Robert’s Picks: Top 20 Films viewed in 2005
Robert Yahnke (April 2006)
1. Brokeback Mountain. Dir. Ang Lee . The two main characters, Ennis and Jack, are perfect complementary opposites of each other. Early in the film, Jack Twist is always complaining about the unfairness of the world. He has thought hard about his years of being a gay man in 1950s and then 1960s Wyoming, and he is fed up with the oppression he has suffered. Ennis Del Mar has come to this point in life with little outward criticism of the Ways of the World. He knows he’s gay, of course, but he has decided it is something that he cannot change—it is something that he has to live with. It takes Jack a while to make an impact upon his shepherding partner—but he does eventually, and it’s a thing of beauty to see Ennis begin to externalize his feelings for the first time. Near the end of the film, the last time the two men see each other, there is another example of Jack’s typical externalizing and complaining and wishing the world could be different so that these two men could be left alone to live in peace—and just when we are tired of hearing him going on that way, Lee holds the camera tight on the back of Ennis’ neck, and you wonder, “What kind of a shot is that?” and then he cuts back to Ennis, who moves to a ¾ turn, and then comes around—and he’s crying, and all of a sudden he is making a cosmic complaint about how hard it has been for him to hold in his feelings all of these years. And then Jack’s response is the perfect statement of how character prevails in the creation of story. Suddenly Jack gets off his high horse, comes over to Ennis, and puts his arms around him and tries to settle him down. That moment in the film is when I knew for sure that these two men shared an abiding love that could never be broken by society. Jack loved Ennis, and Ennis loved Jack. That’s all there is to it. Except for one thing—and that is that both are gay men in an era in America long before Stonewall (and Stonewall in 1969 likely had little impact on the lives of gay men in remote Western settings anyway).
Life goes on. Both men marry. Finally they are reunited in one of the most compelling reunion scenes I have ever seen. Their embrace is no longer that of two celebrating linebackers. They have missed each other’s touch so much that they can barely contain themselves. Their unconscious selves pour out and control their movements. And it’s at this moment that Ennis’ wife spots them—trying to hide from anyone’s sight—from her second-floor window.
Jack keeps coming back to the idea that they should go away together and find their own measure of happiness. But Ennis has always been the careful one. He tells Jack, “If this thing gets hold of in the wrong place and the wrong time, we’re dead.” Ennis shares with Jack a compelling memory of the time his father took him into a field and showed him an old man, mutilated by several neighbors, when it was revealed that he and his ranch partner were gay lovers. To Ennis this was an object lesson of what happens to homosexuals when they flaunt their identities in public. He never forgot that memory, and it likely contributed to his strategy for survival when he was growing up. “If you can’t fight it, you’ve got to stand it,” says Ennis—wise words for everyone, but especially for someone who is gay in this era. The fact that Ennis has two girls who worship the ground he stands on is another deciding factor of how the film has to end. Ennis’ reason for living is right there in front of him—his legacy, his genes, his future grandchildren. Ennis bonds with his children; but Jack is a stranger to his only son, whose affection has been co-opted by his grandfather. Jack is the one who really is alone.
I referred to the climactic scene in the film earlier. Again, that scene confirmed, for me, the love they felt for each other. As angry as Jack felt when he lambasted Ennis in that scene, and told him, “I wish I knew how to quit you!” his comforting of Ennis was the telltale sign that his heart belonged to Ennis. And the tragedy of this relationship reared up again, and it was painful to see them separate a last time. The ending scenes of the film are equally poignant and memorable. I will only refer to one key image—and that is the shirt that Ennis somehow left behind on Brokeback Mountain in 1963. At the end of the film, we find out where that shirt was all this time—and it’s important to consider the placement of that shirt compared to the other shirt it is arranged with on the one hanger. Notice that the first time we see it the blue shirt is on the outside; and the second time we see it the blue shirt is on the inside. That’s what love does to a person—it makes someone want to protect and take care of their partner, whether that partner is straight or gay. And it works the same for both parties in the partnership. The film ends with a scene between Ennis and his 19-year-old daughter—so we must be in the early 1980s by now. For Ennis the next generation is the one to concentrate on—that’s what keeps him going. He is the survivor.
2. Capote. Dir. Bennett Miller. The film stayed with me for days—primarily because it captured the ethical dilemma in the famous writer, Truman Capote, as he struggled with his own set of demons regarding his reportage of the brutal killing of four people in a Kansas farmhouse in 1959. The film shows the hook being set in Capote when he first reads about the murders in the newspaper. Soon he is telling his editor, “I think that’s what I want to write about.” So this famous man, the darling and dominating presence of a myriad of cocktail parties, spirits himself across the country via train, along with his assistant, Harper Lee (who went on to write To Kill a Mockingbird), and visits the local lawman responsible for the case. Then Capote visits the funeral home and sneaks into the casket room, where the four caskets lie. He opens one of the caskets and sees the white shroud covering the face of the corpse. Then he visits the farmhouse where the murders took place and where the blood has dried on the floorboards. The film works because each of the scenes advances the story and utilizes visual means to do so. The scenes show rather than tell. When Capote then calls his partner, also a writer, there is such intimacy in their interaction—and the introduction of the partner is crucial to what happens later in the film as well. When Capote interviews the young woman that found the four bodies, his skills as interviewer were obvious—but so was his capacity for manipulation. You could tell he was the sort of man that got what he wanted out of any situation.
But the hook was set in me when Capote visits the sheriff’s house. Here was midtown Manhattan meeting small-town Midwestern America—how could one find two more unlikely characters? It takes a certain level of skill to pull off this type of differing class-based conversations. Capote had that skill. He was highly educated, but he had not lost touch with that part of himself that was poor and lower class and white trash. And in that scene I admired the reality of the characters. The lawman, played convincingly by Chris Cooper, is a defender of Midwest values and a gentle man at heart. Capote comes across like an observer, someone who functions like a detective—trying to figure what really happened.
There was such power to these images—the farmhouse, the flat Kansas countryside, the details of daily life in the late 1950s. Small moments are the critical ones. When Capote visits the cells at the back of the Sheriff’s office in town, and sees the two murder suspects, something happens to him—something clicks in an unconscious way. When he sees, Perry, one of the two suspects, he feels an instantaneous bond something akin to the chemical reaction triggered within the brain when one person falls in love with another person. Capote’s bonding with this man is one of the most unnerving elements of the film. It’s not as if he falls in love with Perry; but the depth of his commitment to this man is best summed up by his own words, when he tells another character, “It’s like we were born and raised in the same house, and I went out the front door—while Perry went out the back door.”
Soon it becomes obvious that if Capote is to finish his nonfiction novel, this new genre of writing he is said to have discovered, then the two men, once convicted, will have to be put to death (one ending)—but even more important—Capote will need to hear exactly what happened that night in that farmhouse (the other ending). Capote is not interested in getting Perry and the other killer off the hook; he uses the intimacy of his relationship with Perry to get what he wants (and thus that manipulative side of him rises up again). The screenplay does not simply indict Capote as a selfish, egotistical bastard who manipulated Perry for his own ends; it suggests that some of Capote’s motives were secrets even to himself. Somehow his unconscious self responded to something in Perry’s character and make-up. Somehow he fooled himself as much as he fooled Perry and the others.
Finally, when Perry tells Capote what really happened that night, and we finally see it for ourselves, there is a macabre satisfaction to those visuals. Now Capote has the ending of his book. Now all that remains is the execution of the death sentences on the two convicted men. By this time Capote has worked on the book for four years. Now at the same time Harper Lee’s book comes out, and all that Capote can think of is that he is being tortured because she has her end point but he does not. In 1965 Capote finally visits Perry for a last time, on the night of his execution. And he is in the audience when the man is hanged for the murders of the Kansas family. It was amazing to see the great talker Capote speechless in front of the man who gave him fame. When he tells Perry, “I did everything I could,” you could sense the deception as well as well as the self-deception in that line. Now Capote really has his ending. His book, In Cold Blood, becomes a masterpiece; but at what cost to his soul? This film was an x-ray of the soul—and it worked also because of the fine performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Finally this well-known supporting actor is given the leading role in a film—and he carried it off with perfection. He became the man Truman Capote as only an actor’s actor can embody a role.
3. Brothers. Dir. Susanne Bier. ( Denmark). This film has one scene that absolutely makes the difference for the rest of the film. Two brothers—the elder brother the good guy (the soldier) and the younger brother the loser. The film begins with the good brother picking up the bad brother from jail after he served his time for assaulting a woman. The good brother is married to a beautiful woman, and they have two lovely children. They live in a lovely home in Copenhagen, but there is one weak spot to the house. The good brother has never renovated the kitchen. There is the one chink in the otherwise armor of his moral rectitude. When the good brother is sent to Bosnia in the early 1990s to serve with the UN, and then is shot down with his helicopter, and presumed dead, the equilibrium of this family becomes unbalanced. The father holds a grudge against his younger son for being the “bad son,” and the sister-in-law is so deep in grief that nothing seems to reach her. The younger brother is cast adrift. What will he do? What can he do? Slowly but surely he begins to step into his older brother’s shoes and help out his sister-in-law. Where does he focus his energies? He begins to renovate the kitchen.
Now comes the plot point—the older brother is not dead. But in his captivity, at the hands of Muslim extremists, he has to suffer a horrible fate. He is imprisoned with a weaker Danish soldier, a radio man. Our older brother is an officer and a leader—and the extremists push him to the limits until we are forced to watch an unimaginable scene of horror that changes everything about this film. That one scene makes all the difference because it reveals the depths of the human unconscious and the rage that lies just beneath the surface of even the good and the righteous.
Back in Denmark, the family begins to restore itself to a kind of wholeness, and the younger brother, now that he has stopped drinking, is beginning to discover strengths within him he never knew he possessed. The next step in the plot is obvious, isn’t it? Will he and the sister-in-law begin a sexual affair? They come close—oh, so close—but then they step aside from it and regain a sense of balance. And it’s at that point when we learn that the older brother has been rescued from his hostage hideout and will return home. He shows no visible scars or injuries. He looks the same. But he has invisible scars inflicted upon him in his captivity reveal a monster within him that is threatening and ominous.
This film knows what it wants to accomplish—and the screenplay and acting delivers on that promise. Connie Nielson is amazing as the wife of the good brother, and when their relationship begins to deteriorate because of the horrors of his post-traumatic stress disorder, then you just have to stand back and look with awe at the actors and what they are able to draw upon to enact their characters. That darn kitchen becomes the climactic setting at the end of the film—when the good brother becomes enraged and destroys that beautiful renovation—tearing it asunder as if it were a representation of the rage he repressed in his months of captivity. For a second time he explodes, and this time he is taken away from the family in order to begin his recovery. All modern films, especially those of the past 10 years, come down to the word healing as the key ingredient of plot and character. And so this film follows that formula and leaves us breathless with the potential for regeneration, love, family, and loyalty.
4. Syriana. Dir. Stephen Gaghan. George Clooney is becoming an American treasure. He acts, he directs, and whatever he does he does well. The early climactic scene of this film, where Clooney, playing the CIA agent, has a close call in Beirut after selling two stinger missiles, was tense and riveting, and it reminded me of some of the qualities of Traffic (2000), which had a similar ensemble cast. I was impressed with this film, but after I watched it I realized that there are two kinds of films I am impressed by—and one is the ensemble-type of approach (with many story lines—and no way to develop a character fully) and the character-driven film (like Brokeback Mountain or Million Dollar Baby), where you follow the story of a few characters and really get a sense of insight and perspective on the inner workings of the human mind. I confess that I appreciate the latter more than the former. But as an example of the former, Syriana stands out. George Clooney constructs an amazing character here. His CIA agent is a throwback to the characters of the 1970s—a man of honor mixed-up with a man of ego. He is out of league, just as he is out of favor with the powers that be. He is close to being a has-been, someone who is washed up after failing to curry favor as he needed to do in his many operations. He is a bit of a rogue—that is, someone who follows his nose and takes an unflinching stand on right vs. wrong. Now he is expendable.
There are numerous plot lines here: the young American financial analyst who is overwhelmed by his sudden access to power; the U.S. attorney who wants to do the right thing but finds out that he is merely a pawn in a larger and more complicated system of justice; the two sons of an ailing Emir—one a vicious killer and opportunist, and the other a man of high ideals and political savvy who is doomed by his sense of justice and fairness; the young Pakistani who is easy prey for the mullahs bent on grooming him as another terrorist; the shadowy power broker (played magnificently by Christopher Plummer) who controls politicians and oil men; the CIA agents tired of listening to George Clooney’s simplistic calls for justice. I could not help but think of the classic film The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) with Richard Burton playing the George Clooney role. In both films good men are betrayed by governments that have their own agendas. And if an individual gets in the way of that agenda, then that individual is expendable. I will never forget the moment when Burton’s character, having climbed atop a wall between East and West Germany, is suddenly caught between his desire to escape and his loyalty to the CIA. What a filmic moment! Like a deer caught in the headlights, he can’t move—and then he acts. But in Syriana the moment is when George Clooney is standing only feet from the SUV holding one of the two princes—and their eyes lock on each other, and the prince remembers seeing him in an elevator in a Middle Eastern skyscraper. And that moment is one that is burned indelibly in my mind as I recall this film. Good men, trying to fulfill their duties, trapped by their own governments.
Let’s face it. Without George Clooney this film would not work. He has hero written all over him. He brings an honesty, integrity, and a somber mood to his scenes. One of the stones in his heart is that he is divorced, and yet he works hard to forge a relationship with his college-aged son. His attempts at bonding are heart-breaking, but his difficulties with an emotional relationship with his son are reflected in several other father-son tribulations in the film. It seems that a sub-theme of this film is that the world is screwed up because fathers and son relationships are screwed up. For instance, the Middle Eastern Emir chooses poorly when he selects his unscrupulous son to succeed him. He casts aside the son that would have made a better choice, and his error is almost Biblical in proportion. The U. S. attorney, played by Jeffrey Wright, is burdened with an alcoholic father who shows up and then disappears like a phantom. The Pakistani terrorist has a loving father who is clueless about his son’s awful transformation. The young financial analyst (Matt Damon) loses his son when the boy drowns in a swimming pool, killed in a freak accident caused by shoddy workmanship. I kept wondering, “What do all of these unstable and unhappy father-son relationships mean in this film?”
This film is about characters that realize they are pawns in the hands of forces much larger and more powerful than them. We could understand how difficult it was to right such awful wrongs. I had that same kind of feeling in this film. Big oil is going to win—that’s obvious. Better to carve out a small corner of the world, and find your Eden there, than to tilt at windmills. And as for the George Clooney character—what hope would there be for him? “You’re the Canadian,” says the good prince. And then one of the two competing parallel editing tracks comes in and it’s “poof!” That leaves the bad guys standing—and that ending makes us think about where we are headed as a country in this world. I thought in a democracy we were supposed to listen to the little guys with good ideas.
5. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Dir. Tommy Lee Jones. I loved this film—it was just about as perfect as a film could be. Why? It created believable characters, knew where it was headed, and it shot straight through to the end as if there were an inexorable force directing all the actions and events. An aging cowboy Pete, played by Jones, befriends an illegal immigrant, the title character, a gentle and seemingly naïve fellow who is good with horses. Jones has a perfect actor’s face. The lines, the wizened eyes, the leathery look of his cheeks and jowls, the penetrating stare, the set of his jaw—everything about that face is expressive and rich in stories and experiences and sacrifices and losses. A book could be written about this character. The old man is a fixture in Southwest Texas. He is a genuine cowboy, and that’s why he so appreciates what Estrada represents—someone who knows how to work horses and knows what to respect in horses.
Compare that character to the young border agent, Norton, new in the area, who has lots of unhappy and unfulfilled sex with his young wife from Cincinnati. This young man has real problems expressing himself sexually. He’s all sex and no intimacy. And this guy likes to take out some of his rage (repressed anger because he is not happy or sexually mature) by beating up illegal aliens when he gets a chance—catching them as they try to cross the border. The big plot point comes early. One day, while watching the border, Norton thinks someone is shooting a rifle at him—and he shoots back. He kills Estrada in the valley below him. What happened here? Later, we see the same scene from Mel’s point of view. We learn he was watching some sheep, and he was firing his rifle at a coyote halfway up the foothill. Oh, that reaction shot of the border agent when he realized he shot a man who was not shooting at him! Oh, there goes my career. If only the earth could swallow me up whole. This idea of telling the story out of order provides unsettling comparisons of differing points of view.
When the waitress/call girl from the café tells Pete who killed Mel, the film really takes off. Pete becomes a force of nature. Something springs forth from his unconscious, and he simply acts. Now the film’s narrative runs straight-arrow, one scene following the other. Pete takes Norton hostage, and then he makes Norton dig up Melquiades Estrada—who was hastily buried after his body was discovered. Then he sets out on a journey to Mexico, because Mel once showed him a picture of his wife and three kids and said it was five years since he had last seen them. He also told him about a town he lived in when he was growing up, and he said he always wanted to be buried there when he died. So Pete is acting on the wish of a dead man—a sacred vow to a cowboy. And off he goes—dragging along his hostage Norton, one step ahead of the town sheriff, a weak-willed man with his own set of personal problems.
This narrative was as ruthless, in its way, as the Danish film Brothers, also about an amazing journey into the unconscious. But in this case, we have an aging cowboy, an old man really, who is setting off on possibly his last great journey of his life. And along the way, almost as if by accident, he teaches his hostage about respect and about self-respect. The rest of the film is a quintessential road movie—in the picaresque tradition—and it works because each encounter along the way furthers the story and complicates the relationship between Pete and Norton. The entire journey from Texas to the small town in Mexico that Pete is searching for is one rough and tough boot camp for Norton. We hated this guy’s guts at the beginning of the film, but by the end of the film we look at him with different eyes. And at the end of the journey there is one big surprise in store for Pete as he tries to find the town of Jimenez, the town Mel wanted to be buried in. And this surprise turns into a mystery that is never perfectly resolved. We just have to live with it. And that’s exactly what the two main characters do. They reach the end of their journey—and it has been a meaningful one for both of them. At the end of the film, as in all great Westerns, the hero rides off into the sunset on his horse. But here there is a difference. Pete’s last act is to extract a confession of sorts from Norton. He terrorizes him, and you half expect that he will shoot the man in the head before he is done with him. Norton cries, “I swear to God I’m sorry. I did not mean to kill him! I regret it every day!” But Pete lets him go, and he leaves Mel’s horse behind for the young man. Norton’s last words to Pete: “Are you going to be all right?” Transformations complete.
6. Saraband. Dir. Ingmar Bergman. ( Sweden, 2003). In many respects, a film by a master like Ingmar Bergman is in a different league when compared to the work of contemporary filmmakers. How to rank it among the other films I have seen this year? The simple answer, for me, is to relate to my emotional response to the film as I watched it. For me, watching the film was a simple pleasure. Bergman’s work reminded me that less is more. Simple touches resonate more than typical special effects, a pounding musical score, and an over-reliance on violence and mayhem. Bergman’s work has always been about the interior mayhem we suffer through human relationships. As I watched this film, I realized how much emotional and psychological pain lies within characters. It is their burden, the crosses they bear. And yet for some there is little realization, on their part, of how much pain they inflict upon others. In other words, no matter what the outward manifestations may be, human beings live their lives privately and interiorly. In some respects we cannot know what people are made of, what people really are, because they cannot reveal their essence to us—either in person, or in the case of Bergman’s cinema, on camera.
So he begins his film with Marrianne (Liv Ullman), the woman who divorced Johan many years ago (the subject of Bergman’s 1973 film, Scenes from a Marriage—and in that film both Ullman and Josephson starred as husband and wife), sitting at a table of photographs and talking directly to the camera about her decision to suddenly visit Johan in his remote cabin in the mountains. She is not sure herself why she is making that visit—or is it a pilgrimage of sorts. After all, not far from the cabin is a smaller cabin where Karin and Johan made love many times when they visited that area. Suddenly she is at the door of his cabin. She walks through the house, and then she comes out to the back porch, where Johan sleeps. At that moment I realized I was watching a film about old people—the man’s hand shakes; he finds it difficult to stand up from a seated position; these two people had a life together, once, and now they are at this last stage of life. Finally, he stands, and they embrace, and it is evident that she loves it. She is 63. He is in his 80s. Does she think this visit will spark a new romance? Why would she think that? We have little to go on when it comes to her motives. Answers lie in her face, as revealed in countless reaction shots through the film. They hold hands; and she makes a point of it. His response—he withdraws his hand and the visit is over.
Johan is a despicable character. He uses money like a weapon. He dislikes intensely his son Henrik, who lives in the small cabin nearby. Henrik is not the tough-minded son he would have liked. So he abuses his son emotionally, and takes pleasure in that abuse. Now Henrik’s wife died from cancer two years ago, and Henrik is far from getting over the grief of that loss. The picture of Henrik’s wife becomes an icon in this film. Eventually, we learn that this woman meant as much to Johan as she did to Henrik. But what we learn is that Johan truly loved this woman, perhaps unlike his affection for any other woman in his life (certainly including Karin). He has never gotten over the death of this woman. He is a reprobate, he is incapable of rehabilitation, and he is an inveterate conniver and manipulator of others.
The major plot line in the film is really the relationship between Henrik and his talented and beautiful daughter Karin. Henrik, writing a critique of Bach’s cello suites, has been his daughter’s teacher for some time now, and they live together in the small cabin. Near the end of the film Karin finds a letter her mother wrote to Henrik a week before she died. She confides in Marianne. Her mother pleaded with Henrik to let Karin go. But what will Karin do? “If I abandon Henrik, he’ll die,” she admits. Marianne’s insight into this plot is simple. “This letter is what love is.” She realizes that Anna saw, she understood. She knew that Henrik had to let go of his obsession. How is Karin going to get out of her entrapment? Eventually, Karin makes her decision—and it is a climactic moment we have seen in other films, where the character caught in the middle between two powerful forces (in this case, father and grandfather) strikes out for a third way—her own way—to resolve her entrapment. Although this is a conventional resolution, still it is powerful dramatically.
7. Crash. Dir. Paul Haggis. A great film inspires one to think about a topic in a new way, portrays characters who are transformed even as they fight their transformations, and embraces the diversity of truths and self-deceptions that human beings are capable of. In the case of Crash I was moved by the director’s understanding of how much rage exists just under the surface in modern American life. People move through their days with politeness and reserve (or in our case, Minnesota Nice), and yet each of us carries around our own sets of trip wires, each of which is capable of triggering an explosion. And just in case you have noticed, we are living in a multicultural world. In this world, racism still holds sway, and we are reminded that racism is about the expression of one’s power over others one considers inferior. So early in the film, when the character Matt Dillon plays “pats down” a beautiful black woman after a simple traffic stop, he plays out his power in disgusting order to humiliate her husband and her. In this world everyone is judgmental of everyone else. There are no opinions; there are only harsh and irrevocable judgments. This seems to be an Old Testament World—an eye for an eye, humiliate others when you have been humiliated. What is the source of these responses? Everyone seems to be emotionally hurting in this film. Everyone seems to need therapy. They are not being touched by loving and sensitive hands, or they are turning away any attempts to be given solace and respite from their pain. This world is a world of cycles. It has always been this way. One bad turn deserves another. Trash in, trash out. One character says, “I’m angry all the time and I don’t know why.” No one has conversations. Everyone yells at everyone else. The merest tripping of the tiniest trip wire leads to an escalation of vulgar language and confrontations. Life’s a battle in this Darwinian world. Only the fittest survive. Do you recognize this world? Are you living in it?
Don Cheadle turns in another heart-stopping performance, as does Matt Dillon and Ryan Phillipi. These actors zero in on their characters and make us reckon with them. In one scene Dillon tells his fellow cop Philippi, “You have no idea of what you are capable of!” But even Dillon learns from his own preaching. Every story has a climactic scene; every story has a plot twist that is true to that person’s character. This film reminded me of Magnolia—but it held together better than that film. Instead of a rain of toads, we had a freak Los Angeles snowfall. The ending montage summed up stories that had already played themselves out—it was a simple and elegant way to tie up all of these interlocking stories. Some of these scenes were like set-pieces—perfect films-within-a-film. The scene where the upper-class black man is stopped by police after he fends off carjackers was exquisite torture to watch. I thought for sure something would go wrong in that scene. Another key scene seems to be headed in the direction of the unfortunate death of an innocent—and yet the scene works because what happens seems at once a miracle and a form of grace. And perhaps it was a form of grace, because of an earlier confrontation that made no sense and yet led to another store owner’s decision to sell something as a means of punishing the subject of that confrontation. Whatever the case, that climactic moment, and its later explanation, suggests a theme that stays with me long after I watch this film. How is it that human beings are capable of such devotion, loyalty, caring, and empathy on the one hand and yet are so often undermined by ego, anger, hatred, stereotyping, and xenophobia on the other hand? If this is an Old Testament World as portrayed in the film, then it requires a New Testament, a new way of making sense out of our human chaos. That snowfall at the end of the film hints at this theme. We need to stop yelling, start listening, stop judging, and start empathizing. We need to know more about our own hearts of darkness before we blame others for the ills of the world.
8. Downfall. Dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel. Germany, 2004. This film, the story of Hitler’s last days in his Berlin bunker (before he commits suicide) is extraordinary in several ways. First, it is an acting tour de force by Bruno Ganz. He plays Hitler with great skill. He captures the gentle, sensitive, and affirming man in many scenes, and yet he is capable of unleashing the malicious fury of Mein Fuhrer when he is confronted what he increasingly considers the incompetence of his generals and military planners. I do not think the film humanizes Hitler or creates a sympathetic view of Hitler as much as it renders his humanness in all of its contradictory dimensions. I could believe that this man was the Chancellor of the Nazi Party—a kind of God to his followers. I could believe it, and it made me weep as I thought of the implications of his mad pursuit for world conquest. There was an aura around this character—and Ganz captured it via posture, the inflection of his voice, and movement. At the same time I could understand why his generals and others in his close circle could not stop him when he needed to be stopped. He was a force—an unquestioned man. And what bile comes out of this man’s mouth. “No compassion for the weak,” “It’s immaterial that the people perish,” and “There are no civilians in wartime.” Other times he vilifies the Jews, and late in the film he tells Albert Speer he is proudest that he “confronted” the Jews and all the evil they represented.
But all of these three-dimensional characterizations would stand for nothing if it were not for the one stylistic approach that drives the meaning of this film. That technique is a basic aspect of editing—the point of view/reaction shot. That type of editing is a primary means of telling a story. The subject of the point gets the point of view shots; and the subject of the point of view gets the reaction shots. In other words, you see the world through the eyes of the subject, and you also observe the subject’s reaction to the world through reaction shots. Hitler seldom is the subject of the point of view/reaction shots. Instead, he is usually the object of others’ gazes. For instance, in several scenes we see Hitler meeting with the generals and other staff in a crowded room in the bunker. As he pores over maps of the positions of the various forces, Hitler plans strategy and refuses to admit that the Germans are nearing defeat. These scenes are all about the reactions of the men standing in a circle around Hitler. These men stand in awe of their leader and are immobilized by his insane ranting at what he considers their incompetence. The key to the technique here is that we identify with those who are reacting. We observe Hitler with the other characters and understand their feelings of helplessness and vulnerability.
If Hitler is not the subject of the point of view throughout the film, then through whose eyes is the story told? In the first scene we see 22-year-old Traudl Junge applying for a job as Hitler’s secretary in 1942. “A Munich girl,” he muses. He invites her into his office and begins dictation (as she types). But she cannot keep up with. The camera shows her reaction: her body begins to shake, and she is nearly in tears. He is going to reject her. When he realizes she cannot type as fast as he talks, he simply tells her they must start over again. She has the job—and she is ecstatic! Just think! Mein Fuhrer selected me as his personal secretary! As the film moves on, in several scenes we return to Traudl’s reaction to the unfolding drama of life in Hitler’s bunker. She becomes the anchor of the film’s multiple points of view as the film shifts to Hitler’s birthday, April, 1945, and the primary action unfolds in the bunker below the streets of Berlin. She begins the film and she ends the film.
Withholding point of view is equally important. The film would less effective if it showed the points of view in key scenes. For instance, when Hitler and Eva withdraw to kill themselves, the director cuts to a shot of the hallway, and then a shot is fired from inside their room. Cut to the staff members in another room—all sitting around the table. The moment has come. Now Hitler’s adjutant enters the room, and we see him respond to the scene—but we do not see his point of view. By not making Hitler visible in this scene, the director diminishes his impact. We do not have the image of the fallen leader engraved on our consciousnesses. But when the bodies are carried out, one at a time, the director does cut to two point of view shots—first of one of Goebbels’ children, and then of Hitler’s secretary. But what do they see? First Eva’s body, and then Hitler’s body, both with their heads covered. Later, however, Hitler’s secretary sneaks into the room, and from her point of view we see the bloodstain on the carpet and Eva’s purse on the sofa. Those shots, with her reaction, reinforce the approach this film takes to telling its story. The film is not about Hitler, but about the way people respond to Hitler during his last days. The film ends with a magnificent scene showing the way Traudl Junge escapes. She was the subject of Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (2002), and a brief clip from the film is shown at the end of this film. As much as she is the center of the point of view/reaction shot technique in the film, the problem with our response to this character is obvious. She was a devoted follower of Hitler, and in some respects she was enamored with the man. She was a true believer. Although she was by all means naïve, she was in no way blameless. And therein lies the rub as we respond to this film. The core of the film was the sane response to an insane context (life in Hitler’s bunker). How to explain the extent to which some of these Germans followed Hitler like lemmings heading over a cliff in the arctic? How to explain the concept an unflagging loyalty to Mein Fuhrer? Sometimes a film is like a sermon: it is meant to stimulate us, make us think twice about the way we judge things, and make us wonder if we can change our lives.
9. Grizzly Man. Dir. Werner Herzog. Timothy Treadwell spent 13 summers in an Alaskan wildlife refuge living among grizzly bears and filming them in their habitats. For part of the rest of the year he visited schools and showed them some of the films he created while he was living with the bears. Most of the footage showed Timothy in the foreground and one or more bears in the background, or Timothy standing in front of a beautiful mountain range and expounding upon the virtues of his work in the North, or Timothy petting a fox, or scenes in his camp. Usually the camera is sitting on a tripod, and in his films he cut out all the prep work, the moving to and fro to deal with the technical aspects of the camera. He also did not include in his films the multiple takes, sometimes as many as 15 takes, he made of a scene. He was an instinctive filmmaker, and I think Herzog relates to him at one primary level as filmmaker to filmmaker, and he appreciates the “ecstatic truths” (Herzog’s phrase) that Treadwell revealed through his filming. But there are a number of darker truths associated with this young man. To start, on his 13 th summer in the refuge, he brought along a young woman (for the second straight year), and at the end of the summer both Timothy and the young woman were eaten by a grizzly bear.
Everyone that watches this film will come away judging this young man. What did he think he was doing up there? Did he really appreciate the dangers he faced? Others have made wildlife films, and films about grizzly bears. But no one has camped right in the midst of the bears’ habitats and been a stone’s throw (and in some cases a few feet) away from these huge wild animals. When I was a boy, I was taught the difference between tame animals (cats and dogs), farm animals (cows and pigs and chickens) and wild animals (everything else). I was taught that nature can be cruel—not that nature is cruel. Viewers will enter the debate about this character, Timothy Treadwell, based to a large extent on how they define their own relationship to nature. Near the end of the film, Herzog says, “I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony but chaos, hostility, and disorder.” In a later scene, he shows some of Treadwell’s footage of a close-up (probably using the telephoto lens) of a bear’s face. As we see this immense head in the frame, we hear Herzog say, “In all the faces of the bears I saw in his footage, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.” I can identify—to some extent—with Herzog’s attitude here. The bears were in that third category of animals to me—that of the wild. And I was taught to respect the wild and to stay out of the way of those animals.
But Timothy Treadwell loved teddy bears as a child, and he grew up in a normal family on Long Island and got a diving scholarship to a private college. But there he began to drink—probably because of social obligations with his peer group—and he dropped out of college. He ended up in California, tried his hand at acting (he had a lovely shock of blonde hair), changed his last name to Treadwell, got nowhere with that acting dream, and tuned into the drug scene in a big way. After he overdosed once, and almost died, he had a kind of religious conversion, I suspect. He took on a new persona for a second time. He re-invented his identity and his roots and claimed (with his Long Island accent) to have been raised in Australia. And then he discovered the bears. That first summer must have set the hook for him. He was a novice. He had no idea what he was doing up there. He was camping out right in the middle of an Edenic locale and the bears did not eat him. So he became strong and self-confident, and as he admits in one of his films, he stopped drinking so that he could take care of the bears. He says, “And the miracle was the animals.” He viewed them paternalistically; he saw them as great big teddy bears. He loved them, he doted on them, and he vowed to be their protector (although the bears were already protected by inhabiting a wildlife sanctuary with tolerably low levels of poaching). In order to maintain this new identity, Timothy had to have an enemy—someone to push up against in order to prove—to himself and to the schoolchildren he made the films for—that he was really the bears’ protector.
But there is another film in this documentary, and that is Herzog’s own journey of discovery. As the filmmaker he finds a number of people to interview: the bush pilot that found the bears eating the two campers; the coroner, who recites his narrative of what he thinks happened during the fight; the helicopter pilot who says, “We hauled away four garbage bags of people out of that bear”; the curator of a museum who complains that he disrespected the bears by invading their territory; Jewel Palovak, who lived with Timothy for three years and organized the Grizzly People Foundation with him; another woman he stayed with at the beginning of his summer tours; and Timothy’s parents—filmed in an American Gothic two-shot in their Long Island living room. The most intense scene occurs when Herzog listens to the audio on a digital video tape that was in the camera the day the bear ate Timothy Treadwell and his companion. Why only the audio? The lens cap was never removed from the camera. We see Herzog sitting across from Jewel Palovak in her living room. He is bent over, his elbows on his knees, and the camera shows her face—responding to his facial expressions as he hears the screams of the two young people. And when Herzog asks her to stop the tape, he pauses, and he says, “You must never listen to this tape, Jewel.” Then she leans forward and takes his hands in hers, their eyes lock, and all a viewer can do is ponder the mysteries of the human heart—in this case, the mysteries of a young man’s need for finding affirmation of his own life in what he considered to be the natural world—as opposed to the cruel and indifferent world of society and men.
10. Munich. Dir. Steven Spielberg. This film works because it focuses on the moral dilemma being experienced by the main character, Avner (played by Eric Bana). Everything that happens in the film leads to one inexorable issue: how can Avner reconcile what he has done as a member of an elite squad of assassins formed to retaliate against Palestinian terrorists who murdered 11 members of the Israeli wrestling team at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. At the end of this film, I concluded that the entire operation was a monstrous waste of time. The hit squad kills only satisfies half of the hit list given to them. Only two of the members survive. Israel’s retaliation has led to a bloodbath of retaliation by Palestinian terrorists killing over 100 Israelis. So what was the point? In the larger scheme of things, what do governments accomplish by participating in the endless round of murders and retaliations and murders and revenge and murders and wars and on and on. The cycle is self-defeating. Avner is left, at the end of the film, suffering terribly from post-traumatic stress disorder, and yet he has survived with something in him still intact—and that is a sense of what home means to him. Like members of a team, the members of the hit squad thought of Israel as their homes—and they went about their murdering with the idea that they were to “win one for the home country, the home team.” At the end of the film Avner has moved to New York City and lives with his wife in Brooklyn and realizes that home is where his family is. Family is home. Home is family. And perhaps that is the problem—that governments do not understand how simple truths drive human beings and compel them to decide to step away from the one home team and hunker down with the other home team.
The somber and quiet scenes are essential to the whole because they provide a contrast to the adventure-action-suspense stuff. This combination of fast-moving and slow-moving scenes becomes a metaphor for the entire operation. It moves in fits and starts because it is half-baked from the get-go. First progress (one hit at a time) and then no progress—and we are as frustrated with this lack of flow as are the characters themselves. And in those quiet scenes the characters are able to be human beings—they talk about the context they find themselves in. They question their motives, they critique the mission, and they argue about the meaning of good and evil. Spielberg personalizes every hit. In one scene, for instance, Avner (stationed in apartment on the other side of their target), actually has a conversation with the intended victim moments before the bomb goes off. In a later scene Avner and a member of an elite Palestinian terrorist group have a long conversation about their opposing points of view. Later, Avner meets the young man again—but this time on the field of battle. In one of the most tautly-directed scenes in the film, the hit squad closes in for the kill of the number one Palestinian terrorist, and their attack is spoiled by a brilliant tactic by two CIA agents—who suddenly show up and pretend to be drunken Americans.
The climactic moment in the film is an extraordinary internalization of Avner’s emotional and psychological stress. One of the two scenes is the recreation of the climax of the 1972 kidnapping. In that scene we see the Israelis killed from the point of view of the Israelis themselves and the Palestinians who kidnapped them. We are on the airport tarmac. We are inside the helicopters when the shooting begins. All of this plays out against the scene of Avner responding to his nightmare. That second scene is about home again—that new definition of home that Avner has begun to grasp. Earlier he tells his wife, “I have no idea where I should be.” But in this scene he knows—at an emotional level. He is thinking about the future. He is becoming his own man. He is able to tell his case manager, “There is no peace at the end of this.” Like every good war film, this is an anti-war film. It is a film that questions the wisdom of governments. It is a film for the past and a film for the present. That last shot in the film is a final critique. There they stand—the twin towers—back in the 1970s—and you know what is being communicated by the filmic image. If this is how we are going to act (you can fill in the blank), then “there is no peace at the end of this.”
11. Caché (Hidden). Dir. Michael Haneke. ( France, Austria). Who can plumb the secrets of the human heart? As I watched this film, I kept thinking to myself, What is the main character really hiding? What is happening to this marriage? Who is sending these bizarre drawings and mysterious video tapes to this couple? The first thing the director accomplishes is to undermine what we think is the reliability of our perception of a video image. In order to do so, he utilizes the technique of point of view—but he withholds the subject of the POV shot. In essence, he will never reveal—directly—the person who must be the subject of the POV shot. In a way, we are trapped in the world of Halloween, the famous horror movie where the subject of the POV was revealed only in one of the last shots—and the last person we suspected. We in the West want that suspect revealed—unmasked—made accountable—punished. We want finality! We want an ending that resolves things. This film gives us none of that. It tantalizes us with possibilities. Is the family’s moody 12-year-old son behind these seeming threats? Is it someone from the main character’s past? The end of the film is a shot that plays out for a long duration (a cousin of the opening shot of the film). We search the screen for evidence—for answers—for proof—for a revelation. In one sense we obtain an answer, but it is diminished because it requires more than an image to unravel. But the director won’t give us more than the image.
So I am left with two of the last scenes in the film. The first shows the main character, dressed in his bathrobe, going to bed in the middle of the day. He methodically draws the drapes and shuts out all of the light. There’s a metaphor for hiding—and the meaning I took away from this film is that the character has hidden from the truth of a bad deed all of his life—and he is going to continue to hide from that meaning. Not to hide from it would unravel his very soul. So the next shot—perhaps his dream? It is another cousin to the tantalizing opening and closing shots of the film. It shows a drama unfolding some 40 years ago in the front yard of a French farmhouse. The more we watch the scene unfold, the more we realize that what we are seeing is a POV shot (remember the first shot)—only this time, we can all figure out who the subject of the POV shot is. We never get the reaction shot of the subject, of course.
This film has THE SCENE THAT NO ONE WILL EVER FORGET! What was most astonishing in that scene is that there we had a subject of the point of view, and there we had reactions shots of the subject. But the saddest thing of all is that that subject did not act—he only witnessed the moment. Why do these things happen? Why do people commit the most bizarre acts imaginable? How can we forgive those with such dreaded secrets of the human heart? We must remember the unbridled egocentric passions of children. But what happens when the adult cannot fathom the meaning of his actions as a child. What if it remains hidden from him throughout his life? Enough of this rambling—this is a spectacular film (although you may feel duly frustrated when you walk away from it if you need to have things too neatly resolved).
12. Mad Hot Ballroom. Dir. Marilyn Agrelo. This documentary portrays a process (how kids learn to dance the various ballroom dances and then how they prepare for and then compete in a New York City schools competition) and this documentary triumphs because we meet real people and fall in love with them. We meet the school principals, the dance instructors, and selected students studying ballroom dancing. The filmmaker chooses her subjects well, and she reveals her subjects beautifully. Start with the faces of the kids. They are expressive, curious, scared, bored, fearful, tentative, determined, focused. The camera loves their faces, and the filmmaker knows how to make use of this facility. This is all about socialization—how do you move from being a child to become an adult? Adults have to help you—that’s the nature of the business. You need good parents, you need dedicated and hard-working adult teachers and mentors, and what you get eventually is fully functioning well-developed and socially able young adults who repeat the cycle—if you’re lucky.
At first, the kids do not seem able to learn how to dance. Their awkwardness speaks volumes. But when they are good, they are beautiful. And kids love team sports—that’s one of the primary carrots in all of this. The teachers dangle the possibilities before the kids—and it works. After we get to know the kids in the various schools, the film takes a hard turn when it shows that now the teachers have to select only the best to represent their schools in the citywide competition. The more I saw the kids dance together, the more I saw beauty, grace, focus, and transformation of that young person. I was transfixed by the images in this film. Some of the teachers, a young man in one case, a woman who was also the principal in another case, were worthy of their own documentaries. They were engaging, creative, and dedicated people. I could identify with them easily. I wanted to see more and more of them.
As the process-part of the documentary moves forward (selection of teams to the beginning of competition to semifinals to finals), we follow our favorite school and the young couples working together, and each time we see a couple dance their dance, we are dazzled by their virtuosity. They are good at this! The camera always seems to be in the right place at the right time so that we get the best reaction shot or the best angle on the dancers. The finals are the payoff for all that came before. And they are worth waiting for. Reaction shots: perfect. Combinations of movement and song: perfect. Feelings of tension and dread: everywhere. Our team wins! Our team wins! There is nothing like that feeling. You have invested this short but intense period of time (called a film) in these people’s lives, and at the end you get your heart’s desires. Who can ask for anything more? This film was funny, touching, and indicative of the best in human beings.
13. Murderball. Dirs. Henry Allen Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro. Murderball is what quad rugby used to be called. The players are all quadriplegics with varying degrees of disability—all using specially designed wheelchairs. I loved this documentary because it took seriously these quadriplegic men as athletes and knew how to follow characters and reveal their idiosyncrasies and values. The film jumps right into the sports aspect of the film and shows the 2002 World Championships where Canada defeated the U.S. after the latter had won championships for something like eight straight years. Why did Canada win? Perhaps it was because Joe Soares, a middle-aged player, had been cut from the American team and then signed to coach the Canadians so that he could prove something to the American team! Whatever the case, early in the film it is obvious that character will trump action every time. We find out quickly about who Joe Soares is—and we do not like much of what we find out. The man is obsessed with quad rugby. He has a trophy wall in his house that would put most Olympic champions to shame. But he does not seem to have much room in his life for his 10-year-old son who does not play sports. He loves music. In one early scene, Joe says in an offhanded way, “I don’t know what you like.” Also early in the film the directors begin another subplot, this time the story of Keith, who 4 months ago became a quadriplegic when he was in a motocross accident. By introducing a character at the first stages of adapting to a disability, the filmmakers will be able to compare his personal growth with the status of the athletes playing quad rugby. Then the directors introduce Mark Zupan, an intelligent and articulate young man, a star of the American team, and I think the linchpin of this film. This athlete is an incredible spokesperson for his sport. He also has a tough-luck story about his disability. After a night of teenaged drinking, he crawled into the bed of his buddy’s truck; later his buddy, heavily intoxicated, came out of the bar and drove away. (The buddy, Igoe, claimed he did not see Joe in the truck.) Down the road Igoe lost control of the truck and it went off the road and landed in water. Mark survived by holding onto a branch in the water for several hours. That simple fact—about his determination to survive—connects to his intense passion to be the greatest quad rugby athlete he can be. His intensity and focus are extraordinary. This documentary needs a voice like his to remind us that we are watching a film about athletes who happen to have varying disabilities. And with the introduction of the buddy, the directors have introduced another plot line that viewers will want resolved by the end of the film.
What will become of the Joe Soares and son relationship? Will Soares coach the Canadians to victory at the 2004 Paralympics? Will Mark Zupan and the American team derail Joe’s juggernaut? Will Keith begin to adapt to his disability? Will Mark Zupan and his old buddy Igoe ever reconcile? One of the details covered early in the film was that these athletes have girlfriends and wives. Most have some level of sexual functionality, and a short section is devoted to answering the typical curious questions about whether these guys “can do it.” But then the film, after an update on Keith’s progress, heads straight back to the sports angle with the selection of the final teams for the Olympics—with one profound detour. And that is the news that Joe Soares suffered a serious heart attack and almost died. As he begins his recovery, we wonder how that major health scare will affect his future life? And we are bound to find out later in the film. Before the Paralympics, Team USA has to play Canada to determine their seeds for the major competition. Team USA wins this match, and at the ends of these scenes we see Joe Soares rushing home in order to get to his son’s concert. He makes it—just in time. And there begins Joe’s rehabilitation for the viewer. In the next scene Joe Zupan talks to some of the new quads at a hospital, and Keith is in the audience. In that scene Keith is able to sit in a quad rugby chair, and all he wants to do is hit someone. Of course, his therapist is not interested in this possibility (for all kinds of legal as well as health reasons). So Keith moves his chair close to Joe’s, and he simply dinks his chair against Joe’s chair 4-5 times. What a marvelous film moment. This young man is feeling a sense of hope. A former motocross racer, he can now see a way of becoming a competitor again. It’s in his blood. You can see it. And Joe can see it.
The climax focuses on the competitions at the Paralympics. Neither Canada nor the USA wins the gold medal! More important, we learn that Joe Soares is making room on his trophy wall for one of his son’s smaller trophies, earned by playing music. Any documentary as good as this one has to deliver us characters we can identify with (we don’t have to like them) and show us to what extent they are capable of changing. The image that will stay with me in this film is that of Mark Zupan talking to the newly disabled men at the hospital. That man is the star of the film.
14. Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Dir. Nick Park ( UK). As in the case of all great animated films, this one is for adults—but we let children see them, too. These claymation folks who delighted us with Chicken Run (2000) are back and working at the top of their craft. Wallace, the self-absorbed Yorkshireman and lover of Wensleydale cheese, is paired with his faithful dog Gromit—a self-assured, inventive, resourceful, and daring companion and leader. Without Gromit, Wallace would be boring. And yet without Wallace, Gromit would be unfulfilled. These two characters were featured in three short films— A Grand Day Out (1989), The Wrong Trousers (1993), and A Close Shave (1995). The opening scene (credits) uses a camera panning across the wall at a variety of family pictures. The idea of Wallace and Gromit is that we believe this dog and this man live together, that Wallace is always inventing gadgets, and that Gromit is always rescuing Wallace when the gadgets go awry. These companions have a real home life—including a bizarre and mechanical ritual for getting dressed and having breakfast.
In an early scene the two heroes track down and capture a number of nuisance rabbits that have been digging up neighbors’ gardens and devouring the vegetables. This film works because the animators utilize clever camera angles, nifty tracking shots, realistic point of view and reaction editing, fast-paced montages—and the list goes on. In other words, the film has the look and feel of live-action cinema. But these characters just happen to be formed from clay. Add to the mix the voice talents of Helena Bonham-Carter playing an over-the-top high-society dame, Lady Tottington, and Ralph Fiennes, playing an over-the-top stuffy gentleman, Victor Quartermaine, and you have great characters to play off one against the other. We laugh because we can see ourselves, and our own foibles, in these characters. But Nick Parks also tempers our laughter with ever present emotions of loyalty, devotion, love, steadfastness, and romance. These characters work also because they have their antecedents in the film genre of gothic horror stories—in this case, the stories of human beings who are changed into monsters under the full moon. I’m talking about were-wolves here! One of the stock characters in these kinds of movies (especially in the late 1940s and early 1950s) is the clergyman, who tries to calm the townspeople while at the same time becoming increasing panicked about the fate of everyone at the hands of these mysterious monsters. In this film the clergyman is an original character, and yet clearly based upon other men of the cloth in live-action were-wolf movies.
And as you might expect, the climactic scene would pour all sorts of energy into the mix—including a great chase scene between the evil dog (Victor’s companion) and our faithful Gromit. In essence, they become engaged in a dogfight, a là World War I biplanes, a là Snoopy vs. the Red Baron! And who will survive the chase? You know the answer to that one—and just getting there is more than half the fun. And then the funny lines: for example, “You can hop, but you can’t hide,” or “Run, rabbit! Run!” or “The bounce has gone from his bungee.” This film had great comedic characters, perfect comic timing, a screenplay that was well-paced and often ingenious, and a satisfying climax where the good characters are saved and the bad characters are humiliated. And more important, this film has its heart in the right place: all of us walk away thanking our lucky stars that Nick Park invented Wallace and Gromit—perfect partners in comedy.
15. Off the Map. Dir. Campbell Scott. (2003) . This film is told through the eyes of a girl. Her parents live off the map—that is, they live in a valley in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico, somewhere back in the Nixon era. They are latter-day hippies, if you will. Mom likes to garden au naturel. And you get the impression that Dad is a wonderful resourceful man that can handle living apart from the daily rush of life. But there’s only one problem. He is suffering from major depression, and he has been that way for several months. In an early scene the girl, Bo, has a brief flashback of a time when Dad was that resourceful and vital and loving and humorous father that taught her the values of life. But that man has been snuffed out by depression. So there you have it. Now add a first scene that begins with adult Bo going through some of her childhood treasures—and then you know the rest of the film is from her point of view and may or may not end with the frame technique rounding it off.
That’s enough for a story, right? But then you add one element to the story that makes all the difference. You add a mild-mannered accountant-type, a fellow that works for the local IRS office, who is sent out to this middle of nowhere to audit the tax returns of this unconventional family. Then you really have a story. Usually if the story is told from one person’s point of view let’s say the little girl in To Kill a Mockingbird, then that one person’s transformation (in this case—growing up) is enough to make your point. But in Off the Map we get a bonus—two people are transformed. And that—again—makes all the difference. Before the young man arrives everyone in the family, including a best friend (whose friendship seems based more on entropy than anything else) all focus on the major depression the father suffers. We need to see these scenes, as slow-moving as they are, because the person suffering depression is akin to the alcoholic family member. He is the 500-pound gorilla, and everyone in the family is watching carefully to get out of his way. In other words, this family is stuck, and they are making no headway against the father’s disease. The father is dead set against taking any medications, and he certainly won’t tell his problems to a doctor. Then the young man appears, like a deus ex machine, and the young girl is relieved, even delighted. Now the family can turn outward rather than inward—and there is hope. So the story unfolds with the young accountant-type, naturally, falling head over hills in love with this strange exotic woman. And stranger than fiction, the young man begins to paint with a set of paints brought to the house by the old friend—as a way of helping the father out of his depression. And the young man paints, and paints, and paints. And he settles in for almost a year with this family.
And then a mirage appears in the desert—you see it on the trailers for the film. But what you don’t see in the trailers is the follow-through of this bizarre and mysterious image. The mirage is more than a miracle; it is a gift of love—even though the source of that giving is naïve and unaware of the consequences of such a purchase. And it breaks the father’s gloom, and before long he breaks free of his depression and becomes the same old father that Bo loved to play with for most of her life. And there is one shot in this film that I will never forget as a film viewer. A man stands before the magical, transformative, New Mexico landscape one afternoon, and gazes outward at the hills, that roll on in deepening shades of blue and purple, like roiling waves of the sea all the way to the horizon. And he stands there, in one dissolve after another, until we see he has been rooted to the spot for hours, until the sun sets, and all of the colors of the foothills and mountains deepen to richer shades, and then after sunset the colors darken beyond the purples to various shades of gray. And still he stands there, as if he were a statue planted on the valley floor. I will never forget the impact of that shot—and the way it reveals how a filmmaker’s mind works. He knows he has to show you something using visual means. He really got this one right..
16. Dear Frankie. Dir. Shona Aurbach. ( UK). Right away I was interested in and committed to this small family unit: a single mother, a small boy, and a grouchy grandmother who lives with them. They arrive in a new town in the first scene, and we learn soon that this is not the first time they have moved? Where is Frankie’s father? The kid’s touchstones are his stamps (on letters from his Dad) and a map of the world showing where his father’s ship has been in port). Soon we learn that the mother, Lizzie, has been writing those letters, and each new address they move to she makes an arrangement with the post office to intercept Frankie’s letters to his Dad—and then she writes the letters and posts them with stamps she buys at a stamp shop so that the boy will believe he has received letters from diverse and romantic locales. Frankie is deaf, but with the help of a hearing aid (and lip reading) he is able to communicate.
You know what has to happen next: Frankie will learn that the Accra is going to be in port in a short time. So Frankie writes a loving letter to his father, and (thanks to the post office intermediary), Lizzie reads it. Now she faces her dark night of the soul. She confides in her mother, and the grandmother gives sage advice: “He needs flesh and blood.” Lizzie makes her decision: she dresses up to get a “date,” and she goes out. Frankie is shocked: Mom is going out! In a long montage sequence, she cruises the bars in the neighborhood and never is able to pop the question to any of the men. Finally, a co-worker spots her and comes to her aid. Lizzie confides in her—because she has no idea how she is not going to have to tell Frankie the truth about his father. But her co-worker saves the day: she knows someone who might do what Lizzie needs. This is a film about perfect moments: the domestic scenes showing this family of three in humble surroundings: the quiet interaction between Lizzie and Davey (the fellow who agrees to impersonate Frankie’s father); a scene showing Lizzie, her mom, and her co-worker squeezed into Lizzie’s couch and all sharing a drink; Frankie’s heartfelt hugging of his “father” after Davey gives him a book about the sea; Davey carrying Frankie, asleep in his arms, after a long day together; and especially the moment between Lizzie and Davey, standing outside the door to her apartment after a day spent with Frankie—and looking at each other with longing and yet hesitation—until they share a brief kiss, and the scene ends.
Along the way I kept thinking, this young mother and her mother have gone through a lot together. In one scene they share a whisky and Lizzie does her mother’s nails. He mother tells a story about her childhood—and I realized this was a scene about women as survivors. Later in the film we discover the extent of the danger they have survived—when we find out about Frankie’s real father. I was not ready for this plot development. In some ways the film shifts to an unexpected direction at the end. Lizzie deals with unfinished business. And much is required of Frankie as well, for he has to deal with his part of the unfinished business, too. And Davey? Late in the film Lizzie’s co-worker tells her the truth about her friend Davey. Her friend Davey is her brother Davey, and the co-worker must have believed that her brother, long hurting and lonely in the world, could benefit from a chance encounter with a strong woman like Lizzie. In a film like this things will work out—you believe that time will heal all wounds. You know that these characters have lives after the screen fades to black. You know that a reunion is coming, and someday a family of three will be a family of four.
17. Tsotsi. Dir. Gavin Hood. South Africa. The title is loosely translated as thug in the native language, and this film succeeds because it doesn’t flinch in its portrayal of a young man gone wrong. Within the first few scenes he stabs a robbery victim on the subway, and his life has changed forever. He murdered a man, and no matter what else happens to him in the film he cannot run from this essential truth: he is a murderer. And that means that all we can hope for, in a film like this one, is regeneration and forgiveness. We can expect that Tsotsi (his real name is Daniel) will escape punishment. The film is a tragedy, after all, and that means that nothing is as simple as it looks on the surface.
The look of rage in this actor’s eyes was his calling card, and early in the film—when one of his formerly tight-knit gang members wants out—Tsotsi explodes in rage at him and beats him severely. This victim, Boston, had been one of his closest associates. Now Tsotsi is estranged even from him. With these horrible scenes behind us, we need—and I mean desperately need—some context on this character if we are ever going to understand him. That context comes with shots of the child Tsotsi running away, and then a brief scene of him sleeping in one of many large culverts stacked in a field. The camera then cuts to show each culvert occupied by a different child or children in the rain—each one of them homeless and desperate for shelter. The third key scene is another example of Tsotsi’s rage. He waits outside a middle-class gated home not far from the townships, and he steals a woman’s car, shoots her when she tries to stop him, and drives the car away. Of course, he crashes the car, and then he discovers something that will trigger the moral turning point in his life; he discovers the woman still had her baby in the backseat of the car. Now what? Does he leave the child behind? Does he take the child? He takes the child. Before dawn the car has been stripped by other thugs to salvage parts, and now Tsotsi has a new problem. What to do with the child? Later, after leaving the child in his metal container-as-home, Tsotsi encounters a disabled man often seen begging at the exit to the subway. But this time Tsotsi follows the man and robs him. In this tense scene we think—for a moment—that he is going to murder the disabled man. His relationship to this old man is one of the strands of the plot concerning the young man’s regeneration. But at this point Tsotsi does not know where he is headed in terms of restoring a balance to his soul.
Now what to do with the child? He breaks into a young woman’s house because that young woman is nursing her child. And he wants her to nurse the baby, too, because he does know how to take care of it. Soon we begin to realize that he wants the child because he needs the child. “He’s mine,” he says. As he watches the mother care for this baby, suddenly Tsotsi is transported back to his own mother’s smile as she looked at him when he was a child. Soon we learn that his mother died from AIDS. His father was an abusive drunk, and Tsotsi ran away at the age of 9 or 10. Images of home can be so influential in a film like this. Here is a runaway boy, homeless, in search of a new family (finding it by becoming a thug), and now starting over his search for family.
Under the baby’s influence, and the influence of the young mother, Tsotsi begins to change, and he even asks Boston to move in with him. Furthermore, he wants Boston to take the teacher’s examination; but he will need money for that. And so Tsotsi decides to return to the home where he stole the baby and rob the father. In this climactic scene, the unexpected happens—and compared to the senseless violence of the early robbery scene, the violence in this scene reveals a kind of poetic justice. By this time in the film we have come to understand, empathize with, and even root for this young man. But always there is that dull thought in the backs of our minds—he cannot return to the real world anymore. He is forever estranged from society. He must pay for his actions. And so he takes the baby back to the people he stole it from. There he is confronted by the police (who surround him with guns drawn), he is confronted by the father (who was almost shot in the robbery scene), and he is confronted by the child’s mother—now in a wheelchair after being shot by Tsotsi. Everyone pleads with him to hand over the baby as he stands in the middle of the road. This climax is unforgettable, believable, and offers the only resolution that makes sense. This film lingers in the memory afterwards because it offers an honest appraisal of poverty and lost hope.
18. Paradise Now. Dir. Hany Abu-Assad. France. This film tells the story of two Palestinian friends who are working as mechanics and decide to become suicide bombers. The film does not waste much time getting to the drama. In an early scene one of the bombers makes his prepared statement on video. Said listens as Khalid makes his statement. We can see in his reaction shots that he is uncertain about his decision. We did have an early scene showing Said with a potential love interest. Oddly enough, the videographer tells Khalid he has to read his statement again. The camera was not working right. So here we go again. We wonder what it means that Khalid has to read the statement twice—what does that reveal about his commitment to the cause? Later, we realize that perhaps he lacked the commitment he was hiding with his bravado. Then comes the ritual cleansings, the communion dinner. Then the political leader shows up and says all the right things. A concern creeps in. Are these alienated young men simply pawns in the hands of the political operatives who are waging war against Israel? Note well: the young men’s belts holding the explosives cannot be removed by the young men; any tampering will lead to an explosion. In effect, they become Kamikaze pilots—heading for a one-way mission. The instructions never seem to end. The idea planted in their minds: you are in control. The reality: the political operatives are in control. When in doubt, “Just leave it to God.” Said asks his friend, “Are we doing the right thing?”
They set off to the border and the mission goes bad. They are almost captured by the Israelis. Khalid returns, but Said does not return. In not returning, he is declared a threat to the insurgency. Perhaps he will tell the Israelis of the operation. Whatever the case, he is expendable. He does not really matter. He is lost ordnance. Now what are some of the keys of a great film? You have to see the main character in scenes where he is alone. You need to understand a character by watching him at his most authentic—when he is by himself—and thus not acting in a way to please someone else or acting in a way to deceive someone else. And Said gets the scenes where he is alone. Khalid does not get them. So Said is our main character.
Then we learn that Said’s father was a collaborator. He was shot by the Palestinians, and his family was shunned. All this when Said was ten. And add to this that Said’s love interest is a woman whose father was a famous martyr—someone who died at the hands of the Israelis fighting for the Palestinian cause. Oh, yes—blood is thicker than water. And as much as we would like to see Said’s love for this woman resolve his situation, we have to yield to a larger reality. Now to the climax. Will a young man blow himself up because he believes in the honor and justice of the Palestinian cause? Or will there be a deeper reason that motivates him—uniquely motivates him to commit that action? And then you watch for the scene of a character alone—and this time you say to yourself, now I see that character in a different light, and I know that character has changed. Add to all of this a great scene where a slow tracking shot is used to draw us into the intensity of a character’s dialogue, and then add to that a great ending scene where you watch a character in the act of deciding something so frightful, so unimaginable, that you hold your breath as the audience holds its collective breath—and then the screen goes white, and you are left with the question ringing in your ears that only you can answer for yourself.
19. Nobody Knows. Dir. Kore-eda Hirokazu. Japan. This film tells the story of one Japanese family and the tragedy that occurs in their lives. The first scene begins with a mother and her 12-year-old son standing on the doorway of an apartment building. They and introduce themselves to the landlord. The mother says that the father is working overseas. They move in, and they make sure that the movers do not lift two of the larger suitcases. They lug the suitcases upstairs, and two small children, a small boy and girl clamber out of them. Later, the family heads downtown, and there they find the fourth child, 10-year-old Kyoko, waiting for them. There you have the family of four. And because the mother appears with only one child—probably to qualify for the apartment—she must not reveal that she has another three children. That means that only she and her older son can leave the apartment. The other children are forced to stay in the apartment and while their time away reading or playing. They have to keep out of sight. The mother is actually the fifth child. She almost always gets down on the floor with the children, and she always brings presents when she returns. That’s the problem for this family. Her returns are preceded by her departures. Twice in the film she leaves and returns. Bu the third time she leaves and does not return. The mother is a dysfunctional adult, and she has never matured beyond an egocentric teenager’s point of view. In one scene, she tells her son and confidante, Akira, “Am I not allowed to be happy?” Strange thing to say when she has forfeited her role as mother by being irresponsible and seeking only self-gratification. Akira is the main character of the film, and he is shown in the first scene of the film, wearing a dirty T-shirt, and sitting on a train. He looks numb and defeated. The corner of a large pink suitcase can be seen on the edge of the frame. Film critic’s rule of thumb: If you can’t figure out what the first scene means—and it appears out of order in the chronology of the narrative—then assume you will see that scene again at the end of the film.
Akira is compelled to become an adult at the age of 12. He shops, cooks, keeps the finances, and generally is the head of the family. But asking a 12-year-old to take on those roles is the definition of abuse. But somehow he figures out how to keep the family afloat. He even visits his father and a former boyfriend of his mother’s, probably the father of Yuki. Eventually, after the mother’s third departure, the lives of the children begin to spiral downward. Money becomes tight, and when Christmas comes, and Mother does not return, Akira does the best he can to play the role of Santa. In a later scene, on Yuki’s birthday, Akira does the unthinkable: he takes his sister out of the apartment and he takes her for a tour of the city. They have a lovely time, and she is mesmerized by the elevated train that winds above them. He tells her that the train goes to the airport; someday he will take her for a ride on that train. Afterwards, the pressure of Akira’s role increases, and suddenly he finds two or three boys to play with. They spend the day together, doing normal boy things, having a great time, and Akira even invites them to visit his apartment. But it obvious they do not really care for him; and later they dump him. They complain about the odor in the apartment. As time goes on more and more garbage accumulates in the apartment. Akira makes two personal contacts during this period of abandonment. He befriends a store clerk, an older girl who saves him from a shoplifting charge earlier in the film. She is kind to him, and yet when she suggests he contact child welfare, he refuses to do so. He also befriends a secretive young girl, about his age; both seem to understand the desperation in the life of the other.
Despite the ongoing feeling of desperation and impending doom, there are happy moments in the film. Akira begins to sneak the children out of the apartment during the day. When their water and electricity is turned off, they fetch water from a park, and they even do their laundry there. No one bothers them. They find a plant growing out of a crack in the concrete (a metaphor for this family?) and they pluck the seeds and plant them and have a garden on their tiny balcony. Akira begins to get leftover food from restaurants. Late in the film, he is shown hanging around the school ground (wishing he could go to school?), and a baseball coach spots him and calls him over because he needs a ninth player. Suddenly Akira is playing in the outfield and he is wearing a baseball glove and he has never been a happier boy. You know what happens next. We know that the world cannot bear too much happiness. At the high point of a film something has to occur that will balance the joys and despairs. And when the crisis comes, Akira’s new-found girlfriend returns after an absence to help him resolve what needs to be resolved. In the last scene of the film, we see before us the nucleus of a new family, with Akira and his girl friend at the head, and we believe there is hope for them now.
20. Millions. Dir. Danny Boyle ( UK, 2004). The key to this film’s effectiveness is that the little boy tells the story as only a little boy could—with absolute honesty, naivete, and consistency of values. You can trust kids to speak the heart’s truth on any number of concerns. There is great energy in the early section of the film, which focuses on young Damien’s obsession with the saints of the church and the family’s new move after their mother dies. The child actor is brilliant in this role, and his freckled face and small frame are a perfect complement to his insistent optimism and belief in God. He is the good little boy of children’s fables. The director adds an offbeat and fast-paced cinematic style that also complements the child’s storytelling. In the first few scenes of the film the boy and his older brother visit a construction site and they imagine their Dad’s new house being built—and we see the house constructed digitally as in a video game. Later, Damien takes some of the larger boxes used in their move and constructs his own house next to the railroad tracks. Inside, he sits in the dark and imagines conversations with saints and holds on tight when the train roars past and the wind from the train rocks his little cardboard house. Damien feels like he’s on amusement park ride. Everything makes sense when you look at it from the boy’s point of view. His mother died recently, and he is grieving in his own way. He has turned his attention to envisioning the saints, but one question is always on his mind when he talks to the saints: “Have you see St. Maureen up there?” His mother’s name was Maureen, and he wants confirmation that she is all right in her life after life. Damien is working toward closure in his own way. His older brother is angrier, partly because he had a longer relationship with their mother, and he even recalls times when his mother nursed Damien. The older brother’s grief is turned more toward rage than the younger brother’s grief.
The film wastes little time getting to the big plot point. One day a bag of money, tossed out of a passing train, bounces along the ground and drops unannounced on top of Damien’s cardboard home—while Damien is inside. When he crawls up to investigate this phenomenon, he spies a large duffel bag crammed with Pounds Sterling. Of course, she shares the haul with his older brother, who immediately responds with an older brother’s zeal for egomania. The older brother becomes Big Man on Campus (easing his transition to the new school) and Damien loses control of his big find. To Damien, the money was a miracle, dropped into his lap from God. Like the saints he imagines come to life, he wants to help the poor. Before long—you guessed it—one of the bad guys (one of the robbers who stole numerous bags of cash) shows up to reclaim their one lost bag.
There are a few slow points in the film—as other plot points unfold—but I waded through this material because sooner or late the film returned to the boy’s story, from his point of view (including a one-to-one encounter with the bad guy), and a great scene where the boy follows his own Star of Bethlehem to make pilgrimage to an important place in his past. That section of the film was magical and pure. When the boy was alone on the screen, or when the boy was the center of the scene, the film was perfect. When the camera is on the boy, he lights up the screen. At the end of the film more magic results in Damien’s getting the advice he needed to hear, and now he enfolds his older brother’s experience into his own settling of his heart’s pain, and then comes an ending scene that is pure because it again is a child’s point of view, a fantasy of saintliness that simplifies all that is complicated in the world—as only a child could. As the boy says, “This is my story, and I’m going to end it the way I want to.”
Additional highly recommended films, in alphabetical order:
An Alzheimer’s Affair (De Zaak Alzheimers). ( Belgium, 2003). What happens when an aging hit man begins to experience bouts if recurring dementia?
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The C. S. Lewis story of children who find themselves recruited to do battle against evil.
Good Night and Good Luck . The story of Edward R. Murrow’s confrontation of Senator Eugene McCarthy in the early 1950s—told from the perspective of the news unit of CBS and producer Fred Friendly.
Howl’s Moving Castle. ( Japan). An animated story of a confused rock-star-like wizard in a castle in the Scottish highlands and the young woman (turned into an old woman by a witch) who saves the day.
The Interpreter. Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman in an sophisticated thriller at the UN.
Jarhead. The first Iraqi war from the point of view of a platoon of Marines—jarheads—and their frustration at spending most of the war waiting for something to happen.
Kung Fu Hustle. With great comic inventiveness we follow the redemption of an ordinary guy who becomes a great kung fu hero—all in the context of marvelously choreographed scenes of synchronized dancing and stylized violence.
March of the Penguins. Narrated by Morgan Freeman, and filmed by French documentarists, we learn about the extraordinary mating habits of Emperor penguins in the Antarctic.
Nanny McPhee. Emma Thompson triumphs as a cunning and magical Nanny who brings happiness to a family.
The New World. Terrence Malick’s meditative and visually lush rendition of the Pocahantas and John Smith story.
The Ninth Day ( Luxembourg, 2004). Based on the true story of a Catholic priest who will cooperate with the Nazis. The film is divided into nine parts, each one day long. On the ninth day. . .
Separate Lies ( UK). A domestic suspense story based upon the secrets kept about a car accident that unravel a marriage.
The Shape of the Moon ( Netherlands). A documentary that explores the perils of a Christian family living in the Muslim world of Indonesia.
Shopgirl. Steve Martin’s story of an older man’s love affair with a shopgirl.
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2003). A documentary about a man who cares for a flock of once-tame parrots that have taken up residence on Nob Hill in San Francisco.
Copyright 2005, Robert E. Yahnke.
Copyright 2005, Robert E. Yahnke.