Friday, December 30, 2011

My top 10 non-2011 movies of 2011

Each year for the last few years, I've been compiling an extra top 10 list, a supplement to my main list of my favorite new movies of the year. It's a list of my favorite movies from other years that I saw for the first time this year (check out the lists from 2010, 2009 and 2008). Here are the best movies I saw for the first time in 2011 that were released in previous years.

1. Smiley Face (Gregg Araki, 2007) I don't get stoned, but I love stoner movies, even though most of them are pretty dumb and just good for some cheap laughs. Smiley Face has plenty of laughs, both cheap and otherwise, but it's also just gleefully inventive, strangely profound and wonderfully acted by Anna Faris, who gives her absolute best comedic performance here. It's also a completely human, sympathetic performance. One thing I love about stoner movies is how they marvel at the simple things in life, and Faris pulls that off extremely well here. Even as things spiral out of control for Jane, there's this sense that the world is magical and everything will work out (although it doesn't, really). Far more than I ever thought I would get from a comedy about a slacker who eats too many pot brownies.

2. Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) I watched this in preparation for writing about Todd Haynes' HBO miniseries version, which I ended up not really liking. Even though Haynes sticks closer to James M. Cain's novel, I preferred Curtiz's movie version that adds in a murder mystery and changes the plot to structure it around a lengthy flashback. It's more self-consciously a film noir, and that works really well for the story, especially in depicting the animosity between Mildred (Joan Crawford) and her reprehensible daughter Veda (Ann Blyth). The heightened style fits their viciousness better, and even though I generally love ambiguous, downbeat endings, I much preferred seeing Veda go off the edge and then get her comeuppance. It's still a tragedy for Mildred in the end, but it's tinged more with nastiness than sadness, and I found that more entertaining.

3. Beeswax (Andrew Bujalski, 2009) After being a little underwhelmed with Bujalski's second film, Mutual Appreciation, I really enjoyed this third effort of his, which features a tiny bit more plot but is still mostly just about aimless young people figuring out their careers and relationships. Tilly and Maggie Hatcher are great as twin sisters who are equally lost in different ways, and I love the matter-of-fact portrayal of disability, which becomes an issue at unexpected moments but is mostly just an unacknowledged, normal thing. Bujalski is a master of depicting realistically uncomfortable interactions; there's one scene here with an employee asking her "laid-back" boss for time off that's an absolute masterpiece of passive-aggressiveness. This movie is full of funny, real, quietly dazzling moments like that, and it once again makes me eager to see what Bujalski does next.

4. Christine (John Carpenter, 1983) I wasn't sure what to expect from a Carpenter adaptation of a middling Stephen King novel, but this turned out to be the most pleasant surprise of the month I spent writing about King movies. I enjoyed it more than the novel; Carpenter's version of the story is more enigmatic and menacing, and he does a great job of making the car into a recognizable force of evil even though it can't speak and doesn't have any facial expressions. The acting is solid, establishing characters to care about before the horrors start unfolding, and Carpenter is at his visually inventive height with the shot composition. It's just a very satisfying, well-crafted horror movie. Read more in my original post.

5. Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978) Malick's new The Tree of Life left me disappointed, but in preparation for a podcast on Malick with Tony Macklin, I watched the only other Malick movie I hadn't already seen, and it reminded me of what I loved about his work and what seemed missing to me in The Tree of Life. Days of Heaven is ethereal and abstract and hushed just like The Tree of Life, but it's grounded in a real story and real characters that can connect to the audience, so that Malick's musing aren't just anchorless pondering. Richard Gere and Brooke Adams are moving as the lovers trying to hold on to their connection in the face of an impossible situation, and having the narration come from Linda Manz's young, naive character gives it a purpose and point of view that The Tree of Life is missing. It's mesmerizing in its style and its visual poetry, certainly, but it's also a wonderfully human, often heartbreaking story.

6. The Baby (Ted Post, 1973) This is one of those random discoveries that turned out to be totally serendipitous; usually deciding to see a movie based on the DVD cover and description is a bad idea. But the promotional copy of this movie that came in the mail caught my eye, and it turned out to be a totally weird and insane horror movie/psychodrama. The title character is a full-grown man who acts and speaks like an infant; it's not entirely clear whether he's mentally challenged or just brutally conditioned by his bitch of a mother. Either way, a social worker takes on his case and gets way too attached, attempting to save him from the clutches of his evil family -- or so it seems until the final twist. Post and screenwriter Abe Polsky take the premise to every extreme possible, including some very messed-up sexuality. It's the kind of out-there exploitation movie that would have been tacked to the bottom of a drive-in bill and totally captivated the few people who actually stuck around to see it.

7. The Rich Are Always With Us (Alfred E. Green, 1932) Last year, I watched 30-plus Bette Davis movies, and my project to see her entire filmography is still ongoing. I saw much fewer Davis movies this year, and by now most of the ones I still haven't seen are forgettable quickies in which Davis plays a small part. So this random offering from TCM was a pleasant surprise, a sharp and sparkling pre-Code comedy with entertaining performances from Davis and Ruth Chatterton as a couple of socialites engaged in various romantic rivalries. It's stylish and silly (sometimes a little too silly) and a lot of fun to watch; a worthwhile gem among Davis' early work. Read more in my original post.

8. City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931) Silent comedies aren't my favorite things to watch, even if I can appreciate the talent and artistry of people like Chaplin and Buster Keaton. But I had a great time seeing this movie accompanied by a full orchestra, at a really cool event put on by the Henderson Symphony Orchestra here in Vegas, featuring a beautiful print of the movie shipped over from France. Chaplin's gentle, endearing comedy has some very well-crafted set pieces and a touching love story, and it made me smile all the way through even though I don't think I ever laughed. It was definitely enhanced by the live soundtrack, which included sound effects and a conductor dressed as Chaplin. It's the kind of all-encompassing, immersive moviegoing experience that we rarely get to have anymore, and I hope the Henderson Symphony Orchestra puts on more events like it in the future. (Check out Leila Navidi's lovely photo gallery from the event, including one picture with me in it.)

9. Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953) Last year, I had an Audrey Hepburn romance at the top of this list, and although I didn't enjoy Roman Holiday quite as much as Breakfast at Tiffany's, I still had a lot of fun with it. It's probably the prototype for a lot of lame romantic comedies and mistaken-identity stories, but it handles the contrivances well, and Hepburn has a lot of energy and genuine emotion as the sheltered princess who wants to cut loose and be an average person. Gregory Peck is nicely world-weary as the cynical journalist who falls in love with her, and the melancholy ending avoids the predictable rom-com result.

10. Hellraiser (Clive Barker, 1987) I think my appreciation for the original Hellraiser increased over the course of my week watching the entire series, although I still think Hellbound: Hellraiser II is the best of the series (but it isn't eligible for this list since I had already seen it before 2011). As the series got cheaper and more generic, Barker's original personal vision stood out more, with his twisted and strangely alluring combination of sex and death in a horror movie about carnal pleasures more than violence and gore. Hellraiser does some predictable horror-movie stuff, but it also takes a lot of unexpected routes, and its S&M-flavored design sense has become an indelible part of horror iconography. Read more in my original post.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

2011 catch-up, part three

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey (documentary, dir. Constance Marks)
Maybe I just don't have the same affinity for Elmo that other people do, but I thought this documentary about the puppeteer who performs as Elmo, Kevin Clash, was seriously bland and dull. Clash is clearly a very nice and talented guy, but this movie traces his completely uninteresting journey in a flat, TV-special style, with cheesy music and uninspiring visuals. Other than Clash's fairly humble origins, there's no conflict or adversity to his story; this is a movie about a guy who achieved everything he ever wanted with relative ease. That's great for him and great for the millions who love Elmo, but it makes for a pretty boring movie.

Bill Cunningham New York (documentary, dir. Richard Press)
This is a nice complement to (and improvement upon) Page One: Inside the New York Times, which suffered from a lack of focus and a superficial approach to the interesting personalities it showcased. Cunningham is a Times staffer who didn't appear in Page One, but his story is more affecting and fascinating than anything in that movie. The 80-year-old Cunningham is still vibrantly engaged in his work, photographing fashion in New York from the streets to society parties to runway shows. His enthusiasm and passion infuse the film, which is beautifully joyous. There's a small undercurrent of sadness in Cunningham's relative solitude, his tiny apartment and lack of romantic relationships, but it's overshadowed by the sheer pleasure that Cunningham takes in his work and in sharing the wonder of fashion with others. Press perfectly captures all of that joy and wonder, with Cunningham as his gleeful, endlessly knowledgeable guide. The result is my favorite documentary of the year.

Like Crazy (Anton Yelchin, Felicity Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, dir. Drake Doremus)
It's love story as jeans commercial in this pretty but entirely superficial romance about two cardboard young people who face contrived obstacles to their generic relationship. I've always found Yelchin to be a charisma vacuum, and although Jones can be charming (and is quite lovely), I never really bought into the central relationship. Doremus offers up almost no information about the two young lovers as people, so almost all we know about them is that they're really into each other, and even that is covered mostly in montages (this is a very montage-y movie). Doremus has some visually inventive ways of illustrating the passage of time, and some of the shot composition is gorgeous in a magazine-spread sort of way, but the overall look is more like an ad than an engaging drama. As another critic noted, this is like a romantic comedy with all the comedy taken out.

Poetry (Yun Jeong-hie, Lee Da-wit, Ahn Nae-sang, dir. Lee Chang-dong)
I remember finding Lee's 2002 film Oasis deliberately off-putting and unpleasant, but Poetry has a lot more beauty and dignity, even if Lee can't resist throwing in at least one self-consciously grotesque sex scene. But he has a lot of affection for his main character, a well-meaning older woman who's struggling with the early stages of Alzheimer's while trying to take care of her ungrateful teenage grandson. As her mind is slowly starting to deteriorate, she decides to take a poetry class, and she struggles throughout the movie to compose the first and only poem of her life. That effort is given equal weight as the woman's troubles with her grandson, who's accused of being part of a group of boys whose repeated rapes of a local girl drove her to suicide. Despite the heavy subject matter, Poetry has a sort of sweetness to it, and the woman's determination to create one beautiful work of art before her life ends is touching. It can be a chore at times, especially in the scenes that involve the main character taking care of a disabled elderly man, but Poetry is far more life-affirming than it might at first appear to be.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Assault on Precinct 13' (1976)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

I was sort of underwhelmed by John Carpenter's B-movie thriller Assault on Precinct 13 when I first saw it a few years ago, so maybe my diminished expectations helped me to appreciate it more this time around. I still think it suffers from some awkward dialogue and questionable plotting, but it's so tense and claustrophobic that it completely drew me in, and I felt the menace from the implacable gang members surrounding the deserted police station much more palpably than I remember from last time. The performances are mostly just functional, but Austin Stoker captures the sense of decency in the police lieutenant who's determined to hold his ground against the seemingly endless onslaught of gang members, and the weird sexual tension between Darwin Joston as a convicted killer and Laurie Zimmer as the station's surprisingly steely secretary keeps things nicely off balance.

I also like that Carpenter hints at complicated backstories for the lead characters but leaves the details out; it's the lieutenant's "first day" back from something, but we never find out what, and the killer bound for death row keeps promising to reveal the motives behind his crimes, but never does. We get the impression that there's some darkness behind the lieutenant's dedication to duty, or some solid moral code inside the seemingly misunderstood killer, but we never find out why. The bare-bones story doesn't have time for that kind of character development; Carpenter gives us a quick sense of who these people are, and then he throws them right into a terrible situation and watches how they react.

The influences Carpenter took from Rio Bravo (the siege of the law-enforcement stronghold) and Night of the Living Dead (the zombie-like gang members, who never stop coming and almost never speak) work well together to create a sense of dread, and I like the way Carpenter portrays the station's isolation even in the middle of a supposedly teeming city. The shock of seeing a little girl (played by future Real Housewife Kim Richards) getting shot and killed as she tries to buy an ice cream cone felt fresh again even though I knew it was coming, and that feeling of danger and unpredictability is the movie's greatest strength.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

2011 catch-up, part two

Cold Weather (Cris Lankenau, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Raul Castillo, dir. Aaron Katz)
This isn't one of the most acclaimed movies of the year, but I had high hopes for it since I really liked Katz's last feature, Quiet City. Cold Weather isn't as good as Quiet City, but it has a lot of the same ease at depicting relationships among aimless 20-somethings, and the same visual beauty that Katz brought to his depiction of New York City (here applied to Portland). Unlike Quiet City, it also has a fairly involved plot, albeit one that doesn't really get going until almost 40 minutes into the movie. Before then, Katz establishes a trio of engaging characters, including college dropout and wannabe detective Doug (Lankenau). When Doug's ex-girlfriend goes missing, Cold Weather turns into a mystery of sorts, but Katz never loses sight of his character dynamics, and those are always more important (and more entertaining) than figuring out what's going on with Doug's ex. The problem is that Katz actually creates a fairly engrossing mystery, so the abrupt ending, while perfect for a movie about slackers whose lives just kind of trudge on, feels like a bit of a cheat. Cold Weather doesn't have Quiet City's emotional impact, but it keeps me eager to see what Katz does next.

Margin Call (Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, dir. J.C. Chandor)
Taking on a still-current event like the financial crisis in a narrative film is a tricky proposition, and Chandor does a better job than Oliver Stone did in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps or Curtis Hanson did in Too Big to Fail. Stone's film was too Hollywood flashy, too concerned with being a thriller, while Hanson's often drowned in dry true-life details. Chandor splits the difference, telling a fictionalized story about one unnamed financial firm's role in precipitating the 2008 market crash. There's suspense in the story, set over a single 24-hour period, but it's not overblown, and Chandor works to create characters we can understand and care about, rather than just mouthpieces for a political viewpoint. There's still too much heavy-handed dramatic irony and on-the-nose prophetic dialogue for it to be completely immersive (at one point two characters discuss serious financial matters in an elevator as a maid, literally the average person, stands silently between them), but it's easily the best movie so far about the culture and outlook that led to the stock-market meltdown.

Meek's Cutoff (Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Paul Dano, dir. Kelly Reichardt)
I was one of the few people who was unimpressed with Reichardt's Old Joy, and I never ended up seeing her 2008 follow-up, Wendy and Lucy. I found this movie to be more substantial than Old Joy, although still often frustratingly aloof, with Reichardt doing everything possible to distance the audience from her characters and their circumstances. Instead of identifying with the plight of the 19th-century settlers lost in the Oregon desert, I felt like I was observing them through a telescope (sometimes literally, as Reichardt likes to shoot seemingly important moments from very far away). Although the story could be suspenseful and moving, it's instead clinical and dry (much like the desert), which makes it sometimes impressively austere but just as often simply dull, and it ends by just puttering to a stop. There's real emotion in some of the performances, which is a step forward, although Greenwood perhaps goes too far in his hammy performance as the group's guide, who talks like Foghorn Leghorn and looks like a member of ZZ Top.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee, dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Honestly, I was a little intimidated at watching this movie, which has been talked up so heavily as an obtuse but moving experience that I was worried I'd just find it baffling. And I did find a lot of it baffling, though some of it is baffling in a beautiful and haunting way, while some of it is far more frustrating. I liked the combination of grounded everyday details (the workings of Boonmee's farm, the management of his illness) with mystical elements (the ghost of Boonmee's wife, his transformed long-lost son) in a magical-realist way that's very reminiscent of the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. When the movie strays from the relaxed, naturalist dynamics of Boonmee and his family members and becomes more of an abstract fable, as when the characters venture into the cave where Boonmee takes his final rest, it's a little harder to grasp. I'm not sure I understood the relevance of the seemingly unrelated segment about the princess having sex with the talking catfish, but it's certainly unlike anything else I've seen in any movie this year, and that's worth something.