Friday, December 30, 2011

Top Ten Films of 2011: “Nothing stands still. Or keeps its place.”

I guess I’d better do this before it’s too late. Here’s my Top Ten List for 2011.

As my title suggests, it’s a tentative one. I usually don’t consider my Top Ten list finished (not that it ever is) until I file one for the Skandie Awards in February; so I’ve actually got a couple more months of 2011 left to go, lucky me. I’m not even going to begin to tell you what essential 2011 films I haven’t yet seen. Life’s humiliating enough.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

War Horse: You Can’t Go Home Again

Steven Spielberg’s equine bildungsroman has been called old-fashioned, and it is, I suppose, to a point. Because it’s essentially about the very idea of old-fashioned-ness itself. It starts off in a kind of bucolic, poetic reverie in the lush countryside of Devon; the first scenes are admirably wordless, as boy (Jeremy Irvine) meets horse. Then it settles, for a little while at least, into a kind of particularized geniality that has led many to recall John Ford films like The Quiet Man and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Seemingly uncinematic problems -- such as whether a thoroughbred can be made to plow a field, or whether a kind-hearted, drunk farmer with a limp (Peter Mullan) will be able to make rent -- are filmed with a wide-eyed momentousness.

Some will find this hard to take, but that’s what epics do: They make everything bigger and bigger until the whole world seems monumental, and then they force us to choose what’s important. And if War Horse seems old-fashioned at first, that’s because it has to be. It’s about how the old world was torn to shreds by the new -- which is, after all, the ultimate story of World War I.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Two Last/First Things on "Margaret"

Actually, I'll probably have more to say later (a pedant's work is never done), but for now, two timely things about Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret worth noting:

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin: Bodies, Unrest, and Motion

I’ve been waiting for a proper Tintin movie for pretty much my entire life. The first time I saw a movie on TV (any kind of movie) was a Turkish TV broadcast of Tintin and the Blue Oranges, a live-action Belgian attempt from the 1960s to bring Herge’s comic book characters to life. Even my six-year-old self at the time knew enough to call bullshit on that one. I remember that halfway through the film, the power went out in Ankara and plunged us into darkness, as if willed by my refusal to accept some random dude pretending to be Tintin.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: The Ghost in the Machine

I’ve watched Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy twice now and I’m still not sure I understand all of it. The story, at least in its broad strokes, is fairly simple, but structurally it burrows into little pockets that are sometimes hard to untangle. The film moves not like a river but an octopus at the bottom of the sea; you sense the overall form sliding along, but you can’t always follow the individual tentacles. And yet, I can’t tear myself away from it.

Friday, December 16, 2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin: Mother-dämmerung

The striking opening image of We Need to Talk About Kevin, a birds’ eye view of an army of bodies writhing in a sea of crushed tomatoes (we may wonder if it’s blood at first), lets us know more than we may suspect about the film. This chaos of red, with its stumbling and slithering human forms, is an image out of time and space; we don’t know where we are, or when this is happening, or if it’s even real. It’s probably the “Tomatina” festival in Valencia, and since our lead character Eva (Tilda Swinton) is a travel agent, this is probably an event she’s been to at some point in her mangled life. But still. We know everything about the feel of the thing and nothing about the why, or the how, or the when, or even the who. That seems to be a good way to describe Lynne Ramsay’s cinema in general. This one, however, stands out.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Young Adult: Beautiful Monster

As Mavis, the messed-up, sorta-black-hearted former prom queen determined to head back to the small town of Mercury, Minnesota to win her ex-boyfriend back from the clutches of his unassuming wife and newborn daughter, Charlize Theron gets to be both deeply ugly and supernaturally beautiful. She cakes her face with make-up and she looks amazing, but in close-ups we can almost reach out and stroke her cheeks; they seem like they’d be brittle to the touch. It’s a tough balancing act – both emotionally and physically – and Theron pulls it off remarkably well. In some way, it’s the kind of role she was born to play, far more so than her Oscar-winning performance in Monster, where she had to endure hours of prosthetic makeup to try and make herself mundanely ugly. The problem is that she’s in the wrong movie.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Forgotten Films: Our Mother's House (Jack Clayton, 1967)

Years ago, when I was writing (and later editing)’s now-defunct film blog The Screengrab, I introduced a regular feature that proved to be quite popular, focusing on films that were, for one reason or another, forgotten – that is to say, unseen, under-discussed, under-appreciated. Happily, some of the films I featured in the series have since become significantly more appreciated. I did a huge piece on Alex Cox’s Walker in mid-2006, and even Cox himself seemed surprised at the time that there were people out there who remembered his film and considered it a masterpiece; now, the film is available in a lovely Criterion edition, go figure.

Screengrab is long gone; not even its leaf-strewn sarcophagus appears to be cached anymore. So I hope the Nerve folks won’t mind if I reinstate that feature here and, to kick things off, revisit one of the forgotten films I felt most strongly about, Jack Clayton’s masterpiece, Our Mother’s House, since it is among my absolute favorite films of all time and is still very, very hard to find. (Ahem, Criterion…or, really, anybody.) So here goes nothing.