The Man Who Wasn't There, dir. Joel & Ethan Coen (USA). Quite simply, the best film of the year. Why? The film provides an emotional and psychological x-ray of the main character; the character Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is drawn as an Everyman character, someone who is ordinary, harmless, and invisible; it honors the film noir thrillers of the 40s and 50s in its black and white cinematography, its muddied emotional relationships, and its themes of obsession and betrayal; it realizes the 1950s American small-town setting and unites Cold War themes and fears (especially the fear of aliens dropping down in flying saucers); it introduces us to a cast of eccentrics and original characters (the con man, Big Dave the store owner, the prim and proper girl next door, her alcoholic father, the insurance investigator, the big-time lawyer, the chatty brother-in-law.) Film should create a world--even a world recognizable to us in our own experiences--but still a world we have never entered before. Film drops us into that world and we are left open-mouthed, slack-jawed, and bug-eyed as we experience it. This film noir version of 1950s small-town America is perfectly realized by the Coens. The meanings of this world need to be realized through the cut--through the syntax of film itself. And that's what happens in this film. From the first five minutes of the film I was hooked: Thornton's voice-over as the character of the second-chair barber describing the various haircuts given to clients, and then the cuts to Thornton's awful face, flaccid, drained of life, a cigarette dangling from his lips as if permanently attached. Thornton was a presence in this film. I was reminded of the voice-over of Travis Bickle at the beginning of Taxi Driver (1976). In that film I kept waiting--one edge--for Travis Bickle to blow. And explode he does at the end of the film. In this film I kept expecting Ed Crane to explode. I watched him suppress his emotions, hold back his reactions, and remain the quintessential observer of life. In one scene, when he knows a big secret kept from everyone else in town, we see him driving down the main street and watching people walking by on the sidewalk. In his voice-over he brags about the power he feels over these people. He knows something they don't know. But then the director cuts to a bird's-eye point of view shot of Crane lying on his back in his bed--the same type of cutting Scorsese used in Taxi Driver. So again I thought to myself, "He's going to blow!" Finally, at the end of the film, we see a strange scene when Ed is in prison. He walks out of his cell and down a corridor and exits at the back of the prison yard. He looks up and sees a flying saucer hovering over the prison. He watches it and seems to acknowledge something in this encounter. Then he walks back into the prison building--and then he wakes up from a dream. What a moment in cinema! In a moment like this cinema expresses what is inexpressible. What does it all mean? Ed Crane is an invisible man. He was invisible to his wife, to the town, and finally . . . .the last scene is quintessential Coen Brothers: back to Blood Simple, Fargo, and now add this one to the list.
Monster's Ball, dir. March Forster (USA). Another nominee for the worst title of the year-right up there with In the Bedroom. There is one short reference to the meaning (symbolism?) of the title, but that's enough to make it work. This film reminded me of a good student film; everything was poured into the film, as if to touch every base, make every point, push every button, stretch every idea. This was a very good film--but it was not a great film. There are too many coincidences in too short a time span; there is too much change of character in too short a time span. In other words, one key variable--the effect of time on one's healing of grief and pain--is not played out for all it is worth. Still, this was a considerable achievement on the part of the director. He showed an excellent grasp of camera placement, and he often used stylish and artsy camera set-ups with use of metaphoric reflections juxtapositions of characters in the frame. He also gave his actors room to reveal their talents. Billy Bob Thornton showed his Bogey-esque qualities again--all understatement and reaction shot and stillness. No wonder directors love to work with him. His face is iconic, and his every glance is revealing. Halle Berry was not up to his quality of acting. I admit that she was excellent at revealing a character whose entire psyche crumbled right in front of our eyes. But it seems to me that such an overwhelming emotional response (drawing upon one's unconscious) is actually easier to pull off than the subtlety and nuances of great actors. The best scenes are the ones where the actor leaves something in reserve and yet suggests the demonic, the uncontrolled, and the desperation that lies within. Still, I would rather see her type of performance, as well as a film like this, than most of the pabulum that is set on the public's plate. One moment in the film was most surprising and effective--because it was motivated--and one of those moments you can't give away to someone who has not seen the film. When it occurred, a woman behind me gasped, "Oh, my God! Oh, my God!" It was a breathtaking moment. I believed it when I saw it, and yet what I watched afterwards was not as clearly motivated or believable. The screenwriter tends to force the resolutions in this film. Characters change because they have to change in order to fit the resolution. But the great stories are ones where characters lead and plot follows and we know that nothing could have changed that correlation between characters and the choices they made. That's why tragedies are the greatest stories--because so much is revealed about the inner workings of humanity in those tales. This one came close--and it was noteworthy and its heart was in the right place. (February, 2002).
Oceans Eleven, dir. Stephen
Soderbergh (USA). This is the third heist (or caper) film I have seen
this year. Oceans Eleven fits right in with The Score and The Heist as worthwhile
films that entertain--and here the key word is entertain. I see little substance
beyond entertainment in this film. But I think Soderbergh knew what he was trying
to achieve, and he pulled it off perfectly. There are a few dead spots in the
film (as the plot unwinds--details of the heist). But the joy of this film is
the way the ensemble cast works together and shines. George Clooney continues
to remind me of Clark Gable. That man's face is so easy to watch. So here's
· Julia Roberts does a perfect Julia Roberts imitation.
· Brad Pitt eats his way through the film and manages not to chew any of the scenery. His work continues to be a revelation.
· Matt Damon is perfectly miscast as Brad Pitt's son--but that's okay, because Damon is critic proof after his Oscar-award screenplay and the cult of Saving Private Ryan.
· Elliot Gould's chest hairs nearly stole the show.
· Old man Carl Reiner shows he still has the fire in his eyes and the fire in his belly when it comes to performing as an actor.
· Andy Garcia is beginning to look increasingly like Nosferatu before sundown--and yet handles his role with grace and self-control and is one of the major acting hits of the film.
· Only Don Cheadle was wasted in the Sammy Davis-type role. His British accent was a weak link in this film and his role as a bomb expert was a thankless task.
I think you get the idea. This director gave this film over to his actors, and yet at the same time he controlled their work within superb set design (interiors and exteriors), marvelous shot selections, and an overall control of sound and image that is superior to most--bar none! Especially beautiful was the use of the music of Debussy at just the right moment, and with just the right touch, toward the end of the film. I continue to relish the work of Soderbergh. Even in this "minor" film he excels in every respect. (December).
Ratcatcher, dir. Lynne Ramsay (UK, 1999). This is the type of film that leaves the viewer with haunting images: bleak urban poverty (in Glasgow, Scotland), the response of children to their drunken fathers, the cruelty of small boys and packs of adolescent males, the gentle stirrings of emotions between adolescents, the games children make up for themselves, the awful mess of hundreds of black garbage bags stacked on the sidewalks and tiny front lawns of the projects, a mother's firm and knowing hand as she combs head lice out of her son's hair, a boy's daily loneliness, the streets filled with children running and playing and shouting, a crowded tenement bedroom with sleepers stacked against each other, a little boy holding up a dead rat between his fingers, and the mean facades of tenements with boarded-up windows dappled with layers of despair. This was an unpleasant film experience-and it was meant to be-and it worked magnificently to disturb, confront, probe, and reproach. An important note: this is a foreign film in the sense that it presents a world that is foreign to most of us. The English-speakers might just as well be speaking in Dutch or German or French for most of us because their Scottish dialect is impenetrable. Subtitles are the only answer: and they save the day for viewers. After a while, however, you begin to develop an ear for the dialogue and rely less on the subtitles. I appreciate a screenplay and a filmmaker who refuses to pull punches, however; and the language is not cleaned up in any way or made easier for us to experience.
The film begins with a gritty scene of children playing along a dirty canal that runs behind the tenements. The first image of the film is perfect: a boy winds himself round and round inside of the living-room curtains. Why? He is making a game for himself, practicing an introspective creativity. What happens? Suddenly we see his mother's hand strike out and smack him against his face. Apparently she does not appreciate or understand what he is doing. That mother, as loving as she is of that child (witness later events), is also someone whose parenting skills are seriously lacking. But that's the point: this film is about real people who live out their lives in a cycle of poverty, ignorance, cruelty, loneliness, anxiety, abandonment, brutality, and isolation. The child grows up to imitate the boys and girls who are imitating their failed elders-and the cycle continues. How to crack that cycle? The ending of the film offers some minimal hope for one family, but on the whole the film is consistent with the message of despair and its revelations about details of how that hopelessness is acted out by all of the generations. Strange to me was the absence of people in their 60s and older. Only one scene featured an old person. The focus was on the experiences of a 12-year-old boy and his family. What a character! He comes alive in this film as an introspective dreamer, someone with few friends and yet with the promise of accomplishing something if he can only get out of this degrading environment and if his family can hold together despite the onslaught of alcoholism and poor job prospects.
This film reminded me of a Glasgow version of Angela's Ashes. In this case, I think the boy's character, as well as the web of complications he was caught in, were developed with greater depth and insight. Again and again I was reminded of the cruelty that children are capable of--just as I was reminded of how that cruelty is passed on to them by imperfect adults who have been worn down by failed relationships and failed prospects. This film, too, wore me, down; and yet I was glad to have seen it and glad to have been moved by it. A final note: Rachel Portman's music reminded of her work in the film Smoke (1995). She is one of the best! (April).
Sexy Beast, dir. Jonathan Glazer (UK, 2000). One of the best films of the year. Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley are incredible. This young director has a flair for filmmaking, and even though he errs by excess in a few scenes, his command of scene construction is for the most part impressive. Where to begin? Ben Kingsley's acting has never been fiercer and more convincing. He plays a menacing psychopath in this film. The closest he has come to this role is in his portrayal of the doctor in Death and the Maiden (1994)-and particularly the three-minute monologue that ends that film. Kingsley is Ben Logan. What a name for this vile and intimidating character. He is a page from Ray Winstone's (Gal's) past. Winstone plays a middle-aged gangster who has retreated to a simple but elegant existence in a post-modern house on the rocks in Spain. His wife and he live an idyllic life of seeming retirement. They reminded me of the gangsters from Goodfellas (1990) plopped down in a Philip Johnson glass house. (Can you find six things wrong with this picture?) Early in the film a boulder flies the cliff above the house and lands smack dab in the middle of the swimming pool. That boulder is AKA Don Logan-who enters their life suddenly and with devastating results. Why does he show up? To entice Gal to complete one more job. There is always one more job to do, according to the crime boss, and Don Logan is the errand boy to bring Gal back to the fold.
Every scene with Ben Kingsley, Ray Winstone, the wife, and the latter's two best friends is charged with chilling menace. A few of the scenes in this film portray a hairy beast that is the embodiment of Don Logan's unconscious. It occurs to me that this vision of horror is more credible that the over-the-top monster depicted in last year's The Cell. Don Logan was a force of evil nature. His presence paralyzed everyone around him. In one of my favorite scenes Logan sits on the patio while one by one the four people around him retreat to the house and stand in opposite corners of the kitchen. Each of them retreats to a corner and suffers in alienation in fear. Don Logan, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976) is a hand grenade ready to explode. And when he does the film takes a delicious twist in plot and resolves that plot twist convincingly. I would see this film again-tomorrow-and gain more insights from each new viewing. It was a cinematic breath of fresh air in a dull season of films. (July)
Tilsammans (Together), dir. Lukas Moodysson (Sweden). The film takes place in Stockholm in 1975 in a commune called Tillsammans (Together). The ideals of socialism and communism guide this collective. The film begins with a quick plot point: Goran, one of the leaders of the commune, receives a call from his older sister, Anna. She tells him her drunken husband struck her in the face and she wants to leave him. So Goran brings Anna (and her two children, Eva and Stefan) to the commune so they can be safe from the abusive husband. Much of the film has the look of a documentary, and I wondered if Moodysson tried to simulate some of the style of 1970s filming, especially with the quick zoom in from wide shots to close-ups that was part of that "old style" of documentary. Sometimes the hand-held camera, the unstable shooting, and the zooming became distracting. But the power of the characterizations, the structure of the scenes, and the sensitivity to the human dimensions of these characters prevailed. I was hooked in 10 minutes, and the film got better and better as it moved along. I was impressed with the portrayals of the two children, who seem out of place and alienated amid these starry-eyed radicals. They seemed to have escaped one form of abuse only to be exposed to neglect. But their mother's love for the children and her attention to their needs was demonstrated repeatedly. The presence of the two children subtly begins to change this place. Other children were already living there; but they lacked insight into that other non-socialist world that Eva and Stefan experienced. Giving the children equal storylines helped soften the repeated arguments of the adult commune members that were trying to figure out how to maintain the vitality of their life in a commune.
The characters were revealed in their response to actions. Goran was a gentle soul, committed to socialist ideals, and yet he was afraid to deal with conflict. He was wishy-washy to the extreme, and passive-aggressive to the core. His girlfriend was hooked on sexual experimentation. One of the most poignant scenes was when she crawls back into bed with Goran (after having sex with another member of the commune) and informs him that she had her "first orgasm"--although, of course, it meant nothing to her personally since she was with another man. But she can't stop talking about it, and poor Goran ends up running to the bathroom and heaving his guts in response to the stress caused by her behavior. But can he confront her? Nope. When Goran's sister, Anna, moves to the commune with her children, another member of the commune, Lena, who has discovered she is a lesbian, works hard to seduce Anna. Although she does not succeed, she does help Anna discover the joys of woman-to-woman friendship. Anna also learns to embrace some of the socialistic ideals. A less-interesting subplot was the sexual hankerings of the gay member of the commune who finally corrals the top jock of the group.
The development of the children's storylines was one of the best parts of the film. Little Eva is shy, wears thick glasses, and has no friends. So whom does she end up with? One of the neighbors of the commune, a middle-aged couple, like to spy on the commune members. Their son is shy, wears thick glasses, and has no friends. The scenes between them were tender and accurate portrayals of pre-adolescence. Eva's brother, Stefan, also takes charge of his life after moving to the commune. Twice he tries to regain contact with his drunken father. Eventually Stefan is the reason for a breakthrough between his mother and father. Now the surprise of the film was the development of the father's character. At first he is easily dismissed. He is an abusive drunk. End of story. But he begins to turn his life around when he realizes what he has lost. He stops drinking. Then he befriends a lonely old man who calls him (the father is a plumber) for service. We learn eventually that the old man has disabled the plumbing as an excuse to have someone to talk to. The plumber and the lonely old man end up one night on the porch of the commune, and the climax of the film begins. What energy is unleashed here. The climax resolves the mother/father split, energizes Goran to finally take a stand on something in his life, and even brings together other unlikely characters, including the mother of the neighbor boy who likes to spend time with Eva. This mother goes from spying on the commune members to sitting at table with tea with Lena--who sees her as another potential conquest. The last scene is homage to the ideals of the commune. Everyone is together in a perfect unifying action.
This film was a compelling portrait of the human desire to form community. I was moved by so many of the scenes and the revelations of character they illustrated. My only concern was that the dark side of humanity was withheld, or restrained, in favor of a gentler, more optimistic perspective. Despite that concern, I heartily recommend this film. (November)
The Widow of Saint-Pierre, dir. Patrice Leconte (France, 2000). I was surprised at how much I was affected by this film. I was frustrated with the cinematography that always lit up the face of Juliette Binoche in the mundane fantasy, Chocolat (2000). In this film she was back in a more favorable light (pun intended). No special filters between her and the camera. She was back in the real world of 1850 French Canada--in a barren landscape populated by fishermen and their wives and widows. The film begins by establishing the place as a character and then opening up the first plot point with some economy: after a night of drinking, two fishermen (who had almost been lost at sea in a fog bank-but were luckily picked up by another boat) row out to an island to confront their captain. After taunting the man and drawing him out of his house, one of the two men, August (played by Emir Kusturica), stabs the captain and later is picked up with his accomplice. A brief court scene shows the men found guilty and admitting that they killed the man for no good reason. The plot goes on, of course-but the main plot point is that August is supposed to be executed for the crime of murder. But there is no guillotine on the island, and the townspeople come to believe that he should not be executed. And no one wants to be the man's executioner. The political pressure mounts on the Captain (Daniel Auteuil). What will he do? If the prisoner is not executed, then the Captain is liable and will have to be put to death himself.
There is more, but let me stop it here and suggest some of the reasons why this film works so well. Most important, the characters are distinct and individualized. August is a big burly simple man who has committed a stupid act and knows it. He regrets the murder by accepts responsibility for his act. The Captain (Daniel Auteuil-one of the great contemporary French actors) is a loner, someone who has been kicked downstairs to this God-forsaken post because of past indiscretions (as judged by empty-headed bureaucrats, of course). He thinks for himself and has a good idea of what is right and what is wrong. He lives by his values-and of course, that is dangerous in the real world. His wife (Juliette Binoche), known contemptuously as Madame La by the townspeople (after all, how could she be called "Madame la capitaine"-right?) absolutely loves her husband, just as he loves her. But the first time she sees the prisoner brought into the tiny prison yard (where she is trying to grow plants), something lights up in her eyes. In effect, she falls in love with this man, and then takes him on as her project in order to affirm his humanity and to establish a role for herself in this life. With this as context, what we have here is far more than the typical romantic love triangle we have been brought up on in American cinema. Instead, we have an exploration of what it means to love someone and to affirm-in that love-that the other person is a separate person, an individual, who has every right to pursue a meaningful path in his/her life. The point is to affirm the other person, you see, instead of making demands upon that individual to satisfy my needs, love me tender, love me true, take care of me, fill me up, spend time with me, listen to me! I think you get the point.
The director, Laconte, is brilliant and unrelenting in his probing of the dynamics of love. See The Girl on the Bridge (another triumph for Daniel Auteuil) if you want to see another example of his work. One other point about this director: he is an extraordinary shot-maker. He knows where to place the camera, he knows what angles to employ, and he knows how to work with his actors. As the story unfolded, and the various conflicts unfolded, I began to realize that there really were no villains in this piece. The politicians, of course, are corrupt and narrow-minded. But then again, they have been cast aside to a remote French provincial area whose isolation breeds a self-centered Gopher-Prairie kind of mentality (see Sinclair Lewis). I think the director's sure touch and insight into the way film communicates with images, is one of the joys of this film. The opening scene, for instance, shows the beautiful Madame La standing at a window and dressed in black-the widow's weeds. So how does she come to be a widow? You have to see the film to find out (April).
With a Friend Like Harry. . . .dir. Dominik Moll (France). The first scene of this film is perfect. The camera is trained low-angle on the sweaty young father driving his family to their vacation house. Two of the little girls in the backseat are fussing. The baby girl is colicky and feverish. The young mother is on the verge of desperation. The parents are on edge-and the family outing is nearly out of control. This scene is the place to begin. Every young family knows that this is what family life is really like when you have small children. Disney World may be great; but reality is the three hours of packing up, driving through the heat, putting up with their impatience and fits, and then unpacking the kids in the parking lot. Into this world appears-like a vision-the strange man called Harry, who approaches Michel (the young father) in a restroom motorway stop and announces that he is an old schoolmate from 20 years ago. Even that scene is perfection. Michel looks drained, ready to collapse. Harry looks invigorated, and holds his dripping wet hands in front of him like a praying mantis before the attack-and yet there is a smile from ear to ear on his face that reminded me of Travis Bickle's bizarre smile from the assassination scene in Taxi Driver (1976). And poor Michel does not recognize him. So the first red herring is inserted here. Has Harry made a study of Michel's past, and is he faking his schoolmate relationship?
Two things we learn about Harry: 1) He likes to solve problems, and 2) excess is the only way to fulfillment. Who has the problems? Focus on poor Michel, with a car that breaks down, with a vacation house that needs more work than he has time to give it, with two parents who are cloying in their emotional attachment to their son, with a job that fills him with no passion. Yes, Michel has problems. And with a friend like Harry. . . . Now everyone who goes to this film knows that there are going to be dead bodies involved. Moll's film has been characterized as Hitchockian by most critics. But Harry is no Norman Bates, and references to Strangers on a Train are inaccurate too. The Robert Walker character in the latter film clearly was mentally ill. Norman and he are homicidal cousins. But Harry is different. I never felt that he was a figment of Michel's imagination or a corrupted dark version of "touched by an angel." Harry is real all right. And everything he does makes sense-at least, it does to Harry. The plot is straightforward, believable, and well paced. It arises, as in all good films, from the characters that drive the plot because of their unconscious fears and motivations. It would be a disservice to summarize plot elements. Better that you watch everything unfold for yourself and judge for yourself the motivations of these characters.
I did wish I understood more about why Harry wanted to help Michel. But I was happy, for the most part, not to be given too much information about the past. No flashbacks, no secrets suddenly revealed at the last minute. No revelations of new identities. No, this time the orders are, "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be bumpy ride." A film like this invigorates and satisfies. The direction is sure-handed and consistent. Serge Lopez' acting is remarkable. He is a major talent. The film's first scene is played out again at the end of the film-and when you get to that last scene you will be reminded of how much mystery remains in our understanding of the role of the unconscious and the effects of "friendship" (however to define that term) on creativity, temperament, and fortune. (May)
Yi yi, dir. Edward Yang. (Taiwan, 2000). The film begins with a wedding scene and ends with a funeral. Both scenes emphasize the uncertainty of a moment of passage-in the first case, the uncertainty on the faces of the bride and groom, and in the second case the uncertainty of a father who has survived an emotional and psychological passage in his life. Between these two scenes is a modern family drama played out on numerous levels. In a film like this nothing much really happens. There are few overly dramatic scenes with actors pulling out all the stops. But there is rich drama here, and it is complex and meaningful and memorable. The plot focuses on the parallel lives of a father and an adolescent daughter. The father gains an opportunity to revisit a former love affair; the daughter begins the tentative first steps of dating. In one of the best scenes in the film, the director cuts between the father spending time with a former lover and the daughter on her first date. The crosscutting of scenes reveals what the two generations share in common-the desire for acceptance understanding, a need to be listened to, and a search for affection and intimacy. One relationship ends quietly despite great emotional pain and anguish. The other relationship ends abruptly when the young man the daughter cares for commits an awful act of murder.
As in all great films, the director here utilizes place as a character. The city of Taipei, Taiwan, becomes one of the main characters in the film. The characters interact with each other against a cold urban landscape of glass towers and concrete walls. There are numerous subplots in the film. The one that involves the young son of the main character is the most significant. The boy's magical response to his father's gift of a camera leads to some of the most memorable scenes in the film. Then there is the boy's crush on an older girl-which leads to some scary moments as the boy experiments with keeping his head under water in the bathroom and in the swimming pool. We follow this boy's adventures with a fearful interest, sure that something bad will happen to good people sooner or later. The film draws us in with this suspense, and other subplots, involving the mother's response to the comatose grandmother, a neighbor girl's estranged relationship with her mother, a new married couple's emotional roller-coaster ride, and some of the men who work with the father-all are handled with a sure touch and with numerous revelations of what the stresses and anxieties of life do to both the young and the old. At the end of the film, there is a magical scene where the daughter comes into the room to find the comatose grandmother sitting up and looking quite well. The two have a quiet conversation that means everything to the young woman. Scenes like this remind us of how cinema can uplift us by facing the rigors of life with an unblinking eye. At the end of the film the father states a theme that sums up all of the experiences we have witnessed before. He had the experience and did not miss the meaning. The durability of the human spirit is revealed in all of its ambiguity, ambivalence, and power in this film. The title translates loosely to "A one and a two.". (June)
Best films of 2001 A-L