Saturday, January 29, 2011

Film List - catching up...

My great seasonal movie marathon is still ongoing.  Jobs have withered away, the biting north wind makes venturing outside severely unappealing, and most of my favourite bars have given up the effort to open on time or at all.  So, the staying-home-and-watching-DVDs regime that I lapsed into in early December has persisted throughout January, and is likely to dominate my February (and March?) as well.

I have now watched most of those films I listed back at the end of November, and quite a few others besides.  While most of these additional picks were fairly recent releases, some were things that I'd somehow overlooked from a year or two or more ago.

Here, then, are some of the unexpected highlights of my last six or seven weeks on the sofa....

Green Zone
(Dir. Paul Greengrass, 2010)
Probably the best action thriller I've seen in quite a while (although that's not such high praise: there's been a string of huge disappointments in that genre this last year).  Yes, yes, implausibly plotted, but tightly put together - and politically, its heart is in the right place: not just in its denunciation of the likely fabrication of "evidence" of Saddam's WMD programmes, but in its recognition that the blanket exclusion of the Iraqi military and the Ba'athist Party from the transitional arrangements in Iraq caused or exacerbated the collapse of civil order and the festering insurgency there, and, most of all, in highlighting the resentment of ordinary Iraqis at how the continuing US intervention is compromising their autonomy.  For once, I didn't even hate monotonous Matt Damon: he works pretty well as an action hero.

Children of Men
(Dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
Well, Green Zone might have been the best action film I'd seen over the holiday, if I hadn't just got around to catching up on this Clive Owen vehicle from 4 years ago.  It's a compelling premise (based on a P.D. James novel): in the near future, the world has been afflicted by a mysterious pandemic of spontaneous miscarriages and then universal infertility; no new pregnancies have occurred anywhere in the world in nearly 20 years; its nurturing instincts frustrated, and denied a posterity, the human race starts sliding into anarchy as it slowly approaches its extinction.  The dystopia depicted is rather similar to that in V for Vendetta: the small island nation of the UK has been one of the few countries to survive intact and maintain some sort of stability in this crumbling world, but only at the cost of accepting a brutally authoritarian government which institutes draconian policies against immigrants and refugees.  Within this scenario, though, the story itself (a young illegal immigrant suddenly falls pregnant, and a terrorist group seeks to kidnap her to use her as a figurehead to inspire a revolution against the oppressive government) is extremely slight.  However, it is the Mexican director Cuarón's handling of this flimsy material that makes the film so stunning: he uses a lot of long continuous takes, which are particularly riveting - technically jaw-dropping! - during the action sequences (in one, near the end, a hand-held camera follows Owen for a number of minutes through the midst of a street battle between government forces and rebels, with several elaborate special effects staged 'live' during the progress of the shot).  The "Making of..." featurettes are particularly fascinating here.

How To Train Your Dragon
(Dir. Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders, 2010)
The best animation of the year, surely?  And in Oscar contention, I would think - for 'Best Film', not just 'Best Animation'.  I mean, I liked Toy Story 3 and Despicable Me as well, but this was in a whole other class - more original in its story, more convincing in its characterizations.

The Last Station
(Dir. Michael Hoffman, 2009)
How did I not get around to watching this during my Oscar-nominees splurge at the beginning of last year?  Hoffman's account of the last days of the great Leo Tolstoy - the bickering over his legacy, the clash of personalities between his long-suffering wife, the Countess Sofya, and his sycophantic friend Chertkov - is a delight from start to finish; nothing particularly weighty, but almost perfect in its execution - and, ultimately, one of the most moving studies of love in old age I've ever seen.  How Helen Mirren didn't get her second Oscar for her performance as Sofya is beyond me!  (And I was, I confess, also deeply, deeply smitten with Kerry Condon as the irresistibly flirtatious Masha.)

In The Loop
(Dir. Armando Ianucci, 2009)
For years I've been hearing how good Ianucci's political sitcom for the BBC, The Thick Of It (commonly described as a Yes, Minister for the Noughties) is, but, being stuck out here in China, I've missed it.  Thank heavens for the feature-length expansion, which is easier to get hold of on DVD.  I found the faux-documentary style wore on me slightly after a while, but the writing and the performances were very sharp.  Peter Capaldi is utterly terrifying as the UK Prime Minister's ruthless, bullying, relentlessly profane spin doctor/backroom fixer, Malcolm Tucker (hard to conceive of a more complete antithesis to the elaborately meek role with which he first made his name in Bill Forsyth's Local Hero twenty-odd years ago!).  I laughed out loud several times - and I just about never do that.

Michael Clayton
(Dir. Tony Gilroy, 2007)
I don't know how I overlooked this one for so long, either.  I'm quite a George Clooney fan: he doesn't have enormous range, but he does what he does extremely well.  And he chooses his scripts discerningly, uses his star power to pull for less obviously commercial projects.  While the main plot about corporate skullduggery is well-constructed and all too plausible (and fleshed out by a superb supporting cast: Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton - that's a hallmark of quality right there), the film stands out for its portrait of its eponymous protagonist, Clooney's Clayton, a man almost washed up and morally bankrupt after years of being a 'cleaner', doing the dirty work of covering up or smoothing over embarrassing situations for his big corporate law firm; a man of great intelligence and charm who has nevertheless failed to achieve satisfaction in his life.  It's not often you get to see such a flawed individual take centre stage... unless you're watching....

The Social Network
(Dir. David Fincher, 2010)
Aaron Sorkin's script, of course, fizzes with great lines, producing a very brisk and accessible account of the birth of the Facebook phenomenon.  And Jesse Eisenberg gives a good performance as its begetter, the obnoxiously arrogant, practically autistic super-nerd Mark Zuckerberg.  The film amply confirms my long-standing prejudice that the site is a poisonous idea (promoting the abandonment of privacy and the impersonalization of social intercourse), and a silly fad that appeals mostly to American teens - something that I am very glad to have no truck with at all.  However, I can't help feeling that all the buzz around this film results largely from the continuing popularity of Facebook in America and its prominence - ubiquity - in the news.  Does this really deserve to be an early favourite for the Oscars?  No.  Well, only in a very weak year.  People are getting excited about it because it deals with such a 'hot topic', rather than because it's an exceptional piece of film-making.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
(Dir. Edgar Wright, 2010)
Much the best of the year's comic book adaptations, largely because it eschews the usual super-hero genre in favour of a quirky low-life tale of twenty-something slackers in Toronto - but with the bizarre 'magic realist' twist that the protagonist improbably exhibits "super-powers" in a series of battles (outrageously over-the-top confrontations in which platform videogaming invades his real life) to win the kooky girl he's become smitten with.  It's a tad overlong, but thoroughly charming, and very, very funny - a far worthier Oscar contender than The Social Network, I would say.  (Amongst the year's comic book films, I also enjoyed - guiltily - Kick Ass; but I did feel deeply uncomfortable with the idea of having a 10-year-old little girl as a foul-mouthed vigilante who hacks bad guys' limbs off with gay abandon.  And I was also disappointed that the story so quickly abandoned its original premise - what would happen if ordinary people tried to be super-heroes? - to follow a more conventional super-hero storyline, albeit a blackly comic one.)

(Dir. Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger, 2010)
Two journalists spent a full year embedded with a US combat platoon in the Korengal Valley in northern Afghanistan, an area plagued by almost continuous guerilla activity from the Taliban forces.  The title of their documentary refers to the isolated forward Observation Post the unit establishes on a commanding ridge, commemorating the name of their medical orderly who was killed early on in this tour of duty.  This is one of the best films I can remember seeing about modern warfare, and about the camaraderie of men under fire - a leading contender for 'Best Documentary Feature' prizes this year, I would think.  Some of the additional scenes on the DVD, particularly the individual interviews with the soldiers featured some months on from the end of the tour, are even more affecting than the film itself.

(Dir. Matt Reeves, 2008)
I was somewhat surprised by how much I ended up enjoying this clever reimagining of the 'Godzilla' genre of monster movie.  It tests the patience early on (the party scene is not very engaging or amusing, and threatens to go on interminably), but once the action starts, it's a pretty gripping experience - and the 'documentary' conceit (the entire movie is supposedly a single piece of videotape, shot on a small handheld camera by people caught up in the midst of the disaster) works extremely well, I think.  There are some problems of plausibility (most conspicuously, the response time of the US Army: they're able to pour thousands of troops into Manhattan, in the middle of the night, in the space of about half an hour??); the 'lice' creatures (which fall off the giant monster in their thousands, and look rather like baby versions of the monstrous insects from Starship Troopers) are an over-elaboration; and none of the characters are really very likable (in particular, Hud, the superhumanly dim and insensitive guy who shoots most of the video, is presumably intended to provide comic relief, but - although he has a few very funny moments - is mostly just a massive irritant).  However, the weaving of the large-scale special effects into this apparently 'real' home video is very well done.  And the central love story does, in retrospect, become rather affecting - underlined, as it is, by the first and last scenes on the tape showing the young couple on a day out together, some weeks before this horror engulfed them.  The film also provides an uncomfortably poignant metaphor for the 9/11 attacks on New York (some of the early scenes of people taking shelter from the debris clouds of collapsing buildings are a little too pointedly reminiscent of that terrible day).  This kind of entertainment I usually regard as completely disposable, a one-time only deal - but this I feel I might well watch again at some point.

Winter's Bone
(Dir. Debra Granik, 2010)
I wasn't in a particularly receptive mood when I sat down to watch this a few nights ago, and I often found myself getting a little impatient with its languorous pacing.  In retrospect, though, I think the film's willingness to take its time adds to its power; the fact that it is so purposefully uneventful for most of its course makes its denouement all the more shocking.  It's set in a small, inbred, backwoods community in the Mid-West; everybody is somehow related to almost everybody else, everybody - sort of - knows everybody else's business, but everybody observes an omerta-style code of silence: nobody talks about what goes on, certainly not to the authorities, but mostly not even to each other.  Whereas in the past these isolated white trash settlements would turn to alcohol to make their drab lives more tolerable and to boost their incomes, these days they favour drugs; instead of setting up moonshine stills, they're all busy "cooking" crystal meth.  The film follows Ree, a feisty 17-year-old girl who struggles to bring up her two much younger siblings and look after their mentally ill mother.  Her father has recently disappeared, presumed to have gone on the run because he was facing the likelihood of a heavy jail term for his latest drug manufacturing charge.  However, when Ree discovers that he had put up their house and property as a bail bond, she has to try to find him, to save her family from destitution.  She figures someone must know where he is; but nobody wants to tell her anything.  The bleached colours and chill air of mid-winter underline the bleakness of this community, the extreme material and moral poverty of the place.  And the slow tempo helps to conjure the sense of claustrophobia of living in such a small community: there are several shots of Ree trekking disconsolately through the woods, as she visits one after another of her neighbours' farms in her vain quest for answers.  The film provides a remarkably detailed - and devastating, depressing - portrait of a way of life, a culture that most of us little suspected to still exist in the modern world.  This, I think, amongst the major films of 2010 that I've seen, is the only one that clearly stands out as something different, something special, something Oscar-worthy (it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last year; but I suspect the Oscar voters will find its raw depiction of the worst of modern America to be too unwholesome).  Jennifer Lawrence as Ree and John Hawkes as her laconic, violent uncle certainly deserve to be in consideration for acting honours.


Nance said...

I entirely agree on "Winter's Bone." It's a watershed movie of exceptional quality. And everything about it rang true to a Southerner. The Ozarks and the Appalachians share a sensibility within their "hollers"...a particular cultural evolution that seems to dead end in a cul de sac.

This movie hit every note perfectly. Consider the scene where Ree watches the older kids practice in the school gym for...what was that, ROTC?...drill team? Those kids. The hit or miss gear. The look on Ree's face.

I watched this one three times and I'm pulling for an Oscar.

Froog said...

I think Winter's Bone will surely get a nomination, Nance; but I think it's too grim, too much of a downer for the typical Oscar voter mindset. I hope I'm proved wrong on this.

I hope Jennifer Lawrence at least gets a nom too.

And I can see it getting 'consolation prizes' for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor.

JES said...

Wonderfully wide-ranging selection. Haven't seen them all (or even close to all) yet, however.

Greengrass and Damon: have you seen the complete Bourne trilogy (of which Greengrass directed two)? That's one of the few action-movie franchises which I actually own. Greengrass also did that United 93 9/11 "imagined non-fiction" sort of film, and I really admired it too.

With both you and Nance touting Winter's Bone so roundly, I'm embarrassed not to have recognized the title right off. Adding it to the Netflix queue!

Froog said...

Aha - I experienced a vague sense of recognition with Greengrass's name, but I hadn't known his resume. I too liked the Bournes and United 93.

I think I liked The Bourne Identity best, though. That scene where Damon almost gets his ass kicked by a man tied to a chair is one of the best movie fight sequences ever.

JES said...

Great movie fight sequences. Now there's a blog post (o gods help me...) a-borning.

Another one -- I think it was, um, Eastern Promises? was that the title? Viggo Mortensen plays a Russian mobster who at one point must keep himself from being killed while in a public shower... naked. And the other Mortensen one, A History of Violence, had some classic moments, too.

But the Bournes were outstanding. In Identity, when he disarms (and kills?) two policemen in a park at night -- entirely instinctually -- I think I may have laughed out loud the first time I saw that scene, it was so energizing.

Froog said...

I think for me the hands-down winner is John Cusack in Grosse Point Plank. He ends up stabbing his assailant in the throat with a ballpoint pen. The whole fight captures that sense of desperate improvisation, convinces you that they are both really determined to kill each other, both frantic to save their own life - which flashy action-adventure movie fights always seem to miss. Afterwards, Cusack is out of breath, and wincing from his bruised ribs - how often do you see that?