Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Paris, Texas: Lone Star State

Leave it to a German director to make a film that creates a new myth of the American West. Lone-wolf heroism is replaced by a quiet yearning for lasting communion with others, the romanticized historical past disappears behind an advertising- and McDonald's-studded present, and rugged natural vistas are spiderwebbed with high-speed freeways and power lines. When Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) staggers out of the Texas desert at the beginning of Paris, Texas, he may be a Man With No Name, but that is only because he seems to have willfully discarded it out of shame.

Back to those power lines: they become a powerful image for what underlies Travis's shame and self-imposed exile. Four years earlier, Travis abandoned his wife and young son, and the physical distance between them has grown great. Their family bond has become tenuous, but it still connects them, stretching across dry emptiness and silence like those lonely, thin wires. As Travis wanders in the wilderness, he follows the straight lines of cables and railroad tracks, as if he's trying to get back to the family he left behind without quite knowing how.

There is no easy road to the reconciliation Travis craves. A hand-lettered sign in the film's second scene suggests the hopelessness of his wandering: "The dust has come to stay. You may stay or pass on through or whatever." He is a penitent whose penance never concludes. His dust has come to stay, and he has all the time in the world to resign himself to it.

Tarkovsky famously referred to filmmaking as "sculpting in time," and Wim Wenders molds it to perfection here. Paris, Texas takes its time with its characters, drawing us into its world and letting the thread of Travis's story unspool gradually. This thread consists of two strands—the mystery surrounding his past desertion and his slow growth into a man who can atone for it—and both of them terminate at the same point in the film. By the time that happens, we notice that the thread has become wrapped around us, binding us closely to the characters who have spent the entire story longing for closeness. Their renewal becomes ours. To watch Paris, Texas is to be reconciled to a world that holds both the desert and the hope of leaving it behind.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Best Films of 2014

10) Starred Up (dir. David Mackenzie)
We've all seen the movie where the hardened convict, after a battle of wills with an authority figure, finally comes to the end of his defiance and begins to soften. The apotheosis of this trope is represented by the much-maligned "It's not your fault" scene from Good Will Hunting, but it's subverted in Starred Up, which has no illusions about the UK's prison system or the people enmeshed in it. It takes its title from the situation of its protagonist, a teenage felon who has been "starred up" from juvenile detention to an adult prison. Eric (Jack O'Connell) has known nothing but the punishment of the state for his entire life, with an arrest record stretching back to puberty and a prison-lifer for a father. He's no innocent waif either, as likely to beat a fellow convict half to death as he is to bum a smoke from him. Eric's aggression is scary but also understandable—caught in the gears of a system that is just as scary, he almost has no choice but to shape himself to fit his environs. That "almost" is a possible ray of light, as he is put into a counseling group with the goal of teaching him to manage his savagery. But the walls of prison are thick, and the cracks that let those rays of light in are hard to find and even harder to keep open.

9) Nightcrawler (dir. Dan Gilroy)
Look into the eyes of Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Nightcrawler, and behold the thousand-yard stare of America's rat race, circa 2014. With his neverending stream of business-world platitudes and job-interview chutzpah, Bloom embodies the capitalistic drive to succeed in its purest form. The effect is creepy, not only because of Bloom's gaunt, hungry face but also because he simply takes the lessons of life coaches and business gurus to their logical conclusion. If the end goal of life is to know what you want and pursue it with everything you've got, then why not do as Louis Bloom does? As a "nightcrawler" (a paparazzo who prowls the nighttime streets for violent crime footage to sell to morning-news TV shows), Bloom wants the best news footage possible—even if that means tampering with car-accident bodies or letting an assault run its course in order to film the aftermath. No longer bound by the restrictions of propriety or compassion, Bloom is finally free to ascend to great heights. He is animated solely by an inhuman diligence. He is an amoral Pinocchio, a marionette whose strings have been cut but who feels no desire to become a real boy.

8) Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater)
When I try to articulate what makes most of Richard Linklater's films so good, the temptation is to talk about them as if they are earth-shaking, medium-defining cinematic events. Well-intentioned hyperbole is an easy shortcut for conveying a film's quality, but it's an ill fit for Linklater. He doesn't ask big questions or suggest big answers—his characters do, but Linklater doesn't. He's more interested in the behavior and life rhythms of his characters; the armchair philosophizing is merely a phenomenon of those things.

Boyhood isn't Linklater's best film, but it's the best at embodying this quintessentially Linklater-esque vision of life: a succession of moments that are cumulative rather than linear. Few, if any, people remember childhood as a straight line leading from infanthood to maturity. We are far more likely to remember snatches of time that seemed undistinguished in the moment, yet ended up snagging on some crag inside our heads and sticking there. Those snatches of experience accumulate into a unique, if ramshackle, personal history.

In the end, that is what Boyhood is about—not childhood but rather time. Linklater isn't making a biography of young Mason Jr.—he's creating a filmic representation of over a decade of life. It is remarkable that Linklater spent twelve years recording a boy as he grew up, but it's even more remarkable that he was able to depict those twelve years in a way that feels true both to the character and to the way we all experience life and memory. After all, Mason is not the only character who ages twelve years during the film. Boyhood, to paraphrase Whitman, contains multitudes.

7) Winter Sleep (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Aydin, the protagonist of Winter Sleep, is many things—a former stage actor, a hotel manager, a self-styled intellectual—but his primary occupation seems to be as a pharisee. Utterly convinced of his own rectitude, Aydin doesn't even need religion in order to browbeat everyone around him. His wife, his sister, his devout Muslim tenants—all of them struggle not to be ground up in the gears of his picayune arguments. (In internet parlance, he's an inveterate sea lion.) As winter sets in around the countryside hotel Aydin owns, his friends and family find themselves trapped indoors with him; and as the old proverb has it, it's better to live in the attic than in a house with a quarrelsome person.

Just as Richard Linklater does, Nuri Bilge Ceylan allows their conversations to unspool at length, a technique that adds fine shading to his characters while also making us keenly aware of the story's temporal breadth—the passage of time becomes a part of the film's texture. Winter Sleep is a conversation epic in the same way that The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy epic. With the help of Gokhan Tiryaki's painterly cinematography, Ceylan maps out the contours of Aydin's personality and relationships with the same expansiveness as Peter Jackson's exploration of Middle-earth. The possibility of redemption for Aydin is present yet slim. His pedantry and self-righteousness isolate him spiritually from other people, but he may be too blinkered by those traits to step out of his self-made prison. Echoing Milton's Lucifer, Aydin says, "My kingdom may be small, but at least I'm the king there."

6) Only Lovers Left Alive (dir. Jim Jarmusch)
You could be forgiven for assuming that the vampire genre had been sucked dry by YA angst and Anne Rice's undead-'n'-ennui stories. Vampires haven't enjoyed being vampires for some time now, it seems. Thank goodness we have Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive to revitalize the creatures for us. Jarmusch gives his vampires a good reason to be bummed out (vampires are going extinct thanks to the fact that their only food source—human blood—is becoming irrevocably polluted by unnatural chemicals), but he also gives them a good reason to enjoy their undying state (they have all the time in the world to savor humanity's greatest artistic achievements throughout the generations). Almost everything dies—a theme that Jarmusch underscores by setting the film in the urban decay of once-mighty Detroit—but true immortality can be found through art. If this is true, then Jarmusch has a long life ahead of him thanks to films like this one.

5) Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer)
To my mind, the most interesting aspect of stories about aliens is not the idea that their technologies, languages, and bodies are different from ours, but rather the idea that their inner lives are completely unfathomable to a human mind. In the end, the gap between our two species may be unbridgeable. Scarlett Johansson's alien in Under the Skin is no Star Trek humanoid just aching to know what makes Earthlings tick—she is wholly Other. Director Jonathan Glazer miraculously finds a cinematic language to match, using image and sound in ways that flirt with abstraction in order to create the impression of an otherworldly consciousness dispassionately observing its surroundings. The alien's reactions to having a human body and existing in proximity with other humans are as fascinating as they are (frequently) horrifying. By presenting such things to us without making any effort to explicate them, Glazer manages to reveal facets of humanity unglimpsed by even the most psychologically realistic character studies. In his hands, the maxim "show, don't tell" reveals itself as an incredibly muscular philosophy. By the end, as Johansson's character finds herself shocked and confused at what is happening within and around her, the audience is right there with her, sharing in her bewilderment.

4) Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle)
The well-worn criticism of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket is that it derails once it leaves behind the boot camp and R. Lee Ermey's abusive drill sergeant. As the argument has it, the meat of Kubrick's film lies not in its Vietnam War sequences but in its portrayal of how people can be broken down and rebuilt into beings who exist to do one thing and do it well. I happen to think that Full Metal Jacket is strong all the way through, but naysayers can rejoice that their prince has finally come, in the form of Damien Chazelle's Whiplash. The character of Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, who should already have a spot cleared on his mantle for an Oscar statuette) is Ermey's drill sergeant transplanted to an elite New York music school and determined to produce jazz prodigies instead of soldiers. Fletcher's ornate profanity and psychological cruelty are both amusing and frightening to witness, and his tactics become even more disturbing when they actually start to work on his student Andrew (Miles Teller), an ambitious young drummer. Fletcher wants to produce greatness at any cost, and Andrew wants to become great at any cost: a match made in hell.

Whiplash achieves its own greatness by making Andrew's ascent as thrilling as it is unnerving. Fletcher's and Andrew's obsessions are deeply damaging to themselves and others, but they still produce great music as a result. They wouldn't be obsessed if their sought-after prize weren't so great. Chazelle isn't ashamed to let us enjoy the fruits of their screwed-up relationship, which creates a meaningful tension. We know of the darkness that underlies their partnership; can we still bear that in mind when their climactic concert is overpowering us with the exhilaration of sound, image, and editing? Chazelle isn't shy about unleashing the full potency of cinema on us in order to make us ask how much power we should allow art over our lives.

3) Calvary (dir. John Michael McDonagh)
It's not really a secret that people of faith often struggle with doubt, pettiness, and plain old sin, but these days it's surprisingly rare to encounter films that take both the faith and the struggle seriously. This is one of the reasons why Calvary is such a treasure. The protagonist, Father James, does not always turn the other cheek or offer life-changing counsel to his parishioners; but he tries, dammit, and he doesn't buckle under the weight of his failures or his neighbors' scorn.

Those neighbors are the second reason Calvary is great. John Michael McDonagh doesn't shrink from the prospect of sketching out unrepentant human depravity in all its forms: the murderer, the adulterer, the sneering atheist, the prideful rich. And then there's the central sin that sets the plot's machinery in motion—molested as a child by a priest, a man promises to kill Father James in retribution. Father James has done nothing to warrant the death sentence, but isn't that the essence of the sacrifice to which the film's title refers? Humans do horrible things, often laughing as they do so; an innocent person offers his own life in recompense. McDonagh's depiction of the situation is colorful, sardonic, and ultimately beautiful. People of faith, offer a prayer of thanks that a film like this one exists.

2) Ida (dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)
Visually, Ida is preposterously gorgeous. The last time a black-and-white film was this perfectly shot, I was putting The Turin Horse on my best-of-2012 list. Entire essays could be written about the cinematography, but let's stick with just Pawel Pawlikowski's shot composition for now. He consistently frames shots (see above) so that his protagonist, Ida, is surrounded by negative space. Our eyes are drawn to this space, seemingly empty and yet churning with all sorts of intangibles—Poland's World War II history, the silent presence of God, and above all the inner thoughts of the characters. Ida, an orphan and Catholic novitiate who learns of her Jewish heritage near the beginning of the film, is an enigma; in black-and-white, her dark eyes might as well be opaque. But with every shot that confines her face to one-fourth of the frame while the remaining three-fourths remain conspicuously empty, the film creates the strong impression of her churning thoughts as she tries to come to terms with the deep rift between her adopted Christian identity and her inherited Jewish identity. Pawlikowski doesn't elucidate these enigmas for us. Whatever fills the silences and negative spaces in his film remains a mystery. The mystery is the point.

1) The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson)
From my write-up in the CAPC 25:
"[Wes] Anderson sprinkles the film with standout shots and sequences throughout its running time, of course—a single black-and-white scene toward the end moved me more than anything else in his filmography. But the film is a symphony, not a series of solos. Everything harmonizes—the luscious cinematography and immaculate production design combine to create a setting that is half storybook, half history. This is the perfect tone to set for the film, in which the aging proprietor of the titular hotel tells a writer about how he came of age as its lobby boy. Most of us remember formative periods in our lives as some combination of actual fact and embellished perception. Anderson’s signature stylization fits this story like a lavender glove."
As someone who is left cold by Anderson's films about as often as I am galvanized by them, I was caught off guard by how much I loved The Grand Budapest Hotel. It may be that I'm just a sucker for films that stand at the threshold to the future while looking over their shoulder at the past. Events that are over, people who are gone, and memories that are fading—they all cluster in the distance, waving their handkerchiefs as we are borne forward into the times that await us. There's beauty and happiness in looking back at these things, but grief is intermingled also. On earth, we gain things only to lose them eventually, something that Wes Anderson's latest film understands instinctively and depicts with the utmost warmth. It warms me to watch it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Eyeroll Le Fou

In Goodbye to Language, Jean-Luc Godard revolutionizes the cinematic form by manipulating our perception of chronology, making a one-hour run-time feel like two hours.

That may be unfairly snarky, but I'm not sure what would constitute a fair response. This is the sort of film in which characters spend an entire scene woodenly reciting postmodern philosophy at each other, but one of them is starkers and the other is loudly taking a dump so the audience knows that the director's a clever dude who doesn't take himself too seriously. Why try to meet Godard halfway if even he doesn't fully believe the twaddle he's selling?

This is frustrating because Goodbye to Language marries formal elements to thematic content in some truly groundbreaking ways. With 3-D technology affording him the ability to create multiple planes within a single image, Godard can literalize his exploration of how language can create multiple tiers of meaning within a single word. Language can isolate and divide people as easily as it can connect them, and Godard illustrates this idea (literally) with shots in which a rain-dappled window jumps out at us in glorious 3-D while the wide world outside the window remains in focus. Superimposed images, out-of-sync sound, and chilly philosophy juxtaposed with naked flesh—all of it embodies abstract ideas concretely, which is no mean feat. This is the sort of Potemkin-level technical innovation that later filmmakers will learn from for generations to come.

Too bad that this innovation is shackled to such a slog of a film. As a short-film experiment, it would be sublime; as a full-length feature it's laughable, brimming with self-indulgence and film-school affectations. It's an artifact in both senses of the word. It is an aesthetic object, but it is also a dull antiquity, a carefully crafted bit of inert clay.

Godard hasn't made a movie; he's made a museum installation, one of those looped films at which you pause for five minutes and stroke your chin before moving on. God help you if you get stuck in a dark room with such an installation for 70 minutes.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Week in Review (11/9/14)

Sam Adams reviews Interstellar by way of Stephen Hawking:

"Interstellar's physics may not be worked out as intricately as Memento's mystery or The Prestige's tricks, but the movie doesn't rest on being solvable in the same way. It nods, ultimately, at how little we fundamentally understand the universe in which we live, how much remains beyond our literal and metaphorical grasp. Watching A Brief History of Time—which, by the way, is on Hulu—was an alternately entrancing and agonizing experience, the latter because it drives home the likely insurmountable limits of human knowledge. Interstellar fills that void, not with understanding, but with hope."

Tina Hassannia puts her finger on the real focus of Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler:

"Louis’s yearning for success, based on his duplicity and sociopathic tendencies, is pushed to an extreme that allows the film to make a pretty simplistic argument: in order to get ahead, you need to be an asshole. If you’re crazy, even better. Nightcrawler is not a complicated film, and by default Louis is not a particularly nuanced protagonist. But thanks to his dialogue and Gyllenhaal’s performance, Louis is an undeniably interesting character—mostly because of the way he spins his business rhetoric into conversations. This is not something he learned on the job—like most people do, in an office culture that enables such a pidgin language to become acceptable—but rather, a vernacular he taught himself by reading online courses and books."

Christopher Orr says what we all were thinking when Pixar announced its intention to make Toy Story 4:

"More to the point, the announcement of Toy Story 4 is yet another example of Pixar’s disturbing descent into sequel-itis. For the studio’s first 15 years, it declined to make sequels for any of its films except Toy Story. Since then, it’s hardly seemed capable of making anything else. Apart from Brave, we’ve had Cars 2 and Monsters University. The Good Dinosaur, as noted, hasn’t been able to make it to theaters at all, and who knows when or if it will."

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Week In Review (11/1/14)

Welcome to the first entry in what will, I hope, be a weekly feature around these parts. I may be a slow writer (as the posting history on this blog can attest), but the very least I can do is point you all toward the outstanding pieces of film and culture writing that fill our internet cup to overflowing over the course of any given week. Full disclosure: I am not above self-promotion, so I'll begin each post with whatever articles of mine have popped up elsewhere on the web before moving on to the really good stuff.

Enough throat-clearing! Read and enjoy.

Self-Promotion Corner

I wrote about David Cronenberg's The Fly over at Christ and Pop Culture, examining how body horror and incarnational faith interact:

" 'The flesh' is the motif that dominates the rest of The Fly. We, along with Brundle, will learn more about the flesh than we ever wanted to know. After the scientist hastily tests his invention on himself—unaware of the literal fly in his ointment—he falls victim to an agonizingly gradual process of insectile mutation. All of it is depicted in sickening, moist detail, with only one possible endpoint. That is not a spoiler; Cronenberg makes it clear that he is not interested in plot twists so much as in the particularities of Brundle’s bodily suffering. The suffering is what holds the meaning."

Other Great Writing  

Josh Larsen on the 1955 classic The Night of the Hunter:

"This is one weird, troubling movie, all the more so for being released in 1955. And as the only film directed by actor Charles Laughton, its very existence is somewhat haunting. If it weren’t for the fact that this is available on video, you’d wonder if the movie ever really happened."

Mark Harris on Academy Award backlash and "ballsy" movies:

"There is an enduring story about the Academy Awards Best Picture race that goes like this: The best picture never wins. Every year, Oscar voters have enough temerity/foresight/integrity/discernment to nominate at least one movie on which the verdict of history would smile favorably if it were to take the prize. And every year, collective shortsightedness, envy, or a failure of appreciation turns that movie into an also-ran. This way of framing the Oscars is still embraced by some critics, whose astonishment that an organization of industry professionals does not share their taste blooms afresh every year."

David Ehrlich reviews Interstellar (no spoilers) and examines how it fits into Christopher Nolan's aesthetic overall:

"The films of Christopher Nolan generate emotion in much the same way that a supercollider generates particles, accelerating until they achieve a velocity that allows the abstract concept at their core to be seen and confirmed. Nolan may not be looking for the Higgs boson, but he uses a similar approach to distil and demystify the subatomic elements of narrative fiction. His films feverishly cross-cut between parallel planes of action until the tension generated between the temporal gamesmanship of their structure and the emotional stress of their characters synthesises into a quicksilver snapshot of a single idea."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Certainly a Revelation of Some Sort or Other: A Review of LEFT BEHIND

Roger Ebert once famously panned Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny by saying that he'd rather watch a video of his own colonoscopy than sit through Gallo's film again. It's a good line, if a little bit mean; Ebert later took back the remark (though only after Gallo recut the film). It's hard to blame him for being harsh; some movies are so bad that excoriating them is a defense mechanism more than anything else. I know now how Ebert must have felt: after suffering through Left Behind, I too would rather watch Roger Ebert's colonoscopy than repeat the experience.

I'm writing a full review, but really, only one sentence is needed to condemn the latest film adaptation of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins's bestselling novel. This is the sentence: Nicolas Cage is boring in this movie. Six months from now, when someone finally gets around to writing one of those “what went wrong here?” postmortem articles, the first question they’ll have to wrestle with is why the producers of Left Behind bothered to get Nic Cage if they weren’t going to take full advantage of his unique screen presence. Everything that one hopes to see in a latter-day Cage performance—the famed “Cage rage,” oddly paced line readings, ludicrous hair—is absent here, replaced by a sort of drowsy, flop-sweat anxiety. Imagine a business VP who has stayed up all night preparing for the big meeting at work, who steps into the board room and realizes that the USB drive containing his Powerpoint slides is sitting on the desk at home. Then watch Cage act in this movie, and behold the Hollywood-actor equivalent of that fear. It’s the stuff of prosaic nightmares.

Nicolas Cage, wondering how it all came to this

“Prosaic nightmare” is a pretty good description of the film as a whole. Responsibility does not lie solely at the door of Cage’s performance; there are plenty of examples of dismal craftsmanship to be had in just about every other area of the film too. One struggles to contain the impulse to spend an entire review enumerating them all. How about the slack editing, which utterly fails to build momentum within and among the film’s scenes? Or the score, which in the tradition of soap-opera music is simultaneously overbearing and forgettable? Or the bland cinematography and production design, neither of which give the eye anything to do during the interminable dialogue scenes? During a living-room scene between Chloe (Cassi Thomson) and her mother (Lea Thompson), the set, the lighting, and the actors were so white and hygienically tidy that I half-expected the characters’ conversation to be interrupted by a voiceover suggesting that I ask my doctor whether Zoloft would be right for me.

As for the story itself, it is what it is. Interested parties can find a synopsis elsewhere easily enough. Suffice it to say that the story—adapted by screenwriters Paul Lalonde and John Patus—is profoundly silly, with characters who have names like “Buck Williams” and “Rayford Steele.” Buck Williams is an investigative reporter whom other characters inexplicably treat like Bono rather than a slightly more attractive John Stossel; strangers embark on theological discussions before even learning each other’s names. After the Rapture occurs, the entire planet accelerates from zero to anarchy in twenty minutes flat.

All that said, it seems only fair to grant Left Behind its premise. Hermeneutical quibbles aside, a strictly literal reading of Revelation provides the raw materials for a compelling apocalyptic narrative. Prophecies, warfare, global conspiracy, monsters—what else could you need? LaHaye and Jenkins’s novels read like a poor man’s Da Vinci Code, but people who are deeply bothered by that are not going to buy a movie ticket anyway. Raiders of the Lost Ark’s story is every bit as ridiculous, and it is a masterpiece of popcorn entertainment. Execution is everything. If there is any way for Left Behind to work at all, it would have to be as a pulpy thriller that does not take itself too seriously.

Pulling off the tonal balancing act required of such thrillers is harder than it looks, so one desires to extend some modicum of grace to the director, Vic Armstrong. But it’s nearly impossible to maintain a charitable attitude in the face of directorial choices so poorly judged that they border on the perverse. The scant humor that the film has to offer is implemented with maximal clumsiness; there’s a little-person character who is such an offensive caricature that he makes Mini-Me look like Tyrion Lannister. Any time the plot threatens to become the slightest bit interesting, Armstrong undermines it with a generous portion of cheese.

More often, though, the film swings to the opposite extreme, which is to be no fun at all. Nic Cage’s performance reveals itself as the film in microcosm: flat, earnest, and bereft of vivacity. In a couple of places we can sense a self-aware B-movie stirring just beneath the surface, yearning to burst free—but the filmmakers’ staid sensibilities keep it securely shackled. Armstrong seems to have little desire to surprise his audience in any way. More than that, he seems to fear failure so much that he avoids taking any risks whatsoever. For a movie with an ostensibly built-in audience, Left Behind is strangely timorous.

What is it so afraid of? Whom is it striving so desperately to avoid offending? Is it the same Christian audience that Stoney Lake Entertainment is courting with this adaptation? If so, that is a sad state of affairs for two reasons. First, it speaks poorly of Christian filmgoers that even the slightest whiff of irreverence or artistic liberties is enough to lead to a pearl-clutching outcry. (Exhibit A: the tempest that swirled around this year's Noah.) Second, and more damningly, it suggests that Stoney Lake's true priorities are no different from the Hollywood studios whom Stoney Lake purports to oppose.

The classic studio approach to blockbuster filmmaking is to appeal to as many people as possible while alienating as few as possible. The primary goal is financial success; artistic excellence is secondary. This is the business plan that brings us the generic schlock of sequels, reboots, and movies based on board games. This is the mindset that has produced the Transformers franchise. And its stench is all over Left Behind.

Consider a seemingly throwaway moment about halfway through the film. Airplane passengers, panicked by the sudden midflight disappearance of dozens of people, are casting about for explanations. A Muslim man in first class (whose two-dimensional characterization here smacks of tokenism, but never mind) suggests that everyone calm down and pray. A suspicious passenger sneeringly confronts him: "You say pray to God. Whose? Mine? Yours?" The Muslim (and the movie) can offer only a shrug: "Just ... pray."

The script never revisits this moment, nor is the theme of religious pluralism ever addressed again in any capacity. Lalonde, Patus, and Armstrong may have thought they were injecting an intriguing note of ambiguity into their film, but their shallow equivocation is immediately evident. If we can't have a decent film, we may hope for a sermon in its place, but Left Behind denies us even that final courtesy. Touched by an Angel evinced a more robust spirituality than this film.

Is this what the Christian film industry has to offer us—this watery spirituality married to risible craftsmanship? We deserve better. Left Behind is limp, utterly impotent to either move us or instruct us. It just lies there like a set of empty clothes, with no flesh or spirit to animate it. If the project ever had a creative spark in it, that spark has long since been raptured away. We who sit in the theater have been left behind. At least we can take comfort in the fact that that creative spark is somewhere else now, in a much better place than we are.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Best Films of 2012

10) Lincoln (dir. Steven Spielberg)
We cinephiles can be a snooty lot. When the new Lincoln biopic was announced—directed by Steven Spielberg, no less—it sounded like the prestige-iest prestige picture that ever prestiged. A temporary oxygen deficit swept the globe as film snobs everywhere sniffed in unison. Oh, how daring, we thought. It's only a movie about the most beloved president of all time, directed by the most beloved American filmmaker of all time. Why not make a biopic about Mister Rogers and cast Tom Hanks in the lead, since we're apparently going the warm-fuzzies route? (Not that we were entirely wrong to be scornful. Look at the last major political-figure biopic we got.)

The fact that Lincoln turned out not to be manipulative, hagiographic, or sappy seems like a minor miracle in light of this. Savvy as always, Spielberg mostly stays out of the way and lets the screenplay, the cinematography, and the remarkable lead performance carry the film. I'm not saying anything new by praising Daniel Day-Lewis's portrayal to the heavens, but it really is something to see. It's no trick to get Lincoln's folksy anecdotes and impassioned exhortations right. It's when Day-Lewis displays a crafty glint to his eyes during backroom strategizing, or allows Lincoln's frazzled anger to spill over during an ugly argument with his wife, that the man lives and breathes once again.

9) Amour (dir. Michael Haneke)
One of Michael Haneke's most distinctive traits is his drive to strip away the conventions and artifice that we take for granted in movies, leaving us with something that, while not necessarily "realistic," nevertheless feels a lot closer to messy reality than what we're used to seeing on the big screen. With Amour, he pushes back against the pleasant half-truths perpetuated by so many movies, that elderly couples who reach the end of their lives together are cute, or saintlike, or adorably brassy. The slow decline of Emmanuelle Riva's Anne is incredibly painful to watch—Haneke spares her and her caretaker husband no indignity—but it must be so if Haneke is to overcome our defenses and evasions. Love requires a lot from two people—until death, when it requires everything they have. Haneke wants us to look long and very, very hard at this truth. His unsentimental direction shows us love's hard-won, agonizing marvels. As NPR's Linda Holmes so succinctly put it: "It is sad, but it is not depressing. This is the bargain [—] big love, big happy, big sad. Take it or leave it."

8) Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
Let's get two things out of the way up-front: Zero Dark Thirty is not journalistic, and it does not condone torture. Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal seek to be dispassionate in their depiction of events, not because they are presenting us with fact or because they have nothing new to add, but because they know that the events they show are already laden with emotion and complexities. The tidal forces that would be created by offering a specific perspective or thematic bent to this history would have tugged the film to pieces. It exists only to provide a context for us to grapple with the implications of our recent history. The story has a very sharp starting point (the horrific sounds of 9/11, played over a black screen) and endpoint (the man responsible for those sounds, turned into a corpse). Thus, Bigelow effectively orients us in a very specific timeframe. How many of us wanted retaliation in the months after the terrorist attack? How many of us adopted a grim, wartime "ends justify the means" mentality in the years that followed? Zero Dark Thirty plunks us right back in that period and doesn't allow its characters the hindsight or foreknowledge that we have now. When the deed is done, the movie is also done, and it leaves us alone with our consciences. In the end, our consciences, not some movie, are going to dictate what we do next.

7) The Cabin in the Woods (dir. Drew Goddard)
In addition to being top-10 material, this film also wins the Biggest Surprise of the Year Award. All initial signs pointed to The Cabin in the Woods being yet another cutesy "Look Mom, I'm Postmoderning!" exercise, in which the filmmakers expect a pat on the head for their ability to explicitly call out genre tropes: "Ever notice how horror movies always kill off the teenagers who have sex, or did I just blow your mind?" My being mostly lukewarm about cowriter and producer Joss Whedon didn't help either. But the film is a hell of a lot smarter than its advertising made it look, managing to be scary, uproariously funny, and subversive—sometimes all three in the same moment. (I'd discuss how it manages this, but that would spoil it.) It has a lot on its mind, probing at the underpinnings of the horror genre and of popular entertainment in general. Do we watch other people endure misery and terror simply for the guilty pleasure of it, or do we do it to satisfy some darker appetite?

6) The Queen of Versailles (dir. Lauren Greenfield)
The human race's most persistent and universal flaw is its propensity for dividing the world into good guys and bad guys, Us and Them. Once we have determined who is on our side and who is not, we are merciless in our enmity toward those who fall on the wrong side of the line. At a time when the gap between the haves and the have-nots appears to be widening, some of the safest people to hate today are the ultra-wealthy. The sentiment is perfectly understandable, which is why we need a documentary like The Queen of Versailles to remind us that vapid, materialistic rich people are still human beings, as deserving of basic compassion as anyone else. This isn't to say that the people at the center of the film—a time-share magnate, his beauty-queen trophy wife, and their gaggle of children—aren't occasionally infuriating in their oblivious selfishness. But there's a pitiable hollowness to their hedonism, strikingly embodied in the half-finished husk of the obscenely opulent mansion they begin to build before the husband's business empire collapses in the 2008 economic meltdown. Suddenly obliged to worry about money for the first time, they do their best to avoid surrendering to their bottomless hunger for possessions and comfort. The problem is that years of prosperity have caused them to forget how to do anything else.

5) Looper (dir. Rian Johnson)
If nothing else, Looper deserves accolades simply for being a highly original genre film in an industry that seems increasingly ignorant of what "original" even means. It's impossible to overstate the relief of watching a science fiction story in which one has no idea what will happen next. Yet while the innovative concept (a hit man in the service of the time-traveling mafia of the future is forced to hunt down his future self) and the fully realized setting make for good entertainment, it's the melancholic undertones that make it great. The hitman protagonist isn't a nice—or even particularly good—person, and watching him gradually realize this about himself over the course of the film is surprisingly moving. As he witnesses the damage caused by himself and by the man he is destined to become, he experiences a unique personal crisis. The two versions of himself are irreconcilably in opposition to one another, yet they are also inextricably linked. As identical variables on opposite sides of an existential equation, they can only cancel each other out.

4) The Imposter (dir. Bart Layton)
The maxim "Truth is stranger than fiction" seems tailor-made for a documentary like The Imposter. The events it recounts are almost impossible to swallow: three years after 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay's disappearance from his small Texas hometown, he resurfaces in Spain, telling tales of abduction, abuse, and amnesia. He's changed a lot during those three years, though. He's taller. He sports a five o'clock shadow. He now speaks with a French accent. His eyes have changed from blue to brown. Yet despite his looking a lot like a 23-year-old European scam artist, Nicholas's family welcomes him with open arms, swearing to friends, doctors, and the FBI that this is their long-lost teenager. Director Bart Layton presents all this with the visual panache and twisty storytelling of a noir mystery, blending the investigative theatrics of The Thin Blue Line with the subtle reality-warping of Exit through the Gift Shop. Like the charismatic con man at its center, The Imposter draws you into its hall of mirrors, then sneaks away. Have you been paying attention?

3) The Turin Horse (dir. Bela Tarr)
The word apocalyptic has gotten quite a workout in critical essays about The Turin Horse, and for good reason. Spanning six days, Bela Tarr's vision of the bleak existence of an aging peasant and his daughter is the exact antithesis of the Creation. In Genesis, animal life flourishes, God hovers over the waters, and there is light. In The Turin Horse, a mangy horse languishes in the barn, the farm's well runs dry, and the entire world is eventually beset by thick, literal darkness. The world is decaying, bit by bit, but the two main characters can't summon the strength or the passion to rage against it. Every day is the same for them: they wake to the howling of the wind, choke down boiled potatoes, and stare out the window at their barren surroundings. The effect of this repetitious, steadily descending spiral—arrestingly captured in gorgeous black and white by cinematographer Fred Kelemen—is utterly hypnotic. After the fade to black, I felt as if the universe had flickered out and come to an end before my very eyes—fitting for a film that takes its title from a famous anecdote about Friedrich Nietzsche.

Some might say that this sounds like an ordeal, that life is too short to spend time on such a depressing piece of work. They'd be partially right: the film is challenging, and life is short. But who ever said that the highest goal of art and of life was to be comfortable?

2) Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin)
Benh Zeitlin's first film is one of the most promising debut features I've seen in recent memory. It's not terribly common to encounter a first-timer with both the confidence to produce such a wild, singular vision and the chops to keep it from degenerating into an unfocused mess. It is, after all, a fable told through the eyes of the child Hushpuppy, who is played by a six-year-old with no previous acting experience. But Zeitlin evokes a child's sense of scale perfectly: the tiny wonders noticed only by a mind that has not yet become accustomed to them, living side by side with the enormous mysteries and fears felt by the very small. Everything done and witnessed by Hushpuppy, good and bad, is freighted with cosmic significance. The scrappy community she lives in is her entire universe, which makes it all the more poignant when it begins to crumble and another universe encroaches.

1) The Kid with a Bike (dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
David Foster Wallace once wrote that there is something inside all of us that longs to "give ourselves away utterly" to something. For the main character of The Kid with a Bike, a 12-year-old boy named Cyril, that something is his father. It's this deep, inarticulate desire that makes it so profoundly wounding to Cyril when his father abandons him to the care of the state, selling off all their possessions and moving to another town without leaving so much as a forwarding address. Unable to fathom why this would happen, Cyril bolts from place to place in his search for the father who rejected him. He understands nothing but his own desperate, inchoate need. Eventually a kind young woman offers him the parental love he craves, but he also finds himself drawn to the slick leader of a local gang of hoods, who seems to offer him the same thing.

The magic of this film lies in how it sketches these characters and their desires crisply and movingly, without once becoming gooey or false. Cyril is no tow-headed moppet who concocts twee little Hollywood schemes to make his daddy love him again. He's a small, destructive thundercloud of directionless anger and hurt, easier to pity than to love. The other characters' attempts to draw him back from the precipice he stands on are uncertain, and the Dardennes film it all in a mostly straightforward, unembroidered style. Their unassuming approach pays massive dividends in the final minutes, however, with an ending whose impact is so sublimely subtle that it almost passed me by. The Kid with a Bike works because we all have something in common with Cyril. We long to give ourselves utterly to something. We recognize ourselves in him: an angry, lost child who strains to hear the voice of love calling him back home.