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The only movie this year I had to see twice, and not just because the first viewing left me uncertain as to what had happened (although it did), but also because I needed to revisit the utterly, fascinatingly original territory that was being explored.† The kind-of-backward, kind-of-forward narrative technique of this film has become famous, but to call it a gimmick (as some do) is to greatly underestimate its importance.† Not since Pulp Fiction has chronological tinkering been used to such bracing emotional effect.
Memento, if you donít know, is the story of Leonard, whose brain cannot produce new memories because of an injury he sustained while trying to save his wife from a violent attack.† Sheís now dead, and heís left with all the memories he had prior to the attack, but complete blackness thereafter.† If he meets you, he wonít remember you 10 minutes later.† If heís talking to you, he has to get to the point quickly or else heíll forget what the conversation is about.† He only ďremembersĒ which car is his, or what hotel heís staying at, or whom he can trust, by constructing an elaborate system of photos, notes, maps, and even tattoos to memorialize vital information.† At any given time, Leonardís chaotic consciousness consists of whatever has happened in the last few moments plus whatever else he can cobble together from the notes he carries with him.† Plus, alas, all the memories of his life before the attack, his love for his wife, and the violence of the loss he has suffered.† It is in this absurdly impaired and pathetic state that Leonard sets out to hunt down the man who killed his wife.
It is obviously a compelling premise, and a lesser movie might have been content to just let it play out.† But Memento has chosen to push far beyond this premise into a narrative experiment of naked audacity.† You might have heard that the story is told backwards, but thatís only half true--and much too simplistic.† In fact, the scenes in color do proceed in reverse chronological order, from end to beginning.† However, they are alternated with black and white scenes that are proceeding in proper chronological order.† Just to make it fun, the viewer has no idea, until very near the end of the movie, how or when these two narrative lines intersect.† Oh, and did I mention the flashbacks....?
If it all sounds like mere trickery, you havenít seen the movie.† What director Christopher Nolan has done is to find the only feasible way of conveying to the viewer the fractured consciousness of the protagonist, while still providing all the information needed to piece together the story. Leonard has no continuity of experience, no sense of day-to-day history, no sense of sequence or consequence. Nothing follows from anything else, causes donít have effects, because by the time the effect happens, the cause has probably ceased to exist for him.† Every experience is, for him, seen within the frame of a very small window called the present that is surrounded by an overwhelming emptiness.† His emotional landscape consists of an infinite field of pain and sadness and loneliness interrupted only by a tiny, perpetually moving point where lucidity and confusion intersect.† The world doesnít make sense to Leonard, and he doesnít make sense to it.
Since a filmmaker cannot make us actually forget what has already happened in a movie, how can he convey the kind of cognitive and emotional turmoil in which Leonard exists?† He must dislocate the viewer from cause and effect, from if/then thinking, from any notion of a continuous consciousness.† More specifically, he has to make sure that the audience knows no more at the beginning of a scene--or, perhaps, only slightly more--than the protagonist knows about the people, places and events he will encounter.† The normal assumptions, inferences and relationships we take for granted in life--and in movies--must all be disrupted.† The viewer must enter every scene not knowing what happened before it.† The only way to accomplish this and still tell a story is to tell it backwards.†† That way, when we get to the end (which is the beginning), we can at least try to go back and piece together what has happened.
If it sounds like a lot of work, well, it is.† But what we get in return is more than worth the effort.† We get a crackerjack crime thriller that spends its whole length surprising us with how little we really know.† We get a bleak, absurd sort of humor that would simply not be possible in any other movie (example:† A scene opens with Leonard running through the street.† ďOkay, why am I running?Ē he wonders.† He then sees another man running close by.† ďOh, I must be chasing him,Ē thinks Leonard, and turns to pursue him.† And then, seeing the manís response, ďNo, heís chasing me!Ē).† We get not only a convincingly befuddled and strangely affecting performance from Guy Pearce as Leonard, but two of the best supporting turns of the year from Carrie-Anne Moss and character actor/demigod Joe Pantoliano.
Best of all, though, we get a riveting intellectual puzzle that also dares to tread deep into philosophical territory, asking us to consider the value of action, and even the meaning of identity, in the absence of memory.† We take for granted our ability to remember; it is one of the foundations of our humanness, because it is what allows us to construct meaningful, purposeful narratives to describe ourselves and our lives.† If we could not see our lives as both meaningful and purposeful, both sequential and consequential, what would remain of our identities?† Memento makes us realize--or perhaps remember--that it is not only how a story ends that gives it meaning; it is also how it began.
Ed Crane, the protagonist of The Man Who Wasnít There, is...taciturn.† Heís taciturn the way Bill Gates is rich or Strom Thurmond is old.† Heís taciturn going on catatonic.† Heís trapped in a life that clearly holds no appeal for him: a lackluster marriage, a job as a second-chair barber in his brother-in-lawís shop, the minor daily indignity of being socially unimportant.† Ed (Billy Bob Thornton, in a remarkable performance) has no idea how to even respond to such dreariness, let alone remedy it. So he mostly just smokes.† The time eventually comes when smoking is no longer enough and that, of course, is when the trouble begins.† Without going into detail or giving away surprises, there is a blackmail scheme and a dead body and an imperfect justice system.† Typical film noir stuff, down to the laconic voiceover and the lush black and white cinematography.
The Coen Brothers (Joel directs, Ethan produces, both write) are often accused of being detached and cerebral filmmakers--stylistic geniuses, to be sure, but also heartless smart-alecks.† You would think Barton Fink and Fargoís Marge Gunderson would have long since quelled such nonsense, but still it lingers.† Hopefully, with The Man Who Wasnít There, they can shake it off it at last.† Despite being a black comedy, this is a movie that is all about heart, if you just look below the tightly wound neo-noir trappings. Ed is silent and shut off from the world, but what he wants is to connect.† He is desperate to experience love and beauty.† Itís all right there in his eyes as he listens to a young neighbor girl playing the piano, or watches his wife sleeping.† Ed yearns to experience something transcendent without having any idea thatís what he wants, and without having any clue how to go about achieving it.† So instead he has spent his life settling into the path of least resistance and gradually disappearing from the ranks of the living. The final, devastating insult is that when he does finally try to take his fate back in hand, everything turns out badly.
The Man Who Wasnít There is a very rare breed, a consummate exercise in style that also manages to break your heart. Ed is, we must admit, a rather ridiculous figure, with his perpetually dangling cigarette and misanthropic squint and musty little pompadour.† But Thornton and the Coens have put such an ache into him that our laughter is partly an ironic appreciation of his absurd misfortune, and partly a rueful chuckle over what might be our own. Edís unarticulated desires are no different from ours; we can hope our efforts to achieve them will turn out better, but there is no guarantee they will.
Aside from the already much recognized performances from Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, and Marisa Tomei--as well as the less-recognized but equally laudable ones by William Mapother and Nick Stahl--what is best about In the Bedroom is that you never quite know whatís going to happen next.† And itís not a matter of plot twists. The characters here are so specifically, recognizably real that they are beyond responding to the needs of a plot.† Instead, they behave the way real people do:† making mistakes, re-thinking opinions, letting emotions dictate actions, changing their minds.† Being stubbornly human.
This movie takes on the unenviable task of closely observing people in terrible pain--primarily the married couple played by Wilkinson and Spacek--and examining, without providing any definitive answers, where that pain comes from.† There is an obvious external cause (which I wonít discuss here), but then there are layers below that which take us deep into the unnavigable territory of the human heart and its relationships.† Once weíre there, we cannot predict what will happen, and perhaps we canít even fully understand it. We are simply observers to the most private drama possible. Writer/director Todd Field and co-writer Robert Fetsinger bring us to this private place and ask that we watch.† In return, they give us the most moving film of the year.
You know that feeling when youíre in a really strange situation, things donít seem quite right, and then you gradually come to realize that it must be a dream?† The main character in Richard Linklaterís animated tour de force Waking Life knows that feeling.† The movie allows us to follow him down the morphing pathways of dream logic, through a series of episodes and encounters and conversations that explore and question the dichotomy of perception and reality.
The secret behind the visual punch of Waking Life is an innovative animation technique that allows animation to be digitally hand-crafted over the top of video footage.† Think of those old black and white photographs onto which people would hand-paint colors to simulate a ďcolorĒ photo; now remove the photo, leaving only the hand-painted colors, and you get the gist of the effect.† The animation pulses with life, bouncing back and forth between approximations of photorealism and fanciful abstraction, and the effect is unlike anything youíve seen before:† at once restless and dreamy, vibrant and hypnotic.
But the look of the film, however arresting, is only half the story.† Because it is above all else a movie of ideas, and those ideas pour forth in a profusion of thoughtful dialog the likes of which we havenít heard since My Dinner with Andre or Linklaterís own Before Sunrise.† The speakers change from scene to scene, and their contributions to the ongoing dialog vary in intellectual rigor and verbal precision.† But cumulatively they amount to a surprisingly smart and enormously engaging examination of ideas that, for most of us, fall between the cracks of everyday life:† What do we really mean by words like ďawarenessĒ, ďperceptionĒ and ďimaginationĒ?† How and where can we locate the sacred in our material lives?† Is it necessary to separate dream consciousness from waking life?† Is it, ultimately, even possible?
It might be foolish to think we can answer such questions, but how much more foolish is it to not even ask them? Waking Life asks them brilliantly.† It is a masterpiece of both form and feeling, ambitious and provocative at every level.† Itís a great escapist entertainment thatís also a feast for the mind.† If life were a little more like this movie, we would barely need dreams at all.
The characters in Monsterís Ball are surrounded by more tragedy than anyone should have to face.† Tragic potential infuses their environment:† sons of abusive fathers become abusive fathers themselves; men die slowly on death row, wishing they could change their past, leaving behind gradual widows and orphans; other men who are unlucky enough to make their living as prison guards never have the luxury of executing a stranger, because they have spent years with an inmate before the day they have to strap him into the electric chair; and, of course, terrible accidents happen, and they usually happen to those who are least able to bear them.
The beauty of Monsterís Ball is how it sidesteps sentimentality, allowing its characters to keep on being regular folks in the midst of this pervasive, almost operatic tragedy.† Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) is a prison guard who approaches his job with admirable professionalism and even has a gentleness about him, but who is nonetheless a racial bigot and an abusive father.† Leticia (Halle Berry) is a pretty black waitress who tries her best to be a good and responsible person, but she still drinks too much and is cruel to her obese son.† Both Hank and Leticia suffer great pain and loss, and against all odds they end up turning to each other for comfort.
Somehow, though, this isnít a movie about transcending tragic pain; itís about ignoring as much of it as you can and muddling through the rest until it gets better. And itís not a movie about overcoming racial division, because race and racism become gradually, strangely irrelevant as Hank and Leticia come together.† Some reviews might say itís about the redemptive power of love, but Iím not even sure itís about love at all.† Is it love that brings these wounded souls together?† It looks more like circumstance and desperation: they have nothing else, so they have nothing to lose.† Thereís a wonderful moment in the film when a fact comes to light that could devastate the relationship.† Instead, it is simply, quietly accepted. Is that the result of forgiveness, understanding, or just tired resignation? It's impossible to say.† But how many movies could keep us rooting for these flawed characters without giving us the answer to that question?† Monsterís Ball does, which is what makes it so special.† It convinces us to root for the protagonists not because theyíre the best people, but just because theyíre people, and people shouldnít have to spend their lives alone and unhappy.
How to describe Japanese director Takashi Miikeís Audition?† I wish I could convey a sense of its creepy power without giving away any of its electrifying surprise, but I donít think I can.† Plus, it would probably be critically irresponsible to recommend this movie without giving an indication of what lies within it, some kind of caveat.... So Iíll try to give you a sense of it without giving away too much.
Audition starts out as a charming, quirky romance about a lonely Japanese widower trying a rather unusual method of finding a young new wife.† Then about halfway through, it begins to metamorphose, first in fits and starts and then ultimately at a hellish pace, into the most singularly horrifying film Iíve seen in years.† It is, at times, almost unwatchably gruesome.† It shows things you probably never thought you would actually see in a movie, tapping into levels of squeamishness you never thought would be exposed.† It is upsetting in every sense of the word.
What it is primarily concerned with upsetting, though--and this is what keeps it from just being some kind of gross-out freakshow--is not your individual physical or emotional well-being, but rather the bedrock assumptions of a patriarchal society.† In the back-and-forth of gender politics, Audition is like a nuclear bomb.† But itís not merely going for shock as an end in itself; Miike makes sure the film is as intellectually and psychologically engaging as it is viscerally repellent.† Itís a movie you might walk out on in disgust (as many have done), if it just werenít so damned interesting.† Most social satires use biting humor as their weapon; this one chooses graphic horror instead, and it makes its points with brutal efficiency.† Itís not for the faint of heart, mind or stomach, but if youíre feeling strong (and if you can find it in your local video store), you really need to see it.† The world wonít ever look quite the same again.
David Lynch is at once among the most superficial and the most penetrating of filmmakers:† One moment he seems to be all about stylish surface, and the next heís diving into our brains on a psychic fishing expedition.† It is by keeping resolutely mysterious about where his heart really lies that he manages to catch us up in his weird little webs.† Mulholland Drive is one of his most ensnaring yet, not only for the joyfully, infuriatingly (if not exactly uncharacteristically) obscure nature of its narrative, but also because this time Lynch stages his surreal passion play of paradoxical obsessions against that most engagingly freaky of American backdrops:† Hollywood itself.
A young woman staggers away from a car crash in an amnesiac haze and awakes in an apartment that isnít hers.† The apartment belongs to another young woman who is just arriving in Hollywood, fresh-faced and bent on stardom.† The two women set about trying to figure out who the amnesiac is and what happened to her.† In a parallel story line, a hip director is fired from a picture because he refuses to cast a particular actress in the lead role.† These stories will intersect in mysterious ways.† Meanwhile, an assortment of menó--among them gangsters, dwarves, malevolent cowboys, and a guy who is way too picky about his coffee--seem to be calling all the shots from behind the scenes, though itís anybodyís guess exactly what strings are being pulled and to what purpose.
Itís a beautifully evocative film for most of its length, a heady and engaging brew of Nancy Drew, Sunset Boulevard and one of the stranger dreams youíve had.† Then about 30 minutes from the end of the movie, the world turns upside down, all the rules change, and you realize the mild confusion youíve been feeling all along was just a prelude to the real confusion.† You are plunged deep into the heart of a glorious mystery where you have not only to second-guess everything youíre seeing, but also to reevaluate everything that came before.† If there is a solution to the puzzle of Mulholland Drive, I havenít found it.† But Lynchís vision makes it the most beguiling enigma of the year.
A friend of mine who wasnít terribly impressed with Gosford Park was telling me his reasons:† the characters arenít very fully developed, the murder plot isnít particularly compelling, and the movie doesnít exploit or even appreciate the opulence it creates.† It could have been the perfect hybrid of Murder on the Orient Express and A Room With a View, and instead it was neither.† I realized that I didnít disagree with any of those criticisms of the film.† Yet I still think itís one of the best movies of the year.† Curious.
I guess what I most admire about Gosford Park, besides its unparalleled depiction of the logistics of a ďwell-run house,Ē is how clearly and crisply it envisions the thousands of little social exchanges that make up a day in the life of its enormous cast of characters.† I have no first-hand experience of English country manor life, but Iíve dutifully watched my Merchant & Ivory films, and it seems to me that all the most interesting things happen when people of different backgrounds or experience or expectations meet briefly in the garden or bump into one another in the hall.† The tiny sparks thrown off during these incidental exchanges are what bring life to what is otherwise, forgive me, a dreary-looking milieu.
Gosford Park appreciates the vitality and importance of these moments, and deftly uses them to build the real story, the emotional drama behind the whodunit.† It is, not unexpectedly, a story of class relations and exploitation, and the human costs of keeping up appearances.† Director Robert Altman, a master of exploring themes by way of diffusion, keeps the pace brisk and the comic timing intact, letting emotional weight build without ever allowing the story to bog down.† The result is a masterpiece of directorial finesse that ranks among his best (Short Cuts, M*A*S*H, Nashville, et al.).† It isnít a great mystery, and it isnít a great character drama.† It is a complex tapestry of social relationship and interdependence, woven by a master.
The Royal Tenenbaums is Wes Andersonís third film to date (after Bottle Rocket and Rushmore), and it is his most visually assured and emotionally satisfying yet.† It tells, in ironic fairy tale format, the story of Royal Tenenbaum, an irresponsible so-and-so who returns to ďmake peaceĒ with his wife and family some 20-odd years after abandoning them.† His wife (who is suddenly about to marry her accountant) and three kids (each a child genius of some kind who has since descended into eccentric mediocrity), are less than enthusiastic about his return.† And his efforts at peace-making seem to consist pretty much of behaving in the same infuriating manner he did before.
Royal, played with warmth, gusto and a flash of anger by Gene Hackman, is a perfect son-of-a-bitch, a jovial, amiable, incurable con-man who can hardly wait for one scheme to fail so he can be on to the next.† The movie isnít specific about exactly what he did that so ruined his family all those years ago, but after spending a few minutes with him, we can easily imagine.† He takes a childish--not child-like, but childish--pleasure in manipulating people mercilessly until he either gets what he wants or drives them over the edge.† But somehow we like him.† And if everyone in the movie hadnít been screwed over by him so many times, they would like him too.† In fact, some of them do, in spite of themselves.† Heís a genuine character, pure in his own way and rarely operating out of malice.† He just wants everyone to see things his way.† Thatís what makes sense to him.
People in Andersonís movies are so confused or self-centered or clueless or otherwise messed up that they canít help but cause each other pain at virtually every step.† Itís not just Royal, itís all the characters:† Son Chasís manic control-freakism and undisguised contempt for his dad; Richieís quasi-incestuous obsession with his adoptive sister, Margot; Margotís all-encompassing, inexplicable depression; and all the rest with their own particular unpleasantnesses. Yet instead of condemnation or ridicule, what we get from Anderson is...affection.† I see in his movies a bit of Kurt Vonnegutís benevolent nihilism:† In the end, itís not the pain we inflict on one another that defines us.† Itís our ability to accept that pain as a condition of living among our fellow humans, and to find--or even, when necessary, to invent--the explanation that will make it all okay.† Anderson loves his characters not in spite of their flaws, but because of them.† And I have to say, itís infectious.
Remember those two girls in high school?† The ones who were outsiders, but who thought they were so much smarter and cooler than everyone else that they just couldnít stand it?† Everyone but them was just soooo clueless and contemptible, and therefore destined to be fodder for their endless, labyrinthine inside jokes.† The problem with those girls was...they were right.† They really were smarter and cooler than you.† Or at least, they figured out earlier than you how ridiculous adolescence and high school social politics and small-town notions of normality were.† Even armed with that superior knowledge, though, the future was still pretty scary.
Enid and Rebecca, two of the protagonists of Ghost World, are those girls. The third is Seymour, a socially inept, nerdy guy in his 30's (or 40's?) whose main interest is collecting ancient 78 rpm records.† The girls meet Seymour by responding, on a lark, to a personal ad he had run.† Their intent is just to have a little cruel fun at his expense, but one of the girls takes a real liking to him.† Heís even more of an outsider than she is, and heís at least honest and genuine in his nerdiness. How the story of these three characters unfolds is best discovered by seeing the movie, not by reading about it.† What is important is that it proceeds according to its own logic and the dictates of the specific characters, rather than marching down any tidy plot line.
Ghost World has such a sure eye and ear for human behavior that itís no surprise to find it was directed by documentary filmmaker Terry Zwigoff, whose last film was the brilliant Crumb, one of the best documentaries of the 1990s.† While showing us the humor of his characters, he respects their complexities and idiosyncrasies and frailties, allowing them to open up to us--and allowing us to open up to them.† And despite being utterly ignored by the Academy, all three main performances, by Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson and Steve Buscemi, are exceptional. Together, the director and actors make these characters so real in their various insecurities that you just want to give them a hug and tell them everything will be okay.† And then pray that itís true.