Picks: Best Films
After Life. Japan. Dir. Kore-eda Hirokazu. Quite simply, a magical, transformative film experience. What happens when one dies? The film depicts the first station the dead person arrives at. In what appears to be an abandoned schoolhouse, the newly dead (many old, but some young and some middle-aged) sit across a table from a young person who notifies them, officially, that they are dead. The counselor then tells the dead person he or she has two days to choose one memory from his or her life. Then at the end of the week the staff will film that one one memory, and the dead will see the short films on their last day at this station. There is much more to this film than this brief summary can suggest. Who are the counselors? Why are they chosen? Who is their sensei? Why can't an old man of 77 think of a memory? Why does a young man of 21 refuse to select a memory? What is the basis of the relationship between two counselors, one a young man and one a young woman? Why do the memories have to be filmed by the staff? What happens when the dead person views his or her filmed memory? The first half of the film is practically perfect. The composition and editing is elegant and purposeful. Viewers are drawn to the stories of the characters. The second half of the film drags a bit, especially during scenes of the staff filming the memories. But here is a film that will require re-viewing and reconsideration.
American Beauty. USA. Dir. Sam Mendes. Finally, an American film that takes my breath away. I was reminded of Mike Nichols' The Graduate (1965), Robert Redford's Ordinary People (1980) and Ang Lee's The Ice-Storm (1997) because this film, like them, was a critique of the anxiety-ridden white upper class in suburbia. This film is a gem. Some of the ingredients included the voice-over narration by the main character, the father, played by Kevin Spacey, whose transformation was both radical and believable; the acting of Annette Bening (in many ways reminiscent of a sexier, more kinetic version of Mary Tyler Moore (from Ordinary People)--her pep talk-to-herself scenes were incredible; a creepy performance by a young actor who plays the new next-door neighbor (who is obsessed with videotaping images of beauty--as he defines them); a solid performance by Chris Cooper, who plays a rough-and-tough ex-Marine and the boy's father. There is much to enjoy, and reflect upon, in this film. I want to see it again and think about it more. There were shades of Kubrick's Lolita in the relationship between the father and his daughter's high school girl friend. And yet the resolution of their relationship was unexpected and one of the most satisfying moments of the film. I was impressed with Sam Mendes' direction (he's a Brit), his first time effort, and a remarkable one at that. Fantasies were so much a part of the characterizations. When the father becomes obsessed with the young girl, the images of red rose petals falling from the ceiling were perfect--they captured the power of sexual fantasies and yet made me sympathetic and understanding of the father's conflicts. This was a great motion picture.
Anywhere but Here. USA. Dir. Wayne Wang. I have a weakness for Wayne Wang. This semester I taught his film Smoke (1995) and the students loved it. They got it, they responded to the characters, the themes. It was a pleasure to see their enthusiasm played out in their responses in class and in their written work. I went to see Anywhere but Here primarily because it was directed by Wang. Even though Susan Sarandon was the primary actor in the film, her name alone would not draw me to the film. She is a fine actor, and her work in last year's The Stepmom was one of the redeeming features of an average screenplay. But in this film the chemistry between Natalie Portman and Susan Sarandon was impressive. I felt as if I was being introduced to a new force in acting as I watched the young actor at work. Her face was a landscape of changing moods. Her expressions surprised me, delighted me, and challenged me--to think about her character's change and growth in the face of her oppressive and failed mother. Sarandon plays a dowdy middle-aged mom who is definitely fashion-challenged. She dresses like a woman in delayed adolescence. She is uncouth, undependable, mouthy, undisciplined, inconsistent, fearful of stability, and a lousy mother. Her daughter is the mother-figure in the relationship, and near the end of the film, in a perfect moment of clarity, she tells her mother, "I don't want the job anymore." Perhaps the film tries to stretch out the relationship too far (the girl ages from 13 or 14 to 18). But that's a minor complaint. On the whole, the screenplay captured their interactions and the dialogue a mother-daughter would use, and the scene construction (by Wang) always delivered the emotions needed. I was delighted with the pacing and the revelation of character. By the way, this has to be a candidate for one of the worst film titles of the year. I suspect it refers to the daughter's impatience living with her mother in L.A. or anywhere else her mother lives (Anywhere but here)--but the real problem with the title is that it lacks instant recall (compare it to The Insider, The Limey, Limbo, Boys Don't Cry, American Beauty, Cookie's Fortune).
Boys Don't Cry. USA. Dir. Kimberly Peirce. This film is timely, tense, even unnerving. A film like this reminds me of the films from the 1970s, films that packed a visceral punch. This film will leave you thinking about it for hours afterwards, for days afterwards. I use The Crying Game in my introductory film course, and I saw Boys Don't Cry the weekend before I began showing the former film. The same week I saw Bringing Out the Dead I was using Scorsese's Taxi Driver in class. It's been that kind of semester--an emotional roller-coaster--and these films get at what is important to young people today: alienation, identity, love, intimacy, sexuality, relationships, self-expression, finding oneself. The film is true to the character of Teena Brandon (or first name Brandon when she becomes a man). But if I'm comfortable referring to The Crying Game's Dil as she, then I'm equally comfortable referring to Brandon as he. These two films have a great deal in common, because they require a second person to complete the story--that person in relationship with the she or he. Boys Don't Cry offers that person in Lana, a young woman who falls in love at first sight and remains loyal to the man she loves throughout the rest of the film. It's not surprising that the film ends with unrelenting brutality and violence; the people in Brandon's world are committed to dysfunction and despair. Caught in that web is a young transgender man who constantly makes poor decisions, keeps pushing against society's will, and yet is sensitive and endearing as a character. The overall package of this film is impressive--the director's sense of style, the lighting, the mood that is struck as the story unfolds. I think Boys Don't Cry is our introduction to a director of substance. I will watch for her next film.
Castle, The. Australia. Dir. Rob Sitch. This film is a high-energy comedy with a bite. The characters are caricatures, and yet they are endearing because we can identify with them. In fact, some of us may recognize our own families or friends in these characterizations. In the film the Kerrigan family lives next to an airport and under electrical towers, and yet they consider their home a perfect place to live and enjoy life together. The father Darrell is the head of the family in more ways than one. He is optimistic, cheerful, devoted and always supportive of his wife and sons, and capable of enjoying life to the fullest. He is always involved in new projects, and life could not be better. In a strange way this is an Ozzie and Harriet household. W hen an inspector arrives to tell them their house is going to be torn down to expand the runway, the father refuses to cave in to pressure. He is determined to fight the government. Eventually, he finds an unusual ally, a well-bred solicitor who takes his case gratis and wins the day. The film works because everyone in this family loves each other, and when the old solicitor enters the picture he finds in the father a mate, someone to go fishing with or spin tall tales with--something he lacked in his previous cultured, affected lifestyle. All of these ideas, of course, are cast within the context of broad comedy and satire. The film is told from the point of view of the youngest of the four children in the family. Dale is simple, innocent, and vulnerable. The screenwriter's choice of Dale as storyteller provides a consistent naivete and acceptance of life that undergirds all of the film. The film is reminiscent of last year's British treat, The Full Monty.
Election. USA. Dir. Alexander Payne. A surprise hit, one of those films I enjoyed from the inventive first image--of a noisy sprinkler head on a high school athletic field. Mathew Broderick was perfect for the role of a high school teacher who has begun an emotional and moral drift in early middle age. Reese Witherspoon continues to impress--this time as the quintessential social climber who is determined to win election to the high school council. She catches the perfect pitch of aspiration, a happy-smile face, and then desperation when she feels her goals slipping away from her. Payne's earlier Citizen Ruth was another fine effort, and with this film I am determined to follow his work.
The End of the Affair. England. Dir. Neil Jordan. I was overwhelmed with the simplicity and directness of this film. It seemed to ring true to Graham Greene's novel. The use of extensive voice-over was an excellent means of telling the story. The use of complicated flashbacks (from two complementary points of view) also layered the film beautifully. This was a subtle work of art, suitable for adult audiences or filmgoers who are unafraid of slow-moving yet complex stories. I remember the rain, the English umbrellas, the bowler hat, the perfect sex, the obsession, the moment of clarity and faith that alters the direction of an affair. Here is a film that moves slowly, inexorably, clearly to its destination. The hand of the director is everpersent and yet not invasive. The acting is richly layered, textured, deliberate. The scene I will never forget: a woman on her knees at bedside. She is praying. We see the open door behind her. We know that doorway any moment will be filled with her lover. And we will know something that will astound us and move us. That's filmmaking, folks. That's why I go to movies. I was astounded, moved, confounded, and appalled--and yet in all respects I understood the complex of reasons behind human interaction. I could understand all three characters and not have to judge them simplistically. I saw this film the day after viewing Magnolia, and for me it was testimony to the power of faith in ways that were unsubtle and breast-beating in the Anderson film.
Felicia's Journey. Dir. Atom Egoyan. Last year Egoyan made The Sweet Hereafter, a somber tale of how people respond to unexpected losses. In that film a school bus filled with children skids off the road and lands on a frozen pond down an incline. Suddenly the weight of the bus breaks through the ice and it slips under water. Several students drown, and the film focuses on the effects of the loss on the families. Egoyan seems interested in the theme of the "lost children" and in those who try to save the lost children. In Felicia's Journey he adapts a novel by William Trevor, one of the great 20th Century British novelists and short story writers, about a young Irish woman who journeys to England to find her lover and tell him she is pregnant. She becomes one of the "lost girls" who are found by a rotund, mild-mannered, squeamish control freak played by Bob Hoskins, whose acting in this film is as good or better as the acting of Kevin Spacey. Both should be nominated at the Academy Awards. Mr. Hilditch is a killer, but the only evidence we have for it are the video tapes (taken with a hidden camera in his tiny automobile) he carefully labels and stores and then replays at sumptious dinners he prepares. Mr. Hilditch worships at the shrine of his dead mother, who once hosted a cooking show (a la Julia Child), and whose perfectionism as a cook passed on to her son and corrupted him emotionally and psychologically. Now he repeats her recipes endlessly and irrationally, and to soothe his loneliness he befriends vulnerable young women and eventually kills them. But this film is not another Psycho, and the director is less interested in shock than he is in compassion. I remember most in this film the way style was married to content. First there is a relentless tracking camera in the majority of shots. The restlessness of the camera is a constant reminder of the instability at the core of the main character--as well as the young woman he draws into her web. Second, the shallow depth of field in this film (with background objects very much out of focus) focused our eyes on the foreground plane, occupied by the main characters, and emphasized the dreamlike nature of the narrative. That shallow depth of field also focused our attention on the characters and their reactions to the events around them. Third, Egoyan used exceptional symbolic images throughout the film to underscore the prevailing mood of impending violence and doom. Hilditch's oppression, at the hands of his mother, has made him a tiny man, a miniature human being (in an emotional sense), oppressed by everythying around him. Egoyan shows this by having Hilditch drive a minicar, a tiny car for a tiny man. This tiny car is often shown in shots of huge towering structures (cooling towers, metal frameworks). Hilditch is visually overwhelmed by these images; at the same time, viewers feel that impending doom that will spring up sooner or later. Hilditch will strike. We know that, but we just don't know when. Fourth, the use of sound in this film is remarkably creative. I was aurally overwhelmed by the sound track--not just the music, but the use of ambient sounds, and also sound effects to add drama to the slightest of moments. The pounding sounds of machine tools and dies in Mr. Hilditch's factory (where he was chef) were a constant symbol of the relentless pounding in Mr. Hilditch's mind--his desire to strike back against his mother's oppression. The many flashbacks were often cued by a tolling bell (sound leading the viewer to the visual). Fifth, the use of colors was an important means of telling the story. The lush green of rural Ireland (Felicia's home) was contrasted to the dull hues of the Birmingham mega-industrial-comple and Mr. Hilditch's the factory. There is more than this to talk about--but I think you have some idea of the brilliance of this adaptation and its direction. Atom Egoyan has emerged, with this film, as one of the great directors working today.
Insider, The. USA. Dir. Michael Mann. Don't expect this film to be more about the insider than it is about the "insider's producer" at CBS-TV's 60 Minutes. Why? Because the producer is played by Al Pacino, and the Insider is played by Russell (thank you, Vickie) Crowe. The latter made his impact as an actor felt with last year's L.A. Confidential. In this play he plays an uptight, nervous, and introspective scientist who betrays a confidentiality agreement with his tobacco company when he realizes he has no other recourse. We never get "inside" the "Insider." He is a private individual, and his secret self is not easily revealed. The clunkiest part of the film consists of the breakdown of his conventional marriage. When his wife is gone, the film takes on more energy. Of course, the energy of that part of the film is fueled by the "wooing" of the Insider by the 60 Minutes producer, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino). A week after I saw the film I watched part of an excellent documentary on the 60 Minutes operation (focusing on Don Hewitt). When Lowell Bergman was interviewed, my initial response was, "He's nothing like Al Pacino." Of course, if Al Pacino were more like Lowell Bergman, then we would not have this film. Pacino brings an intensity, arrogance, and single-minded intensity to this role. He is nothing short of an American Treasure. The film seemed longish in parts, and sometimes the editing strategy seemed gratuitously slick and artsy, but there sufficient examples of anxious moments, tense stand-offs, and electric moments between the two main characters to make this a great film. Two other points. One compositional strategy was to show a character in the foreground and then one far in the background--as if to link the fates of the two and to show the intensity of their interaction. Another theme was the omnipresence of communication aids in this digital age--a fax machine initiated Bergman's interaction with the Insider, and the film includes an unforgettable cell phone call from the Caribbean. Communications are subtle, intense, complex, and problematic in this digital age. The film offers these themes and more.
King of Masks, The. China. Dir. Lu Tianming. A perfect film in the melodramatic mode. The story has all the requisite twists and turns--an old man (a street performer and king of masks) wants a male child he can teach his art. When he finds a boy, finally, the "boy" is revealed to be a girl. He rejects her until she finally--and vividly--demonstrates her love for the old man. Then he takes her to his heart and teaches her his art--in violation of everything he has come to believe in this male-dominated culture. This film has a classic screenplay, wonderful acting (the old man's expressive face is beautiful to watch), and a supporting player (a man who plays the role of the "living bodhisattva") adds to the action. The scenes of classic Chinese opera--showing the latter character in his role as the "living bodhisattva" gave me a clearer understanding of this aspect of Mahayana Buddhism than my former reading in textbooks about Buddhism. Keep in mind that the film functions best as melodrama--the characters overcome great odds, their love for each other is tested, and eventually they survive and come to love each other fully. That's the formula--but it's perfectly delineated in this film.
Limbo. USA. Dir. John Sayles. I've followed Sayles' work since Return of the Secaucus 7, The Secret of Roan Inish, Lone Star, and last year's Men With Guns. Sayles is great with character development and the subtleties of human interaction--especially between his main characters. Limbo gets off to a slow start, stumbles with plotting and characterization in the early scenes, and then takes off when the relationship between the main characters is forged. I admired the way Sayles wrote the scenes of the family trapped on the isolated Alaskan Island. He played off the young woman's crisis neatly against the anxieties of the two adults. The ending of the film was the number one topic of discussion by the audience. Are they going to be rescued? Are they going to be killed? Sayles doesn't follow the Hollywood formula--in any of his films--and I appreciate his integrity even more so because of his commitment to his characters. I could accept his ending, and yet I yearned for more information, for more closure at the same time. Upon reflection, I felt closure occurred before the film's ending because the three stranded individuals were transformed into a cohesive family unit. In fact, the last image of the three is as a unit, all gathered on the beach and linked together as a family. I lived with his characters in that second half of the film, and that experience made the film-viewing experience worthwhile. Vanessa Matinez, who plays the daughter, deserves an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. Scenes of her reading from a lost diary are charged with the intensity of her acting. In a strange way, this was a film for young adolescents--just as The Secret of Roan Inish was a film for young children. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio also deserves a nomination for best actor. And she can sing! Haskell Wexler's cinematography, particularly in the interior cabin scenes late in the film, contribute immensely to the overall effect. This is Sayles' best work since Lone Star.
Limey,The. Dir. Steven Soderbergh. USA. Quite simply, one of the best films I have seen this year. I was on the edge of my seat through most of the film. At other times I simply responded with, "Wow! Oh, My! Fantastic!" This film set its sights on the redemption of one human being, laid out his story, put him in motion, and reached that climactic, transcendent moment in which a character is healed and made whole again--right before our eyes. I loved the style of this film. First was the cutting style--incredible jump cuts, and then cuts between two scenes that stitched together dialogue (begun in one and ended in the other). For a few minutes I found this cutting style disorienting--but before long I began to relish it, to luxuriate in it, and most important, to accept it as a way of getting at the character's inner world. The film was filled with uninflected shots--each cut to a shot that gave me an emotional jolt or visceral insight into the character's conflicts. The limey was an Englishman who arrives in Los Angeles (another planet) and strides purposefully across the landscape. I was reminded of the character Clint Eastwood played in Unforgiven--determined, unstoppable, a motive force, like a hurricane or tornado. "Tell Me! Tell me about Jenny!" Those words echo in my mind as I recall the experience of viewing this film. Those words begin and end the film. And we understand. We meet a new and fresh and individual human being and we understand him. Another marvelous stylistic device was showing flashbacks of the 50ish main character by using scenes from Ken Loach's Poor Cow, a film also starring Terence Stamp. Seeing his face when he was in his 20s, and then comparing it to the older actor's face in his 50s was sheer joy. So many ways this film satisfied. It provided an experience, insight into human nature, insight into cultural degradation. This film will continue to satisfy for years to come. A second viewing of the film confirms the response above. In a lesser film the climactic moment would have included our hero "blowing away" the bad guy. But this film rises above the cliche and leaves us thinking about human destiny, failed relationships, self-centered lifestyles, redemption, justice and mercy, the infinite beauty of fleeting friendships. This film remains one of the best of the year.
Private Confessions. Sweden. Dir. Liv Ullman. Based on an Ingmar Bergman screenplay, this film follows the experiences of Bergman's mother and father at several time periods in their marriage. Each time period is treated with a single scene between the mother and another character. As in the earlier Bergman screenplay Best Intentions (directed by Bille August), the film focuses on the inner world of the mother, played beautifully by Pernilla August. (She also played the role in Best Intentions.) The film starts slow, with a long conversation between the mother and an uncle. Theirs is an affectionate relationship. He is her mentor, and he was the minister who confirmed her when she was an adolescent. The film examines the reasons behind her affair with a younger man (a seminary student). A patient viewing is rewarded in the third scene, when the mother confesses to her husband (a minister) that she has had an affair. That scene is taut, tense, perfectly acted. The ending scene is a completing of the circle. The middle-aged mother, long after her brief affair, meets again with her uncle, who is now near death. This conversation leads to a final memory--of the young woman's confirmation. The dialogue in this film is often trenchant and hurtful. The characters are well-realized, and their pain is heartfelt. Although the scenes are static in their structure, eventually I began to see Ullman's hand at work in camera set-up and in shot selection. Viewers are well-advised to review Fanny and Alexander and Best Intentions before seeing this film.
The Talented Mr. Ripley. USA. Dir. Anthony Minghella. This is an entertaining, tense, and fast-moving film--and it shows what a strong directorial hand, excellent editing, well-coordinated cinematography, and good adaptation of a fine original novel can bring to the total film experience. Minghella's direction is firm, controlled, and consistent. Throughout much of the film I kept thinking to myself, "This reminds me of Hitchcock, because the actors' acting is not so much acting as it is hitting their marks and being in the right shot (and the right type of shot) at the right time. Amazing what a well-timed close-up can provoke in the viewer. The cinematography was lush and warmly lit and perfect for the late 1950s decadent-nouveaux riche landscapes. Rome, Venice, enchanting small-town-by-the-sea Italy. They come alive in the cinematography. Then the story--taut, unpredictable, characters perfectly consistent and revealing little of themselves. I was confused a few times by certain turn of events, but I was satisfied with the ending--and the revelations of the inner man that were revealed--again by the camera and the shot selection. I can't help but think that Matt Damon is not a world-class actor; and he may never attain that standing. Jude Law, who plays the rich kid, is much easier to look at because he has the moves--the eyes--the face. Matt Damon's next-door neighbor look is a bit wrong for this thriller. But he makes it work because he understands how to project that naivete and bumbling American behavior that is perfect for many of the scenes. Mr. Ripley never fits in; that is plain to see. Yet those around him never see that simple truth, and they are the worse off for it. This is a strong revelation of the emptiness at the heart of loneliness, when there is no relief for one's yearning to be a different--not a better--person.
Tea With Mussolini. England. Dir. Franco Zeffirelli. This delightful film is based on episodes in the filmmaker's youth, when he was an orphan in Florence before World War II. He creates the character of Luca, a young boy abandoned by his father, and reared by a widow who is a member of the Scorpioni, a group of expatriate women in Florence. The women become the boy's mentors and guides and substitute parents. Eventually the women survive a German occupation force and each of them comes to some resolution of their own lives. The film's star was Joan Plowright, the boy's main mentor. Cher provided comic flair and portrayed a vulnerable middle-aged woman beautifully. Maggie Smith was the perfect pig-headed leader of the group.Topsy-Turvy, England. Dir., Mike Leigh. Mike Leigh is one of the most talented directors working today--easily in the top five of directors. When one of his films comes out, I have to watch it. I was in a packed theater for this one, and I was not disappointed. Although it lacked the emotional muscle of Secrets & Lies (1995), this film delivered me to a time and place I know nothing about and created, within the first ten minutes, two magnificent characters, Gilbert & Sullivan, who collaborated on numerous musical productions. Jim Broadbent, who portrayed William Gilbert, was extraordinary. I have watched him perform in other Leigh productions, and he finally was given a role that matches his potential. I understood the brilliance of these two men and also understood the desolation of their personal lives. Perhaps I could have been given 10 minutes less of the musical production numbers, but that is still a minor quibble. This film incorporated the essential dramatic arc of moving me to the last 45 minutes and keeping my attention focused on the opening night of The Mikado and then following that up with scenes comparing the responses of the two main characters. It is an amazing achievement to realize character in storytelling, filmmaking, or other narrative form. Character is plot; and plot is character. Henry James was right. Compare this film to Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown, another film about a creative artist whose personal life is unfulfilling. What mattered in Mike Leigh's film was the consistency of love within the context of long-term relationships. What does it mean to love someone who is imperfect, fragile, exasperating? What I missed in the Woody Allen film was the reciprocal nature of love. I found it at the core of Topsy-Turvy. P.S. Memo to the filmmaker: Topsy-turvy is not an expressive title that captures the nature of the two main characters.
The Winslow Boy. USA. Dir. David Mamet. A surprisingly effective drama based on an historical event--a schoolboy in Victorian England is accused of forging a postal order and is dismissed from a public school. But his family hires an attorney and sues to overturn the decision--despite the prohibition against suing the Admiralty. The film works because the screenplay is exceptional, dialogue is tightly drawn, the acting is first rate, and the director handles the shot selection with ease and reserve. I was spellbound by the tension that surfaced in numerous scenes. Jeremy Northam's performance is brilliant. He is self-confident, always smiling, and handles each crisis with aplomb. The characters speak that special brand of Mamet-ese we have come to love and admire.
Year 2000 Reviews