Monday, February 16, 2004

More Catch-Up 2003 (yes, again) 

I know, I promised the previous catch-up was the last catch-up, but well, I don't live in New York, so sometimes 2003 stuff comes here (San Francisco) a ways into 2004. I'm sure the longer reviews will start up again soon, but for now, I'll keep doing this.

The Company (Robert Altman, 2003) - Those who prefer some kind of adherence to the Aristotelian unities in their film scripts probably won't get much enjoyment out of The Company, and really, the "story" brought to the plate by star Neve Campbell seems awfully thin for feature-length. It's a good thing, then, that Robert Altman decided to throw all this stuff out the window and make a film not about plot or character, but simply about being in a ballet company. I wouldn't say it's a brilliant work, and some of the dance numbers are truly dreadful, but the way Altman glosses over the melodramatic moments, captures his actors merely existing in space, and tracks his camera gracefully around rooms as though it, too, were one of the dancers -- it's all much more fascinating than it has any right to be. Furthermore, for every bad dance number, there are a couple of truly transcendent ones that make the whole thing worth it -- which is a lot like most dance shows I've seen, now that I think about it. B+

The Fog of War (Errol Morris, 2003) - Being an ignorant 20-something, I don't know a whole lot about Robert McNamara or his history, but the Boomer folks I've talked to seem to uniformly consider him some kind of war-mongering robot. It's interesting, then, that Errol Morris' The Fog of War, largely featuring interviews with McNamara himself, has him coming off, if not exactly sympathetic, at least somewhat pitiable. This may render the film reprehensible to some, but judging the film that way seems reductive: Morris is not interested in placing his subject on a pillory; he's putting forward the notion that no person is a monster, nor a saint. We watch as McNamara squirms and agonizes over his past deeds, stopping short of apologizing for anything, but clearly feeling the impulse to do so -- in other words, he's very recognizably human. I like that Morris allows McNamara to both excuse and unintentionally hang himself with his words, though some of the more obvious symbolism (what do you think those dominoes mean? Go on, guess!) probably could've been done without, and Philip Glass' score is a mite overbearing (though it does a nice job of avoiding an obvious emotional agenda). On the whole, The Fog of War is what a good historical documentary ought to be: a great conversation-starter. B

House of Sand and Fog (Vadim Perelman, 2003) - I'd been avoiding seeing House of Sand and Fog, mainly because, well, it didn't look very good. Since it's gotten some awards attention, though, I dutifully took myself to a showing. Unfortunately, my suspicions were right: House of Sand and Fog is easily the most embarrassing of the studio prestige pictures of 2003. Where to begin? Jennifer Connelly mopes around about losing her father's house because of a bureaucratic error, and we're supposed to care, apparently, just because she feels to damn entitled (and this despite the fact that, as the film notes, she wouldn't be in this mess if she'd just opened her mail). Ben Kingsley, playing an Iranian immigrant, buys the house with the intention of selling it for profit, to get his family out of financial trouble -- but the film tries to emotionally railroad us into not liking him either, showing him yelling at his wife and angrily tossing poor Connelly around when she comes over for a chat. So we start off with two unlikable characters, and things get worse when Ron Eldard shows up as a xenophobic, adulterous (and very stupid) cop who tries unsuccessfully to help Connelly out because he thinks she's kinda cute. The whole thing is filled with laughable dialogue and a complete lack of humor, and director Vadim Perelman clearly thinks this monotony is somehow edifying, as he keeps heaping on shot after portentous establishing shot of fog rolling over various Northern California locations and letting James Horner fill the score with ever-more sappy, crying strings. By the time the film reaches its ridiculous, unearned, and thoroughly melodramatic finale, the deal has already been sealed: either you stick it out until the end and are served the message that you're better off slitting your wrists, 'cause life totally sucks dude, or you bolt from the theater early. I recommend the latter. D+

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Top Ten of 2003 

Well, I figure it's time I finally nail this thing down (though regular Cinemarati roundtable readers will already know the makeup of this list, since it hasn't changed). Comments on the year? Around mid-year I was thinking 2003 was going to wind up as the worst one for cinema in the last ten years by a longshot, and it did, just not by the longshot I expected. The biggest problem is not a lack of good films so much as a lack of substantial ones. Looking over my favorites, I'm finding myself mostly praising enjoyable (sometimes highly, thoroughly enjoyable) exercises in style, tone, and mood that contain just enough substance to make me feel like I'm not downing pure junk food. Don't get me wrong -- I appreciate those pleasures as much as the intellectual kind, and normally I wouldn't bother differentiating, except that the lack of the latter was particularly stark in what I saw last year.

I like the suspense of a countdown style, but I figure you're just going to scroll down to #1 anyway, so I'll start at the top:

1. Kill Bill, Volume 1 (Quentin Tarantino) - Believe me, I didn't expect this one to end up here, but by the time January rolled around, there was no denying it: No other 2003 film provided me with as much sheer pleasure as Kill Bill did. I don't even consider the lack of closure much of a problem anymore, because I'm not sure this film doesn't stand well on its own anyway, in the way it leaves my brain left to fill in the rest of the story on its own. Nevertheless, I can't wait for Volume 2.

2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson) - But of course. (See everyone else's review for why.)

3. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola) - Sorry, dudes, I still don't buy the whole racism charge. You've got to realize that the lack of depth in the Japanese characters owes much more to a lack of depth outside the limited viewpoints of the two central characters than to any cultural prejudice from the filmmakers, and also that the film represents, in part, a move away from that lack of understanding. If you really look closely, you'll notice an acknowledgment of the cultural-condescension going both ways, from American to Japanese and back again -- nobody's blamed for it, and it's presented as a simple representation of the gulf that exists for travelers of all kinds, the kind of feeling this film flat-out nails.

4. The Secret Lives of Dentists (Alan Rudolph) - It's a testament to how lame most of 2003 was that I had to sit and think for quite a long time before remembering what my #4 film was going to be. (Most years, I don't have to do that until at least #8.) Still, I shouldn't knock on The Secret Lives of Dentists, because when I remembered it, I remembered a wonderfully honest and truthful look at a marriage slowly eroding. These people are my parents, in both the positive and negative connotations of that statement.

5. Millennium Actress (Satoshi Kon) - Satoshi Kon's wild romanticism probably puts some people off, but at least he's chosen a story for which that approach works well. (And yes, that's a dig at Cold Mountain.) Besides, if you fall in love with the central character of Millennium Actress like I did, you're in for quite a ride.

6. The School of Rock (Richard Linklater) - I'd be kidding myself if this wasn't on here somewhere, since I've seen The School of Rock three times, and it only gets funnier every time. If it wasn't for Bill Murray, I'd say Jack Black delivers the performance of the year, and frankly, this film is tailor-made for me -- the combination of rock n' roll worship and love of teaching is pitched right to my sweet spot (the only thing better would've been if baseball were somehow involved). If all commercial sellouts -- in this case, Richard Linklater's -- were this much fun, I'd call for more of them.

7. Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki) - I had to reach way back to the early part of 2003 for this one, but Andrew Jarecki's case-study of the mob mentality and elusiveness of truth remains memorable. Capturing the Friedmans was the first film of the year that forced me to chew on something substantial, to keep spinning its message around in my mind like a tumbler. Sure, Jarecki stumbled upon this great premise by pure chance, but sometimes great art arrives by accident.

8. Elephant (Gus Van Sant) - This one vacillated between Top-Ten-for-sure and not-a-chance several times in my mind before finally settling here. Naturally, I'm still not sure if it belongs, but I'm taking that kind of inscrutability as a sign that Elephant ought to make the list -- I prefer it to Gus Van Sant's other Rorschach-test of a film, Gerry, for the very reason that others find Elephant obscene: its unavoidable relationship to a tragic real-world event. Vive le difference.

9. Raising Victor Vargas (Peter Stolett) - Victor Vargas is the biggest hindsight pick on this list. I didn't expect it to make the Top Ten at all when I saw it, but by the time I forced myself to make ten choices, there was no way I could justify leaving it off. More a "nice little film" than any kind of masterpiece, but it's still nice to see a thoroughly honest, believable look at modern teenagers, especially considering the alternative (*cough*Thirteen*cough*).

10. X2 (Bryan Singer) - Cut out large parts of my entry for School of Rock and paste a lot of the comments right here. X2 is nothing brilliant, and not a film of the greatest depth -- but it's heaven to a guy who worshipped X-Men comic books as a 12-year-old, and based on that, it takes on personal depth that probably can't be understood by anyone except me. Besides, I put X-Men on my 2000 list, so it'd be silly for me not to put X2 on this one, since it's actually a better film.

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