Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Best Films of the Aughts (70-79)

79. WALL-E - dir. Andrew Stanton (2008)

"Computer. Define 'dancing'."

78. Fish Tank - dir. Andrea Arnold (2009)

"You dance like a black. It's a compliment."

77. Reprise - dir. Joachim Trier (2008)

"We're supposed to write and read. And if we feel the urge we'll practice deviant, fetishistic sex with prostitutes."

76. Million Dollar Baby - dir. Clint Eastwood (2004)
"Mama, you take Mardell and JD and get home before I tell that lawyer there that you were so worried about your welfare you never signed those house papers like you were supposed to. So anytime I feel like it I can sell that house from under your fat, lazy, hillbilly ass. And if you ever come back, that's exactly what I'll do."

75. The Cell - dir. Tarsem Singh (2000)

"My World. My Rules."

Spotlight--74. Raising Victor Vargas - dir. Peter Sollett (2003)

"Listen. I'm a private person. What we do is between me and you. You still want this loving, right?"

Peter Sollett's jolting, vibrant and energetic tale of adolescent love and folly abounds with discovery nearly at every turn. Nearly every one of the principle players (with the exception of under-the-radar Indie queen Melonie Diaz) makes his or her feature film debut here. Peter Sollett announced himself as a powerful and interesting new cinematic voice. An aside: I have yet to watch his 2008 follow-up, the relatively high profile Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist. Should I?

At first glance, this would appear to be exactly the type of cinematic outing designed to bore the shit out of movie-watcher who complains about what is perceived to be the current trend of meandering, navel-gazing independent cinema, heralded as brilliant and cutting-edge by the flannel clad temp at your office (stay with me). I sympathize with this frustration, often siding with it. In my brief write-up of Winter's Bone, I talked about an air of human truth that's sometimes hard to pinpoint, but adds such richness to a great movie. There wasn't a moment of Raising Victor Vargas that felt false or playing to my very contrary, untested perceptions of twenty-first century life in the Lower East Side for these characters.

Victor Vargas (a fabulous Victor Rasuk) speaks the line quoted above. It is one of the first lines uttered in this film and it lets you know that you are in capable hands. Victor Vargas drips with a confident, slightly insular teenage male bravado that permeates everything from his words to his gestures. But what, if anything, is it masking? And why is Judy (Judy Marte), the wise girl he chases after seem more put off by Victor than any of the other boys in her neighborhood? Especially given that one young man candidly offers Judy anal sex in a manner that can only be described as less than chivalrous. These are questions that are answered by last frame. Victor is confident, yes. But the confidence he wears is something akin to a fancy pair of shoes worn by a newborn baby. Shiny and new, certainly. But Victor is still forming, still growing, still becoming himself and he may discover one day soon that his own self-perceived greatness may not fit the person he ultimately becomes. And Judy, for all of her womanly wisdom, for all of her desire to be anything but just another notch in the bedpost of one of the many boys who wish to bed her, really does like Victor. Sounds like your run-of-the-mill romantic comedy, doesn't it? Perhaps it does. But Raising Victor Vargas is anything but.

I spoke, very briefly, about Melonie Diaz. Like many of the actors in the film, she shares her character's first name. In a storyline that exists almost completely parallel to everything else in the film, Melonie (Judy's best friend) falls for one of Victor's chums, the sweet but somewhat cocky Harold (Kevin Rivera). Melonie and Harold's courtship is different than that of Victor and Judy. She is resistant and he is persistent, but not in the same ways and not for the same reasons. Melonie keeps what becomes a very deep, meaningful relationship with Harold a secret from Judy for most of the film. She is desperate to avoid Judy's judgmental stares and comments, not because they would influence her greatly, but because with a look in her eyes and a small gesture, Diaz lets you know that Melonie knows exactly how it's going to turn out and she's already kind of rolling her eyes. I've noticed this consistency in many of Melonie Diaz's performances. She seems naturally aplomb at playing that character who "gets it" just a little bit more than all the other characters around her, who are a a little slow on the uptake. It is a small performance that betrays how integral Diaz's watchfulness and knack for conveying teenage conflict is to the film.

While the Lower East Side of Manhattan has become somewhat of a gentrified hipster haven, that is not the Lower East Side presented in this film. That being the case, it's rife for poverty porn, but Peter Sollett wisely resists the urge to make this a story about a group of minority youths trapped by their circumstances. Or rather, he resists to urge to tell that tired story in the rote, pedestrian fashion that has become all too familiar. The neighborhood is replete with life and there is a youthful innocence and a playfulness that runs throughout Raising Victor Vargas. These are not wealthy people, but, like all young people, they live in and engage with their surroundings.

A key element that lets the viewer know that this is not a typical story of inner-city youths and strife is Victor's grandmother, Altagracia (played by Altagracia Guzman). She is hard on Victor, constantly demanding he set a good example for his younger brother and younger sister. She gifts the movie with soft, maternal humor that is steeped in obliviousness and a clinging to the old guard. At one point, she takes Victor down to social services, probably just to scare him, with the stated intention of turning him over to foster care as punishment for his wild ways and misbehavior. Why? Because she has caught Victor's brother Nino (Victor Rasuk's real life younger brother, Silvestre Rasuk) masturbating and she is almost certain he picked up this vile habit from Victor. Nino is far too sweet and innocent to have learned it elsewhere. Social services of course turns Altagracia away, stating that it is illegal to abandon children for no good reason. There is obviously a sweet humor in the sad ridiculousness of this situation. The subtext may also be that for all of his outlandish behavior, Victor is, at his core, a good kid. Furthermore, given the universe these characters inhabit, there are problems worse than masturbation where a teenage boy is concerned that Altagracia very well could be, but thankfully doesn't have to deal with.

In the end, Victor's conflicted relationship with his grandmother still remains, especially in a key scene near the end where the realities of his relationship with Judy are laid bare and everyone is forced to feel the way they feel. The last frame of the film doesn't offer an entirely tidy conclusion. But it's a lovely, subtle and graceful note to end on. One that doesn't lay out the paths of these characters for very long beyond the narrative, but also doesn't leave you unsatisfied. And in a film about teenage love and discovery (an honest one anyway) this is the truest way to leave it.

73. Zombieland - dir. Ruben Fleishcer (2009)

"You are like a like a giant cock-blocking robot. Like, developed in a secret fucking government lab."

72. Head-On - dir. Fatih Akin (2004)

"If you want to end your life, end it. You don't have to kill yourself to do that."

71. Inglourious Basterds - dir. Quentin Tarantino (2009)

"Not so fast, Willi. We only have a deal if we trust each other. A Mexican standoff ain't trust."

70. The Darjeeling Limited - dir. Wes Anderson (2007)

"I wonder if the three of us would have been friends in real life. Not as brothers, but as people."

Next: 60-69

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