Monday, April 23, 2012

2011 Pretentious Film Awards - Top Ten (10-6)


(dir. Bennett Miller)

I had a lot of mental roadblocks up going into this movie, which I didn't catch until a couple of months after its initial release.  A baseball fan, I am not.  Brad Pitt, an actor who I admire greatly, is someone about whom the general public and I rarely agree (ignore him in Fight Club, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Burn After Reading, but by all means nominate him for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button...for God's sake).  Even the promise of another Sorkin-penned feature, following on the heels of The Social Network wasn't a huge lure for me; Charlie Wilson's War and The American President are more representative of the register Sorkin usually hits in his feature work.  Do I sound like Oscar the Grouch already?  I really enjoyed Moneyball, which is so crisply edited and elegantly scored.  The greatest thing to recommend it going in was Bennet Miller, whose direction on his debut feature Capote made me immediately excited to see him tackle another feature.  There is a delicate, but sure touch here.  The movie avoids grand-standing and "big scenes," hitting that perfect register of subtlety.  While Miller gets a superb performance from Brad Pitt, he manages to do so without underdirecting the other players.  When you have such a huge star, the impulse to ignore the remaining well of characters is understandable, but can often hurt a piece.  I will mention The Descendants, which seemed to be viewed by many as a spirit twin to Moneyball on paper (the Brad-George connection, fathers and their daughters, me).  But Moneyball really succeeds where The Descendants fails in that Alexander Payne seems almost unwilling to direct any of the actors besides Clooney and even then he's only directing Clooney a certain way.  Watching Moneyball, I was also reminded of what I found so interesting about Capote; that it wasn't just an acting exercise for Philip Seymour Hoffman.  That he was able to direct Catherine Keener in such a way where she was neither too muted nor too outwardly expressive.  He achieves much of the same delicate strokes here, making me wonder if Miller will emerge as an even more formidable directing talent on his next feature.  I am very excited to see what he does next.


(dir. Pedro Almodóvar)

Operates as both a stylized melodrama and a haywire mystery, in true Almodóvar fashion.  I was surprised to see this film more or less dismissed by even the most devout of Almodóvar disciples last year, who came to the conclusion that this ranks in the lower tier of his work.  Perhaps had I further examined his filmography and my response to it, I would have been less shocked.  I find All About My Mother, widely considered by many to be one of his best (if not his best) films to be hugely overrated.  Ditto for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.  Then you have Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, viewed as a trifle, but his best film in my estimation.  Talk to Her (justifiably lauded as a masterpiece) is just about the only time that I've hugely aligned with the critical community on Almodóvar.  I will concede that The Skin I Live In breaks no new ground, and certainly not for Almodóvar who has explored themes of dominance, gender and psychosexual horror in many of his previous works.  But there is something to be said about staying in one's comfort zone when you're this good at telling this kind of story, especially in the midst of a career that is groundbreaking in its own right.  The mystery at the center of the story, which can ostensibly be reduced to "Who is this woman in the room?" is unfolded in a very strange fashion indeed.  Structurally speaking, there is some slight lull during the middle sections of the film and the match cuts between past and present do get a little precious at key moments.  What elevates the film above all of these deficiencies (minor as they are) are widely different, but complimentary lead performances by Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya.  Each of them strikes a remarkable balance of believability and nuance, even within the moments of heightened, Almodóvar-style theatrics.  With time, I imagine The Skin I Live In will be looked upon fondly as one of Almodóvar's most solid and well-made.  That is, perhaps not his Annie Hall, but very possibly his Husbands and Wives (qualitatively speaking).

(dir. Jason Reitman)

For my money, this is handily the best of Reitman's films to date.  It is certainly the most refined, both in terms theme and character, thanks to a perfect synergy of Diablo Cody's writing (matured, yet still recognizably Cody) and Reitman's direction (crisp, cold, precise).  Charlize Theron turns in a stiff, angry bitchslap of a performance that is so consistently horrifying, embodying the thesis statement "What if some people are just, in fact, assholes?"  Theron's Mavis Gary is a wonderfully specific and fascinating cinematic creation in that the text does not attempt to humanize her or give a root cause for her radioactive personality. 
Would it be reductive of me to suggest that Reitman stick to directing films penned by another writer?  Of Reitman's four feature films to date, Juno and Young Adult  is leagues ahead of Up in the Air and Thank You For Smoking.  I mentioned Reitman's directing style which, even in Thank You For Smoking was very noticeably clinical and cold (to his credit).  The problem, I think with Thank You For Smoking and Up in the Air is a certain veneer.  Masculine charisma (Aaron Eckhart and then George Clooney) functions as ersatz humanity and truth.  I am fascinated and delighted that this somehow doesn't manage to creep into the stories that Reitman tells about women, which never feel arched and convinced of their own profundity in the same way his "male" movies do.  I would be thrilled if Young Adult represented a turning point for Reitman as it's such a leap forward for  him, qualitatively, from Up in the Air.  I'm also eagerly awaiting Diablo Cody's directorial debut, which I'm sure will be polarizing, but almost certainly promises to be necessary viewing.

(dir. Andrew Haigh)

Dubbed by many as "The Gay Before Sunrise," in a way that only serves to reduce the power of Andrew Haigh's arresting and nuanced debut feature.  Structurally, the similarities are apparent, but Haigh's examination of two men (Tom Cullen and Chris New) attempting to form some kind of connection in the days immediately following an alcohol fueled hookup has a unique, bare bones texture to it.  The result is an incredibly honest, stripped-down examination of two very representations of male homosexuality.
Tom Cullen's Russell is introspective, shy, with eyes that always seem to be searching and contemplating.  Chris New's Glen is artistic, forthright, a shade militant and often vulgar. Glen sees Russell's tentative nature as stemming from shame or internalized homophobia on some level.  Russell sees Glen's brashness as a facade masking insecurity.  It's a dynamic very familiar within contemporary gay interaction, but never put to film in this manner.
None of this is to say that the film is about this dichotomy, in the strictest sense of the word "about."  In fact, the way the film seems to move along, adapting and changing like a living breathing thing, truly discovering these characters and what the narrative is, in fact, "about" is what's so wonderful about what Haigh is able to accomplish.  It's acted with heartbreaking realism, but it's not self-consciously improvised to the point that it stilts the scenes and disrupts the narrative flow.  The plot is not tethered to a strict structure, but the film also manages not to feel shaggy or bloated.  There was very little narrative fat here that could have been trimmed, everything feeling very integral to getting inside the lives of these two men at this moment in time.
Haigh wisely avoids over-sentimentalizing the subject, which could have easily made for more mawkish, manipulative fare.  The final scene in the train station breaks your heart, yes, but it is completely earned and one gets the impression that there were few other places these characters could reasonably have ended up.  Weekend has the exciting freshness and enthusiasm of a great debut (though it is in fact Haigh's second film) and I am eager to see what he follows this up with.


(dir. Lars von Trier)

I run very hot and cold on what I've seen of von Trier, truth be told.  I really enjoyed Dancer in the Dark and Breaking the Waves.  Dogville and Manderlay were both slogs and sitting through them definitely yielded diminishing rewards (Manderlay especially).  Finally Antichrist, which I would categorize as an interesting failure, seemed to reach a point of self-parody by last frame; not for its violence (which did not affect me viscerally) but for its excessive misery.  So, while I hardly went into Melancholia expecting to be bored (his films are never boring) or met with inadequate filmmaking, it's not a movie that I ever expected to love.
von Trier somehow manages to take all the elements that serve as assets to his films and really hone them this time around.  Marrying (no pun intended) an uneasy wedding reception with the imminent destruction of the planet allows him to showcase his flair for heightened human drama and allows him to express his fatalistic ideologies.  Make no mistake, there are several "von Trierisms" ever present in this narrative.  The film manages to somehow be at once comically insular and geographically generic.  There is a deep, seemingly endless well of characters who behave absolutely deplorably, including Kirsten Dunst's Justine (a radiant performance).  Apropos to nothing, I challenge anyone to find an actress better at playing insufferable than Charlotte Gainsbourg (to her credit).
All this being said, I found myself loving Melancholia, almost from first frame.  As with all von Trier movies, it's difficult to disparage any of the formal elements.  The photography, production design, editing and even the visual effects are all top form.  He thankfully is using his great ability with craft (mostly) for good rather than evil this time as the story (specifically watching how each of these uniquely drawn characters) reacts to what's coming is fascinating.  It also avoids a lot of cliched character beats that a lot of other filmmakers, including von Trier, have shown a penchant for falling prey to.  For instance, Keifer Sutherland's John is ever the pragmatist, concerned with facts and the bottom line, but von Trier doesn't draw him as such by making him completely cold and impenetrable.
When the inevitable moment actually comes, it may be easy to impulsively read it as traditional von Trier-esque misery, but it feels almost peaceful, so expected it is.  The characters have been stripped bare at this point and there is an eery calm* washing over the narrative, as horrifying as it is to consider what's happening.

*Charlotte Gainsbourg aside, because she goes out with a loud fight or she doesn't go out at all.

Part 2 of Top Ten of 2011 (5-1) Coming Up Next...

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