Tuesday, December 22, 2009

O, Dreamland: 2009 in Review

1. Coraline (Selick)

2. Two Lovers (Gray)

3. Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino)

4. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Allen)

5. Genova (Winterbottom)

6. Prodigal Sons (K. Reed)

7. Seraphine (Provost)

8. Star Trek (Abrams)

9. Man on Wire (Marsh)

10. Let It Rain (Jaoui)

Best Director:

Neill Blomkamp (District 9)

Best Screenplay:

Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds)

Best Actor:

Sharlto Copley (District 9)

Best Actress:

Gwyneth Paltrow (Two Lovers)

Best Acting Ensemble:

Le Petit Nicolas (Tirard)

Best Polish Film:

The Reverse (Lankosz)

If anything, this passing year belonged to dreamers and their reckless fantasies. Tarantino got away with shooting Hitler point-blank; J.J. Abrams restarted Star Trek to a great, suitably breezy effect; and Philippe Petit minced his tiny steps between the WTC towers without mentioning anywhere in Man on Wire what he felt when they went down (in fact, the director James Marsh seals off this information from his documentary entirely – a single stroke that elevates this superbly executed suspense-doc to a higher level of film art).

Every now and then, fantasies and realities collided, and the ensuing showdown was something to behold. Clever little Coraline Jones learned the hard way that – contrary to what she believed to be the case – “dreams are dangerous”. Séraphine Louis (a sensational performance by Yolande Moreau) is Coraline’s twin sister: she, too, sinks into her own narcissistic world of unlimited creativity, just to end up locked into a destructive solipsism. And Kimberly Reed had to cope with Orson Welles quite literally entering her world – already conflicted to begin with.

Stylistically, all the movies I cherished most this year were quite classical; even conservative. No Paranoid Park (2008) to be found, but I don’t mind – that is, as long as we have such stunning examples of old-fashioned craftsmanship as James Gray’s Two Lovers! Joaquín Bac-Asay’s camerawork, slipping comfortably from gold to brown to steely gray, with occasional strokes of blue (so rare in Gray’s work they almost always mean something special) – conveys a world of Leonard’s (Joaquin Phoenix) solitude and his ever-simmering fantasies in a painful, tactile way.

The single flight of fancy Leonard allows himself goes stale almost immediately upon execution. Ultimately, the movie is not so much about a dreamer’s failure, but about the dream as a mistake. Real, unchecked melancholy rarely makes its way to the screen – sentimentality intervenes too often – but Gray pulled it off. His film hurts so beautifully and quietly, I would rank it with the works of this passing decade’s true poets of sadness. James Gray, say hello to Tsai Ming-Liang and Nuri Bilge Ceylan!

2012 (2009, Emmerich)

At once overblown and undercooked, Roland Emmerich’s 2012 (2009) washed against me a couple of days ago and, by now, there’s not even spray left for me to wipe off. The film’s blatant disregard of narrative cohesion and characters’ autonomy is less annoying than its lack of visual tactility. As the Earth cracks and buildings fall, there’s no real sense of rupture in Emmerich’s world – the CGI effects make all specifics blurry around the edges, so what you see is floating, whirling junk-o-rama; not real chunks of matter being destroyed and thrown against one another.

Emmerich seems happy with himself, though – at least judging from the movie’s length. But then again, his aesthetic myopia may be beyond therapy by now. At one point, Amanda Peet’s new partner, played by Tom McCarthy, refers to his predecessor’s (John Cusack’s) writing as “junk”, to which Peet answers: “It’s not junk; he’s been published!”. Can’t argue with that logic.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

(500) Days of Summer [2009, Webb]

Some Yiddish wordsmith should finally coin a neat single term for the self-obsessed, solipsistic-yet-lovable, quirk-infested American Male that is pestering the movies for quite a while now. As this passing year saw what may be the finest incarnation of this new species in the lean and slacker-slick figure of Jason Schwartzman's character in HBO’s Bored to Death, Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer is a send-off of sorts; both sympathetic and highly ironic towards the hip-nudnik phenomenon (how does “nudster” sound to you, by the way…?).

Not as high-concept as Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Webb’s film is uncomfortable enough with the square RomCom mode to tamper compulsively with chronology and tone of the narrative. Jumping back and forth between specifically marked days that constitute the eponymous year-and-a-half period of uneasy courtship-cum-torment, the film is into making smug comparisons and ominous prognoses – not unlike some other conceptual comedies of desire gone stale: Two for the Road (1967) and 5x2 (2004), especially.

The story is Ninotchka (1939) for a post-sexual revolution world: Summer (Zooey Deschanel) is as immune to romance as Greta Garbo’s Soviet Commissar. Despite Tom’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) efforts, she wants to keep things “casual” and you sort of wait to hear her burst into Cole Porter’s “It's a Chemical Reaction” in every scene (too bad she doesn’t do it: there’s a karaoke scene here ready to be milked that way). As played by Deschanel, she’s either an epic tease or a sociopath, depending on how you look at her (which is mirrored in two ways Tom sees her shoulder birth-mark: once it’s a heart for him, at other times – a cockroach).

The sugar-coated catatonia Deschanel injects into her lines is in turns endearing and spooky – unlike Ninotchka, she doesn’t become a real character, though. Her aloofness – once the veil is gone – hides only more aloofness; there’s no anguish in her, nor there is doubt (even though she admits to the opposite in her last conversation with Tom).

The movie is shameless enough to employ such worn out devices as the Anxious-Pre-Coital-Mirror-Address and the World-Savvy-Younger-Sis, as well as a shallow and unfunny parody of an arthouse movie at one point. The Ikea charades played out by the protagonists are probably the most original and funny thing in the film – the only element that harkens back to the core of the great screwball tradition: a romantic pair poking fun at social conventions and yet living the most outrageous of them - that of “a couple” itself.

There are nods to Billy Wilder and (more explicitly) to Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967), and at least one unintentional invocation of yet another movie about the perils of narcissistic fantasies, namely Coraline (2009) – the “Other Mother Day” proposed at one point in a greeting-cards company loses its LGBT-friendly edge thanks to a strong imprint Henry Selick’s monstrous “Other Mother” made upon us all earlier this year. (At one point in (500) Days of Summer, Webb does Selick – not to mention Brian De Palma! – one better by splitting the screen into “Reality” and “Expectation” halves).

As ridiculously over-calculated as it’s symptomatic, (500) Days of Summer is kind of depressing, too – a sugar-overload sprinkled with sour derision to seem more hip than it dares to openly become.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

My "Beyond the Canon" Entry

Iain Stott’s „Beyond the Canon” project was long in the making, but it proved well worth waiting for. Both the full list and the individual entries (one by moi among them, spotlighting Resnais' great Smoking / No Smoking [1993]) are very interesting to study (and to organize one’s Netflix queue around!). Enjoy.