Movies of the decade #11-20

11. The Flight of the Red Balloon (2008).

This take on one of the most beloved children’s films of the last fifty years has none of said film’s preciousness. In her second great performance of the last two years (see my #2 film), Juliette Binoche generates enough force to make us wonder just who the film’s about: her or the boy? And balloon makes three.

12. Before Sunset (2004).

Of course Ethan Hawke’s character is unimaginative enough to have written a novel about his experiences ten years earlier with Julie Delpy, so what she sees in him is anybody’s guess. Linklater’s camera follows them coolly, watching them parry, thrust, dodge, and feint without judging these two fools. I look forward to Before Midnight in 2014, in which a married Jesse and Celine make like Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli in Contempt.

13. The Piano Teacher (2002).

As the decade unfolded we would note and dismiss Michael Haneke’s sadism. In the wrong mood I’d dismiss this nasty little thing as camp. It probably still is. I can’t separate Haneke’s achievement from Isabelle Huppert’s, whose performance as a repressed-every-which-way woman toys with Carol Burnett territory but in its dogged indifference to being liked rivals some of Bette Davis’ best.

14. No End in Sight (2007).

If the Democratic Party had any balls it would have commissioned this in 2004, showed it at their convention, and run it as a series of attack ads. Rewatching this, I bid adieu to this low, sad, dishonest decade, and welcomed another dishonest one.

15. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).

Nick Davis: “Because packed into every minute is some dazzling effect or narrative loop or blazon of the makers’ quirks, but for all of those amazing and endearing convolutions, the emotions are played impressively straight. In good times and bad, in duck sauce and in health, it’s the truest-feeling deconstruction of love in an American movie since Annie Hall.”

16. Before Night Falls (2001).

A subtropical chronicle of a death foretold, set during the Havana equivalent of the Prague Spring. No matter how strenuously artists insist on aloofness from politics, politics will insist on a place, especially when sex is involved. That former painter Julian Schnabel — a scenester if there ever was one — directed only compounds the ironies. Docked a few notches for assuming we’d find Sean Penn and Johnny Depp’s cameos just as raucous.

17. The Witnesses (2007)

A close group of friends of fluid sexuality argue, pair, and recombine, the latter at the same pace as the AIDS virus that might consume one of them. Like Summer Hours, André Téchiné’s tone is so evanescent that its skirting of sentimentality might make you long for a little vulgarity (thankfully Téchiné provides eye candy in the form of Johan Libéreau). If you’ve seen 1995’s Wild Reeds, you know the poignancy Téchiné can extract from roundelays. When the music stops in this one, you may not remember whether you’d been attending a dinner party or a wake.

18. Children of Men (2006).

A barefoot Clive Owen smuggles a young black mother through a battle-scarred dystopia. Michael Caine mugs as a hippie throwback. Julianne Moore does the best Janet Leigh impersonation in recent film. Thanks to the film’s relentless pace, war hasn’t looked this grim in ages.

19. Grizzly Man (2005).

What an absurd collision of sensibilities: Werner Herzog’s posh German nihilism and Timothy Treadwell’s unctuous New Age softheadedness. In the horror that Herzog (wisely) leaves offscreen, we are left no less dumbfounded than Treadwell’s colleagues and girlfriends, unable to answer the most basic question: do our friends and relatives know how fucked up we really are? Ask the bear.

20. The Bourne Supremacy (2004).

Let’s mangle Pauline Kael: No one else can lend each quick glancing scene its proper weight before cutting away like Paul Greengrass can, but if anyone else should learn to, kill him.

Best of the decade.

1. Mulholland Drive (2001).

Uneven pacing and incongruous prefatory thirty minutes aside, this is a master’s class in the analysis of performance. Everything about Naomi Watts — from her pink sweater to the sensible shoes her relatives in Canada no doubt thought were the best sort of thing to wear on a long plane ride — is perfect, especially when David Lynch shows how she isn’t. The last thirty minutes’ dark night of the soul looks and smells like Ann Miller’s perfume and the way her gnarled fingers curl around walnuts. Unrequited love sounds like Dolores Del Rio singing Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” Desire tastes like Laura Harring’s tentative mouth. If you hang around Hollywood too long, acting feels like Chad Everett’s leather armrest of a face. The Straight Story is more finished product, but Mulholland Drive has the defects of something you come to love.

2. Summer Hours (2009).

An ideal way to end the decade with the crowning achievement of Oliver Assayas’ career, my favorite director of the decade: the death of an oddly diffident matriarch inspires the gentlest of arguments among her children regarding who will keep her Corots and other bibelots. The tone is so gossamer-thin that I understand if you think it’s overrated.

3. A History of Violence (2005).

I was going to include one of the first two X-Men movies, but David Cronenberg’s film is the superior adaptation of pulp. Knows more about family dynamics and what to do with Maria Bello too.

4. Y tu mama tambien (2002).

Although I’ve soured on this one ever so slightly — these days I have less patience with Godardian voice-overs that dramatize more than the director’s willing to show — I still carry the memory of how Alfonso Cuaron negotiates between youth-as-flesh and the landscape with which it interacts. Sweat, cum, balls, lime juice, and underchlorinated pools — smell them. Note the lives on the periphery captured by Cuaron’s camera: the inhabitants of a post-NAFTA Mexico that hasn’t seen much change. You’re talking to a lover one day, and dead of cancer the next. Cuaron could have called this Todo pasa (Everything Changes).

5. Tropical Malady (2005).

Since it shattered me three days after viewing Brokeback Mountain, it’s tempting (as lots of critics have already done) to review these films together, and regard the Ang Lee film as what David Thomson calls a historical “curiosity” that lacks half the visual imagination as this brief Rousseauian fever-dream by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Quick taking sides: licking your beloved’s hand versus hurling against the wall and shoving your mouth onto his). What starts as a tale of two boys in love turns into an opaque anthropomorphic tale, with a faint air of menace.

6. The Hurt Locker (2009).

Like Hawks, Ray, and the early Fellini and Scorsese, Kathryn Bigelow understands how to photograph men in crisis — even when the most heartrenching crisis of her early work is whether cop Keanu Reeves will allow bank robber Patrick Swayze one more chance to ride a wave before arresting him in Point Break. Fuck the “pseudo documentary” twaddle of United 93 or even Black Hawk Down: movies are superior to documentaries because they put us inside someone’s head. Someone’s fears. Maybe it was dumb luck that Bigelow got Jeremy Renner as her medium.

7. The Best of Youth (2003).

Italy is the Florida of the European Union: chicanery rules. This six-hour TV movie shows how two brothers of varying artistic talents get caught in the current of the times. By the time Marco Tullio Giordana’s film reaches the present day, survival doesn’t feel like a blessing so much as a burden.

8. The House of Mirth (2000).

I still stand by this. Considering where Gillian Anderson’s career went, she stills stands by this adaptation too.

9. Rachel Getting Married (2008).

“The worst part about being thirty-three is forgetting that I can’t talk to my parents as adults: they simply don’t want to know about certain parts of my life.”

10. Erin Brockovich (2000).

Hey, remember when Steven Soderbergh was the heir to Howard Hawks and Michael Curtiz — double Oscar nominations and everything! Remember when Traffic got the kudos for being About Something? This was supposed to be the potboiler that paid for his Real Films. I fell for the hype too. Time has been much kinder to Erin Brockovich. The sepia-toned walls and hideous furniture in Albert Finney’s fourth-rate law firm, Erin’s eating pineapples out of a can, buying her kids a hamburger dinner and not ordering something herself because she can’t afford it, the shades of anxiety crisscrossing Marg Helgenberger’s face — this is flyover country filmed without condescension, and it’s the only Soderbergh film I can rewatch with pleasure. In case you were wondering, yes, Julia Roberts deserved the Oscar.

Look for the rest tomorrow…

Unforgiven vs Casablanca

As part of its periodic  “Best Picture from the Outside”  series, the Film Experince crew publishes an extremely thorough, impressive side by side analysis of Casablanca and Unforgiven. I’m taken with the notion that Clint Eastwood is too besotted with the limitations of Classical Filmmaking and the good but explicit script to do anything but present William Munny unambiguously.

Not enough thinking

Since I don’t go to Animal Collective for clarity, let alone cohesion, my instant attraction to “What Would I Want Sky” from the Fall Be Kind EP didn’t surprise me (it narrowly missed my top twenty). The way one of their singers says “glasses clinkin'” makes up for the feeling with which he imbues the regrettable “I’m weighted by thinking.” Weighted by thinking is not the first thing that comes to mind when listening to Animal Collective.

2009 – Best singles

My Pazz and Jop ballot:

1. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Heads Will Roll

2. Natalie Imbruglia – Want

3. Walter Jones – Living Without Your Love

4. Lady Antebellum – Need You Now

5. Pains of  Being Pure at Heart – Higher Than the Stars (Saint Etienne Visits Lord Spank Mix)

6. Taylor Swift – You Belong with Me

7. Ghostface Killah ft. Fabolous & Shareefa – Guest House

8. Pet Shop Boys – Love, Etc

9. Burial & Four Tet – Moth

10. Arctic Monkeys – Cornerstone

11. Rosanne Cash – Girl From the North Country

12. Julian Casablancas – 11th Dimension

13. Bob Dylan – Beyond Here Lies Nothin’

14. Animal Collective – What Would I Want? Sky

15. Lady Gaga – Dancer in the Dark

16. Dizzee Rascal – Dance Wit’ me

17. Neil Young – Fork in the Road

18. The National – So Far Around the Bend

19. Maxwell – Bad Habits

20. DJ Quik & Kurupt – Hey Playa (Moroccan Blues)

Best albums of the year

I will likely submit the first ten in my Pazz and Jop ballot:

1. Maxwell – BLACKsummer’snight

2. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!

3. DJ Quik & Kurupt – Blaqkout

4. Wussy – Wussy

5. Mos Def – The Ecstatic

6. Brad Paisley – American Saturday Night

7. Amadou & Mariam – Welcome to Mali

8. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone

9. Miranda Lambert – Revolution

10. Dizzee Rascal – Tongue ‘N’ Cheek

11. The-Dream – Love vs Money

12. MF Doom – Born Like This

13. The Mountain Goats – The Life of the World to Come

14.Pearl Jam – Backspacer

14. Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2

15. Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Higher Than the Stars (EP)

16. Girls – Album

17. Art Brut – Art Brut vs. Satan

18. Bill Callahan – Sometimes I Wish I Was an Eagle

19. Amerie – In Love and War

20. Various Artists – Dark Was the Night

Let the arguing begin, and so on.

Gimme half a chance

The mystery of film: how is she so empty an actress yet so alive in clips like this? The sequence between 0:48 and 0:51, and, near the end, the smile on her face when the boy realizes he’s kissed Madonna, encapsulate what I loved about Madonna then: so hungry, so alive, up for anything, and thus unprepared for the blows when they come. You hear it in the vocal for “Open Your Heart,” which might surpass “Into the Groove” for sheer aliveness.

Tilda Swinton, meet Joan Crawford

In which Tilda Swinton swills several cocktails, bumps and grinds with a coworker at an office party, totters uneasily on stiletto heels, fucks him in the car, is forced to attend an AA meeting, drinks some more, and wakes up next to Saul Rubinek. That’s in the first forty minutes — before an acquaintance talks Swinton into kidnapping her (the acquaintance’s) own child so that she can extort a couple million dollars from the child’s grandfather. Then, in pursuit by cops, she heads to Mexico.

Until Julia says the hell with it in the last third, director Erick Zonca and Swinton are on mindlock. Zonca, whose 1998 film The Dreamlife of Angels convincingly followed two female drifters through Nowheresville, France, puts his talent for  documentary verite in the service of melodrama, and the stylistic and genre mismatch create a zonked-out vibe that might repulse you. Imagine Mildred Pierce shot like Vagabond (I couldn’t stop watching). As evinced by her work in the blah thriller The Deep End, desperation becomes Swinton; her cheekbones collapse around her eyes, and her teeth clench like she has tetanus. More roles like this, please. File away the ice queen stuff like Michael Clayton and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Selling your soul at the Hilton bar

In which George Clooney realizes that being a single man with limitless frequent flier miles isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, so  after visiting his estranged sisters in Milwaukee he attempts to convince Vera Farmiga to settle down with him, despite having enjoyed a perfectly marvelous relationship in which they get to play Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman over drinks at the Hilton bar. Oh, and Clooney plays a guy in an airport suit who jets around the country firing people.

A mendacious, offensive, souless film, Up in the Air’s motions towards authenticity include interviews with real unemployed people who have to recite Jason Reitman and co-screenwriter Sheldon Turner ‘s bullshit about Finding A Purpose. The reality is that people work for a paycheck; whether they love their jobs is ancillary. Why do you think so many women (and men, frankly) will give up a job for the sake of their children and spouses? It should tell you where their priorities are. I suppose Reitman thinks it’s a new wrinkle in the formula to cast reliable coot J.K. Simmons as a recently terminated man who’s advised by Clooney to Follow His Dreams and take up cooking again, as he once did before the evil corporate world sucked his soul. The movie doesn’t even have the courage to acknowledge that Clooney’s feeding him a line; Rowling’ s character is too old to start anywhere anyway.  Worse, the message this twaddle is hustling — that all single men realize their essential loneliness — is the male menopausal take on what old Hollywood use to warn young women against. Entrenched in the tradition of male stars who win over the audience with their cynicism only to go soft in the final reel, Clooney gives us the umpteenth version of Paul Newman’s Hud.

I wonder how much Hilton and American Airlines paid for all the advertising the film gave them.