Friday, January 29, 2010

YEAR IN REVIEW: THE BEST OF 2009


The best new narrative I experienced in 2009 was, no fooling, about sixty hours long. To be fair, it was really only new to me—this particular epic, fragmented into perfectly measured hour-long chunks, ran its damning course about three years ago. I watched it unfold in episodic arcs, over the course of several short weeks, its multi-character Greek tragedy splashed not across the contours of the silver screen, but packed into the more intimate confines of the small one. For all the pleasures this bygone year of cinema offered, I’ll likely remember 2009 mainly as the year I finally caught up with what may be television’s supreme artistic achievement: HBO’s “The Wire”. If you think I’m hyperbolizing, chances are you’ve yet to get lost in the moral thicket of David Simon’s grand urban mosaic, a portrait of a dying city as microcosm of a corrupt world. How could the tidy dramas of the multiplex, in and out in two breezy hours, hope to compete with the paid-off promise of Simon’s immaculately constructed uber-narrative? Pity those works, especially, that trafficked in similar themes—the only bad thing you could really say about The Class or Gommorah, for pertinent example, was that they weren’t “The Wire.”

I’m being hard on 2009. Maybe it was just easier to get lost in Simon’s bustling Baltimore—no matter how symbolic its downfall was of universal social maladies—than to grapple with the horrors of our here and now, as told by the prophets and poets of our darkened auditoriums. Truth be told, it was an excellent year for film. Lazy critics, unwilling to snoop out pastures greener than those of shameless blockbusters and transparent Oscar bait, did the same old gloom-and-doom song and dance they always do. “This has been an incredibly crummy year for movies,” wrote J.R. Jones, mere sentences before confessing that he hadn’t seen nearly enough of the year’s offerings. (I bet he made time for Transformers 2, but did he see 24 City?) With a few notable exceptions—a melancholy monster movie, an immigrant story in the guise of a sports fable, the triumphant rebirth of a 70s iconoclast—American cinema disappointed more than it dazzled. Thankfully, a master class of international auteurs, from Assayas to Zonca, picked up the slack. In this final year of the millennium’s first decade, we were filthy with riches.

Well, riches of the screen anyway. I’m consistently amazed by cinema’s ability not only to reflect the fears, hang-ups and obsessions of our culture at large, but to anticipate them. Just as 2008’s big crowd-pleasers seemed to neatly align with the run-amok idealism of the Obama phenomenon, this year’s morning-after dramas compounded our national hangover. Money problems were on the mind, and everything from silky smooth award contenders (Up in the Air) to formulaic rom-coms (The Proposal) to icky-sticky horror movies (Drag Me To Hell) found ways both big and small to riff on the global financial crisis. The other big thematic concern was, perhaps by some kind of relation, the shifting structure of the modern family. Following closely on the heals of 2008’s Rachel Getting Married and A Christmas Tale, many of this year’s art-house triumphs—channeling Ozu through their own kaleidoscopic prisms—explored the growing divide between fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives.

These two disparate interests—stocks and blood bonds, job security and knotty kinship—found synthesis in the best movie of the year. The nine that follow it on the list below offer their own brave visions of a weary present and uncertain future. One of them perched precariously on the line separating ’08 and ’09. Two never found their way into theaters. None made more in their entire run than Avatar did in its first weekend. And all betrayed the notion, floated by Jones and those like him, that this was anything less than another great year to be a movie lover in America.

THE BEST MOVIES OF THE YEAR

1. TOKYO SONATA [Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan]

There are no supernatural forces at play in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata—no bone-white beasties staring out from glowing computer monitors, no ghoulish apparitions scuttling down darkened corridors. Still, make no mistake: this is a ghost story. And this Tokyo, quiet and windswept and withdrawn, is a ghost town. Here, it’s the ethereal spirit of Old Japan—the integrity of its social structures, the security of its traditions—that goes bump (and crash and burn) in the night. Kurosawa, that erstwhile Master of Horror, hasn’t abandoned the apocalyptic dread of his exemplary genre offerings. He’s merely redirected it, letting it operate as the grate through which he feeds his polemical outrage. If J-Horror gem Pulse cast its paranormal phantoms as symbolic specters of a doomed generation, Tokyo Sonata flips the equation: flesh-and-blood men, downsized into occupational obsolescence, roam the empty streets like lost souls, trapped in a jobless purgatory. We hone in on one of these laid-off stiffs, living an aimless lie by day, playing the proud, dominant patriarch by night. His downward spiral of rage and shame and impotence, a raw-nerve reprisal of Laurent Cantet’s Time Out, pulls the whole family into its careening orbit. While a mother withers quietly, lost in her own foggy nightmare of domesticity, a young son rebels in secret, seeking private refuge in an untapped gift. The compositions close in slowly and tightly around this clan in crisis. And then, as in all of the auteur’s doomsday narratives, a fiery catharsis arrives, here in the form of parallel trials of darkness. Several of 2009’s superlative pictures, including a few on this very list, channeled the spirit of Ozu and his seminal family dramas. Yet none offered the cracked-mirror reconfiguration that Tokyo Sonata did—this is family, the writer-director screams in a hushed whisper, in our mad new millennium. It’s an ugly truth, charitably leavened by a blinding glimmer of hope, a transcendent coda with a redemptive hook: the meek will inherit the earth, finding escape through artistic expression, one day breathing new life into our ailing ghost world. Maybe Kurosawa should have called this one Bright Future.

2. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE [Spike Jonze, U.S.A.]
The Warner Bros logo has sprouted horns and fangs, the company credits colonized by the scribbled signature of an enfant terrible. These doodles speak volumes—from the first frame onward, this is Max’s movie. But it’s also Spike Jonze’s, a taming of the studio dollar by a true blue American Eccentric. It takes some serious gall to tackle a property as universally beloved as Maurice Sendak’s kiddie-lit classic. But to then wrestle that iconic work into something so thorny and difficult and gut-punch melancholy? The stones on this guy. Much to the chagrin of hipsters everywhere, the anarchic spirit of that teaser trailer was a red herring—we swooned over the majestic music, ignored the telltale truth bombs embedded in the lyric sheet: “Our bodies get bigger, our hearts get torn up.” Whereas most childhood fantasias trumpet imagination as the refuge of the pure, this damaged-youth daydream dares to posit that even flights of fancy are vulnerable to the creeping anxieties of troubled adolescence. (Spielberg’s extraterrestrial divorce fable seems, by comparison, rather glib.) That mighty island, with its vast deserts and tangled foliage, is really a battlefield, one where Max grapples with the demons of his broken home. And Sendak’s woolly beasts, brought to vibrant life via scrappy FX wizardry and a game cast of voice-over actors, register as neurotic projections of his interior and exterior spaces—the voices in his head and his heart, in his classroom and his living room. All the while, our fearless director commiserates from close and afar, pitching the perspective somewhere between that of an adult sorting out his childhood and a child racing into his adulthood. Jonze’s picture, the most achingly personal American film of the year, is not a joyous rumpus through backyards and dreamscapes. It’s a wilder thing than that—and a truer one.

3. 24 CITY [Jia Zhang Ke, China]

Werner Herzog once wrote of an “Ecstatic Truth,” one that was inherent to the cinema, and that could be discovered only by blurring the nebulous line between fact and fiction. This was a truth so complicated, so thorny and multi-faceted, that it required more than what “real” or fabricated stories could reveal--it demanded a merging of these pursuits. With 24 City, a nervy fusion of documentary and narrative conventions, Jia Zhang Ke comes close to realizing this mythical ideal. The title refers to a new high-rise apartment complex being built in Chengdu, the site of which was once a government-run factory. In prototypical Jia fashion, this destruction/construction plan, beautifully captured by the filmmaker's panoramic compositions, symbolizes China's rapid thrust into the post-modern world--out with the old, in with the new, damned be the lives that disappear into the chasm between. What's excitingly fresh about this latest globalization screed is the manner in which it's delivered: nine testimonials, five authentic and four scripted, painting a personal/anecdotal picture of a nation in the throes of change. Whereas Jia once kept an allegorical distance from his subjects, casting their frail human frames against scarred landscapes and enormous manmade structures, here he pulls them closer than ever before to his crystalline digital lens. Still Life, his previous high water mark, suggested that this gap might be closing, but it scarcely prepared us for such a full-on embrace of the power of spoken-word storytelling. It's not just a voice Jia affords the people of Chengdu, but a countenance--there's more history, more ecstatic truth, etched into these individual faces than there is in the architectural structures rising and falling around them. 24 City, a moving mix of narratives remembered and concieved, boasts nothing less than the reclamation of the Empathetic Close-Up.

4. 35 SHOTS OF RUM [Claire Denis, France]

Claire Denis’ greatest gift as a filmmaker may be her ability to wordlessly convey key information, to define her characters and conflicts through purely visual means. A furtive glance here, a penetrating gaze there. A look, a touch, a loaded gesture. Blink and you miss these silent transmissions, codes and clues passed between lovers and kin, those for whom words can no longer contain the wealth of feeling coursing through their shared histories. You had to fixate hard on this language of the body to make any sense of The Intruder, Denis’ near-impenetrable last feature. 35 Shots of Rum, her terrific follow-up number, marks a return to relatively linear storytelling, but in some respects is just as demanding. Get lulled too long by the sensuous rhythms of Claire’s rainy Paris—a lonely tango of commuter trains, Ozu dancing to the Tindersticks in the evening glow—and you might forget that there’s an honest-to-God narrative unfolding within it. Denis’ characters, they’ve been lulled too, gently resigned to a purgatory of complacence. Home is sanctuary and prison, the city of lights a waiting station, with expired romances still lingering on the margins, neither re-sparked nor completely extinguished. Sexual, platonic or familial, our relationships are our opiates. Anyone who’s ever stalled out their life for the people in it, who have chosen the comfort of connection over the necessity for personal growth, will hear the conversations these wounded souls talk around. Or rather, you’ll see them—written in the skin, in a stare, in a shrug or a sigh. Never spoken but plain as day. Just don’t blink.

5. SUMMER HOURS [Olivier Assayas, France]

The Musée d'Orsay presents… a sly condemnation of museums everywhere! To have been a fly on the wall when Olivier Assayas unveiled his Summer Hours to the folks who financed it. They pulled their support, naturally, but one has to wonder, really: little digs aside, who wouldn’t want their name attached to such a golden-hued gem of 21st century craftsmanship? This is a film so intimate in scope, so scaled to the real concerns of real human beings, that I initially mistook it for slight. Summer Hours is indeed small, pocket-sized even, but its insights into the way we live, in these go-go aughts, are silver screen big. The passing of a matriarch brings together her three adult children, who debate about what to do with her estate and the works of art within it. If sleek, globe-trotting thrillers like demonlover and Boarding Gate suggested a world where everything is for sale (including human lives) Summer Hours purports that our souls themselves may be embedded in the things we buy and sell—in our homes, in our trinkets and keepsakes, in the bric-a-brac we accumulate over the years. And it’s our lives that invest meaning in artwork, not the other way around. From Assayas, a slick poet laureate of our nightmare age, that’s one hell of a sentiment: an opening of the skylight, warm sunshine obliterating, however briefly, the silvery-blue cynicism of his worldview.

6. FACE [Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan]

The misunderstood masterwork of this past year’s festival circuit, Face was met with what might best be described as a resounding, collective head-scratch. It’s a bug-fuck crazy film, no doubt about it, but what exactly were jet-setting critics expecting? With each passing year, the compact charms of What Time Is It There? and Goodbye Dragon Inn fade faster in the rearview mirror. Tsai Ming- liang, one our weirdest and wildest living masters, has been burrowing deeper, deeper, deeper into the void with each successive picture. How much deeper could he go then an examination of his own wily creative process? A film shoot is disrupted by a death in the family, grief mingles with artistic ambition, and you get the distinct impression that this is the closest Tsai has ever come to getting the mad movie in his head up there on screen. Face unfolds in endless vignette, one baffling, beguiling, beautifully filmed set-piece after another. Sublime slapstick involving a broken water valve. Dazzling musical interludes. A candlelight seduction. A forest of mirrors. New Wave cameos. A wandering elk. The whole thing is like a fever-dream Day For Night, all impulses and inspirations. Fire up those search engines and scour the region 2 DVD sites, because this glorious pileup is not coming to a theater near you.

7. THE CLASS [Laurent Cantet, France]

Of all the fairytales floated by Hollywood this past year, were there any more irksome than the blind endorsement of academia as some sort of great social equalizer? Films like Precious, The Blind Side and An Education all offered comfort food variations on this dubious theme—Horatio Alger by way of Dead Poets Society. Laurent Cantet’s The Class, released at the onset of 2009, was the retrospective corrective. Here was a film daring enough to posit that not only do western schools often fail those most in need of their services, they also operate as a kind of filter, separating the Haves from the Have Nots, academic success rates divided cleanly down lines of class and race. Based on the nonfiction memoirs of François Bégaudeau, who wrote the screenplay and stars as (pretty much) himself, this gripping docudrama locks its lens on a Parisian classroom, chronicling, through quasi-improvisational means, the day-to-day power struggle between a teacher and his unruly, multi-cultural pupils. It’s a lose-lose conflict, and what The Class cannily understands is that, within this broken system, the institutional assumption is that some students will have to slip through the cracks for the rest to move forward. Faced with that kind of harsh reality check, it’s no small wonder audiences prefer to see Precious Jones or Michael Oher as the rule, and not the exception to it.

8. THE HEADLESS WOMAN [Lucrecia Martel, Argentina]

In another lifetime, Lucrecia Martel made horror films. She had to have. The woman’s got Val Lewton in her bloodstream. Here and now, in the world we know, she makes dramas—claustrophobic ones about insular environments, where frazzled outsiders float through undetected, their sins and desires and secret shames lost in the overlap of banal conversation. There is a spindly dread to these pictures. They quiver with an underlying tension, something squirming and pulsing just below the surface of every scene. Remember the queasy end stretch of The Holy Girl? Imagine those white-knuckle beats stretched out into a full-length feature. The Headless Woman is 87 minutes of sweaty, inescapable guilt. A bottle blonde on the run, like Janet Leigh in Psycho, except she’s got nowhere to run to and hasn’t a single blessed moment to herself. There are no paranoid tells scrawled across her impenetrable poker face. Not that we need them. We’re hardwired to her headspace, and every bump and scrape on the soundtrack, every jittery focus pull, speaks to the storm raging behind her eyes. As Martel sneakily suggests, crime is only crime when you get caught, and you never get caught when the victim is invisible. She can see him, though. He’s lurking in the peripheral of every frame, out of sight but not of mind. A scream up the road, a greasy hand print on her brain. This is a horror movie, isn’t it?

9. CANARY [Alejandro Adams, U.S.A.]

If Avatar does change moviemaking forever, as so many have claimed it will, we cinephiles are gonna need to chart a different course through unwritten history. The video revolution was not televised because it never arrived, but we are not without our promising prodigies and potential figureheads. Case in point: while James Cameron was still tinkering with his perfect future, a certain little corner of the blogosphere was grappling with a jaggedly imperfect one. Canary, a high-concept, low-budget, little-seen transmission of dsytopian dread, wasn’t just the best American indie of the year. It was also the most naggingly discussable. Was Alejandro Adams, scrappy visionary at the helm, a polemicist or just a talented fuck-around? Should one make sense of the elliptical narrative—a screaming nightmare in white collar digs, the mundane mixing it up with the malevolent—or simply fall under the insidious influence of the film’s (distinctively, hypnotically) digital textures? Was the whole thing a metaphor for the filmmaking process? Or was it just a scary, scary-good art thriller? And what the holy hell was that ghostly woman really doing with that blue gel? Canary makes you want to lean in close, to study its corners and crannies, its mysteries and nuances. We need Adams and his ilk, we need them badly. Because, like it or not, there are more Avatars where that first one came from.

10. IN THE LOOP [Armando Iannucci, U.K.]

“War is… unforeseeable,” blurts out dim-witted British statesman Simon Foster, inadvertently setting off a chain of events that will end with a brand spanking new conflict in the Middle East. But war isn’t unforeseeable. Not according to the manic minds behind this lightning-quick, midnight-black political farce. War is not made by grand forces beyond our understanding or control, or by the forward march of history, or any of that rubbish. It’s made by men and women, by individuals with too much hubris in their heads and too many buttons under their fingers. War is made by petty, cruel, stupid, self-serving, horny, crazy, power-hungry people. It is only unforeseeable because there’s no putting it past the folks we elect to make these decisions. Spun off from the hit BBC series “The Thick of It,” In the Loop has the look and sound and rat-a-tat pacing of small screen comedy, but also the heady charge of first-rate satire. It’s got more million-dollar punchlines than a season of “30 Rock,” but there’s more horror at its heart than there is in The Hurt Locker. Forget gallows humor, this is a mushroom-cloud comedy. Keep laughing, but keep your eyes on the horizon too.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Here are sixteen more reasons why J.R. Jones is full of shit.

Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage, firing on all madman cylinders, brew some delirious black magic in sequel/remake/parody/genre deconstruction The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call-New Orleans. Agnes Varda waxes beautifully, nostalgically on her own life and career in The Beaches of Agnes, the year’s best documentary. Attuned to the quickened pulses of its burgeoning romantics, Jane Campion’s Bright Star whispers the sweet nothings and real somethings of first love. Why wasn’t Rian Johnson’s frequently hilarious, sneakily poignant The Brothers Bloom a bigger hit? After a decade in the Hollywood trenches, Sam Raimi rediscovered his macabre mojo with blackly comic funhouse ride Drag Me To Hell. Though I still say the perspective shift is a major misstep, there’s no escaping the rough-and-tumble gravity of Kathryn Bigelow’s action vérité The Hurt Locker. Hey guys, the New Wave affectations are part of the joke—Gerardo Naranjo‘s I’m Gonna Explode is a play-pretend Badlands, and an affectionate goof on melodramatic youth. Quentin Tarantino’s best movie since Jackie Brown was Inglorious Basterds, mostly on the strength of that incredible saloon scene with Michael Fassbender. Speaking of Michael Fassbender: Hunger, about imprisoned IRA leader Bobby Sands, was a flawed but striking feature debut for video artist Steve McQueen. Don’t tell Sandra Bullock or Meryl Streep, but Tilda Swinton gave the boozy, bellicose, flat-out best performance of the year in Erick Zonca’s electrifying Julia. We’re up to our ears in neo-noirs, but are any as slow-burn, wood-chopping intense as Götz Spielmann’s Revanche? Up, Coraline, and Fantastic Mr. Fox all had their charms, but it was Nina Paley’s mixed-mode jubilee Sita Sings the Blues that should have ruled the animation roost in ‘09. Of all the Ozu-inspired family dramas released last year, Hirokazu Koreeda’s Still Walking may have cut the deepest. With Sugar, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck tore down the lie of the American Dream, only to erect a moving counter-mythology in its place. He’s back, baby: after the bat-shit tedium of Youth Without Youth, Francis Ford Coppola made another one for the pantheon, his operatic Tetro. And like Where the Wild Things Are, So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain was an expressive vision of childhood grief.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Link of the Day: InRo's Top 15 Films of 2009


2009 is dead and gone, but it lives on here at Wild Lines. While so many of those other blogs (and websites and magazines and newspapers) have shifted their attentions elsewhere—like, you know, to the new decade that lies before us—I’m throwing down my usual late-game celebration of the year that was. Why mid-January and not late December? I’d like to say that I wait so as to distinguish my own annual rundown from everyone else’s. Who wants to be just another voice, indistinguishable in the deafening chorus? Truth be told, though, I really just need the extra time—to fill in my blindspots, to choose my words carefully, to find some kind of grand principle that unites the various triumphs of the bygone year. I give myself three extra weeks, because dammit, that’s what a year of cinema deserves: a minute or two to marinate, the benefit of a beat, the clarity of reflective hindsight.

It’s a lonely practice, celebrating the holidays a month after everyone else does. (Trust me, the Year End hoopla is a holiday for us critics—no more hard thinking, just fawning hyperbole and the pure narcissism of a “Best Of” list.) This time, though, My Little Orphan Year In Review is more than a party of one. My new web family, the boys and girls of InRo, have posted their own belated retrospective. As with last week’s Album list, my voice made some kind of difference here, especially in the high placement of a certain unqualified masterpiece from the Far East. Check out the full list, with capsules by yours truly (RE: #3, #9 and #12).

My solo ’09 recap will go live in a few days. Preview/spoiler: at least two of the films cited and celebrated—one a festival flop with supposedly limited commercial appeal, the other a micro-budget indie making the grassroots internet rounds—have yet to receive U.S. theatrical releases. I’ve also launched a series of quickie takes on the best single scenes of the years, an endeavor with no set number of entries, but a pretty definite endpoint. You have to draw the line somewhere, right? I don’t want to be writing about ’09 in February.

Speaking of February: if you thought all these Year-End festivities were excessive…

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Best Scenes of 2009: YOU, THE LIVING


It’s been over two years since I’ve seen You, the Living, Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson’s follow-up to Songs From the Second Floor. When I wrote about the film, mere hours after seeing it at the 2007 Chicago International Film Festival, I was somewhat… unkind. Subsequent raves convinced me that it deserved a second chance, but when it finally, officially got released here in Chicago—for two whole weeks, at a theater down the street from my apartment no less!—I flaked and missed it. My curiosity lingers: two years later, could I now appreciate the film’s apocalyptic deadpan humor a little better?

It’s possible, but something tells me I probably wouldn’t. My sensibilities have certainly changed these past two years, but by how much, exactly? You, the Living didn’t just work my gag reflex, it practically yanked on it. Andersson’s coldly unblinking gaze zeroes in on pasty, oddly shaped miserablists, whose cries of sadness and discontent are the punchline to some cosmic joke about the pathetic human condition. Think that the Coen Brothers are misanthropic smartasses with an unhealthy fixation on the grotesque? Wait till you see the weirdos that Roy isolates, like props, in the center of his immaculately composed frames. Think that last scene in Dr. Strangelove is ruthlessly glib? Kubrick coded outrage and horror in the blackest of black comedy. Andersson ends the world on a flippant non-sequitor, a shrug. (This is becoming his trademark.) Maybe that’s up your alley. It’s not up mine, and I’m not sure it ever will be.

You, the Living is two hours of jaw-dropping formal innovation, all in service of a cheap, nihilistic joke. Well, okay, not all. Late into the film, Andersson stages a fantasy sequence that I’m forced to admit is nothing short of utterly enchanting. One of his protagonists—he has maybe a dozen of them, loosely connected through droll vignette—is Anna, a lovesick teenage waif who has spent the lion’s share of the picture pining for a skinny, broody guitar player named Micke Larsson. In this scene, Anna speaks wistfully of a dream she had where she and Micke were married. Here it is:



Totally beguiling, no? What truly boggles my mind about this sequence is the disparity between how difficult it must have been to stage—Andersson had to construct a house that could fit on a train platform, and then time its movement perfectly—and how pure and simple its effect is. The director, whose specialty is carefully composed, static one-shots, has a knack for slow-revealing heretofore unseen details within his incredible compositions. He’ll glue your attention on one quadrant of the screen, only to unveil, often for comic effect, the full scale and scope of his artificially constructed sets. He plays with distance and perspective in sophisticated ways. Here, it takes a full minute or so for you to notice that the structure is actually in transit, a reveal that basically registers in your peripheral—a sudden rush of movement on the left side of the frame draws your eye away from the action at the center. And then, around the three and a half minute mark, people start walking up to the moving house.

A notion that might have otherwise seemed rather obvious and banal—that dreams offer a rapturous escape from the disappointments and heartache of real life—comes off as a transcendent revelation when contrasted with the dreary deadpan of the film on a whole. The atonal blare of tubas, practiced day and night in cramped interior spaces, is obliterated by Micke’s melodic noodling. And instead of private expressions of grief and despondency, we get congratulatory cheer, communal exclamations of empathetic joy. To my recollection—which, admittedly, may be a bit shoddy—this is the only single scene in the entire film that gets broken into two shots. The eventual reverse shot shift at the 5-minute mark suggests an escape—Anna is no longer enslaved by the edges of the frame, encased like a bug behind glass in this depressive tableau. She gets to ride off into the sunset, to disappear into the distance, the whole world waving her off into better times.

Of course it’s all just a dream. By my estimation, what’s truly interesting about this moment is the way that Andersson offers Anna a fleeting, heartfelt reprieve from her unhappiness, while also suggesting that the prison of her waking life may be of her own making. All this girl knows about her beloved is that he plays guitar “so fucking good.” The dramatic crux of her fantasy is when the legions of townfolk come out to chant her name, to treat her like the rock star she sees when she looks at Micke. Really, it’s what he represents that she’s attracted to—fame, fortune, and an escape from this dismal city. This isn’t love. It’s an infatuation with a dream, desire for escape inflated into romantic longing. The kicker: so wrapped up is Anna in her own angst that when we return to reality, and one of the other bar patrons speaks of his own transformative dream, the girl couldn’t care less. She isn’t interested in commiseration, just the voicing of her own woes and desires, her own self-absorbed melodrama. She is a teenager and she will forget Micke.

See, now I really do want to re-watch this movie.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Best Scenes of 2009: UP


In my continuing efforts here at Wild Lines to keep the content coming, faster and more consistently, I’m launching a new three-week feature. In conjuncture with my forthcoming Year In Review, not to mention the collaborative retrospective I’ve contributed to over at InRo, I’m doing a short series of posts on the Best Scenes of 2009. What constitutes a scene? Well, it has to run less than twenty minutes. What constitutes a great scene? That’s a little harder to define. Some will work entirely on their own terms, as self-contained entities, while others will derive their power entirely from context, from how they relate to the full features that house them.

Most of these rundowns will be SPOILER heavy, so heads up on that. Where available, I’ll be posting the clips. I don’t know how to rip DVDs or anything, so that will be contingent on what I can find on the good ol’ World Wide Web. There will be no set number of entries. As I’ve learned over the past four years running this blog, to attempt mapping out and sticking to a rigid, elaborate posting schedule is a fool’s errand. (Best laid plans of mice and men, etc.) This could be the first and the last of this series, or it could be just one of fifteen that I spit out before the end of the month. Oh, and there’s no particular order to them either—not alphabetical, not chronological, not preferential. Basically, I’ll be writing about what I want to write about as the fancy strikes me.

In any case, here’s the inaugural edition, an obvious one, a singing of praises for that opening sequence in Pixar’s Up.

***

I’ve been a Pixar booster since the beginning. So enamored am I of the Movie Magic those wizards and geniuses conjurer year after year that I can scarcely fathom the notion that some folks just don’t care for what they do. (When Karina Longworth casually admitted as much a couple weeks ago, via Twitter, I felt as befuddled as a sheltered altar boy faced with his first nonbeliever.) I love Pixar in a way I love few pure Hollywood entertainments, even those from the bygone Golden Age. (Forget The Wizard of Oz, give me Toy Story 2.)

So forgive me for sounding a bit too Bernard Berkman here, but last year’s Up, in this true believer’s eyes, is Lesser Pixar. I seem to be in the minority with this perspective, though not entirely. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an effervescent fantasy: beautiful to look at, consistently funny, tinged with a bittersweet melancholia. But one year after swooning over WALL-E, the studio’s supreme artistic achievement, I couldn’t help but be acutely aware of what doesn’t quite work in the film. I’m not so much talking about the little nagging problems I have with it, like that underdeveloped villain and a madcap third act that seems to have been copied and pasted from earlier, better Pixar offerings. No, my main issue with the movie, as I’ve been quoted saying before, is that it blows its emotional load in the first ten minutes.

The prologue of Up may be the single most affecting sequence Pixar has ever produced. Really, it’s something of a self-contained piece, one that could easily operate as a completely successful short film. Some might suggest that this wordless, decade-spanning montage invests the feature it precedes with an emotional backbone, silently resonating throughout the narrative proper, leaving its tender mark on all that comes after. (Ellie lives on, or so the argument goes.) I suppose I buy this, but the truth is that I couldn’t help but wish, as the film careened off into its candy-colored fantasyland, for a return to the devastating simplicity of its opening minutes.

The scene is below. WARNING: if you haven’t seen this before, be sure to have a box of Kleenex handy.



As the old adage goes, “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.” Some have compared this sequence to the death of Bambi’s mother, in that it’s a deeply sad acknowledgement of mortality rolled into what is ostensibly a children’s film. But Bambi’s infamous whammy is pitched to the elemental understanding of a tyke: Mommy is not indestructible, Mommy can and will die, that’s terrifying. Up’s rug-pull is much more nuanced, both in agenda and in execution, probably because Pixar is no longer making what you might exclusively call “children’s films.” Pete Docter and his miracle team communicate not the horror of death, but that of life—how do you keep living it when the person you’ve built your entire world around is gone? (The sequence reminds me more of the “Jurassic Bark” episode of Futurama, which may very well boast the most baldly, successfully manipulative final scene in television history.)

I really have to wonder if the kids in attendance actually grasped the meaning of that dejected beat at the doctor’s office. In one shot, the Pixar team, subtly but with total clarity, break to us the bad news. More impressive still is the image of Ellie sitting in the backyard, her clammed up countenance speaking greater volumes than any words might have. (These guys have really nailed the intricacies of facial expression.) Docter later orchestrates one of the simplest and most achingly tender deathbed scenes I’ve ever seen—a touch, a shared love token passed on, and a look of such resigned sadness that I’m forced to assume that someone on that animation team was tapping into a personal loss of their own. You can’t fake a look like that, even on a cartoon character.

Blessedly, not all of the sequence aims to punch a gaping hole in your heart. There are so many small moments of grace, so many joyful and telling gestures. (My favorite? The way Carl’s hand drifts to Ellie’s, almost instinctively, while they’re silently reading together.) There are bits of lovely comedy too, like the juxtaposition of the two families at the wedding (I want more of that tension) and the way the clouds speak of where these two lovebirds might differ on what “having kids” really means. The passage of time is elegantly conveyed through repeating motifs (the ties, the change jar) and careful, gradual tweaking of the character models.

There’s a whole lifetime of triumphs and disappointments contained in these five short minutes. So poignant is this montage, so perfectly scaled to the beats and rhythms of a life lived fully, that the antics later at Paradise Falls feel, by comparison, kind of… juvenile. Docter and Co. drop a bunch of Truth Bombs on our head and then expect us to go crazy for talking dogs in airplanes. Between this opening sequence and the thirty near-silent minutes that kick off WALL-E—a poetically bleak intro that some folks think just doesn’t gel with the manic mayhem of the second half—Pixar is now creating insurmountable expectations of greatness within their films. Talk about setting the bar impossibly high.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Link of the Day: InRo's Top 15 Albums of 2009


In Review Online, my new home away from home on the web, just posted their Top 15 Albums of 2009. Though I'm usually pretty exclusively a film writer, the editors graciously--or out of flat-out desperation, perhaps--offered me a role in compiling and writing about the year's superlative efforts. (See #12 and #9, the capsules I wrote.)

I'm actually reasonably impressed with the list InRo put together--eclectic, and a little different than the ones that the Alt and Mainstream pubs have been dropping. Well, again, a little different. The year-end favorites, including that inescapable trio of art-rock tent poles, predictably made their way into the upper echelon. The across-the-board acclaim garnered by this Collective of Dirty Bears didn't exactly befuddle me. I think I understand each of these bands' Brian Wilson-related appeal, I just don't gel with it. (All three groups appeared to be straining a bit too hard to actively subvert their burgeoning pop instincts, as if they hadn't the stones to commit full-bore to their big hooks and sunbaked harmonies. Don't over-intellectualize it, boys.)

2009 just wasn't my year for music. In fact, I can think of few 12 month periods this last decade that so throughly disinterested me. The first six months offered disappointments (The Decemberists), the summer over-hyped Pitchfork fare (uh, those three records, plus a dozen more). Then my computer woes began and my intake of new music halted, suddenly and dramatically. I'm just now catching up on what I missed... and turns out most of it was nothing to write home about. (Though I still haven't given the new Lips LP a listen...) I'll freely admit that my tastes can skew pretty narrow, but even albums seemingly designed to homing-missile my specific pleasure centers didn't connect. The big exception? Dark Was the Night, a two-disc charity compilation featuring last year's graduating class of top-flight indie outfits. No other mainstream pop or rock album offered the kind of wall-to-wall pleasures this golden assembly did.

The only other thing in '09 that got my blood pumping was, perhaps not surprisingly, heavy metal records. These last few years have seen a pretty exciting resurgence in the genre, the atrocities of the nu-metal 90s fading quickly from our collective memories. Prog and ambient influences have seeped into the scene, hardcore/grindcore has gotten funky and technical, and American Black Metal has asserted itself as a new source of beautiful and challenging acts. '09 was a terrific year for metal--so much so, that when Sam and Jordan at InRo asked me to put together a list of my own, I opted to simply give it up to the fast and/or heavy stuff. (You can see my all-metal selections here.) I'm actually pretty stoked that my allegiance to the dark arts made a noticeable impact on the group results--though I can take no credit for the by-all-accounts awesome Mount Eerie record. Come to think of it, looking over my own list of face-melting picks, 2009 was actually a pretty awesome year for music.

Next up: The Best Movies of 2009-- my personal picks here, InRo's consensus picks there.