Vengeance (Johnnie To)French/Hong Kong gangster western. To is the more cerebral successor to John Woo in the department of slo-mo ultra-violence & the hidden codes that govern masculine duty. The flurries of violence are less musical ballets than mathematical modern dance. Indebted to the old-school Hollywood subversives - Hawks, Boetticher, Siegel, etc. - it’s stoicism and death do us part. Vengeance is To’s masterpiece due to the crags of French Elvis Johnny Hallyday’s face and the most brilliant standoff in recent memory. Imagine Spartacus in a landfill.
Women Without Men (Shirin Neshat)Based on much of the evidence at hand, it is the folly of many gallery-based artists to believe that what makes a painting, sculpture, photo or even video piece sing in the well-lit confines of a museum/gallery can transfer to the narrative-dark of a movie screen (and vice-versa, as evidenced by the recent Dennis Hopper retrospective at MOCA). More often than not, those who are successful were always filmmakers at heart (see David Lynch or Julian Schnabel). Neshat is the rare case of an artist whose work has always existed in an in-between space. Her installations’ cinematic-texture feels out of place in the transitory nature of a gallery, and her feature-film debut, Women Without Men, doesn't deliver what we expect from a narrative fiction. But this is what distinguishes it - politically incendiary without being dogmatic, literary while being visually evocative. It is a true expression of the magical realist aesthetic, and was one of the most disturbing, inspiring, and under-seen films of the past year.
A Town Called Panic (Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier)Belgian stop-motion animation that is more adult than kiddie. Weird, angry, sweet, and funny - its vintage originality and hand-crafted charm trumps Toy Story in the department of toy and sympathy.
Runaway (Kanye West / Hype Williams)
West takes self-hype to new levels of audacity, and peaks with this a glam riff that co-opts Kubrick abasement in celestial terms. A parade of fantastical imagery, this extra-long form video (actually an encapsulation of the whole narrative thread of his simultaneously released album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) evokes the tortured conceptual loneliness and misunderstood genius prophecy that West speaks. The word is THE WORD. All in all, West is a troublesome figure in pop culture - fiercely independent and sadly needy in one deep breath. In other words, hypnotic and detestable. The best of both worlds.
Bluebeard (Catherine Breillat)
Another study in sexual power dynamics from men vs. women adjudicator Breillat. This time, the fairy tale allusion hinted at in previous works become literal. What could have been a recipe for disaster is perhaps the master filmmaker’s most savagely sumptuous canvas, calling to the fore the compositional dynamism of the masters, specifically Caravaggio.
Green Zone (Paul Greengrass)
The American (Anton Corbijn)
Too morally conflicted and politically relevant for the mainstream vogue of thrillers that cop-out with the rational of a fever dream, these two films upended expectations in a minor key and thus struck a sour note. Green Zone director Greengrass converges the sociological bite of his docudramas with the propulsive hero action of his Bourne films. In The American, Clooney gives his best performance in years as a post-modern descendent of Delon’s samurai.
Lourdes (Jessica Hausner)
Throughout human history, our sense of hope has clung to a belief that we are not unmoored in our existence, that there is more to this earthly life than birth, survival, and death. Religion has organized civilizations around the belief in the higher powers that play a role in the shape and function of our lives, leaving behind signs to provide us with clarity and belief. But as is the want of (wo)man, this desire for acknowledgment is tinged with greed, skepticism, jealousy, and the narcissistic cynicism in tow. In her cooly ironic, yet hopefully spiritual sixth feature, Austrian writer-director Hausner reflects on the crushing commercialization of modern faith, and the jaded currency of miracles. The deliberately paced film follows a “pilgrimmage” of invalids and their caretakers (and a group of nurses and volunteers) to the French market town of Lourdes, famous for the supposed apparition & the Virgin Mary there in the 1800s. Sylvie Testud is a paraplegic who is miraculously cured of her paralysis after touching the wet rock of the grotto where the body supposedly appeared to a 14-yr. old local girl in 1858. The clinical, almost documentary-like drama of this event and its aftermath questions our understanding of the divine in the face of ruthless opportunism.
Flooding with Love for the Kid (Zachary Oberzon)
I'm Still Here (Casey Affleck)
Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work (Ricki Stern & Anne Sundberg)Chronicling the desperation, obsession, and perverse self-flagellation of the performance life, each was a comedy that blurred lines between theater, performance art, and documentary. The most noteworthy of the bunch was theater artist Oberzon’s odd one-man recreation of David Morell’s First Blood (the novel that was eventually transformed into the legendary Stallone film). Based on a one-man performance, but staged and completely shot by Oberzon alone in his apartment - it reflects a maniacal commitment that trumped both Joaquin Phoenix’s year-long hoax and Rivers indefatigable self-promotion.
Knight and Day (James Mangold)
Tron: Legacy 3D (Joseph Kosinski)
Splendiferous is the word for these much-maligned action spectacles. Essentially throwbacks, while still possessing a kind of future energy, they were pleasure vehicles that made upwards $17 waste enjoyable. Get high on the fake oil fumes and bliss out to the insanity of Cruise going all crazy over a Hitchcock/Cary Grant beat, and plug-in to the Wagnerian via electroshock bombast of Daft Punk under psychedelic 3D imagery that feels like the last 10 minutes of 2001 on steroids (with Jeff Bridges yoga poses).
Double Take (Johan Grimonprez)Like Neshat, Grimonprez traffics between the gallery and the theater, and this layered study of the doppelganger - invoking Borges, the Cold War, and, tying it all together, the multiplying identities of the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock - is a work in part about the artist's own investigative journey. If you’re a fan of Craig Baldwin, stream on Netflix now.
The Girl Who Played with Fire (Daniel Alfredson)
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (Daniel Alfredson)
As the American film machine has all-but abandoned the serial format, the Euros have picked up the slack - there was Carlos, The Red Riding Trilogy, and this triptych, the most seductively pulse-pounding of the bunch. David Fincher may try to repeat it, but its doubtful he’ll be able to re-create the shock of Naomi Rapace’s Lisbeth Slander, the most fascinating anti-hero in recent memory.
I Love You, Philip Morris (Glenn Ficarra & John Requa)
Pro on 8 comedy that ducks under the PC shield of “gay cinema.” Imagining some weird mash-up of pitch-black AIDs based comedy, relationship drama, and slapstick heist flick, it showcases Carrey’s flexibility with both subtle pathos and physical grotesquerie. Finally, we have a a sympathetic unsympathetic queer anti-hero - A swift rejoinder to all mainstream gay stereotypes!
The recent Academy Awards attest to the fact that, though much has changed in the "industry" over the past 25 yrs., much has, and most likely will (for a long time), stay the same.
Of the 10 nominees for Best Picture, only one really says something about where cinema is at today - and its inclusion is all the more vital. The Social Network is the exemplar of what Hollywood can do best - a confluence of writing, directing, acting, image, and sound that elucidates a great drama about how we live today.
American filmmaking’s theatrical roots are ingrained, both at the studio, indie, and micro-cinema levels. Except at the farthest reaches of the “scene,” the great ideas and advancements have come from the global cinematic diaspora. Much of what we consider "American" landmarks in the arts have their roots outside our borders.
Toy Story 3 should also be mentioned here - Pixar has been on an amazing run for the past 10 years, its productivity reminding one of the best studio assembly filmmaking of Hollywood past. Along with Tron 3D (cited below), Toy Story 3 featured the most purposeful and intoxicating 3D imagery we’ve yet seen, while still never losing the core, gritty storytelling that Pixar should be known for (and not the temple of family film illusion). In the end however, it did end up feeling like a bit of a museum piece. Social Network was the true film of the 21st century. Toy Story 3 was more the wistful dream back in time.
Of the other 10 nominees, winner The King’s Speech is a solid example of the well-made British historio-drama, though it isn’t distinguished from much of what one still finds on the BBC or PBS’ “Masterpiece Theater” or any of director Tom Hopper’s previous television works for HBO, etc. It fits rightly within a tradition of re-written historical melodrama that the Academy loves - though pages of writing have already born testament to this. Inception is chockfull of ideas, but is inevitably a mess - another stroke on the increasingly muddy big-budget canvas of the once taught and inspiring Christopher Nolan. The Kid’s Are Alright and Winter’s Bone are passable, though indicative of the decline in the prospects of the American “indie” film scene - ie. nothing of much surprise, just well-made, romanticized versions of independence, grit, and social-consciousness. The Fighter is a classic, old-school fight feature, and holds up admirably, though it is a lesser-entry in the David O. Russell canon (whose career now seems on path to match the law of diminishing returns that has plagued Nolan). The Fighter is mostly of note for its lessons in performance - balancing scenery chewing at its best (Christian Bale) and worst (Melissa Leo) against the understated, sustained brilliance of a Mark Wahlberg, who will never be taken seriously because he fails to comprise to the bastardized ideas of what great acting is meant to be on the big screen. For other examples of Wahlberg’s quiet grace amidst a torrent of acting with a capital A, see also The Departed, We Own the Night, The Yards, Boogie Nights, and even The Basketball Diaries.
Both Danny Boyle and The Coen brothers craft reliable cartoons with 127 Hours and True Grit, respectively, but they’re of the minor-key in each of their substantive modern canons. The one time the Academy got it right was for the Coens only mature-bit of filmmaking - No Country for Old Men. Free of the usual arch delivery and keeping the grotesqueness in check, it did everything True Grit should have but does not. No Country was the great modern Western, so one wonders why they had to reach back and try to create the general “idea” of a Western - and stick The Dude in there to boot. Improving on a sad, late-period John Wayne throw-off is not much to be proud off. Everything hear comes to a point, but it doesn’t quite resonate in the way it should. Danny Boyle has always bludgeoned great stories with nonsensical craft. 127 Hours has the germ of something profound, but wastes it with an arsenal of cameras, film stocks, gratuitous movement, ADD-editing, and techno noise.
So, that leaves us with the only really bad apple in the overstuffed bunch - the inexplicable Black Swan. A bad horror film in the guise of a profound elucidation of psychological unraveling, it furthers the anti-humanist pretensions of Darren Aronofsky. In the black leather clad hands of a Dario Argento, the preposterously hysterical histrionics would not have dodged the serious questions of misogony they raise. Argento would have embraced it, and given a little more swoop to the heavy swings of this truly ugly duckling.
One wonders why Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer was not part of this bunch - it was more consistent and entertaining than everything here, save Social Network and Toy Story, and seems to fit a certain wedge of the Academy’s long-standing interests. It’s consummate craft is one thing, but it certifies Polanski as still the greatest filmmaker alive and working who crafts resolutely personal works on a large, generally mainstream canvas. Both Fincher and Scorsese are brilliant technicians, but their is a certain distance from their own works - works that embrace more the idea of cinema, instead of its artistically personal significations