Videodrome (1983) David Cronenberg
  • Grizzly Man (2005) Werner Herzog
  • Ghost Dog: Way Of The Samurai (2000) Jim Jarmusch
  • The Haunting (1963) Robert Wise
  • Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001) Zacharias Kunuk
  • Silent Light (2008) Carlos Reygadas
  • Eastern Promises (2007) David Cronenberg
  • It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) Frank Capra
  • All About Eve (1950) Joseph L. Mankiewicz
  • In America (2003) Jim Sheridan
  • The Wrestler (2008) Darren Aranofsky

2010 beckons, and with it, a best of the decade list.  But shucks, I’m going to miss 09.  This was a good year.

Avatar: Posts to Ponder

Posted in film with tags , , , , on December 29, 2009 by N.W. Douglas

Some links to mull in the wake of Avatar.  I found these ones quite insightful, over many aspects of the film: we start with a couple overall reviews, then move to some tech discussion, and then the film’s political and philosophical themes.  Most of these have made some of the rounds already, but they’re worth collecting into one place.  It should also go without saying that spoilers abound.  Have at it:

Jeffrey Overstreet’s review at IMAGE.

Steven D. Greydanus’ review at Decent Films.

The House Next Door offers three takes.

Jim Emerson on 3D.

Annalee Newitz on Avatar and white guilt. UPDATE: Inside Catholic’s Mark Shea responds. (H/t Overstreet).

Ross Douthat on Cameron and pantheism.

Finally, Devin Faraci takes a very detailed look at Project 880, the original “scriptment” for Avatar.  Long, but well worth the read by those who have seen the film. (Thanks to Cedric Y. for posting this on Facebook, and to Hayley G. for bring it to my attention).

EDIT: Also, it might be useful to return to David Foster Wallace’s famous essay, “F/X Porn”, which focuses primarily on James Cameron’s influence on effects-driven filmmaking through Terminator 2. If Wallace had lived to see Avatar

EDIT 01/11: Rod Dreher chimes in.

EDIT 01/22: More Dreher.

EDIT 01/26: Giovanni Tiso on Avatar and Post-Colonial commentary.

For now all I will say of my experience, is that I think I know how Jim Emerson felt when he decided that he didn’t care so much for The Dark Knight.  But I need a second viewing, this time in 2D.

I have a bit of a somewhat related rant waiting in the wings, but that’ll have to wait until I finish up holidays and make the necessary screen captures to supplement it.  Keep an eye out over the weekend, though.

Just for fun, a quick look at Avatar and The Last Samurai:

For extra fun, the year 2009 in gun-dominated close-ups:

(In descending order, McG, Mann, Cameron.  Any idea as to how these frames tell about their directors?)

Torrential Grace

Posted in Faith/Spiritual, Reviews - Film with tags , , , on December 15, 2009 by N.W. Douglas

This piece was written in the 12 hours immediately following my viewing of LETTERS TO FATHER JACOB, which took place at the tail end of the Vancouver International Film Festival in October.  I was deeply moved by the film, as you’ll see, and re-reading the piece now, I think it accurately captures the feeling of coming out of that experience.  Concerning festival discoveries, there is an inevitable amount of glee associated with being one of the first to trumpet an unseen work, and I’d be remiss to ignore that factor in the writing of my review, so salt accordingly.  While my post-screening rapture had me convinced this was the best film I’ve seen this year, I’m no longer as certain of that.   It is the absolute best cinematic experience I have had in a theatre this year, though (followed two days later by WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, which is in the top tier for my best of 09; it was quite a thrill, seeing these two back to back).

If the essay doesn’t delve deeply into questioning and criticizing the film’s flaws, it’s because it was written entirely within the “full afterglow.”  I couldn’t see flaws if I tried, I was so over the moon.  A second viewing will be essential for a closer look at the film, so hopefully some brave distributor will notice that this is Finland’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and give North Americans some kind of release.  It’d be nice to see the film make the Academy shortlist as well.

TORRENTIAL GRACE: Letters To Father Jacob

Maybe it’s a part of being a film student and even more, a rabid lover of cinema, always immersed in the process of critiquing and analyzing each film to reach my retinas, but I didn’t realize until the third-last shot of LETTERS TO FATHER JACOB  just how long it’s been since a film delivered an emotional sledgehammer  – not a kick or a hug, as many good and great films do, but a gut-busting blow – to my being.

To love cinema, to have that deep and true affection for this medium, is to love thinking about it.  For the last year, I’ve found myself experiencing and engaging with films on an intellectual level I was not previously capable of, nor interested in.  That I’ve grown to love the deeper discussions is a byproduct of daily interactions with my classmates and friends, as formidable, generous, and intelligent a crowd of film lovers could be; as well as being opened up (via my university library and the expanded features of a major city) to the legions of filmmakers, critics, and theorists foreign to my rural Ontario hometown.  This immersion into a deeper and thoughtful experience of cinema has been glorious.  But as I made my way home this evening, reeling from Father Jacob’s fists, I reflected on how few and far between are the works that make their impact on feeling, and feeling alone.  FATHER JACOB is a brilliantly crafted film that invites deeper thinking and interaction, but it does not depend on those facets in the same way it depends on the emotional climax delivered in its dying seconds.  Those elements are worth discussion, but they work best as individual cards in a winning hand.  We may get a peek at individual cards here and there, and appreciate them, but nothing can prepare us for the moment when that hand is revealed in full.

LETTERS TO FATHER JACOB  is simple and staggering, in the vein of Bresson and Dreyer.  Leila (Kaarina Hazard), an incarcerated criminal, receives an unexpected early pardon from her life sentence.  She goes to work for Father Jacob (Heikki Nousiainen), a blind elderly priest tending an abandoned church.  Instead of housework, he wants her to read letters to him.  That is the set-up.  The rest consists of carefully observed interactions between these two characters.  Father Jacob lives for his correspondence, and for his place as an intercessor for any who would care to write him.  Leila is hard-nosed about matters of faith, of course, and tempted by the shady opportunities of serving a frail, sightless man who doesn’t care much for his tin of life savings.

It’s a familiar template – those who are cold are made warm by spending time with one of those problems like Maria – but director/co-writer Klaus Härö mostly avoids easy sentimentality.  Father Jacob himself has his doubts, and one of the film’s scenes features him coming to terms with those notions in surprising, and humbling way.  To doubt one’s faith in the golden years is one of the great trials believers must face.  I recall my own grandfather shortly before his death; he was a lifelong missionary and priest, a lion of the faith and spiritual leader of our family.  And in his last days on earth, he too doubted, and held firm.  To be so close to one’s eternal destiny only to face, once more, the possibility of disbelief is a moment that is inescapable and frightening.  Nousiainen is constantly in a dance between bursting joy and deep sorrow, and he walks that tightrope without ever falling completely to one side, or into some sort of generic bittersweet caricature.

In this sort of story, we know in a broad sense what will happen; the pleasure of the film comes in its journey towards that end. This is a journey that evokes Bresson through its attention to detail.  The viewer is invited to bask in the quiet atmosphere of a rural pastor’s world: close-ups of whistling kettles, thickly sliced bread, trickling tea.  The creak of an ancient home’s floorboards.  Outside, the patter of rain, and inside, the melody provided by a leaky roof.  Whole scenes seem devoted to de-stressing the viewer, using a soundtrack focused on the timbres of everyday activity.  Cinematographer Tuomo Hutri paints his frames with generally low-key soft light, capturing the characters’ inner struggles within the range of his shadows.  There is a wondrous shot that took my breath away; it is a medium close-up of Father Jacob sitting down in his garden, backed by a forest and afternoon sun, enjoying the simple blessings around him. Heikki Nousiainen’s face ripples with quiet joy.  Watching this, so did mine.  It is a film that always takes a long, satisfying breath before continuing to its destination. And when that end does come, the journey has freshened the experience so much that a foregone conclusion proves much, much more resonant than expected.

And how it resonates!  LETTERS TO FATHER JACOB is an ideal example of the transcendental style identified by Paul Schrader, mainly in its way of moving along quietly to a destination of tremendous, unexpected release.  The plot travels leisurely, observing the everyday life with precision.  It records the disparity between Leila and her peaceful setting; and between devoted Jacob and his empty parish.  And then it unleashes the release.  When I say I was affected, I speak of the wave of feeling that rushed through me as the film ended.  It was shocking in its depth and intensity.  It carried a weight and an inner effect that I have only experienced in two settings: very specific, spiritually aware films; and times of prayer and worship.

I guess I’m puzzled by the torrent of emotion accompanying the film, not because the film isn’t affecting (it is, all throughout), but because there wasn’t any sort of specific reason present in my mind for the emoting.  It was such a sudden and violent release, but wasn’t obviously attached to anything specific; it was more a result of many beautiful, powerful, and sorrowful events happening together, set off by one particular moment in one particular image – for reasons I have yet to understand.  It works much the same way that the final shot of AU HASARD BALTHAZAR does, calling up emotion as a summary reaction to many elements.  And it left me in a state of dazed contemplation and simple awareness of God’s presence.  It operates on a level that fiercely resists explanation, and leads the Christian viewer into a worshipful state.  Like Father Jacob, always casting his eyes heavenward, I found my soul looking upwards in thanks for the experience of a film that becomes more than a projected story; a chance to communicate with my Creator.

This is the best kind of film: one that uses the power of cinema to usher a viewer into the presence of God.  The audience becomes a congregation; together we bear witness to a human sibling’s pains and doubts, and we see the humble, life-affirming power of forgiveness.  Leila’s life has its own specifics, of course, but the grace she receives also falls on the viewer in a way.  We share in her realization.  It is such a simple story, one that we’ve seen many times.  And here it is again, so refreshing.  Why is that?  I think it’s because if we are truly human, we need this story.  We keep telling it over and over, changing the names and faces, because it is integral to who we are as human beings.  Deep down, we know we’ve all done some wrong, that we all need some redemption.  And then there is grace.  If FATHER JACOB reminds me of one thing, it is that grace never grows old.  It’s never too familiar to lose its effect.  Each new experience of grace is like a renewal on life itself, refreshing, washing, and invigorating.  That is why this story can never be overdone.  Just as grace refreshes every life it enters, so every film that holds it, and truly knows it, cannot be stale.  As a rock star once sang, “Grace finds beauty in everything.”  But let’s not forget the beauty of grace itself.  Such are the gifts of this film.  I don’t think anyone in that hushed theatre will soon forget.

The Road

Posted in Reviews - Film with tags , , , , on December 13, 2009 by N.W. Douglas

Three things that linger with me, some twelve hours after experiencing THE ROAD:

1) There are many excellent actors at work today, but few inspire the swell of admiration within me that Viggo Mortenson does.  Here is a man who carved out a star-making performance as Aragorn, but who rejects conventional stardom and continues to choose difficult, fascinating roles.  I can’t imagine too many “stars” doing the work he does in THE ROAD, becoming frayed to the edges in every way.  The emotional nakedness and the fragile truth of his performance are astonishing.  Watching those hollow eyes, you begin to sense that this is not just a film; it is a window looking out on a master crafting one of his greatest works.

2) John Hillcoat wisely limits his master shots of the desolate landscape to what needs to be seen, and it’s enough to draw the attentive viewer into this harrowing world.  You’d think its beautifully drab scenery would weigh it down, but even in the quick glimpses the sense of texture – of immersion – is powerful.  Which leads me to my next point…

3) The greatest sentiment I take away from THE ROAD is the assurance that this is a masterpiece waiting to find its true form.  The film moves with an economy that often feels forced.  There are many moments that cry out for Hillcoat’s camera to linger, and it doesn’t.  As much as Hillcoat is careful with his wide shots and attentive to keeping an eye on the human elements of his story, I wish he would spend more time on the landscape of the human face (regardless of how you feel about the ending – I quite liked it, though I’m not sure I’m buying it – that final shot is one of the most wonderful moments in 2009’s filmography).  I sincerely hope that somewhere there exists a longer cut of the film, and the means to make it available for release.  The theatrical cut hints at greatness.  It isn’t enough.  This film deserves better.  Another ten minutes might do it.

It is what it is: a father and son trudging through the wasteland.  That the film is content to let this be its primary focus, never deviating, is the source of its excellence.  As it is, it is one of the finest pictures currently in release.  Maybe one day we’ll get a longer cut, and look back on THE ROAD as one of the final lights of the 00’s, carrying the fire of meaningful cinema into the next decade.  One may hope.

“There’s enough C-4 on this thing to put a hole in the world!” or, My Favourite Films: Short Version

Posted in Miscellaneous, Reviews - Film with tags , , , , on December 2, 2009 by N.W. Douglas

I don’t know how I found the moment of insight or firmness of will to actually jot down an ordered list of my favourite films, but it did happen, last night, at 3:40 am.  And looking back on it 24 hours later, I’m only waffling on a few titles’ inclusion and placement.  I’m posting this because A) my Decade list is proving difficult to compile, and I’m still too busy with schoolwork to really get into the meat of the matter and B) I’d like to get a record of my favourites out now, because it will probably slightly change tomorrow, and the day after that, and so on (though the top five remain pretty consistent, year to year).  I may as well get the first real iteration out while I’m happy with it.

Here they are, sans explanation:

1. The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003)

2. On The Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954)

3. Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

4. Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)

5. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

6. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise, 1996)

7. M (1931, Fritz Lang)

8. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)

9. Airplane (Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, 1980)

10. Speed (Jan De Bont, 1994)

And eleven more:

11. The Insider (Michael Mann, 1999)

12. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)

13. The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

14. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)

15. Blade Runner/Kingdom of Heaven (Ridley Scott, 1982 & 2005)

16. Minority Report/Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2002 & 2005)

17. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (Frank Capra, 1939)

18. North By Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)

19. Once Upon A Time In The West (Sergio Leone, 1968)

20. Star Trek: First Contact (Jonathan Frakes, 1996)

21. Ronin (John Frankenheimer, 1998)

Also, in alphabetical order:

The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz, 1938)

A Man For All Seasons (Fred Zinneman, 1966)

Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001)

From Russia With Love (Terence Young, 1963)

Glory (Edward Zwick, 1989)

Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973)

Serpico (Sidney Lumet, 1973)

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (Marc Rothemund, 2005)

Three Kings (David O. Russell, 1999)

The Virgin Spring (Ingmar Bergman, 1960)

So many more could be up there, but these are the films I find myself returning to, year after year.  To be sure, I’ve only included films that I’ve had at least one year to contemplate after viewing, with two exceptions: The Third Man, which I viewed this summer and if the just-out-of-print Criterion DVD that just arrived at my door this morning is any indication, has already worked itself into my system as an all-timer (Thank you, Barnes & Noble!), and The Virgin Spring, also a summer discovery, of which I was lucky to co-present a screening to some of my fellow churchgoers.

Essays await.  In the spirit of my #1 pick, let us plow on through the night and at dawn, look to the east…