Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Top Ten of the Aughts (Part II)

If I learned anything from making my list, it’s that it's hard to write a short blurb about a favorite movie. These films are my favorites precisely because their appeal can’t be reduced to four sentences. And while I can fill page after page with a film’s qualities, whatever I came up still feels insufficient. Like anything else, a favorite movie will grab me for reasons I’ll never truly understand.

Observing the list, I realize that as much as I can appreciate a good performance or the texture of a shot, I am drawn to good stories. There’s no getting away from it: without a good screenplay, you can’t make a good film. And, man, this decade had some bad movies. But as Hollywood continues to churn out remakes, sequels, and derivative garbage, it becomes clear that now more than ever there is a need for good stories well told.

Part I, #’s 10-6)

5. Sideways

Miles is a forty-something failed writer who teaches 8th grade English. He does the New York Times crossword on his steering wheel and casually inserts French into everyday conversation. He’s a wine snob who attends a few too many tastings. Recently divorced, he hesitates in making a move on Maya (Virginia Madsen) because, though interesting and attractive, “she works for tips.” Or is that just an excuse for his lack of confidence?

Though the complex Miles is perfectly observed by the writers and Paul Giamatti, his is a character incapable of advancing a plot; that distinction goes to the childish Jack, in a career performance by Thomas Hayden Church. Miles takes his soon-to-be-married buddy on a tour of California’s wine country, but Jack envisions a less sophisticated sendoff: getting both of them laid.

In doing so, Jack boosts Miles’ credentials, telling Maya that his novel is being published; and, obviously, Jack plays down his upcoming wedding while eying Maya’s friend Stephanie (Sandra Oh). Jack succeeds in his goal…and embarks on a fling that becomes more serious than it should. Miles and Maya tag along to complete the quartet, and as their relationship becomes more intimate, the lies become more and more difficult for Miles to live down.

Wow, the broad strokes of this film would hardly make it seem like a comedy, even though it contains some of the funniest moments I have ever seen. Some are in plot payoffs, like when Jack, who suffered a broken nose through his exploits, crashes Miles’ car into a tree to substantiate another lie. Some are in the interactions between Jack and Miles, and how we suspect Miles has maintained this friendship for the sake of validating a sense of superiority. Some are sight gags, as when Miles breaks into a house to reclaim Jack’s wedding ring and is chased down by a naked beast of a man.

Some people call this film depressing. Understandable. Essentially, it’s a film about characters coming to terms with who they are not, leaving them with less to veil their insecurities. But as they are pathetic at the beginning, at least they aren’t hopeless at the end.

4. The Lives of Others

The film begins with a member of the Stasi, Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), interrogating a suspected political prisoner. This scene is intercut with him teaching a class on interrogation methods. He uses a recoding of the interrogation, showing how the deprivation of sleep and repetitive questioning can effectively extract information from a prisoner. He stops the tape, adding commentary when necessary. The students write notes, judiciously. He might as well be teaching physiology.

It's rare for a film to have deep political resonance without skewing its argument with didactic heroes and villains. Wiesler is a nationalist with firm socialist ideals, believing in the GDP and the Stasi. As such, he bugs the apartment of playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) to protect the State. But in learning a committee member is having an affair with Dreyman’s actress girlfriend (she does so to avoid interference with her career), Wiesler realizes Dreyman’s imprisonment would rid the committee member of a rival.

A clear abuse of power, Wiesler’s same uncompromising sense of duty leads him to intervene in ending the affair. But as the intervention becomes more personal, he discovers the beauty in the couple’s relationship and realizes that is worth protecting.

This is a complete film with a meticulously plotted screenplay. Writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck provides authentic settings and gives attention to most minute detail, evoking a neorealist feel not unlike The Battle of the Algiers. All of this is strung together by an incredible performance from Ulrick Mühe, whose actions and mere facial expression rarely deviate from that of a calculating professional. So uncommon are his physical reactions that a simple frown commands the audience’s attention. Mühe allows the context of the story to dictate the emotions; consequently, it isn’t until the last frame when he says, “No, it’s for me,” that he is fully understood.

3. Adaptation.

This needs cleared up: just because a film can discuss screenwriting and Hollywood does NOT make it a good screenwriting resource. For an aspiring writer looking for a clear example, Charlie Kaufman’s non-linear screenplay about Charlie Kaufman writing a screenplay about Charlie Kaufman’s difficult adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief would hardly provide clarity
. If used as a teaching tool, it should be used to exemplify the apex of a craft.

Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) loves Susan Orlean’s book and embraces the idea of writing the world’s first film about flowers. Just flowers. No sex or drugs or car chases or underdogs overcoming huge obstacles. “The book isn’t like that and life isn’t like that. It just isn’t.”

Then what is life about? While unable to adapt the book, Charlie’s life entails complaining about things he should do, fantasizing about women he should hit on, and criticizing people he should not have to endure. Like his twin brother Donald, who one day declares, “I’m gonna be a screenwriter!” and conceptualizes a completely unfeasible thriller that eventually sells for a million dollars. The Orchid Thief, a beautiful composition without a story, is a validation of Charlie’s life…but it also serves as a mirror for his own shortcomings.

The film intercuts between Charlie’s struggles and Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). A writer for The New Yorker, Orlean ventures to Florida for a story about John Laroche (Chris Cooper), a
conservationist known for poaching rare orchids. He’s a fascinating individual whose intelligence escapes Orlean, who can’t get past his toothless grin and Southern twang; when she returns to New York for a cocktail party, all she can talk about is the smell and appearance of his truck. Orlean visits again. As he describes how a moth developed an elongated nose to pollinate a special breed of orchids, she becomes entranced by his passion and fulfillment…but realizes her own superficiality and emptiness.

While engaging and entertaining, Kaufman and Orlean’s stories show how the orchid exists not to accommodate but to make the moth adapt. How a two-hour film can tell such a story with no missteps, with subtle commentary on perception and racism, high-brow and low-brow cultures, New York and Hollywood, with moments that are tender and others that are hilarious, and still include sex and guns and car chases is beyond comprehension. Nicolas Cage effectively differentiates Charlie and Donald, and Spike Jonze magnifies all the humor and irony in the screenplay. But this one goes to Charlie Kaufman.

2. In America

This is a film that grabs you from the start.

An Irish family – Johnny (Paddy Considine), Sarah (Samantha Morton), and their two young daughters (Sarah and Emma Bolger) – drives across the Canadian border, hoping to move into the States illegally. Before hitting the border police, Johnny reminds his daughters, “Remember, we’re on holiday.” As an officer approaches the car, the girls quickly exclaim, “We’re on holiday!” The officer nods as he scans their passports. The youngest daughter, Ariel, a spark plug, adds, “Yeah! And my dad’s not workin’!” Several officers surround the car, asking rapid-fire questions.

Concerned, the oldest daughter, Christy, begins her narration of the film - her little brother Frankie once said she has three wishes; right now she wishes they get across the border. The officer scans their documents, “How many children do you have?” Three, Johnny replies. Two, Sarah corrects him. This confuses the officer. “It says three here.” Johnny replies, “Yeah. We, uh, lost one.” The officer looks at the hopeful faces, hesitates, and then smiles. “Welcome to America.”

The first scene, no longer than three minutes, foreshadows everything about the film. It’s a story with humor, despair, realistic complications, and elements of mysticism, that also manages to see the good in people.

Director Jim Sheridan shares credit for the screenplay with his daughters, Naomi and Kristen, inspired by their own immigration to America following the death of their brother, Frankie. This is understandable, as the film takes its time and moves naturally; it’s almost like a filmed journal of moving to Manhattan, watching it go from abrasive and scary to warm and inviting. What’s impressive is that something so organic can be orchestrated by such meticulous craft.

The family is poor. Johnny has failed his lone Broadway audition and, gallantly as he tried, was unable to air condition their sweltering apartment. Ariel is also sad, missing Ireland and her dad’s old playful spirit. To relieve the stress, the family goes to a carnival. An ET doll catches Ariel’s eye, and Johnny decides he’ll win it for her. The scene is so carefully constructed that what begins with Johnny playfully trying to please his daughter becomes about proving he can take care of the family or losing everything. How many films can effectively pull that off?

Even fewer are the films that mix such grim complications like AIDS and poverty with something as intangible as magic without being sentimental. And then there’s the emotional climax that shows little more than the movement of a hand. The film is filled with great performances and wonderful moments that continuously build without feeling manufactured. And when it’s all said and done, it shows the difficulty in letting go of the past, and the necessity of moving forward.

1. Almost Famous

At some point, everyone feels like an outsider.

William’s mother (Francis McDormand) has the family celebrate Christmas in October when it’s less commercialized. While his middle school peers grow facial hair, William stands a foot shorter. When he asks why, his mother informs him that he’s eleven, not thirteen. His sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel), fed up with the unorthodox lifestyle, leaves home to become a stewardess. She leaves William her record collection and looks into his eyes: “One day, you'll be cool.”

He wants to believe her.

Almost Famous is a story about how William (Patrick Fugit) at fifteen lands a dream job at Rolling Stone, then goes cross-county with the up-and-coming rock band Stillwater as he tries to score an interview with the elusive guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup). It’s a story about first
experiences and desperately trying to be cool - cool enough to belong in the rock ‘n’ roll community, to hang out with a band like Stillwater, to spark the interest of Penny Lane (Kate Hudson).

A great coming of age story, it’s about how William comes to realize he’s not cool…but who is? Penny Lane commands a room with her looks and charisma, hops seamlessly from band to band, and does it all without opening up, not even revealing her real name…but even she isn’t above heartbreak. Millions of Americans love Russell, who’s handsome, meets the likes of Bob Dylan, and can even unlock Penny Lane…but not even he can bullshit William’s mother. And then there’s the band as a whole, whose growing popularity has earned them the cover of Rolling Stone magazine…but they deny the facts of William’s story, as even they have insecurities about status and perception. Lester Bangs – played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as the poor man’s Obi-Wan Kenobi – observes it perfectly: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with somebody when you’re uncool.” And Lester is admittedly not cool.

Like any great movie, you remember the film for its moments. Like when Stillwater brings William backstage or when he deepens his voice on the phone for his editor. Or when Stillwater’s plane is about to crash, and the drummer breaks his silence - “Fuck it! I’m gay!” - only for the
plane to steady. Russell on the roof of a high school party: “I am a golden god!” The reconciliation of Anita and her mother – “I forgive you.” “I…never said I was sorry”. And, of course, when the inner conflicts plaguing the group are resolved as they sing along to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”.

Loosely based on Cameron Crowe’s own experiences, it’s a film that’s written without feeling written, where every character has a distinct point of view and the actors disappear in their roles. It’s a film of bright colors, a portrait of an America united to a soundtrack of Bowie and Zeppelin and Cat Stevens. It’s a film with a heart, embracing people for who they are.

William ends up getting his interview, but he asks his big question not as a reporter but as a star struck fan: “What do you love most about being a rock star?” And Russell leans forward, glowing like a child, “To begin with…everything.”

Same for this movie.

* * * * *

Best of the rest… The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Bowling for Columbine, City of God, Closer, The Dark Knight, Eastern Promises, Flags of Our Fathers, The Fog of War, Grizzly Man, Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, High Fidelity, A History of Violence, In Bruges, Intermission, Kill Bill: vol 1, Let the Right One In, Minority Report, No Country for Old Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, Rachel Getting Married, Requiem for a Dream, Shallow Hal, Shrek, Sin City, Slumdog Millionaire, The Squid and the Whale, Traffic, Wall-E, You Can Count on Me

No comments: