February 14, 2012

2011 (and some of 2012) in Film

I sat down and started writing a '2011 in Film' blog post at the beginning of January but, looking over my previous year's worth of Itty-Bitty Film Reviews, it struck me as weird that I'd be talking about films like Black Swan and True Grit. Sure, I might have seen them in 2011, but they feel like they belong to the previous year. It was just ... off.

Then I realised, hey, the movie year doesn't end on December 31st, not really. It ends with the Oscars. And, being in Australia, I see most of the prestige 'Oscar Movies,' not in November and December, but in January and February. So I decided to hold off this blog until I'd seen all the contenders for this year, rather than waiting eleven and a half months to talk about 'em. Is that cool with you guys? (Disclaimer: I haven't quite seen every Best Picture nominee, I'm missing Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, but the trailer for that one looks flat-out appalling, so fuck it.)

All up, it's been a strange old year in film for me, and kind of oddly disappointing. A lot of the movies that other people fell in love with --- The Artist, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, We Need to Talk about Kevin, Drive --- left me a bit cold. While I can honestly say that all five of those films had moments of skill, beauty, or just old-fashioned awesomeness, none of them really coalesced into a great film for me. They felt like less than the sum of their parts, not more.

And, seriously Oscars voters ... War Horse for Best Picture? Yeesh.

My favourite film of the last year (and a bit) was Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, directed by the Swede Tomas Alfredson (who made the also-fantastic Let the Right One In, track it down if you haven't seen it). Based on the novel by John le Carre, it's an austere spy film, one with lots of hushed conversations and hardly any guns.

Obviously there have been a gazillion spy films over the years, but rarely has one delved so deeply into the question of what it actually is to be a spy. Put simply, a spy must divorce his interior life from his exterior to such an extent, that he can show absolutely nothing to the world. Tinker Tailor explores with wonderful nuance the consequences of this sacrifice. Every character in the entire film is operating under the same stress, but they all deal with it in slightly different ways. While the plot might be about a retired agent being asked to investigate his former colleagues on the sly, the film is really about exploring the inner depths of these most outwardly cautious of men. Gary Oldman has an extraordinary monologue in the middle of the film in which he reveals how savage the effect of his work has been on his home life, while simultaneously admitting that all that work has, for all intents and purposes, been utterly meaningless. It's heartbreaking.

Speaking of Gary Oldman ... I went to see Tinker Tailor with three other guys, and our reactions were hilariously disparate. I loved it, another guy liked it, another guy wasn't quite on board, and one guy hated it with the fire of a thousand suns. Talking to them afterwards, it seemed like our differing takes all hinged on how we took to Oldman's George Smiley. He has one of the most difficult jobs I've ever seen an actor take on: for the film to work, he has to communicate to the audience what Smiley is thinking, while never giving away what he's thinking to the other characters in the scene. To my mind, he succeeds beautifully: I felt I was with Smiley every single step of the way. The guy that hated the film, found the performance flat, and thus found the film boring. Clearly it's not going to be to everybody's taste, but I ate it up.

In the past I've admired Terrence Malick's films, but I haven't really liked them, and I've never had any desire to watch any of them twice. (Disclaimer: I've never seen Badlands.) But The Tree of Life, his epic, allusive, obtuse tone-poem about the 1950's Texas childhood of Jack, played by Sean Penn and Hunter McCracken, left me a snivelling wretch on the floor.

A screenwriting lecturer I had at Uni used to love to say 'The most personal is the most universal.' That guy was kind of a jerk, but I think he was onto something. The details of Jack's childhood and adolescence (and of his adult life) are specific, but, helped by Malick's cosmos-sized diversions, they reach deeper than telling us about one man's life.

Let me use an example to try and explain. My favourite sequence in the film deals with Jack's burgeoning sexuality, and runs thus: Jack watches his mother, who is almost unbearably beautiful, wash her feet with a hose in their front yard. Then their neighbour (another pretty woman, seemingly in her 20's or early 30's) leaves her house. It's a simpler time: she leaves the doors unlocked. Jack sneaks into her home and wanders around the strange, silent rooms, soaking in the details of a woman's life. Upstairs, he goes through her drawers. He takes out one of her slips and lays it on the bed. Then we cut to Jack sprinting madly through some scrub, the slip clutched in his hand: he's stolen it. Reaching a creek, he hides the offending underwear beneath a piece of wood, then thinks better of it and throws it into the water. When he returns home, his mother watches him with her arms folded, disappointed.

Obviously reading it like that doesn't do it justice, but trust me, it's electrifying cinema. Malick perfectly captures Jack's mixture of excitement, confusion, and guilt. And here's the thing: I think everybody who's been through puberty will recognise that blend of emotions in some way. I never did anything like that when I was a kid, but God, I get it. I get it perfectly.

Personal and universal. Right on, screenwriting lecturer douchebag. Right on. The film's not without its flaws --- I could have done without the coda on Memory Beach --- but when it's at its best, it's so much better, clearer, and truer than anything I've seen in years.

My feelings for Werner Herzog's documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams are just as hard to explain as my feelings for Tree of Life, but they're just as strong. Perfectly sealed for 20,000 years, the Chauvet Caves in France were re-discovered about fifteen years ago. Not having been exposed to the elements, the cave paintings that adorn the walls are still in pristine condition, as vibrant and bright as if they had been drawn yesterday. To protect them from damage, the caves are ordinarily closed to all but a few scientists. How Herzog got permission to get his cameras in there I don't know, but I'm grateful that he did. The film that results is spectacularly beautiful.

As a documentarian, Herzog has a habit of getting on my nerves. His pompous, pseudo-philosophical voice-overs are a bit trying, and his insistence on inserting himself into his movies is often to their detriment. In Cave he has the good sense to shut up (well, for most of the time) and let the pictures tell their own story, aided by interviews with the experts who study them. His most brilliant move, though, was shooting in 3D. I'm a sceptic of that format, but it's perfect here: we get to see how the paintings were thoughtfully designed to meld with the curve of the rocks.

It almost feels too easy: shoot millenia-old rock art, slap some epic orchestral music on the soundtrack, and hey presto, cinematic magic. That's really all that's going on here, but it's more than enough for me.

Now that I think about it, Mike Mills' Beginners stakes out pretty similar thematic territory to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: it's all about the schism between our interior lives and the face we present to the world. After the death of his wife, the elderly Hal (Christopher Plummer, charming as hell), having lived a lie his entire life, comes out of the closet and begins to explore his homosexuality for the first time. Meanwhile his son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), having grown up in a household of secrets and repression, has never learnt to express his feelings to anyone. The father's last years of fearlessness inspire something in the son and after Hal, too, passes away, Oliver begins a halting, awkward relationship with Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a French actress. 

Beginners could so easily be one of those twee indie rom-coms, and there are moments when it veers perilously close to the edge (Not only do Oliver and Anna meet at a fancy-dress party, but she's got laryngitis, so she can only communicate by writing notes! It's so adorable you just want to puke!), but McGregor's performance weights the film, and keeps it from jack-assery. He's a man wracked by pain but unable to do anything about it, or even really let it show. He manages to convey to the audience what he's feeling, even when he doesn't know it himself. Plummer is (rightfully) getting a stack of accolades for this film, but it was McGregor who really blew me away.

There's also these interludes composed of still photographs, advertisements and brochures from different time periods relevant to the film. It's an affectation, sure, but given the themes of the film, it plays beautifully. "This is what families looked like," Oliver intones, over a succession of absurdly smiling models in period advertisements, and when it's cut with flashbacks to Oliver's own childhood, it's heartrending. To the outside world, Oliver's family would have looked perfect, but only those inside it knew it was built on a lie.

It's been a while since I've seen Black Swan (I've loaned my DVD to someone and now I can't remember who. Serious question: have you got it?), and it's such a wacky piece of work that without a re-watch I don't really have anything coherent to say. Instead, let me treat you to this genius flowchart, which pretty much sums it up (you have to scroll down a bit ...). But God, I loved it when I saw it. In case you haven't noticed, 'bonkers' is one of the highest compliments I can ever pay to anything, and Jesus, Black Swan has every bonkers base covered. It's a horror film, that's also hilarious! It's a serious examination of representations of gender, but it doesn't take itself too seriously! Vincent Cassel plays the sleaziest Frenchman in the history of sleazy Frenchmen! Barbara Hershey has creepy-plastic-surgery-face, and paints scary paintings! It's a motherfucking body-horror set in a ballet company (I've checked: this is officially the best idea for a film ever)!

Seriously, what more do you need? Do you need Winona Ryder stabbing herself through the cheek with a nail file? Because it's GOT THAT TOO!

In other notable movie news from the last year: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2 hit all the right spots for this mega-nerd (and Matthew Lewis totally pulled off Neville's transformation into a bad-ass motherfucker); Rabbit Hole proved that Nicole's still got it, and that small stories can sometimes be enormous; Attack the Block was savage, funny and really, really smart; and Melancholia married the best on-screen depiction of depression I've ever seen with a goofy end-of-the-world movie, and made it work.

And finally, 2011 gave me a definitive answer to a tough question for any cinephile. In the past when people have asked 'What's the worst movie you've ever seen?' there have been several contenders. Is it The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Pirates 3? Transformers 2? I've seen so many dreadful films, how could I pick just one?

Fucking Sucker Punch, that's how. It can't get any worse than that. It is the laziest, emptiest, stupidest piece of cinema that has ever existed and, as cynical as I am, I have too much faith in humankind to think we'll ever be able to match it.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
books to go: 91

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