Picks: Best Films
The Artist. Dir. Michel Hazanavicius. I consider this silent film a remarkable achievement. At first I was reminded of a Woody Allen type of film, where we see the world of the characters from the inside-out. After all, we are watching a world that becomes the world of a 1927 silent film. All the cuts are seamless; we are in that world, and it is impressive. Immediately it becomes evident that music is one of the keys to enjoying (and understanding) this film. Along with music is the indomitable quality of the reaction shot! Who needs dialogue when you have music, movement, reaction shots, and a few title cards to make sure we know what's going on! And just think: acting in a silent film requires a different style of acting altogether from what we have grown accustomed to. Think about the comparison between the acting in this film and the heart-rending work of method actors in 1950s Hollywood films. From The Jazz Singer to Elia Kazan! What a leap of cinematic history! And don't forget about the dog Uggie! That dog stole every scene it was in—as one might expect in a good film. When the new love of the main character's life is introduced—the young Peppy Miller—the artist, George Valentin, is a goner. The art of the reaction shot again! Then comes parallel editing, when we see Valentin dancing to the legs of the unknown actress, and suddenly the screen is pulled away between them and the two dance together. A + B leads to C. That's editing! That's how the film moves: from one tour de force scene to the next. For instance, the four takes of the same shot that is bungled one after the other; the scene in Valentin's dressing room when Peppy inserts her arm into the sleeve of his jacket and pretends that the man is fondling the woman; the innovative nightmare within a nightmare scene—and all delivered with a generous helping of humor. Then comes the fall of Valentin and the rise of Peppy—an old story, but a good one. At some point as I watched the film, I wondered if this film would initiate a run of new silent films with different story lines. But then I realized: by its very nature a silent film exists within a circumscribed world—a mixture of love and fame and loss and regeneration and second chances and all the stuff that dreams are made of in that factory called Hollywood. The silent film needs a simplified story, and would not work for nuanced stories. If the acting has to be broad in silent films, then the plots have to be broad and workable and easily grasped by audiences. So we have here the fortunes of a great man slipping away toward obscurity while the fortunes of an unknown but future star rise and burn with a meteoric glow until—well, how can a film like this, with a plot like this, really end? I suppose the answer resides in one of two outcomes: either the love is renewed or the love is not renewed. Aside from this aside on the narrow confines of silent film plots, I want to emphasize how much I enjoyed this film and the way the director fulfilled the plot lines with great insight and humor. Audiences were satisfied at the end of the film. We had our 100 minutes of watching beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes and driving beautiful cars and enjoying beautiful homes; and then we see it all taken away from one of the beautiful people. But of course: our hero must hit bottom before we can exert sufficient compassion to see him raised up again and saved by love. And then comes the climactic scene, and the dog comes to the rescue, and suddenly I noticed that the entire musical track was note by note the theme from Vertigo (1958), music composed by the great Bernard Herrmann. I was shocked! How can the composer simply lift Herrmann's music. Once I recognized it, I had another thought: it worked well to support the intense and prolonged parallel editing that was the basis of the construction of the climax. Still, it was a bit disorienting, because in my mind's eye I could see the scene where Jimmy Stewart, obsessed with seeing Kim Novak on the sidewalk –and struck by how much she looks like the woman he once loved—follows her down the San Francisco street and stands across from the apartment building where she lives. Hitchcock's use of the music underscored the creepy nature of Stewart's obsession; Hazanavicius' use of the Herrmann theme was used to underscore the operatic nature of the love affair and the last chance to redeem the main character. After the climax comes a lovely ending that resolves everything and does so in a most imaginative way. This film is original, humorous, and endearing. It stayed with me for a long time after viewing it in the theater.
Arthur Christmas. Dir. Aardman Productions. Aardman is back! I thoroughly enjoyed this film, which will become a classic Christmas story about the importance of every child receiving a Christmas present—and about the passing on the torch of one Santa Claus to another. So much about this film bristles with imagination; for instance, how exactly are Christmas presents delivered by Santa Claus? The envisioning of an elegant spaceship sleigh that moves invisibly around the world and uses millions of elves dropping from wires to bring children their presents (and sneaking into homes to pull it off!)—all of this is the first exciting section of the film: lots of action, lots of movement, and lots of humor. And then the complication: one child did not receive a present. Never in the history of Santa Claus bringing presents has this problem ever existed. What to do! All right: let's introduce the main personages: we have Santa Claus (about to retire—but not quite yet), a dumpy and addle-brained old fellow who reminds me of an aging King of England (and his wife is as much Queen Elizabeth as anyone else). Then there is his son, the future Santa Claus, who is a big-necked and big-chested linebacker of a son who believes solely in technology and has the people skills of a frying pan. He's the one behind the hyper-sonic sleigh and all the digital programming that goes into making Christmas a successful “mission.” Finally we have the younger son of Santa Claus, known as Arthur (think of the Arthur from The Sword in the Stone (1963), the future King Arthur. Hint, hint: the family of Santa Claus comes across like a sneaky cartoon version of the British Royal Family. I'm not sure American audiences will get the joke; but we Anglophiles will relish it. Of course, our hero Arthur is a klutz, and yet a good lad by all means. So what will happen to Arthur? He will embark upon an unlikely journey that will make a man of him—that's what! And who will lead the way? Why, how about the old retired Santa Claus, his grandfather, who spends his days watching TV with his favorite reindeer, and old buck who wears the plastic collar around his neck after having some veterinary surgery done—who cares what surgery? What's funny is that he has the collar around his neck! So we have what looks like the bonding between two generations, and we have a marvelous adventure story that knows no boundaries. Oh, I forgot one other character: the little girl elf called Bryony, who becomes Arthur's mascot and helper. And what about the voice talent: James McAvoy as Arthur, Jim Broadbent as Santa Claus, Hugh Laurie as the egocentric and clueless Steve (future Santa Claus), Bill Nighy as old Santa, and Imelda Staunton as Mrs. Claus. If you know anything about contemporary British cinema, you know these voices are as good as gold. They bring the characters to life and make a joyful noise. By the end of the film the director puts five plot points into parallel editing tracks: Arthur and his grandfather and Bryony trying to deliver a present to the girl who was missed the first time around; the rest of the elves in mission control, about ready to revolt; Santa Claus and his wife trying to figure out whether or not he should help Arthur; Steve refuses to help anyone and walks out of the control room; and international spy agencies are embroiled in concerns about some strange UFO that was sighted recently (Grandpa Santa's old-fashioned sleigh—which doesn't have an invisibility cloak over it like Steve's technological masterpiece). And wait till you see what happens when the panicked elves in control central at the North Pole delete Christmas! Along the way you know what has to happen: old Grandpa, who once said, “You get old. Everything changes,” has to be change his ways of thinking; Steve has to wake up and realize he won't really make a good Santa after all; and Arthur's father has to act like the real Santa Claus he is supposed to be. And wait until you see the elf Bryony's wrapping skills! All of the plot points converge finally, and chaos does not ensue. Order and resolution and affirmation of Arthur is the outcome. Arthur may not pull a sword from the stone, but he pulls off the rescue of Christmas and is rewarded accordingly. See this film. It's too good to miss.
Buck. Dir. Cindy Meehl. This documentary combines direct cinema scenes (uncontrolled, no narration, slices of life) and interviews with the main character, Buck Brannaman and others who have worked with him, and it accomplishes what it sets out to by giving us a simple structure that satisfies: first, we get to know the talents of this man; second, we get to know what he had to overcome in order to be the steady hand that he shows when he works with horses and their owners; then we find out about his work in the film The Horse Whisperer —directed by Robert Redford; and finally we get to see him deal with one of the most difficult horses anyone could have worked with—and we witness a grave misstep on the part of Buck and one of his wranglers and then experience the joy of watching Buck deal with an impossible situation that cements our understanding of not only his skills as a wrangler, but his insights into human psychology and human society. In short, this film delivers the goods. It began with those scenes of him strutting his stuff, not unexpected, but then it dropped into biography, and we found out what his childhood was like with an abusive father (especially after his mother died when he was 10-12. Who can plumb the secrets of the human heart? How could this man come back from such deprivation and abuse? But he did, and he still does it, 40 weeks a year on the road giving clinics for horse owners having problems with their horses. Another key to the film is the introduction of his 14-year-old daughter, who travels with her father (and brings along a friend)—and now we can see something of this man's skills as a father as well as a wrangler. Later in the film we gain further insight into his own growth as a person when we meet his foster parents, “something I really needed,” he says in an interview. And then he gives a great line that his foster-mother used repeatedly: “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not get bent out of shape.” He got the lesson all right, and what rings true about this documentary is that the man you see in action is the same man you see talking about his life and the same man everyone who knows him describes when asked about him in interviews. He is consistent, he is able, he is compassionate, and yet he is firm and unyielding when it comes to his knowledge of horse and his insights into the problems of their owners. He would say there are no bad horses (or few); but there are many owners who have put their problems onto the backs of their horses. At one point in one of his clinics, he tells an owner, “This horse tells me a lot about you.” Buck also gives credit to the two men that taught him all he knows about horses—so he is number 3 in line of men who brought a new approach to horse wrangling: rather than breaking horses, they “start” horses in order to gain the horse's confidence and trust in them. Scenes from some of the clinics reveal his philosophy in action, and the climax of the film—and boy is there ever a climax—is riveting, difficult to watch, and revelatory of his mastery of his job. As Buck says at one point, “To have contempt for the horse never occurs to me.” Everything he says about horses applies to people's behavior, values, and attitudes. He's got the right stuff. And then for a last great moment, stay tuned for his foster mother's telling her favorite joke.
The Descendants. Dir. Alexander Payne. It took me a second viewing of this film to figure out my response to the film. The first time around I was puzzled that as I watched the film, I did not have a strong emotional response to it. But after that second viewing, I realized that the emotional content of the film is located in specific images and sections of scenes. In some ways I was reminded of Terms of Endearment (1983) with the drama revolving around the dying daughter. But in that film the daughter has cancer, and she has time to resolve some key concerns in her life—especially as it relates to her children. In this film one of the primary characters, the dying wife, is in a coma throughout the film. She is the proverbial “elephant in the room.” She can be seen animated, alive, determined, and joyous only in the first shot of the film—and everything afterwards is an image of her in a hospital bed. She does not speak; but in a strange sense she “has her say” in everything that her husband and her family experience. As the film progresses, every image of the lifeless woman in a coma becomes more profound. Shots of this woman become illustrations of the Kuleshov effect in editing—we supply the meaning for every reaction shot (not the actors and not their expressions). Remember, most people hide many of their emotional responses to life. And that too takes on meaning in this film. Within scenes there are extraordinary emotional outbursts: and yet they are brief, intense, often hidden from others, and therefore extremely realistic and effective. George Clooney, who plays the main character (husband of the dying wife) is excellent at sharing those brief outbursts of emotion. The one that stands out is the one I can't tell you about—but when you see it, you'll know it. And when you see it, you will know that everything in that scene makes perfect sense in terms of summing up their complex and often tortured relationship. Strange, then, that the overall effect of the film is one that foregoes the “big scene,” the “explosive scene,” the dramatic “climax.” Instead, the effect of the film is to follow one man and his children on a journey. At the beginning of the journey they are broken; and at the end of the journey they are healed. The last shot in this film is another perfect metaphor for the process this family has undertaken and completed. I did hear tears and the blowing of noses from the audience late in the film. But this is not really a tear-jerker like Terms of Endearment. And this film also takes careful aim on the metaphor of family itself. There are some who love to sugarcoat and idealize family. But in this film family is a rough and tumble, ambivalent, complex, and often frustrating series of transactions and appeals and nuanced agreements. Family is not a perfect form—its form evolves and everyone in the family has some responsibility in how it evolves. One other note in the film: living life is like removing the layers of an onion to get to the core. Every layer removed opens new plot points (complications), and sometimes you know more than everyone else does, and sometimes you're the only one who doesn't “get it,” and other times you have to find out for yourself or get someone to help you figure something out—and it goes on and on. In this film the unfolding of the various layers of the plot was masterful (and again, understated emotionally), and each revelation made sense in its timing and in its effect on the main characters.
Hugo. Dir. Martin Scorsese. I admit my bias toward this film—based on how much I revere the works of Martin Scorsese. At the same time, I don't hesitate to recommend this film because it achieves the essence of a good children's film: it creates child characters we can believe in and relate to, the children are put in great danger and survive, and the children teach the adults an essential lesson about life. In this film character triumphs over technique—thank goodness! The first shot in the film is an amazing tour de force tracking shot that has the camera zooming in from a high angle view over pre-WWII Paris and then zooming down into a train station and zipping between two trains while the characters between the trains seem to move out of the camera's way in the most unerring and routine way imaginable. And then Scorsese follows this tour de force with another one, showing us the child Hugo, who lives behind an enormous clock in the train station, racing up and down in his private world—running on gangplanks and stairs and flying down a magical slide onto the floor of the station: all of this in one shot again, as if to reinforce the idea that filmmaking is a kind of magic show that will take us to worlds we have never experienced before. Ah, the stuff that dreams are made of are not a silly statue of a falcon, but the impressive range of human desires and fears and encounters that only movies can bring us. The movies are the sources of our dreams! The movies capture and reproduce the world of the unconscious! But I'm getting ahead of myself. My real point is that the special effects world of computer animation seems to dominate the early sections of the film—but as the film moves along, what dominates are the characters themselves: the strange orphan named Hugo, the embittered toy shop owner in the train station always yelling “Go away!”, the grotesque characters in the train station (the flower girl, the angry inspector who wears a leg brace, the old couple who are attracted to each other but kept apart because the woman's dog cannot stand the old man), and finally the girl who lives with her grandfather—the old toy shop owner. The formula for the story is an old one. The old man who runs the toy shop is angry and embittered and thus “dead in life.” He needs to be rejuvenated. The grotesques in the station are all broken people in some respects—and they need to be “repaired.” The granddaughter is a plucky girl who is just right to become Hugo's defender and compatriot in fixing broken people. And so what happens has to happen: we require it to happen because this is a children's film and there will not be an unhappy ending to this film. And so it happens, by unfolding scene upon scene as Hugo's fortunes and the fortunes of the embittered old man in the station gradually become intertwined. Throughout this intermingling are scenes shown from the point of view of the young people (and Scorsese is a master at point-of-view and reaction shots). Add in a lovely subplot about the power of reading, and add in a lovely subplot involving the magic of the cinema (and even some historical perspective), and you have a happy surprise awaiting you. This film does not pack the emotional punch of Arthur Christmas , and yet it fulfills what is required of it: the young hero and his friend (and heroine) overcome the forces of brokenness and alienation and redeem what has gone unredeemed for too long. There is one more thing to note: in a world where the digital trumps the mechanical, it is lovely to have a film that gives homage to the extraordinary beauty and elegance of mechanical things—including the old-fashioned versions of the film camera and the film projector. And add to that one mechanical man that has more life in it than the broken-down and desperate human beings all around it. Note: after viewing the film, look up the main character's (not Hugo's) name on the web and see what you find.
Moneyball. Dir. Bennett Miller. Here is an old-fashioned film about a compelling character—a narrative about a general manager of a baseball team who wants to upend the old ways of hiring and firing players and rebuild his team around some new thinking. In a way, that story is a variation of many great films about iconoclastic and innovative individuals that have to “take on the system” in order to show the “old hands” that new ways of doing things can achieve significant results. The film begins with a marvelous image of the main character, Billy Beane, sprawled out across stadium seats—and this image combines the innate restlessness and nervous energy in the character with the view of the baseball executive “in repose,” assessing his talent. Brad Pitt's performance here and throughout the film is extraordinary. When at rest, his character is still coiled and dynamic and restive as a python lying along a trail. He is all energy—he is always on the move (even when at rest), and he punctuates that restlessness by his habits and routines, many of which have to do with consuming food! He is always eating something, and he is a creature of his routines. For instance, he can never watch an entire baseball game when his team is playing. He always has to escape and listen to the game on his truck radio as he drives here and there—just to relax, to focus his energies, to contain his energy. And guess what? He is divorced from his wife, and he dotes on their daughter. The film covers the years 1997-2002, during which Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics, was credited for bringing sabermetric principles to the forefront as a means of evaluating baseball talent. The idea was to get past the subjective evaluations of players (“He has a sweet swing,” “The ball explodes off his bat,” “He knows how to run the bases,” or “He is a smart player willing to go the distance to help his team.” Beane's analysis focused on actual records: How many times does he walk or get on base in a game? What is his steal vs. caught stealing ratio? What is his hitting percentage with 2 outs? How often does he stretch a single into a double? How many times is his first pitch a strike? The idea was to measure a player's performance with statistics that were valid and consistent, allowing one to compare one player's performance with another player. Well, statistics may be boring, but there is nothing dry and boring about this film and especially Pitt's performance. The film begins with reference to the gutting of talent under a former general manager—in order to reduce the team's payroll. Rich teams snatched up the talent, and the Oakland team was left high and dry. The screenplay accomplishes three things: first, Beane meets a young statistician who will become his right-hand man; second, the new way of analyzing talent is put into place—much to the consternation of the Athletics' manager (played with growling disapproval by Philip Seymour Hoffman); third, Beane's efforts in the present are compared through flashbacks of the young baseball phenom he was in the 1990s, when he began playing for the Yankees; and fourth, the narrative offers a realistic depiction of interactions between the general manager and his baseball scouts—who are not happy with Beane's application of science to what they have long thought was a matter of “gut reaction to talent”; and fifth, the narrative arc of the film leads to an end-of-the-season run for the pennant race that incorporates one scene that rivals the legendary climactic scene from The Natural (1984). Brad Pitt is in almost every scene, and his depiction of Beane is on the money: his performance reminds us of the human side of the story . Here is man who failed at marriage, who by most accounts will fail as a baseball executive, and who fears most failing as a father. There is a lot on the line for this man. His scouts drive him crazy with their inability to grasp what he is trying to accomplish—“You don't put a team together with a computer,” one says; but his greatest nemesis is his manager, Art Howe, who actively works to undermine the general manager's efforts—that is, until finally, when Beane snaps and pulls the rug out from under his manager (but he doesn't fire him). Pitt's acting in this film reminded of how film individuates. We see the character externally, but the point of view shots and the reaction shots all help us see the character internally. The technical elements are a means of getting us inside the minds of the main characters. To counteract the nemeses he faces, Beane has found a great ally in the young man (played by Jonah Hill) who understands baseball statistics as if he were a rocket scientist. Soon the dueling is not the world against Billy Beane, but the world against Billy Beane and Peter Brand (Hill's character). Their evolving friendship is one of the joys of the film. We will forget the scouts, and forget the manager—but we won't forget Beane and Brand. There is so much fear of failure and intense stress being experienced by the main character. He faces a crisis in confidence, and finally he passes the test. Ah, nothing like watching a film that incorporates the transformation of a character. One of his great lines to his manager: “Art, I can do this all day long.” He has to show the old man that he has the moxie to make tough decisions—even if those decisions are wildly unpopular. The manager is the manager; but the general manager hires and fires the players. And with his crisis of confidence resolved, he begins to interact with the players the way a manager should be interacting with them. At one point he tells them, “You may not look like a winning team, but you are one!” Now we are launched into a traditional baseball movie, and that means we are heading toward the pennant chase. The climax of the pennant chase is the winning streak that extends finally to 19 games—and then the magic begins, and you will be thrilled by how it's resolved. Then there is one more homage to The Natural (remember the shot that came in just after the fireworks subsided in the 1984 film), and then the film takes us to the end of the 2002 season, when Billy Beane is rewarded for pulling off a major change in the way baseball talent is evaluated. And then one of the great lines about baseball: “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” and then one more great shot to close the film—and then read the graphics on the screen—and you will go home satisfied.
Midnight in Paris. Dir. Woody Allen. After my second viewing, I still feel strongly that this is a great film—a triumph for Woody Allen. First, he finds a perfect younger-version of himself in Owen Wilson, whose fidgety and nervous behavior, hesitant and stuttering delivery, and naïve and hopeful mindset reflect the Woody Allen we used to know from Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979). So Allen finds his perfect conduit for this particular film. Wilson plays off of Rachel McAdams as his fiancée, and McAdams' character and her parents are about as one-dimensional as pasteboard cut-outs. But they are what they are—and there is no great loss to the rest of the film. I felt this film worked better than the last several Woody Allen films because the main character, Gil, resolves something in his intellectual and emotional self through the action in the film. The point is a very simple one, and I won't give it away here. But the joy of the film is in the simple transition that Gil makes early in the film, when he steps from one reality into another reality, and then we begin to follow him through the latter and experience wondrous encounters with the famous literati of 1920s Paris. Much of the joy and humor in this film is the way Allen animates these characters—Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, and others. Everything out of their mouths fits that character perfectly. Every scene from this world of magical realism was perfectly rendered. Allen doesn't forget basic film techniques here. The reaction shots of Owen Wilson after his first foray into that magical world revealed the utter joy of a frustrated author who never followed his dream. I also appreciated Allen's choice of music on the sound track—lively guitar music that reminded me of Django Reinhardt's work. (Remember Allen's Sweet and Lowdown, 1999 ?) As we follow Gil down the rabbit hole, every encounter more surrealistic than the former one, we begin to realize the magnitude of his self-delusion. At one point, he complains, “The present's unsatisfying because life is a little unsatisfying.” To that I might respond, “Yes, but. . . . I would rather face the present because I can do that one day at a time and learn to separate what is unsatisfying from what is, in some respects, permanent and surprising and redeeming. Or, as the same Gil says later, “If I want to write, I have to give up my illusions.” I suspect that Hemingway faced a similar problem and resolved it satisfactorily. In short, the film is a rousing good time with plenty of laughs, especially if you know anything about Paris in the 20s.Best Films N-Z