2003 Ten Best Movies

We have to order lives somehow, and the 365-day timespan is a useful way of doing that. It’s absurd to line ’em up this way as though there were some logic to it, but we do: the Chinese Year of the Tiger, the weirdly wonderful idea of International Geophysical Year (it was a year and a half, 1957-58), The Year of Magical Thinking, Sinatra singing “It was a very good year for city girls who lived up the stairs,” those old Time magazine book-form digests on certain tumultuous years (Jesus! What about 1939! Or 1968, right?), the royal family’s annus horribilis, A Journal of the Plague Year, memoirs that cover a single season like Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. Crowning events lock certain years in your own unwritten memoir: 1985 was my first trip to Europe, 2008 I got married. 2001 once belonged to a movie title, now it’s a disaster year.

2003? Not a pleasant year. No Sinatra songs about it. I hope you had a good one. As for the movies, they lack a single definitive Number One for me – some nice offerings, a few thunderclaps (Japon and Oldboy, for instance), but I’m not really feeling it. At the top I settled on a film that seems to me smart, richly acted, and impeccably made; it also fulfills certain movie-movie standards in a year that falls short on that score, even in movies I admire and esteem. And so it’s Master and Commander, a very gratifying picture that serves like the candidate who comes out of a political convention, a compromise choice, the one that will do until the next year comes along.

Neat movie, though, and a great vehicle for Peter Weir’s sensual, tactile talent for summoning up pictures and sounds and bodies in locations. In 2003, Russell Crowe could justifiably be considered a hope for the future of movie acting, with his ability to think on camera and his quick humor; hope he returns. Of the other good movies from that annum, Carlos Reygadas’ Japon is a visionary, startling work, looming larger in retrospect than the self-contained pleasures from Tarantino and Sofia Coppola. Ten best movies of 2003:

1. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir)

2. Japon (Carlos Reygadas)

3. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)

4. All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green)

5. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino) and Oldboy (Park Chan-wook)

6. XX/XY (Austin Chick)

7. Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (Lone Scherfig)

8. Dirty Pretty Things (Stephen Frears) and The Good Thief (Neil Jordan)

9. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton)

10. School of Rock (Richard Linklater)

11. The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana) and The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci)

Wow, I haven’t cheated with the ties like this in a long time. But Finding Nemo and School of Rock were on my original 10 at the time, and I wanted to keep them on there, so other stuff got shuffled around. Dirty Pretty Things and The Good Thief are both neatly-assembled pieces of atmosphere, though with very different styles (a charismatic lead performance in each case: Chiwetel Ejiofor in the first, Nick Nolte in the latter). Wilbur is a completely delightful film from a director who hasn’t messed up yet, and it should be better known. XX/XY is a tough, penetrating look at the man-woman thing, and also deserves a reputation.

Bunch of interesting movies aren’t there: Mystic River could stand another visit from me, especially for the way the final few minutes turned the story around in a remarkable way, and Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Berman and Pulcini’s American Splendor, and Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold are all list-worthy. Bent Hamer’s Kitchen Stories is effing hilarious, and I love Schultze Gets the Blues, which now that I look at its release dates, ought to be in my 2004 accounting, even though it showed at festivals in 2003. (Years will drive you crazy.) Bad Santa and Something’s Gotta Give were oddly satisfying holiday movies, and you may also have heard of a little number called The Return of the King, which rounded off Peter Jackson’s Rings trilogy in an epic way. Pet movies would include Isabel Coixet’s My Life Without Me, an intriguing look at how one’s own death might be artfully managed, Jane Campion’s hallucinatory In the Cut, and Ong-bak, which is trashy and lunkheaded but is true to the spirit of the long take in an especially delirious fashion.

The all-Italian #11 slot features two flawed films that nevertheless have staying power. The Best of Youth has a TV-movie flatness and sloppy edges, but man, there is something about sticking with characters for six hours that makes the whole thing bloom in a rich, sad way. The Dreamers gets silly, although Bertolucci’s unapologetic randiness is also a sign of life. And both projects reel in the years: the signpost years that mark the progress of lives. So, of course, I’m a sucker for them.

Movie Diary 2/27/2010

A Walk in the Sun (Lewis Milestone, 1945). A platoon movie, lots of chattery dialogue by Robert Rossen, interesting cast, echoes of All Quiet on the Western Front at times, funny rapport between Richard Conte and George Tyne. It has such a small budget, substituting puffs of smoke for entire action sequences, that it begins to resemble a Twilight Zone episode where everything turns out to be a dream.

Prodigal Sons (Kimberly Reed, 2008). A fair share of remarkable incidents and revelations are contained in this documentary about a most unusual Montana family; like Reed’s avowed inspiration, 51 Birch Street, the movie’s “intimacy” has more than a whiff of exploitation around it. (full review 3/5)

Fish Tank Apology (Weekly Links)

Jarvis/Fassbender/Fish Tank

For a variety of reasons, just one review for the Herald this week:

Fish Tank.

By Robert Horton

Director Andrea Arnold gave her cast the pages of the script for “Fish Tank” as they went along in the filming—a risky move, perhaps, but it might explain the real sense of edginess that courses through this tough new British film.

The setting is a typically soulless housing development that lies somewhere on the outskirts of—well, just on the outskirts, a place that seems empty and unconnected to either urban or rural environment. This is home to Mia, played by Katie Jarvis. Fifteen years old, full of energy and anger and confusion, Mia quarrels with her shiftless, partying mother and ignores her foul-mouthed younger sister.

The issues at loose in Mia’s life are not unusual for the genre of British kitchen-sink dramas, and when Mom brings home a new boyfriend named Connor (Michael Fassbender), it is easy to predict that Mia is going to develop a foolish and dangerous infatuation with this older man.

What distinguishes the film is Andrea Arnold’s eye for telling detail and the empathy she has for her belligerent young heroine. This empathy is not always easy—almost the first thing we see Mia do is head-butt a classmate and leave the girl with a bloody nose.

Arnold’s previous feature, “Red Road,” was a more original (and even thornier) movie, but she doesn’t back away from the harder implications of her story here. And she brings her actors into the gritty reality of the milieu. We might expect that from Michael Fassbender, who did impressive work in the very different worlds of “Hunger” and “Inglourious Basterds.” It takes nerve to play a weak but charming man who ought to know better, and Fassbender doesn’t distance himself from this guy.

The big revelation is Katie Jarvis, whose first film this is (she was discovered for the movie while having an argument with her boyfriend on a train-station platform, and had little previous acting experience). Mia’s sole ambition in life is dancing, and Katie Jarvis’s dedicated—but not notably gifted—performance of this ambition is heartbreaking to watch.

If Arnold’s tactic of keeping her actors in the dark about the outcome of the script had something to do with the electricity of the performances, than clearly this was more than a gimmick. Last week “Fish Tank” won the Best British Film prize at the BAFTA awards, the British version of the Oscars, besting the better-known and more crowd-pleasing “An Education.” That verdict looks like a good one from here.

Also a talk about the cultural ritual of the public apology, with Steve Scher on KUOW’s Weekday, archived here. This is a new weekly segment called (tentatively?) “The Culture Moment.”

And I note the value of Fish Tank and tip the new DVD of Lola Montes in conversation on Art Zone with Nancy Guppy on the television box: tonight at 8 p.m. and 11:30 on the Seattle Channel (channel 21, mostly, to locals) and then repeating Wednesday at 7 p.m. on KCTS (that would be channel 9). And now here is a link to the show.

Movie Diary 2/25/2010

The Girl on the Train (Andre Techine, 2009). Fine offering from Techine, with a pair of heavyweight French actors (Catherine Deneuve and Michel Blanc) providing support to Emilie Dequenne (who looks very different now from her award-winning Rosetta debut). The director’s elliptical style suits the main character’s quick-shifting way of moving through the world. (full review 3/5)

The Crazies (Breck Eisner, 2010). Once it hustles past a few initial logic-leaps, this thing really gets into a pretty good groove. Not exactly a revelation, but a clean and mostly sober take on George Romero’s original, and sturdy people in the front lines (Timothy Olyphant, Radha Mitchell).

Movie Diary 2/24/2010

Namu, the Killer Whale (Laslo Benedek, 1966). After I watched this today, for the first time since seeing it at its world premiere at the Orpheum Theater in Seattle, a trainer got killed by a killer whale in Orlando’s Sea World. That’s awful, and whales shouldn’t be kept in pens. Namu was the second killer whale held in captivity (also my childhood hero) and although his close observation was an important event in the understanding of how damn smart and social whales are, his capture was also the first evidence that whales don’t belong in captivity. The movie’s not much of anything, but it has great footage of people swimming with Namu, shot by some of the crew that worked on producer Ivan Tors’ “Flipper” TV show (that show’s formula – swimming every day + sunshine + dolphin as best friend – was my idea of paradise at age seven). The movie is re-titled for DVD: Namu My Best Friend, which is almost as bad as calling killer whales orcas.

Movie Diary 2/22/2010

A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009). A movie as patient and competent as its protagonist, in which all the pieces come gradually together to form a satisfying whole, right up to the final notes on the soundtrack. Sort of a companion piece to Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped, and like that film featuring a large supporting performance by the debauched Niels Arestrup. (full review 3/19)

Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009). Just when you think you’ve seen every possible variation on a movie set in a British housing project. Not as revelatory as Arnold’s Red Road, but more evidence of her talent. (full review 2/26)

Pitfall (Andre de Toth, 1948). Re-seeing after 25 years or so, and thus “new.” The lively dialogue and a classic noir situation carry this through, along with de Toth’s eye for startlingly just-there real locations.

Assassins (Richard Donner, 1995). Not quite the sleeper I remembered, but something’s going on in it. Antonio Banderas’s antic performance is a reminder of his promise at the time; one wants Stallone’s sincere attempt at intelligent underplaying to work – it doesn’t quite.

Kids of Survival (Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, 1996). Quite a powerful account of Tim Rollins and his South Bronx teen artists, from the makers of Ballets Russes. Also has some classic noodle-headed comments from academics. (It’ll be shown again soon: see “Upcoming Events” tab.)

1944 Ten Best Movies

Andrews/Tierney/Laura

The latter half of the 1940s is considered the meat of the film noir era: the returning veterans, postwar anxieties, new man-woman tensions. But my 1944 list shows the first boomlet of noir taking over the top spots and setting the tone for the movies that would follow during the decade. Sort of hard to pick a winner choosing among Laura, Double Indemnity, and The Woman in the Window, so I can only say that Laura seems the most flawlessly realized of the trio, The Woman in the Window the most authoritative, and Double Indemnity the most iconic. But if Laura deserves the edge for any single thing, it’s the character of Waldo Lydecker, that snobby columnist gloriously portrayed by Clifton Webb – one of the automatic invitees to the “best movie characters at a dinner party” event.

It’s a strong year at the top. Preston Sturges had his two small-town pictures, both starring Eddie Bracken, as the culmination of his great early-40s run; and while The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is a hilarious alarm clock of fun, Hail the Conquering Hero is something finer, a bittersweet slice of Americana and possibly Sturges’ best film. You’ve also got that Powell-Pressburger curio, A Canterbury Tale, and Meet Me in St. Louis, with arguably the best of Judy Garland.

I am in awe of Ivan the Terrible, Part I, which seems to me a complete example of pure cinema, in the way shapes and shadows and forms come together to tell a story; it could almost be an abstract work of art, except that it does tell a story. (Also glad to note that it made the Medved brothers’ list of the “Fifty Worst Films of All Time,” that early indicator of Medvedian vacuity.) And To Have and Have Not is a prime example of a Howard Hawks project that looks less like a movie than a party thrown by Hawks for some of his friends. The best movies of 1944:

1. Laura (Otto Preminger)

2. Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder)

3. The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang)

4. Hail the Conquering Hero (Preston Sturges)

5. Ivan the Terrible, Part I (Sergei Eisenstein)

6. A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)

7. Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli)

8. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Preston Sturges)

9. To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks)

10. Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak)

Coming close: Going My Way, a wonderful look at personality and behavior; The Ministry of Fear, another Fritz Lang goodie; David Lean and Noel Coward’s This Happy Breed; that lovely ghost story The Uninvited; and Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. Interesting year for the zero-budget fringies: consider Edgar Ulmer’s Bluebeard, William Castle’s When Strangers Marry, Val Lewton’s Curse of the Cat People, and a stark, not entirely competent but folklorishly powerful morality tale for the black-theater circuit, Spencer Williams’ Go Down, Moses!

Shutter Creation Home (Weekly Links)

Shock Corridor Part 2

Movies I reviewed for the Herald this week.

Shutter Island. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” is a movie designed to keep you as uncomfortable and as on edge as possible. It wants to drive you insane, in fact.

And why not? That’s what the film is doing to its protagonist, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), first seen vomiting with seasickness aboard a ferry in rough seas. Daniels is a federal marshal, bound for the asylum for the criminally insane on Shutter Island. This is an isolated rock that is part Alcatraz, part Skull Island from “King Kong”—at least that how Scorsese’s gothic approach treats it. A prisoner—er, patient—has escaped from the institution, and Daniels and his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) are investigating. That appears to be the plot, anyway. But the deeper we go, the greater the sense that something else might be behind Daniels’ mission.

For one thing, he’s tortured by his memories of liberating a Nazi concentration camp at the end of World War II (the year is 1954). Equally haunting is the death of his wife (Michelle Williams), especially as he keeps seeing her in his mind. Scorsese, no stranger to high visual style in film, has taken the asylum setting for the film and used it as a license to go over the top. Everything’s big here: the craning camera, the ponderous compositions, the typically tortured performance by DiCaprio. In fact, the acting challenge appears to be the main reason for the movie to exist. DiCaprio is joined by Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow, as two sinister psychiatrists, and there are small, intense scenes for Patricia Clarkson, Ted Levine, and Jackie Earle Haley.

Scorsese and his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, jerk each conversation along by compressing time—the movie makes you anxious even when two people are simply sitting in a room talking.

At times it’s too much. When the marshals dodge falling trees in a deluge or clamber about rocky cliffs over the sea, Scorsese lets the more lurid aspects of Dennis Lehane’s novel run wild. There’s a lot of heavy breathing throughout. The nevre-jangling is effective, and the movie buff in me enjoyed guessing whether Scorsese (America’s Movie Buff Numero Uno, after all) was busy aping “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” or “Shock Corridor”—to name a pair of classic stories set inside institutions.

But the Scorsese movie “Shutter Island” most recalls is his bombastic remake of “Cape Fear.” This film is better than that—its gaudy style is eventually explained—but it won’t be remembered as a stellar effort by one of America’s most talented filmmakers.

Creation. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Of all the ways to dramatize the writing of Charles Darwin’s monumental “Origin of the Species,” this movie takes a most curious tack. “Creation,” based on Randal Keynes’ book “Annie’s Box,” looks at Darwin’s effort to complete his work by placing it against his struggle to grieve his young daughter’s death. Since Keynes is Darwin’s great-grandson, he has some credibility, but the concept is a limiting one.

Darwin is played by Paul Bettany, from “Master and Commander” and “A Beautiful Mind.” Bettany has put on weight and shaved his hairline back and otherwise altered his appearance for the role. Plagued by ill health, Darwin goes through a variety of cures, but he seems to be avoiding the completion of his magnum opus. Goading him on are scientific cohorts played by Toby Jones and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Darwin’s wife Emma, played by Bettany’s real-life wife Jennifer Connelly, is a pious lady who disapproves of the implications of her husband’s scientific research. By proving the role of evolution in nature, will Charles Darwin be denying her faith in god?

That certainly is a large question, and “Creation” engages it at times. But each time Darwin appears to be ready to meet his friend and pastor (Jeremy Northam) in debate, one or or the other of them departs the scene. Most of the drama is taken up by Darwin’s lingering anguish (and sense of guilt) over the loss of his child, a storyline that unnecessarily conjures up a storytelling device from “A Beautiful Mind.”

At one point Darwin visits a doctor (Bill Paterson) who offers a few pre-Freudian notions about the unconscious mind and the tricks it can play, and how those tricks might be affecting his patient’s health. This psychological approach to the material is certainly, well, psychological. Unfortunately, it doesn’t shed much light on Darwin’s battle to assemble the proofs for his theory of evolution.

Bettany and Connelly work at their roles—grimly, for the most part. Whatever their offscreen marriage may have contributed to their acting process is not all that visible.

The film has a marvelous sequence involving a young Darwin and a captive orangutan, with whom he shares a moment of communion. There’s a good story to tell about this man who grasped before anybody else the fact that this creature was a kind of distant relative. But “Creation” isn’t that story.

Home. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

“Home” sticks to its title: in this movie, we never see the world beyond the acre or so surrounding the house in question. It sits at the side of a highway, unused.

Voices on the transistor radio tell us that the highway has been in bureaucratic limbo for ten years, which explains why the family can live in the house in perfect silence. The road itself is their playground; they’ve got lounge chairs, sports equipment, and other items parked there.

How did this family get there and why do they like it? We never find out in Ursula Meier’s kooky and surreal film, which presents this unit as a peculiar sort of Everyfamily, not quite real and not quite a cartoon.

They appear to be in domestic harmony at the beginning of the movie: playing and eating and, oddly, bathing nude together. The parents are played by two favorites of French cinema, Isabelle Huppert and Olivier Gourmet (he was in “Lorna’s Silence” last year), both of whom seem dizzy with the crazy concept of the film.

They have three kids: a grown daughter who likes to sunbathe, an adolescent daughter who occupies the obligatory skeptical role in relation to the rest of the family, and a rambunctious son.

This little Eden can’t last, because Edens never do. And so a highway crew tramps through one day, putting a new surface on the road and clearing out the debris.

The road is open to traffic.

When the cars begin passing by, life changes for this daft family. Huppert’s character, in particular, appears to be agoraphobic, and increasingly challenged by the intrusion of outside life into her world. Although it’s a minor role for this gifted actress, she brings all her skills to it.

What this warped fable means will be up to the individual viewer to decipher, as Meier is content to let us be spectators to this increasingly chaotic world. Is the adolescent daughter right in sensing toxic invasion from the highway? Where does the oldest daughter go when she wanders off? What is the family doing living here in the first place?

We don’t know, and the film is only marginally arresting enough to compel curiosity about the answers. But movie-goers with a taste for surrealism and the wilder side of the road might really take to it.

St. John of Las Vegas. “The guy who just can’t resist his own worst instincts.”

Oscar-nominated short films. “My congenital inability to warm up to live-action short films.”

And some Oscar nomination ponderings in the middle of this hour of KUOW’s “Weekday” with Steve Scher.

Movie Diary 2/18/2010

Highway (James Cox, 2002). Misfits trek north from Vegas to Seattle, ending up at the memorial for Kurt Cobain a few days after he died. This never quite made it to a theater near me. Written by the guy who wrote Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead, which should tell you a lot, although it is somewhat more fun than that movie. Jared Leto, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Selma Blair are the stars; the tone is raucous.

Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1968). Everything is vintage about this movie, which stands up nicely to repeat viewings. Love the way McQueen ignores people’s complaints.

Movie Diary 2/17/2010

Creation (Jon Amiel, 2009). Darwin vs. the memory of a dead child, a battle waged while the genius is writing The Origin of Species, the book that really should have settled all this stuff a long time ago. Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly labor mightily to bring the film’s peculiar focus to life. (full review 2/19)

Oscar-nominated short films (various). Packaging the Oscar-nominated short films together for a tour just before the Oscar show is either an inspired way to get these underseen and underappreciated movies before the public, or a method of torture for those of us who have an irrational and unfair aversion to short films. Or possibly both. (Although I do have one of these packages to thank for letting me see Martin McDonagh’s Six Shooter, for which I’m grateful.) Did not care much for the live-action bits, but the cartoons offer a half-hour Wallace & Gromit number and the most original thing in the group, Logorama, which is about product placement gone wild and casts Ronald McDonald as a homicidal maniac. (full review 2/19)