Friday, March 20, 2009

2008: The Year in Review, 2015 Edition

I learned a valuable lesson by embarking on the challenge of writing about every movie I saw in the theater in one year: Never do this again. Here's a quick wrap-up, including my two favorite movies of 2008. Expect my 2009 list sometime in 2042.

Two Asian directors left their continent, cinematically speaking, for the first time. China-born, Hong Kong-raised Wong Kar-Wai made his first U.S. film, My Blueberry Nights, and China-born, Taiwan-raised Hou Hsiao-Hsien made his first French film, The Flight of the Red Balloon. Most critics and Kar-Wai fans decided that My Blueberry Nights was a failure. I partially and reluctantly have to agree, but I would append the word "interesting" before the word "failure" and I would also add that a great director's misfires have more to offer than a crap-peddler's successes. Kar-Wai's inaccurate grasp of American culture and speech hobbles his movie while simultaneously making it more interesting. Natalie Portman and Rachel Weisz straddle (and sometimes fall on the wrong side of) a line between honesty and hysterical over-performance while Norah Jones in the lead is curiously inert and uncharismatic. Chan Marshall (Cat Power) steals the movie with her five-minute cameo, making me wish Kar-Wai had put her in the lead instead if he was so intent on casting a musician with no acting experience. Still, this is one of the most appealing non-successes I've seen, and some of it was great.
Hsiao-Hsien's loose interpretation of Albert Lamorisse's The Red Balloon, The Flight of the Red Balloon, was one of my two favorite movies of the year. Why? I don't know how to explain it with any justice. The movie just flows and exists, finding its own visual and aural rhythms and forms that couldn't exist in any other medium. It looks effortless, but it's the kind of effortlessness that comes from years of work. The film is tight and focused but loosely plotted and free from superfluity and indulgence. My words are useless because it's the kind of movie that's meant to be seen. Some movies aren't, unfortunately. They think they're a book on tape or a televised play or a video game or a postcard or an ad for hemorrhoid cream.

Hsiao-Hsien let Juliette Binoche, his lead, create her own character. Mike Leigh uses this technique on all his films. He gathers together a group of actors he wants to work with, workshops with them for several weeks while the actors create their own characters, goes away and writes a script based on the actors' creations, and regroups to rehearse and film. Mike Leigh has never made a bad film, or even a passable one. Most are great, a few are merely very good. I avoided his work for several years because I was under the mistaken impression he was a maker of bloodless Masterpiece Theatre British dramas. I was so, so wrong about that, but I've spent the last several years catching up. His latest, Happy-Go-Lucky, is my favorite movie of 2008. The reviews have been mostly positive, but also frustrating in their stupid lockstep groupthink publicist's cliches. The film is repeatedly referred to as a departure for the "miserablist" Leigh. Seriously, at least 18 reviews I read or scanned called him a "miserablist." This is a bit like calling someone "religious" because they were spotted walking past a church. Though Leigh's previous two films were mostly dark family dramas, all of his films combine comedy and drama in varying amounts, and even his darkest films are filled with great humor. Never mind the misconception that Happy-Go-Lucky is some sort of happy, fluffy feelgood motivational speech because the lead character is relentlessly optimistic and has a silly sense of humor. She's also a realist who lives in the present instead of a fantasy land and honestly reacts to what is happening right in front of her in the most open and positive way she can. The film also contains the most hate-filled, nihilistic character in a Leigh film since David Thewlis' performance in Naked, and a sober appraisal of the pains, ills and difficulties of living. Most reviewers conveniently leave everyone besides Sally Hawkins' character out of their evaluation, which is odd considering that Leigh is deeply interested in every single human being in his films, even those who are on-screen for less than a minute. Equally stupidly, the film's few negative reviewers seem incensed at the idea of a happy, positive character and patronizingly question her sanity and mental capacity while acting like their street cred would be destroyed if they liked the movie, even though a critic doesn't have any street cred anyway. Whatever, dudes. It may not float your boat, but I always leave Leigh's films rejuvenated and moved. Like the Mekons say, it's hard to be human again, but Leigh's films always remind me that I'm here and I'm alive.
Another great experience: a retrospective of short experimental films by the recently deceased Bruce Conner. He started making films in the 1960s as a part of the hippie counterculture movement, but he quickly grew disenchanted with the flower power bullshit and sanctimony and found closer kindred spirits in the music of Devo, Talking Heads, and Brian Eno. Besides his small-town Kansas upbringing and Nebraska college education, I have an affinity for his wickedly paranoid sense of humor. His films are joyful, frightening, and exciting collages of film history, music, naked women, advertising, nuclear apocalypse, devolution, nature, the artificial world, art, and entertainment. My favorites include Cosmic Ray -- a totally fucking exciting melding of his collage technique with Ray Charles' "What'd I Say," Report -- his meditation on JFK's assassination as emotional event and media spectacle that does in 13 minutes what Oliver Stone couldn't even locate in three hours, Mongoloid -- his Devo tribute, and Take the 5:10 to Dreamland and Valse Triste -- creepy yet oddly comforting looks back at his rural Midwestern childhood. A former personal assistant presented Conner's films, and she said something about him that I've never heard from other artists. In his final years, Conner refused to let his films be shown and nixed all offers of DVD release. He even cancelled a screening put together by his close friend Dennis Hopper. Unlike most artists, who love the idea that their art will continue to find an audience long after they've kicked the bucket, Conner was furious about his own failing health and couldn't stand the idea that his work would outlive him. I admire that perspective, even though I'm glad his family and co-workers didn't honor his wish to destroy his work.

The rest (new stuff and revival/film society screenings):
John Huston's Key Largo (1948) was an entertaining and atmospheric noir with a reliably iconic performance by Humphrey Bogart.
Jay and Mark Duplass' Baghead continued the "mumblecore" tradition of presenting narcissistic twentysomething (actually thirtysomething) inarticulate dicks talking about nothing in particular, but they added a layer of self-critique and cleverly cross-pollinated it with the horror film. Their satire of film festivals and audience Q&A sessions was really funny, but the whole thing is pretty slight and I would have to fight my urge of smothering Greta Gerwig with a pillow if I ever met her in person.
Jacques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie (1943) is one of my favorite horror films and beautiful to look at. Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963) is almost as good.
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's 6ixtynin9 (1999) is a ridiculously exciting dark crime comedy of misunderstandings that rivals Tarantino at his best, but wisely drops the diminishing returns of forced pop culture referentiality that mars Tarantino's otherwise enjoyable work.
Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water (1962) is a taut little gem of claustrophobic dread. Why do I like to feel claustrophobic dread?

Whew. I did it.


Plop Blop said...

I just watched Happy Go Lucky, and I agree with you. It seems to me that it takes a true "master" or "artist" to make a feel-good piece of art that isn't bullshit, and Leigh does it with this movie. It's easy to show the muck of humanity, but it's hard to show the muck of humanity from a perspective that makes you feel okay. The feel-good part of the film is earned, no punches are pulled. There is lots of horribleness in film--racism, child-abuse, insanity, and drivers' ed.--but I still felt better about the universe than I have after watching most movies.

Plop Blop said...

I meant to say "in the film."

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