Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Best of 2014

Here is my, as yet incomplete, list of the best movies of 2014.  I have still to catch up with Selma, American Sniper, Winter Sleep, and a few other candidates for the list---which will be supplemented in the next few weeks.  In this post, I discuss briefly what I found appealing, surprising, and magical about the top five movies, and even more briefly why I'm ambivalent about a few of the most celebrated movies. 

1.  A Most Violent Year
2.  Locke
3.  Two Days, One Night
4.  Force Majeure
5.  Whiplash
6.  Boyhood
7.  Love Is Strange
8.  Leviathan
9.  A Most Wanted Man
10.  Ida
11.  Gloria
12.  Birdman
13.  Foxcatcher
14.  The Grand Budapest Hotel
15.  Citizenfour
16.  Nightcrawler
17.  The Drop
18.  Finding Vivian Maier
19.  The Skeleton Twins
20.  The Theory of Everything
21.  The Imitation Game
22.  Mr. Turner
23.  Rosewater
24.  Stranger by the Lake
25.  Jodorowsky's Dune

A Most Violent Year has been described as the "anti-Godfather."  Set in New York in the winter of
1981, it explores the plight and pluck of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a self-made businessman in the corruption-ridden business of oil delivery, a man struggling to define and defend scruples while besieged by government investigations, creditors, and rivals.  His wife and business manager, Anna (Jessica Chastain) has fewer scruples, wavering between collusion and icy disdain.  The movie is edgy and smoldering.  Violence is mostly threatened and off-stage; the main and absorbing conflict is moral, an effort to refine pragmatism in an incendiary world.  Isaac's performance is one of year's best, and Chastain is, as ever, magnetic.

Locke is a tour-de-force.  In less than ninety minutes, with one actor (Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke) and one setting (Ivan"s car), director Stephen Knight uses the device of a series of phone calls to show Locke's life unraveling, to explore the nuances of professional and personal responsibility.  The mystery of Locke's errand, which forces him to abandon the most important professional task of his career, slowly comes apparent.  In a year of extraordinary performances, Hardy's is one of the best and more-or-less neglected.

Two Days, One Night also shows the moral and psychological universe in microcosm.  The Belgian Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, in a series of terrific films look at marginal lives in crisis, at characters forced to come to terms with their best and worst instincts.  Marion Cotillard is Sandra, a factory worker seeking to return to work after struggling with a nervous disorder.  The factory owner has given the workers a Solomonic choice after deciding that Sandra's job is not essential; voting to bring her back means giving up a substantial bonus.  Sandra, fighting her anxieties all the way, lobbies her colleagues.  Their responses are revelatory, mini-autobiographies that penetrate the range of empathy and selfishness in human attitudes..

The Swedish movie, Force Majeure, like Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, is about a couple in crisis.  On vacation at a ski resort with their two near-adolescent kids, Tomas and Edda (Johannes Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongall) react to what appears to be an avalanche threatening their hotel, Edda clutching the kids and Tomas fleeing in fear.  In the aftermath, they are forced to address their instncts and vulnerabilities---along with mutual trust.  The overriding force majeure in Ostlund's eloquent film is not the force of nature but the kinds of fear and weakness that we cannot admit to ourselves.

Whiplash is a fever dream about ambition and domination.  Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), studying in a prestigious jazz academy, falls under the tutelage of Terence Fleming (J. K.Simmons), a maniacal and sadistic teacher.  The dynamic may be unrealistic, but the psychological subtext addresses the single-mindedness of the pursuit of success with primal force.

Three acclaimed movies had enormous strengths---and weaknesses.  Mr. Turner captures every element of J. W. Turner's nineteenth century England with fidelity and rare beauty, and Timothy Spall's performance is another of 2014's relatively neglected masterstrokes of acting.  But, in shying away from the predictable plod of movie biography, the very long movie is full of odd fragments that leave the reader to build her own psychological matrix.  Two other biographical movies make exactly the compromises that Mike Leigh, in Mr. Turner declines to make.  As Christian Caryl argues well in The New York Review of Books, the problem with The Imitation Game is not that it distorts history and life, but that it does so by making Alan Turing into the kind of scientist with the kinds of experiences that only unimaginative audiences expect.  A movie closer to his actual life would have been much more interesting. And Theory of Everything features perhaps the best male performance in a year crowded with them by Eddie Redmayne, but it assumes that any effort to spend more than ten minutes with the actual achievements and obsessions of Stephen Hawking's life would drive audiences away.  So it focuses quite a bit on the teasing romance between Hawking's wife and her choirmaster. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Retrospective on 2013

2013 came and went during my hiatus from the blog.  Here, in order, are what I think were the best movies of last year.  In the rest of this post and the next I will discuss some of the top choices and some of the less known movies from the list.

1.  The Great Beauty
2.  Inside Llewyn Davis
3.  Before Midnight
4.  12 Years a Slave
5.  The Gatekeepers
6.  Stories We Tell
7.  Fruitvale Station
8.  Philomena
9.  The Act of Killing
10,  Enough Said
11.  20 Feet from Stardom
12.  Gravity
13.  The Attack
14.  The Past
15.  The Hunt
16.  All Is Lost
17.  Nebraska
18.  Her
19.  A Hijacking
20.  American Hustle
21.  The Spectacular Now
22.  Much Ado about Nothing
23.  Caesar Must Die
24.  Short Term 12
25.  Rush
26.  War Witch
27.  Prisoners
28.  The Great Gatsby
29.  Frances Ha
30.  Blue Jasmine
31.  The Dallas Buyers Club
32.  No

The four documentaries among the top eleven movies could hardly be more varied.  The Gatekeepers, from Israel and directed by Dror Moreh, is an intellectual tour de force.  Its fascination rests entirely in its thoughtfulness and candor, in the way it consistently engages the mind.  In an era of cynicism toward politics in general and specifically toward government officials who safeguard intelligence and security, it restores some confidence in smartness and openness.  The Gatekeepers consists of interviews with the six most recent heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence service, and the subjects assess their roles, their strengths and failures, and the course of recent Israeli history in a way that is engaging, critical, and bracingly intimate. 

Sarah Polley's acclaimed Stories We Tell is another solid and entertaining achievement in her bright and unpredictable career.  After a decade of acting in a few of the best Canadian and international movies, she directed two emotionally acute dramas, Away from Her and Take This Waltz, and now offers a memoir of his youth.  Her parents were celebrities in Canadian theater, her father a major player on the stage and her mother a flamboyant, popular, and skilled actress in various media.  The movie tells the story of her true paternity, but it is more importantly the story of how we all reinvent the stories of our lives to find our place in the world and to find a stable self in the mirror.  As many critics have noted, the credits pack a shock that makes Stories We Tell a treat to replay in our minds.

The Act of Killing is flamboyant in a different sense.  It explores a dangerous and unstable premise about profoundly dangerous and unstable individuals.  The anonymous director unearthed several of the leaders and protagonists of the Indonesian death squads that were responsible for ten of thousands of killings in the 1960s.  These men evaded any kind of justice and retained political influence.  In the movie, the director challenges them to re-enact their most brutal and sadistic killings, both as perpetrators and mock victims.  Their response is often a giddy indulgence in celebrity, a child-like wallowing in bottomless horror.  The movie tries to fathom the limits of their shamelessness.  The (scarecely believable) emergent theme is that they saw themselves as players in movies and that they never grasped altogether the reality of their acts.

The Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom, craftily directed by Morgan Neville, also looks back several decades, but at persons with whom we can feel deeply comfortable.  It updates us on the careers of the very talented women who were back-up singers for music groups in the 70s and 80s.  It explores the on-again, more-often-off-again nature of success in the world of such appealing and talented individuals as Darlene Love and Judith Hill.  It has much to say about how lives coalesce into careers and how, as Leonard Woolf said, "the journey not the arrival matters."

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Spring and Summer, 2014

After two years, I'm resuming these reviews with every intention of posting at least twice a month.  This time, I have thoughts about six spring and summer movies, including two movies that are among the best of the year and one that has had an overwhelmingly positive critical response.

The movie that most impressed me in the first seven months is Stephen Knight's Locke.  An exercise in constraint, it sets itself (and the audience) a special challenge.  Except for the briefest of scenes at the start and end of the movie's 85 minutes, the camera is focused on Ivan Locke as he is driving (in real time) on a mission of mercy and obligation.  Locke, a construction expert charged with supervising the most extensive non-military pouring of concrete in the history of London, is leaving the work to an untested subordinate.   His non-stop phone conversations make clear that he faces immediate and potentially devastating personal and professional crises   The screenplay is drum-tight, nothing wasted or without purpose.  Tom Hardy's textured performance as Locke proves one more time that he is as versatile, shrewd, and compelling an actor as we now have.  The movie stirs questions about moral responsibility, trust, and self-esteem without waving banners of significance.  It's a stunning achievement.

Another unsurprisingly stunning performance is Philip Seymour Hoffman's in A Most Wanted Man, adapted by John LeCarre from his own novel and directed by Anton Corbijn.  Gunther Bachmann, Hoffman's character, is a high-level anti-terrorist security officer in Hamburg.  He is troubled by the covert appearance of Issa Karpov, a potential terrorist seeking asylum and seeking as well his generous inheritance from his father's shady activities.  Bachmann and the police agree that Karpov is to be investigated and manipulated, but they disagree along humanitarian lines about how is ultimately to be handled.  The pace of the investigation guides the pace of the movie, slow but unrelenting as tension grows.  Tone and attitude are always convincing, and the members of Bachmann's team are subtly differentiated.  Robin Wright, as a representative of American intelligence, gives a witty and animated performance; in her scenes with Hoffman, she is the character who holds your eyes.  Rachel McAdams is fine as Karpov's lawyer although she and Karpov (the popular Russian actor, Grigory Dobrygin) are glamorous enough that one suspects they have modeling gigs lined up for idle moments away from the camera.  This was Hoffman's last major role.  As always it is a lesson in the actor's art.

The most acclaimed movie of the year, although to my mind a step below Locke and Wanted Man in polish and perfection, is Richard Linklater's very rewarding Boyhood.  The story of a boy's passage from the age of 6 to 18, the movie has been justifiably praised for offering a thoroughly realistic template for adolescence, one with which men (and perhaps women as well) in the audience can identify.  It is now very well-known that Linklater made the movie over twelve years, bringing the actors together each year for about ten days for new installments.  Ellar Coltrane, who plays Mason, is uniquely easy to identify with Mason, his character, although one must resist doing so.  Ethan Hawke, Linklater's frequent collaborator, plays Mason Sr., and Patricia Arquette is Olivia, the mother.  The couple is divorced throughout the twelve years, and Linklater feeds our interest in the various complementary ways they influence Mason.  Hawke and Arquette are utterly persuasive.  What's not to like?  Not much, but I left the theater with disconcerting questions as well as answers.  It is, first of all, hard to tell what is scripted and what is improvised.  The few scenes without adults are aimless and flat; though brief, they seriously interrupt the movie's pace.  Second, it is hard to tell whether Mason is an object or a window.  He thinks of himself as an observer and plans to be a photographer; in many scenes he hides behind a curtain of hair.  Are we supposed to see the world through his eyes---or see him?  Finally, the movie (not unlike the Beyond trilogy from Linklater and Hawke) is realistic in its pacing.  In other words, it shuns a beginning-middle-end structure for a one-thing-after-another pace.  One has a vague sense that Linklater wants to have it both ways, wants us to impose a structure but wants to give us little to play with in doing so.  It's something of a tease. 

Land Ho! is a trifle, but a hearty and honest one.  Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) and Colin (Paul Eenhoorn) are former brothers-in-law, once married to sisters.  Now divorced (Mitch) and widowed (Colin) and estranged for some years, they come together on the occasion of Colin's divorce from his second wife.  Mitch surprises Colin with the fait accompli of an excursion to Iceland, and Colin warily agrees.  And a road movie ensues.  The two elderly men predictably fight, bond, differ, and reminisce---and there is enough of Iceland itself and of secondary characters to keep boredom at bay.  The relationship feels real.  But the realism extends to Mitch's relentless sexism, intolerance, and intrusiveness and the excuse of age is hardly a defense.  Colin understandably withdraws, and his character remains elusive.  And there are odd moments of giddy dancing that seem to belong to other characters, not these guys. 

Bong Joon-Ho's Snowpiercer, adapted from a French science fiction novel, is the director's first non-Korean movie.  It is an American/Korean/Czech co-production and feels appropriately placeless.  The tongue-in-cheek premise is that a misguided attempt to cool the planet and counter global warming ended up with a deep freeze and the end of human life---except, of course, for a small group of survivors on an endless trip on a perpetual-motion train circling the globe.  The train attempts to replicate the classes of society, but in fact the denizens are divided between those on one hand who enjoy wasteful luxury that copies decadent night clubs of the 80s and country club suburbs of the 50s, and the rest who are given all the amenities of concentration camp residents.  The latter unsurprisingly choose to rebel and seize power. Chris Evans somberly and powerfully plays Curtis, their leader, while the ruler in chief is played by Ed Harris and his spokesperson, Mason, is wildly over-acted by Tilda Swinton.  Most scenes work; some don't.  Among the latter are satirical attempts to show indoctrination in a schoolroom for privileged kids and to lecture using the familiar bromides that justify oppression.  Bong has a fine imagination for off-beat action and unexpected results, and is effective in giving the suggestion and not the reality of gore. 

Brendan Gleeson has been applauded by critics for his role as Father James Lavelle, a village priest, in John Michael McDonagh's Calvary.  As usual, he is realistic and intensely affecting, giving a performance that's a lesson in acting on a par with Hoffman's.. Unfortunately he is stranded by an unconvincing and underthought screenplay and surrounded by even less convincing characters.  Father James, in the first and much the best scene, takes confession from a man who vows to kill him seven days hence, arguing that his own suffering as an innocent victim of abuse can be rectified only by another sacrifice of an innocent, the priest.  (Logic crumbles.)  Father James seeks out his parishioners, not so much to determine his promised killer, but to assess their states of mind.  All of them have forsaken the church and chosen cynical, mindless narcissism of a kind found much less in life than in bad plays that offer dark forebodings of addiction and suicidal behavior.  The producing team was intent on saving money on extras, and the village seems inhabited only by seven or eight self-destructive poseurs.  The climax finally arrives, and the movie tries to shift from failed farce to tragedy.  It doesn't work well.

Next time, in a couple of weeks, I will offer my list of the top movies of 2013 and single out some of the least known and choicest ones.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Best of 2012---and Why (Part 1)

Here is my list of the best movies of 2012, along with my reasons.  Or some of them.  I discuss below my responses to six of the top awards contenders, my enthusiasms and my reservations.  In the next posting, in a couple of weeks, I will look at some of the less-noticed movies that made my list and deserve attention.

First, the list: 
1.  Zero Dark Thirty
2.  Lincoln
3.  Beasts of the Southern Wild
4. The Footnote
5.  Oslo August 31st
6.  Rust and Bone
7.  Ai Wei Wei:  Never Sorry
8.  In the Family
9.  The Kid with a Bike
10.  Monsieur Lazhar
11.  Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
12.  Argo
13.  The Sessions
14.  Barbara
15.  The Master
16.  Moonrise Kingdom
17.  Keep the Lights On
18.  The Forgiveness of Blood
19.  Amour
20.  The Intouchables
21.  Polisse
22.  This Is Not a Film
23.  Magic Mike
24.  The Life of Pi
25.  Easy Money
26.  Looper
27.  Your Sister's Sister
28.  Flight
29.  The Day He Arrives
30.  Bernie
31.  Silver Linings Playbook
32.  Farewell My Queen
33.  The Deep Blue Sea
34.  Compliance

One caveat.  The list is not complete.  I have yet to see several contenders (Holy Motors, Searching for Sugar Man, The Impossible, Pina, Almayer's Folly, Skyfall, Django Unchained), and some of these and others may be added to the list over coming weeks.

What makes Zero Dark Thirty best of the year?  Kathryn Bigelow and her scriptwriter, Mark Boal, intoxicate the viewer appealing both viscerally and intellectually.  Without minimizing the complexity of the story of the search for Bin Laden, they achieve clarity, immediacy, and ever-accelerating momentum.  The movie's fidelity to history will be controversial for as long as the question is of interest.  But the screemplay makes clear that many inputs contributed to the outcome, and that many conflicting versions of "truth" are available.  At the same time, the passion, intelligence, skepticism, and dedication of those most directly involved is argued for and made evident.  At one level, the goal is simple and those who pursue it are single-minded; at another, they are complex and conflicted individuals with ordinary doubt, ordinary ambivalence.  Jessica Chastain, as Maya, the pivotal figure in the investigation, is an exemplar of all these qualities in a luminous performance.  But the movie is more than a historical reconstruction.  It never loses sight of larger questions of strategy and policy; it remains even-handed if hardly neutral.  When critics say, as several have, that this is a movie that will be watched and discussed decades from now, the claim is easy to take seriously.  It's exhausting and exhilarating.

Lincoln is a close second best.  It seems to me easily and surprisingly Steven Spielberg's most nuanced movie.  The brilliant screenplay by Tony Kushner is the creation of a playwright weaned on the stage, and some might object to the confinement of the "action," such as it is, to a few rooms and to the fact that the movie is, for the most part, a series of conversations.  One might assume, if one did not know otherwise, that this is an adapted stageplay.  Spielberg turns this sometime-defect into a virtue by emphasizing two dramas, the drama that transpires inside the tortured soul of an individual (Lincoln, Mary Todd) and the drama implicit in political struggle.  Both here turn out to be closet dramas of endless fascination.  Daniel Day-Lewis' performance gives equal weight to Lincoln's vulnerabilities, shrewdness, and unbending dedication, a Lincoln who exercises the canniness of Lyndon Johnson in the service of high moral principles.  The movie's pulse quickens whenever Sally Field (as Mary Todd Lincoln) and especially Tommy Lee Jones (as Thaddeus Stevens) take center stage.  

Ben Affleck's Argo is a charmer.  It recounts an indisputably heroic incident from recent history, and melds it with a fresh satire on movie-making and an edge-of-the seat thriller.  It's hard to walk away unsatisfied, but it's also possible to feel that the whole is smaller than the sum of its parts.  The efforts of Tony Mendez, a CIA expert on disguise and espionage, to rescue six Americans trapped in the Canadian embassy during the early months of the Iran hostage crisis, is the true-life basis for the movie.  Also true is that Mendez contrived to have the escapees masquerade as the advance crew for a movie, a fictitious project made-to-order for the rescue.  John Goodman (as John Chambers, an important figure in the history of makeup) and Alan Arkin (as the movie's director) have a grand time satirizing Hollywood's pretensions.  As the escape becomes more hair-breadth (or the breadth of the hair becomes narrower) Argo's credibility falls victim to its Bourne-inspired thrills.  Not bad at all, but a curmudgeonly critic might say the Argo tries to sit on too many stools at once.

Amour is widely acclaimed, and deservedly so.  It is, as so many observers have noted, as incisive and unblinking a rendition of aging and dying as movies have ever offered.  As Anne and Georges, the married former music teachers in their 80s who are at the core of the movie, Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, giants in the history of French film, are impeccable and heart-rending.  And yet it is plausible to be disturbed not merely by the movie's subject matter but also by the manner in which it is told, disturbed in a way that gives rise to objections.  In his Village Voice review, Nick Pinkerton commented that "a movie in which incident is as spare as it is in Amour can certainly be great; a movie in which ideas and feelings are so sparse cannot."  The mark of a Michael Haneke film over his career has been the corruption of the human spirit.  Funny Games, his first movie, was about the sadistic torture and murder of a family by a gang that invades their vacation home; The Piano Teacher and The White Ribbon, both evocative films, dramatize the power of malevolence and misanthrophy to destroy the ideals of youth.  While it is possible to see the title of Amour as non-ironic, the plausible counter-argument is that the theme of the movie is petrification of Georges' love; early in the film Anne puzzlingly calls him a "monster," and the movie can be seen as incrementally validating that claim. Mme. Riva said in interviews that in a Haneke movie, the actors don't suffer; the audience does.

A perfectly pleasant movie, Silver Linings Playbook seems overpraised.  It is a genial romantic comedy with more than adequate performances.  The troubled protagonists---Bradley Cooper as Pat Solitano, Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany---are said to be mentally ill, and the movie takes a semi-serious, semi-comic stab at conveying Pat's obsessions and bipolarity.  At times, the movie aims at gravitas and seeks our sympathy; at other times, Pat is an honest and transparent soul, a wise fool, the measure whereby others around him (his father, his best friend) are a lot crazier, a lot more trapped in their illusions and unhappiness.  For all its warmth and general freshness, the movie trades in schticks and cliches.  Robert DeNiro. as Pat Sr., sees his son as an object, treating him as a talisman of luck.  The real world makes no headway against dad's beliefs---and dad's eccentricities are repeated over and over.  Pat Jr. and Tiffany find common ground and are able to relax their demands on each other and their world when they prepare for a dance contest.  It is no harder or easier to take these characters seriously than it is with denizens of many creative sit-coms.

Finally, as someone who enjoyed the stage version of Les Miserables, I found Tom Hooper's film toothless and annoying.  Scenes that rose to a climax of excitement and frenzy on stage seemed diffuse (the scenes of revolutionary battles, the "master of the house" sequence).  Songs, more often than not, were filmed by a near-static camera in mid-closeup with no attention to context, no sense of the movement of the world around the singer.  The story of Javert's pursuit of Valjean and the later's narrow escapes is jumbled and episodic.  While the tunes have their critics and the libretto is undeniably often clunky, the direction of the film is its main failing.  The actors are variously stolid or flamboyant.  Russell Crowe does a fine imitation of an animatronic singer, while the much-lauded Anne Hathaway seems to skate the edge of over-acting.  Hugh Jackman strikes a credible middle ground---but each of the main actors seems to have a different notion of the histrionics of the film.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Late Fall's Bounty

This is the first of three surveys of 2012's end-of-the-year bounty.  More than ever, the major studios trot out their award candidates between Halloween and New Year, assuming (perhaps wisely) that critics have short memories and movie connoisseurs have time for movies only during the holidays.  This does not, of course, mean that we have to ignore the fruits of other seasons, but it does concentrate the mind.

Of the four movies in this review, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is the transcendent success, the worthiest candidate for honors.  For once there is no compromise in a Spielberg film with the audience's possible impatience or lack of historical sophistication.  The drama is almost entirely about the scheming and finesse that made possible passage of the thirteenth amendment outlawing slavery.  Few movies better illustrate the adage that, if we have refined sensitivities, we had best turn our attention from the making of good laws or good sausages.  Lincoln knows that connivances and compromises were needed to achieve his goals, and he embraced them with commitment rather than resignation.  He was the idealist as consummate pragmatist.  Spielberg, working with Tony Kushner's seductive script, makes the dark realities of politics gripping and transparent.

In a year of wildly impressive performances by male leads (Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, John Hawkes in The Sessions), Daniel Day-Lewis' Lincoln is the performance by which the Lincolns of the future will be judged.  His Lincoln is modest and self-reflective when he has the chance, commanding and charismatic when he needs to be.  He has many faces and few illusions, and he dispells any simplistic illusions that we might have about what it takes to achieve his successes.  Tommy Lee Jones, as Thaddeus Stevens, a leader in the House fight for the amendment, is, if anything, Day-Lewis's equal; the film catches fire whenever he's around.  And Sally Field's Mary Todd Lincoln reminds us why she is a two-time Oscar winner, and why she may well (and deservedly) get her third statue.  Her "Molly" is equal parts mad (in all senses) and shrewd.

The film can be faulted, although I would not do so, for occasionally sounding like a history tutorial.  And while it is often a flaw for a movie to feel "stagey" the airless confinements of Lincoln give it a concentration and coherence that seem necessary.  It's a terrific movie.

Ben Affleck's Argo deserves most of its acclaim.  It is a palatable concoction with three potent ingredients---a plausible re-enactment of a historical crisis (the Iran hostage taking of 1979-80), an adventure story with hair-breadth escapes and heroes and villains, and a satire of movie production.  Ben Affleck, wearing multiple hats as director and star, plays Tony Mendez, who in real life orchestrated the escape from Iran of six American civil service agents, using the pretext that they were a movie crew scouting locations for a blockbuster sci-fi feature.  The movie is canny about the adage that truth can be stranger than fiction, but it strays increasingly from the truth in trying to hold our attention.  The final sequences owe more to Indiana Jones than they do to Khomeini.

Argo makes superb use of the older pros in its supporting cast.  Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman are good company, even if they do not quite threaten Tommy Lee Jones' claim to the supporting actor trophy.  The movie is a very smoothly-oiled entertainment machine, but hardly any of it is memorable in the way that most of Lincoln is.

The Life of Pi,  Ang Lee's adaptation of Yann Martel's Booker-prize-winning novel, is a gripping and spectacularly beautiful adventure.  The core of the story involves the survival over several months of an Indian youth shipwrecked on a 26-foot lifeboat, adrift in the Pacific Ocean, with a Bengal tiger.  The novel and movie struggle a bit to make Pi's predicament plausible.  His parents, having exhausted their resources in maintaining a zoo in India, travel by freighter to Canada for a new start, accompanied by their animals.  Pi seems the lone survivor when a storm destroys the ship, except for an orangutan, a hyena, a zebra, and the tiger, who all share his lifeboat.  Eventually, the rule of survival of the fittest dictates that Pi and the tiger remain.

The movie's virtues are that it is gorgeous and exciting.  But it stumbles on its way.  Pi's narrative is awkwardly framed as a flashback told by a middle-aged Pi to a young novelist who may choose to transcribe his tale.  Needless to say, the middle-aged Pi, with bulging eyes, looks nothing like the teenager, played effectively by Suraj Sharma (who was not a professional actor), whose eyes are deep-set.  Anecdotes about how Pi chose his name (giving up the name "Piscine") and how the tiger came to be called "Richard Parker" are distractingly cute.  The story dabbles none-too-seriously in exploring Pi's faith in God, a matter that has preoccupied some critics.  Somewhat more seriously it concludes by half-heartedly offering an alternative narrative in which people and not animals populate the lifeboat.  Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of Life of Pi, however, is that, once one knows that tiger is a computer-generated simulation, one can't help but notice how many of the scenes have a children's-storybook artifice and unreality about them.  It becomes increasingly hard to suspend disbelief.

The Master follows There Will be Blood in the ambitious corpus of Paul Thomas Anderson.  Both films flirt with megalomania, the older movie depicting an empire built on oil and the newer film showing an empire built on faith.  Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, who, in the years following the second world war, puts forth a new charismatic religion.  L. Ron Hubbard's scientology is said to be the inspriration for Dodd; if so, the connection is a loose one.  Dodd takes as his assistant a war veteran named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a volatile and haunted man without roots or goals. 

Critics have found the movie's opacity to be something of a virtue rather than a sign that it is unresolved and unfinished.  There are tantalizing themes.  Dodd allows himself to take a paternal interest in Freddie, and that seems to compromise his mission.  There are hints of resistance within his flock, and there is tension between himself and his single-minded, ambitious wife (effectively played by Amy Adams).  But Dodd's message and Quell's obsessive and ungovernable character remain fluid and unclear---and one cannot help questioning whether all this uncertainty is part of the movie's intended scheme.  To be sure, Phoenix inhabits his role tenaciously and convincingly.  His character's nature is to flail and founder.  But, unfortunately, so does the film.

Next time, I'll look at The Sessions, Silver Linings Playbook---and a few other new movies.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Summer's bounty

In the shadows of superheroes, several smaller movies have landed to (mostly) well-deserved acclaim.  Here are six new movies, in order of merit and capacity to please.

Reviewing movies can be paradoxical.  It is often the case, but hardly always, that the more original and unpredictably exhilarating a movie is, the harder it is to explain its wonder.  That was true of my favorite movie of 2011,  The Tree of Life, a movie that divided its audience, capitvating many and leaving others unreached, intellectually or emotionally.  For me it represented with rare eloquence the continuity of life in time and space and the unnoticed ways in which we are microcosms of the universe.  A new movie that is far more accessible and, it seems, much more throughly loved by its audiences, has a similar message about the ways we are one with animals, nature, and society.  The movie is Beasts of the Southern Wild, and it is easily the movie to beat for best of the year.  It takes narrative lightly, asking us to share the life of Hushpuppy (brilliantly played by 6-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis), who lives in elemental squalor with her father in swampland called the Bathtub, outside the levees of New Orleans.  The early scenes are hard to watch as one struggles to assess Hushpuppy's vulnerability on one hand and resilience on the other.  The arrival of a storm of Biblical scope (Katrina?) marks a turning point; after that, one's investment and confidence in Hushpuppy is complete.  Miraculously, she becomes ever more concrete and ever more symbolic---and never seems a movie artifact or a manipulator of emotions.  Each viewer will have her own memorable scenes, but for me a sequence in a floating whorehouse was a heartbreaker.

Some films are catnip for hypercritical critics.  The mere statement of their theme is enough to convince such critics that they are cheap and meretricious, mere kitsch.  Often these critics turn out to be right.   But they fail to appreciate that most stories can be overfamiliar and sentimentalized.  The art is in the treatment.  According, The Intouchables, one of the most popular French movies ever, gets disdainful glances from critics while doing very nicely with audiences and word-of-mouth.  The story concerns Phillipe (Francois Cluzet), wealthy, aristocratic, and paralyzed from the neck down, and his growing, symbiotic friendship with Driss (Omar Sy), his disdainful Sengalese ex-con caretaker.  The movie makes no secret of its aim to show how Driss enables Phillipe to relocate purpose and happiness in life, and how Driss in turn learns to confront the values---material and social---with which Phillipe has always lived.  A lot of this is predictable and deliberately heart-squeezing.  And yet almost everything is done with subtlety and often with pleasant indirection.  The direction by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache has imagination, and the performances have charm.

The Swedish drug-culture thriller Easy Money is tight, complex, and credible.  Directed by Daniel Espinosa, it stars Joel Kinnaman (from cable TV's The Killing) as JW/Johan Westlund, a business school student (and stud) who lives to be upward mobile, to hide his backwater background as he courts the cool and wealthy.  He graduates from taxi-driver to drug enterpreneur, and predictably underestimates the duplicity of both his partners and their rivals.  The movie acutely takes JW's moral temperature along with everyone else's, and the movie has much to say about corruptibility.  But, while effectively humanizing even the main villains with kids and family, the story's understructure of trust and betrayal is familiar from too many, mostly lesser, movies.

Farewell, My Queen is Benoit Jacquot's account of the last four days before Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI fled Versailles and Paris pursued by mobs.  They were still years from their executions, but their absolute dominance was over.  The story is told from inside castle walls through the eyes of Sidonie Laborde (played by Lea Seydoux), one of many women who wait on the queen, in this case by reading to her and advising her on literature.  The movie is canny about exploring these women's social and political awareness and their conception of their roles and relationships.  They are full-blooded creations.  The movie's world treats men as secondary---and Marie Antoinette's emotional life is a hothouse artifact of this world.  The movie has many small points to make, but no large ones.  It meanders when it could do with dramatic tension, but it is shrewdly observed.

If the story of Bernie has not really happened in fact, it would have to have been invented to give Jack Black one of his best roles.  He is Bernie Tiede, assistant funeral director in Carthage, Texas, a man who manages to be both ingratiating and genuinely charming, the dear friend of all the elderly widows in town.  He becomes the special friend of Marjorie Nugent, the meanest and richest of the widows, until her demands overwhelm his generosity.  The fact that he kills her and hides the body in her freezer for months does little to turn the town against him---and his trial becomes director Richard Linklater's golden opportunity to explore satirically the mores, values, and social relations among the natives of northeastern Texas.  The movie's limitation is that it can be coy and snarky, as is Black's performance.  But it is also witty and smart.

The least successful movie of this crop is Unforgivable, a French melodrama by Andre Techine.  Roger (Andre Dussollier), a popular novelist with a writing block, finds inspiration in Venice, where his new surroundings include a new wife, Judith (Carole Bouquet), a former model who is something of a bisexual femme fatale.  Their entourage includes Judith's former (female) lover and her ex-con son, Roger's erratic daughter and her husband and lover, and others---all of them moderately animated and articulate, and all of them entangled in each others' lives.  But all of the characters are movie confections taken from countless movie stereotypes of French intellectuals.   If any of them have the breath of life, their exhalations weren't enough to cloud my mirrors. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Top Movies, First Half of the Year

Today I'm just posting my list of the top movies of January through June.  I've discussed all of them in previous essays.  The list is heavy with foreign movies and, unfortunately, obscure movies that are hard to find---although most will be eventually out on DVD and through other sources.  Distribution patterns are understandable economically, but it would terrific if the adventurousness of exploring foreign cultures of fifty years ago were, even to a small extent, restored.  In any case, the most interesting and rewarding movies released in NY and LA theaters this year were

1.  The Footnote  (from Israel)
2.  Oslo, August 31st  (Norway)
3.  In the Family  (US)
4.  Kid with a Bike  (Belgium)
5.  Monsieur Lazhar  (Canada)
6.  Once Upon a Time in Anatolia  (Turkey)
7.  Moonrise Kingdom  (US)
8.  Polisse  (France)
9.  The Forgiveness of Blood  (Albania)
10.  This Is Not a Film  (Iran)

In about ten days, I'll discuss  UnforgivableBeasts of the Southern Wild,  and  Farewell, My Queen---and more.