Sunday, January 22, 2012

Best Feature Films of 2011

OK, buckle your seatbelts. It’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

I have to start with my probably obvious disclaimer that I’m not a professional film critic, and since I hold a full-time job doing something other than watching and writing about movies all day, I unfortunately don’t get to see everything. I guess there is a silver lining to that fact: at least I was spared the pain of The Smurfs, Chipwrecked, Zookeeper, the most recent Twilight, The Beaver (what was Jodie Foster thinking?), Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill, and that lame gnome version of Romeo and Juliet—most of which my six-year-old either saw with his mom or wants to see. Thank you for indulging him, Tracy. It makes me shudder just thinking about them, and I sort of feel sorry for professional film critics who have to see stuff like that. Unfortunately, I was not spared the pain of a few truly horrible blockbusters. I’m thinking specifically of Cars 2, Battle: Los Angeles, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I’ll never get back those six hours!!

A few notable films I didn’t see yet include Shame, Drive, The Skin I Live In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Take Shelter, United Red Army, Margaret, and A Separation. If they are good enough, I might write about them later.

Also, this year I decided to split my “best of” list into two and remove the documentaries from this one. There are several docs I really liked, so I’ll work on that one soon.

Here’s my list:

1. Hugo. Directed by the brilliant Martin Scorsese, Hugo tells the story of a young orphan boy living in a Paris train station in 1930s. His goal is to repair a mechanical man his late father worked on. Based on an award-winning book by Brian Selznick, the film is also a fictionalized account of Hugo’s relationship with the great Frenchman Georges Méliès, whose Trip to the Moon and other magical and surreal films of the early 1900s established him as one of the earliest and most revolutionary filmmakers in the history of cinema. Méliès was almost completely forgotten by the time the film takes place with nearly all of his films seemingly lost and film historians thinking him dead. The film added to the excellent novel by including a couple of minor romantic pairings and fleshing out the book’s cruel station master, making him a comedic but more fully human character played by the surprisingly restrained Sacha Baron Cohen. What is truly memorable about the film is that in addition to its compelling story, Scorsese demonstrates with images, music, and editing his great passion for the silent films of the early 1900s (The Artist also does this, and while I liked it overall, I didn’t feel its middle quite matched the amazing beginning and ending). I have to say that it’s a contagious passion because immediately after seeing the film with my six-year-old, Wyatt said, “Dad, we should watch some Georges Méliès.” And we did! He loved most of the films and even watched nearly a whole 2-hour disc without me. Visually rich, touching, and quite funny, Hugo isn’t to be missed. I can’t recommend it highly enough. And this is one of those films that you want to see in 3D; Scorsese utilizes the technology to enhance the story and not for showing off the effects.  

2. 13 Assassins. Since I wrote about this elsewhere on this blog, I won’t say much here. This is quite simply an excellent samurai film directed with (mostly) untypical restraint by Takashi Miike.

3. Poetry. This Korean film tells the fascinating story of an aging grandmother who enrolls in a poetry class as she finds herself in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Living with the grandmother is her apathetic and self-centered grandson, and she struggles to maintain a relationship with him beyond merely cooking him dinner or whisking him off to school. It’s a moving story about aging, generational conflicts, deep moral questions, and the creative process. Poetry becomes a metaphor in the film for coming to terms with life and all of its unsavory and seemingly meaningless aspects. If my description makes it sound boring, trust me, it isn’t. There’s a whole complicated plot about the rape (not shown) and suicide of a young girl, so it’s not just a film about old people sitting around writing poetry—which, I should add, I would probably enjoy. It’s a film about life, love, family, art, and death. It’s about what it means to be human.

4. Tree of Life. I’ve written twice about this film elsewhere, so I will just say that even though parts are slow and certain elements are confusing, this is on the whole one of the most beautiful and thought-provoking films I have ever seen. I need to see it again.

5. Certified Copy. Directed by the renowned Iranian Abbas Kiarostami, Certified Copy unfolds the mysterious story of two people, one is a British writer and the other a French art dealer (played by the always exquisite Juliette Binoche). The writer has just published a book titled Certified Copy—it’s about the idea that a copy is just as beautiful and important as the original and the silliness of our society’s frowning upon copied art. I won’t give anything away, but I will say that about half way through something very interesting is said that calls into question our very understanding of this couple and their relationship. A film about art, love, relationships, and the past, Certified Copy is an engaging and enlightening film that takes us in unexpected directions.

6. City of Life and Death. A powerful black-and-white film about the Japanese conquest and occupation of Nanking in China in 1937. It’s an unconventional film in that it doesn’t follow a single story line—though there are several characters—and doesn’t really have much of a plot. I suppose the best way to describe it would be to call it a poem, a poem about the horrors of war. Controversial in China when it was first released, City of Life and Death does not demonize all of the Japanese nor does it romanticize the Chinese.

7. Crazy, Stupid Love. I’m surprised this groundbreaking comedy isn’t showing up on more (or any?) top-ten lists. Ryan Gosling, who is possibly the greatest living American actor, is paired with Steve Carell, who normally underwhelms me but in this case he was just right. It’s a hilarious movie (also starring Emma Stone, Julianne Moore, Kevin Bacon, and Marisa Tomei) that walks a fine line between being conventional and breaking lots of rules. I put it on this list because it thoroughly entertained me but also because it said some insightful things about relationships and what it means to be happy as a human being. Steve Carell’s character is a bit like Siddhartha in his search for happiness and enlightenment. Think about it.

8. The Descendents. This is George Clooney’s best role. It’s interesting how “normal” he can look and act. Normal hair, normal clothes. In this film he is a normal guy, a guy with two kids who finds out after his wife has been in a terrible accident that she was cheating on him. On the surface the film is about his discovery of this information and what he decides to do with it. But it’s also about his coming to terms with his less-than-mediocre parenting skills and taking small steps to becoming a better father—and a better person. Directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election, About Schmidt), The Descendents is what Payne himself has called a “minor” film, but that’s what I liked about it. It’s a small film about a small family crisis. There’s nothing outwardly deep or philosophical or showy about it. But there is something moving and profound in its small way about Clooney’s character’s realizations and actions. He’s a normal guy who has to choose whether he’s going to do the right things. Also, Shailene Woodley, the 20-year-old actress who plays Clooney’s daughter, is a revelation.

9. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I was a little surprised how much I liked David Fincher’s new film. I had read the books and enjoyed them—though not as much as some people. That is, I thought they were fairly entertaining and Lisbeth Salander was truly an original, but to me they were merely genre fiction and didn’t really transcend any literary boundaries. (I realize how snobby that sounds). I started watching the Swedish film version of Dragon Tattoo but stopped after about ten minutes. I was bored. So, I went into the new American version with very low expectations. Fincher’s version, perhaps not surprisingly if you’ve seen anything else by him, is much darker than the earlier film or even the novel. The lighting, the overall mood, the near total lack of humor. Even the sex has a dark edge to it. And I should add that this is a very adult film with a couple of very brutal rape scenes and several serial-killer aftermath photos. Watching it just confirms what I have felt for years: that David Fincher is one of the greatest living American directors. The film is very well constructed, beautifully (and darkly) shot, and well paced. This is what all Hollywood films should be like.

10. Melancholia. Lars von Trier is a pretty arrogant and annoying person, but with Melancholia he’s made a philosophical and provocative film. A film about melancholy, dysfunctional families, quite possibly the worst imaginable wedding-reception ever, and an impending collision with a huge planet, Melancholia is ultimately about the need to find human connections in a world that pushes us toward isolation. I’m pretty sure it’s also a metaphor for embracing melancholy and not treating it like an illness.  

Other independent or art-house films I enjoyed: Le Quattro Volte (a completely wordless and poetic film about the transmigration of the soul); The Artist; Incendies (a French film about two grown twins discovering their family history in the war torn Middle East); Jane Eyre; Ides of March; Midnight in Paris; A Dangerous Method (Keira Knightley was a bit too much for me, but who can pass up the story of Freud and Jung?); Win, Win (one of the greatest sports movies ever!); Red State (Kevin Smith makes a horror film that also makes a total mockery of red staters), and The Trip (has three or four of the funniest scenes in any movies I saw this year).

Other blockbuster/popular films I enjoyed: Moneyball (Brad Pitt is great and it’s simply an inspiring story about how hard it is to break free of conventional thinking), Kung Fu Panda 2, Bridesmaids (hilarious at times; pretty crude in others), X-Men: First Class (I thought this was the best of the X-Men films and the best superhero film this year), Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (not a great film but it has some seriously amazing action sequences), Super 8, Point Blank (a French action thriller about a male nurse on the run for a crime he didn’t commit), and Limitless (a smart and gripping mainstream film).

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Our Economic Woes

There are a few more films I want to try to see before I do my annual “best of” list. Until then, I thought I’d say a few things about our less-than-rosy economy. Since the beginning of the economic crisis, I’ve been interested in reading or just hearing about its causes and what we or the government can do to remedy the myriad complicated problems that manifested themselves in early 2008. I’ve read several books and watched a few documentary films related to the topic, including most recently Michael Lewis’s Boomerang—which takes an international perspective on the crisis by examining several of the worse-off countries like Iceland and Greece and explaining why they are in such a sad state—and Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men—which focuses on the Obama presidency, how Obama was able to use his knowledge of the economy to propel him to victory in 2008 and how, according to Suskind, President Obama squandered several opportunities to truly address the problem.

My interest in the crisis probably began with a series of shows from the always excellent This American Life. The first aired in May of 2008; it was called “The Giant Pool of Money” and its focus was on the housing crisis.  The episode explained in as simple terms as possible how the housing bubble burst. Later in October, This American Life aired a show plainly titled, “Another Frightening Show about the Economy.” Even though I had heard the terms collateralized debt obligation, derivatives, and credit default swaps before listening, I didn’t really know anything about what those terms meant until I heard these shows. (Confesion: I still couldn’t really explain what most of those terms mean in much detail.) Then I read William Cohan’s House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street. Cohan’s book was an in-depth analysis and story of the fall of the colossal Bear Sterns. I finished it but was sort of bored by it: too much uninteresting detail. It easily could have been half as long. While I’ve enjoyed most of the films and books, one I hated was Guaranteed to Fail, a detailed account about the housing crisis and the failures of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac—both initially created by and ultimately backed by the federal government so that they were quite literally “guaranteed to fail.” Written by economic professors from NYU, the book, which I heard about on The Daily Show, was far too jargony and mired in professor-speak. It was certainly not written for a general audience. Aside from Confidence Men and Boomerang (also Lewis’s The Big Short), one of my favorites was the documentary Inside Job, which I wrote about elsewhere on this blog. It was the most engaging and, frankly, entertaining of them all.

Here’s a brief overview of what I have learned about why things went the way they did:

  • President Reagan instituted a series of deregulations in the 1980s that weakened the government’s ability to oversee Wall Street. These deregulations continued under both Bushes and the Clinton administration.
  • Inside Job explains that academic economists advocated deregulation for decades and most opposed new regulations even after the crisis.
  • Also in the 1980s, the Federal Reserve created historically low-interest rates in order to enable people to spend more and improve production and the economy; ultimately the low-interest rates had the impact of accruing unprecedented debt for millions and millions of people because it was easier than ever in the 1990s and 2000s to buy more than people could afford.
  • Because the stock market and housing were performing so well in the 1990s and early 2000s, most Wall Street firms began leveraging, which means that they didn’t use their own money to make investments—they borrowed it. When the market performs well, leveraging is highly profitable. Of course, the market does not always perform well and lots of companies could not repay debts they owed.
  • The rating agencies (Moody’s and Standard & Poors) clearly inflated the ratings for many if not most of the Wall Street firms. They gave the highest AAA ratings to companies that were over leveraged and taking on more and more very risky debt. Lewis makes the convincing (and seemingly obvious) argument that one of the main reasons the rating agencies failed to rate the firms properly was that since the rating agencies pay substantially less that Wall Street firms, all of the smartest people went to work for Wall Street.
  • The creation in the late 1980s of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), which are basically bets on how well loans and bonds will perform. CDOs are broken into “tranches” or levels based on how risky the loans or bonds are. One of the reasons these lead to the housing crisis was that Wall Street firms poured billions into what they believed were safe CDOs, the highest level—that there was a safe tranch was a myth.
  • It was quite clear after reading Michael Lewis’s book The Big Short that ignorance was one of the main reasons the crisis occurred. Many investors and Wall Street firms had little or no knowledge of the complicated investments they were making.
  • Another way to interpret the firms’ inability to see how risky their loans and bets were becoming is to argue that it was pure hubris. They thought they were invincible, and their seeming invincibility led them to foolish acts.
  • Fannie Mae was originally created during the Great Depression to provide local banks with federal money and encourage home buying, but in the late ‘60s it was turned into a private corporation that was backed by the federal government. The government would hold the companies up no matter how disastrously they performed.
  • The Clinton administration passed legislation that encouraged Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and others to loan money to people who couldn’t afford them by lowering interest rates and introducing adjustable rate mortgages, where monthly payments were initially low.
  • Lots of investment firms and mortgage lenders pushed subprime loans onto people who clearly couldn’t afford them. Lewis tells of a migrant worker in California making about $20,000 a year who was able to buy a $700,000 home with no money down.
  • While their CEOs continue to deny culpability, it’s clear that, at least on some level, fraud was involved. Some people clearly knew that they were selling crappy loans, CDOs, and derivatives to clueless investors. Very few people, and none of the big firms’ CEOs at least to my knowledge, have been prosecuted.
  • Inside Job also makes it clear that many if not most of the academics who were parts of the Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and Obama Whitehouse’s had conflicts of interest in that they were advising their presidents on economic policies while also being paid to write reports or paid consulting fees from various Wall Street firms whose interest would be better served with less regulation and policies that bailed them out.
  • President Obama’s administration has done little to nothing about remedying the problems that underlie the crisis. The Dodd-Frank bill was finally passed this last summer but it so full of loopholes that most people say it will have very little or even no effect.