At the Death House Door (Gilbert and James, 2008)

death_house_door

I’m convinced in lists such as this one, that the top handful of films are usually somewhat interchangeable. Certainly any film on this list is one that I would recommend heartily, enjoy, and feel would reward multiple viewings. The differences, then, in order between the first few films has as much to do with the context in which one saw the film and one’s own pathology and viewing preferences.

After screening the film at the Full-Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, I wrote that the parts of the film focusing on the personal transformation of Carroll Pickett from prison chaplain to anti-death penalty activist was more engaging for me than the investigative report into the case of Carlos DeLuna. I still feel that way, and a part of me suspects that the bifurcated focus has made it easier for some to dismiss the film as merely and only a political polemic.

I have read some responses to film that dismiss as (and for) being too politically slanted. Maybe, but as with Hoop Dreams and Stevie, Gilbert and James are interested, first and foremost, in people. The film reflects the beliefs of the people in it.

Other responses have complained that the film is all set up and no pay off. We are told about the tapes onto which Pickett poured out his doubts and fears after each execution he has to witness, but we never hear them. We do hear Pickett, though, and I would argue that we know what is on them.

Pickett’s odyssey makes for an incredible story. One of the executions he had to preside over was of a man who killed a popular parishioner during a prison riot. Watching Pickett negotiate, even in memory, the complex of emotions that his job has forced him to reconcile, I was struck by how the film begins with the political and moves to the spiritual. Like Plato’s Republic, which cannot answer the question “What is Justice?” without describing the perfect society, At the Death House Door begins with a seemingly simple, direct question and shows how hopelessly complicated the simplest questions can be.

Still Walking (Koreeda, 2008)

Koreeda's new film was my favorite at the Toronto International Film Festival
Koreeda’s new film was my favorite at the Toronto International Film Festival

Here’s the thing that’s constitutionally wrong with me–I still don’t get Yazujiro Ozu. Everyone at this year’s Toronto Film Festival kept comparing Koreeda’s newest film to Ozu’s works–other critics I spoke with, audience Q&A participants, even some printed reviews. In one of his sessions with the audience at Toronto, Koreeda suggested somewhat facetiously that his characters were too messy for an Ozu film and that they might be more at home in a film by Mikio Naruse.

Certainly the film’s premise, a close examination of a family struggling against the weight of social expecations, would make (and has made) fodder for an Ozu film, but for me that’s a bit like calling any examination of doubt Bergmanesque.

As I mentioned in my review of the film (at Looking Closer), Koreeda suggested he structured the film around objects. This means that rather than being filtered through any one character, the family’s dynamics are revealed organically and no one character’s experiences are given the impratur of idealization. Certainly, given Koreeda’s admitted inspiration for the film–his own mother’s passing–one would expect Ryota’s (the eldest sone, played by Hiroshi Abe) perspective to dominate the film. The film is neither an indictment nor a celebration of the parents, though. What is surprising–and delightful–about the film is how clear-eyed the portrait of the family is even when the setting for it is a situation that would normally invite excessive sentimentality. Bittersweet is one of the hardest tones to capture, perhaps because we are so cynical that we tend to assume instinctively that it is parody. Koreeda reminds us that emotions that we too often mock (because we find them embarassing or painful) are real and, often, beautiful.

Wendy and Lucy (Reichardt, 2008)

Warning! This review contains major plot spoilers.

Proposition: People who cannot afford a dog should not own a dog. Mr. Neo C. Crunchycon, your opinion?

Crunch: Look, Ken, despite director Kelly Reichardt’s clumsy attempts to (as she said in the Q&A at the Toronto Film Festival) “explore” (yeah, we know she meant “indict,” wink-wink) the “why can’t they pull themselves up by their boot straps” rhetoric she heard in the wake of Hurricane Katrina by pretending that Wendy is the victim of an unjust society which exploits her poverty-induced helplessness, it’s clear to anyone with eyes to see that the film as a whole supports the above contention and that Wendy (and by implication most poor people) is simply a victim of her own bad choices.

It’s not just her shameful, petulant resentment of the store clerk—carefully branded with a cross necklace in the sort of reflexive “all people of faith are villains” Hollywood iconography that drove Michael Medved to despair in Hollywood vs. America—who caught her shoplifting that shows her true colors, nor even her inexplicable frustration at the mechanic (who doesn’t charge her for the diagnostic and even gives her a discount on towing). It is the fact that she steals the dog food not out of necessity but while she has enough cash in her pocket to pay for it. (She pays her fine at the jail in cash, remember.)

While Wendy’s situation is sympathy inducing, her response to it is typical of the moral poverty created by the entitlement culture fostered by the nanny state. When caught stealing, first she lies, then claims that since she is “just passing through” the store needn’t fear recidivism. Somehow we are supposed to feel sorry for Wendy as she accumulates unexpected costs—but those unexpected costs are the consequence of her ignoring the warnings and help that others are trying to give her. When the car won’t start she mentions to the mechanic (in Oregon) that a previous mechanic in Utah had told her the serpentine belt needed to be replaced, yet she continued to drive it anyway, doing more damage to car. This sort of “thinking only in the moment” results—duh!—in consequences she finds undesirable and burdens she is unable to meet because she hasn’t taken the time in between the warning about and arrival of consequences to prepare for them. Instead she opts to trust that something will happen to avoid a crisis or someone else will step up to bear the costs of her decisions for her.

Just about the only responsible thing Wendy does is giving up the dog, but even that is done only when she is forced to and not because it’s the right thing to do.

Ken: Very interesting, thanks Crunchy. Mr. Liberal P. Bleedingheart, rebuttal?

Bleedingheart: Ah, nice to see the compassion in “compassionate conservatism” isn’t in any danger of eclipsing the conservatism. Sure, Wendy has contradictory impulses and strategies for dealing with her ever-mounting problems, but that’s precisely the point. Reichardt shows the “damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t” problems faced by the poor in our “blaming the victim” society. If she uses her money on unexpected expenses we say, “Why didn’t you plan better?” If she holds it back for the costs she will need to get to Alaska and start a new job, we say, “Why should we help you when you are not willing to invest your own resources?” If she tries simply to do without, such as when she sleeps in her car, we say, “You can’t park here!” or “It’s reckless and irresponsible of you to put yourself at risk.” Perhaps Wendy should have just stayed in Indiana and gone on welfare, but—and I think this is important—her stated motivation for trying to go to Alaska is that she heard there was work there.

Yeah, the store manager and clerk did indeed “teach her a lesson,” but that lesson is going to be an expensive one for them, too, because the drain on the economy created by taking someone who wants to work and is having problems and stripping her of the few resources she has pretty much increases the chances that she will end up on welfare and be a much bigger drain on public resources in the long run.

Crunchy: Ah, nice to see that logic is in no danger of replacing “tortured” in “tortured liberal logic.” It’s not that people aren’t compassionate to the poor—the security guard lets Wendy use his phone and gives her a handout, the mechanic gives her a discount, the home-owner gives the dog a good home rather than leaving it to be put down. Who’s to say that if Wendy didn’t ask, that the store manager (or clerk) wouldn’t have let her work for the stuff she stole or showed the same compassion the security guard and mechanic did? It’s the steal-first-beg-only-if-caught-and-never-ask attitude that gets Wendy in trouble, not the meanness of principled people, who are actually more generous towards Wendy than she deserves.

Bleedingheart: There is such a thing as institutional injustice or structural oppression. Let’s look at your hero, the security guard. He makes a big deal out of giving Wendy the handout, but when the camera pans on it, we see that it is a five wrapped around some ones. In other words, it’s clear that this is insufficient to deal with Wendy’s problems—and he knows it. So it’s really more of a symbolic gesture than a serious offer of help, more about assuaging one’s own conscience, allowing him to turn away from the poor person who is in front of him without doing any serious damage to his notion of himself as a good person. As for the mechanic, you are assuming he is being truthful, and he may well be. But he knows Wendy doesn’t have the money for a tow to get a second opinion, and he is shown on the phone placing a bet with a bookie. For all we know, the car could need only a relatively minor repair (such as the previous mechanic suggested), but he uses Wendy’s helplessness and ignorance to his advantage to bilk her out of a car that he can then liquidate for his gambling debts.

Crunchy: Well that’s a huge, cynical, pessimistic assumption, typical of suspicious liberals—reading sinister motives behind kind acts. You have no way of knowing if that’s true.

Bleedingheart: No, I don’t. But neither do you. And more to the point, neither does Wendy. It’s not that Wendy is in trouble because she happens to meet some unscrupulous people; it’s that she’s in trouble because the way society is structured makes it hard (if not impossible) for those who are poor to protect themselves from whatever unscrupulous people there may be since it is much harder for them to avail themselves of the services and protections that most of us take for granted. There is a point in the film where Wendy is walking and she passes a graffiti covered wall that says, ominously, “GONER.” It is her resources, not her efforts that will determine her fate, and her destiny is a foregone conclusion.

Heck, even the question of what is a necessity and what is a luxury is one that the film probes. The aforementioned sentiment, actually uttered by the clerk, that people who can’t afford dog food shouldn’t own a dog assumes that a dog is a luxury—a pet. But given the omnipresent threat of sexual molestation and attack that surrounds Wendy once she becomes homeless, a dog can take on a very different role—that of protector. Would the clerk and his friends sound so smug if we glossed this statement as saying, “Women who can’t afford to pay for physical protection should be willing to go without rather than trying to hold onto it”? Or maybe we’d all feel better if Wendy just exercised her second amendment rights to bear arms and bought a gun (which she wouldn’t have to feed) instead of a dog.

Crunchy: Yeah, I saw that “GONER,” too. But you know what? I reject the fatalistic, deterministic world view that it symbolizes. The demand for those less fortunate to pull themselves up by their boot straps is less about demanding they succeed than that they try—that they don’t, like you, just say, “well, it’s hard, so therefore someone needs to do it for me.” And I don’t think you should despise the little things. You have no idea if that six or seven dollars the guy gave her was a widow’s mite. Wendy is surrounded by any measure of things that, say, the poor in Two Legged Horse would give their right arms (no pun intended) to have—public transportation, cheap communication, free public services (like the animal control shelter), public restrooms where she can wash and relieve herself, but it’s just never enough for you people, is it? The solution is always that society needs to do more for the individual, never that the individual needs to do more for society. You know what, go watch The Pursuit of Happyness a couple dozen times. What one man can do, another can do.

Bleedingheart: Oh boy, you’d rather be poor in America than Afghanistan. There’s a goal to aspire to and a standard to be proud of.

Ken: Hmm. Is there anything you two can agree on?

Crunchy/Bleedingheart: Well, we can certainly agree that Reichardt’s direction is precise and assured, and we like the fact that she lets the situation speak for itself rather than glossing over or omitting the points that would be problematic to the point of view with which her ultimate sympathies lie. And we can all agree, we hope, that Michelle Williams is pretty damn terrific and would be guaranteed a best actress nomination were Wendy and Lucy a big studio release. She may get one anyway. Not only does she appear in every scene in the film, but she has to suggest change—particularly the gradual breaking of Wendy’s spirit—as much physically (in her posture, in her timing) as through dialogue. Because the movie doesn’t give her a flashy, Oscar baiting, scene, it might be easy to overlook just how accomplished this performance is. Sure, even a lesser actress could wring a tear or two out of Wendy’s good-bye to Lucy, but watch Williams in the quiet scenes—when Wendy’s on the train after leaving Lucy, when she wakes up from sleep to the imminent prospect of rape or murder and is frozen between the urge to run and the need to remain perfectly still, or when she is fingerprinted a second time and shows in her posture and face the silent transition from struggle to capitulation, from anger (at herself and at those too indifferent or distracted to see her) to resignation. She even manages to make the one overtly mawkish and sentimental scene seem real and not a manipulative grab for tears, probably because the script allows us to understand how much Lucy means to her not by having her tells us in inflated words but by showing us just how hard Wendy tried to hold on before finally letting go.

This review originally appeared at Looking Closer Journal.

Lorna’s Silence

A new film from the Dardennes is always a special occasion.
A new film from the Dardennes is always a special occasion.

The passing of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni last year (as well as the announced retirement of Eric Rohmer) sparked, as these things often do, another round of the “who are the greatest living directors” debate.

For me, such questions about writers and directors don’t really have a right answer. I think there is a group of artists who fit in the elite category and one’s inclusion in it is more significant than any casuistic rankings within it.

On a common sense level, the test for inclusion in that group is two-fold. First, they are the artists that, when you hear they have a new book or film, you feel immediately feel the pleasure of anticipation. They are the artists that the pleasure of watching their films actually begins before you watch and after you finish. Second, they are the authors or directors where you would line up to see the film simply because their names are attached to it.

This year’s list has four such artists on the list (Koreeda, James, and the Dardennes), with another two (Riechardt and Ceylan) who could be well on their way to joining them. All of which is my way of reminding myself that although I thought this a less than stellar year in terms of the amount of quality films I saw, I do feel blessed to be living at a time where there are a variety of talents who are at or around full stride.

As I mentioned in my review of the film (at Looking Closer), the buzz at both Cannes and Toronto surrounding Lorna’s Silence was somewhat muted. I’m tempted to chalk this up unrealistically high expectations. (As with Nuri Bilge Ceylan, I think the Dardennes have reached a point where their films are being compared to their previous body of work alone, which can skew one’s perspective.)

It’s probably more truthful, though, to say this film is little less accessible than L’Enfant or La Promesse. The first half of the film, which focuses on Lorna’s marriage of convenience to a Belgian junkie and her inability to turn away from him when the time comes fits nicely into the oeuvre that is a Dardennes film. But the second half takes some strange turns, and critics appeared uncertain what to make of it. I don’t say this to denigrate other critics or dismiss other opinions by saying they just didn’t get it, but I will say I’ve learned with experience not to be too quick to jump to conclusions with the Dardennes. Their preparation is meticulous, their thought process considered, and their finished products never come across before as haphazard. If there are problems with their story or idea, they solve them before they start filming.

So, yes, I think the end means something, and I tried to point towards an understanding (at least my understanding) of the third act in my review. My friend Russ once said of a colleague, “He understands that where there is recognized greatness, it’s his job to at least try to find it.”

The greatness of the brothers Dardenne is not really in dispute. It may be the case that years from now this particular film is deemed less great than some of their previous works. But I’m not convinced that the process of trying to find it has actually happened yet. We shall see.

At the Edge of the World (Stone, 2008)

Director Dan Stone commented in a phone interview that the transformation of the viewer provided the through arc for this documentary about Sea Shepherd and its attempts to foil Japanese whaling vessels in the Antarctic circle.

Again, most of what I want to say about this film has already been said in fuller review (this one at Looking Closer), so I won’t repeat most of it here. End of year lists are good at revisiting or rethinking one’s immediate response, and although I haven’t screened At the Edge of the World a second time, I do think it has withstood sustained conversation.

As a documentary, the film is informative without being too polemical. It has a point of view, and its makers have (I imagine) their sympathies. That said, the documentaries I like best are the ones that trust the audience enough to simply give it the story and let the viewers grapple with it on their own terms. In an age where docugandas seem to dominate the landscape, it is nice to see a film that is rich in ideas and circumspect in presentation.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Stoller, 2008)

Link to my review at Christian Spotlight on Entertainment.

Mila Kunis in emForgetting Sarah Marshall/em.
Mila Kunis in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

I’m somewhat tired of defending this film, so for the most part I’ll just post a link to my review. Perhaps, perhaps, comedy is it’s own justification. You either laugh or you don’t. And I found the puppet Dracula musical funny. I found Russell Brand very, very funny. I found Jason Segel alternately sad and funny. Mila Kunis puts the movie over the top with a wonderfully real and self-assured performance.

The end of the film will probably annoy some people, but it struck me as being honest and true. Rachel (Kunis) tells Peter (Segel) to go away, and he does. She tells him not to call, and he doesn’t. She has a conversation with one of her friends that ostensibly makes her see things differently, but really, she just gets tired of being alone, I think. In some ways, the end of the film reminds me of the end of John Sayles’s Honeydripper. You wonder how the characters are going to extricate themselves from a particular situation, and then the truth is revealed. And some people just choose to look past the truth. Do they look to a deeper truth? To what they want to be true? Or do they just decide that the truth means less to them than what they can have. I like that Rachel puts her foot down, but I think the film is honest about the consequences of trying to have and maintain expectations.

Do I think people will be watching this film in school twenty years from now? Probably not. (Unless there is a unit on the influence of Apatow or a retrospective on one of the actors.) But if you ask me what studio film I enjoyed the most last year, this is it.

Happy-Go-Lucky (Leigh, 2008)

Link to my review at Christian Spotlight on Entertainment.

Sally Hawkins gives a knockout performance as Poppy.

I haven’t seen this film topping many (any?) end of year lists, but it sure feels like the film on all the lists that everyone is talking about. Of course, everyone is saying different things about it, which is what makes it so interesting.

My meta-pondering about the film has focused on whether or not that is a good thing. One school of thought (very New Critical that) is that I film should mean what it means, and if it is effective, most people ought to watch it and get mostly the same thing out of it. Another way to think about it, though, is that a film that gets people disagreeing gets people talking about it.

Thinking about Happy-Go-Lucky as a hot-button, provocative film is interesting. People (at least the ones I’ve talked to) don’t seem to merely disagree about whether or not Poppy is happy; they seem to disagree passionately. Which leads me to the question of why we care so much whether Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is truly happy or just putting on a happy face. For me, the answer is somewhat obviously the latter, and the real question becomes whether her ability to do so is healthy, unhealthy, or inconsequential.

If this argument is stacked, it may be because the antagonist who delivers the accusation that Poppy’s carefree attitude is calculated and contributes to his poisonous hatred of the world may be such a hostile and negative character that we reflexively go the other way just to disassociate ourselves from him.

Even so, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the film’s post-coda resolution, with Poppy and friend literally rowing around in circles is dripping with irony. Perhaps it does not have the same hostile contempt that Poppy’s driving instructor has for her life, but it does (at least for me) still contain a strong whiff of, “If this is the life your philosophy has gotten you, what does that say for your philosophy?” Poppy is unquestionably happier than the habitually growling inhabitants of her circle, and if the film suggested that she was better off than she might be if she gave in to grousing, I could agree.

But…and this is a big “but” for me, there is a part of me that kept saying perhaps unhappiness is not always an inappropriate response to all situations. Just as physical pain makes Poppy seek out a doctor who treats the cause of her pain, so too can emotional unhappiness spur someone to address the causes of their unhappiness.

Is it better to settle? Is having a relationship that is limited to the current moment with no promise of (nor impetus for) anything further better than being alone? It’s not that I think there is anything wrong with clinging to those pieces of good within a sea of bad. It may actually be noble. But there is something wrong with saying “peace, peace” when there is no peace. So the question becomes, which is Poppy doing?

The Visitor (McCarthy, 2008)

The first thirty-five or forty minutes or so of Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor is just sublime. It is measured. It reveals itself gradually. It is anchored by a sad and beautiful performance by Richard Jenkins. It’s leisurely. It doesn’t try too hard to be about anything.

If the second half of the film is a bit too relentlessly expository and tries a bit too hard to rise to a level of social and political significance, well…the first half of the film was still sublime. The second half doesn’t ruin the film, exactly, but it does slow its momentum, which is, I realize, an odd thing to say about a film that I was complementing for being so leisurely.

When the film is primarily a character study, than the leisurely pace allows us to observe Martin (Jenkins), and the pace gives us an opportunity to observe the layers of his personality. When the camera reverse zooms and we see not just Martin and his new friend, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), but the New York skyline sans Twin Towers I immediately said, “uh-oh.” And it didn’t take long for the film to announce that it wasn’t just going to be about the difficulty of people connecting to one another but about people connecting to one another in a post-9/11 world. In case we didn’t get it, there is a mural of the towers at the detention center where Tarek ends up, the deportation lawyer talks about how things have changed in a post-9/11 world, and we generally feel with a sense of rising dread that what has begun as a great film will end as a rote civics lesson.

For all that, though, the film does keep providing genuine moments of human contact, mostly provided by Jenkins’s ability to inhabit rather than merely perform. There is a moment when he brings a letter to Tarek who asks him to put it up against the glass so he can read it. Jenkins holds the letter at arm’s length and then turns his head away to give his friend some modicum of privacy in a place that has none. It is a moment that is instinctive, not actorly, one that the film doesn’t draw our attention to but which is typical of the way the film keeps us grounded in people rather than situations.

Reading back over this, it sounds harsher towards the film than I feel, perhaps because the disappointment one feels at a near miss is proportionate to the level of expectations created. And it isn’t even as though I disagreed with the political sentiments. I’m just saying I was more interested in Martin’s attempts to learn the drums than I was in his education into the vagaries of our legal system. So, yes, it misfires, but when it is working, it is so wistful and engaging and true we end up just being happy to spend some times with these characters that we are willing to follow them into the land of conventional melodrama just to see how they inhabit it.

2008 Top Ten

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Yes, it is that time again. The deluge of end of year lists has begun, and I, as a self-proclaimed movie critic must contribute my own. This year I will again have two lists, my favorite 2008 films and my favorite “discoveries” (films from previous years that I screened for the first time in 2008). A lot of blogospheric ink is expended this time of year trying to distinguish between “Best of” lists and other, more personal lists. I suppose my own is closer to the latter than the former, though I fancy that I tend to favor personally films that are actually pretty good.

The creation, dissemination, and response to such lists have become marked by pettiness, pomposity, and preening—at least in the film blogosphere, which has become filled with these attitudes in general. I think the two standard tracks are to pick obscure films to validate how avant garde one is or two pick mainstream films to prove how one is not afraid to be labeled bourgeois by the effete and ineffectual critical consensus. There are other moves, I’m sure. And I’m well aware of how easy it is to build a review or a list around poking holes at others’ opinions. I would like to think I’m above such things, having arrived at a stage and point in my life where I have enough accomplishments that I don’t need everyone to love me or respect my opinions in order to feel good about myself and a point at which I don’t have the energy to engage in the relentless self-promotion and posturing that goes with marks the more solicitous forms of blogospheric film criticism.

As a result, I’ve grown more selective in the past few years, both in terms of what I see and what I write about. I don’t feel a need to write a review of The Incredible Hulk just because I saw it nor to take a side on debates about the merits of Slumdog Millionaire, which I liked more than the scoffers but less than zealots. If someone likes a film more than I did, even (especially?) another critic, what’s that to me? I guess I’d rather listen and hear why than immediately explain why he or she is wrong. What I find tedious is that they often spend more time explain why each other are wrong than just talking about what they liked about the films they liked.

Most of the films I’ve listed are ones I’ve already written about, and if I have, I try to note the link to the original review. I didn’t think 2008 was a particularly great year for films, but I know it was a pretty hairy year for me overall, so it could be that I didn’t see as many films as I normally would. I know a lot of the stuff that is being championed at the moment is stuff that underwhelmed me. Nevertheless, here are my annual favorites for anyone who wants to know.

10) Séraphine – Martin Provost

Link to my review at 1More Film Blog.

9) Three Monkeys — Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Link to my review at Looking Closer Journal.

I certainly appreciated Ceylan’s earlier films, Distant and Climates even if they were hard films to embrace. Three Monkeys is not what I would call a crowd pleaser, but it is a bit more accessible than the previous two films, and Ceylan’s visuals are always luscious. He can even make shades of gray look interesting.

8) The Visitor — Thomas McCarthy

The first thirty-five or forty minutes or so of Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor is just sublime. It is measured. It reveals itself gradually. It is anchored by a sad and beautiful performance by Richard Jenkins. It’s leisurely. It doesn’t try too hard to be about anything. (Read more…)

7) Happy-Go-Lucky — Mike Leigh

Link to my review at Christian Spotlight on Entertainment.

Sally Hawkins gives a knockout performance as Poppy.

I haven’t seen this film topping many (any?) end of year lists, but it sure feels like the film on all the lists that everyone is talking about. Of course, everyone is saying different things about it, which is what makes it so interesting.

My meta-pondering about the film has focused on whether or not that is a good thing. One school of thought (very New Critical that) is that I film should mean what it means, and if it is effective, most people ought to watch it and get mostly the same thing out of it. Another way to think about it, though, is that a film that gets people disagreeing gets people talking about it.

(Read more.)

6) Forgetting Sarah Marshall — Nicholas Stoller

Link to my review at Christian Spotlight on Entertainment.

Mila Kunis in emForgetting Sarah Marshall/em.
Mila Kunis in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

I’m somewhat tired of defending this film, so for the most part I’ll just post a link to my review. Perhaps, perhaps, comedy is it’s own justification. You either laugh or you don’t. And I found the puppet Dracula musical funny. I found Russell Brand very, very funny. I found Jason Segel alternately sad and funny. Mila Kunis puts the movie over the top with a wonderfully real and self-assured performance.

The end of the film will probably annoy some people, but it struck me as being honest and true. Rachel (Kunis) tells Peter (Segel) to go away, and he does. She tells him not to call, and he doesn’t. She has a conversation with one of her friends that ostensibly makes her see things differently, but really, she just gets tired of being alone, I think. In some ways, the end of the film reminds me of the end of John Sayles’s Honeydripper. You wonder how the characters are going to extricate themselves from a particular situation, and then the truth is revealed. And some people just choose to look past the truth. Do they look to a deeper truth? To what they want to be true? Or do they just decide that the truth means less to them than what they can have. I like that Rachel puts her foot down, but I think the film is honest about the consequences of trying to have and maintain expectations.

Do I think people will be watching this film in school twenty years from now? Probably not. (Unless there is a unit on the influence of Apatow or a retrospective on one of the actors.) But if you ask me what studio film I enjoyed the most last year, this is it.

5) At the Edge of the World — Dan Stone

Director Dan Stone commented in a phone interview that the transformation of the viewer provided the through arc for this documentary about Sea Shepherd and its attempts to foil Japanese whaling vessels in the Antarctic circle.

Again, most of what I want to say about this film has already been said in fuller review (this one at Looking Closer), so I won’t repeat most of it here. End of year lists are good at revisiting or rethinking one’s immediate response, and although I haven’t screened At the Edge of the World a second time, I do think it has withstood sustained conversation.

As a documentary, the film is informative without being too polemical. It has a point of view, and its makers have (I imagine) their sympathies. That said, the documentaries I like best are the ones that trust the audience enough to simply give it the story and let the viewers grapple with it on their own terms. In an age where docugandas seem to dominate the landscape, it is nice to see a film that is rich in ideas and circumspect in presentation.

4) Lorna’s Silence — Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

A new film from the Dardennes is always a special occasion.
A new film from the Dardennes is always a special occasion.

The passing of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni last year (as well as the announced retirement of Eric Rohmer) sparked, as these things often do, another round of the “who are the greatest living directors” debate.

For me, such questions about writers and directors don’t really have a right answer. I think there is a group of artists who fit in the elite category and one’s inclusion in it is more significant than any casuistic rankings within it.

On a common sense level, the test for inclusion in that group is two-fold. First, they are the artists that, when you hear they have a new book or film, you feel immediately feel the pleasure of anticipation. They are the artists that the pleasure of watching their films actually begins before you watch and after you finish. Second, they are the authors or directors where you would line up to see the film simply because their names are attached to it. (Read more.)

3) Wendy and Lucy — Kelly Reichardt

Great art doesn’t always have to have its origin in huge ideas or projects of great scope. Minute observation of everyday life will always turn over questions of great significance, because we are all faced with and live through such questions. Wendy and Lucy is about a girl and her dog. From that relationship–and what happens to it when Wendy’s car breaks down on her way to what she hopes will be an opportunity for a new job and new start in Alaska.

In my review of the film at Looking Closer, I proposed, tongue-in-cheek, that the film’s central question was whether or not people who can not afford a dog should refrain from owning a dog. From that central question ripple others: is society structured to create a poverty tax? what is the nature of justice? responsibility? love?

It is part of the film’s charm that it doesn’t assume the answer to any one of these questions is inherently more significant than the others.

Michelle Williams gives one of those live-the-role performances that are skewered in Tropic Thunder but garner Academy Awards more often than ridicule. From some quarters I’ve heard complaints that the film wears its liberal politics on its sleeve, but I disagree. It shows the situation and invites you to think what you might have done differently from Wendy, whether those choices would have made a difference, or whether the causes of Wendy’s downward spiral are as much environmental as personal.

2) Still Walking — Hirokazu Koreeda

Koreedas new film was my favorite at the Toronto International Film Festival
Koreeda’s new film was my favorite at the Toronto International Film Festival

Here’s the thing that’s constitutionally wrong with me–I still don’t get Yazujiro Ozu. Everyone at this year’s Toronto Film Festival kept comparing Koreeda’s newest film to Ozu’s works–other critics I spoke with, audience Q&A participants, even some printed reviews. In one of his sessions with the audience at Toronto, Koreeda suggested somewhat facetiously that his characters were too messy for an Ozu film and that they might be more at home in a film by Mikio Naruse.

Certainly the film’s premise, a close examination of a family struggling against the weight of social expecations, would make (and has made) fodder for an Ozu film, but for me that’s a bit like calling any examination of doubt Bergmanesque.

As I mentioned in my review of the film (at Looking Closer), Koreeda suggested he structured the film around objects. This means that rather than being filtered through any one character, the family’s dynamics are revealed organically and no one character’s experiences are given the impratur of idealization. Certainly, given Koreeda’s admitted inspiration for the film–his own mother’s passing–one would expect Ryota’s (the eldest sone, played by Hiroshi Abe) perspective to dominate the film. The film is neither an indictment nor a celebration of the parents, though. What is surprising–and delightful–about the film is how clear-eyed the portrait of the family is even when the setting for it is a situation that would normally invite excessive sentimentality. Bittersweet is one of the hardest tones to capture, perhaps because we are so cynical that we tend to assume instinctively that it is parody. Koreeda reminds us that emotions that we too often mock (because we find them embarassing or painful) are real and, often, beautiful.

1) At the Death House Door — Peter Gilbert and Steve James

Carroll Pickett
Carroll Pickett

Link to my review at Looking Closer Journal.

I’m convinced in lists such as this one, that the top handful of films are usually somewhat interchangeable. Certainly any film on this list is one that I would recommend heartily, enjoy, and feel would reward multiple viewings. The differences, then, in order between the first few films has as much to do with the context in which one saw the film and one’s own pathology and viewing preferences.

After screening the film at the Full-Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, I wrote that the parts of the film focusing on the personal transformation of Carroll Pickett from prison chaplain to anti-death penalty activist was more engaging for me than the investigative report into the case of Carlos DeLuna. I still feel that way, and a part of me suspects that the bifurcated focus has made it easier for some to dismiss the film as merely and only a political polemic.

I have read some responses to film that dismiss as (and for) being too politically slanted. Maybe, but as with Hoop Dreams and Stevie, Gilbert and James are interested, first and foremost, in people. The film reflects the beliefs of the people in it.

Other responses have complained that the film is all set up and no pay off. We are told about the tapes onto which Pickett poured out his doubts and fears after each execution he has to witness, but we never hear them. We do hear Pickett, though, and I would argue that we know what is on them.

Pickett’s odyssey makes for an incredible story. One of the executions he had to preside over was of a man who killed a popular parishioner during a prison riot. Watching Pickett negotiate, even in memory, the complex of emotions that his job has forced him to reconcile, I was struck by how the film begins with the political and moves to the spiritual. Like Plato’s Republic, which cannot answer the question “What is Justice?” without describing the perfect society, At the Death House Door begins with a seemingly simple, direct question and shows how hopelessly complicated the simplest questions can be.

Three Monkeys

3monkeys

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys was one of my Top 10 of 2008. It is streaming for free at The Auteurs on Sunday, April 26, 2009.

This review originally appeared at Looking Closer Journal.

What little buzz I heard about Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys coming out of this year’s Cannes Film Festival was that it was as much of a letdown as a film that wins its director a festival award for best director can be. It’s all about expectations, I guess.

Coming off of two accomplished and highly lauded features (Distant [2002] and Climates [2006]) the Turkish writer and director faced that inevitable problem confronting any artist who is hot in the Internet age. Reputation spreads so quickly as viewers and critics try so hard to stay ahead of the curve that, much like emerging professional athletes, directors find their successes extrapolated, the hype surrounding them intensified, and the expectations about their subsequent work burdened with double digit inflation.

All of which is a shame, really, because I suspect the very things that might marginally disappoint the avant-garde minded viewers or critics are the things that could very well make Three Monkeys a better bet for the casual or new cinephile than his less accessible earlier works.

By that, I guess I mean first and foremost that Three Monkeys has a narrative arc that is a bit more clearly defined than Ceylan’s earlier two works, which were primarily character and relationship studies. Three Monkeys does delve into character issues, but it does so within the context of a more traditional (if still opaque by Hollywood standards) plot. The action is set in motion when Servet (Ercan Kesal), a politician on the eve of elections, hits a pedestrian with his car while driving in the darkness of early morning. (In a wonderfully subtle and revealing detail, we are never told for certain if the person hit was killed.) Servet agrees to pay his chauffer Eyüp (Yavuz Bingöl) a lump sum on top of his regular salary if he will take responsibility and say he was driving the car. Eyüp agrees and begins serving a year in jail.

Once Eyüp is in prison, the focus shifts to his wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan) and son Ismail (Rifat Sungar) who must survive in his absence. Much as does Graham Greene’s classic The Tenth Man, this section of Three Monkeys examines the nebulous boundary that often exists between sacrifice and selfishness. Seldom is any sacrifice we make entirely personal, and there are often hidden (or not so hidden, just not immediately obvious) costs to them that are borne by the very people we claim that we are making them for.

Ismail wants his mother to get an advance on the payment from Servet in order to get a car, in part to help make some money while his father is in prison. Later, through an accidental circumstance, he begins to question whether or not there is a pre-existent relationship between his mother and Servet or whether she has had to bend to circumstances in order to survive. He also wonders whether he should tell his father what he knows (or suspects).

The basic narrative structure of the film, then, revolves around the accumulation of secrets and silences—the title refers to the proverbial monkeys who see, hear, and speak no evil. Whether or not the viewer thinks that there is a thematic point behind the examination of damages caused by looking the other way will, I imagine, go a long way towards determining the extent to which she or he warms to the film. The resolution of the plot suggests a somewhat fatalistic or determined attitude towards human nature—that we fall into the same patterns of behavior and don’t learn much from mistakes, whether our own or that of others. On the other hand, the film lingers slightly after the climax, and the mise en scène of the dénouement hints that clouds can gather only so long before a storm breaks. This ending is thematically thought-provoking in that the contrast between impulse and considered action is a major theme in the film and in at least one key incident, a repressed or stifled impulse is later—possibly—enacted as a calculated decision. We are left to contemplate, then, whether or not the consequences of each character’s mistakes have been avoided or only just deferred.

And I guess in some ways, I tend to focus more on what the film is trying to communicate visually, through setting and reaction shots, than through its plot devices. To focus exclusively or even primarily on narrative elements in a Ceylan film is a bit like discussing the symbolism in the flower selection of a Van Gogh. There is a distinctive style to Ceylan’s films that is beguilingly simple yet deeply rich. The direction can be a bit of an adjustment to those calibrated to commercial narrative film (with its preponderance of medium length shots and conversational cross-cutting). Ceylan will often shoot contrary to expectations, keeping a long shot where we might expect a more intimate framing (such as in a key scene between Hacer and Servet) or keeping the camera on the character who is watching rather than on the action he or she is watching (such as when Eyüp sees his wife on a ledge contemplating suicide and we see the scene play out in and on his face rather than on the ledge).

As is often the case with films by directors who convey information visually as much as through dialogue, there is a lot of ambiguity in Three Monkeys. The aforementioned scene between Servet and Hacer ends with a shot from a different angle, from between some branches, and we are left to decide for ourselves if this is a point-of-view shot and someone is watching. Occasionally (such as when Servet and Hacer are driving in a car) we will hear the voice of a character who is not in the frame, but when the camera pans to him the actor is not speaking, and we are left to contemplate which parts of the dialogue were real and whether this device represents words considered but left unsaid.

Christian viewers sensitive to problematic content should be aware that, as with Climates, there is strong sexual content in the film (though the actual nudity is moderate by Hollywood standards), and it is disturbing in that Ceylan will depict sex as a form of aggression or anger in which the goal is the humiliation of the woman or an assertion of power or control over her. The (unconsummated) sexual encounter between Hacer and Eyüp is not as violent nor as sustained as the one in Climates, in part because Eyüp, unlike the male protagonist in Climates seems to be struggling against those misogynist parts of his psyche that make women an easy scapegoat for one’s own failings and an easier target for one’s own unreleased anger.

I’m probably the ideal sort of viewer for Three Monkeys in that I’m not yet so experimental in my film tastes as to sniff at its conventional narrative frame (for those viewers I recommend Denis’s Thirty-Five Rhums) nor so dependent on a work’s self-exposition to balk at its ambiguity (for those viewers there’s always Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist). That said, I seriously wonder if the film will end up being the cinematic equivalent of a politician who changes his approach just enough to tick off his base without doing so enough to draw in new voters. I think those who like Ceylan’s films will be respectful towards Three Monkeys, and it might even cement his reputation amongst those who are familiar with his work but on the fence about their attitude towards him. I just don’t expect to see it on the shelves at Blockbuster or playing at any but the most niche-marketed theater houses any time soon.

My Grade: A-