Talk to Her dir. Pedro Almodóvar (2002)
Is it predictable to sing the praises of Talk to Her at this point? Sometimes critical consensus does get it right. The film for which Almodóvar received the most critical acclaim might just be his greatest. It brought him his Academy Award nomination for Best Director as well as a miraculously earned (miraculous because of the Academy's hopelessly middlebrow aesthetics) win for Best Original Screenplay. Almodóvar continues to take our general notions of traditional ideals (in this case, love, or rather, what it means to be in love) and turn them on their ear. Benigno (Javier Cámara) and Marco (Darío Grandinetti) are two men who couldn't be more different, but find themselves in variations of the same situation. Both are in hopelessly and heartbreakingly in love with comatose women. Benigno has never had any real romantic relationship with his love. Marco had a torrid and passionate romance with his. Benigno is almost stupidly optimistic. Marco holds little hope. What ensues is one of the most beautiful meditations on love, communication and friendship (and also Almodóvar's best film). So much here begs to just...not work. The line readings could (and the lines themselves) should be maudlin where they are penetrating and poignant. The narrative should be soap-operatic where it is deeply felt and moving. This is the third time I've seen this film (with good spacing in between each viewing) and it never ceases to surprise me the new things I discover on each outing. The best films often reward repeat viewings. It's strange how I never cry until the end when the credits role, the haunting guitar swelling and the dancers swaying. And when it rains, it pours.
Secrets & Lies dir. Mike Leigh (1996)
I am so unbelievably heartened that someone with Leigh's unconventional take on narrative filmmaking continues to work so consistently. He employs story, yes. But his famous method of improvisation over months of rehearsal to help his actors find the characters first continues to reward. Stephen King (of all people) said it's better to imagine your characters first, rather than to imagine a rigid Point A, Point B plot structure to which thin characters are chained. Not good if you're trying to sell your first screenplay (as I have learned), but the method often births the most interesting films. Here, we have Hortense Cumberbatch played with sharp aplomb by Marianne Jean-Baptiste whose adoptive mother has recently passed away. She searches for her birth mother and is shocked to discover that she is an uncouth, gritty woman named Cynthia Rose Purley (Brenda Blethyn). That is the plot. But it is not the film. The film is more about matters of interaction and interchange that inform our very being. It's about the way Hortense plays her cards so close to her vest, whether she's talking to the woman at the adoption agency, her best friend, or meeting Cynthia for the first time. She does so, even when it might serve her (even in the name of emotional catharsis) to let go just a little bit. Jean-Baptiste (and Leigh) never forget these little details (whether its Hortense refusing a Rolo candy or tentatively taking butter for her potatoes). Brenda Blethyn is amazing as well in her role. Cynthia is not always well-meaning, but her stupidity and short-sightedness make her believe that she is. Why does Cynthia really invite Hortense to a birthday party that leads to the films beautiful, nail-biting and often funny final act? Is she trying to make Hortense feel welcome? By "befriending" a black woman, is she trying to appear cosmopolitan to her family, who thinks so little of her? Is she trying to make her brother's wife uncomfortable? The answer is probably some combination of the above, with a few more reasons thrown in to boot. I love that the characters in this film (like flesh and blood humans in real life) never have only one reason for any given action taken or word spoken. This is a beautiful, honest and important film.
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days dir. Cristian Mungiu (2007)
Pregnancy seemed to be the cinematic topic d'année in 2007. You had Juno, Knocked Up and Waitress (superb--better than you remember, entertaining if ultimately overlong and wanting and horrid to the point of near-unwatchability, respectively). Romania's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days tops the heap, and by a pretty wide margin. It's so schizophrenic to have watched this in the same week as any Almodóvar film, which is so much about cinematic aesthetic and style. Though Mungiu's tale of a young woman in 198os Romania helping to procure an illegal abortion for her best friend can hardly be described as anti-cinema cinema, it's so bare in comparison. I watched it twice to make sure I was correct in my observation that the scenes are all one-ers (containing no cuts), though I could have apparently read Roger Ebert's astute review to confirm this (Ebert often fires on all cylinders, especially of late). The film is stark, gritty and almost unbearably suspenseful. I also love that it manages not to be loudly political, nor does it avoid the simple, undeniable fact that abortion is an incredibly political issue (though it really shouldn't be). The conversation between protagonist Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and her boyfriend (Alexandru Potocean) in which she divulges what she's doing for her friend never feels soap-boxy or ham-handedly inserted into the narrative. There's a rather infamous shot in this film that had many people cringing (I didn't know what I was seeing at first, then gasped loudly when I realized). It reminded me of what a spectacular failure Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones was. There's a shot at the end of that film, which overexplains and underwrites any positive elements the film had managed to salvage at that point. In Mungiu's film, however, it's disturbing and necessary, adding so much heft. At every turn, there is a feeling of impending doom, right up until the last frame. Though the film ultimately (and effectively) avoids said doom (I read where some find it anti-climatic--I get that), it doesn't take any weight away from the last shot. The women agree to never discuss what has transpired, but one doesn't doubt that there will be deeply felt consequences, be they outward or internal. This is one of the best films of the past ten years.
Lust, Caution dir. Ang Lee (2007)
I don't really know exactly what it was that made me wait this long to watch this film, but I'm ashamed I waited. It's a beautiful, nearly tonally perfect, well-acted and misjudged films that is remembered and discussed for all the wrong reasons. Tang Wei is Wong chia-chi/Mrs. Mak, a spy for a resistance movement in 1940s China. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is Mr. Yee, the man she has been employed to seduce, though the lines are blurred and it becomes unclear exactly what point she begins to fall in love with him (if she does in fact fall truly in love with him). Both are excellent. The most taxing roles are often those that require a performance within the performance. Tang Wei handles the task superbly, never forgetting to react. She manages to be communicative, in face, gesture and tone of voice while still not obviously telegraphing her character's next move. The film is talked about in terms of its frank sexuality (which led to it being banned in several countries). The sex scenes are intensely graphic, yes, but not unnecessarily so. It can be said that Lust, Caution is about the way information was gathered and shared during this time. You can pick up useful nuggets during a game of mahjong, where it is understood that very little of what is said is to be taken at face value. Sex too was a way to barter and trade for information and achieve ends (it always has been). Ang Lee demonstrates here what a truly versatile filmmaker he is, moving seamlessly between Sense and Sensibility, The Hulk (again, better than you remember) Brokeback Mountain and this gem of the aughts. I can't imagine myself not returning to this film.
Casino dir. Martin Scorsese (1995)
Well, I was right about Joe Pesci. He's simply not for me (doesn't he look positively vile in that Love Ranch trailer?) While not the near disaster that many people led me to believe, make no mistake. Casino definitely ranks in the middle to lower tier of the Scorsese achievements I've managed to see. I wasn't so much turned off by its cumbersome length (at nearly 3 hours), but it feels very uneven and unfocused. I will now dedicate the remainder of this write-up to Sharon Stone's best actress Oscar-nominated turn since (let's not even try to pretend otherwise) the film clearly wants me to. What can I even say about Ms. Stone in this film? I'm of about five different minds when it comes to her performance. First of all, she's only the second woman to ever land a best actress nomination in a Scorsese film (Ellen Burstyn won for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore). I find this interesting because Stone makes a relatively late arrival in the narrative for a best actress nomination and her subsequent screen time screams "supporting." In fact, I contend that had this role been played by any other actress (like say, Madonna who was in talks to play Ginger McKenna), she would have been nominated and quite possibly won in supporting (which would have made Mira Sorvino not an Oscar winner and me very happy, but that's another story for another day). Never before have I seen a performance hinge so much on public perception of the thespian playing the role before. Sharon Stone is generally perceived to exude "hot ghetto mess" much in the same way that Ginger does (as an aside, I guess many people often consider Madonna to be a hot mess, though I can't really understand how a woman with her discipline, work-ethic and control over her own public image ever garnered such a misjudged reputation). I understand why Stone was Oscar-nominated. I even support it in certain scenes. And even in the scenes where she hits the wrong notes, she's hitting them...loudly. It's a very prominent performance and everything in the film seems to be tilted in her, um...focus("favor" seems like entirely the wrong word to use in this case). I can understand Robert De Niro bowing down to her and letting her steal scenes. I love the guy and I have never thought he was as hammy and overly mannered as some people seem to perceive him. Pesci on the other hand fights valiantly against Stone, trying to out-shrill her at every turn. And he loses! That is quite the achievement and is preferable, since Scorsese's films are so often male-focused and would normally allow an actor of Joe Pesci's...presence to take over. Stone's turn here is so unrelenting and "you think that's the awards clip? Watch this!" at nearly every moment that I can't really call it a "good" performance in the traditional sense, but it's certainly interesting and a display of thesping I'm not sure any other actress could have achieved.
Grade: C+...for Sharon Stone? (um...A or B- or D, depending on the scene)
30 films down, 125 to go