Monday, June 23, 2014

All Is Lost

In J.C. Chandor's fascinating film All Is Lost, Robert Redford is the only cast member and he speaks only a handful of lines. Even though the film contains very little dialogue (or, I guess, technically it would be monologue), Chandor's structure and pace make the film a gripping spectacle--so gripping my 9-year-old son watched it and said afterward, "That was a really good movie." The film begins with Redford's character reading what we assume is a letter to his family, explaining that "all is lost" and repeating that he is sorry. Then we flash back to the beginning of his troubles.

I was surprised to read on Slate that the ending is considered ambiguous. According to Slate, after screening the film at Telluride the moderator asked how people interpreted the film. Half interpreted it one way and half the other. I won't say what happens, but I was surprised at the supposed ambiguity because I thought the film made it very clear how things ended. I saw no ambiguity. I never even thought of another possibility. It's reassuring to know that film and literature open up endless possibilities for readers and viewers. There is no single truth or single perspective. My viewing of what I believed literally happened at the end reiterates my limitations on how I (and, by extension, everyone) see the world.

While I enjoyed the film itself and Redford's performance is mostly stellar, I did think there were a few places where he seemed a bit stiff and unnatural. And while I enjoyed the snapshots of what he did to survive without any explanation at all (I'm sure someone familiar with sailing would understand much more than I did how he tracks his position without any electronic equipment or how he figures out how to produce drinking water), I felt the film could have been a bit longer and shown even more of his daily, monotonous and mundane tasks: eating, thinking, and even sleeping. Ten minutes of Redford attempting to catch fish or fifteen minutes of Redford writing something down. These details would probably be boring to some people, but I think they would have given the film more philosophical and naturalistic weight. A great film could still be made that combines All Is Lost with Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman.


I'm sure an interesting essay could be written that compares All Is Lost with Gravity. I'm also sure I'm not the only one to make the comparison: lost at sea in the first, lost in space in the second. A man in one, a woman in the other. One begins and ends alone, the other begins with a crew and ends alone. But fundamentally both films are about the struggle to survive, the struggle to live against all odds.

The Great Beauty

I watched Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty a few months ago, and it has lingered with me in bits and pieces ever since. From its achingly lyrical and fluid opening crane shot to its pulsing Roman night-life scene, the film itself epitomizes its title. With echoes of Fellini, it tells the story of an aging journalist who years earlier wrote the great Italian novel, but, unable or unwilling to write a new novel, he now interviews pretentious artists for magazine articles that seem to bore him. Searching for those fleeting moments of beauty and truth that were a more regular part of his lost youth, he spends his life going to parties, sleeping with beautiful women, and watching a very old nun climb impossibly long stairs. He realizes that his youth can never be relived. But he still tries. I just wish I was cool enough to dress like him.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Best Films of 2013

As always there are still a few films I haven't seen yet: Nebraska, The Great Beauty, The Counselor, Leviathan, This Is the End, Frozen, All Is Lost, Dallas Buyer's Club, and Before Midnight. I also tend to avoid films I know I just won't like: action flicks like Olympus Has Fallen or Hansel and Gretel or chick flicks like Safe Haven. But I've seen quite a few this year, and this represents the best of those. Also, Amour was the best film I saw this year, but it technically came out in 2012, so I didn't include it in my list. If you haven't seen Amour yet, you should. It's not easy to watch, but it is a powerful statement about love, death and the inevitability of aging.

1. Inside Llewyn Davis. I can only think of two instances when the Coen brothers were off their mark. How many contemporary directors can lay claim to more than a couple of masterpieces? The Coens have Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and now Inside Llewyn Davis. Their latest testifies to their genius. A great story, excellent performances, and beautifully cinematography. I loved the music, and it was funnier than I expected. The opening and closing scenes suggest Llewyn is fated to his destiny. There isn't anything he can do to change who he is or where he is going--and those cyclical moments where Llewyn's pain is laid bare give impetus to his art. Great art is born from pain, but it's not always work that the public or even music producers can or will appreciate. It's true that Llewyn's a total bastard, a jerk, a cynic, and a bum. But Oscar Isaac's performance never takes his character into the realm of the unsympathetic. I was still rooting for him even when he wasn't rooting for himself.

2. Something in the Air. Here is IFC's description: "In the months after the heady weeks of May ’68, a group of young people search for a way to continue the revolution believed to be just beginning. For Gilles (newcomer Clément Mettayer), this means having to balance his political commitments with his desire to explore painting and filmmaking; for his girlfriend Christine (Goodbye, First Love star Lola Créton), this means throwing herself wholeheartedly into the task of organizing. Olivier Assayas (Carlos,Summer Hours) here describes the sentimental education of a generation that was too young to have been on the barricades; he brilliantly captures its explorations of new lifestyles, the arguments about strategies and tactics, and above all its music, a constant presence that becomes something like the artistic unconscious of an era. The period details are perfect, but what makes this film so special is the sense it conveys of history as lived experience." I did feel like I needed to read a primer of the late '60s political movements to really understand everything that was going on, but I was able to follow the story well enough. And I liked that Assayas doesn't spell everything out in what always amounts to boring explication. In French. Available on Netflix streaming.

3. The Hunt. A gripping story of a kindergarten teacher, played by the brilliant Mads Mikkelsen (the villain in the James Bond film Casino Royale), who is falsely accused of pedophilia by a friend's five-year-old daughter. With no evidence other than the young girl's impulsive and childishly vindictive story, the teacher's entire town turns against him, including his ex, colleagues at school, and life-long friends. I think the film is about how easily we accept things and then hold onto to them in our minds--we convince ourselves that something is true when we don't really know anything for certain. I think I can speak for most teachers by saying that this film is our worst nightmare. In Danish. Available on Netflix streaming.

4. 12 Years a Slave. An unflinching, brutal examination of the great shame of the 18th and 19th centuries as experienced through the eyes of an educated man and musician named Solomon, a free black man living in the north who was kidnapped and taken into slavery. This is a moving, important film that everyone should see.

5. Spring Breakers. I know. I know. Why is this on my list? If you look at the poster or the image below, it seems like the film is something most adults over 25 would doggedly avoid. And it's true that there are plenty of girls in bikinis and lots of partying. The story is about a group of  broke college girls who rob convenience stores to raise money for an epic spring break that they like totally deserve. They hook up with a white gangster rapper, adorned with a massive bejeweled grill, who opens up their eyes to a whole new crime-spree lifestyle. But this is only the surface story. Spring Breakers is a satire, a savage criticism of youth culture and its lazy, selfish entitlement attitude. This is a smart, funny, and interesting film.

6. Upstream Color. I can't say I initially enjoyed watching this film, but I couldn't get it out of my mind for months after I had seen it, and the more I thought about it, the more brilliant and interesting the movie became. Having said that, of the handful of people who read this blog, most will probably hate Upstream Color because it is pretentious, incredibly ambiguous, and self-consciously arty, for lack of a better word, but I would argue that those aren't always bad monikers. The other poetic and arty film last year was Terrence Malick's beautiful but stale To the Wonder, his first film I didn't like much; Malick is continuing down the non narrative road where he thinks beautiful images and classical music make a great film. Upstream Color is difficult to summarize, but essentially it tells a love story about two characters who were victims of mind control. Worms were placed inside their bodies and somehow the placer of the worms was able to tell the victim exactly what to do. A pig farmer is somehow involved. I'm not sure what the film is really about, but I've been working on a theory since I saw it. I think it is an allegory for the lack of control human beings have in their lives. Most scientist today think--because of our genetic make up, environment, and irrational urges that we can't control--that free will is an illusion. However, one way to read the ending of the film is that possibly we can have some control. But that possibility is one that most people do not act on I would guess. We would rather live our passive lives, watching television, doing our mundane routines, like Plato's prisoners watching shadows on the wall. For the record, several of my seniors watched the film and hated it. One reason you might like it--because you are cooler than a high school senior! Loving this movie will prove it. Available on Netflix streaming.

7. The Act of Killing. One of the most disturbing yet thought-provoking films I have ever seen. This documentary follows a small group of self-proclaimed gangsters, members of a killing squad-- operating under the authority of the Indonesian government--who brutally murdered thousands of communists in the late 1960s. The gangsters express no remorse, gleefully retelling details of the murders. They also reenact the murders and torture, with the gangsters sometimes playing versions of themselves, sometimes playing the victims. These reenactments are filmed in various low budget styles: musical, film noir, and surrealist nightmare. I couldn't help think that this is probably what most mass murderers are like (from Nazis to those perpetrating genocide in Africa): sociopaths who seem to have lost any empathy for human life. Another shocker is the acknowledgment and approval of current members of the Indonesian government. Everyone except the victims (from whom we do not hear) approves of these acts. I'm not completely sure what to make of the scene at the very end. Do the gangsters feel remorse but simply hide it or bottle it up? Available on Netflix streaming.

8. Frances Ha. A quirky comedy about a young woman who dreams to perform for a dance company but doesn't recognize her own limited skills. Struggling to survive in New York City, Frances ekes out an existence with a little help from some wealthy wanna-be artists. The ever-dedicated Frances refuses opportunities (like dance company secretary) more germane to her talent than the ever elusive dancing-star status she dreams about but will probably never achieve. While her best friend grows up and plans on getting married, Frances seems to be experiencing arrested development--an eternal adolescence filled with drinking, smoking, looking at herself in the mirror, talking about books she wants to read but probably never will, and play fighting. I suppose she is a 27-year-old female Holden Caulfield--except Frances wants to grow up but doesn't seem to have the capacity to do so whereas Holden just doesn't want to grow up and wants to prevent others from doing so as well. The film is an insightful commentary on American youth today. We live in a society filled with overconfident and entitled college graduates and youth who think they can do anything they want but don't have the talent or the dedication to actually accomplish their goals--or so I come to believe by watching television. Directed by the brilliant Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg--he also co-wrote The Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Life Aquatic) and co-written by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig (who also stars). It's in black and white and is available on Netflix streaming.

9. Gravity. Sandra Bullock is excellent in this "triumph-of-the-human-spirit" film. An amazing technical achievement and a completely gripping story from the first minute of its 20-minute long opening shot.

10. You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet. I can't claim I fully understood nonagenarian Alain Resnais's latest film. I think I need to watch it at least one more time to absorb everything. But the very premise of the film was so unique that I had to include it on my list for that reason alone. It's the story of  a recently deceased theater director who as a last request invites actors he has previously work with to his home to watch the latest version of an Orpheus and Eurydice play he produced. The actors had also performed in the play and while the watch the video, they immediately begin interacting with it as if they are also performing. We essentially see three different generations of actors performing the play simultaneously. It's a fascinating and moving film about aging, love, life, and death. And, more importantly, it's about the permanence of the film image and the idea that characters, and I guess actors also, live on through the film despite the limitations of human existence. At least that's what I got from it.

11. Much Ado about Nothing. I love Shakespeare and I love the cinema. But there have only been a handful of good Shakespeare adaptations into film. This low-budget Joss Whedon adaptation ranks among the best. Filmed in and around Whedon's Los Angeles home, Much Ado feels as fresh and alive as I have ever seen it. Whedon made the film with a group of friends and people who had previously worked with him--some with Shakespearean training and others not. Watch out for Nathan Fillion. He's not one with Shakespearean training,  but he steals the show.

12. Her. I didn't enjoy Her as much as I thought I would--based on my love of Spike Jonze's previous films (Adaptation and Being John Malkovich), but I'm putting Her on this list not so much for its entertainment value but for its commentary on modern life. I suppose I expected a straight satire from Jonze in which he excoriated our needless dependency on technology--it makes us dumber, lazier, etc. Instead, what we get is a much more nuanced realization of our relationship with machines. Falling in love with an operating system is not the argument-free and idealized love some tech nerds are hoping for--at least not in this movie. Theodore and Samantha have deeper, more interesting conversations than most human couples. His relationship with Samantha makes him truly happy, and he is genuinely heartbroken when she moves on. So what are we supposed to make of that? Is this something to look forward to or a horrific nightmare that will probably come true?

13. Post Tenebras Lux. Critics were divided over Mexican director Carlos Reygadas's most recent film. Many found it pretentious and overly experimental, but I found it beautiful and moving and simply strange--the good kind of strange. Shot in traditional 4:3 aspect ratio (not widescreen), Post Tenebras Lux is imbued with such aching expressionistic beauty that every shot carries great artistic weight. I liked his previous film Silent Light better because it had more of a cohesive story and was beautifully shot whereas Post Tenebras is more of a poem than a story, bit I still think this is one of the best films of the year. Warning for those who care: it does have a fairly explicit orgy scene. Available on Netflix streaming. In Spanish.

14. "Slumber Party Alien Abduction" from V/H/S/2. Most of V/H/S/2 was pretty bad and had neither the originality nor the creepiness of the first V/H/S. But two segments were strong and this one was really good. The other segment I liked was a zombie-themed video about a bicyclist wearing a camera helmet who gets attacked by fast moving zombies and then attacks some other hikers. The title of "Slumber Party" sort of speaks for itself. It was seriously scary.

Other 2013 films I saw, listed in alphabetical order. I gave each a ranking, five stars is the best, one is the worst.

bomb-21 & Over (I only watched about 10 minutes of this it was so bad)
*****56 Up
****Ain't Them Body Saints
**American Hustle
**As I Lay Dying
****Behind the Candelabra
***Berberian Sound Studio
****Blue Is the Warmest Color
****Blue Jasmine
****Bullet to the Head
****Captain Phillips
*****Cutie and the Boxer
***Despicable Me 2
***Dirty Wars
****Drug War
*Gangster Squad
*****The Gatekeepers
****The Grandmaster
**The Great Gatsby
***The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
*****The House I Live In
***Iron Man 3
*Kiss of the Damned
*Man of Steel
***Monsters University
*Only God Forgives
***Pacific Rim
****Paranormal Activity 4
****The Place Beyond the Pines
**Promised Land
*****Room 237
****A Royal Affair
***Simon Killer
**The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
***The Silence
*****The Square
****Star Trek: Into Darkness
***This Is 40
*Thor: The Dark World
**To the Wonder
***Touchy Feely
****The Wall
****We Steal Secrets
****What Maisie Knew
**The Wolverine
**World War Z
****The Wolf of Wall Street