Picks: Best Films
Year 2000 Reviews
Adrenaline Drive, dir. Shinobu Yaguchi (Japan, 1999). Writer and director Yaguchi finds just the right proportion of comedy and drama in this road film about a shy nurse, who is often the butt of jokes by her peers, and a dopey young man who escapes the clutches of the yakuza (Japanese crime syndicate) with equal measures of pluck and luck. Two early scenes in the film grab our attention and make us want to follow the exploits of the main characters. The opening scene shows the young man and a veteran yakuza driving through the city. The dialogue and the cutting between the two characters involve us immediately. The young man wants out. The veteran shrugs off this option. Then they are involved in a fender bender--with some tough customers. After we are introduced to the introverted and passive young heroine in a hospital scene, we are dropped into a yakuza den with the young man. Suddenly a bomb goes off, an after the panicked escapes by all parties, the young man is left alone in the ruins and spots a suitcase filled with money. Before long we find the hero and heroine packed into an ambulance with an injured yakuza, and then another accident--this time the ambulance runs off the road and into a drainage canal. At that moment I knew I was going to enjoy this film. Then the road part of the film begins, and the fates of the young couple become entwined. The weak-willed nurse flowers into a tough cookie herself, and eventually she takes the money and fends off repeated attacks by gangsters who want it back. The ending of the film was a perfect blend of slapstick and romantic comedy. Yaguchi made us care for these two characters, revealed their strengths and idiosyncrasies, and brought them together convincingly in the end. (July)
Almost Famous, dir. Cameron Crowe. The critical moment of this film occurs when the 15-year-old protagonist, trying to get his foot through the door-so to speak-in order to interview a 1970s rock band for Rolling Stones Magazine, encounters a mysterious young woman, her fur coat draped around her shoulders. Who is she? A groupie? A young prostitute? The reaction in his eyes tells the truth of this encounter: she is the first woman of his dreams, the first woman to capture his heart and his soul, his first love. File that in your memory and then watch the rest of the film. This film tells a bittersweet story, filtered through the young man's memory, of life on the road with the rock band Stillwater. This story is based on the director's own experience as a young man who went on tour with the Allman Brothers Band in the 1970s. The other secret to this film is that a key scene about 2/3 through the film provides a supercharged look at naïve self-deception and then desperate and cynical truth-telling-and does so in such a compelling way that the rest of the film seems to play out in one revelation of character after another. There seemed to be multiple endings to the film: first that climactic scene, then other climaxes that flowed naturally from the problems faced by individual characters and their relationships with others. Each ending added more depth and clarification to what came before. All of the characters seemed grounded in one way or the other: grounded in their fantasies of stardom and ego, grounded in the naïve flowering of their love for the unattainable, grounded in their hopes and dreams for their children. This film had sufficient complexity and layers of meaning to keep viewers thinking about it for days afterwards-always a good test of film viewing. I appreciated the clarity of the young man's characterization: all open-wide eyes and mouth open in astonishment. In many respects he was the observer of a crazy private, self-absorbed world that careened this way and that way around him. He has the first love to inspire him, the uncle-like mentor to guide him (and betray him), and the rock-solid and obsessed mother who always reminds him of his responsibilities. This is a film to savor, review, and challenge. (September)
Alone & The Little Thief, dir. Erick Zonca (France, 2000, 1998). I saw Alone (2000) and The Little Thief (1998) as part of a double feature at an art house in Minneapolis, and I was mesmerized by the storytelling and style of filming. Both films begin with a young working-class person losing his or her job. Those plot points set in motion contrary sets of actions, partly dependent upon the gender differences of the main characters. The heroine of Alone (34 minutes) descends to the streets, but does not turn to prostitution. After she loses her job as a waitress, she looks for work at an outdoor market, finds a job unloading trucks, but loses that job soon. She befriends another homeless adolescent, but that young woman steals her bag the first morning after they share a room in a shelter. All our heroine is left with is a gun she stumbles across one day when she is resting in an alley. She tries to pawn the gun; but the pawnshop owner warns her that it is a stolen police handgun. Eventually she is picked up by the police who find her at an outdoor café. The static shot holds on the action. After she is removed from the café, the camera remains in the same locale, and we watch a server remove the coffee cup and then wipe the counter clean--leaving no trace of this young woman. What will happen to her? The Little Thief (1999) is an even more powerful film (running time 65 minutes) about a young man from Orleans (Zonca's home town) who is fired from his bakery job and then spurns the affections of his girlfriend and joins a smalltime gang of crooks who also hang out and work at a boxing gym. I'm not sure if the location is Paris or Marseilles. Initially the young man is a terrible boxer; he is also a mediocre thief--essentially the fifth man of a four-man squad of men and boys who break into beautiful homes and steal jewelry and other easy-to-fence items. Every scene affirms a gradual downward spiral of emotions and morals for this young man. Most of his non-burglary jobs consist of standing watch while prostitutes entertain customers. Ironically his boxing skills improve and he wins a practice match set up between by the manager of the gym. Throughout the film the young thief uses mirrors to practice his boxing moves (eerily reminiscent of Travis Bickle's self-destructive tirade in Taxi Driver, 1976). Although he seems to be heading toward a career as a criminal, there is something strangely endearing about this character. Zonca drops sufficient hits to suggest that he is a good person at heart. Eventually, circumstances catch up with him--in one of the most horrifying scenes I have ever seen in cinema. The film suggests that men have numerous options available to them--compared to women--when they are choose to step aside from mainstream society. Both films humanize disenfranchised and lost youth and make us consider how we are to blame for their plight. (August)
Best in Show, dir. Christopher Guest (USA). Easily one of the best films of the year. After seeing Guest's Waiting for Guffman (1997), another mock-documentary, I was primed to see this one, and the experience was made even more fulsome because we were part of a packed house at the Uptown Theater in Minneapolis. I remember a similar experience in the early 90s when we saw The Crying Game there. Within the first few scenes of the film, that audience was in the palm of the filmmaker's hand. Why? He brought five sets of characters to life. We believed in every aspect of their characters-the vehicles they drove, the dogs they associated themselves with, the intricacies of their relationships, the abnormalities of their psyches. The humor in this film was satiric, but not sharp-edged and hurtful. The foibles of humanity were front and center-as every dog or cat owner knows from experience! The mock-documentary format combined direct interview scenes (with the interviewer off camera), direct cinema scenes (following the characters around with no interruption or staging of scenes), and other direct cinema scenes of the characters actually showing their dogs at the big show. What is the source of humor? If you said "pain," give yourself a silver dollar. Guest knows that pain comes in a variety of forms. There is humiliation (one husband constantly is pained to see former boyfriends of his wife "hitting" on her right in front of him); there is repression (a couple sees a psychiatrist because their dog is depressed after seeing them having sex); there is more repression (a married woman finally "comes out" when her female trainer plants a big kiss on her after their dog wins the first competition); and there is loneliness (a Southerner played by Guest talks to his hound dog in order to relieve his loneliness and spends the rest of his time practicing his ventriloquism with his dummy). Only one of the five sets of characters seems to exist in harmony--two gay partners, one young and one old, who are devoted to each other. The other thing about humor: everyone in the film must be oblivious to the humor of their own words, movements, or interactions. Guest is great at writing the characters as deadpanned deliverers of dialogue. They take everything seriously. Meanwhile, the audience is laughing uproariously. The best example of this is the repartee between the main announcer at the dog show and his co-host, who is doing color commentary I suppose. Fred Willard is perfect as the bumbling co-host who knows absolutely nothing about dog shows, dogs, or people for that matter. But his partner never cracks a laugh or smirk or sigh. In a way, all of us can identify with that poor man's discomfort. He is trapped with a nincompoop for a few hours and has to act civil. Of course, he would like nothing more than to tell the co-host to take the first train out of town. This film was a visual treat, had a screenplay to die for, and was well-acted by everyone in the cast. It makes masterful use of the documentary style of filming. There are no stupid one-liner jokes or sight gags we often see in sitcoms. The humor arises from the characters and their contexts. One of the most painful situations in the film is when the middle-class couple can not get a hotel room because their charge card is refused. Another note about humor: if we can relate to the character's flaws and the characters crises, then we also laugh because we have been there too. This was a film to see again and again. (October)
Billy Elliott, dir. Stephen Daldry (England). Add the following ingredients: a boy whose mother died several years ago, a mother whose memory is repeatedly invoked throughout the film, a father who is taking part in a strike his union cannot win, an older brother who has been hardened by the same strike, the poverty of life in a row house in a town near Durham (in Northeast England), a mentor who comes into a boy's life at the right moment, a boy who wants to follow his dream, a father and son whose bonds are reaffirmed by film's end, an older brother who learns to acknowledge his kid brother's need to escape the confines of a small town, a sympathetic old granny who feels a boy's pain, a close boyhood friend who believes in Billy, and a girl who could become his first "love." Mix the ingredients carefully-and make sure you GET THE EMOTIONS RIGHT. There's the rub. This film succeeds because it gets the emotions right. Almost every one of the ingredients noted above are formulaic and routine-the stuff of third-rate melodramas. This film works because it sticks with the world as it is experienced from the boy's point of view and punctuates his tale with remarkably kinetic montages that resonate with rock music and hard-driving choreography. Every montage moved the film forward and set up the next level of plot and character interaction. The structure of this film satisfies. It begins with the articulation of the problem. Here is a young bloke who does not want to follow in his father's and grandfather's footsteps. His love of music is bred in the bone. He cannot help but move to the beat when the beat is on. When the montages begin to roll, the film kicks into overdrive. But always the music and the movement are in tune with the emotional give-and-take that all of the characters are experiencing. This film affirms all that is honorable in the emotions of special kids who pursue their dreams, hard-luck fathers who live a hardscrabble existence, older brothers whose dreams have died, coal-mining ghost towns filled with destitute and bypassed residents, and teachers who act on their power to influence the lives of the young and then let them go. Billy is the one. The film begins and ends with a kinetic scene of him soaring to the music as he bounces up and down on his bed. The key scene in the film is based on his frustration with his family's resistance to his gift. Angrily he taps out the beat of the rock music and improvises a wicked dance number that has him bouncing off of brick walls, stair railings, and metal fences. He is filled with rage, and yet he releases that rage through the discipline of dance. What a scene! There is humor, most of it arising from the pain of the circumscribed lives forced upon these people. There is sentiment everywhere, some sentimentality, even some schlock thrown in; and yet for the most part the film delivers the sentiment accurately and fairly. It was great to see Julie Walters (in the role as teacher). She gives her all to a minor role. This film satisfied me in ways that was reminiscent of The Full Monty. Both are definitely "feel-good" films. (November)
Blood Simple: the Director's Cut, dir. Joel Coen (USA). Masterful. Every shot was carefully crafted, the camera placement inventive, the Carter Burwell sound design perfect for every shot. Seeing this film rejuvenated me and made me realize again why I study film, why I teach film, and why I write about the art of film. This was my first time viewing this film (originally released in 1984), and after seeing it I could understand how Joel and Ethan Coen could then make Fargo in 1996. Blood simple is like being blood crazy. You begin to think too much about your crime, or your predicament, and you begin to commit foolish blunders. Fargo had its share of blood simple characters. Blood Simple was the seed; Fargo was the flowering of that seed. Both shared a litany of lust, betrayal, violence, obsession, desperation, duplicity, naivete, monstrosity, evil, bloodthirstiness, and the macabre. Blood Simple reminds us that graphic violence is less horrendous than what can be imagined in the mind of the viewer. I suspect that the Coens owe a debt to Alfred Hitchcock on this and other scores. For instance, Hitchcock once remarked that it takes a great deal of effort to kill someone. He illustrated his point in a remarkable scene in the otherwise uninspired Torn Curtain (1966). In that scene Paul Newman and Julie Andrews kill an assassin who was hired to kill them in the kitchen of a remote farmhouse. In Blood Simple the jaded husband who hires someone to kill his wife and her lover takes forever to die after he is shot once through the chest by his own hired assassin. Along the way think of how the following come into play: a shovel, a pistol, a Mack truck, a freshly dug grave in a farmer's fallow field. Coen reminds us that people have bodies, and that bodies suffer pain and trauma and fight to survive against whatever assaults them. Bodies cut and bodies bleed. That is the real world that cinema can explore. (July)
Chicken Run, dir. Peter Lord, Nick Park (UK). I have been a Nick Park fan since learning about his claymation creations, Wallace and Gromit. Recently I walked into a cancer-support shop in Windsor, England, after I spotted a set of salt and peppershakers in the store window. One was of Wallace, and the other was of the lovely spinster Wendolene from Nick Park's A Close Shave. For only £1.99 I had them! Why this obsession, you ask? I first discovered claymation animation in the work of America's Will Vinton, whose short films in the 1970s and 1980s won several awards. The greatest of his characters, Martin (from Martin the Cobbler, 1977), moved with such fluidity and expressiveness that they seemed as real as actors. The key element of his works, however, was that the shot selection, editing, lighting, and camera placements were strikingly similar to those used in live-action films or feature-length films. Nick Parks drew upon Vinton's groundbreaking work and won an Academy Award ™ for best-animated short film in 1990. That short, Creature Comforts, was organized around a series of interviews of animals in the zoo. Most of the animals were "quite happy," or told the interviewer they had "everything taken care of," and thus were perfect representations of passive, acquiescent nursing home residents. With A Close Shave (1995), another winner of the Academy Award ™, Parks was on the global map of experts in animation. You have to see these short animated films to believe them. Wallace is an old English bachelor who loves a good Yorkshire cheese, and Gromit (no, it does NOT rhyme with vomit if you are from England) is an intelligent, feisty, independent, and willful sidekick whose expressive eyes and forehead make him England's version of the Charles Schulz creation, Snoopy. In effect, Gromit is Snoopy with an attitude. Gromit is the real star of the show. Wallace is an ineffectual bumbler who is easily fooled. Wallace is also a dreamer. He loves the idea of taking part in a great new technological scheme. Of course, they all backfire in one way or the other. Their creator, Nick Parks, has a love-hate affair with old-fashioned technology that reminds me of the way technology is portrayed in Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985).
All of this leads up to Chicken Run (2000), one of the best films of the year. This film grabs you and draws you in by the end of the credit sequence. The hero is Ginger, one of the hens in Mrs. Tweedy's chicken farm. The credits are an homage to Steve McQueen's performance in The Great Escape (1963)--right down to the detail of Ginger, tossed into the coal bin one more time, tossing a simulated rubber ball against the wall, just like Steve McQueen in solitary. I loved this film! I marvel at the skill of these animators, the scope of their creation, and the realization of characters. As I watched the film, I realized that I was rooting for the hero, Ginger, to make her escape. Now I know that Ginger is a chicken; but the point here is that Ginger is a woman! Our hero is a woman. And it was perfect! Beyond Ginger, there were several memorable characters. Babs is the loveable but clueless hen who never puts down her knitting. She is voiced by Jane Horrocks, the star of Little Voice (1998). Bunty is a Scottish chicken, a technological mastermind who wears bottle-glass-thick glasses. Her character is often used to reflect the ever-present tension and abrasive humor that characterizes the relationship between the English and the Scots. Fowler is an ancient rooster who sounds the dawn and is narrow-minded, cranky, and unlovable. He is a perfect parody of the stern ungrudging RAF officer in command of his forces. The one voice that did not work as well for me was Mel Gibson's voice for Rocky, the rooster who suddenly "flies" into the compound and is tagged by Ginger as the one who will teach the hens to fly and thus escape from the chicken farm. Some of his dialogue seemed pedestrian, and some of his rendering of the voice seemed uninspired. The slowest parts of the film were those where Rocky became the spoiled center of attention of all of the hens. But when the film began to wind up its climax and then let it rip, I was mesmerized by all the full stops that were pulled out: the hens working hard to build their own airplane (to fly out of the compound), the clever rats stealing tools from Mr. Tweedy, the new role for old Fowler, the hens' attack on Mr. Tweedy when he discovers their plot, the out-of-control chicken-pie-baking machine, the life-and-death confrontation between Mrs. Tweedy and Ginger (dull scissors vs. ultra-sharp hatchet), the poor rats having to give up every one of their hard-earned chicken egg for "the cause," the hens frantically pedaling in order to keep the ragtag airplane in the air. Oh, there is so much more. But see the film and enjoy it for yourself. (July)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, dir. Ang Lee (USA). The place to start is to comment on the "fight sequences." After watching the intricately staged hand-to-hand combats, I realized that they were not really physical at all. Each "fight" was a metaphor for the individual's struggle to align himself/herself with greater forces in the universe. That's why--in almost all of the fight sequences--no one was either seriously hurt or killed. In fact, in an early sequence, when a village police chief is killed in combat, the audience's response was one of shock. "You mean he is actually dead?" seemed to be the response. In most respects, the fight sequences were a ballet of the Taoist yin and yang, and highlighted the individual's identity to become one with the positive and the negative, the sun and the moon, the male and the female, the mountain and the valley, the light and the dark. That's why, in those fight scenes, the characters overcome the limits of gravity. They are so much a part of their physical universe that they can leap, soar, and fly almost at will. But they always come back down because none of them are like Superman. Those momentary victories over gravity are the outcome of intense concentration of will, mind, and heart. Early in the film the main character, Li Mu Bai (played by Yun-Fat Chow) expresses several metaphysical truths that reminded me of Taoist thought. (Oh, my gosh! Shades of Yoda in the Star Wars series! After all, in that film the Force was Lucas' version of The Tao--the path to perfection as expressed in the writings of Lao-tzu. Yoda may as well have said, "May the Tao be with you!")
But in this case the identity of the character, the role of place, and the context of the Mandarin dialect of the Chinese language all inform his words (and the Taoist thought) at a different level of reality. In this film we are transported to another world, we meet a character that feels unfulfilled (despite his numerous heroic deeds), he revisits an old friend--a woman who loves him, and he meets a talented young person who could become his perfect disciple. Add to this mix another perfect fighter--but one who has gone "bad"--embraced the dark side. (You know, this does begin to sound like a version of Star Wars!) Then add to the mix that the potential disciple has aligned herself with the dark force, too, and you have the ingredients for a marvelous adventure. But this film is more than the comic-book-adventure that was at the heart of Star Wars. This film's themes are adult ones. Its territory is tragedy, not melodrama. Character and plot are indivisible in this film. The main characters are middle-aged, and the primary love story is the one between those two characters, Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien (played by Michelle Yeoh). Their love relationship was as subtle and understated as those in Lee's earlier classics, Sense and Sensibility (1995) and The Ice Storm (1997). In fact, I often had the impression that I was watching Emma Thompson when I watched Michelle Yeoh's performance. Like the character in Sense and Sensibility she was motivated by a concern about the well-being and social standing of others. Her own emotional well-being was her last consideration. But the more she cared for others, the more I cared for her and the more I wanted her to realize her love for Li Mu Bai.
The film started slow for me because there was so much exposition in the early scenes. Viewers should understand that there is a great amount of dialogue in this film. When characters talk to each other, they often talk in depth, and the emotional transactions between them are significant because of what they have said (or not said) to each other. After the early fight sequences involving the two main characters, the evil Jade Fox (the old woman who has embraced the dark side), and a mysterious masked figure, everyone in the theater knew the identity of that masked figure. But the film needed a boost even at that point, and it got it from the only flashback in the film, and an extended flashback sequence at that. In the flashback we learn about the mysterious figure's past and of her bizarre love affair with a bandit. Their relationship is filled with youthful exuberance and energy and a strong clash of wills. Again I was reminded of the pairing of young love and middle-aged love in Sense and Sensibility. The key here was that these flashback scenes injected much-needed energy into the film and also provided the context for understanding a future dilemma that would be faced by the main character, Li Mu Bai--what was he going to do with this enigmatic skilled fighter when he had a chance to interact with her?
The acting of Yun-Fat Chow and Michelle Yeoh won me over in this film. When they were on the screen, I was content. The chemistry between them was obvious. The young actor who played Jen Yu, the masked fighter, was no match for them. Chow and Yeoh had faces that expressed everything with a raise of an eyebrow, a shifting of the eyes, the energy of a focused gaze. Their acting broke down my tendency to remain the critic as I view a film. I forgot about criticism and simply believed their characters and became emotionally invested in their fates.Once I became accustomed to the choreography of the fight scenes, I realized that they were expressing what was internal more than what was external to the characters. They seemed to be ballet-like continuations of the dialogue between characters. The whole film became a seamless fantasy-world that hinted at perfection of character and relationships. Another positive was that the screenplay revealed a great sense of humor. The cafe fight scene (with Jen Yu) is a comic masterpiece. And in an early scene, her lover tells her that he would have come earlier, but there were so many people running around on rooftops that he had to lay low for a while. (You'll get the joke when you see it!) The film was entertaining, thought-provoking, and in many respects timeless. (January).
Croupier, dir. Mike Hodges (UK) (1998). I heard Mike Hodges talking about his film on an MPR program earlier this summer, and I knew I wanted to see the film. Apparently, he is well known for his direction of Get Carter (1971). I have not seen the latter film (but will rent the video now) because I was riveted to the screen as I watched Croupier. This film drew me in within 10 minutes with its hypnotic voice-over by the main character, Jack Manfred, the superb screenplay by Paul Mayersberg, and the seamless direction by Hodges. In short, this film was a visual and an intellectual treat for audiences. The main character is addicted to casino life, and he lives out a fantasy of control by being the croupier, the dealer of blackjack or the spinner of roulette wheels. All of his movements are fluid, magician-like, sexy. At the same time we know he is being set up for the Fall--somehow, some way, Jack is going to slip off the precipice he has climbed upon. Although many of the superficial images (Jack's slick black hair, his cool mannerisms, and his penchant for beautiful women) reminded me of James Bond, most of the portrayal is grounded in the depraved and dangerous reality that was expressed in Steve McQueen's performance in The Cincinnati Kid--where the hero's glamorous life will tumble because larger forces and darker motives are at work all around him. A film like Croupier reminds us that we love to root for the hero, even if he is a flawed one. We believe in him; we believe he can change and grow. The surprise climax of the film, to me, was well-motivated and a logical expression of all aspects of the plot. The main character was traumatized by that climax, and rightly so. My initial response was, "Betrayal of that magnitude is not fair!" But I believed it, and it hurt. Jack's voice-over throughout the film was an excellent means of getting us inside the character. The last shot of the film, when the camera follows the chips as they are swept away into the hole in the croupier's table was a perfect metaphor representing Jack's fate. This film shook me, made me think hard about male vulnerability, and left me dazzled by the virtuosity of Hodges' technique. (July)
Finding Forrester, dir. Gus Van Sant (USA). First off, let's rid ourselves of the phrase, "Good Will Forrester!" This film is superior to Good Will Hunting (1997) primarily because it does not have Robin Williams and Ben Affleck starring in it. Aside from that, Finding Forrester is a better film because this time Van Sant's direction is more focused and this time the screenplay is much less sentimental than the infamous award-winning screenplay by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Mike Rich's screenplay (apparently his first!) is taut, insightful regarding character and motivation, and believable when it comes to the unfolding of a relationship between two different types of people--the reclusive literary giant and the naïve but talented youth who befriends him. Robert Brown, who plays the 16-year-old basketball star and aspiring writer, was sometimes overwhelmed on screen by Sean Connery. But in several scenes he held his own and showed that he has the vocal range and the moves that predict a developing talent. He will get better with more work. (I'm not sure I can say the same about Ben Affleck, the most over-rated STAR in the Hollywood firmament!)
Connery is a joy to watch. In the scene when he learns that Jamal Wallace, the 16-year-old, has cracked his identity, his disquiet and anxiety are made palpable by subtle movements and expressions. He never overdoes it. Every look is understated; every line is quiet but intense. Connery is the master of all he surveys in this film. He is as much fun to watch, in his own understated way, as the thunderous and over-stated Al Pacino was in Scent of a Woman (1992). I appreciated the way Van Sant shot the two main characters in the interior scenes (Connery's apartment). He used a moving camera effectively, often used Casablanca-like point of view and reaction shots, and used focus/out of focus shots effectively. But that good script--evenly paced, revealing characters and their motivation in significant ways, was the pole star of this film.
I'm not sure who directed the opening credits. The opening reminded me of the opening credits of the film Philadelphia (1993); in both cases life on the streets of the city was realized with perfection. In Finding Forrester the streets of the Bronx come to life. Everywhere there are African Americans, some standing at bus shelters or street corners. The street is alive, and the emphasis is on the richness and the drama of life for the African Americans who inhabit this neighborhood. I appreciated how Van Sant decided to focus visually on African American life. Unlike so many other films about race relations, this film did more than pay lip service to the life of its African American protagonist. I remember vividly the scenes on the basketball court, the scenes at school between Jamal and his friends, the scene at a club with his friends. Sometimes I had no idea what was being transacted in these interactions. As a middle-aged white man, I had no clue what they were talking about. But the non-verbals gave me sufficient insight into the emotional sharing that was the basis of their interactions. That's what film can do for us--show us the reality of people's lives even though that reality is foreign to our own. I missed more interaction between Jamal and his mother, and scenes of Jamal in his own apartment. But on the whole, I think the screenplay respected the sense of place and community that was the basis of this young man's world--a rare achievement in American film.
I think the weakest scene was the one where the belligerent teacher berates one of the students out of pure spite. Jamal to the rescue! This scene reminded me of the weakness of Good Will Hunting--the portrayal of good and evil at absolutist levels. Another weak point in the screenplay was the ending scene. I wanted to hear more of Jamal's writing in that scene. Instead, the judicious use of dissolves erased the necessity for more attention to the significance of the written word (one of the key themes in this film). But these are minor quibbles. Overall, the film was on target and a refreshing study of how the bonds of friendship can be transformed into the bonds of love (January, 2001).
Girl on the Bridge, dir. Patrice Leconte (France). This film was a riveting visual experience. The director knew what to do with the camera (where to place it, how to set angles), and the actors knew what to do with the script. The main character, Daniel Auteuil, is a national treasure for the French people. Every time I see him act, I am captivated by his gaze. His eyes are penetrating, revealing, mysterious. The film begins with a visual trick that was used by Truffaut in The 400 Blows-in the scene where the boy is interviewed by the psychiatrist. We never see the doctor. We only see the young woman-the one the main character will interact with. She will become the girl on the bridge, although we will find out that she is simply the latest in a series of girls on bridges that the circus performer, the knife thrower, picks up because they are desperate enough to risk death at his hands. But this girl is different. She is fearless, but she is also receptive to the knife thrower in unexpected ways. Her failing has always been that she has given in too easily to the sexual urges of the men in her life. She has allowed herself to be used by them. Of course, it would be natural for us to think that the cynical knife-thrower will do the same. But then that would not be the film we want to see. Instead, the knife thrower is caught off balance by the depths of this woman's emotional resources. The tensest scene for me was the scene after a confrontation between the two on a railway carriage. At a station Auteuil takes her into a railway tunnel and throws his knives at her. The scene is a perfect metaphor for the lovemaking that is the basis of their relationship-and a reminder that the sexual act is both life-affirming and death-affirming at the same time. We destroy what we create; at the same time, we create out of that destruction new life and new hope. In both cases the stakes are high for both lovers. There is a terrible vulnerability at work that exposes the raw-edged interior lives of both lovers. This film is tough-minded, but not cynical about relationships. There are three movements to the film-finding the latest girl on the bridge, making their act a success, and then a sundering of their relationship. In that third movement Auteuil wanders the streets of an Arab city and loses his powers as a knife thrower. The film ends with a remarkably life-affirming note-perhaps a bit forced in the context of all that came before. But that ending worked for me. I give testimony to this film as a work of art, deserving of further study and analysis. The director takes a stance here. The audience is forced to grapple with character and plot. The structure of the film delivers a well-honed movement from one aspect of the plot to the next. There should be-and in this case definitely is-a joy in observing such a work of art. (October)
High Fidelity, dir. Stephen Frears (USA). There are two keys to this film (and they are based upon a wonderful screenplay of a good novel). The first: the woman loves the man. The second, the man loves the woman--but he does not realize that until near the end of the film. Rob spends the entire film whining about his lost loves from the past. But then he finally figures out that he was not in love with those women--and that leaves woman number 5--who stays with him way past the time of normal human tolerance for such ill-mannered behaviors on his part. But waiting for him to change is worth it--because at the end of the film the main character finally begins to realize his navel is not the center of the universe. John Cusack plays Rob, a misogynistic, misanthropic loner, a perpetual adolescent, who lives in his own private world. Women are mere playthings, fantasies off of slick trifold color pages of magazines. As the film begins woman number 5 walks out on him and he does not hide his rage at her betrayal. The little lower layer of this film is the woman-hating rage that underlies almost all of this man's behaviors. He is not a nice guy. Viewers need to keep in mind that his attitudes and his behaviors are unambiguously nasty and hateful toward woman number 5 and other women. But the screenplay turns a little trick--Cusack narrates his story to to audience, often looking right into the camera, and he is has an endearing way of translating all of his negative behaviors into something we can relate to. I was reminded of the Paul Schrader's trick in Taxi Driver--Travis Bickle writes a diary and then narrates some of the passages as a means of making the audience empathize with his point of view. It is difficult to hate the storyteller. But if this were Literature 101 I would warn you that the storyteller is often unreliable because he wants to make his life look good and get you on his side. So listen, but be wary and cautious. That would be good advice for this film. By the end of the film you should have grown to understand Rob and be compassionate about his negative behaviors--but that does not mean you should endorse them. There must be another little trick to turn--and that is done by casting. By using John Cusack as the main character, the director has scored a triumph because Cusack comes with a teddy-bear-like loveability and huggability. He has always excelled in energetic parts, and this is no exception. He was great in Say Anything or Pushing Tin, and he is high-voltage kinetic energy all the way in this role. Other positive dimensions of this film include the casting of secondary characters and the way setting becomes a character. Rob has two groupies who work for him (at below scale) at his record store in a Chicago neighborhood. Their acting (particularly by the crazed dark-haired clerk) is perfect counterpoint to Cusack's. In fact, the crazed dark-haired fellow, who reminds me of a slacker version of the comic actor, Oliver Platt, has made his breakthrough appearance in this film. The Chicago setting becomes a character in this film--kudos to the production designer. And a final thought: this film captures the essence of the slacker world of Generation Xers who have tuned out of the mainstream and tuned into a private world they control--in this case the specialized atmosphere of anything-but-popular music. (April)
Map of the World, A, dir. Chris Elliott (USA, 1999). This film was, quite simply, almost perfectly constructed and well-realized by the director, actors, and screenwriters. The quality of that writing (and plotting) provided the actors with a firm basis for their performances. Based on Jane Hamilton's novel, and with her contribution to the screenplay, this film is about a woman whose life changes overnight when a neighbor's child she is caring for drowns in a pond on their farm property. Sigourney Weaver plays the role of the mother, and she plays it only the way this actor can play such a role--with strength of character, gritty determination, and yet a reserve of warmth and tenderness. The characters are straightforward types--a shy farmer eking out a living in rural Wisconsin, his city-bred wife who has always felt an outsider to this rural area, a neighbor who has given up farming and is doing well in business, and his wife--who is the perfect traditional mother, baking perfect muffins and pies and creating perfect crafts and activities for her children. The four are best of friends, but when Weaver's character is momentarily inattentive with her children, and her neighbor's two children in her house--moments before they are all to go swimming in the pond, her life is ruined. Although she is obviously not at fault for the child's death, everyone shuts her out. She is not allowed to take part in the death watch or in the grieving process. She runs out of the church before the funeral service begins, and no one grasps why she can not handle this public grieving at this time. She enters a full-blown depression. Her shy and bumbling farmer husband (a perfect role for David Strathairn) clumsily drags her out of bed and dresses her. His philosophy: "We have to keep moving." At the bottom of her depression the plot twists perfectly when she is confronted by two police officers on the farm and taken away to jail in handcuffs. Why? She has been accused of child abuse. She is a school nurse, and there has been a history of interaction with a difficult child. But we know she is no child abuser. She is accused now because the boy's mother seizes this opportunity to exact a malicious revenge on Weaver. But as soon as Weaver enters the county jail in Racine, Wisconsin, she feels the peace of the Buddha descend upon her. She is free. She reads voraciously. She ignores the catty digs from the African American prisoner who haunts her cell. Her strength of purpose unfolds like the wings of a butterfly exiting a chrysalis. As she tells her lawyer, "Haven't you ever wanted to be on a desert island?" Plot is character; and character is plot," Henry James said. And that's why I appreciated this film. When plot twists occurred, they were complemented perfectly by the characters' inner lives. I was reminded of Weaver's performance in Death and the Maiden (1995), where she played a political prisoner who confronts the man who tortured and abused her in prison in Argentina. I suppose her breakthrough role, for this defining statement of a strong woman was her role in Ridley Scott's Alien (1979). When I watch her act, I see a blending of inner strength, sexuality, and tenderness that is overwhelming. I appreciate her work in film, and I was delighted to see her as the lead in this film. By the way, Chloe Sevigny, from Boys Don't Cry, has a role that fits her presence--a lowlife mother who neglects her child. Compare her role here to her appearance in American Psycho, where she seemed out of her depths and certainly out of character. The reference to the map of the world is somewhat contrived (perhaps more literary than filmic). But the last shot in the film, the family of four at the dinner table, is a perfect way to end the film. (May)
Nights of Cabiria, dir. Federico Fellini (Italy, 1957). I watched this film on a VCR and was delighted with its combination of realistic cinema, well-developed characterizations, impeccable scene construction and movement between scenes, and an impressive performance by Giuletta Masina as Cabiria. Although her real name is Maria, the main character apparently has taken a street name. This film is a classic. It is more accessible than La Dolce Vita (1960), and Masina's role is more challenging physically and emotionally than her role in La Strada (1956), which also won the Academy Award for best foreign language film. Like La Strada, the film is a straightforward narrative with no blurring of fantasy sequences as in Fellini's later work. The combination of spirituality, moral degradation, and a woman's continual search for fulfillment are interwoven against the context of richly-detailed and memorable scenes--Cabiria being hypnotized by the mesmerist, her late-night visit to the movie star's house, the pilgrimage to exact a blessing from the Blessed Virgin, her catcalls to the two high-class prostitutes on the Via Veneto, her bittersweet good-bye to Wanda, her old friend and compatriot, and the walk through the woods at dusk with her lover. At the end of the film Cabiria struggles to overcome another humiliating emotional and psychological loss. In the last scene she walks alone on a darkened highway and is surrounded by a group of clean-cut teenagers who weave in and around her and laugh, sing, and play musical instruments. At first they seem a troublesome and noisy lot. But then it becomes evident they are in some respects serenading this frail middle-aged woman. She accepts their well-intentioned singing and playing, and she begins to smile again and to accept her lot in life. In the last shot of the film wipes her tears and even smiles directly into the camera just before the shot fades to black. What an amazing moment in the cinema. (Compare this image to the last shot in The 400 Blows two years later). Cabiria is fully realized as a woman who has pride, self-esteem, and yet an awful yearning in her soul. I was reminded of the heroine in Walter Salles' Central Station (1998), who also experienced a spiritual journey based on her interactions with a little boy. That film's last shot also showed the old woman coming to grips with her losses and smiling through her tears (September).
Not of This World, dir. Giuseppe Piccioni (Italy). This film is one of the two or three best films of the year. Its characters are given an opportunity to develop over time. One day a novice, Sister Caterina (played by Marghareta Buy), is walking in a park. A man comes up to her and hands her a baby wrapped in a sweater. Then he walks away. She brings the child to a hospital, and she is told the baby eventually will be placed in adoption. But Sister Catarina keeps coming back to visit the child. Silvio Orlando, who plays Ernesto (owner of a dry cleaning firm), is magnificent as a somber, introverted man whose life is passing him by. He employs several women in his establishment, but he constantly confuses their names. He walks in narrow and deep ruts through the days of his lives. One day Sister Caterina walks into his shop with the sweater that came with the baby. She identified the tag in the neck of the sweater as coming from his shop. Eventually we learn that it is his sweater. Their paths continue to cross. Are they going to fall in love? That's enough to whet your appetite. This film is as good as Walter Salles' Central Station (1998) or Erick Zonca's Alone (2000), or Scott Elliott's A Map of the World (1999), or Zhang Yimou's Not One Less (2000), or Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me (2000). It fulfills, for me, the need to be shown stories that have a strong component of human character as the basis for the action. At the same time, there is a strong spiritual component that undergirds the interactions of the characters. Characters who are searching for something, characters who are capable of experiencing transformations, characters who attach themselves to something greater than themselves--these are the kinds of films I need to increase my own capacity for growth as a human being. This is a film to treasure (January, 2001).
Not One Less, dir. Zhang Yimou (China). This engaging film works because the director utilizes young actors (most non-professional) effectively with a straightforward screenplay and shooting style. Nothing fancy here. But there are many memorable moments. The film is about a 13-year-old substitute "teacher" hired for a month in a remote Chinese village. The people are poor and the infrastructure is crude. Students often leave school to work and contribute to the family's welfare. The regular teacher is at first frustrated that the mayor has brought him this 13-year-old. She is no trained teacher. But the Mayor admits, "Who would want to come to this village?" When the teacher realizes he is stuck with her, he warns her, "I have already lost more than ten students from the beginning of the school year. When I return, I want to see not one less student here." She decides to take his admonition seriously. In a way, his warning triggers a latent willfulness and clarity of purpose in her young mind. Now she has a mission for her life. Soon she loses one student to an informal "athletic scholarship," when representatives from an urban school come and take away a young girl--a fast runner. She can do nothing about this development. But soon the new teacher loses a second child, this one the class clown and brat of the class, because his family needs him to go to the city and find work to help pay family debts. Soon the young teacher is exhorting her students to help her figure out how to get the boy back. As soon as this part of the plot was sprung, I was hooked. Scenes of the young girl is "teaching" students mathematics in an original way. For instance, "If we need x-amount of money and we can earn y-amount by carrying 100 bricks, then how long will we have to work to earn that money?" The kids are integrated beautifully into the plot; their energy and smiling faces are heart-warming. Then the young teacher goes to the city to find the boy and bring him back. The contrast of city life to rural life is impressively filmed. A film like this touches us on basic levels: our emotional commitment to children, our desire to make children happy and secure, our hopes for a better life for our children. All of these emotions are part of the mix as we view the young teacher's determined search for the boy in the city. As the film comes to its climax, modern technology is incorporated into the plot in innovative ways. I was overwhelmed with the emotional reunion at the end of the film and the way everyone takes seriously the needs of one individual--the little boy. Watching the credits of the film was another surprise. The actor who played the young teacher was actually the young teacher the story was based upon. (April)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? dir. Joel & Ethan Coen (USA). Here is the reason I go to movies--not to be entertained, by any means, but to be stimulated, awakened, transported, transfixed, overwhelmed, and made new. All of these occurred while watching this film. When I viewed the re-release of Blood Simple this summer, I was reminded of how special these two filmmakers are. Every time I drive west of Interstate 394 in Minneapolis and see the Perkins on the right, I am reminded of the way the Coen Brothers (originally from St. Louis Park, a suburb just west of Minneapolis) understand how to create a sense of place in their films. In this film I was transported to a Depression-era Mississippi that reminded me of all the reasons I would single out Mississippi as being a special repository of neglect, meanness, and evil in American history and culture. I think of Mississippi and I think of oppressed and poverty-stricken African Americans, wealthy landowners who run the state (King Cotton), the KKK, and the Confederate Flag. As a Northerner, and as an American, I repudiate all that is evil in the constellation of values that make up the metaphor of "the South," in general, and Mississippi, in particular. In short, the Coens understand how to utilize metaphor to tell their stories. They have moved from the bleak midwinter of the northern prairies (in Fargo) to the slick skyscrapers of Manhattan, and now to the venality of the Old South. This film's first metaphor is the journey theme, as it is reflected in Homer's Odyssey (credited at the beginning of the film). In the world of this film the ancient world is compressed to a slice of the Old South--the state of Mississippi during the Great Depression--and the characters travel through its backwaters as if they were making a journey through a kind of hell on earth.
George Clooney has arrived as a major actor in American cinema. In his last three films I have been reminded of Clark Gable, whose shiny dark hair and penetrating eyes were his hallmark. In this film Clooney is decorated with a small mustache, and the resemblance to Gable is even more noticeable. I loved Gable's work because he was both a strong man and a vulnerable man. His was not a classic beauty; instead, his down-home attractiveness reminded viewers of a favorite uncle or an older brother who had experienced the world. Clooney projects a similar wizened world-weariness. He is tough but not intimidating. Gable was great at comedy; Clooney has mastered the comedic form as well. I enjoyed seeing his open-mouthed expression in several scenes--as if he could not quite figure out what to do next. His two sidekicks, played by John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson, were perfect. Turturro is a master at the supporting role; Nelson's slack-jawed expressions were timeless in this film. Heads or tails: call it to determine which of the two should be nominated for Best Supporting Actor this year. So we have three actors with immense talent. But then add to that writing by Ethan Coen: this screenplay is just about perfect. The sequences are well designed and flow together seamlessly. The dialogue is original and convincing. These three characters emerge from the scenes as idiosyncratic, fully developed characters. All of the other characters are one-dimensional. But who cares? They play their parts and in each confrontation: a down-and-out brother who betrays them, a brassy kid who wants to join them on the road for adventure, a greedy radio station owner who presses their recording of a Depression-era classic, the hapless Governor trying to be reelected, a reform candidate with his catchy motto, the eye-patched huckster who robs our trio, George "Baby Face" Nelson on the rampage, three sirens who seduce the men, a lonely young African American they befriend, an awful encounter with the loathsome KKK, and a poignant interlude with a former wife--each step along the journey advances the story and adds layer after layer of meaning and comedy.
The cinematography by Roger Deakins, who has been lighting films since the 1970s, was an impressive achievement. Deakins created an old-time look to the film, but stayed away from the usual sepia-toned treatment. I noticed that in every outdoor scene what was green became a burnt orange, as if the metaphorical landscape of Mississippi was devoid of the regenerative green color we associate with cotton fields and other farm crops. Often the characters seemed bathed in excessive light, as if the sun's light overwhelmed the photography. But in a few night scenes, especially one where the three characters talked about their dreams, the cinematography (seeming to be lit by the glow of firewood) warmed the characters' faces and made their words richer in meaning. Deakins has been cinematographer on all of the Coen Brothers films, and this collaboration says a lot about the qualities of the three artists. One last word about the music. On the Internet Data Base site (us.imdb.com) one submission included the sentence, "By necessity the music has to be of the period and although I'd prefer something along the lines of Britney Spears and N Sync, the music chosen for the film is worth getting the soundtrack for." Well, it's obvious that I don't listen to the music of either group. But long after Britney Spears and the group of young men are gone, the music of Depression-Era America will live on. The Coens tapped some of the great music of our culture and brought us back to a long-neglected era. I would buy the soundtrack, too, but only because the selection of music perfectly complemented the action of the film. Here it is January, 2, and I think I have found what I consider to be the best film of year 2000 (January, 2001).
Requiem for a Dream, dir. Darren Aronofsky, USA. I was impressed with Aronofsky's first film, Pi (1999), on the basis of its filmic qualities. Although its plot became too complicated and convoluted, the filmmaker's command of shot selection and editing rhythms was evidence of future growth. It all comes together in Requiem for a Dream, an astounding vision of the hell of drug abuse. Here are some random thoughts: 1) Evidently the director wanted us to see a comparison between the mother's abuse of amphetamines and her son's abuse of heroin. After all, she gets hooked just the way he got hooked. I disagree. We understood the terms of her addiction, based upon her emotional state of mind before she became addicted. We did NOT get any insight into the causes of her son's addiction--and that lack of insight was a major drawback in this film; 2) There are two films embedded in the one film, as noted above. I think the story of the mother's addiction was superior, because it had a beginning, middle, and end. Because we had the mother's context before she became addicted, we had a better grasp of the reasons for her behavior. We saw the way the drugs reinforced her needs and then slowly began to take command of her will. The mother's precipitous drop off of the face of the earth was as tragic as King Lear's wailing on the heath in the Shakespeare play. It was tragic, because we followed the choices this woman made and realized that all of her choices led to her downfall. Her interactions with her son only furthered her downfall. The film of the mother alone made this a five-star film and one of the best films of the year. 3) The story of the son's addiction, and his relationship with his girlfriend, was undermined by the lack of context. In the first scene we see the son a victim of addiction. But I never understood what lay behind his behavior or what lay behind his relationship to his girlfriend. 4) The performances in the film were universally impressive. Burstyn's deserves the Academy Award. The cinematography by Matthew Libatique was extraordinary. It all looked like a grainy super-eight or 16mm movie with bleached-out backgrounds. 5) One aspect of the editing stands out: each time one of the younger characters took drugs, the shots sped by so fast I could barely tell what I was seeing. I think the editor was trying to suggest the metaphor of addiction as hitting the pleasure centers immediately. Instant gratification. Of course, thematically, the idea is shown like clips from a biology movie in high school. The point: we are watching the effect of drugs on the human body at the level of cells and tissues and blood flow. Although this thematic editing may have been overused, I think it made a strong impact on the audience as to the REALITY of what the drugs were accomplishing. One note on the editing of the climax of the mother's story: I was disappointed that the editor used a conventional--almost 1970s--type of classical montage to show the eventual breakdown of the mother. As the editing whirled on and on, I finally had to look away from the screen because the effect was overkill to me. 6) But a more important point is the way painful images were shown to the audience with a strong sense of integrity and thematic impact. Many people in the audience were not able to look at the young man's arm as the site of repeated injections began to atrophy and discolor. His arm was rotting away, and still he shot the drugs into him. These images made sense in the context of the film because they were unflinching testimony to the human degradation that lies at the end of the road of addiction. The other example of a painful image is that of the girlfriend, who participates in a staged sex orgy in order to satisfy male clients (and as a means to feed her addiction). This scene was degrading, hateful, misogynistic, and animalistic. The brutality of men--as it relates to the ways they demean and degrade women in order to feel a sense of power over them--was horribly (but honestly) expressed in this scene. I was distressed by it; and yet I understand why it was included. 7) There are more things to say about this film--but first I need to see it again and reevaluate my response to it. An American Beauty it is not; but it serves so far as the most impressive American film of the year 2000. By the way, here are the keywords listed under the Internet Data Base entry for the film: tragedy, infomercial, jail, mother-son-relationship, television, arm-amputation, independent-film, drug-abuse, sex-orgy, dieting, drug-dealer, electric-shock-therapy, game-show (December).
Traffic, dir. Steve Soderbergh (USA). One of the best films of the year. Soderbergh weaves together three disparate stories--but all relating to the drug traffic from Mexico to the United States--and does so seamlessly and perfectly. I was intrigued with almost everything about this film. The story was told beautifully in Traffik (1989), a mini-series (directed by Alastair Reid) that was shown on Masterpiece Theater. That series focused on the drug traffic from Pakistan to Europe, and it also had multiple story lines. Soderbergh was interested in re-telling that story and putting it into an American context. Simon Moore, who wrote the screenplay for Traffic, also wrote this screenplay. So here is the second top-20 film this year that tells the story of how drugs pervade our culture and there seems to be nothing that we can do about it. What I noticed first about the film was the way the three stories were separated via cinematography. The first plot strand is the story of two Mexican Federales--narcotics agents from Tijuana--and their bust of a shipment of cocaine that arrives via a small two-engine plane in the Mexican desert. All of the colors in the scenes related to these two characters are dramatically over-exposed--so much so that one almost has to wear sunglasses to watch these scenes. There was no green anywhere. I was reminded of the cinematography in O Brother, Where Art Thou? The visuals in another storyline (focusing on the experiences of two American narcotics agents) were similar over-exposed; sometimes I had difficulty telling these two visual styles apart. But the third visual style was easy to pick up. In the scenes focusing on the experiences of a new American drug czar, all of the visuals were tinted an over-exposed and unpleasant light blue or blue-gray.
In fact, all of the visuals were unpleasant to gaze upon--a perfect metaphor for the content of the film. There should have been a graphic at the beginning saying, "You will not enjoy watching this film. The filmmaker, in concert with the cinematographer, has decided to manipulate the color of every scene in such a way that you will not find anything in any scene beautiful to look upon." I would have urged a further graphic: "In addition, you will not understand every piece of dialogue, every action, or every interaction in every scene. When you are unsure of what something means or what somebody says, please keep quiet, concentrate on the scene before you, and have faith that you will understand what you need to understand by the end of the film."
The second story line focused on two American narcotics agents working out of Southern California. Don Cheadle played an African American cop, and Luis Guzman played a Latino cop. Guzman had a wonderful part in last year's Limey (also directed by Soderbergh), and he delivers the goods again. This is probably the best part Cheadle has landed as an actor--perhaps his best work since Devil in a Blue Dress (1995). As good as these two guys were, I have to highlight the work of Benicio del Toro as the Mexican drug agent (one of the Federales above). That actor has an incredibly cinematic face--eyes like two slits, lines across his forehead that suggest melancholy and world-weariness. And his role was as compelling as the one Cheadle played. The two actors (and their characters) play off of each other. The biggest lesson (theme) in the film is that people have to "think out of the box" in order to make any changes in this war against drugs. And both Cheadle and del Toro are magnificent thinking out of the box. Another principal character in the first storyline above was a very pregnant Catharine Zeta-Jones, who plays the wife of a rich Mexican who is suddenly busted for selling drugs. Her character seems, at first, to be genuine shocked to learn of her husband's illegal activities. But then something happens within her that is a remarkable sea change. Perhaps fears of what will happen to her son (who is about 4-5), and then fears of how her economic status will change precipitate an identity crisis. Whatever is the case, her transformation as a character is at once chilling and credible. She finds her stride by the end of the film, and her villainy is compelling.
The third storyline concerns the appointment--by the President of the United States--of a new American drug czar, who is played by Michael Douglas. When I think of the 1989 mini-series Traffik, I remember the scenes of the drug czar in that film who was shocked to discover that his own daughter was a user. In this film the father (and mother) are equally clueless and impenetrable. Douglas is so wrapped up in his minute-to-minute over-scheduled life that he has lost touch with how to listen to his wife and daughter. His marriage is nearly on the rocks; his daughter is dropping headlong into addiction, and Douglas learns eventually that he does not know the first thing about the human toll that is the foundation of the so-called war on drugs. So Douglas, in his own way, begins to think outside of the box, too. The outcome of these three storylines is about what one would expect it to be--bittersweet, tentative, frustrating, worrisome, and yet hopeful. Put the emphasis on the bittersweet. The best films are ones about transformation of character. And we have it here in spades. The best films are ones where big questions are posed, and there are no easy solutions provided. I am reminded of the story of the old man who saw a little sparrow lying upside down in the middle of a dusty road. The sparrow had its legs up in the air and seemed to be struggling against something. When the old man asked, the sparrow told him that the sky was falling, and that he was trying to hold it up. The old man said, "What can you, a tiny sparrow, hope to accomplish if the sky is falling?" The sparrow responded, "We must do what we can." See this film and listen to the sparrow (January, 2001).
The War Zone, dir. Tim Roth (UK, 1999). This film was an emotionally wrenching experience for me. As I sat there in the theater I felt increasingly anxious and physically uncomfortable. On the one hand I wanted to flee the scene; on the other hand I was riveted to the images in the film. The first character we see is a remote house on the north Devon coast in England. The landscape is bleak, dreary, and dangerous. The first interior shot shows a family gathered around a space heater. The very pregnant mother and her teenaged daughter sit on opposite ends of a ragged sofa, their legs entwined and their backs supported by pillows. The expression on the daughter's face shows anxiety, dread, tension. Something was wrong with that picture of the "happy family." The teenaged son sits across from them. And then the father enters the scene. Where is the monster in this picture? I don't see it. But there are monstrous things going on in this household. I knew coming into the film that it was about incest, but I did not know the details of the story. Early on I thought the incest might be between brother and sister. Some of their "horsing around" seemed uncomfortable, perhaps inappropriate. But then the plot is sprung: the young man comes home from shopping, and as he comes around the back of the house he looks through the window and sees something. But we only have his reaction shot to the interaction between father and daughter (in the bath). We do not see that interaction. The brother-sister relationship in this film was perfectly rendered. As I watched, I kept thinking to myself, "How can a brother be asked to resolve this kind of a problem?" As I watched the daughter's dilemma unfold, I kept thinking to myself, "This young woman has such courage, such strength." Then the revelation scene: the young man knows the father takes the daughter to an old fortified coastal blockhouse (from WW II). The brother steals his father's video camera and holds the camera up to a window and begins to videotape the interaction between father and daughter. Then we see it. We are given that burden, just as the brother has been given that burden. Of course, we can not see everything. We do not want to see everything. But we see enough until we do not want to see anymore. There are no monsters in the scene; but the interaction is monstrous. This film, from 1999, is the debut film of Roth, who himself is a fine actor. He gives the actors their stage, and he conveys a solemn and unforgiving and unrelenting mood in this film. Much of the film is silent; only the reaction shots and point of view shots convey the story. I was moved and disturbed by the film; it addresses incest sensitively and yet with brutal honesty.(April)
You Can Count on Me, dir. Ken Lonergan (USA). I thoroughly enjoyed this sensitive portrayal of a strained sibling relationship. The sure hand of the writer-director is all over this film. Lonergan understands his subject matter, knows how to write dialogue for a film, and understands the complex inner life of children. In the first 20 minutes of the film I felt I knew these characters and began to care about their fate. Laura Linney's performance as Sammy (for Samantha) was right on the mark as the control-freak sister whose life is out of control. And when she felt a loss of control, she always sought instant gratification--an excellent example of how character determines plot. Her choices always led downwards, of course, particularly when she continued a sexual relationship with her boss. Sammy, a single-Mom, wanted to be an earth-mother, a nurturer, a protector. She was going to persevere, no matter the odds. In that way she was the opposite of her brother, a wanderer, pilgrim, ne'er-do-well, and lonely man who had lost his way in the world. The development of their characters stems from one plot point: the accidental death of their parents in a car crash when they were children. Neither the sister nor brother really had recovered from this loss. One became busy and got on with it; the other became a drifter and put everything off. Now the brother returns home after a failed relationship with a young woman, and the longer he stays in town, the more both characters come to grips with the awful emptiness at the center of their beings. Mark Ruffalo, who plays the brother, gives an impressive performance as a character who wants to be at peace with himself, but constantly undermines that goal with flashes of violence that arise out of the unresolved anger he harbors because of the death of his parents.
Rory Culkin, who plays Sammy's son, plays a significant role in the film as the observer-child, the one who watches the adults self-destruct. Culkin plays the role not as a wide-eyed innocent, but as a sensitive, slightly withdrawn child with a strong inner life. This child has character, and it was fascinating to watch how his attraction for his uncle (an obvious father-figure) was buffered by the boy's wariness at his uncle's instability and tendency toward violence. Another character deserves some consideration--and that is the character of the town. Lonergan opens and closes the film with scenes of Sammy driving into this New England town (is it Maine?). Throughout the film her brother complains that he cannot stand the town, that he cannot wait to get away from it. But Sammy chooses the town as a means of grounding herself, of supporting her identity and character. American films seldom make place a defining characteristic that contributes to our understanding of character and theme. The Bruce Willis characters in the films of M. Night Shyamalan, for example, move through a netherworld of dark and forbidding landscapes that are more psychological than urban (even though they are supposed to take place in Philadelphia).
I thought the first 20 minutes of You Can Count on Me started slowly, partly because of rough editing transitions between some of the scenes. But after Sammy's brother moved in, and after a great scene between her brother and her son (playing pool in a local bar), this film hit its stride. Then the editing, by Anne McCabe, became a major player in the film. Some of the cuts to first shots of new scenes were perfect--and moved the film along. One frustration: Lesley Barber's music in those first 20 minutes was one of the negatives of the film. Barber used a cello, almost always a sound design associated with conflicted emotions, too often in those early scenes. Later in the film, when the cello was used again, then it seemed to work. One other note about character: the writer director, Kenneth Lonergan, played a cameo role as Sammy's priest. He played it with the perfect note of wry humor and introverted shyness. By the way, on a second viewing I enjoyed the film even more--always a good sign. The editing seemed less distracting this time around. So many of the edits between scenes or sequences were perfectly timed. I appreciated Laura Linneys' performance even more so a second time around. She was consistent and stunning. This is one of the best films of the year--no doubt. It would be a great film to use in undergraduate film classes. (December, 2000, January, 2001).