Mr. Thompson Lives for a Day: Notes on movies in 2008

huangshiWhere to begin?

After the lists have been compiled of the best this and the worst that, as well as trying to lend shape to some of the middle ground that lands in-between, what does a critic say to augment his choices? The round-ups I’ve scanned in the last week or so have run the gamut from perfunctory to flat-out lazy, as if the reviewer were so bored by the process of writing a year-end piece that all his or her (usually his) document amounts to is an admission of ennui: so many film festivals, so many self-aggrandizing Brooklynites, so many inebriated podcasts. Why, whose mind wouldn’t boggle?

In truth, most of the movies of the year past, whether I loved, hated, felt indifferent, or had mixed reactions to them, are now so remote from my consciousness that I can no longer write the sort of piece that, in a perfect, ideal world, I would have liked to write—and that I once wrote, perhaps, re the films of 2004 and 2005, and made a half-hearted, quasi-commercial attempt at doing for 2007. (A few readers still search this site in vain for a 2006 list—there isn’t one.)

In the past, I’ve talked about my favorites first, saving the dregs for the second half, but . . . most readers seem to have their curiosity piqued more by what I pan than by what I praise. In looking at the hits I receive from The House Next Door, Movie City News, and other outlets, I harvest a substantially higher amount of traffic on those occasions when I’m clobbering an overrated piece of junk (Wall-E, for example) than when I’m extolling the virtues of a deserving, under-the-radar picture such as The Pool. In fact, our dear friends at Movie City News won’t link to me unless I’m panning something. (And since our falling out more than two years ago, the fascistic Berlin-based blogger David Hudson won’t link to me at all—as if he might catch a disease, or receive a rap on the knuckles from one of his many marionette-string-pulling overlords, if he does. To Hudson, recently migrated from GreenSlime to IFC, I’m tempted to echo what Ashley Judd said to Kevin Kline in that horrendous Cole Porter bio-pic from a few summers long since past: “You don’t have to love me like I love you—just love me.”) It might be a minor bone to pick, yet the possibility that readers are primarily engaged by my less-than-affirmative assessments gives me pause; this feeds into the myth that I hate everything when, in fact, I’m merely pointing out that such emperors as Carlos Reygadas, Gus Van Sant, Kelly Reichardt, Ari Folman (and others too numerous to mention) have no clothes. Isn’t that what a critic should do?

Which reminds me of an amusing little encounter I had with Lance Kramer at the opening night party of last February’s Portland International Film Festival. While we were dancing standing in place to the strains of a fez-sporting, faux-Egyptian ensemble (opening night film: The Band’s Visit), Lance, who only knew me from my writing, and was meeting me in person for the first time (and for the last time, as it would turn out) hit me up with: “You come across like an asshole!” Before I could even choke on my red wine in a Jack Benny-esque, “I beg your pardon,” young Lance emended his observation to, “but like someone who’s earned the right to be an asshole.” Ah, yes, well, now, that’s more like it—isn’t it? Having earned the right, uh hum. (Elsewhere in the conversation, this blond-bearded youth regaled me with an incredulous, “You seem so nice! You seem so nice!” Was he expecting the Son of Satan? And all because I pinched Philip Seymour Hoffman’s doughy cheeks?)

tellnooneAh, cigarettes: François Cluzet sucks down several in Tell No One (Photo by Jean-Claude Lother, courtesy of Music Box Films)

And now, with that stardust-speckled memory out of the way, I can proceed by attacking the dreadful French film Tell No One, an obnoxiously misdirected piece of crud about a macho, chain-smoking pediatrician. The movie alternated between morbid and ludicrous, which might explain why sexually frustrated critics and their bamboozled art-house patrons alike enabled this swill to occupy our screens for far longer than it should’ve. First, we watch the doctor, a man at the point in his years just before summer tips into middle-age, mourning his late wife; the asinine director, Guillaume Canet, includes such insulting, self-congratulatory paeans to pseudo-cleverness as juxtaposing shots of the families of the physician and his spouse joyously gathered for their wedding and—within the flicker of a single frame—gathered together again at a crematorium as the murdered bride’s remains burn to ashes. Then there are the “tough” scenes, in which the doc steals away to the hospital parking lot to share cigs with the well-built, skinhead daddy of one of his patients. How phony and terrible is Tell No One, the year’s most over-weaning example of gay subtext? That veritable potpourri of pomposity Stephen Holden placed it in his top-10, characterizing the movie, by turns, as “hot,” “delicious,” “pure,” and “nasty”—an endorsement that ought to send any sane person flocking in the opposite direction.

caramelBe that as it may, Tell No One didn’t manage to snag the coveted spot as my Worst Film of 2008. This time, with such a bumper crop of le bad cinema, I was unable to alight on a single movie, and so I present a three-way tie for the honor. Standing united in their multicultural ineptitude, let us greet Caramel (the bad Beirut haircut movie of the year), The Children of Huang Shi (the Sino-Japanese war distastefully replayed as action-adventure), and the abominable Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme’s failed bid to pay homage to Altman, while at the same time trying to re-spark his own halcyon days of Melvin and Howard, Something Wild, and Married to the Mob—idiosyncratic creations that are beyond the ken of a well-fed artist).

I intended to write a piece excoriating Rachel Getting Married, but it was impossible to get much writing done this autumn. I still have the notes I took at the screening, yet the illegibility of my handwriting is only one reason it isn’t worth the effort to extract my first impressions of this fiasco, a movie that may well surpass Noah Baumbach’s wretched Margot at the Wedding in terms of contrived unpleasantness. And besides, such luminaries as David Edelstein and Armond White are on record as declaiming the rancid, minimalist Rachel as some sort of masterly achievement. (Interestingly, both critics were impervious to Charlie Kaufman’s emotionally fearless Synecdoche, New York, but more on that coincidence anon.)

rachelshivaWhen Rachel Getting Married wasn’t just plain stupid (as in the dishwasher-loading competitions between the family patriarch and his future son-in-law, set to a screechy, out-of-tune violin nervously sawing “Flight of the Bumblebee”), the movie trotted out the seldom-seen great actress Debra Winger (who, in a sleeveless black gown, looks radiant, although she’s more delicate now than in the underrated treats of her well-spent youth, Mike’s Murder and Black Widow), then fulsomely coasted on her status as an aloof icon, and ultimately pulled the stuffing out of her and us with a scene in which Anne Hathaway (playing her junkie daughter) punches Winger in the face. Is this the only way Demme could (hope to) lend credence to Jenny Lumet’s stick people screenplay? Hathaway, splendid in Brokeback Mountain and in the under-appreciated Becoming Jane, gave her first truly awful performance in Rachel Getting Married. And as unassailable proof of Demme’s poignant desperation to get a portion of his soul back—after the deadening impersonality of his Manchurian Candidate remake, his insidious Agronomist documentary, and the worthless Neil Young: Heart of Gold (and, no, I still haven’t caught his Jimmy Carter movie)—the director brings out the reggae singer Sister Carol to wow the wedding reception guests with a Very Special Song. Sister Carol’s “Wild Thing” rendition was a highlight of Something Wild, and she’s in good form here, yet the way Demme uses her (she springs onto the patio at the last minute, as if she’d been lurking amid the wedding party all along) smacks of spuriousness. Where’s she been hiding whilst the angst-ridden suffering spun out? Why does the idiot director only grant her a single number, while allotting the numbingly self-possessed Robyn Hitchcock two or three? Even that question is more consideration than Rachel Getting Married deserves. Let us not, however, skip over the film’s interminable sequences of wedding toasts, in which various well-meaning nerds sputter and stammer lines so banal, in between shrill peals of fake, congenial laughter, that the performers might as well be reciting Utne Reader to one another. When Hathaway’s drugged-out, fratricidal Kym bleats, “I don’t want to believe in a God who would forgive me,” she could be speaking in absentia for this horrible movie’s rather pitiful apologists. Nonetheless, Rachel Getting Married boasts one advantage over Margot at the Wedding: the boom mics, muffled as they are in gauze, never once droop into the frame.

With that, my list for the truly unbearable films of last year—

1. Rachel Getting Married

1. The Children of Huang Shi

1. Caramel

4. Tell No One/The Last Mistress

5. Wall-E

6. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

7. Towelhead/A Jihad for Love

8. Operation Filmmaker/Wonderful Town

9. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days

10. Chris and Don: A Love Story

And there are a number of dishonorable mentions (I’ve undoubtedly overlooked a few): Chicago 10, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Paranoid Park, The Home Song Stories, Cherry Blossoms: Hanami, Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema, Kings, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, The Dark Knight, Waltz with Bashir, Love Songs, The Other Boleyn Girl, Choke, The Universe of Keith Haring, Taxi to the Dark Side, Blind Mountain, Silent Light (for its sheer inanity), The Silence Before Bach, The Secret of the Grain, Romulus My Father, The Duchess of Langeais, La France, A Gentle Breeze in the Village, Drifting Flowers, Wendy and Lucy, Man on Wire, Theater of War, and The Year My Parents Went on Vacation.

Although A.O. Scott claimed to like it, the only individual I encountered who favored the last of these, The Year My Parents Went on Vacation, was a landscaper in her late 40s with whom I sublet a house, in southeast Portland, for a few weeks—or were they months? She began each morning by juicing chard in the blender; indeed, the resulting black-green sluice was all she ever ate—solid food was off the table, literally, figuratively—and her teeth, accordingly, had long since ceased to bear any traces of pearly white. The film festival was on: I was going incessantly; she only intermittently, and in between her rounds of meeting people via Craigslist (she was shopping for an extremely used car that could get her to Arizona, or somewhere equally barbaric, spending her days test driving last-leg lemons all over town), she and I would talk movies. Ariel, or Asrael, or whatever her name was, had an almost Dave Kehr-like blockheadedness in her having-totally-missed-the-point dismissals of Brokeback Mountain, which she rarely bypassed inventing an occasion to bash: “I walked out! It was so predictable! I knew they were gonna get caught!” and so on and so forth, while I, a Brokeback-partisan, limited my stunned responses to, “Uh, huh,” and, “Oh?” all the while nobly suppressing the urge to knock her blackened teeth down her throat. So when she waltzed in, after wasting nine dollars to endure The Year My Parents Went on Vacation, perfectly willing to gloss over this Brazilian bomb’s insipid compromises and grotesque attempts at social relevance/ethnic humor (a boy urinates in a potted plant, and the resulting uproar concerns only his apparent lack of circumcision), I knew why I hadn’t waded into any arguments with Ariel/Asrael.

temoins

The bad movies I saw in 2008 arrived at intervals all along the scale; there are three I’d like to mention, briefly, films that didn’t realize their aims, in my estimation, yet had elements to them that made the overall picture not easily, or ruefully, left alone. A man who imagines that he knows my taste swore that I’d cotton to André Téchiné’s The Witnesses; seeing the film several months later, I could see why he thought I’d embrace it. However, the screenplay, about the advent of AIDS in early 1980s France, and the direction were so jumbled that the movie’s affectingly observed moments tended to dissipate into sentimentality. The Witnesses remains worth seeing mainly for a supporting performance by Julie Depardieu. Ms. Depardieu’s role, of an opera singer who resides in a whorehouse, makes virtually no sense, and yet the actress imbues this impossible part with demure, shadowy radiance; when, near the end, she’s onstage, singing an aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute (she’s spent most of the movie, up to this point, reclining in bed and looking worried), it’s as if the ambiguity of the choices this woman has made suddenly roll away, and her contradictions seem all of a piece.

The diligent Frances McDormand labored to render a similar miracle in the unwatchable Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, but the script’s dishonesty defeated her. Granted, Winifred Watson’s 1938 fluff novel wasn’t much to work with; I couldn’t finish reading it. A movie version might have been passable, but the filmmakers changed crucial details in order to make the plight of McDormand’s character, the unemployable servant Miss Pettigrew, so much worse. In the book, she doesn’t start off in debtors’ prison, although the threat of ending up there isn’t far away; also, she doesn’t steal a job lead off the desk of an agent, as she does in the screen adaptation; she lands the position (at the flat of the Amy Adams character) legitimately. The movie, thus, stacks the deck against McDormand/Pettigrew, comporting itself in an atmosphere of lead, while trying to be a bubbly, effervescent comedy. The booming soundtrack and rapid cuts imply that we’re having FUN, but no lightweight farce can survive a ball and chain. For all this, McDormand, simply by underplaying, by resisting the cartoon nightmare jerry-rigged around her, by indulging in a little negative capability, fosters something memorable.

Lastly, before moving on to the 10-best and honorable mentions, there’s Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, a documentary that occupies a sphere all its own in the annals of badness. An unintentional primer on how to get away with murder in North America, especially if you’re a Canadian plotting to off someone in the States, director Kurt Kuenne’s crudely-made feature (there are lots of close-ups of mourners in tears) retraces the circuitous routes of the late Dr. Shirley Taylor. The spectacle of Dr. Taylor repeatedly cooing, “Mommy loves you,” to the toddler whose father she shot dead, made her a terrifying movie villain, much more so (at the risk of sounding facile) than Heath Ledger’s one-dimensional Joker. The fact that the murderous physician is now gone doesn’t lessen the creepiness of her presence in Dear Zachary; if anything, the jittery ghost of this unattractive, freckle-faced auburn-haired woman intensifies it. In retrospect, the footage of her nervously flailing and gadding about, in scene after scene of hand-held home movies, acquires an almost Carnival of Souls quality. Kuenne uncovers that Taylor had a history of stalking and terrorizing her ex-boyfriends, a piece of investigation evidently lost on Judge Gail Welsh of Newfoundland, who here emerges as a thoroughgoing disgrace to Canada’s judicial system. Welsh penned an exculpatory brief for Taylor, stating that, “her crime, while violent, was specific in nature,” implying that since the target of her rage had been disposed of, Taylor was no longer a threat. Dear Zachary makes the blood boil—there’s no question of that—but this grief-stained rag cannot separate straight-ahead reportage from shamelessness. Kuenne boxes in the victim’s well-wishing friends in clips of unremitting banality, and in one passage, his reach for sardonic humor leaves such a ghoulish imprint that the documentary appears to want to have it both ways—to be a road trip of a goofy guy joshing his buddies by mortifyingly inserting repeats of their statements as well as an exploration of loss and injustice. With this story, by definition, it’s an impossibility to be both.

Of course, there were many films I missed in ’08. Of the works I wish I’d had a shot at seeing before the year drew to a close, the list amounts to: Alice Neel, Bab’Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul, A Christmas Tale, Dark Matter, Days and Clouds, Frost/Nixon, Last Chance Harvey, A Man Named Pearl, Revolutionary Road, and Trying to Get Good: The Jazz Odyssey of Jack Sheldon. I’ve deliberately stayed away from Milk. After Paranoid Park, I’m quite done with Mr. Van Sant. (If you click on the link, be sure to savor all twelve entries in the Willamette Week comments section—rarely have I enjoyed jousting with humorless Portland liberals quite as much.) More significant than my disdain for Van Sant, there’s the not inconsiderable matter of Robert Epstein’s heartrending and historically vivid documentary on the exact same subject: The Times of Harvey Milk (1984). I’m not willing to believe that a fiction film (particularly one stemming from Van Sant) could surpass Epstein’s achievement.

For the third consecutive year, I was asked to vote in the Village Voice/LA Weekly critics’ poll. Regrettably, the individual ballots are not online (which is a pity, because I’m dying to know who else besides me voted for Rachel Getting Married as “worst film”) but most of my first choices for a top-10 were rendered ineligible by the rules, which stipulated that no unreleased films from the festival circuit could be included in the Best Film category. So for my own list, I’ve placed three films, that didn’t receive U.S. distribution, front and center where they rightly belong. Additionally, I’ve included a documentary that skipped art-houses and went straight to HBO. And I’ve allowed myself to list two movies that were technically 2007 releases, but that didn’t open in most cities until early ’08.

Here they are:

1. Unrelated (Joanna Hogg)

2. Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley)

3. Breath (Kim Ki-duk)

4. The Gates (Antonio Ferrera, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Matthew Prinzing)

5. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien)

6. The Band’s Visit (Eran Kolirin)

7. Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud)

8. Trouble the Water (Carl Deal and Tia Lessin)

9. Opera Jawa (Garin Nugroho)

10. Priceless (Pierre Salvadori)

Honorable Mentions (to wildly varying degrees of honor, and in no special order): The Visitor, Synecdoche, New York, The Exiles, The Pool, In the City of Sylvia, Cassandra’s Dream, Bliss, Woman on the Beach, Newcastle, Brick Lane, Mister Lonely, Frozen River, Still Life, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, Forever, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, Ballast, Be Like Others, and When Did You Last See Your Father?

Some favorite performances: Richard Jenkins and Hiam Abbass in The Visitor, Samantha Morton in Mister Lonely and Synecdoche, New York, Kathryn Worth and Tom Hiddleston in Unrelated, Gad Elmaleh and Audrey Tautou in Priceless, Kim Tae-Woo, Ko Hyun-joung, and Kim Seung-woo in Woman on the Beach, Jude Law in My Blueberry Nights, Colin Farrell and Tom Wilkinson in Cassandra’s Dream, Jhangir Badshah in The Pool, Danielle Darrieux in Persepolis, August Diehl in The Counterfeiters, Sarah Lancashire in When Did You Last See Your Father?, Melissa Leo in Frozen River, Juliette Binoche in Flight of the Red Balloon, Josh Peck in The Wackness, Eko Supriyanto in Opera Jawa, Vittorio Emanuele Propizio in My Brother is an Only Child, more or less the entire casts of Ballast and Breath, and last but not least: Eddie Redmayne, for his out-of-the-park portrayal of an incestuous mama’s boy in the otherwise seriously flawed Savage Grace.

Some (especially) savored cinematography: Shotgun Stories (by Adam Stone), My Blueberry Nights (Darius Khondji), and Newcastle (Richard Michalak).

kw_thImpetuous Youth: Kathryn Worth and Tom Hiddleston in Unrelated (New Wave Films)

The greatest loss to American independent film in 2008 was that no distributor thought to import the unassuming, yet devastating British drama, Unrelated, a sit-up-and-take-notice feature debut from writer-director Joanna Hogg. Looking at the roster of releases that helped to bring down Magnolia Pictures and ThinkFilm, their slates read like parodies of major studio product. How did such dismal works end up being distributed (admittedly, to little avail) while Unrelated and Nina Paley’s intensely personal crowd-pleaser, the animated Ramayana musical Sita Sings the Blues—two films that acquisitions directors ought to have overdrafted their expense accounts to acquire—were left in the lurch?

I haven’t yet had a chance to sing Unrelated’s praises at length, though with any luck, 2009 will bring an occasion to do so. The movie took me by complete surprise last February at the Portland International Film Festival (which, if I’m not mistaken, was one of only two North American playdates for this movie—the other being in Miami, so that festival programmers in Toronto, Vancouver, New York, Seattle, and elsewhere may share culpability, in tandem with indie distributors, for having missed the boat). What initially appeared to be a feel-bad genre picture about a younger man-older woman romance never went where I anticipated. Hogg sets up expectations, then subverts them, but unlike a lot of the no-talent critical darlings in the States, she never once congratulates herself for doing so. Her movie contains one of the most piercing father-son arguments ever put on film, except that it isn’t on film: the conflagration takes place entirely out of the frame, while the director positions her camera in a wide-angle static shot of the other family members, and their holiday guests, overhearing the shouts and accusations. It’s a brilliant effect, much more so than close-ups of reddened faces would have been, and because Hogg places her viewers in the position of being eavesdroppers, too, the enormity of parent-child emotions can simply wash over us.

visitor

Two films from my honorable mentions made the top-10 on my invisible Village Voice ballot: The Visitor and Synecdoche, New York. The former I saw twice, and I always had in mind to write a long piece about it, yet between writer’s block and my nomadic peregrinations, I never got any further than this capsule for Willamette Week:

As in writer-director Tom McCarthy’s previous film The Station Agent, strangers who have seemingly nothing in common bond with one another once in close proximity. Richard Jenkins gives a brave, incontestably fine performance as a drab economics professor drawn into new life by a couple of Syrian-Senegalese Muslims who, though well assimilated into American culture, reside in New York illegally. The movie pretends to be apolitical, but in fact has much to say about our arcane immigration laws and the human wreckage they foster. McCarthy never overemphasizes his points, allowing The Visitor to unfold in unhurried, almost stately rhythms. Oliver Bokelberg’s crisp interiors and on-location cinematography cannot be improved upon, least of all in the terrific final scene on a subway platform, a shot of djembe busking glimpsed through the windows of a train whizzing by.

How good a film is The Visitor? So good that my esteemed colleague Scotty Foundas disliked it royally, snidely dissing this quiet, well-considered work as, “noxious left-wing propaganda…that effectively suggests the world would be a better place if the Patriot Act was repealed and all the terror suspects detained post-9/11 were turned out on the streets.” Well, Scott, the world would be a better place if the so-called Patriot Act were repealed, and as for the “suspects” that made Bush and Cheney feel so terribly masculine to round-up and detain, the vast majority of them are only there because of their skin color. Can Foundas, in his misrepresentation of The Visitor, really be endorsing institutionalized racism of the same low mindset that led to Japanese-American internment camps after Pearl Harbor?

The Visitor boasts not only a sublime leading-man performance by Jenkins (there was none better last year) it features a lovely, understated one by Hiam Abbass, as the mother of a detained musician. A magnificent exchange between Jenkins and Abbass, over dinner, in which he confides to her, “I pretend that I’m busy,” was, cinematically, the most irresistibly nitty-gritty moment of the preceding twelve months.

Has there been a major release since Terrence Malick’s The New World that proved as divisive among critics as Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York? Watching the movie at a press screening last October, it occurred to me that Synecdoche’s non-manipulative core of emotion would appall J. Hoberman, and later I discovered I was correct in my prediction. Subsequently, I found it instructive to see who disliked this film—Edelstein, Armond, Rex Reed—who all regard expression of humanity, on screen, as something not to be trusted. Owen Gleiberman resented the picture because it made him think or, at the very least, have to worry about thinking, and on and on the knee-jerk reactions went, none of them noteworthy for being well-reasoned. Granted, there may be something about Synecdoche that inhibits a critic’s ability to craft a persuasive argument, because, with the major exception of Richard Corliss (and the minor one of Shawn Levy), there was almost nothing that the film’s champions had to say that was especially stimulating or insightful. The most thought-provoking, careful readings on Kaufman’s risk-taking, time-bending narrative materialized neither from professional nor from hobbyist critics, but were (and are) found within the comments section of Roger Ebert’s Sun-Times blog entry, “O, Synecdoche, my Synecdoche.” There, freed from the rattling chains of hack journalism, various persons held forth with a passion and lucidity that are all too often anathema to newspaper and magazine reviewers. And this inspired me to the whimsical notion that, like Presidents, staff critics could benefit from being subject to a four-year term of limitations—a practice that would get the critics who have nothing left to say voted out of there.

The one writer whose opinion on Synecdoche—be it positive, negative, or ambivalent—I would have liked to have the pleasure of reading hasn’t even seen the film, let alone written about it, likely because no editor has commissioned him to do so. (Section editors and acquisitions directors have much in common, I suspect, and we as a culture are much poorer for their shared myopia.) In a phone conversation a couple of months ago, I tried to cajole John Simon into taking in Caden Cotard’s visions of epic theatre. Averse to both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener, he balked. I explained that the latter has only a brief role, that she disappears from sight after the first half-hour, to which Simon quipped, “Thirty minutes of Catherine Keener is worse than ten Barbra Streisands or twelve Liza Minnellis.”

So be it! Yet what are readers to do in an era when our most compelling writers are marginalized, either by economics or by the buddy system that defines who gets published on the topic of movies, while the shallow and pretentious are handed free—and apparently unending—reign?

January 7, 2009

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