Friday, February 5, 2010
The following column is reprinted from the January issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem neccessary to leave out):
Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel
2009 Favorites(in no particular order)
The Hurt Locker. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
What distinguishes The Hurt Locker from checking in as a moral-parading exploration of our current Middle Eastern engagement, or simply another pop and crackle action ride covered up in a war movie uniform, is Bigelow’s acutely unique overview and her more-than-scrupulous technique. The movie really isn’t about Iraq, nor is it an excuse to trot out a newfangled formula for contempo action; it delves into the grace (and devastation) of heroism in war, and it rolls out like a kinetic art piece replete with spatial distancing and a visceral flair. Bigelow’s hard-edged film (choreographed with sinuous hand-held camerawork and accented with off-balance tilts, full speed zooms, and nervous editing) arches into a rigorous self-propellant, with style flash pointing into substance. Stripped bare, the movie contains no story arc, no character development, and no big or resounding (aka meaningful) finale. It’s a potent dip into the adrenaline of recklessness and disorientation of cinematic action, and not in the typical Hollywood manner which is usually merely meant to artificially simulate so-called real life action. Probably the best film of the year.
Up in the Air. Directed by Jason Reitman.
Up in the Air may indeed be George Clooney’s best performance to date, and it can certainly lay claim to be among his most affecting. Neither Clooney’s central figure or the film ever seeps into the redemptive mode, and both movie and performance benefit for their bold fence straddling, and refusal to wrap up near anything neatly. Vera Farmiga, as the fellow traveler and soul sister with whom Clooney’s fixer gets entangled with, is for once, an on screen feminine counterpart who seems truly adult and intoxicatingly equal. Up in the Air is a woefully sad sack economic fable for our times, but Total George ups the ante, making it a personal tale that belies its basic structure as a very dark social comedy. Director Reitman traffics in a shimmering and resonant ambiguity, and Clooney proves well more than able in delivering an incisive central performance that is exquisitely poised between acerbic disdain and lost boy soul searching. George Clooney is indeed a big screen rarity—the matinee idol that can act with the best of them.
Inglourious Basterds. Directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Inglourious Basterds was bound to a polarizing movie, rolling itself out as if derived from an aesthete’s blueprint, yet crafted with pulp cartoonishness, continually nudging the artful into the low-down, craftily airing out the florid excesses of melodrama and outright tawdriness. It is, without question, Tarantino’s ultimate video clerk film fantasia, a movie boiled in the oil of melted down film nitrate stock (unironically enough, also one of the movie’s plot points), a film that unequivocally operates in a readymade cinematic vacuum. Tarantino’s movies have never been intended to peel back the shell and reveal anything of moral or psychological import, and this—a Holocaust revenge fantasy—doesn’t even hint at any significance outside of tickling the pleasure sensors. It’s a wacked-out paean to the delirious beguilements of the cinema, happily self-indulgent and brazenly self-assured.
Where the Wild Things Are. Directed by Spike Jonze.
Jonze has managed to paint an impeccably textured cinematic fable, both sweet and sour, about the inherent implosion of childhood, with vivid brushstrokes given to the inflated traumas and tongue-tying complications of growing up, a just about perfect reinterpretation of Maurice Sendak’s modern classic children’s book that’s part idyll, part nightmare, part real, part fantasy, all of it with a subtle emotional underpinning. As we all know, the boychild Max’s pursuit, his self-inflicted adventure, his expressive search for self-control, ends with a return to a simple but deeply satisfying hot meal and the eternal nurturing of quintessential motherhood, and that’s just enough to probably bring a tear to the eyes of Sendak, Freud, even Walt Disney, and certainly myself.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Directed by Werner Herzog.
Exquisitely gonzo, this non-remake, non-sequel of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 cult fave, substitutes a wickedly over baked Nic Cage go round for the unforgettable Harvey Keitel turn of the earlier film. A cop drama that dips and dives into hallucinatory flourishes with jangly oddball rhythms, also lets the wackadoo inner Cage loose, not the goofball charmer of big budget melodrama or the loony macho man of action movies, but a side-stepping, eye-popping, hilariously careening, barking-like-a-dog, performance artist playing a vile, vicious, and possible insane rogue copper. Herzog and Cage delight in the former’s faux documentary atmosphere, while the latter channels both John Barrymore and Crispin Glover, both of them sticking it right in yer face. While crispy and overdone, it’s still delicious.
Fantastic Mr. Fox. Directed by Wes Anderson
Strange as it is to be including two children’s film in one top ten, Wes Anderson’s stop-motion take on Roald Dahl’s 1970 storybook, is a delightful and intensely manicured effort. Deceivingly light, it’s woven together by Anderson’s wholly original sensibility, and easily seems at one with his other top notch work: The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore, and The Darjeeling Limited. It’s archness at its best, another compulsively nuanced offering, and of those movies that sticks to your craw long after having left the theater.
District 9. Directed by Neill Blomkamp.
Brainy, spine-tickling, deft, and imaginative, this sci-fi mocumentary is also subversively amusing. Reviewers made sacrilegious comparisons to the visceral art and craft of James Cameron’s The Terminator that were truly right on, while South African filmmaker Blomkamp and his co-conspirator and star (Sharlto Copley) confidently managed to immediately mount themselves on the list of Filmsters We Must Watch.
The White Ribbon. Directed by Michael Haneke.
I find Haneke’s filmmaking output continually mesmerizing: The Piano Player (’01), Funny Games (’97 and ’07), Cache(’05). This one is typically glacial (vaqueness is his means of tension building), so of course it is also typically gripping, on the surface a haunting fable set in a small village during pre-World War I Germany. Bleak and devastating, brimming with breathtaking compositions, it is relentless, chilling, but enthralling filmmaking.
A Serious Man. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
The Coens, inscrutable as they may be, create films that are as cut and polished as diamonds, gleaming with precision. They make a living mocking, eviscerating, and savaging with deadpan officiousness, happily undercutting genre expectations along the way. As the title indicates, this provocative look into the state of Judasim in America in the ever changing 60’s, is as serious it is equally audacious---imagine Kafka traveling to the Midwest, hapless and unenlightened, yet with tongue-squarely-in-cheek. All in all, a remarkably self-lacerating modern day parable.
The Exiles. Directed by Kent Mackenzie.
This great lost film, partially revived by being referenced in Thom Anderson’s one-of-a-kind essay film Los Angeles Plays Itself, was released to obscurity in 1961 and brought back after a scrupulous UCLA restoration in mid 2008. I didn’t see it until last year, and it stayed with me until I felt forced to have a second viewing. A semi-documentary that follows a handful of Native Americans through their Los Angeles skid row environs through the course of one dusk to dawn day, its stark immediacy resonates deeply, like a neon-lit Raymond Carver short story that also sinks a dagger into your uncomprehending heart.
Just Below the Scoreboard: Big Fan, Adventureland, Me and Orson Welles, The Messenger, Public Enemies, Invictus, Up, Tyson, Drag Me To Hell, The Limits of Control.