Finding the "narrative" of a given year is tempting, and possibly delusional. The critic is trying to make sense out of the year's clutter, projecting meaning where there's probably only the mass-manufacturing of products put together by committee financing. But the urge to design a resonance is overwhelming, just as the artist has the urge to create. The critic prides himself on being privy to a secret knowledge, a gnosis, a deeper layer hidden beneath the TMZ gloss of entertainment and stars.
THE TREE OF LIFE (Terrence Malick)
A Dangerous Method and The Tree of Life are dually similar and dissimilar. Both are the years-in-development products of idiosyncratic filmmakers born the same year (1943), one who works slowly and the other quickly, both considerably intellectual with an interest in the natural world. The budding Canadian biochemist David Cronenberg is plainly a non-believer, resisting even the title “atheist” because it denotes a theism or belief, while former philosophy MIT lecturer Terrence Malick apparently works closely with his Episcopalian congregation outside of Austin, Texas. One exposes “the New Flesh” while the other pursues “the Glory.” One disturbs viewers while the other takes us into eternity’s arms, where even a dying bird can evoke transcendence. Formally, these two magnificent films are born out of different sensibilities. Cronenberg uses crisp economy and an almost too-perfect linear storytelling, while his murk threatens to burst through between the cracks of people trying to explain their dreams. Malick is unwieldy, fractured, incomplete, almost deliberately imperfect, his Tree of Life shooting branches in myriad directions, the narrative examining and channeling the power of memory and human thought processes.
But neither filmmaker, the atheist ot the transcendentalist, is sanctimonious. Some atheists have struggled to articulate how you need to accept Christianity in order to appreciate The Tree of Life, but that's certainly not my relationship to it; when we see a chair move by itself as a child grows up in the 1950s, the eeriness is familiar. Malick has used cinema to capture sense memory. Some Jungians, the mystic sect of contemporary humanism, believe that A Dangerous Method has no sympathy for their hero, but Cronenberg is as fair to the mystic Jung as he is to the materialist Freud. The “catalytic exteriorization phenomenon” of the Swiss psychologist could be telepathy, just as it could be coincidence, even though Cronenberg, through Michael Fassbender’s studied and aware performance, may ultimately think that Jung’s stress is born of his need to have that unseen engine to the universe. At bottom, a theme of both pictures is how sublime our species’ evolutionary encounter with reality is. In Cronenberg’s Dangerous Method we have two men who invented modernity, and so invented us. In Malick, we traverse across billions of years of our evolution. In both, we are illuminated.
The precision of A Dangerous Method is what stunned me, a simplicity which may confuse some for a filmed play with its talkiness and scenarios drawn out in epistolary form as letters traverse between Vienna and Zurich. This is the buttoned dressing to the great naked cthonian darkness behind it, wanting to get out at a time when mental hospitals are, according to libertine psychologist Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell), “bulging at the seams.” In the first moments of seeing a young Russian-Jewish woman, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), hysterically screaming through coach windows while being dragged to one of those hospitals, we deduce that the real war here is the battle between the physical world, of manners, dress, ritual, and social status, and a secret world, hidden in the answer to the mythological Sphinx’s riddle: Man. Filmed in Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suchitzky’s trademark wide-angle close-ups, Sabina’s face contorts and juts out of the screen more effectively than 3D. Something is in there, inside of Sabina, and wants to get out. Viggo Mortensen’s Freud, meanwhile, is a marvel of relaxation, the one character whose disciplined repression keeps him from being swallowed by the unknown sphinx of which he knows to be weary.
The Tree of Life, meanwhile, is a prayer, a naked personal reflection and confession, and a requiem for a dead brother, just as it is, while burrowing into its roots, universal. Malick's images are very specific pictures of his own childhood outside of Waco, Texas in the 1950s. As time goes on throughout his autobiographical portrait and we experience the dissonance of his own neuroses rooted in the Mother (Jessica Chastain) and the Father (Brad Pitt), we fall into our own groundlessness, removed from the Creation of the World, an 18-minute marvel of how the universal canvas was painted, accelerating fast and faster through 14 billion years of cosmic expansion, volcanic light and lava screaming, geysers smoking, unicellular organisms coming together in the first acts of compassion, fish freely swimming, and then more complicated creatures – dinosaurs – feeding and suffering in the befuddling chain of existence. We are then born and called forth from the ocean of time, which slows down and wraps us up with resentments, jealousies, and desires. The Tree of Life is too sincere to be pretentious, and though many of us may scoff at one man's presumption to link his own biography to the origins of life, Malick is in fact calling out for us to do the same, and so to wonder about our Being. The Tree of Life is oddly meta, the cinema screen being a window or a bridge through which we travel and make our own disparate connections.
I quote Thomas Mann from Joseph and His Brothers, in answering how Malick can presume to make his life a microcosm, while meanwhile inviting us to do the same: "But we must go on from here: for subjectivation does not mean subjection, nor esteem of self disesteem of others. It does not mean isolation or a callous disregard of the general, the exterior and suprapersonal; in short, of all that reaches beyond the self. On the contrary it therein solemnly recognizes itself. In other words, if piety is the being penetrated with the importance of the self, then worship is piety's extension and assimilation into the eternalness of being, which returns in it and wherein it recognizes itself. That is to depart from all singleness and limitation, yet with no violence to its own dignity, which it even enhances to the point of consecration."
I feel very blessed and grateful that so many people have stopped by to read my thoughts on The Tree of Life, which are admittedly as incomplete as Malick’s film. One reader, Nick van der Leek, nails the film perfectly when he commented, “It was while reading your review (or treatise?) that I finally made sense of what seemed extremely fragmented... I realised that Malick intentionally created a fractured, semi-coherent story in order to render 'disconnection'. You mentioned it somewhere, how the elevators have Jack untethered to the world... Thus Malick introduces the bridge at the end, to evoke a final sense of conciliation with the world and all that we do not know, do not understand and have un-connected ourselves from.”
Maybe an elevator is just an elevator, and a cigar is just a cigar, as a leaf of grass is just a leaf. But watching and re-watching The Tree of Life (it surprisingly plays excellently on DVD, where the viewer can skip around Malick’s cosmic loop the same way a reader can page back and forth through James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake), I find it hard to express how much it moves me. Not through typical narrative pathos, but in its bare sensitivity. This year, it’s unfortunate that both Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt will be honored for performances that, while impressive (The Help and Moneyball), do not come close to touching the chilling and transformative dimensions of Mrs. And Mr. O’Brien. A close-up on a face, searching within itself, gives birth to a thousand souls. Meanwhile, Malick’s anthropomorphic envisioning of the universe’s creation, where we may see faces in nebulae and lava-drenched rocks, made me tremble. I was shaking, my eyes filling with tears of awe as creation is scored to the mourning of a requiem mass. Did The Tree of Life accomplish everything it set out to do? It couldn’t. But it still did more to me than any other film this year.
Both A Dangerous Method and The Tree of Life end with its principle characters staring out at the sea, the archetypal symbol of consciousness, the Deep Self. Cronenberg’s Jung maybe gets lost in the great deep, swallowed by Leviathan as he comes to understand himself. On the other hand, Malick's Song of Himself is also a Song to our Selves, and the Great Self. We are imprisoned, shackled, encaged in modernity in its forms and banal tropes, in our lives and in our arts and entertainments. But Malick – much like the Carl Jung of A Dangerous Method – wants to take us home, where our masks come off and wash away in the collective ocean. At the end of Malick's journey, we encounter ourselves, and in ourselves we see everyone else. That bridge that ends the picture is a modern Jacob's ladder designed to take us back to Being, beyond the accidents of being-in-the-world that make us what we appear to be in Time, and into an identification with the One - or Many - who dwells inside of us.
Refn has absorbed a host of great influences: Kenneth Anger, Peckinpah, Welles, Malick, Scorsese, the Walter Hill of The Driver, Lynch, and most vibrantly, Michael Mann, whose atmosphere and attractive professional angst-ridden men (from Thief, Heat, and Collateral) share traits with the Driver, but also Mann’s psychotic and delusional serial killer, Francis Dollarhyde from Manhunter, a picture similarly about the formal saturating experience of moving images twisting reality. Gosling's Driver just may be the sexiest creep in recent movie memory.
There’s a moment before a tense apartment hallway confrontation. We see the Driver in his blank-walled apartment toiling away on his machinery. The dreamy song “Under Your Spell” by Desire is muffled through the walls. The music takes us somewhere else, just as it takes him. Cut to Irene’s apartment, where the song is a gorgeously thick wall of sound, adjusting itself when her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) addresses the attendees of his party. Cut to Irene in close-up as the camera slowly moves in on her. She looks on but her spirit is elsewhere, the music amping up again and linking her – and the film – to the Driver. In his apartment again, the music is no longer muffled. The music has ascended beyond its diagetic roots to become the sonic voice of the film. The lyrics, repeating “You’ve got me under your spell,” detail the rapture of what a film score can do to us, which is the same thing that happens to the characters in the story. We are under the spell of a filmmaker using his mechanical tools (with which the Driver fidgets during this sequence) to take us in the backseat of his car, exerting power over us while he creates. The function of art takes us away from Nature (“I don’t eat, I don’t sleep, I do nothing but think of you”) in this broad electronic canvas of mannerism. It is a beautiful, electronic madness.
Drive is wound together on its own fascination with films and filmmaking. It is about subjective expression on the part of the creative personality or idiosyncrasy governing the world of the film, which could just as well be set in outer space as in a geographical city such as Los Angeles. It is caught up in its own power to assume how we too will respond to it. It visualizes the inner process of myth-making and our day-to-day interior yearnings to be more than what we are, and go someplace more than just right now. And we can get lost in those tangled cross streets of visions, and twists and turns of noir imaginings – or maybe project them outside the theater, onto a wider canvas of an omni-optical window, transgressing the boundaries of the real. Drive exemplifies the sense of John Milton's verses from Paradise Lost, interesting when we consider how the poet was blind, and assuming the voice of Christendom's most notorious villain, Satan, whom the text perversely makes a hero, much as the Driver is a probably a psychopath elevated to Real Hero and Real Human Being: "The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heav'n of hell, a hell of heav'n."
A question repeated throughout Terri is “Why did you do that?” Indeed, why do we do the things we do when we’re not telling ourselves the reason for doing them? Why does the fleshy Terri (excellently played by Jacob Wysocki) set mousetraps out in the woods after successfully getting rid of the “front line” of mice in his Uncle James’ (Creed Bratton) attic? Why does he love beans on toast? Why does he wear pajamas to school? Why does he harbor such disdain for physical education? Why does the other troubled kid, Chad (Bridger Zadina), pull his hair out and urinate on his pants? Why does the beautiful blond Heather (Olivia Crocicchia) allow “Dirty Jack” to molest her in class? Why does the assistant principle Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly) show the troubled kids his biographical picture book, lying to them while making them feel special? And why do the students graffiti that “Fitzgerald is a Zombie” on the school walls?
There are answers in the film – the ambiguity is not meant to run too deeply, though they’re not as declarative or simplistic as we may like. Is Terri a variation on Melville’s Bartleby, who’d “prefer not to” do anything? An angry teacher scolds him for being late to gym class, demanding to know Terri’s feelings on physical education. “The feeling is no feeling,” Terri explains, as if trying to excavate the reason himself.
What would be the point of his interest? When Terri sees Heather being fingered by the crass and handsome Dirty Jack, in the middle of Home Economics, he whispers while voyeuristically gazing, “Oh my God.” It’s not an expression of shock so much as one of defeat – not that he knows Heather (yet), but how is it that the Dirty Jacks of the world can have so much, so easily, when Terri is stuck doing weekly meetings like the school “monsters,” the maladjusted screw-ups unable to control themselves and with no hope to imagine that success can ever be realized?
The mystery of life and death plays out for Terri when he sets out the mouse-traps, being awed by the cycle – that’s rejected his own flesh – when a hawk lands in front of him to scoop up the dead mice. Uncle James may not “get it,” but Fitzgerald explains the “bloodlust.” “He gets it, and I get it too,” and I think a lot of people get it, though we can’t describe it. Terri is interested in the enigma of mind and body, as we see, during one raucous night, chemicals go in the three principal kids (Terri, Chad, Heather), their impulses driven by a subtle want of power that threatens to envelop them.Early in the film we notice that Terri is reading Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, the great satirist who showed the Yahoo follies of our nature to which we are hopelessly blind and dare not admit to ourselves. Terri is replete with suffering and hopelessness, as “Identity” withers away under the weight of the body’s mysteries, such as poor Uncle James whose few moments of mental clarity he cherishes, using them “as windows” for reading. During a funeral, we hear the Roman Liturgy being read, the Latin word for “soul” being noticeably repeated, that wind of self-awareness animating flesh. Like with The Tree of Life, where the young protagonist alludes to St. Paul (I don’t do what I want to do, I do what I hate), Terri is searching for that soul, that “awareness” while Nature runs rampant. Fitzpatrick, who has his own problems at home (apparently a spend-thrifty wife), says, “We do what we can,” something to which I think Swift would nod in agreement.
The 2010 Cannes winner, only screened in Minneapolis on a pair of nights at the invaluable Trylon, is another contemplation of eternity when a being faces eradication, or for that matter, the very medium of cinema facing eradication as film stocks are no longer manufactured while digital becomes ubiquitous. As with The Tree of Life and Hugo, the Thai Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives has a theme of synaptically linking unlike objects, places, or images. There are many souls - and species - sewn together in One fabric. The "hereafter" happens daily as bodies feed and wither, like the solitary yack in nature at the picture's beginning, or the insects that are swatted at, stepped on, and electrocuted by traps.
Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisayman) is dying, his kidneys giving out on him. At dinner, he plainly speaks to some surprise guests, making the banal night-time meal conversation an eerie experience for us. He greets the ghost of his dead wife and has some words with his missing son, who is in the form of the Sasquatch-like Ghost Monkey. There are memories that link to his past, like a 1965 massacre in which he was complicit, and an eternal past going through centuries, as we are privy to a wading princess having a sexual experience with a talking catfish. Yes. Sex with fish.
Is Uncle Boonmee a lamentation of soulless modernity estranging people from a deep past, and so to whatever relations to other beings from all times? I think it's an Eastern kin to The Tree of Life, where the film has the unmatched ambition (in a more muted, Buddhist fashion) of assuming to mimic the mystery of our thinking, and how we experience dream and reality so unassumingly as our souls drift through the years and through alternate beastly forms. And like a dream, the transformative character of this film casts a spell, absorbing us in Time's wheel. Whereas The Tree of Life shattered the walls of awe's cinematic santuary with the force and thunder of Job's Yahweh, Uncle Boonmee enters the same hallowed ground by sneaking in through the back door.
I saw Shame in the same 16-hours that I attended the spare-no-expense big-budget carnivals of Steven Spielberg's Tin Tin and Brad Bird's Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol. And though I joke that in spite of the Hollywood grandness of Spielberg and Bird that the biggest thing I saw that weekend was still Michael Fassbender's penis, the side-by-side-by-side showings gave me insight into director McQueen's ideas behind his sex-addict study. Not an exploitation film or mere conceptual drama with a classic performance at its center, Shame is a commentary on our YouTube era addiction to new sensation, the optical nerve craving the incessant stimulation like a line of cocaine.
Fassbender plays Brandon, a successful NYC 30-something, who has only the most superficial of personal relationships. Escorts come to his home, he fixates on internet porn, and takes masturbatory rest-room breaks at work. His sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) unexpectedly upsets the hypnotizing rhythms of his day-to-day simulated existence of repeated orgasms and ego-disintegration. He can't think about other people with other problems, and he is imprisoned not only by the impulsive needs of his body, but also the luxury in his abundance of freedom. Sissy, on the other hand, represents an opposite extreme of neediness, loudness, and clingy desperation in her affairs. Both brother and sister were created by something in their past (a sentiment it shares with the much more friendly Beginners), but we cannot know what it is, much like they cannot speak it.
Brandon fits in with Gosling's Driver, Wysocki's Terri, and Rooney Mara's Lisbeth Salandar as a band of movie outcasts unable to get into the duplicitous simulacrum of "real human beings." On a date, Brandon jokes that a bump on his head is a vestige of Neanderthal anatomy, he being one of the last of his kind before "the homo sapiens took over." Brandon's been sucked into the environment and culture of affluent New York City, stuck in the shiny and fit sexualized visage of skin-deep interactions where sexuality - per A Dangerous Method - is not the ego's affirmation, but its wished-for destruction.
Some people have criticized Shame for being unnecessarily ambiguous. They want to know what exactly happened to Brandon and Sissy, binding them so close together that he cries when she sings "New York, New York" at a jazz club. But McQueen's wants to cast a reflection to a whole culture. In Shame, the computer is a perfect outlet for intimacy. This is where Brandon meets escorts and has online "chats" (or "gazes") with stripping women, or where his douchey "broh" boss talks to his kids on Skype and gives disembodied instructions for his wife, on whom he has no problem cheating (with Sissy). Repairs for virally infected computers lead to Brandon's company "blowing our wad on cash," the spending of corporate money being equated with ejaculation.
Brandon tries to have a "real" romance with the office secretary. During their awkward date, we learn that his longest relationship was merely four months. He doesn't see the practicality in marriage or a lifelong monogamous relationship. The impact of external stimuli is too overwhelming. When he tries to act on this possible current romance, where his date doesn't want to escape but just enjoy the here and now with her present company, his potency fails. She's already too familiar and not anonymous enough. Brandon's libido is as sociopathic as the cut-throat business etiquette of corporate culture. String-alongs like Sissy are "parasites," mirroring contemporary rhetoric used in describing Occupy protesters. Whether it's money, other people, or sex, McQueen's film is saying that at root of our compulsive behavior is a pressure to flee away from ourselves, adjusting to a very different kind of "Ghost Protocol."
Meek's Cutoff is a true Western, floating slowly into the unknowable past where the Oregon Trail feels as ancient as the world of Gilgamesh. The film flees into the past as if trying to escape America and find the solace in that most taunting of abstractions, Freedom. The journeying party on this wagon ride are wondering if the America of the East will follow them, claiming this mysterious frontier for itself. (Yes, in a year - 1846 - it will). Reichardt also has a Tree of Life thrown in (or Tree of Death?) at the end, further infusing this quiet film with the stuff of legend. The travelers are looking for an Eden or a Promised Land, but all they have - and we have - are unanswered questions, and hope running low like their water supply. Are they lost, with their guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) just spewing hot air? Or are they impatient, leading themselves to ruin after they reject his lead? Will a captive Indian take them to water or to death? And is this Native even sane to begin with?
Reichardt refuses to answer any of the questions, which keep on piling up with every slow lurch towards the terrain's mystery, the land being an empty deathtrap and ethereal dream birthed from a romantic gaze at the clouds, evoking the rhythms of Malick's Days of Heaven. The antique world of Meek's Cutoff - including the cutoff edges of the frame - strangely made me wonder about the present, and where we are going.
3D builds the symbolic railway between the world of the film and the audience watching it, making the illusion real. We identify and find ourselves in the art, instead of compartmentalizing it into some distant vacuum separate from life. Films are another dimension set alongside our empirical existence, like dreams, which also play a role in Hugo’s story of an orphan (Asa Butterfield) who forms a relationship with the pioneer of cinema fantasy, Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley). Historical incident and dream exist side by side, like the famous 1895 train crash at Montparnasse, which replays in Hugo’s nightmare and is fantastically adapted by Melies into a color tinted film. Hugo seeks to return to a lost Eden, climbing through branches of endless relation in pursuit of a Root. Everything connects and breathes life through the perfume of art.
Cinema is consciousness, as indicated when Hugo’s memory runs like projected film while he looks at his father's mysterious automaton. The shutter is in our head, and so is the projector. Memory – and so cinema – is resurrection. We are all “waiting to work again” when we hit our funks and limitations, plagued with un-meaning, disorder, and sorrow. Unactivated and passive beings are themselves lifeless automatons. Life has no meaning other than the meaning for which we are programmed, giving rise to intuitions that grasp and reach outward to other beings. A film historian, Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg) says of Melies’ movie studio, “It was like something out of a dream. To my eyes, it was nothing short of an enchanted castle, a palace made of glass.” The human author’s heart, for better or worse, fashions a world to fly us out of a meaningless maze of darkness and confusion. While so many efforts during the recent 3D have flown much too close to the sun, plummeting to a dreary, footworn floor of pure machine dominance, Hugo escapes and soars to show us ourselves and our dreams.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a fitting successor to Fincher's The Social Network, the 2010 Information Age masterpiece where Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is less human than post-human, a machine man, the HAL-9000 in a hoodie and flip-flops. Rooney Mara, who played Zuckerberg’s vindictive ex-girlfriend, becomes Zuckerberg’s Swedish Gemini twin, a cyborg neuromancer lacking empathy and agency, laser-focused in her directives and only silently mourning an inability to find a relationship in the fleshy “normal” world. Both films are about communication, and as dialogue in the “straight” world rings hollow, empty, and duplicitous, the alternative becomes an isolation channeling the technology charging civilization’s empty symbolism, and using that symbolism against itself. This is a society where honored frat houses are in fact debauching pads with women bused in like meat, and the corporations constructing modern civilization have suspicious and inhumane ties. Both Mark Zuckerberg and Lisbeth Salander are rational answers to a world where the inanity of “being sociable” is transparently hypocritical. Mara, with her bleached eyebrows, hard features, and determined if affectless glare, is alien, and so more closely doubling the fearsome tattoo on her body than Noomi Rapace’s more accessible characterization from the Swedish production.
Fincher’s vision of Lisbeth Salander is dually tragic and empowering, unable to fit into our definition of “human” but acknowledging that whatever is accepted as “human” has a foul history deserving of its subversion. On her motorcycle while chasing a killer of women, Lisbeth recalls James Cameron’s Terminator, menacing and invincible in the task of obtaining its quarry. Too honest by virtue of the patterns in her highly advanced thought structures, she cannot be a part of our world and flies away from us. Her ability to assume different identities is because she lacks essence, her riddance of a stable identity a defense mechanism. Her post-human alienation punches us in the face and she flatly defines us for what we are, as actions and characteristics are too often wiped under our Ikea furniture. Mara gives a performance that has been sorely underrated, an unsettling creation with her unblinking stare that addresses our hypocrisies and repressions. She is a portent of what lies down the tracks of the new millennium, waiting for us in a numb new world of packaged emotions and empty dialogue.
Woody Allen's most popular effort may not compare to the depth and emotion of his similar foray into magical realism, The Purple Rose of Cairo (my favorite Woody Allen film), or be of the same meaty stuff as Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, or even the recent Match Point. But it's the most evenly balanced and mirthful comedy of 2011, and certainly the best one Allen has executed in decades, eclipsing Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite from 1994/95. After the first viewing, I was infected with the escapist giddiness that Spielbergian fantasy had on me as a child. It gave me the same euphoric high of consuming a good bottle of wine in the warmest and most attractive human company. Being that I admire Midnight in Paris more with each viewing, I wonder if I'm wrong in saying that it doesn't compare to those other Woody classics; I admit, assuming that The Artist (a picture I really liked but feel has been overrated) doesn't become this year's Oscar favorite, and the Academy doesn't do a major step-back with The Help or Spielberg's fine-but-autopilot War Horse, I would be all smiles to see Midnight in Paris become Woody Allen's second Best Picture winner.
The idea of Midnight in Paris could be mistakenly reduced to a critique of "Golden Age Thinking," the notion that life is always better in the past, as writer Gil (Owen Wilson) experiences the personal wish-fulfillment of being in the heavenly space of 1920's Paris, rubbing shoulders with Hemmingway, the Fitzgeralds, Cole Porter, Dali, and Bunuel. But the usually apolitical Allen is, in his old age (he's 75), cleverly wagging the finger at the culture-sapped present, where the artists exist on the social fringes, hidden by TMZ and Reality TV.
Allen is mindful of the schism between high art and fluffy escapism, and he winks at us while making a fluffy escapist film about high art. But as Gertrude Stein (a wonderfully droll Kathy Bates) notes, the job of the artist is to find an antidote for the despair in life's meaninglessness. Gil's novel is about a nostalgia shop called Out of the Past, which sells antiques from long ago that retain a sense of magic with time while also being "camp" artifacts. Yes, Paris is photographed as a cliche (camp), but it's a city where History and its richness are present on every corner. It stands opposed to the year 2011, of corporatism (the reason why Gil's right-wing future father-in-law is working in Paris, a city and culture he hates), shallow materialism, and a time where "people measure out their lives with coke spoons." Shallow materialism is "pretty sexy" and fetching, like Gil's fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams), but the mindset of Inez and her parents enjoys going to a "forgettable" comedic movie, which "lacked any wit or believability, but we laughed in spite of ourselves." Art is a temporary diversion, nothing more.
And Allen in his "whatever works" philosophy would say, "Fine." But I think he laments that something so forgettable should be so easily processed, while Paris with its rich history is rejected by the same people. This gets to the heart of Woody's nostalgia for a time when the best artists were social icons (compare Ernest Hemingway to Kim Kardashian). Tiresome pedantic fellows (like Michael Sheen's academic) are able to spew out a lot of facts about art, but they're not in dialogue with it. They lack a sympathetic relationship to it, and so exist just as selfishly in the present moment. Gil's a dope (a very lovable one), but he's like the Last Man, always talking with the Past and asking for its advice. For him, the figures back then are not relics to be treated as museum objects, but are living, and in spite of their personal flaws, they can teach us. To Inez, they're just "dead people," but Gil answers, "The past isn't dead. The past isn't even the past," adding, "You can fool me but you can't fool Hemingway." There's something to that, transcending nostalgia camp, and it's essential for whenever we go inside an old book or film, or wonder about a masterpiece painting. Art means nothing unless we are creative viewers and readers in engagement and bridging the discussion with incidents or feelings from our own lives.
Beginners is about how Oliver reacts to his widower father (Christopher Plummer) coming out to him, and how his father's repression in a socially convenient marriage of mutual understanding contributed to the creation of Oliver's present-day personality, in which Oliver cannot sustain a meaningful relationship. The title of Beginners refers to how things change, bloom, die, and then finally turn towards a new beginning. It's a subjective understanding of history (and also an autobiographical gesture on the part of the director), evidenced by how the gay father's coming out is remembered with a purple sweater, when in fact he was wearing a familiar robe. In dialogue with the past and realizing how everything has a context in history, there are possibilities for progress.
Beginners is a very important film politically, relating to our collective attitudes of homosexuality. These days, seven years after Beginners is mainly set, we're arguing a lot about gay marriage...or rather, a lot of us are still wondering why people are arguing. In time, we'll likely be embarrassed about the obstinate fight against gay marriage, just as we are about Bush's goof smile, or for that matter the things society found attractive and "normal" in the 1950s. The question Beginners might be asking – and it applies pertinently to the attitudes regarding homosexuality – is attached to why we hold onto Time in the present as if things never change, while erosion and evolution are happening all the time. Is it a coincidence that many of the same people (not all, mind you) against gay marriage don't even believe in evolution, or are "Strict Constructionists" when it comes to the United States Constitution? In Time, everything seems to breathe and communicate in its changing. We know that this is how Nature and Darwin work. But a strict adherence to Things As They Are only maximizes the birth pangs for new life, prolonging any grasp of sympathy or understanding.
Alexander Payne’s The Descendants is a comedy about evolution, its local story informed by the great Darwinian narrative of organisms and environments being shaped by time. Under time’s ponderous and yawning weight that slouches restlessly forward, the Earth and its tenants undergo change so gradual that extinction isn't sighted until the dwindling and final whimpers. In The Descendants, this applies to a man, a marriage, a nuclear family, a tribe, a state, a geographical locale, and a world. But the depression of things falling apart has a jester on its back. The world is equal turns comic and tragic as we try to make sense out of this huge, careless, chaotic, changing thing, making it tolerable by lying to ourselves and each other. A map shows Hawaii, a cluster of islands separate but grouped together. Matt King (George Clooney), whose family roots extend to King Kamehameha, narrates that his home state’s geography resembles his more pressing familial affairs: these islands are all “part of the same whole, but drifting slowly apart.” The analogy underlies the whole of Payne’s exquisitely tempered new film, which is a meditative answer of forgiveness to the guilt that tightly laced through his previous work, Sideways. Whereas the drunken, despicable, yet loveable men of Sideways were addicted to duplicity as a means of keeping the brutal present realities at bay (there’s a motif of rest being interrupted by a knock at the door or ringing phone, always with inconvenient news), The Descendents' Darwinian longview perspective reconciles present-day pressures of jealousy, hatred, and sadness to an acceptance of the flow of time.
The malaise of Matt’s life materializes after an accident involving his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), whose living will mandates that she be taken off life support. They had been growing distant, as he devoted himself to economic frugality and his work as a lawyer, while Elizabeth maintained the home base raising their two daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller). Elizabeth’s death imminent, Matt is faced with the strenuous work of setting things right at home. But he also must satisfy the desires of his cousins. For 150 years, the Kings have maintained control of lush Hawaiian wilderness, and Matt is pressured to sell the land to real estate developers, a move ensuring exorbitant riches for the already well-off (though spoiled and irresponsible) King clan. Matt’s in the tricky position of needing to please everybody: his bloodline, his grieving in-laws, the people of Hawaii, etc, and only he can make the decision to sell or maintain the ancestral land. “Paradise can go fuck itself,” he says of the outside world’s ideas about Hawaii, the vacation getaway where people are still capable of injury, misery, conquest, and being forgotten in time. During Matt’s opening words of crestfallen paradise, we see impoverished and indigenous faces of Hawaii, a Polynesian locale restructured as a getaway, a bastion of forgetfulness for tourists and residents alike. Matt's situation takes a devastating turn from sadness to insatiable anger, when Alexandra tells him Elizabeth was cheating on him - with the man who will be buying his family's ancestral property. He is a conquered man, the Kings a conquered tribe.
The Descendants contemplates, and beautifully accepts, the present’s link with an ancestry of forgotten voices and faces, whose imprint is there hidden in the grass and waves. The land doesn’t belong to Matt King; rather, he, like everyone else, belongs to it. Payne has a remarkable image of the jealous Matt sticking his head up over a mound of earth, spying on his adversary in the game of natural selection, his wife's lover Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). The funny composition pointedly shows Matt’s insignificance, which is the insignificance of all passionate people. But he endures. He still has tears for Elizabeth, the short-fuse of anger quelled by the great scheme of evolution. Appropriately for this film decorated by Hawaiian music, a form of the hula – ‘auana – apparently refers to “wandering” or “drifting.” And the final moments of The Descendants show the King family, a father with two daughters, watching the heart-tugging, anthropomorphic documentary March of the Penguins. Morgan Freeman’s narrator mentions “continental drift,” the great masses of land moving together and apart over millions of years. The conclusion resonates marvelously, as we may remember that the way Matt's children follow him on his journey is itself a march of Follow the Leader, hatchlings behind the Papa Bird. In Payne’s impeccable hands, The Descendants is a perfect microcosm for a universe that tries to make the best of an unreliable world of ceaseless movement, the centers unable to hold but always still drifting.
BRIDESMAIDS (Paul Feig)
But Bridesmaids, though produced by broh-comedy conglomerate Judd Apatow, is much more clever than The Hangover, or any of Apatow's own R-rated tributes to Animal House and Caddyshack; an annoying sincere utterance, "I did not know it was your diary, I thought it was a very sad hand-written book," is one such example of a movie that keeps on striking gold throughout its duration. Co-written by star Kristen Wiig of SNL fame, I was a little skeptical during the movie's raucous opening, where Wiig's 30-something underemployed single woman has intense sex with Mad Men's Jon Hamm in a variety of positions: this might be another girls night out affair where men aren't only tools, but they're the objects around which women construct an identity, much as we see in a Nancy Myers comedy (the wretched It's Complicated with Meryl Streep) or Sex and the City.
But Bridesmaids works wonderfully and has a identifying center onto which both men and women can find relation nowadays. As the anti-Sex and the City, Bridesmaids' high strung protagonist is more self-conscious of her class status than of her relationship status. She pulls in a $350 paycheck when her engaged best friend (Maya Rudolph) and the other bridesmaids discuss purchasing ornate gowns and taking a group trip to Las Vegas. There's a fear of being left behind while everyone else is on a carefree shuttle of prosperity. Rejected, exhausted, and panicked by the self-consciousness of aging, it's cathartic for me just to see Wiig speeding in her geriatric automobile while Hole's Live Through This blasts on the speakers. Chris O'Dowd plays a well-meaning cop who tries to kindle a romance with her, but when her attachment to Hamm's douchebag bachelor pulls up in front of him ("Hey fuck buddy!") in an expensive car, his reaction is my reaction (or Terri's reaction after seeing Heather and Dirty Jack in Terri): "Oh come on!" Again, the Occupy movement coincidentally has a resonance while watching this, as the gap between rich and poor is grossly off-putting.
And speaking of gross, while some may still prefer The Hangover, or dismal "broh" comedies like Horrible Bosses which are a little too hung up on our civilized repressions, in the hands of these women, crass comedy feels less smug and rib-nudgy. In literature, isn't Chaucer's earthy Wife of Bath funnier than most any other male character? I'm not saying Bridesmaids is Chaucer, but when R-rated comedies seems to be puttering out on their own excesses, this reinvigorates the guilty conscience in tip-top fashion.
CONTAGION (Steven Soderbergh)
Soderbergh's virus thriller is about our relationship to images and technology more than it is about apocalyptic pandemic. As shot, edited, and scored, it's an example of how mass-market genre films should be made, but won't be.
CARNAGE (Roman Polanski)
A chamber-piece that fits in nicely as a follow-up to his masterful The Ghost Writer, Carnage may feel at times like a filmed play, though like A Dangerous Method, Polanski's use of close-ups is impeccable. Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, and Christoph Waltz (absolutely terrific) engage in uncivilized debate. Maybe you have to agree with Polanski's pessimistic sensibilities to enjoy this comedy, and I kind of do; I never stopped grinning while watching it.
MELANCHOLIA (Lars von Trier)
I probably didn't love Melancholia the same way a lot of other critics did (it duels with Tree of Life atop most top-ten lists I've seen). There's something to doing an apocalypse scenario that's also a perverse wedding comedy. The controversial von Trier, whose Antichrist I loved more than this, comes out of his depression by destroying the planet, which was thrilling and beautiful to watch. The use of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde as the score indicates the death-drive pulsing through every frame.
Cedar Rapids (Miguel Arteta)
Moneyball (Bennett Miller)
Sourcecode (Duncan Jones)
The Ides of March (George Clooney)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
The Trip (Michael Winterbottom)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog)
Hanna (Joe Wright)
Win Win (Tom McCarthy)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)
Christopher Plummer in Beginners
Rooney Mara in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life and Take Shelter
Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life
Hunter McCracken in The Tree of Life
Christoph Walz in Carnage
Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn
Ryan Gosling in Drive
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip
Corey Stoll in Midnight in Paris
Brendan Gleeson in The Guard
Shailene Woodley in The Descendants
Michael Fassbender in Shame and A Dangerous Method
Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method
Viggo Mortensen in A Dangerous Method
Mel Gibson in The Beaver