Over the past few years, some talented editors have been putting together great annual look-backs at the year’s films. The best of the bunch is actually a 17-year-old kid over in Sweden (his 2010 vid should come out in the next few days), but this one is a great example. Enjoy taking a look back at what has been a great year in film.
After years of anticipation for Terrence Malick’s next film, we finally have a trailer for his upcoming Tree of Life. Since the project was announced, we’ve gotten along with almost no knowledge of what it’s about, but after seeing this trailer….well, we still don’t really have any idea what it’s about. But it does give us a sense of what Malick is going for both visually and emotionally. The film looks mightily ambitious, perhaps more ambitious than anything Malick has done, and that alone is reason for excitement.
The one thing we probably can assume about Tree of Life is that it’ll be brilliant. Malick has produced only four films in his career over a 36-year span, and all four have been masterworks. The guy is as far from prolific as you get, but he also might be the medium’s greatest cinematic poet.
Many films are released to praises of “Best Picture Frontfunner” throughout the year, and every year many of them fall off the awards map or lose their top status to winter releases, culture shifts, odd whims in the Academy voting block, and even calculated smear campaigns that actually work more often than you’d think (just last year, the producers of The Hurt Locker helped shovel Avatar negativity into the voting period). But usually this time of year, we start to get a solid idea of how the Oscar race is shaping up, and occasionally we get the sense that a landslide way be in the works. Early signs in the 2010 season point to a landslide.
The first slew of critics’ awards have been delivered, and David Fincher’s The Social Network has won every single one.
BFCA Best Picture: The Social Network
National Board of Review Best Picture: The Social Network
Los Angeles Film Critics Best Picture: The Social Network
New York Films Critics Best Picture: The Social Network
Southeastern Film Critics Best Picture: The Social Network
So far, it’s been a clean sweep. And not only that, but the lists have many different runner-up choices, suggesting that no other single film has thus far given The Social Network a concerted battle. The King’s Speech pops up most often as the serious challenger, but it’s likely too “English” and little-seen to win in the end, especially against such a tough front-runner. Also, there doesn’t appear to be a big-time contender coming at the end of the month. The Coens’ True Grit was supposed to fill that role, but while the reviews have been stellar and the film certainly looks great, the buzz it has amidst the awards circuit has been thus far muted. It was even snubbed from nomination by a few award bodies.
There’s still a lot of time until the Oscars, but the road appears clear for The Social Network to storm the show. And my reaction is, “awesome.” Fincher’s film is, in my opinion, the greatest film released this year, and it joins 2010’s Inception and HBO’s The Pacific as one of the great cinematic achievements of the past decade. The best film of the year, repleat with masterful writing, pitch-perfect direction, and mesmerizing acting actually winning Best Picture? Seems too good to be true. Suspense can be great, but this is one landslide I’ll enjoy watching.
As my graduate school semester grinds toward its conclusion, I haven’t been keeping up with my Netflix queue quite as well, but here’s some of the titles I’ve been watching. Just in time to hit the used DVD racks during your holiday shopping!
Romeo + Juliet
The story has survived nearly half a millineum for a reason, and the Bard’s words retain a shocking immediacy even when spoken on the screen in a modernized version of the play. Director Baz Luhrmann’s extravagent visual sensibilities definitely keep things lively, but they also frequently dip into excess, overshadowing the excellent work done by the film’s then-unknown cast. The film is just too visceral at times for the material. Young Leonardo DiCaprio manages to hold his own amidst all the razzle-dazzle, and his committed performance makes the dialogue every bit as enthralling as Shakespeare meant it to be. (3 stars)
This is definitely second tier John Carpenter, but his 80s cheapie is still a remarkable masterclass in atmospherics and mood creation. As the ghosts of long lead sailors descend on the quiet coastal town to seek revenge, the sense of dread and creeping menace is palpable. The script and the somewhat disappointing climax can’t live up to how well the whole thing is set up, but second tier Carpenter is still better than most other horror out there. (3 stars)
The Devil’s Rejects
The folks over at the AV Club trump this films up as some kind of brilliant and subversion post-9/11 allegory concerning the dangers of revenge. There’s some of that here, but mostly it’s just director Rob Zombie trying to throw as much filth as possible on the screen to get a reaction. His photography and direction is sharp and the performances are strong, but to what end? The film can’t possibly put the viewer on the side of people so terrible, and any attempt to do so comes off as callow. (2 stars)
The Fog of War
Robert McNamara is many things to many people, but one can’t fault the guy for not having some interesting stuff to say. Errol Morris’ documentary features a remarkably candid interview with the former U.S. Secretary of Defense, and the subject himself comes as sharp in his old age, defensive, willing to reassess past mistakes, elusive, and startlingly observant all at the same time. Morris makes expert use of stock footage (as well as some intriguing audiotape that seems to clean up McNamara’s image a bit with regard to Vietnam), and he knows just when to let his subject talk and when to press him. An excellent documentary from one of the best filmmakers in the genre. (5 stars)
If I have one major complaint about the current state of art, be it film or literature or music, it is that the affirmation of life is no longer consistently in the forefront. Cynicism and a certain postmodern despair have overtaken many circles of the serious arts , and consumed the attention of many supremely talented people who might have something uplifting to say, something that can keep us going no matter how bad or hopeless things may seem.
Danny Boyle is not one of the cynics. He touches on the dark as well as well as just about any filmmaker out there, but he creates his films with an eye toward the light. He drug us through the awful streets of Slumdog Millionaire and yet gave us hope that perhaps love can indeed save us. He took us through an apocalypse of our own making in 28 Days Later and still arrived at the idea that out resilience and passion for life and each other may be able to surpass the worst aspects of our nature. He is one of the most eclectic major directors in the world, and yet as he’s matured, his outlook has brightened, not dimmed.
His trend continues with 127 Hours, a remarkable visual poem to the desire not only to survive, but to live with and for those we love. In 2003, Aaron Ralston took a recreational trek into the wilds of Utah completely alone, and despite all his experience, all his knowledge of the land and all his physical aptitude, he found himself a victim of cosmic chance. He fell just the right way, at just the right speed, at just the right angle, so that a large rock pinned his arm and trapped him in a crevice. No one to hear him. No one to save him. He had to save himself. The story is world-famous, and most likely already know what Ralston did to free himself from his awful predicament, but that doesn’t matter when watching this film. Boyle assumes our knowledge, and uses our anticipation and anxiety about what’s to come to create a mezmerizing portrait of forced enlightenment, of a brash, overconfident young man coming to terms not only with his situation but also himself, and making the decision to keep fighting for life AND to live it a different way.
Not all of Boyle’s choices are successful, as some of his visual eccentricities threaten to overwhelm the dramatics of the story at certain points. But he keep his story track. This is a story about an intensely personal journey taking place within a very small physical space, and Boyle’s flourishes are often both our and the character’s only gateway to the outside when things get really, really bleak. On the dramatic level, he hands the reigns to James Franco, who returns the favor with a career-best performance that may end up nabbing him an Oscar. We are stuck there with Ralston in every way. He bask in his initial confidence, we feel his despair when things go wrong, and we live through his reflections and contemplations of all the things in his life that led him to that place. Even the much talked about climax scene, which involves the removal of a certain limb via a dull pocket knife, is necessary to these same ends. While we as the audience can never know the immeasurable pain Ralston went through when he decided to do the only thing that would allow him to leave that crevice, the graphic and unflinching depiction of his experience keeps us with him and within him. And that scene, tortuous as it is, is not in service of misery, but rather works to bring us near the same euphoria Ralston experiences once it’s over, once he leaves that crack in the earth and emerges back into the world reborn.
Aaron Ralston is such a compelling protagonist primarily because he is a member of this cynical generation, a group of young men and women baptized in irony and grown to feel like they’re on board a train speeding toward the flat side of a mountain. But when confronted with the dark, with the prospect of pointlessness and surrender, he has the courage to say no. He frees himself , and in doing so also asserts himself. 127 Hours doesn’t force-feed any naive notion of a benevolent world. Nature in this film is as at best indifferent, at worst downright hostile. But the film does assert our ability to forge our own path through it all, with the crucial caveat that it is only the love of others that makes doing so worth it.
Life, in all its pains and glories and complications, is asserted. Now more than ever, we need a lot more of that.