Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The Funny Things People See in Funny People

The Funny Things People See in Funny People

I got a copy of Funny People this week off of my Netflix cue. Funny People was the Judd Apatow movie (Apatow directed mega-hits The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up) released about a year ago in theaters, starring Adam Sandler as a comedian who, like Adam Sandler, made some movies many regard as terrible, and used to do stand-up comedy. It didn’t do very well in theaters, and currently has a slightly-above-average critical rating on Metacritic.com and Rottentomatoes.com. It made slightly less money in worldwide box office ($71 million) than it cost to make ($75 million), so is probably considered a bit of a failure.

I’ll get the obvious out of the way – I loved Funny People. Although you could rightly call The 40 Year Old Virgin one of the best, most important movies of the 2000s, Funny People is certainly as good, a more thoughtful and more ambitious movie that is, completely, about the depth of the people who try and make a career of being funny. That the movie is quite funny on occasion is also quite the bonus, though judging from reviews you’ve read, the movie is the height of floppy melodrama.

It’s not even that I loved Funny People or found it surprisingly funny. I’m fascinated by it. To me, this is the height of terrific filmmaking – of superb acting, excellent direction and staging, but most of all, amazing writing.

For a movie that seems so endlessly casual and off-the-cuff – it follows a world of stand-up comedians almost obsessively belittling each other’s insecurities – it would make sense that much of the dialogue wound up being improvised. I have no idea if that’s true or not. What I do know is this is still extraordinary writing. You can tell from the details.

Each character is a master of complexities. Its main character, George Simmons (Adam Sandler), is a popular movie star, but is sad and lonely… and also caustic, horny, unsympathetic…and charming, and hopeful, and occasionally very wise. That he’s played by Adam Sandler is its own stroke of meta-genius, but there are also his “movies” that have made him a star – Re-Do, where a grown man is re-incarnated into a baby (or something), and Merman, where a man turns into a mermaid. Are these movies meant to appear as “terrible”? Sure, and they do appear that way, but they also appear as important to fans, and children, who obsessively mimic the voices he made famous in this mirror-version of Hollywood.

Even the phrase “appear as terrible” is misleading, because truly, I don’t know what those movies are. They’re meant to be, I suppose, about as good as a Rob Schneider movie (he “turns into” things all the time. I’m mostly reminded, though, of the South Park parody in which Schneider turned into a stapler, in The Stapler). They are merely choices in Simmons’ career, something which has been undeniably successful, and which starred an undeniable comedic force.

As a man, his humor bites. His assistant Ira (Seth Rogen) is constantly, mercilessly belittled by George – but then, so is George, and everyone else. George hires Ira to help him write jokes and be his personal assistant as he attempts to “do more stand-up.” Some of his stand-up involves George on a piano singing something that isn’t at all funny, despite a couple of laughs, and the scene is revelatory in its conflicting interests – a need for an audience he can’t stand, an ability to fuck endless women who always leave him.

Like George and the movies he’s appeared in, the stand-up feels real too. It turns out, according to the Funny People Wikipedia page, it was all filmed in front of a live audience as actual stand-up would be. They feel like real jokes with real reactions by real audiences. That isn’t to say it’s all funny (some of it certainly is very funny), but it is, certainly, full of things you’d laugh at on a night out with drinks. The awkward moments play like awkward moments. The characters too seem like the types of people who would tell these jokes. Rogen’s Ira, towards the end, has a bit about how his friends watch beautiful women on television and say “I want to fuck her,” whereas he feels tempted to say something more apt to his own personality, “I want to pick her up from the airport.” As George says to him, “you seem more like the Ira I like in real life on stage” doing this act, and you’re apt to agree.

Ah, but that’s the beauty of these characters. There’s another lead I haven’t mentioned yet, which is the character of Laura, played by Leslie Mann. Laura was the girl that got away from George, and when she finds out he’s sick, it rekindles something in her. In fact, we expect this plot line from the moment we see her, but we don’t expect the turns it takes, the swiftness with which it gets there. The scene in which the two see each other again initially is full of tears and honesty, and anger, and absolutely ignites the movie around it with barely-hidden emotions. If this was supposed to be a conventional comedy arc, a scene like this shouldn’t happen until at least the 2/3 mark.

I realize I got this far without saying the main plot of the movie – which is about George discovering he has cancer, responding to an experimental treatment, and actually changing his life, but not really in a manner you’d expect. Interviews I’d read of the movie in which Apatow described the movie as about a person who gets shaken by this incident, but doesn’t really change. In fact, George does change, but also stays his cantankerous, sometimes awful, cutting, lonely self.

That’s true of Laura too, who has passion re-ignited, but finds its practicality harder to deal with. There is one scene that is truly hilarious, and is also deeply moving. In it, a lie propelling the action is exposed, and Laura must keep up the lie, or not, and in the meantime justify her actions to her aussie-himbo husband, Craig (Eric Bana)… by imitating his paltry justifications in an Aussie accent. What an extraordinary scene. The accent is terrible, and shifting, and so so sad. Watching it from the sidelines, George and Ira are as fixated on its lack of quality as they are on its content, and so are we. That the scene gives you both is a marvel, but it gives you a third layer of civility that’s finally being ripped between its characters, and, truly, it’s a scene of accomplished characterization, deft timing, and many many layers to the people at its center.

But why did people object to Funny People so much when I found endless things to rave about? First on the list of complaints was that it wasn’t funny. Well, I suppose there are less gross-out belly laughs than in The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but actually, I laughed in Funny People all the time. I don’t know if I’d ultimately call it a “comedy,” but that’s a problem of the limits of genre categorization, not the movie. To quote Roger Ebert’s review of a movie that was neither funny nor interesting, Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, “why do we have to be the cops enforcing these narrow rules of movie making?” Why indeed? Funny People is quite funny, and it has the power to be quite upsetting too. I’m not sure I even understand what benchmark it’s not living up to.

Because its humor often comes from the same place it did in Apatow’s previous two movies – from his same fey, monotone sarcasm as spoken between jovial friends trying to out-blasé each other. And also from the every day nature of the circumstances. The truth is, three years after seeing Knocked Up, the scene I remember laughing the hardest at was the one in which Kristen Wiig tells Katherine Heigl, in total monotone, that they should “hang out” sometime. The truth is, though the movie is less intended for big gutter laughs, I found the humor truer in Funny People than Knocked Up.

As for the other complaints? Reviewers have seized on the movie’s bleak outlook on life, its running time, and the length of time it devotes to its characters visit to Laura’s home in Marin County. Yes, it’s a long movie of characters often trounced by their choices in life, but I don’t know where I’d tell Judd Apatow to edit. I never found Funny People sluggish and found something to admire in every scene. From a screenwriting perspective, bits of plot dropped into a previous scene come up by slight reference in later scenes, so again, I don’t know that I’d have any practical editing suggestions. And the Marin County scenes – besides comprising nearly an hour of screen time – are the guts of the movie.

Those were the scenes in which I saw and believed that George could regret much of his life, wish for a better one, and still react the way a sometimes-scumbag does. Those were the scenes in which I could believe that Laura could be swept up in passion again only to reconsider her life, for better or for worse. Katherine Heigl complained of Knocked Up that the women were killjoys, painfully practical worrywarts while the men got to have all the fun and wish for more with their lives. Perhaps she’d find the same issue with Mann’s character here, except that I completely believed this person I saw on the screen.

Completely believed it, every second. This is the ultimate testament to the great writing and staging and acting I saw in Funny People. I believed that Laura was a person who used to be a sorta b-rate actress, perhaps appearing on Party of Five and commercials, that she was getting somewhere playing “the bitch” and that it never really went anywhere. I believed her husband could be casually cruel to her but actually be a horrible human being. And I believed that she believed she was getting someone different from George with him, and wound up with someone who’s the same. Sandler got very good press for his performance here (and he deserved even more better press, if not an Oscar nomination, but that’s a different conversation), but Mann too is outstanding. In life, you can look at a person and wonder if you understand what they’re thinking, and perhaps still feel hopelessly lost on the baffling complexities of their lives. The truest compliment of her work here is that I got it all – what she was thinking and what she wasn’t, what she told herself, and George, and Craig, and why she chooses what she chooses.

Is that bleakness on the moviemakers’ part? I don’t think so. Unlike, say, Revolutionary Road, I don’t think the movie is “saying” anything so bleak and angry about modernity, or our social world. If it “says” anything beyond its embodiment of character, it’s a sweet and only somewhat acidic moment at the Thanksgiving table, where George gives a cheers to everyone, saying that being with your friends, and being young are things to savor and love while you have them, and that getting old “kind of sucks.” Yet you look at him and think, he looks just as good as the 20-somethings he’s sitting with, he’s done things to remind him of how great life can be, and that life can be enjoyed by anyone willing.

Or to put it differently. One of George’s stand-up bits: “In your 20s, you look at old people and think, ‘I hate that, I don’t want to be like that.’ In your 30’s you think, ‘I hate the government! I hate politics!’ In your 40s, you think, ‘…I’m hungry.’” The triumph of Funny People is saying “I’m hungry.”

Monday, March 01, 2010

Oscars 2010: Good and Good For You!

The Oscars will be handed out this year on Sunday, March 7th. Among the winners will be a daytime talk show host, one evil motherfucker, the chick from Speed and The Net, and The Dude.

I think. After a busy year in which I started law school, I thought I’d managed to see most of the “big awards” movies, or at least movies during the year that got a great deal of press. I was impressed with myself, really. I mean, I love great movies and love nothing more than seeing something unexpected and honest and surprising.

But then I saw the Acting nominees. This year, they feature performances from 14 movies, 6 of which I’ve seen. So be it. I think I’m far above the national average, and the American population will be watching clips of movies they’ve absolutely never heard of later this year.

This is true even in a year with 10 Best Picture nominees. This move by the Academy – to move from 5 to 10 nominees – has been widely derided as a cheap ploy by the Oscars to lure in more voters by featuring more Blockbusters people care about. Well, the haters are right, but so what? Can you think of another way in which movies like District 9 and Up would be Best Picture nominees? The “Second 5” of the Best Picture race truly had no script, and the nominees were as unpredictable, wide-ranging and occasionally-very-good as the world of movies in 2010.

In any case, my picks for the races:

Best Supporting Actor:
Will and Should Wind
: Christoph Waltz Inglourious Basterds
Great performances not nominated: Zachary Quinto Star Trek
I really don’t have much to add to this category besides Zachary Quinto’s complicated, short-fused Spock in Star Trek that, I think, was the real acting surprise in a terrific movie that featured many. This is the category I know the least about – I’ve not seen The Messenger, The Lovely Bones, The Last Station, or Invictus. Have you? I’m willing to guess the combined grosses of those movies pale next to the gross of Inglourious Basterds. And, in any case, Waltz’s Hans Landa - who seems, at times, a sharper Hannibal Lecter – clearly gives the performance least likely to leave your brain. If only because you’ve actually seen the movie.

Furthermore, the other “passed over” actors discussed in this category were as uninspiring as the other nominees. Alfred Molina in An Education was a competently acted saint-parent role in a movie that can only surprise you with how many times you feel like you’ve seen it in other movies without quite being able to name which movie it most reminds you of. That’s true also of Peter Sarsgaard in that movie, whose lot in life seems to be being passed over each year for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. I heard Christian McKay was supposed to be nominated for a movie I’ve barely heard of called Me and Orson Welles, but I wouldn’t know Christian McKay if he slapped me in the fact right now.

Best Supporting Actress:
Will and Should Win
: Mo’Nique Precious
Great Performances Not Nominated: Diane Kruger and Melanie Laurent Inglourious Basterds, Paula Patton Precious
Up In The Air scored that rare double feat of having two Supporting Actress nominees for Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga. I’ve been a fan of Farmiga for some time now, as, it sounds like, much of the acting community has, since her heralded, underseen performance in Down To The Bone as a small-town cokehead. The woman is fearless, and actually that fearlessness truly did underscore the tougher parts of her charming Up In The Air performance. Anna Kendrick, with her mouthy, fast, deluded, sweet performance in Up In The Air, as well, more than earned her nomination. By this point in the Oscar season, though, you’re aware of the power of Mo’Nique’s performance, right? It’s fine to let this part of the Precious praise-wagon run its course. I truly believe the performance will inspire others to truly go into their characters, no matter how dark or upsetting they are, and even more – to love them for their humanity.

On the other side, I would’ve loved if Precious was a double nominee here too, as Paula Patton’s do-gooder teacher here probably elicited the most tears of anyone in the movie (and that’s saying a lot – I cried several times in Precious, but more about that later). Same goes for Inglourious Basterds’ two powerful, central women. In my praise here, I think that would lead to a category of 6 nominated women for 3 movies, none of whom are Penelope Cruz (nominated for Nine). So be it. Did anyone actually go see Nine? I hear it’s terrible, but I’d like to see how 8 ½ becomes a musical. Plus Cruz’s legs looked fantastic in the trailer. Also, I’ve heard from several people that Maggie Gyllenhaal is actually distractingly bad in Crazy Heart, which I regret I haven’t seen, though from afar it reminds me of a less interesting version of Tender Mercies.

Best Actor:
Will and Should (?) Win:
Jeff Bridges Crazy Heart
Great Performances Not Nominated: Algenes Perez Soto Sugar, Souleymane Sy Savane and Red West Goodbye Solo
As I said, I haven’t seen Crazy Heart, but I think Jeff Bridges is an extraordinary actor great in everything, so I’ll trust the consensus that he’s terrific. May I recommend seeing 2004’s The Door In The Floor, which I likely would have voted him for Best Actor were I an Oscar voter, and were he nominated… and were he nominated in that fantasy scenario against Jamie Foxx in Ray. In any case, I’m willing to assume that Bridges is more deserving than the two performances I have seen – George Clooney in Up In The Air and Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker.

From the press I’ve read, Morgan Freeman sounds interesting in Invictus and Colin Firth “heartbreaking” in A Single Man. I’m sure this is true, we have very talented actors in movies nowadays. Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that we seem to reward only known-named actors for slumming it and playing “ordinary,” yet when indie movies use non-professional actors who effortlessly play “ordinary” people, we assume they’re just going about their daily routine. Yet if you were to watch Perez in Sugar or the two stars of Goodbye Solo, your hearts would ache for them, you’d be fascinated by their every smile, facial gesture, choice, and movement. In fact, it is their lack of apparent effort that is the mark of their amazing gifts. Their movies are both extraordinarily moving and communicative – better, I dare say, than Up In The Air and The Hurt Locker, which are both very good movies. Would it be so wrong for such performances to earn Oscar nominations?

Best Actress:
Will Win
: Sandra Bullock The Blind Side
Should Win: Meryl Streep Julie and Julia
Great Performances Not Nominated: Tilda Swinton Julia, Zooey Deschanel 500 Days of Summer
Well, this is to be the year of Bullock’s coronation, joining the ranks of Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, and Renee Zellweger as actors who formerly did serviceable junk, proved their capabilities in more serious work, won Oscars, and can return to making, largely, serviceable junk. Well perhaps that’s unfair – Witherspoon was a great talent in much of her junk, as was Zellweger prior to winning her Oscar for Cold Mountain, which, frankly, she deserved, despite revisionist questioning from a weird legion of undying Shohreh Agdalshoo fans. I haven’t seen The Blind Side, and unless it’s on at my grandparents’ house 20 minutes in (so I can’t convince them to change the channel), I’ll probably never see it.

Streep, of course, deserves an Oscar every year. I loved her in Julie and Julia, perhaps slightly less than I loved her a year earlier in Doubt and wish she’d kept Kate Winslett at bay for another year, but Winslett is truly a gift to all acting, so it’s hard to whine too much about that. Their competition is interesting, I suppose. Gabourey Sidibe in Precious provides exactly what I described a moment ago as wanting to see – a refreshing, lived-in performance that is the definition of effortless acting. I hope she continues to act for years, but fear that this may be it for her. Carey Mulligan, on the other hand, is likely to have people begging to cast her. It’s strange, because An Education seems to me as though it might have been called A Movie We Want To Be Nominated For Oscars. When it ended, I felt one emotion – anger for seeing movies so supposedly “good for me” that are about themes handled better elsewhere for decades.

Not nominated, I think, is truly the best performance of the year – Tilda Swinton in Julia. This is a woman that can do anything, and unfortunately, her indie movie was seen by even less people than have seen The Last Station (which is also nominated in this category, for its performance by Hellen Mirren, who I’m sure is dignified and captivating). Julia is a truly gripping character-driven thriller in which one train wreck of a woman becomes all there is that we can trust. I don’t want to say too much about the plot because I truly wish that you would see it and get hooked on its surprises and turns. I’ll just say that she is an alcoholic in the movie, and a deeply selfish person, and that you have hopes for her that are as real as they would be for any character you’ll remember rooting for.

Best Director:
Will Win:
Kathryn Bigelow The Hurt Locker
Should Win: Quentin Tarantino Inglourious Basterds
Should be nominated: Rahman Bahrani Goodbye Solo, Neil Blomkamp District 9, Wes Anderson Fantastic Mr. Fox, J.J. Abrams Star Trek
Look, I want to not shit on the Oscars the year that they’re about to give the first female an Oscar for directing. Good for them. I wish, of course, they’d extended diversity in a different direction this year and rewarded a true visionary, Bahrani, who evokes poetry out of what appears to be DV, hand-held simplicity. I wish they looked to people with voices, like Blomkamp and Anderson, and – and I’ll get to Avatar in a minute – big style action that truly blows you away, by which I mean Star Trek.

The Hurt Locker is very good. Avatar is very good, and truly is the first movie designed be soaked in using the 3D format, for which, if it should win any category, it’s this one. What a vision to pull off, James Cameron is truly a distinguished director. I also very much enjoyed Up In The Air and cried a lot at Precious, which sort of makes me resent it. Tarantino, to me, is the filmmaker with a voice, the real deal who – like we allege of Cameron – keeps proving himself by delivering top quality movies. No one expected Inglourious Basterds to be as extraordinarily compelling as it is, a tense tête-à-tête in one fiery conversation after another. Funny, deeply entertaining, entirely gripping. This is Tarantino at his finest, and – to invoke an age-old Oscar argument – he’s a deeply important director who has affected movies and never won. Let’s give him one while he still deserves it.

Best Picture:
Will Win:
The Hurt Locker
Should Win: District 9
Should be nominated: Star Trek, Julia, Goodbye Solo, Paranormal Activity, Fantastic Mr. Fox
Yup, those are the nominees I would choose if I had to get up to 10, along with some group of the ones nominated. Still, given all of that, I would pick District 9, my best argument for why the 10-nominees thing is a great idea. What an original, gripping, completely innovative movie. I remember looking at my friend 20 to 30 minutes in the movie and saying “I have absolutely no idea what is going to happen in this movie.” None. I didn’t know if the aliens were going to break out in a musical number. You spend so much of the movie wondering what kind of movie you were even in – is this satire? A mockumentary? Sci-fi? A zombie movie?

The point is that District 9 to me proves how great we are at making movies. All of those expectations only make the real unpredictability of the movie more satisfying. You find yourself invested in aliens, in the people hunting the aliens, believing in places you’d never find yourself believing. For a while the movie seems ridiculous, but then you think, well these things happen in the world all the time – why wouldn’t we react this way if there were aliens? I’ve heard people say to me, whining, that it’s just a movie telling us to be nice to other cultures. I disagree, it simply chronicles the many ways humans react to things that are unknown to them. It chronicles our responses and behaviors, yet uses them to tell a taut, mesmerizing thriller. There’s absolutely nothing like it, and it towers above some very very good movies it’s nominated against.

Should I talk about those? I suppose my opinions on Precious, Avatar, An Education, Inglourious Basterds, and The Hurt Locker are up in this list somewhere. They’re all quite good. I could be a little more explicit about Up In The Air, which is very timely and competent, though I admit I know I was supposed to fall in love with it and never quite got there. Up is wonderful… but also gets a little “so what” as it keeps going, though I love its creativity and emotion. I haven’t seen A Simple Man but probably will at some point. The Blind Side is a likely terrible movie I’m glad is nominated – my grandmother loved it, and some movie should represent the Grandmothers of the world if movie geeks like me get District 9 listed in the Top 10.

So there are my picks for this year. We made a lot of great movies in 2009 and have a lot of great talent who will pick up Oscars. At the end of the day, that means there is probably less to whine about than you’d think.

Note: One category I have to put in another word about is Best Animated Short Film. A great, great 17 minute movie called "Logorama" is nominated, and I’ll cheer very loudly if it wins.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Synecdoche Syndrome

The Synecdoche Syndrome

It took Roger Ebert declaring it the best movie of the 2000s, but I have finally seen Charlie Kaufmann’s Synecdoche, New York. Have you heard of it? It made around $4 million domestically, which doesn’t quite recoup its $20 million budget, or even properly pay for the massive set-within-a-set that creates the movies meta-textual centerpiece.

While Ebert and other critics are certainly big fans, that gross suggests it didn’t connect elsewhere. My beloved film critic sage Owen Gleiberman led the brigade of Synecdoche haters on its release, giving the movie a D+, stating, essentially, he wanted to give up on the movie and declare the whole thing “the structure of psychosis.”

More than that, though, Gleiberman – an extraordinary writer always beholden to his viewpoint – seemingly reacted this strongly based on what he perceived others’ responses to be, and accurately predicted (not that anyone would really do otherwise) that a cadre of “eggheads” would declare the movie a masterpiece. Certainly Ebert believes so. Humble as ever, Ebert stated that he saw the movie a first time, “believed it to be a great movie, and that I had not mastered it.” Interesting viewpoint.

Ebert’s sense of the movie has more of a grasp of contemporary standards over all. When is a movie allowed to be a confusing masterpiece, rather than just confusing? We all know 2001 was released to baffles in 1969, but enough people were able to get behind that to make it now considered a classic. What about the career of Ingmar Bergmann, who essentially popularized the pretentious, challenging film? Reading Ebert’s comments, I was reminded that so many of these artists of difficult, important movies were not always considered to be such forward-thinking geniuses – those movies too had to be released and reacted to. Likely that initial reaction was bafflement.

My reaction to Synecdoche is sort of bafflement, but sort of that it wasn’t quite worth the bother. As a declared “love it or hate it” movie, it gives an ample amount of ammunition to each side. There are scenes that are cracklingly fun in Synecdoche, and touches of absurdity that make you appreciate the ability of a movie to travel in its own weirdness. There’s the house Samantha Morton’s Hazel lives in, which is always on fire, prompting Hazel to voice concern, like 20 years before her death (who can keep track of this timeline anyway), that she’s concerned about “dying in the fire.” Instead, the house feels cozy, and ridiculous. There are the hilarious scenes with Hope Davis as a rather terrible psychologist who attempts to sell her book Getting Better to her clients for $40 and writes in one unrelated bit of pep vagueness after another – a run in between her and protagonist Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) on a plane is memorably demented and puzzling. I also loved its time-keeps-on-rapidly-ticking-away pace that makes the years sweep by, which reminded me, in its way, of the David Chase-directed final episode of The Sopranos. Then too monumental events seemed to be going by, like life does, before we could even get a good grasp of them.

There are moments too, through the nuttiness, that something interesting and deeply true is hit upon. Caden asks Hazel, somewhere 10ish years past their failed romance, to look at him as she once did, with love and awe. It’s a theme of the movie that people are adept at ruining each other’s pristine images of one another. That idea is ripe for a movie, and actually, despite its logical jumping jacks, Synecdoche comes at that theme with admirable clarity.

But then, there are also scenes that seem rather obsessed with saying something, I don’t know what it is, about obsessing over a few characters’ sexuality. Or the stuff about Jungian psychology. There’s that play within the play and the set within the set and the play within the play within the play. I have to list some of these things out to make sure they were there at all. Plus I have to think no one would write a character named Millicent Weems without that name signifying… something. In describing the movie, Kaufmann said he wanted to move away from gimmicks like "mind portals and memory erasing" - describing, of course, his deeply-accessible-by-comparison scripts of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Well, I hate to point out to him that his "gimmicks" are what work best for him - the burning house is a gimmick, so is Davis's wacky psychology book. In effect, his "play," given more attention, might be a great gimmick in itself.

Watching Synecdoche and trying to describe it with the same approach as other movies is rather tiring and unwise. Yet most movie reviews stick to just that, strangely. Says Emily Rems of Premiere: “At turns as neurotic and nebbishy as any Woody Allen flick, as creepy and disorienting as your favorite "Twilight Zone" episode, and as steeped in magical realism as the most moving Márquez novel, Synecdoche may not be the feel-good date movie of the year.” Ok then. Or Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, “As a director, Kaufman isn't yet his own best salesman. He's not enough of a visual stylist to sell his script's most challenging conceits. But the cast rises to a very strange and rich occasion.” Well that’s clear then. This is like a disorienting Woody Allen movie with a good cast. So, it’s like Melinda & Melinda then?

Well, actually, I guess it sort of is like Deconstructing Harry, which I assume is the “Woody Allen flick” that Rems attempts to make a trend out of in that sentence by adding the word “any.” In that movie, characters drift in and out of a characters’ mind and are replaced by their fictional counterparts. What he dreams comes true. Actually, now that I think about it, I should buy me a copy of Deconstructing Harry; what a terrific movie.

There is a scale of what these movies that are “difficult” and “puzzling” must sit on. On one end, you have the junk – the Ranaldo and Claras or Inland Empires, bits of brain-scrambling randomness that pretend an overriding concept unifies its spasticness and makes up for how numbing the experience of watching it is (both mentally and physically – I can’t remember when my ass fell asleep in Inland Empire). On the other end, you have Wild Strawberries and Mulholland Drive and 8 ½ and Robert Altman’s 3 Women – movies that are strange and exciting and unusual and reveal beautiful, well crafted layers underneath their prickliness.

Synecdoche, I think, is somewhere shy of the middle there, meandering ever slightly to the junk side of the scale. Or so I thought. I suppose I like the opportunity to think about life and what happens in our world, and like a movie speaking in its images and ideas and not worrying about what “sense” it makes. Altman says he wrote 3 Women transcribing a dream he’d had the night before. What’s that movie about? Why, a woman who infiltrates another woman’s life, or a painted swimming pool, or maybe the delusions and shifting alliances shared by women, who are all acting out roles in each other’s worlds. Something like that. Actually, I rewatched 8 ½ the day after I saw Synecdoche, and I think it launches the best defense for that movie. In a spa, Guido, 8 ½’s main character, gets spoken to by a fat writer he walks down a set of stairs with. “You’re dealing with the complexities of the human mind, you should at least be clear about it.” Fellini clearly has little patience for this mindset.

And why should he? Life, our minds, are a mess, after all. Movies and writing can get at a portion of it. The brilliance of 8 ½ is that it is, in fact, so lucid and well conceived an evocation of the difficulty to reflect life and wonder in art, to express what is actually true. The calling card (or, my favorite quote) of that movie is a line by its wandering critic: “It is better to destroy than to create what is inessential.” Fellini no longer wanted to tell a boy-meets-girl story and instead wanted to focus on what really drives us and exists in our minds.

Synecdoche has probably received more comparison to 8 ½ than any other movie. If so, Charlie Kaufmann should be very flattered. 8 ½, derided by its detractors as a movie which flailingly tells the story of a director flailing, is actually the most lucid movie ever conceived about writers block, or artistic stagnation, or why we do what we do. Synecdoche, by never quite giving limits or sense to its central play, is never really about art, or at least it has very little interest in the “art” concept except as something marginal, like that burning house.

But again, here I go trying to define the rules that Synecdoche broke in order to prove it as a less than worthy movie. It’s just too damn much work for the thoughts you get out of it. Now, I love movies that make me work. I’m up for the job. But for this? Synecdoche is sort of like a long conversation with your very smart, sad friend over drinks – which is to say like any drunken ramble, it hits home once in a while. But have you really not had these thoughts before? Which ones can Synecdoche claim as its own?

These are the questions Synecdoche really makes me ask. I love movies that make me question my world, our approach to seeing it, movies whose ideas and approaches make me want to experience them over and over again. Yet is it doing nothing but using themes of man’s ultimate unhappiness in the world as a justification for a rambling incoherent movie, or the other way around? I guess I simply mean that these senses, as any good writing professor would tell you, need to be reined in a little. And thinking so doesn’t make you incapable of deep thought.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Green Day: Know Your Enemy

I had a thought about Green Day winning a Grammy yesterday for Best Rock Album for 21st Century Breakdown. In a way, this is unsurprising – Green Day won their first Grammy for Dookie back sometime in the mid-90s (some things in my pop culture sponge mind stay put – I can say with certainty that they won the Best Alternative Album there in 1996, announced on stage by Melissa Etheridge), and the Grammy win this week merely cements the band’s incredible ability to have managed sustaining life in the pop-punk form.

One only needs to look at the past 15 years or so in music since Dookie – from Blink 182’s dumbasses-with-tattoos-and-shimmying-pop-melodies to the no-jet-black-hair-out-of-place emergence of emo bands 5 years ago, Green Day, all of whom are now in their 40s, clearly have done what they do very successfully.

But I feel the need to voice my sort of objection to 21st Century Breakdown and also reaffirm my love for it. A couple of months ago, I named Green Day’s American Idiot the best album of the 2000s, a judgment I very much stand by. Actually it was an album only a Green Day could pull off. It was a last stand for albums that absolutely must be heard straight through, from beginning to end. It was full of righteous, compelling, intoxicating anger, and in anthems like “Holiday,” no rational person could possibly hear the song and argue that their defiance wasn’t totally compelling. Yet the album was also pop shined to perfection, its biggest hit, “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” featured not a yell or grunt in sight and succeeded on the very solemn nature of its melody. Hearing that American Idiot was being adapted into a Broadway musical then (the performers of which joined Green Day on stage at the Grammy’s for “21 Guns”) should not be a bit surprising – the band even spoke of West Side Story as one of their key influences.

Well, 21st Century Breakdown seems to be a massive success, showing the success of American Idiot to be far from a fluke. But 21st Century Breakdown, I know American Idiot, I’ve loved American Idiot, and you, sir, are no American Idiot.

Which isn’t to say 21st Century Breakdown is without charm. Actually, it suffers from an overabundance of the ambition of American Idiot. American Idiot, an old-school concept album a la Tommy succeeded in spite of its tendency towards grandiloquence. If anything flagged in the album, it was the plot-heavy songs the like of “Extraordinary Girl” that purported to “tell” us something about its “characters.” Still, considering the energy around it, the song was never such a drag as to hurt the album, and indeed, some of these “plot” songs yielded moments of spitfire triumph, like the speed-metal “St. Jimmy” and the transporting “Letterbomb.”

21st Century Breakdown is absolutely, deadeningly weighed down by its sense of story. Is there a story? It alleges to take place in three parts, introduces a chick named Gloria, calls her the “last of the American girls,” rallies against a Christian’s inferno, and winds up, I don’t know, giving a eulogy to America or something. Yet I just described the 4 or 5 worst songs on the record, which already has 15 damn songs. And try as it might, not a one of them is as good as “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” or “Holiday.”

Let me pause for a second to talk about “21 Guns” and my sadness at how much I hate “21 Guns.” I cannot, still, every time I hear this song not think about another song it reminds me of – Heart’s “What About Love.” That song, full of theatrical keyboard bombast, is the type of song only someone who, like me, was a child in the late 80s and early 90s could love. It’s fun and cheesy and ridiculous and impossible not to sing along to. Heart, remade in the 80s, is everything to love about the 80s. “21 Guns” pretends to be a punk ballad, which should be a form Green Day knows a lot about as they basically perfected the form on their last album with “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” “21 Guns” sucks. I understand that Billie Joe Armstrong wanted to put in a song about when to give up, wanted to fill it with bombastic resignation, and wanted it to be resonant in spite of itself. It is, however, not especially good at that.

Actually bombastic resignation is not Armstrong’s strong suit. This is what I mean about the part o f21st Century Breakdown that I love. I think there’s a good album hiding inside of it, one full of the type of pissy, easy to swallow anger the band has always made its strong suit, and it would’ve been a terrific record if he’d ignored absolutely everything else. Let me start with that other single of Green Day’s from the record that everyone maligns – “Know Your Enemy.” Try as I might to listen to why this song is terrible, I think it’s extraordinary. Two chords, firingly loud, not overly complicated, ridiculously catchy – this is a pop-punk masterpiece. This is, in fact, the album’s best contender to stack up to “Holiday.” Or maybe that’s “East Jesus Nowhere,” or “The Static Age,” or “Horseshoes and Hand Grenades,” despite that song getting bogged down in a plot-bound chanting of “G-L-O-R-I-A” that’s pretty annoying.

There’s one other very good song on the record, and it is, in fact, the exact type of power ballad that “21 Guns” shoots the moon on becoming. The song, “Last Night On Earth,” is tuneful and pretty, but actually it’s the exact opposite of “21 Guns” – thematically at least. “If I lose everything in the fire,” Armstrong sings, “I’m sending all my love to you.” Or so I think of it at least. Ones song is about knowing when resignation is appropriate, the other about refusing to resign. I hope it surprises no one to learn that the Green Day I love is much better at the latter.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Best Movies of the Decade

I've been thinking long and hard about it, and rewriting a list. Perhaps that is too much thought, but a person, a writer, can only be true to what he thinks. This is the best I got - these are the movies that most excited, moved, surprised me the last ten years. I no longer care about being representational or talking about movies I thought were "significant." Some of these movies are on others' lists, some are not, but the sensation was the same - watching each of these movies, something struck me that I loved, something I hadn't seen before or couldn't remember when I'd seen. There are maybe 100 others this decade that were outstanding, but these ten (or, I guess technically, 14) are the ones I remember the overwhelming experience of the whole thing.

The Top Ten Movies of the 2000s:

1. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)

Let me describe what watching Eternal Sunshine did for me in 2004. I stood up in the theater, near the end, as Jim Carrey nearly allowed Kate Winslett to walk away forever. I yelled "What are you doing?! Go after her!" I never felt a love story like this that looked at the inevitability of the failure of human interactions over time, but fell on their side anyway. It reminded me of the end of Annie Hall and of nothing, I had never seen anything like it. It could only be made in our time, and yet, it is timeless.

2. I'm Not There (2007)

The height of esoteric moviemaking, yet for those initiated, it's completely unequaled. Do you learn about Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes' fake-named, expressionistic, occasionally dream-speak creation of what Dylan's denunciation of identity is? No, I suppose - I knew enough going in and filled in the story with the "truth" I knew. But yes, in that I learned about identity, the quest for who we are and how we see ourselves. Some scenes are beautiful, some are puzzling, some are unmistakably sad and lonely. In some, "Dylan" (or, whoever he's being called at the moment) rejects all we thought we knew of him. Yet do we not feel the same pull sometimes? To see meaning in our moments and yet feel the need to change into someone else entirely? To me, leaving I'm Not There as though I was in a different world, I felt as though I no longer understood who we were, and that I was closer to understanding.

3. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)

You sit in The Return of the King and you think "I cannot remember seeing a story like this." That is if you can stop watching, if you're no longer drawn to the screen. For that, I cannot just single out Return of the King. The friendship of Fellowship of the Rings and battle of The Two Towers are essential too. I never read a word of JRR Tolkein, but the movies speak to me of what is important about him. This is what happens when every weapon in a filmmaker's arsenal is employed correctly.

4. What Time Is It There? (2001) and Yi Yi (2000)

I love movies about watching others, and I combine these two because they're a brand of Taiwanese movies that simply observe. In Tsai Ming-Laing's What Time Is It There? they observe the sensation of loss, of disconnection, of feeling without understanding of the movements and ease of everyone else, of wondering what others' experiences could possibly mean, because ours, well, we're not sure about those. Edward Yang's Yi Yi is, perhaps, more "story" oriented, but it too is about observing how others interact, and make sense of the world. More humanist and less speculative, Yi Yi is about the way we can love everyone, even if they do not love each other, or if they act in ways we cannot condone.

5. Amelie (2001)

I looked at my friend Melinda while watching Amelie in Boulder at a theater that no longer exists. I have not spoken to her now in several years. It was at the end of the first sequence, which introduces us to characters by going through their purses, telling us the things they like to do, pointing the camera to the sky and telling us the shapes they see in the clouds. I couldn't remember smiling like that, perhaps ever, and maybe I still don't. She felt the same, and the feeling, the beautiful, floating feeling came with you out of the theater. Jean-Pierre Jeunet's movie is a love song to movies, and to happiness itself.

6. Mulholland Drive (2001)

I was willing to give up on Mulholland Drive, too, but then I read a piece about an interpretation of the movie, and then another. Pieces started to gain clarity to me. My father told me of his interpretation, so I would watch it again. I would marvel at the pieces I could no longer fit into what was now my own interpretation of the movie. There are scenes I love that I perhaps think I know what they "mean," but it's the spell I love. A man at a diner who speaks of a dream, then the dream exists. The old couple in the cab whose disturbing smile never ceases. Naomi Watts talking in lonely honesty while no one listens at a later dinner. David Lynch truly made his masterpiece with Mulholland Drive, and truthfully, it's the movie we'll all remember him for.

7. Kill Bill, vol. 1 and 2 (2003-2004)

I think my favorie scene in all of the Kill Bill movies is the opening scene in Kill Bill 2, the black and white western moment when Bill, playing a flute, speaks to his bride with a wide smile. He knows what he's there for, and to an extent, so does she. As her fiance comes outside, she whispers for him to call her another name, and he does. Or is my favorite scene the brilliant unbroken shot in Kill Bill 1 that Tarantino repeated in Inglourious Basterds when the camera goes up the stairs, down, into the kitchen, around, to the bathroom, and back up? Or is it when Beatrix's hand, bruised from Pai Mei's tutelage, eats her rice, and learns to form itself again? Or is it when Lucy Liu kicks off her shoes into the snow before her battle with Bea? I never want to have to decide, I only want to see them all again.

8. All The Real Girls (2002)

Some scenes in David Gordon Green's All The Real Girls last only a few seconds, yet you know the hours of which they encompass. A woman tells her friends at a party about a guy she's started dating. Those two stand outside of a door and speak, obliquely, about the night they just had. A man fights with his mother, who is in clown makeup, about his breakup and his sadness. All The Real Girls is, like Eternal Sunshine, about love, but it's also about who we are, and what we give to others in our life, how they change us. It creates its own context by being precise to the moments that may have had beginnings and endings, but shows that the moments that occurred in the middle - the smiling, the honesty - were what mattered.

9. 25th Hour (2002)

I have seen 25th Hour three times, and each time I remember, at the movie's end, just how powerful it is. Monty (Ed Norton) is driving to prison by his father (Brian Cox), who speaks to him of a long, glorious alternate world in which he doesn't drive Monty to prison, but instead helps him escape, somewhere far away. He speaks of the life he has, of reuniting with his love Naturelle (Rosario Dawson). It is so achingly beautiful that we think, this must be what happens. Yet we know, with the deliberateness of the previous day that we've seen that nothing that beautiful could possibly happen. 25th Hour also speaks of New York after September 11th, and many, writing about it at the end of the decade, focus on this. That is part of it, but it is the part that emphasizes Monty, not necessarily Monty that emphasizes New York. 25th Hour is one of Spike Lee's greatest movies because of the humanity of his gaze.

10. Donnie Darko (2001)

Almost a synechdoche for all things cloyingly "indie" and hipster in the decade, Donnie Darko, pre-director's cut, has some of the most riveting, funny, enrapturing loopy storytelling you can remember. The director's cut, perhaps, shows Richard Kelly's true stoner philosopher spirit, but Darko hides that just enough to keep the metaphysical tantalizing and emphasize a story of truth and sacrifice underneath. A true post-Tarantino modern classic, Donnie Darko doesn't need to make sense to work, it simply needs to leave you rapt and puzzled at once.

And if I had to pick ten more, they might be...
Junebug, Brokeback Mountain, Michael Clayton, Pan's Labyrinth, The Bourne Supremacy, Talk to Her, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Requiem for a Dream, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The New World

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Best of 2009 - The "Real" List

Every year, I like to take a minute to think back and discuss the most important works that I read or heard or saw over the past year, regardless of when they came out or what the rules that govern lists are. Each year, you encounter things that strike you, move you, that weren’t in your life a year earlier. What a year it was for me. I lost my father and started law school. I became busy, and had moments of doubt and darkness. In a way, none of these works reflects that darkness, though maybe I could have included Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell,” which I spoke about at my father’s funeral, or Joni Mitchell’s “The Wolf That Lives In Lindsay,” which inspired me to write about the darkness that lurks in us all. Maybe that would be the most honest way to write.

Instead, I had to speak to what is truest to myself, and this year, the things that brought me joy were what meant the most to me. The songs of Yeah Yeah Yeahs that were aggressive and dancy, punky and sweet, dark and light. The books that spoke of artists experimenting at the fringes. The tears and honesty of extended world of Yi Yi, Prince on stage, and a remembrance of all the great music of this decade. This is what I felt this year, this is what I saw myself in.

1. “Zero,” “Heads Will Roll,” “Softshock,” “Skeletons” Yeah Yeah Yeahs
I had had Yeah Yeah Yeahs on my iPod and even loved a song or two of theirs, but I didn’t really hear Yeah Yeah Yeahs until I saw them at Sasquatch over Memorial Day. There, all the rumored charisma of Karen O on stage, I realized, had been massively understated. On stage she’s a god, she’s totally transfixing, bringing ferocity and context to the primitivity of each song. She’s this generation’s Prince or Bowie.

Still, it’s as though this only set the stage for the ascension of all of the great Yeah Yeah Yeahs music to join my iPod. By the time my iPod crashed in October, there were 10 songs of theirs in my Top 30 most played, and in the top 4 were these, the first four tracks on this year’s It’s Blitz, the songs that absolutely defined my year. From the energy of “Zero,” the dance defiance of “Heads Will Roll” and the soft lycra-led dance ebullience of “Softshock,” you see a side of YYYs you never would have predicted but seemed to be there all along – the part that embraced the dancing, synth-raised pop lover in all of us. “Zero” is a song that must be blasted, and was, I think, the song of the summer. “Heads Will Roll,” which opened that Sasquatch performance, capitalizes on all of Karen O’s aggression only to command you to “dance til you’re dead.” “Softshock” could have been made by Pat Benatar, but only if she had been this awesome.

And “Skeletons?” Well, “Skeletons” got me through the rest of the year, its synth simplicity that is like the sun setting and feeling alone, Karen O’s voice trembling in polygraph tremors on that “e” of the minimal line “Skeleton: me.” You’re moved with the drum sticks and synthesizers, bowled over by the intimacy. The disappointment of It’s Blitz is that YYYs didn’t have the conviction to make an entire album of the synth-heavy 80’s sound. The triumph is that these songs entered and completely dominated my world, shocking me into realizing they hadn’t been part of who I was all along.

2. Goodbye 20th Century by David Browne, and We Got The Neutron Bomb by Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen
I released myself from the need to read books that fit into certain categories this year – I’m not sure if I read any novels to completion or finished a memoir. I think I finished Go Tell It On The Mountain, which was great, and read some short stories and essays. But really what I did was allow myself to admit the books that I treat like candy – stuff that informs me of the works I can’t get enough of. Sonic Youth has always been a band like that for me – noisy, wildly different, daring, and esoteric enough to feel like by being such a big fan of theirs, I was in on the world’s greatest, most powerful secret. David Browne, a former music critic for Entertainment Weekly, wrote Goodbye 20th Century, and I wonder if he understands what a gift he gave me. These songs and albums that I’ve appreciated now for ten years since I was introduced to them became so much fuller in the wake of stories about their creation – Thurston Moore and Lydia Lunch scaring bus passengers as they essentially devised “Death Valley ‘69” on a bus ride home! The pop and yell Lee Ranaldo yells out during “In The Kingdom #19” was from Thurston lighting a firecracker! Ranaldo reminiscing that he loved the title of Washing Machine because it felt, to him, “like cleansing ourselves of Dirty” (Dirty being their astonishing 1992 album that showed the Youth in peak, marketable grunge form – and clearly could not last). This was an astonishing portrait of a band at their vital peak.

Couple that with the wacky, rollickingly entertaining oral history We Got The Neutron Bomb, and you have a great one-two punch of fringe music writing. Neutron Bomb tells the story of the LA punk movement of the 70s and 80s as one long overlapping interview, gathering bits and pieces from books, tv specials, interviews, and compilations from the voices who experienced the time. It plays like VH1’s old Legends show, that told a story entirely through the voices of people recalling them. I remember the moment each of the interviewees spoke of David Bowie walking through LA wearing a dress. Just that movement started young fans like Pat Smear and Darby Crash, who then, not being able to play a note, took the stage plunging a microphone into a jar of peanut butter, and then, somewhere down the line, became The Germs, who I’m told are still touring. In Goodbye 20th Century, Lee Ranaldo, bored during an early, terrifying performance of “The Burning Spear” strapped a drill to a microphone while they were playing. That drill is still in the final take. That’s the artist spirit I love, and could revel in forever.

3. Rewatching my favorite movies: The Sweet Hereafter, Mean Streets, Nashville, Playtime, Full Metal Jacket
The rest of the world’s been onto this for years, and it sounds stupid, but something struck me rewatching each of these old movies – the first time, however long ago it was, was never enough. With Full Metal Jacket, I realized it had been since I was in high school ten years ago since I’d seen the whole thing, and yet I thought of it as a favorite of mine. Seeing it now is to reveal all of its meticulously composed, brilliant layers. With The Sweet Hereafter, watching it in full for the first time since, I think, 2002, I saw a more delicately composed, mystically invasive story than I’d seen previously. And with Nashville (hmm, maybe I saw it in 2001?), it’s like I was shown a different world, Robert Altman’s overlapping dialogue making me think that though he’s telling you 2 dozen stories at once, he’s just as interested in the ones even further on the fringe - the security guard talking in the corner, the person working at a sales counter waiting for a superstar to roll through.

It’s like I fell in love with movies again. With songs, you hear them over and over again, get acquainted with each sigh, each turning of a phrase. A great movie is (duh) just as precisely filled with glorious moments, but I was afraid I’d dilute the impact of the full product by seeing it over and over again, and wound up with a shelf full of movies I never watched. That and they’re so much longer than songs. Yet watching each of these movies again this year made their impact more full because I was freed of the confines of expectations with the story, and I could marvel at the journey to get there. Could this be the beginning of me turning into someone who sees certain movies over and over again? I guess I wouldn’t mind so much.

4. “A Woman A Man Walked By/The Crow Knows Where All The Children Go” and “April” PJ Harvey
For the most part the world has moved on from PJ Harvey by 2009, and perhaps that’s the way of how we talk about music. She released a collaboration with John Parrish this year, A Woman A Man Walked By and toured with him singing songs from that album and their previous collaboration, 1996’s Dance Hall At Louse Point. Dance Hall is a favorite of mine, wilder and looser and more demon-full than even Harvey’s harshest work. A Woman… is not as solid and has, I think, about a half album full of the first material of Harvey’s I’d ever truly call inessential.

Yet two songs were Harvey at her mercurial best. “April,” which is like a late night torch song, sung in an old-woman-y rasp with a weird 20s funeral organ cranking behind her. Yet as the song reaches towards a solemn, wrenching climax, it shows Harvey still as a master of composition, creation, of concept spread into four minute songs. Likewise, the title track gets Harvey’s feisty, inscrutable wildness just right. Talk-singing over a blazing power-chording acoustic guitar, she sings of a “woman/man” with “chicken liver balls,” and cries out, “I want his fucking ass! I want your fucking ass!” It’s the defiant, fearless, goofy, aggressive Harvey I’ve loved for as long as I remember, coming through in all her glory.

5. “Anti-Orgasm” and “Sacred Trickster” Sonic Youth
Reading an interview with Lee Ranaldo recently, he stated he thought The Eternal was the best Youth album of this decade, citing its creation as a more jam-based indie record (it was their first with an indie label in 20 years). I wish I could agree overall, much of it is not especially interesting. However, the Kim Gordon led songs are the best for her in over a decade, and the first two of the record are flat out astonishing. “Sacred Trickster” jangles with atonal guitars and propulsive surprise. Singing “What’s it like to be a girl in a band? I don’t quite understand!” Gordon sounds playful, surprised, rejuvenated and completely essential again. And “Anti-Orgasm” really is the jam-fueled indie song Ranaldo mistakes the whole album for – loud, ferocious, drums and guitar and voice exploding with snarky SY anger and mischievousness.

6. The Rolling Stone Best of the 00s Albums List Issue
I’ve spent so much time thinking about what the 00’s were as a decade and compiling a Best of the Decade list for albums and movies. Yet it always struck me that we were foisting a personality that never quite fit onto this decade. Seeing the list Rolling Stone published this month really drove home what the decade was – which is to say, full of the great voices of decades past comingling with this decade’s. Radiohead’s 4 albums appeared on it, so did two from U2 and two from Bruce Springsteen and two from Bob Dylan. So did Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine and PJ Harvey’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea. I felt like I didn’t have to pretend that everyone from the 90s made music this decade, and this list, with Radiohead’s Kid A claiming its top spot, didn’t exactly match mine. It did register smart, witty opinion on the ten years that preceded us. Other lists seem full of albums I’ve never heard of. What is a list if it’s that persnickety? Read this list and remember why you loved the music that truly existed in these last ten years.

7. Star Trek
I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. My brothers and I would watch episodes, play with fake phasers, and discuss our favorite side characters over dinner. J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek – dare I say it, the best movie of the year – was the episode we always deserved, full of guts, effects, characters, drama, fascination, excitement, justice, and nobility. Abrams knew his reboot would have to be solid and exciting to restart the franchise in a time where everything (even Melrose Place!) seems to be rebooting. He did that and so much more.

8. Yi Yi (2000)
Somewhere deep in the nether regions of my Netflix cue was Yi Yi, a movie I only remembered because in 2000 it kept beating Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for Best Foreign Film honors in smaller film awards. Watching it, I hadn’t expected it to be the type of movie I’ve fallen so in love with lately – observational, taking in one interesting character’s experience after another, silently, as they go through more and more human scenarios. Yi Yi loves everyone in its world, deeply, even if they don’t love each other. Roger Ebert wrote this year or last about how when he cries in movies, it has to do with the kindness people show each other. I completely agree, and in Yi Yi, a wife who cries to her husband, a grandmother who strokes her granddaughter's hair, or a son speaking to his dead grandmother about how he loved her, these were the things that brought out wells of emotion I love experiencing for fictional characters. Because their experiences aren’t fictional at all.

9. Purple Rain (1984)
This September I saw a midnight showing of Purple Rain, and though it was just a normal showing of a movie and not quite a Rocky Horror event, audience members cheered at the musical numbers, and one superfan even knew the dance moves to all the Morris Day and the Time songs. What Purple Rain is, truly, is a fairly dumb story used to serve as context for extraordinary musical performances. That made Purple Rain the great evocation of Prince’s performance artist magnetism. How about in “Baby I’m A Star” when Prince catwalks up a small set of stairs to find a glowing guitar and shreds it shooting off priapic beams of light into the audience? Or when he humps the stage in “Darling Nikki”? Or stands with will-he-go-on solemnity before introduces “Purple Rain,” ya know, for that “real feeling” effect? Prince was a great showman at his prime here, and junky 80s story and bad acting or no, you can’t take your eyes off him when he performs.

10. “Poker Face” and “Bad Romance” Lady Gaga
The year when all rules were out the window for pop hits. Watching Lady Gaga now, I’m convinced she’s at the forefront of a major pop movement, in which she can wear a corset, or date Kermit The Frog, or reference Hitchcock in a song, winning with her mystery over giant pop audiences and art-indie hipsters at once. This may be the next revolution (evolution?) of music – everything that comes before is suddenly accessible. And how did Gaga accomplish it? Through fun, pop hooks that explode and burn you without you ever minding. “Poker Face” is one of the great singles of modern times, I do not overstate this, and it bookended the year with “Bad Romance,” which indulged Gaga’s art-destruction outrage which must have been the most giant chorus ever created. Viva the future!

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Best Film Performances of the Decade

The Onion’s AV Club came out with a list today of the 20 Best Film Performances of the Decade (see it at http://www.avclub.com/articles/the-best-film-performances-of-the-00s,35851/). It’s a fine list, although, I admit to have no fondness for their number 1, Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, and am shocked to not see my top 2 choices on their list. Still, the tenor of acting this decade has been so high, and so many movies were created simply to show off their star performance. With that in mind, I offer an alternative list, with only a few performances coinciding with theirs. Some of these won Oscars, some were nominated, and some, well, only I seemed to love them. I’m ok with that, as those performances absolutely go toe-to-toe with the more famous ones. At the top is the performance that perhaps sums up the capabilities of this decade’s movie ambitions – and the costs.

1. Heath Ledger The Dark Knight (2008)
In our lifetimes I wonder if we’ll ever witness a performance this overwhelming, something that’s partly due to Ledger’s death. People, at the time of Ledger’s Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, argued that the Academy wouldn’t even recognize this type of movie had he not died before completing the film. I can’t possibly believe that (seriously, he would’ve won anyway), but in a way, it’s beside the point – Ledger did die, and that does color our perception of the performance, the full, demonic, invasive transformation of his Joker. You hear him sucking the wounds from his cheeks as though he’s feeding on the monstrosity of its presence. He seethes with anomie that takes over the stringiness of his hair, the sloppiness of his makeup, the rage of who he is. It goes beyond making a memorable “villain” and instead is like a generational embrace of nihilism and destruction – a force powerful enough to take the man playing the role. The Dark Knight concludes that humanity is a far more powerful adversary than the nihilism Ledger’s Joker, and you almost don’t even buy it. Here, he epitomizes evil like the great, dark monsters of cinema – from Bela Lugosi’s Dracula to Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance to Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter. May I say with seriousness, this performance is better.

2. Charlize Theron Monster (2003)
Didn’t every actor and actress try and physically morph into a character of slumming ugliness in the hopes of getting an Oscar? Certainly many tried and even succeeded this decade. For Theron, that involved 30 pounds, a layer of fake leathery skin, and a vicious streak that inhabited serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Did she do it for the award? Maybe, maybe not, but either way, nobody went as far for a performance as Theron did (at least, until #1). It’s not simply the physical transformation into near unrecognizability, although, Theron’s voice, eyes, and physicality complete the makeup work. It’s the riveting magnetism of the performance that gives the character sympathy, meaning, humanity. Argue if you want that the movie wasn’t that great – it wasn’t, but really all that does is emphasize the grand transformation at its center, a full showcase of a personality so powerful it can’t even fit into a scripted film.

3. Naomi Watts Mulholland Dr. (2001)
This is something you never see anymore – a daring part starring a no name actress that is both fearless and commanding, a part that turns its indie starlet into a true Hollywood star. Watts has to be varied in Mulholland Drive, just by the nature of her dual character – David Lynch didn’t make an easy task for her. Yet what gives the movie power is the way in which its labyrinthine final act of the movie is so rife with sympathy and ugliness. This is a woman that captivated us with her pure, sweet, gorgeous star innocence (her name was Betty, for crying out loud!). The unique, Lynchian moment in which a soap audition turns into a scene of carnal desire shows Watts in her full, indescribable range – pure, all right, but pure, adrenalized emotion.

4. Catalina Sandina Moreno Maria Full of Grace (2004)
Indie movies were perhaps more proscripted this decade, and even more beholden to having conclusive, positive endings. Maria Full of Grace is like that, but also more unvarnished and wise. Casting Moreno, who was unknown prior (and, really, afterwards), was key in the film’s wounding, humane power. She glows and wants, fears and does not know what she’s gotten herself into. In fact, she typifies what has become a trend that’s a powerful antidote to the all-star slumming of non-indie pictures – the unknowns that, through the truth of their embodiments of their characters, show us life on screen (see also Gabourey Sidibe in this year’s Precious).

5. Jamie Foxx Ray (2004)
So many actors found movie vehicles for their perfect impersonations of famous people, it became a little boring. Ray is a lumpy, occasionally formulaic biopic, but there’s no missing what Jamie Foxx accomplishes as Ray Charles (and if you did miss the movie, he brought it to you everywhere else, including Kanye West’s #1 hit “Gold Digger”). You can argue where Ray works is in showing you the demons that made Charles impossible to deal with and a desperate drug addict were the same that made him great. What that really means is that the precision of Foxx’s work makes you believe in the overwhelming size of his drives and abilities. Foxx is scaldingly, charismatically spot on here.

6. Ellen Burstyn Requiem For A Dream (2000)
In one unforgettable story from Director of Photography Matthew Libatique on Requiem For a Dream, Libatique discussed filming Ellen Burstyn’s famous monologue about what it means to get old. The camera drifted a bit, and director Darren Aronofsky confronted him on it. Libatique’s lens had become too fogged up to see – he was crying too hard. That was the take Aronofsky used. Burstyn’s work was beyond fearless – ugly and terrifying in spurts, her portrait of a deluded drug addict makes the movie’s upsetting, kick-in-the-pants story its true heart.

7. Phillip Seymour Hoffman Capote (2005)
Hoffman seemed everywhere in film this decade, but his work as Truman Capote is the most unforgettable. Hoffman invaded the persona – the voice, the invective, the gestures, the demons, the physical fanciness as well as the control and manipulation of his words. In Capote, Capote’s gifts are also his downfall – his obsession and vanity get tangled with his sympathy, his morality, his talents. As a portrait of the twisted depths that drive artistry, Capote works because Hoffman so specifically inhabits all that drives Capote.

8. Meryl Streep Doubt (2008)
She got four Oscar nominations in the 90’s and 6 in the 80’s, but I’ll take each of her three (and, I can say with reasonably certainty that this year will make four) Oscar nominated performances this decade as a mark of the true power of Streep’s abilities. Adaptation, The Devil Wears Prada, and this year’s Julie and Julia show a Streep so comfortably ferocious and relatable, she was an entirely new imposing figure. Doubt is the finest of her work here, as a terrifyingly serious, focused nun convinced of a horrible wrongdoing. She was matched up with Phillip Seymour Hoffman in an intense mental showdown, but he can’t stand a chance – Streep’s singular certainty and last minute collapse is the height of masterful, invasive acting.

9. Christian Bale The New World (2005)
Call it my personal favorite. Terrence Mallick’s occasionally-painfully-slow, methodically gorgeous take on the Pocahontas story seemed to many like an art school joke. I’m convinced it was more, a deeply beautiful meditation on civilization’s reining in of the wild spirit. Bale’s eyes are unforgettable – as John Rolfe, the man who loved Pocahontas and brought her to civilized celebrity, he takes over the movie from Colin Farrell only to take it to a more deeply felt, more genuine place. He later became so severe an action hero, it’s easy to forget that so much of Bale’s range comes from his warmth, his certainty about humanity. Here, you saw the gentle version of that same instinct.

10. Daniel Day Lewis Gangs of New York (2002)
His performance in There Will Be Blood may be more iconic, but I’m convinced Paul Thomas Anderson wouldn’t have even known Daniel Day Lewis’s bloody, terrifying abilities before Gangs of New York. Scorcese missed the ball on this movie – I don’t even think he knew what he was making – but Lewis’s maniacal ruthlessness is such a potent force on screen, it enlivens and justifies the mess around him.

11. Zhang Ziyi Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
She played on the persona so many times afterwards (even making it into Rush Hour 2!), Ziyi nearly killed all the goodwill she built from Crouching Tiger. Her performance, however, is the movie, despite its set-piece, high-wire flying fight scenes. The truth is the core of the movie is her impetuousness, her youthful insatiability, and her desire for freedom. Ziyi is magnetizing and unnerving at once, a warrior and a little girl fighting for recognition.

12. Billy Bob Thornton The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
Thornton’s best and last great performance came from nothing but staring with deep, wounded eyes. The Coen Brother’s existential noir brimmed with beautiful black and white cinematography, but it was matched by Thornton’s haunted vacuousness, a performance of seeming passivity that helps keep a movie about an absence of personality from ever seeming empty.

13. Eddie Murphy Dreamgirls (2006)
When performing on SNL in the 80’s, you knew Murphy could inhabit James Brown, but perhaps you missed the pain and viciousness of his eyes. In Dreamgirls, Murphy, more than his starlet costars, inhabits fame’s dark side, and coming from work as recognizable as his James Brown impersonation, you feel like you know the source of his infamous staged energy.

14. Cate Blanchet I’m Not There (2007)
If you need proof of Blanchet’s versatility, may you find it in 2007 when her performance as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the same time as Elizabeth: The Golden Age earned her a nomination for Best actress – for playing Queen Elizabeth. Squint and you’ll have trouble telling her apart from the real Dylan, all scrawny limbs and severe cheekbones. Even when you can tell the stunt impersonation for the glorious sleight of hand it is, her work as a driven artist frayed by his own idealism is mesmerizing in its own right.

15. Cameron Diaz Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her (2000)
Rodrigo Garcia’s Things You Can Tell… (2000) and Nine Lives (2005) each tell short, intricately delineated stories of women interconnected by their lives and feelings, and each overflows with miraculous performances. Things… sticks with me, though, above all else due to Diaz’s sweet, astonishingly beautiful performance as a lonely blind woman in a dead-end love affair. Say what you will about Diaz as a star, Diaz is an actress of true feeling and range. Here, her character may not even know how beautiful she is, and has nothing to hide her own isolation and disappointment behind. She delivers an astonishingly lovely speech at the end of the film asking "What is the life of a woman anyway?" It answers its own question.

16. Judi Dench Notes From a Scandal (2006)
Dench had long been accepted as a perennial, majestic, presence of acting royalty. Yet her work in Notes From a Scandal turned her severity both inward and outward at once. As a teacher who discovers an affair between another teacher (Cate Blanchet) and student, Dench is harsh and furious, but also lonely, isolated, and turned on by the power it provides. The movie is luridly soapy, but Dench’s work also makes it deeply felt.

17. Jack Nicholson About Schmidt (2002)
For Nicholson, the notion of being this free of vanity seemed highly impossible. Indeed, as Schmidt, Nicholson is frumpy, sad, angry, lonely, and imperfectly blanketed in the world’s worst combover. Alexander Payne’s dramedies climaxed with Oscar recognition in 2004’s Sideways, but Schmidt was closer to who he was – a deep, unclear pool of conflicting emotions embodied in Nicholson’s entire physical presence.

18. Mickey Rourke The Wrestler (2008)
So many dramas this decade reveled in the hard, unvarnished truth of their characters. Darren Aronofsky knew where these performances came from (see #6), and in Mickey Rourke, he found an actor willing to plum the depths of his “used up piece of meat” living long past his expiration date. One look at the famous scene on an abandoned boardwalk in which Rourke tells Evan Rachel Wood that he only wants her not to hate him, and you, with full sympathy, believe.

19. Daniel Craig Casino Royale (2006)
Action movies became so serious this decade, and it was a bit of the trifecta of Matt Damon, Christian Bale, and Daniel Craig that helped complete the shift. Craig, for my money, came in by radically reshaping Jamed Bond into a short-fused paragon of seriousness. Many balked that Craig was an enemy to the fun of Bond (particularly in 2008’s awful Quantum of Solace), but he’s beyond magnetic on screen.

20. Nicole Kidman The Others (2001)
New Nicole Kidman performances have fallen into a sort of disfavor, but 2001 seemed to be the height of her career – an Oscar nomination for Moulin Rouge was inevitable, and all the while, critics and audiences alike lamented that Kidman couldn’t be nominated also for The Others. The Others was a horror film in the vein of The Sixth Sense, in that its ending was all shock, but it builds on the rich, smoky textures of Kidman’s performance as a mother equally unable to keep ghosts from her children as she is unable to keep the world from getting to them first.

Honorable Mentions: Maggie Gyllenhaal Sherrybaby, Vera Formiga Down to the Bone, Christoph Waltz Inglourious Basterds, Molly Shannon Year of the Dog, Terance Howard Hustle & Flow, Johnny Depp Pirates of the Carribean, Tim Robbins Mystic River