Archive for cinema

The Best Films of the Decade

Posted in film, Lists with tags , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2010 by Nathan Douglas

I don’t know why it happens this way.  I try to put together a “Best of …” list through methodical and reasonable means.  I let it stew for month after month, taking the time every once in a very long while to try and find spots for my new darlings and justify the ones that stubbornly hang onto their spots, all the while never making much actual progress towards finishing it.

And then, somehow, usually at 2:00 AM on a night that I really have to be asleep, everything falls into place.  The final list reveals itself to me in the dark, and I go scrambling for my notebook and pen.  That’s how it happened with my first All Time Favourites List, which (completely unexpectedly) solidified one night in December, and now it has happened once more with my long-frustrated attempts to figure out my absolute favourite films of the last ten years.

What sets these films apart?  They all have one thing in common:  My experiences of watching these films went deeper than any other experiences of films made between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2009.  By “deeper,” I mean this: of the responses that plenty of good and great films from this period have stimulated within me – passion, worship, reflection, revelation, a heightened awareness of being alive – everything that passes between the viewer and the screen, and remains with the viewer for the rest of their lives; the richest and most powerful of these exchanges found me while sitting and watching each of these ten films, and realizing in real-time or soon thereafter, that something truly amazing was before me, and changing me.  All of these films strike me as vitally alive in ways that their contemporaries are not.  All of these films have blessed me richly.

My ten favourite films of the Aughts:

1. Children of Men (Cuaron, 2006)

2. Munich (Spielberg, 2005)

3. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Jackson, 2003)

4. Birth (Glazer, 2004)

5. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (Rothemund, 2005)

6. Moolaade (Sembene, 2004)

7. Speed Racer (Wachowskis, 2008)

8. The Twilight Samurai (Yamada, 2003)

9. Silent Light (Reygadas, 2008)

10. Once (Carney, 2007)

Too Good To Be a Runner-up, But I’m Not Sure If I’m Ready For It To Be on the Big List:

  • The Gleaners and I (Varda, 2000)

Runners-Up:

  • The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (Dominik, 2007)
  • Gosford Park (Altman, 2002)
  • Grizzly Man (Herzog, 2005)
  • Hero (Yimou, 2004)
  • A History of Violence (Cronenberg, 2005)
  • I’m Not There (Haynes, 2007)
  • In Bruges (McDonagh, 2008)
  • Public Enemies (Mann, 2009)
  • Ratatouille (Bird, 2007)
  • There Will Be Blood (Anderson, 2007)

I hope to come back and elaborate on my reasons for these choices, but I’m away for most of this week for my brother’s wedding and need to keep this brief.  I’m very happy with this list, though.  It will be revised in the years to come; I’ve only scratched the surface of this past decade’s great cinema.  Several of my top picks are in need of revisiting, but the strength of their first viewings, years ago in some cases, remain too powerful to ignore. Until the next batch of great discoveries, these will do nicely.

Image above from Birth: arguably my single favourite shot of the decade.
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On PUBLIC ENEMIES. Part II: Screens, Audiences, and Complicity

Posted in film, Reviews - Film with tags , , , , , on January 22, 2010 by Nathan Douglas

This is the second essay in a three-part series on Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009). Part One discusses ENEMIES’ role as a thoroughly “Mannian” work, completely at home in his filmography and rife with his familiar themes, while pushing them into a more emotionally tumultuous direction.  Part Two focuses on the film as evidence that Mann is engaging with his audiences as direct participants.  Part Three examines PUBLIC ENEMIES’ relationship to and embodiment of transcendental style.

The death of John Dillinger is as poetic as any of Mann’s signature sequences, but it strives for something new on Mann’s part: involving the audience as characters in Dillinger’s story, and the meaning of that story.  The typical Mann ending promises moody beauty and exquisitely pitched editing wrapped up in moments that leave the audience entranced, but essentially passive.  This makes sense, as the worlds that Mann chooses to show tend to be closed off little fiefdoms that the average viewer could not relate to. And considering the subject of PUBLIC ENEMIES, one would be forgiven for assuming the same situation is present here.

This conversation* about Mann’s filmography mentions a moment in THE INSIDER where we, the public, get screen time for brushing off Jeffrey Wigand’s testimony, finally aired after so much strife and loss.  Within that moment, a subtle comment is made about the disposability of important information — and the disposability of sacrifice — in a media-saturated culture.  Within the final ten minutes of PUBLIC ENEMIES, Mann achieves a similar result by juxtaposing the relationship between Dillinger and his onscreen counterpart in MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, and the relationship between Dillinger and us, the adoring public.  As others have pointed out, Mann’s treatment of Dillinger’s final screening plays out as a prophetic and cathartic moment for the gangster, by summarizing his life and predicting his downfall.

Let’s take a closer look at the scene in the theatre.  It is constructed mainly of close-ups of Dillinger’s face, and alternating close-ups and wide shots of the theatre screen.  As the scene unfolds, Mann moves closer to Dillinger’s face with every cut, bringing us into an intimate space with the gangster.  By bringing us so close to Dillinger, his guard down, we enter some sort of sympathetic space.  At the same time, Mann is slowly cutting in closer and closer to the movie screen (framed over Dillinger’s shoulder) to demonstrate this sort of audience-subject relationship happening within the film itself.  The film world becomes closed off to anything outside of Dillinger’s eye line.  At Clark Gable’s penultimate moment in MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, Mann goes in tight for a grainy close up to catch the line “Die the way you lived, all of a sudden; that’s the way to go.  Don’t drag it out.”  This is, of course, advice that resonates with Dillinger.  What I find most interesting about the scene is the way Mann works us into such a close and familiar space with Dillinger in order to watch him receive meaning from the screen in front of him, and how this is really preparation for the payoff of our own relationship with the screen-portrayed Dillinger.

Once MELODRAMA has ended and the countdown to Dillinger’s death begins in earnest, we cease being passive and become part of the proceedings ourselves.  Mann shoots the killing as an assassination in which we are complicit: he takes our omniscience and condemns us for it.  Witness the drawn out shots looking back at Dillinger and his killers sneaking up.  We know what’s going to happen, but Mann makes us feel damned for knowing and not saying anything.  Building off the intimacy he crafted inside the theater, Mann seems to be daring us to try and break the fourth wall.  The anticipation is made even more agonizing by inserting a following shot centered on Dillinger’s back – now, as Matt Zoller Seitz points out, we become both detached and identified with Dillinger.  Any betrayal of him will hurt us as well, and Mann pushes harder by making this particular shot play in slow-motion, a device that Mann usually reserves for crystallizing small character moments that really communicate their essence and struggles within a few frames.  And when Dillinger finally turns around for the last time in his life, the camera dollies into his eyes, widened with surprise and hurt – it seems he’s looking at us, not his attackers.  If Godard is right when he calls every camera movement a moral judgment, then this movement is one of the most outraged.  “How dare you,” cry Dillinger’s eyes.  As an expression of celebrity’s tragedy and the mob’s fickleness, it is elegantly succinct, and for myself, wound up and caught in the moment, it’s electrifying.

This, I think, is the great psychological achievement of PUBLIC ENEMIES, when measured against Mann’s other films.  He is beginning to engage his audience on a more direct and personal level.  His previous films are masterpieces of creating a world to see and a mood to feel, and if we’re lucky, gradually inhabit.  But we only get so far into them before pressing our noses against a plate of glass.  PUBLIC ENEMIES keeps this system largely in place, and then shatters the barrier with one tortured glance.

When Dillinger falls, so does the camera, our world spinning out of control as he does.  It is the marriage of the adored and the adoring.  We betray those we worship, until their absence throws our axis off.  As a commentary on the relationship between the celebrity and the crowd, it’s a more powerful lancing of the audience than THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES, which has the character of Bob Ford to be the audience’s surrogate.  The death of Jesse James is moving, but comes from a gradual undermining of his celebrity, his image in the eyes of Bob Ford poisoned slowly over several years.  This is a valid, and powerfully presented reflection of celebrity deterioration over the last few centuries.  Where PUBLIC ENEMIES differs is in its reflection of the instant perils of celebrity, perils that are unique to the digital era.  A few moments of weakness uploaded to Youtube can lay waste to one’s reputation in a matter of minutes, as effectively as Winstead’s bullet meets Dillinger’s cheek.

But that shot; that movement.  The camera’s physical expression of shock and realization is something we’ve seen before, but rarely as effectively as it is seen here.  And the key to that is found in Mann’s use of establishing layers of audience-screen relationships, revealing the power of cinema through showing cinema, in a way that words fail to truly describe.  It’s self-reflexive without being self-aware; as though some part of the psyche of the act of film watching – of seeing, hearing, and understanding – has been laid bare.

PUBLIC ENEMIES doesn’t change everything, but it has changed enough to mark a significant moment in Mann’s career, and his most important in a decade.  He could have easily coasted on his talent, crafting more richly atmospheric worlds like HEAT or COLLATERAL, those closed off spaces that alternately enchant and chasten.  Instead, he has pushed himself more and more into engaging both art and the audience on a level deeper than even many exceptional film experiences.  Maybe I’ve spent too much time meditating on this work, but I believe that PUBLIC ENEMIES is Mann’s first real effort to revitalize cinema itself: with this film and this last scene, he has carved out a fresh take on direct cinema within the American narrative.  Far from the groans of the naysayers, PUBLIC ENEMIES demonstrates that Michael Mann has most certainly not lost his mojo.  He’s only just finding it.

*The actual page is missing, probably due to the recent move of The House Next Door from Blogspot to Slant Magazine.  Until the real page is posted again, I’ve linked to a Google Cache of the article.

Review Bag III: Van Sant, Cuaron, Cronenberg, Herzog!

Posted in Reviews - Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 17, 2009 by Nathan Douglas


elephantElephant (2003) Gus Van Sant

Its first two-thirds are utterly hypnotizing and fascinating – that may be because I’m still relatively close to the high school experience, and can still relate to that age and it’s frame of mind – but even so, I think Van Sant has captured a gentle form of lightning in a bottle: the floating, aimless feeling of North American adolescent life.  PARANOID PARK explores this even more so, and effectively, but I feel like ELEPHANT does a better job of it by not being focused around one individual.  By showing its universality among students, Van Sant more strongly documents its impact on daily lives; it’s the sort of sense that doesn’t take a lot of time to sink in, but multiplies its effect each time it is presented anew.  That the film’s “climax” – and really, that’s not what it is – is where the film stumbles is curious; I found the simple exploration of high school life to be more poignant and affecting than the inevitable massacre.  And even though the massacre isn’t tacked on, it still ends up feeling like that.  Mike D’Angelo calls it pornography for the way it holds us in suspense for an hour, waiting for the promised violence, and I can agree to a point with his argument that Van Sant is shamelessly manipulating us, sometimes too cheaply, but overall I’d say it transcends those flaws and offers a potent portrait of teen malaise.  It’s first sixty minutes are masterful; it’s last twenty are merely effective.

Solo Con Tu Pareja (1991) Alfonso Cuaronsolo con tu pareja dream

It’s saucy and entertaining, which is about all you need for a functioning sex farce.  Cuaron, as always, skews deeper than the well-staged hijinks in his exploration of a man – Tomas – and his inner turmoil with his tomcat ways.  Perhaps what’s most striking is Cuaron’s collaboration with CHILDREN OF MEN cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, a partnership that in its infancy yields rich, dark images.  If this were an American film made today, it would be given the Wes Anderson originated indie look (which acts like yellow was never discovered before), or something rougher and more documentary-like (as Cuaron went with Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN).  The cuteness of that style would rob this story of its gravitas; even as Tomas runs around in this preposterous plot, his problems are magnified and given great importance on a psychological level, simply because of the contrast, saturation, and overall visual detail of each frame.  As it is, it is the best looking screwball sex comedy I’ve ever seen.

As it hurtles towards its conclusion, it starts to really touch on its thematic depth, beautifully expressed in facial hints and simple statements by Tomas, reflecting on the weight of his sins, finally admitting to his heartbroken crush, Clarisa, that “it was wrong” to sleep with all of those women, a bad habit developed like a child stepping on bugs: “You like the crunch but you don’t know why.”  There’s a real poignancy waiting to be brought to the surface, but Cuaron never quite seals the deal – instead, Tomas’ and Clarisa’s fatalism-tinged coupling, while expected, doesn’t offer the sort of closure that we seek vicariously through Tomas.  Perhaps this is because of the easy out of making Clarisa’s fiancé a cad, thus justifying her own immoral antics in movie-world logic.  Perhaps it’s because she spends time raging against bed-hoppers — a rant that draws Tomas into confessing his own randy ways — and then ignores said feelings to have a quickie with the lothario.  He needs more than more lusty sex, and while the deal gets sweetened by their marriage (a real commitment from the Tom Jones), the film ends on a surprisingly mixed note: Tomas eyes a pair of women in an airport while heading to his wife’s flight, but staying (I think) faithful.  It’s a simple acknowledgement of the effects of a reckless sexual lifestyle, the sort of fast living that leaves scars long after the original wounds are self-inflicted.

While the more dramatic elements don’t mesh as well as hoped for with the comedy, it’s not the sort of combination that destroys itself.  The drama is shaky, but the black comedy proves darkly delicious.  The two columns coexist and work within their own terms; the result is a mostly agreeable blend of spice and bitterness, undercooked just enough to disappoint.  On most levels, this is a brilliant debut, but the most important one misses the boat.

A History of Violence (2005) David Cronenberga-history-of-violence-dinner

The first scene is a stunningly precise piece of cinema, perfectly pitched (particularly in the sound design), strikingly atmospheric; full of mystery and dread, all conveyed in a simple shot of two men leaving a motel.  In its 4-5 minute running time, it puts the entirety of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN to shame, covering similar territory in instilling horror at human evil.  These two killers are more terrifying than any Anton Chigurh; their banal, psychotic bloodletting is completely believable over Chigurh’s semantically informed murdering.  That the rest of the film doesn’t live up to this first scene’s promise isn’t a strike against it, as it’s weaker moments (particularly the high school scenes) are offset by an electrifying finale, a truly shattering and intimate moment between soul mates; we share every second, every ripple of unspoken knowledge.  These actors’ faces – Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello – contain enough tortured life, and grace, to power ten more films.  What comes in between these two perfect scenes is compelling enough, helped along by the reliable Ed Harris, and a show-stopping William Hurt.  Not a perfect film, but maybe a masterpiece.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) Werner Herzogaguirre_monkey

I knew AGUIERRE was a great film after six minutes.  It is madness, first captured in emulsion, and then reflected back at the audience in waves of sorrow, frustration, and failure.  Herzog’s camera drinks it all in like a documentary on conquistadors.  Herzog is famous for speaking of the need for new images; AGUIERRE is like a deranged coffee table book made to fulfill that need.

Madness is the order of the day, and madmen are to be found both in front of and behind the camera.  The tone veers from dour fatalism into surrealist Pythonism, before settling on a sort of bemused observation as Aguirre chases monkeys around his festering raft.  As Aguirre, Klaus Kinski wears one expression for most of the film, and somehow contains a careening world within that visage.  It’s a film that exhilarates and saddens, for the same reason: nothing like this will ever be seen again, so strong is its ambition, so terrible are its circumstances.  There is only one Herzog.  In my mind, the closest film of comparison is APOCALYPSE NOW, but even that masterpiece takes its time to make its case.  Aguirre’s first few minutes are the descent into a world without reason, and it spends its remaining time preventing us from climbing out of that pit.  That Herzog plots such a predicament and wrestles one of the greatest films ever made out of it is indeed an achievement.

Wisdom From Father Cocteau

Posted in Miscellaneous with tags , , , on September 13, 2009 by Nathan Douglas

I’m slowly working my way through The Art of Cinema, a collection of writings on film by Jean Cocteau.  One passage, from the essay ‘Poetry in Cinematography,’ is too good to not share:

And if the man who carries out a work of cinematography offers us the essence of his heart and soul, precisely because he cannot control the impulse to do so; if he submits himself to undertaking a humble task and this essence escapes from his innermost being, an essence and charm that owe their effect to the very fact that they are uncalculated; then how do you expect this essence and this charm to work when the audience, his true collaborator, responds with ill-mannered indifference to this proposal of a marriage of love?

If the public goes out of its way to lose its childhood faculties, if it pretends to be an incredulous grown-up unable to slip into that sphere where the unreal becomes matter-of-fact, if it insists on hardening itself against the euphoria it is being offered, if it makes fun of things that are beyond it instead of attempting to raise itself to their level, in short, if it will play the sceptic when confronted with the mysteries of religion and art, I am no longer surprised when people complain that producers are inclined to make only films of the most lethal vulgarity.

This craving to understand (when the world that people inhabit and acts of God are apparently incoherent, contradictory and incomprehensible), this craving to understand, I say, shuts them off from all the great and exquisite imprecisions that art deploys in the solitudes where men no longer try to understand, but to feel.

This is why I am fascinated by cinematography, which goes beyond the little audience for theatre and is that much more likely to reach those few souls in the world who are searching for food and dying of hunger.

Magnifique.


Ecstacy and Frustration: Struggling with the Inglourious Basterds

Posted in Reviews - Film with tags , , , , , , , on August 25, 2009 by Nathan Douglas

inglourious_basterds_bear_jew_execution

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is an immediately bold and entertaining work, so much so that it is very tempting to declare it a masterpiece based on the merits of its pristine craftsmanship, evident within every word spoken, every inflection acted, every shot exposed, and every cut chosen.  That said, as much as Quentin Tarantino’s latest offers up an unusually satisfying experience of film form, it also troubles me with its insistence to avoid engaging with the thematic issues that pop up along the way of making a gleefully violent revisionist WWII flick.  Tarantino is definitely maturing as an entertainer – consider how carefully he pitches the buildup to moments of explosive violence, which, save for a scene or two, don’t feel too gratuitous – but it’s clear that his main interests remain in the realm of the present moment, enjoying the pleasures of finite film craft and largely ignoring the edification of a deeper, transcendent sort.  That this is so, is both disappointing and expected of him; it is frustrating more than anything for continuing to hint at his films’ potentials for deeper meaning, tastes so well-remembered from the finale of PULP FICTION or much of KILL BILL VOL. 2.

This is not to say that INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS does not offer moments that point to a deeper purpose; what saddens me is that such moments seem to happen by accident.  There is a late scene where the Nazi glitterati are watching and cheering Joseph Goebbel’s latest propaganda picture, which degenerates into one shot after another of Allied soldiers dying violent deaths.  The Nazi audience’s fervor for the onscreen bloodshed – fuelled by ideology and simple excitement at visceral action – plays as a mirror to the real-life audience watching similar scenes of brutal violence perpetrated by the Basterds.  I was struck in that brief moment at how elegantly Tarantino turned the tables of violent entertainment on us, the audience, and effectively compared my own cheering congregation to Hitler’s.

While I am pleased to have had such a potent moment of introspection, in hindsight it seems less and less like a deliberate stroke on Tarantino’s part.  If it was an accident (and Tarantino’s stumping seems to indicate this), then it was a happy one, but that leaves me in the difficult position of giving a truly honest evaluation.  I want to jump on the bandwagon and cheer without reservation, but I cannot ignore the film’s deeper shortcomings.  When does a film’s overall reading stop being influenced by the one who made it?  After the filmmaker is dead?  Does that even happen?  Will INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS be seen as more of a self-reflexive commentary in 100 years, when Tarantino isn’t around to talk about it?  I don’t know.  I want to call the film great for the way it made me examine myself and fellow audience, but I can’t, based on how Tarantino is presenting his work.

What a frustrating work this is!  So full of sublime moments, themselves ultimately in thrall to Tarantino’s baser instincts.  Its gifts are of a mortal nature, but so thrilling in and of themselves: Christoph Waltz gives us one of the great characters of recent years, villain or otherwise; Diane Kruger delivers the liveliest performance of her career thus far; the Two Michaels – Fassbender and Myers – invoke cinephile chills with their historically attuned banter, laying a finger on those memories of old war films that began in ornately furnished rooms without directly referencing such texts to overshadow the moment; photography and editing so precise that nary a shot seems out of place; the simple pleasure of watching a group of intelligent, witty combatants spend more time parrying with words than weapons.  I had little patience for Tarantino’s seemingly directionless dialogue in PULP FICTION, but here it is the real star of the picture, and it is quietly spectacular.

Spectacular also, is the final massacre of the Nazi Party’s leadership, in all of its troubling gloury.  I find myself in agreement with Daniel Mendelhson: INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS acts out its Jewish revenge fantasy by having Jews act like Nazis.  What is gained by this, I do not know.  In the end, we still have the real historical record to contend with, scars and all.  A considerable number of critics are giving Tarantino a pass on his revisioning, because he’s a genius, because they love his film, because he’s one of the untouchable auteurs who gets to play with his toys, make a mess of them, and not have to worry about cleaning up.  Let him have his fun, ho ho ho.  It’s all well and good in a genuinely fantastical world, but WWII really did happen.  I can support a fantastical vision if it has some sort of purpose in helping us understand reality, but Inglourious Basterds is all subversion of that reality, and the more I reflect on it, the more pointless it seems.

The spectre of justice hangs over the Basterds, and in the final scene, makes its ultimate expression.  Tarantino brings out his hidden moralist to make his enemies wear their sins in their skin, and we’re supposed to find this satisfying.  The image of Eli Roth mowing down hundreds of Germans is both a sick joke playing off his own career as a director of death-spewing “art,” and the attempted release for all of us Nazi-hating good guys watching.  I was relieved to find myself sickened by it, even if it was Nazis being slaughtered.  As a Christian who desires to live everyday in the footsteps of Christ, who forgave his enemies even as they murdered him, I cannot look upon the wanton killing of such sinners, even if it is “just.”  Maybe it is just.  But there is no life in it, and I think, no true satisfaction.  It comes down to nothing but wishful thinking.  Such is the power of cinema: take the alternative story that could only exist this powerfully within the mind, and give it this almost equally empowering form of life on celluloid.  Tarantino thinks he’s using his powers for good, but I agree with Jeffrey Overstreet’s assessment:

“I’m troubled by how many people are applauding and defending the film because it is so ‘cinematic.’ Cinematic in service of what exactly? What I saw this weekend was a work of superior craftsmanship that invites us to revel in a revenge-fantasy orgy.”

And it all seemed like it might be worthwhile in a moral sense, up until that climax.  The most tragic films are the ones that seem destined for greatness, only to stumble at the finish line.  INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, so thrilling in its construction, might have been great, but the cake it baked was too tempting to leave alone.  There is much – indeed, almost too much – to admire, and while such moments retain some glow within their inherent delightfulness, they could have shone so much brighter had the entirety taken a different course.

It seems that every new Tarantino film brings out fresh hope for more mature art, followed by fresh disappointment.  I do not begrudge Tarantino his development stage, however long it may be, but speaking as one who was recently convinced (within the last year) of his genius as a filmmaker, I pine for that day when his gifts enable a truly great work, one that nourishes the soul as much as the inner film buff.  Many of us do.  And until that day comes, we’ll keep the flame lit, and watch the horizon.

– N.W. Douglas