Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Year-end polls of critics are out all over the place, including two in particular I will use to guide my own viewing over the next few months, from Film Comment and indieWire, along with old standby Metacritic. So if you want my definitive last word on the best films with U.S. release in 2011, check back in five or six months.
Here I offer reactions rather than reviews, with links to more detailed info on the film and a wide range of critical and viewer response, to put my own in context. As readers of this blog, or followers of Cinema Salon screenings at the Clark, you probably have a notion of where I’m coming from and therefore my opinion may help to organize the range of opinion and give you ideas on what films to seek out. But above all, my aim is to share my enthusiasm for film as a vital, diverse, and profound medium of art. So this batch of recent films is listed in order of my intensity of recommendation, from strong to “meh.”
I’m not sure whether it makes the best introduction to Abbas Kiarostami, but if he’s ever got you on his wavelength, then you will love the departure and return of Certified Copy (2011, MC-82, NFX). Most critics did, placing it #6 and #7 on the polls referenced above. Sounds about right to me. The amazing Iranian New Wave has not entirely broken and receded -- as witness The Separation, which has just opened to universal acclaim -- but Jafar Panahi is in jail and Kiarostami in exile apparently, with this film set in Tuscany and starring Juliet Binoche. The film speaks in a variety of tongues, voicing its themes of translation and reproduction, artifice and creation of self. An English writer comes to Florence to promote the translation of his book of aesthetic theory, which argues essentially to forget the original and embrace the copy. The ever-enthralling Juliet is an antiques dealer with an interest in his theories, and as it develops, a more personal interest as well. She takes him on a daytrip to museums and monasteries, and their relationship unfolds in ways that are increasingly mysterious. If you’ve seen Close-Up or Taste of Cherry (and if you haven’t, you should), you will know that Kiarostami can wring endless convolutions of meaning out of the simplest means, with an aura of intellectual mystery, if not mystification. Though the tight framing does not flaunt the beauty of the Tuscan countryside, it does make a stark contrast to the desert-like terrain of Teheran and outlying villages familiar from Kiarostami’s earlier films. Ultimately the film is attractive and confounding at the same time, both firmly-situated and unsettling.
For me, Moneyball (2011, MC-87, NFX) suffered from excess expectation. I loved Michael Lewis’s book, and the line-up of talent in this film seemed surefire. And the film did hit most of its targets, but like its subject, GM Billy Beane of the Oakland As, it failed to win the final game of the season, at least in my estimation. Brad Pitt is indeed excellent as Beane (with this and Tree of Life, he should have a Best Actor Oscar sewn up), and Jonah Hill is an effective foil as the Yale econ major who upends the conventional wisdom of baseball with his nerdy formulae for success. Director Bennett Miller does a good job of mixing archival footage and reenactment with a believable mix of actors and players. But after the story pivots from down-market adversity to record-breaking success, the story drifts to a conclusion that left me less than convinced. Somehow the screenwriting talent of Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zallian did not deliver the decisive home run I was waiting for. But most of the way, I felt like I was rooting for a winner.
I have to give Vera Farmiga credit for directing as well as starring in Higher Ground (2011, MC-74, NFX), and extra credit for doing it while she was five months pregnant. She makes some rookie mistakes, such as a few cartoonish subjective shots, but delivers a rare thing, a film about American evangelical religion that does not prejudge the subject. The film follows the vicissitudes of faith though one woman’s life, from a tentative childhood response to the call to Jesus, through a teen marriage to a rock musician and a miraculous escape from family tragedy that drives them both into the arms of the Lord, and into adult motherhood and an increasingly unsatisfied relationship with God and the patriarchal church in which she is immersed (or immured). As a teen, the character is played by Taissa Farmiga, Vera’s younger sister, who is not only very good in her own right, but has the family resemblance to make for a particularly convincing passage of a character through time. Original and daring as well as alluring, Farmiga makes a serious debut as a filmmaker of note, which puts me in mind of Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies and The Apostle.
Another film that looks at mid-American values with amused skepticism but fundamental sympathy is Cedar Rapids (2011, MC-70, NFX). Ed Helms sheds his Daily Show/Hangover shtick and delivers a genuine performance as a rural Wisconsin insurance agent, for whom Cedar Rapids is the exotic big city into which he is thrust unexpectedly, to attend an insurance convention for his firm. In the enclosed world of the convention hotel, he rooms with John C. Reilly, in his well-worn boorish but endearing persona, and Isiah Whitlock, as perhaps the first African-American he has ever met, who has good fun referencing his role in The Wire. Liberated from his usual restraints (“What happens in Cedar Rapids, stays in Cedar Rapids”), the Helms character dallies with fellow agent Anne Heche, on leave from family life, and Alia Shawkat (of Arrested Development) as the hotel prostitute who strikes him as just an exceptionally friendly young lady. Miguel Arteta directs an effective, affectionate satire about real people in a situation that is realer than it seems.
I have seen The Future (2011, MC-67, NFX), and while mopey and strange, it does work in its own peculiar fashion. Miranda July adapts a solo performance piece she developed after the relative success of her debut feature You and Me and Everyone We Know, and while it retains the preciosity of the stage (the scratchy-voiced narration by the ailing cat Paw Paw is a dealbreaker for many, as was the subtitled dog in Beginners, made by her husband Mike Mills), this film manages to open out into some sympathetic understanding of its perplexing and annoying characters. July herself is matched with Hamish Linklater, as a dithery couple in their thirties whose life is overturned by their commitment to adopt the sick cat. In the month till that epochal change in their settled life, she quits her job teaching dance to children and vows to make thirty dances in thirty days, for posting on YouTube. He disconnects from his computer and part-time job in tech support, to solicit money for tree plantings to combat global warming. Neither gets anywhere near these goals, but their lives are transformed anyway. Or are they? One hardly knows in this quirky slacker comedy.
Many took Midnight in Paris (2011, MC-81, NFX) as a return to form for Woody Allen, but I found it disappointingly more of the same. This fanciful return to the artsy world of Paris in the Twenties – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein et al. – for me suffers in comparison to Alan Rudolph’s The Moderns (1988, NFX), which I would urge you to watch instead. I didn’t hate Woody’s latest, but I can’t imagine why it became his biggest box office hit ever. Though I felt that I had had my fill of his work, I happened to start watching the recent presentation of a documentary about him on the PBS program “American Masters,” and once I started, made it through all four hours of compilation and character study with interest. Allen certainly made the case for his compulsion to turn out a film every year, as the extension of a nonstop career that began when he became Woody Allen, writing jokes for comedians in Manhattan while still attending high school in Brooklyn as Allan Konigsberg. That compulsion to work is his stay against chaos and death, and I don’t begrudge him his efforts, but I no longer feel compelled to watch, since I’ve seen it all before.