I don’t know where you live, but the weather here in New York is “unseasonably mild.” (Temperatures in the 50s, no snow as of January 4 for the first time in freaking recorded history — a real climate-change scenario.) Coincidentally, “unseasonably mild” also describes moviegoing over the last couple of months, as the Oscar bombs dropped by the studios in the year-end run up to awards season have detonated with a series of wet thuds. Your mileage may vary, but I’ve been decidedly underwhelmed by the likes of Letters From Iwo Jima, Notes on a Scandal, and even the seeming sure thing that was Pan’s Labyrinth (to be fair, I’ve never really been on Guillermo del Toro’s wavelength). Among studio Oscar contenders, the only satisfactory hype machines seem to be The Departed, which lived up to advance billing and is only now crawling into the awards spotlight and sniffing the air, and Dreamgirls, which I simply don’t feel like dragging ass out to see. (I wasn’t invited to an advance screening, and the ridiculous $25 ticket price for the film’s limited engagement at the Ziegfeld ensured that I wasn’t going to catch it in time to have an opinion before the wide release anyway — by the time Christmas Day rolled around, I figured anything I might have to say was likely already superfluous beneath the thunderous volume of the Hudson rocks/Beyoncé sux consensus.)
The best Oscar bait I saw was Peter O’Toole’s performance in Venus — I was very glad to have caught that at a press screening, because I’m doubtful I would have had the inclination to catch up with the one about the old man wooing the very young woman in the year-end rush of prestige pics. (Also, did anyone at all end up seeing The Good Shepherd, which was partially shot in my neighborhood?) Bilge Ebiri recently opined that this sudden flood of wannabe “quality” pictures at the end of the year has the unfortunate effect of reinforcing the status quo, since some folks end up so busy that it’s easier to take cues from (and therefore reinforce) the building groupthink rather than apply one’s self to a thoughtful study of the year that was.
I’ll confess that I was a bit annoyed when the film I had decided was the closest thing to perfect I saw all year suddenly became the critics’ darling in highbrow end-of-the-year polls. I knew the reviews were good, but I hadn’t realized they were quite that good. Anyway, there it is — uncompromised and uncompromising, and never less than absorbing over a two-and-a-half-hour running time, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is officially The Best Thing I Saw All Year. And there were some other good ones, too.
All about a long, dark night of the soul, as the decreasingly feisty and combative Mr. Lazarescu is bounced from ambulance and hospital to ambulance as he’s locked in mortal combat with a health-care system that’s indifferent, incompetent, or just plain weary. His angel of mercy is a quietly determined EMT (Luminita Gheorghiu, winner of the Best Actress award from the Transilvania International Film Festival — and it can’t possibly get much more bad-ass than the Transilvania Film Festival) who struggles to get him a proper diagnosis, let alone treatment. Somehow, the proceedings aren’t half as bleak as they sound. It’s a movie full of great good humor, in addition to varying shades of despair.
I had resisted the call of the Christopher Nolan cultists until now. I was underwhelmed by Memento, and impatient with its grim follow-ups, but this intricately plotted feature capitalizes thoroughly on the earlier film’s potential, reviving Nolan’s obvious love for narrative trickery with a similarly twisted, tragic character arc. Memento was all about disconnects between perception and reality, mind and the material world. The Prestige is a film about two magicians, once part of the same act, holding a mutual grudge. Each goes to extraordinary lengths trying to disrupt the other’s career in a story that is, itself, full of illusion and misdirection. It’s an excuse to ruminate on identity and obsession in a turn-of-the-century milieu that’s cocked slightly to one side of actual history. The despair Nolan finds at the heart of his story is positively existential, but the film is still a lot of fun. (David Bowie plays Nicola Tesla!) It’s that exceedingly rare thing in today’s Hollywood, an entertaining star vehicle with lots of flash and style — and a philosophy.
The critical party line was correct — Scorsese was back. Isolated harrumphs about work-for-hire were misplaced, though casting Jack Nicholson and his shenanigans did feel a little like a sop to the marketplace and ended up being perhaps the worst decision Scorsese made. (It must be said, however: if you’re going to use Jack, you may as well use him with coke whores and a prosthetic penis.) Otherwise, this is a taut, operatic cop movie that actually improves, for a change, on its already sterling foreign-language source material. Props especially to the screenplay by William Monahan, with the kind of snappy dialogue and attention to story beats that makes a director’s job just that little bit easier. This was the year’s smoothest, most entertaining cinematic thrill ride.
Who snuck the impressionist art film into the multiplex? Michael Mann, of course. Since Ali, which effortlessly interwove film and digital-video footage, Mann has become Hollywood’s signature stylist of the digital night, surpassing the aggressive experimentation of the erstwhile Prince of Darkness, David Fincher (whose own digital debut, Zodiac, comes out this year). If Collateral pointed the way, it still looked more singular than cinematic, with a harsh graininess that was, cumulatively, a little hard on the eyes. Miami Vice pushes the visual envelope even further — imaging geeks call it working “in the toe” of the image, after the lowest part of the curve that represents a film’s exposure scale, the place where digital cameras excel — but Mann and his ace cinematographer, Dion Beebe, are clearly more comfortable than ever with the digital palette and paintbrushes. The narrative is oh-so-elliptical, the inevitable explosions of violence satisfyingly staccato, and the film’s love affair with its human forms, in all their gorgeous component photons, suitably consummated.
Claims that this film (or its more conventionally tear-jerking counterpart, World Trade Center) is “apolitical” are bogus. Politics inform everything from the film’s title to its depiction of let’s-roll passengers to its bare-knuckle approach to narrative to its suggestion of the vacuum at the heart of the government’s response on that day. Even though everyone who watches the movie knows how the story ends — and despite the fact that September 11 stories probably demand an even more hard-nosed aesthetic — it’s perhaps the single most gripping film of the year, with great performances by non-actors who help lend an unshakable feeling of authenticity.
Richard Linklater meant almost nothing to me until just about one year ago, when I finally caught up with Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, small and tender cinematic wonders that, taken together, are all about our questions of what might have been. And then A Scanner Darkly knocked me right out. Drug narratives and their corrolary, freestyle-bullshitting-as-dialogue-for-the-cinema, have never been my cup of tea (I couldn’t slog through Waking Life, just as one f’rinstance), and there’s quite a bit of that kind of thing here. But a general aimlessness (dare I call it ennui?) is part of the fabric of this picture, and the sci-fi angle adds an environment of paranoia that only makes the film’s various metaphors for addiction — and its suggestion that society aggravates the addict’s woes, rather than helping him recover — more potent. Quite unexpectedly, there’s a beautiful/horrible coda that conflates the conspiracy and tragedy, and it frankly sandbagged me. (A few months later, the smug, obnoxious Fast Food Nation came out, and now Richard Linklater means almost nothing to me again.)
This is what it looks like when a Hollywood crime drama is firing on all cylinders. Clive Owen’s magic trick isn’t quite as devastating as the one that closes out The Prestige, but Spike Lee’s top-drawer directorial chops and Denzel Washington’s effortless charisma dazzle regardless.
Best straight-up big-budget action flick of the year. Daniel Craig obviously finds his role delicious in an intently physical variation on the hoary old pretty-boy playboy formula. (However, it doesn’t quite beat District B13 in the parkour department, or Jackass Number Two in testicle torture.) Craig is sure solidly built — and Eva Green is kinda pretty, too.
The Descent (U.K. DVD version)
The U.S theatrical release eliminated the disturbo final shot, but the U.K. DVD hit the market first with the bleaker-than-bleak ending intact. Devolves a bit into an Aliens style monster-fest toward the end — and no thanks to Lionsgate for telegraphing one of the film’s scariest images in every damned TV spot — but mostly it’s a wildly effective creature feature.
A Prairie Home Companion
Made by a great director with death on his mind, this is one heck of a valedictory.
Honorable Mention: Borat, Children of Men, Fearless, Half Nelson, Jackass Number Two, Old Joy, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Pusher 3, Road to Guantanamo, Venus