Friday, January 02, 2009

2008: My Year in Movies, Part 1





































The first two movies I saw in a theater in 2008 were technically 2007 releases, which means they opened theatrically in 2008 in nearly every part of the United States and the world except for New York and Los Angeles, but the rest of us don’t matter, right? I’ve already written plenty about Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood aka Sweeney Plainview: The Demon Wildcatter of Marfa, but I’m still impressed by it, and it pairs nicely with that other 2007/2008 movie, Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street aka There Will Be Blood. Visual feasts about obsessed loners and adaptations of other media as well as simultaneous departures and reinforcements of strength for the directors, the two films vibrate with energy and are best seen on the big screen with an audience blah blah all the clich├ęs, but these are fucking movies with a capital M, for good and ill, in the old-fashioned sense of the experience. Put on your good pants, comb your hair, we’re going to a movie tonight, Pa. The screen is big, the movie is bigger. Gushing bursts of blood and oil, spittle-flecked madness, Jonny Greenwood and Stephen Sondheim. Both films feel personal and enormous, spare and bombastic. See them on your iPhone today…










































…Let’s get small. Hardly anybody saw Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind or Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely. Why not? Many of the hardly anybody expressed scorn. Why? I have mixed feelings about Korine’s latest film, his first after a long absence, but how could any non-robotic humanoid see some of the images he creates and feel nothing? Korine has often been accused of laughing at his “grotesque” characters, but I think that line of criticism says more about his accusers. Outrage at exploitation as camouflage for intolerance. A failure to acknowledge one’s own contempt for humanity. A shifting of the blame outwards. Korine’s latest falls flat for me when he forces a linear narrative and dials up a sweetly awkward sentimentality, but he creates images I’ve never seen before, and a lot of them. Nuns jumping from planes without parachutes, tiny cloth flecks floating through endless blue; a Michael Jackson impersonator or maybe the real thing riding a tiny motorcycle in slow motion to Bobby Vinton’s “Mr. Lonely,” cloth facemask and sunglasses, stuffed monkey with wings and a fez attached to something protruding from the bike; painted eggs singing along to Iris DeMent. What the fuck is a quantum of solace?

The consensus is Michel Gondry does a better job when he has a Charlie Kaufman screenplay and becomes sloppy when he’s left to his own devices. I disagree. Sloppy, nuts. Movies used to be able to wander, relax, and meander without a bunch of petty, pissy bitching and moaning from the terminally ADD’d. I enjoy the Kaufman/Gondry collaborations, but I prefer Gondry alone. Gondry’s goofy, playful let’s see what we can do with this cardboard box and tinfoil exists in a different space than Kaufman’s nightmarish brain maze of identity, body, and sex neuroses. It’s been fun to see Gondry unfettered (“Gondry Unfettered,” premiering on Showtime this spring right after “Tracy Ullman Plays a Bunch of Different Characters but Forgets to Write Jokes for Any of Them”) with The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind, but the muted response bothers me. These movies are fucking great. Be Kind Rewind is light, sweet, and weird. It’s not a ponderous behemoth, it’s funny and warm and old-fashioned and futuristic, and it seems like some kids made it up in the backyard and were able to project their imaginations directly onto a screen. This movie exudes goodness, community, and kindness in a non-hippie way. Jack Black is a little Jack Blacky, but not too Jack Blacky. Mos Def is adorable. I’m not kidding, adorable. I’m not the kind of person who goes around using the word adorable, and I’ll never use it again. For three months…











































…Speaking of Charlie Kaufman, he directed one of his screenplays for the first time. Synecdoche, New York is easy to admire, hard to love. Like all the other Kaufman scripts, it has a great premise, and not just a premise. It’s filled in and lived in and full of ideas and people. It’s scary and funny. Unlike his other work, though, it’s not that much fun. Instead of portals to John Malkovich and memory eraser head trips, we get body fluids, decay, flaky skin, bowel movements, rust-colored urine, shaving cuts, convulsions, unsatisfying conclusions to romantic relationships, aging, death. There’s not much levity here, no respite, no joy. The film deliberately loses structure and momentum as it nears its last act. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character takes little pleasure in his monumental art project. The whole thing peters out into dilapidation, fatigue, loneliness, and oblivion. It deserves to be seen many times – there’s a whole world in it – but it’s hard to imagine working up the enthusiasm. Still, I think it’s an admirable piece of work. I liked it, I think. The cast is bananas. It’s as if Kaufman called me up (he didn’t) and asked me who to invite to his little self-reflexive worry party. Tom Noonan (I’ll put him first because he either gets mentioned last or left out entirely, a disgrace that without hyperbole is worse than ten Hiroshimas), Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton (who was also in Mister Lonely), Emily Watson, many other fine people.

In some ways, Synecdoche reminds me of the novel I’m reading right now, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, a sprawling but intimate epic taking place over fifty years, told achronologically with dialogue that alternates between the normal, ritualized, and specific minutiae of daily living and mannered, grandstanding philosophizing incorporating the sweep of everything that ever happened in highly artificial speech patterns. Kaufman reminds me a little of Luis Bunuel, too, in his blackly comic blending of reality and fantasy. Bunuel was a master, though, and has a lighter touch than Kaufman. Bunuel’s movies look effortless, like they sprang from his head during an afternoon digression and materialized without expenditure of effort, which is of course a lot of flowery bullshit on my part. Bunuel’s last movie, 1977’s That Obscure Object of Desire, which I saw in a revival screening this year, is perfect. By that I mean an elegant (but I need a stronger word than elegant that doesn’t exist) marriage of content and form, a film that looks like it exists outside of the mere confines of the frame, a living, breathing organism with a life of its own. A lot of pretentious nonsense, and I’m having trouble saying what I mean. It’s good, that’s all. Bunuel and his star, Fernando Rey, are both dead now, but they’re still alive in this movie, while Kaufman and his cast in Synecdoche seem like ghosts, obituaries caught on film. This isn’t a slam on Kaufman’s movie, just an observation on the liveliness of the elderly, ailing Bunuel’s vibrant final film and the somber death-fear of the early-middle-aged Kaufman’s first directorial effort. Maybe we now live in shitty, paranoid-sick times, but I thought we always did. In Bunuel’s film, two separate actresses with highly distinctive features and temperaments play the same woman, a woman Rey becomes infatuated with and who toys with the old man in all kinds of devious mental and sexual ways. The actresses are swapped out and alternated seemingly at random, but the changes make emotional sense that resists written explanation. Hoffman’s relationship with Morton in Synecdoche is so similar, but so different. Morton’s house is continually on fire. I think Fernando Rey is there now, sweating uncomfortably…


























…Werner Herzog was in Mister Lonely, too, playing a priest. I listened to the latest disc in Neil Young’s recent Archives Series of live albums today, Sugar Mountain, an acoustic performance from Ann Arbor in 1968, recorded shortly before the release of his first solo album. Herzog began making films in the late 1960s, a representative of the New German Cinema movement along with Fassbinder, Wenders, and Schlondorff. Young was fresh off the breakup of Buffalo Springfield. Young and Herzog released an impressive string of intense, classic works throughout the 1970s before losing focus and momentum in the 1980s. Herzog had trouble finding distribution and Young was sued by his own record company for failing to sound like himself. They got some of their mojo back in the 1990s, and they continue to make quality work with the occasional puzzling misstep, though nothing they make now, fine as it is, can touch their 1970s peak. Herzog jumps from documentary to fiction like Young jumps from Crazy Horse to other musicians. Herzog says he barely watches movies because he’s too busy making them. Young has said the same thing about music. Will Herzog’s upcoming remake of Bad Lieutenant be his Greendale? Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World is a highly enjoyable documentary about the residents of a research facility in Antarctica. The most impressive moments in the film come not from Herzog, however, but the underwater photography of Henry Kaiser. Kaiser documented the strange, beautiful, and busy ecosystem existing in the waters beneath the icebergs. Kaiser, in addition to being a deep-sea filmmaker, is probably better known as a musician. He appears twice on the Neil Young tribute album, The Bridge. Herzog dedicated Encounters to his friend Roger Ebert. Ebert said Young’s excellent score for Jarmusch’s Dead Man sounded like a man dropping a guitar on his foot…




























…Speaking of dropping things, many critics and regular people, too, said Joel and Ethan Coen’s Burn after Reading was a falling off after the “greatness” of No Country for Old Men. “Slight” is the word that comes up most often. Because, you know, comedy is so much less “serious” than cattle guns through the forehead. Burn after Reading, I think, is the most enjoyable movie the Coens have made since The Big Lebowski, a movie that was also called “slight” following another multi-Oscar-nominated critics’ darling (Fargo). Like Lebowski, Burn after Reading dispenses with the art-decorated-to-death stylistic overkill the brothers usually favor in their screwball comedies, but the extent of its spareness is surprising. This is probably the most bare-bones Coen Bros. movie, visually speaking, and though the comedy is wacky and exaggerated, the exaggerations come out of real human weaknesses. Like all Coen Bros. movies, the actors are tailor-made for their roles. John Malkovich and Richard Jenkins are particularly good here, with the former caustic, hilarious, and scary as hell. The violence is surprisingly tough, maybe tougher than in their Cormac McCarthy adaptation because it’s so unexpected. Stupidity has a real consequence here. And it’s funny, too. Really fucking funny. I’m not the Amazing Kreskin or that loser Uri Geller, but I think Burn after Reading may enjoy the same belated reputation as The Big Lebowski. To paraphrase the real Seymour Skinner, if this is slight, then slight me up...


...To Be Continued

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