Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Best Films of the Aughts (60-69)

69. Talk to Her - dir. Pedro Almodóvar (2002)

"A woman’s brain is a mystery, and in this state even more so. You have to pay attention to women, talk to them, be thoughtful occasionally. Caress them. Remember they exist, they’re alive and they matter to us. That’s the only therapy. I know from experience."

68. Sherrybaby - dir. Laurie Collyer (2006)

"Lord please please please please please hear my extra prayer tonight. Forgive me my weaknesses and my mistakes. Give me the strength to take life one day at a time and take care of my daughter again. Amen."

67. The Savages - dir. Tamra Jenkins (2007)

"People are dying, Wendy! Right inside that beautiful building. Right now! It’s a fucking horror show! And all this wellness propaganda and landscaping is just trying to obscure the miserable fact that people die and death is gaseous and gruesome and filled with piss and shit and rot and stink."

66. Lost in Translation - dir. Sofia
Coppola (2003)

"Let's never come here again because it will never be as much fun."

Spotlight--65. Erin Brockovich - dir. Steven Soderbergh (2000)

"Well, um, seeing as how I have no brains or legal expertise, and Ed here was losing all faith in the system, am I right? I just went out there and performed sexual favors. Six hundred and thirty-four blow jobs in five days... I'm really quite tired."

It's a serendipitous and wonderful thing when a movie star is celebrated for a star turn, deserving of all accolades and hyperbole, that seems to steamroll through all awards season precursors all the way to the podium on Oscar night. So rarely does it happen this way, particularly in the Best Actress category. There often seems to be a finely tuned mix of people's actual response to said performance and another, hard to pinpoint x-factor of "something else" that leads to people winning the Best Actress trophy.

Why have I begun my write-up of 2000's Erin Brockovich by bringing up the Best Actress race? Because (and I may be misreading the climate) it seems to be a widely held view that Julia Roberts coasted to an easy victory that she didn't deserve, or at the very least should have been met with more resistance (out come the Ellen Burstyn fans, complete with their torches and pitchforks). Eleven years later, I am proud to throw my full, weighty support, not just behind Roberts's radiant and accomplished turn, but the film itself. I worry that even fans of Julia's work here may write off the film as a feel-good trifle/bloated whistle-blower picture, all the while completely ignoring how richly Roberts and the film serve each other.

We open with a wonderful sequence of finely spliced together monologues by Erin (Julia Roberts), who is on the painstakingly difficult hunt for a job. In those early moments, we learn nearly all we need to about Erin Brockovich to warrant serious investment in this character. A little self-effacing, but intelligent. Wry, yet totally aware of the seriousness of her circumstances. It's quiet, unfussy and consistently on-character work in these first minutes that allow for the big meaty moments later on where Erin lets her frustration/lack of practical training get the better of her. On paper, all of this could read incredibly obvious and facile, but Roberts layers all of the elements beautifully, never forgetting one, when the scene mostly calls for the other. She has never been better, before or since. I say that not to denigrate Julia Roberts, who I actually like. I think that for any performer, her turn in Erin Brockovich is a tough thing to top. Her string of roles after this stunner don't really seem to be utilizing her talents appropriately, though the missteps are certainly understandable (Closer aside, in which I actually think Mike Nichols got some very interesting notes out of her). Her post-Brockovich directors, even Steven Soderbergh himself, seem content to saddle her with either large, external affectation (Charlie Wilson's War) or attempt to play on her stardom and her public persona in ways that are transparent in how commercially minded they are (Eat, Pray, Love). What I love about what Steven Soderbergh gets out of Roberts here is that he enhances so much about what already works about her as a performer--her comedic undertones, her sassiness, her accessible beauty and her warmth--while still fashioning a fascinating character that feels neither cloying nor obtusely against type.

Erin Brockovich is predictable, make no mistake. Even without knowing the details of the "true story" of how a plucky legal secretary took down a major corporation, one can probably guess with great accuracy where the film is headed. What we have here is an example of how dedication/investment in the craft of filmmaking can elevate even the most simple and seemingly rote of stories. Take, for example the scene of Erin describing her past as a beauty queen to George (Aaron Eckhart) in a fun, yet character-deepening scene of post-coital conversation. Would one have read that scene on the page and seen the frisky, creative editing or how the camera knows exactly during which moments to get close to Erin and George?

Not to take anything away from Susannah Grant's script, which is accomplished and serviceable and filled with great one-liners to boot ("Bite my ass, Krispy Kreme!" It just rolls off the tongue...). But I can't help but feel that there a more pedestrian version of this film could have easily existed, perhaps made for television, perhaps directed theatrically by the likes of Ron Howard, Stephen Frears or Tom Hooper. If we must have biopics and straight-down-the-middle narratives (and from Hollywood's output, apparently we must) why can't they all be as specific and well-crafted as this?

64. The 40-Year-Old Virgin - dir. Judd Apatow (2005)

"You know when you, grab a woman's breast and it's...and you feel it feels like a bag of sand when you're touching it?"

63. Paranoid Park - dir. Gus Van S
ant (2008)

"I just feel like there's something outside of normal life. Outside of teachers, breakups, girlfriends. Like, right out there, like outside - there's like different levels of... stuff."

62. The Class - dir. Laurent Cantet (2

"I'm Souleymane. I have nothing to say about me because no one knows me but me."ˆ

61. Once - dir. John Carney (2007)

"During the daytime people would want to hear songs that they know, just songs that they recognize. I play these song at night or I wouldn't make any money. People wouldn't listen."

60. The Bourne Ultimatum - dir. Paul Greengrass (2007)

"It was difficult for me...with you."