Thursday, December 30, 2010

Homogenous Top Tens

December is the time of year when critics across the country reassess the previous year by releasing their annual top ten lists, proclaiming to the world what films they thought were the best the year had to offer. Every year has its usual suspects of course, with certain films seeming to rack up the lions share of notices, but for some reason this year the homogenous nature of most top ten lists seemed all the more apparent - especially since, in a very weak year for American films, most top tens were made up entirely of American films.

"Psst! You know what's better than a million top ten lists? A BILLION top ten lists!"

The usual suspects this year (and presumptive Oscar nominees to boot) - The Social Network, The Kids Are All Right, Toy Story 3, Black Swan, True Grit, Winter's Bone, The Fighter, The King's Speech, 127 Hours, Inception, and The Town. Only one of those films is a truly foreign production - The King's Speech. And it's British.

I'm not saying these are bad films - Toy Story 3 and Black Swan are both on my own top ten list, and Winter's Bone nearly made it. I just can't help but wonder why people keep picking the same films over and over and over again. Is it laziness? Is it buying into the critical groupthink fed to us by the studios about what the "best" films of the year are supposed to be? Is it the fact that most critics just don't have access to some of the year's best films? I think it's a combination of all three.

The truth of the matter is, most critics don't seek out films that aren't playing in their cities. There is no reason to review them as their readers can't see them. I never reviewed most of the films that made my list in The Dispatch, few of them ever even opened in North Carolina at all. But because of my completist nature, and because of my work here at From the Front Row and In Review Online, I want to see EVERYTHING. So I am constantly seeking out films, requesting screeners, and going out of my way to get a full picture of the year in film. So I end up seeing a lot more films than most critics who live outside of New York and LA who don't really attend film festivals.

The obscurity of most of the films on my list doesn't extend from snobbery on my part (although you could make that argument), but from the simple fact that the kinds of films I watch and appreciate have left me spoiled. The "best" films of the year that most people see don't do it for me anymore. I've seen what's out there, I've seen the quality of product that exists beyond the mainstream, and I can't go back.

2010 wasn't a very strong year, but there were some strong films out there, especially from countries outside the US. If a film list is full of American productions, I take it with a grain of salt. There is simply too many quality films from the rest of the world for a top ten list made up of American films to be credible. I'm not trying to say that my top ten is better or more "right" than anyone else's, just that in order to make a top ten list that is a true top ten lists, you need to see more films that the films you are "supposed" to see. Just because you've seen all the Oscar contenders doesn't mean you have a true picture of the best films of the year.

There are a lot of films out there. It takes a lot of time and dedication. But it's worth it.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Top Ten Films of 2010

My annual top ten list was published in The Dispatch today. Click here to read my full write-up.

1
LOURDES
(Jessica Hausner, Austria)
"The brilliance of "Lourdes" stems from its enigmatic nature, its ability to be spiritual without being religious, to question without being cynical, to embrace both faith and doubt without judgment -- and that is a miracle in itself."

2
WHITE MATERIAL

(Claire Denis, France)
"Like her best work, "White Material" is a deeply reflective collection of moments, both of great beauty and great horror, and it continues to reveal its treasures upon repeat viewings. It is a feast, and for both fans of Denis and newcomers to her talents, it delivers plenty of extraordinary material to explore."

3
CARLOS
(Olivier Assayas, France)
"A bold and meticulous portrait of a complex man, from his glory days as a proud leftist revolutionary to a man on the run in his twilight years searching for relevancy in a changed, post-Cold War world, "Carlos" is the kind of fearless filmmaking Hollywood has forgotten how to do."

4
TOY STORY 3
(Lee Unkrich, USA)
"It is both an elegy for and a celebration of childhood with the power to make grown men cry. And while it feels like saying goodbye to old friends, no other film this year felt so emotionally pitch-perfect."

5
DOGTOOTH
(Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece)
"As blunt and frightening as it is sly and rife with pitch black humor, "Dogtooth" is a bleakly satirical look at the dangers of an oppressive society as seen through the microcosm of what could possibly be one of the most bizarrely dysfunctional families to ever grace the silver screen."

6
BLACK SWAN
(Darren Aronofsky, USA)"It's an exhilarating exercise in pure cinema, something both trashy and deeply beautiful, taking an old story and making it feel thrillingly new. 'Swan Lake' never sounded so beautiful -- or so immensely frightening."

7

ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLONDE-HAIRED GIRL
(Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal)
"De Oliveira is a kind of cinematic poet, a Portuguese bard whose film seems to defy time and place. It transcends the delicate intricacies of language by remaining fixed in its own sense of time while seeming effortlessly timeless. It is both of the past and the present, as if it could be anytime or anywhere or nowhere at all. It is of its own time and place, it is anywhere and everywhere, and de Oliveira beckons us into a peculiar and beguiling world whose treasures will continue to reveal themselves with repeated viewings."

8
LETTERS TO FATHER JACOB
(Klaus Haro, Finland)
"Its themes may not be terribly complex, but its genius lies in the disarming power with which they are conveyed. It leaves an indelible impression, a searing an unforgettable evocation of one man's simple faith and compassion, that finds something of the divine in simple human kindness."

9
ALAMAR
(Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio, Mexico)
"Sometimes less really is more, and in this case the silence speaks volumes. "Alamar" is a small wonder of a film, a beautiful and bittersweet ode to the love shared by a father and son that resonates in powerful and unexpected ways."

10
THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA
(Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal)
"If "Eccentricities" is the work of a master painter, then "The Strange Case of Angelica" is the work of a master photographer for whom every picture is a glimpse into its subject's soul. De Oliveira playfully toys with the ideas of perspective through art, but he is also a sly wordsmith as well. At 102 years old, he continues to grow and to impress, and here his narrative is a multi-layered work of great meaning and formalist skill."

Honorable mentions - AROUND A SMALL MOUNTAIN (Jacques Rivette, France), THE RED CHAPEL (Mads Brugger, Denmark), WINTER’S BONE (Debra Granik, USA), PRINCE OF BROADWAY (Sean Baker, USA), MOTHER (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea), THE GHOST WRITER (Roman Polanski, France), THE SOCIAL NETWORK (David Fincher, USA), LAST TRAIN HOME (Lixin Fan, Canada/China), BLUEBEARD (Catherine Breillat, France), LEBANON (Samuel Maoz, Israel).

Thursday, December 23, 2010

On "The Fighter"

From The Dispatch:
"The Fighter" may well be the best acted film of the year, with great turns by Wahlberg and Amy Adams as Ward's stalwart girlfriend, but the standouts are Bale and Leo, who go above and beyond what it means to be a great actor. Bale's transformation into Dickey is awe-inspiring; it's a wholly immersive performance that showcases Bale's immense talent as an actor. It's career best work from one of Hollywood's most serious talents. Leo, for her part, is equally impressive as Ward's mother, disappearing into the role with chameleon-like intensity.
Click here to read my full review.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Review | "The Strange Case of Angelica"

"Time, stand still. And you, former beings who roam fantastical, celestial ways, Angels open the gates of Heaven, for in my night is day, and God is in me."

So reads a poem oft quoted in Manoel de Oliveira's The Strange Case of Angelica, the latest film from the staggeringly productive 101 year old director from Portugal. Its strange and exquisite beauty mirrors that of the film for which it provides a backbone, and in its own way, seems like a sort of poetic synopsis, expressing the film's themes even as its characters utter it.
His second film to be released this year after Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl, The Strange Case of Angelica serves as a kind of spiritual companion piece to that film, sharing not only similar themes of forbidden love but also its lovelorn protagonist, in the form of de Oliveira's grandson, Ricardo Trêpa. Here he plays Isaac, a photographer who is summoned to the estate of a wealthy family to take the final photographs of their lovely young daughter, Angelica (Pilar López de Ayala), who tragically passed away in the night.

Pilar López de Ayala in “The Strange Case Of Angelica.” Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

Upon seeing Angelica for the first time however, he is strangely drawn to her - even more so, when her serene corpse seems to smile at him. At first taken aback, Isaac instead finds himself increasingly obsessed with Angelica, poring over her photographs, hoping for another glimpse of her beautiful, smiling face. Soon, Angelica threatens to take over Isaac's entire life. Even his neighbors begin to notice his peculiar behavior. Isaac's landlord chides him for photographing field workers across the street, saying that no one does it by hand anymore, that it is all done by machines now. "Old fashioned work interests me." He replies. One can almost hear the words being uttered by de Oliveira himself, who is obviously far more fascinated by old fashioned societal constructs and cinematic formalism than the modern world. Except his work never feels outdated - it feels timeless, almost as if his characters exist within their own temporal reality. Much like in Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl, the characters seem almost displaced in time, but feel less like inhabitants of a bygone era than citizens of their own private world, trapped in a pristine snow globe.

Like the photographs of the dead Angelica, every shot of The Strange Case of Angelica is framed like a photograph of its own. De Oliveira deliberately frames each shot with a photographer's eye, giving the audience a small window into the peculiar lives of his protagonists as if thumbing through an especially exquisite family album. If Eccentricities is the work of a master painter, then Angelica is the work of a master photographer for whom every picture is a glimpse into its subject's soul.

Ricardo Trêpa in “The Strange Case Of Angelica.” Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

De Oliveira playfully toys with the ideas of perspective through art, but he is also a sly wordsmith as well. When the characters discuss the nature of matter and anti-matter around the dinner table, it is clear that science isn't what they are talking about, they are talking about love - attraction through reaction. Isaac views the world through a camera lens, and it is through that camera lens that he finds love, even if the woman he falls in love with is dead. The camera gives her life, and through art she finds eternal life. It is understood that this cinematic exploration of art and its effect on human perspective is a kind of irony in itself. De Oliveira is a supreme cinema artist. The way his camera lingers on the night sky, or a wisp of smoke is breathtaking. There is no wasted shot or meaningless gesture. At 101 years old, he continues to grow and to impress, and here his narrative is a multi-layered work of great meaning and formalist skill. His formal mastery is on staggering display here, communicating with the audience on myriad levels, in essence using art to make a comment on art.

With skills as sharp as ever, De Oliveira crafts a haunting narrative, a film of great resonance and beauty that penetrates greatly beneath its deceptively simple veneer. Even at 101, he is still outpacing directors less than a third of his age. A lifetime of observing, learning, and absorbing cinematic craft has led to a kind of assured perfection - studied, yes, but brilliant nonetheless. It is a master class in cinematic formalism, from a man with a lifetime of knowledge and experience. This is how you do it, kids.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA | Directed by Manoel de Oliveira | Stars Ricardo Trêpa, Pilar López de Ayala, Leonor Silveira, Luís Miguel Cintra, Ana Maria Magalhães, Isabel Ruth | Not Rated | In Portuguese w/English subtitles | Now playing at the IFC Center in NYC.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Review | "Mademoiselle Chambon"

The noted acting teacher, Sanford Meisner, once designed an acting exercise called "coming home to be alone." Its purpose for actors is to imagine that something very important or meaningful, for good or ill, has just happened to you, and that you are coming home to be alone with your thoughts. It is an important exorcise, allowing the actor to convey emotion without words, using only body language and most importantly - the face.

There is a lot of coming home to be alone in Stéphane Brizé's Mademoiselle Chambon, an elegant and heartfelt love story that is not a love story. It is the tale of Jean (Vincent Lindon), a married man who falls in love with his young son's substitute teacher, Véronique Chambon (the luminous Sandrine Kiberlain, Lindon's real life ex-wife). He is a simple man, a construction worker, but when he is asked over to her house to replace a window and discovers that she is a violinist, he asks her to play something for him, having only seen violins before on TV.

She shyly obliges, insisting that her talents are not that great. But her music communicates something to Jean, and he finds himself falling in love with her. When she plays the violin, it is as if she is speaking directly to him, saying everything she has neither the courage nor the willpower to articulate, and he understands every word. His home life isn't particularly unhappy, his relationship with his wife is stable and content. But he and Mme. Chambon share a strange, unexplainable connection that he cannot ignore, something neither can express but both feel just as strongly.

Theirs is a relationship communicated through music. Chambon, shy and quiet; Jean, stoic and awkward - neither can articulate their feelings. They can only share them through their common love of the violin. It is a tentative romance, told through furtive glances and musical interludes, letting that which goes unspoken do all the talking as they awkwardly try to fill the silences with small talk. Soon Jean is faced with an impossible choice - abandon a happy home life for uncertainty, or pursue his undeniable love for Mme. Chambon, whose restless nature never allows her to stay in one place for very long.

Much is communicated through Kiberlain's melancholy eyes alone. Her face reveals a deep loneliness that is both haunting and heartbreaking. What she is able to communicate while barely uttering a work is astounding. It's a remarkable performance in a completely lovely film, and if its themes of marital infidelity seem a bit old hat, Brizé imbues it with new life through his exquisite use of music to tell its story. Brizé uses music to describe the characters' feelings when they cannot - much of Mademoiselle Chambon's most striking moments come not through great writing (although the script is excellent), but through the physical performances of the actors and the music that reveals their innermost selves.

In fact, Brizé's direction is so confident and the performances so assured, it could almost have been a silent film. As Norma Desmond once said in Sunset Boulevard - "We didn't need dialogue, we had faces!" Watching Mademoiselle Chambon, that quote carries a lot of resonance. For such a minimalistic film, it is incredibly visual, basing much of its emotion on wordless evocations. It is an aching and elegant narrative, a powerful and moving romance that says much while hardly saying anything. And in this day and age, that is an impressive achievement indeed.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

MADEMOISELLE CHAMBON | Directed by Stéphane Brizé | Stars Vincent Lindon, Sandrine Kiberlain, Aure Atika, Jean-Marc Thibault, Arthur Le Houérou | Not Rated | In French w/English subtitles | Now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber, featuring an interview with the director, deleted scenes, and more.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

"The Social Network" Sweeps National Board of Review

With today's announcement of the 2010 National Board of Review honors, the awards season has officially begun. Sorry Gothams, this is where it really starts. Here is the list of nominees:

Film: "The Social Network"

Director: David Fincher, "The Social Network"

Actor: Jesse Eisenberg, "The Social Network"

Actress: Lesley Manville, "Another Year"

Supporting Actor: Christian Bale, "The Fighter"

Supporting Actress: Jacki Weaver, "Animal Kingdom"

Foreign Language Film: "Of Gods and Men"

Documentary: "Waiting for Superman"

Animated Feature: "Toy Story 3"

Ensemble Cast: "The Town"

Breakthrough Performance: Jennifer Lawrence, "Winter's Bone"

Debut Directors: Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, "Restrepo"

Spotlight Award: Sylvain Chomet and Jacques Tati, "The Illusionist"

Original Screenplay: Chris Sparling, "Buried"

Adapted Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin, "The Social Network"

Special Filmmaking Achievement Award: Sofia Coppola for writing, directing, and producing "Somewhere"

William K. Everson Film History Award: Leonard Maltin

NBR Freedom of Expression: "Fair Game," "Conviction," "Howl"

Production Design Award: Dante Ferretti, "Shutter Island"

Ten Best Films

"Another Year"

"The Fighter"

"Hereafter"

"Inception"

"The King's Speech"

"Shutter Island"

"The Town"

"Toy Story 3"

"True Grit"

"Winter's Bone"

Five Best Foreign-Language Films

"I Am Love"

"Incendies"

"Life, Above All"

"Soul Kitchen"

"White Material"

Five Best Documentaries

"A Film Unfinished"

"Inside Job"

"Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work"

"Restrepo"

"The Tillman Story"

Top Ten Independent Films:

"Animal Kingdom"

"Buried"

"Fish Tank"

"The Ghost Writer"

"Greenberg"

"Let Me In"

"Monsters"

"Please Give"

"Somewhere"

"Youth in Revolt"