1. الأخبار عن الجزائر و فلسطين في المونديال (SIGE_josef)
1. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, United States)
2. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)
3. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, United States)
4. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, United Kingdom)
5. Wu Xia (Peter Chan, Hong Kong)
6. Guilty of Romance (Sion Sono, Japan)
7. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr, Hungary)
8. Pina (Wim Wenders, Germany)
9. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, United States)
10. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, Denmark)
Comrades! Once again, the list-making season is upon us, and I must answer the call. As per usual, for a film to be eligible it must have received a theatrical release in its country of origin in 2010. Of course, these lists are never immutable, but here are ten great films that defined 2010 for me.
1. Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé, France)
2. I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino, Italy)
3. Carlos (Olivier Assayas, France)
4. White Material (Claire Denis, France)
5. The Social Network (David Fincher, USA)
6. Restrepo (Tim Hetherington & Sebastian Junger, USA)
7. Hahaha! (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
8. Outrage (Takeshi Kitano, Japan)
9. Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, USA)
10. Alamar (Pedro González-Rubio, Mexico)
(Note: List updated 6/18/10)
It’s that time of year again, when I join my cineaste brethren for some list-making goodness! As always, my ground rule: I only listed films that received a theatrical release in their country of origin during 2009. While there are still a few films that I haven’t seen, I’m confident that this list is more representative than my average year-end list. So, without further ado:
1. Two Lovers (James Gray, USA)
2. Summer Wars (Mamoru Hosoda, Japan)
3. Vengeance (Johnnie To, Hong Kong)
4. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, USA)
5. Antichrist (Lars von Trier, Denmark)
6. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, USA)
7. Love Exposure (Sion Sono, Japan)
8. Mother (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)
9. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, USA)
10. Like You Know It All (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
For the second year in a row my results have been tabulated along with a panel of my contemporaries courtesy of Michael Anderson at Ten Best Films; please check it out!
Let me cut straight to the point – Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea is phenomenal. It is a ceaselessly gorgeous showcase for Miyazaki’s unmistakeable cinematic genius. It is potentially his finest film since 1997′s Mononoke Hime, and perhaps the most joyful motion picture to be made by any director since his own My Neighbor Totoro first hit screens in 1988. It has been labelled as a “light” and “simplistic” film, but it is also a powerfully deep (if brief) journey to the core of all of Miyazaki’s key motifs – environmental integrity, social equality and feminist determinism.
I don’t throw the word “genius” around lightly. With Ponyo, it becomes clear that not only does Miyazaki appear incapable of making a film that is anything less than revelatory, but that as he approaches the grand old age of 70, he is still making films with the exuberance and passion of a young man. It is an unrelentingly ebullient picture, every second packed with an almost rapturous glee for the boundless potential of humankind.
If that sounds a little excessive, just wait until Ponyo hits American theaters next month; from the the first frame to the last, I guarantee you’ll have a mile-wide smile plastered on your face. In fact, I smiled so much that, in retrospect, it seems difficult to believe that a film that is so fun could be so very profound.
Ostensibly about a young boy and a goldfish, the more left unsaid about the highly compartmentalized plot, the better. Thematically, it borrows liberally from all of Miyazaki’s own films (particularly his screenplay for Whisper of the Heart), but there is a certain undercurrent of Grand Scale science fiction that evokes the works of Osamu Tezuka and Leiji Matsumoto; there is even an unmistakable tip of the hat to Walt Disney’s Pinnochio! It is the first time that Miyazaki has overtly paid tribute to the animators who influenced him, and it seems as if Miyazaki has accepted his place in the pantheon and allowed himself a moment to paint in the broad strokes of his predecessors.
With Ponyo, Miyazaki has tapped into the mainspring of his art and created a film of surpassing power and beauty. It appears difficult for me to express my respect for his work without degenerating into pure uncut enthusiasm; suffice it to say that Miyazaki is forever making exactly the kind of movie I want to see: rejuvenating, optimistic and permeated by a sense of wonder. Time and again, he flawlessly executes the loftiest aspirations of the cinema, and Ponyo is no exception.
Note: I have not seen the Disney dub, and don’t intend to, and can only encourage filmgoers to see this (and every) foreign feature in its original language with subtitles.
Less about baseball and more about the difficulties inherent in being Chinese and bi/homosexual, City Without Baseball has received no small amount of press in Hong Kong. This is, without question, the most mainstream, high-profile film yet from HK addressing one of China’s great unspoken taboos. It’s also a fascinating exercise in creative casting: all of the actors are non-professionals who are actual members of the Hong Kong Baseball Team, and the story is woven loosely from anecdotes they provided.
On the surface, the plot is about the their battle to win in the Pan-Asian League despite being from Hong Kong, a city that is generally unaware that it even has a baseball team. But the real story is that of a number of players experiencing conflicts of sexual identity. This struggle is graphically illustrated by another of the film’s major talking points: it features a copious amount of male frontal nudity. It is hard to underscore how rare this is in any kind of Chinese film – one can only imagine that the pseudo-documentary nature of the picture allowed the censors to even consider it for release; and it’s not even Cat III!
The movie certainly represents a sea-change in HK’s traditional portrayal of young men. Though a smooth, idol-oriented veneer is applied, these are all young professional athletes at the peak of their physical shape being highly sexualized in the service of humanizing homosexuality in a culture notoriously adverse to the subject. For this alone, it is deserving of a certain amount of scrutiny.
Which is not to say, pun inevitable, that this is a home run of a picture. Lawrence Ah Mon directs, and coming from a lengthy spate of second-string action and triad pictures, he brings his typically glossy, vacuous aesthetic with him. The intersecting plots hang by flimsy threads, and the cinematography is wildly incongruous to the subject matter. Nevertheless, it is almost impossible not to be pulled into this film, thanks to the phenomenal amateur performances from the members of the Hong Kong Baseball Team and the frankly wonderful script by first-time screenwriter Scud.
Even in an industry obsessed with nicknaming its talent, it’s hard not to pay attention to a pseudonym as symbolically potent as Scud. Not only is his maiden film a bit of a tactical blow aimed at a country already obsessed with pretty young men, its overt phallusy (let me invent a word, dammit) is certainly reflected in the film’s frank examination of sexual crisis. All this aside, the important thing is that this boy can write. Many a scene veering dangerously close to traditional, overpoweringly nostalgic Hong Kong melodrama is saved at the last moment by a line of dialogue so revelatory that more than once I was jolted back to attention.
Its calculated sexuality is surprising because it focuses on men, and in a brazenly straightforward and even lurid fashion that would never, ever fly even in an America offering. Its script is shockingly competent and oftentimes sincerely wonderful. By all rights, a film by a b-list director from a first-time gay writer with a cast made up entirely of non-actors focused around a sport no Chinese national cares about and featuring a lengthy procession of naked men has no right being this engaging. If not necessarily a triumph of filmmaking, its popularity is certainly a triumph for the visibility of gay rights in China, which is an honor very few other films in the history of queer cinema can share.
Pretty heady for a picture that is ostensibly about how everyone in China hates baseball.
Moon is an auspicious debut from Duncan Jones (née Zowie Bowie), a talented new director who happens to be the son of David Bowie (let me officially be the first person to predict that every review of this film in the mainstream press will have the tagline “SPACE ODDITY!”). Sam Rockwell gives a truly remarkable performance as Sam Bell, a lunar miner who is nearing the end of his 3-year contract at a single-man mining outpost. His only companion is the station computer, Gertie, a straight-up HAL homage that tantalizingly suggests how a culture informed by decades of watching 2001 might choose to design a companion robot.
To say too much more about the plot would be to spoil its central conceit, and while I’m sure many reviewers will talk openly about it, and Tits & Gore is not a spoiler-free site, I want to preserve the surprise if at all possible at least until the film gets its theatrical release this coming June.
Suffice it to say that Jones admirably mixes together stock genre tropes, paying tribute to a number of classic science fiction features while retaining his own idiosyncratically dark vision. Familiar filmic concepts of the “clean future” and the “dirty future” are mixed together to create a unique atmosphere; the milieu is suitably claustrophobic, the cramped quarters of the mining station serving the film’s conceptual purposes while masking the shoestring budget. In fact, it may be hard to spare a glance at the meticulously designed sets with your eyes glued to Rockwell for the duration of the picture. His performance is utterly mesmerizing, inhabiting the role so completely that it is impossible to imagine any other actor having the chutzpah to pull it off.
Which is not to say that Moon is without its problems; the pacing is hardly consistent and Jones’ reliance on Rockwell tends to undersell his direction. Parts of the film veer dangerously close to identical thematic elements in Steven Soderbergh’s recent adaptation of Solaris, without being as emotionally potent. But what it lacks in originality is mostly compensated for by the sheer audacity of its central performance and the careful economy of its direction.
Moon may be dressed in familiar clothing, but it is a singular experience, a clever, darkly funny and genuinely moving journey into the nature of individuality. Jones is already at work on a second science fiction feature, and it is welcome indeed to see such a promising new talent continue to develop his voice by working in genre filmmaking!
I was blown away by this debut feature from Lucrecia Martel, an Argentine director who had previously worked in television. Translated as “The Swamp” or “The Bog”, La Ciénaga explores the relationship between two cousins: Mecha, a bourgeois alcoholic drinking herself to death in the shadow of the mountains; and Tali, a harried city-dweller looking for a more temporary escape for a few days at Mecha’s house.
The title metaphor steers the film capably; the sweltering summer heat permeates every frame, as the two families wallow and suffer through both the temperature and the travails of their bankrupt existence. But the film’s crucifixion of the Argentine middle-class was, to my mind, secondary to a pervasive, pleasantly nostalgic focus on the burgeoning sexuality of Mecha and Tali’s children.
The roaring sexual tension between the children, not only the second cousins but the brothers and sisters, is beautifully conveyed by fine performances and a camera seemingly fueled by the jittery, horny fire of adolescence. There is nothing perverse or exploitative; sweaty and half clothed, the children can’t help but stare a little too long, to sneak into a shower together or lay sprawled atop a bed in a room filled with shade. It is a powerful and evocative sort of collective Bildungsroman, a confusing, memorable summer. Indeed, the summer’s climax is a rare, true shock; a sharp finale after a tense, meandering wade into the swamp.
Mark Neale’s unusual biopic of William Gibson is a strange and polarizing film. Neale placed Gibson in a limousine wired for sound, equipped with several video cameras and outfitted with a laptop and cell phone (no mean feat for 2000) and sent him on a cross-country trip from California to New York, supplying him with questions along the way. The premise is solid gold, and Gibson is as much a halting poetic genius in person as he is in his brilliant novels. He stares out the window at the blurred trees, smoking cigarettes and holding forth on his past and the future of humankind. In a particularly poignant sequence, he romantically describes his first novel, Neuromancer, as taking place in “a world where there are no families”, as cryptic and beautiful a description of the book as has ever been made. His slow and metered responses showcase a truly incisive mind.
And yet, the film is drowned in stylistic flourishes and shitty editing that unnecessarily draw attention away from Gibson. Terrifyingly stupid cliches pop up every ten seconds, a sad irony considering the film’s focus on Gibson’s futurist tendencies. This is the man who coined the term “cyberspace”, and the internet was subsequently designed by programmers enamored of his ideas. Here is a man who has consistently envisioned the future of humankind under the guise of literature for over 30 years, and yet, conversely, Neale buries Gibson’s observations in 30-year-old video art trickery, from painfully period-dating technological montages to reversing the flow of traffic in Gibson’s limo windows.
Indeed, the stylistic choices are so damaging as to completely derail the simple power of Gibson’s words. His speech is halting and quiet, which makes him, apparently, not exciting enough, and so layer after layer of bullshit has to be slathered on to hold the imaginary film-goer’s attention. Ultimately, the film’s infantile visuals can be a sincere struggle to tolerate. Maybe No Maps For These Territories would have made a better audio-book, considering how poorly Neale treats what should have been a sure-fire high concept.
Why is writing “The Watchmen Review” proving to be so difficult? I’ve had no less than 7 lengthy conversations at this point with various respected human sounding-boards detailing my issues with the film, and started many a draft. Yet still the issue is complicated, in ways I could not have foreseen when I skeptically entered the theater. But a brief Twitter I sent out post-screening still says it all: Watchmen is a wreck. It is a completely fascinating and utterly bizarre head-on collision that cannot and does not add up to a good movie, but nevertheless I find myself wanting to see it again. Strange days indeed.
As a big fan of the comic from all the way back during the days of its release as a 12-issue miniseries, I knew it couldn’t accurately resemble the comic in any capacity, and it does not. Alan Moore created Watchmen as a structural exercise, a unique exploration of artistic conceits that could only be accomplished in comics. By its very nature, Watchmen as Moore envisioned it is unfilmable. Remove the artistic superstructure and you are left with nothing but the story; a great story, to be sure, involving lightly fictionalized versions of classic Charlton Comics characters solving an end-of-the-world mystery. This is a classic conundrum of the filmic adaptation: how to translate the feeling of something inherently literary to the big screen?
I found myself loathing the idea of a big, dumbed-down version of Watchmen, complete with fight scenes (there is very little of what could be called “action” in the comic) and tight leather costumes. I was certain this was the only direction such an adaptation could follow. I was only half right. Indeed, the film starts with a ponderous, 5-minute long fistfight between The Comedian and a catsuited Ozymandias, a sequence which takes something like 4 panels to transpire in the comic. Everyone wears leather. Lots of it. In one flashback sequence, The Comedian’s outfit squeaks so much while he’s pacing that it is actually difficult to hear what he is saying through his cigar-clenched mouth.
The flip side to my initial fear of difference is an overly-slavish devotion to the comic. The majority of the dialogue, for instance, is lifted straight from Moore’s comic script. But whereas specific word balloons in specific panels with specific lettering serve to create a powerful cadence and establish a convoluted temporal flow in the comic, these same lines spoken by live actors on the screen often sound wooden and over-dramatic. This odd mixture of Big Hollywood kowtowing and fanatical attention to Moore’s dialogue makes for an uncomfortable alliance.
Paradoxically enough, I found those moments that differed so wildly from the source material to make up the majority of the enjoyable sequences in the film, because they are inherently more cinematic. By and large they also a push a fairly radical agenda by Hollywood standards, ramping up the sex and violence to beautifully exploitative levels. The lengthy and graphic Nite Owl / Silk Spectre sex scene set to Leonard Cohen was a particular highlight: a lurid, uneccessarily long and absolutely fantastic onscreen fuck in which Nite Owl overcomes his impotence, complete with a hysterical flamethrower ejaculation denoument straight out of the old Batman TV show. It is such an utterly ridiculous and misplaced pastiche that I could not help but bask in its authenticity.
Some big (wait for it) changes from the comic made my brain itch a little; I’m only a human fanboy. I was legitimately overjoyed to see Doc Manhattan’s blue supergod cock on frequent display, but laughed at the size. When Dave Gibbons draws the Doc, the dick is rightly an afterthought, tiny and flaccid, no more worthy of scrutiny than any other part of the body. The character’s nudity is only interesting insofar as it is devoid of shock value. The concession to Hollywood’s conception of male frontal nudity (and Billy Crudup’s ego, no doubt) seems to have been to make the wang massive, pendulous, and on its way to being two feet long fully erect. Actually, as I’m typing this I’m spontaneously beginning to enjoy the Doc’s new super-sized junk; it’s like the ultimate personification of the Big Dumbification of completely arbitrary elements of the story.
This is the kind of weird shit that happens the more I think about this film; I uniformly despise its adherence to the original even as I come to relish its bastardizations. The big exception is the ending. Even before its release, Snyder was known to have removed Moore’s famous squid masterstroke. The replacement concept, the trickery of Doc Manhattan, feels weak in comparison, but I can roll with it. My biggest problem with the ending, indeed with the entire movie, is that Snyder pulls the punch.
In the end of Watchmen as Moore intended it, we are meant to realize that Ozymandias is the only real “hero” in a cast otherwise populated by sociopaths, fetishists and gods; that only by slaughtering millions of people could he reasonably become the savior of the world and overcome the pedestrian concerns of his fellow underwear perverts. He commits genocide in order to ensure humanity’s continuance. For some reason, this is all unfolding nicely in Snyder’s version, when suddenyl Nite Owl develops a case of the righteousness and slaps Ozy around a bit and tells him, “For shame!” and Ozy feels sad about what he’s done, standing alone in his broken castle looking depressed.
What. The. Fuck.
By inserting this one unbearably inane sequence, Snyder completely devalues the impact of Watchmen’s ending. It literally serves no purpose, it enhances no aspect of the story, adds no special layer to any of the characters; it does nothing but pussy out of a powerful, morally repugnant ending.
On and on the contradictions flow. Take the music for example, the awkward, out-of-place Big Hits soundtrack. It’s actually a reference to the chapter headings in each of the original 12 issues, but this inept fanservice only confuses the film’s timeframe and characterization; “The Sound of Silence” at The Comedian’s funeral? – I’m not even going to pretend that Snyder is clever enough to have utilized the song to an ironic purpose.
It’s a wreck. A Rorscharch meat cleaver to the head instead of a nice metaphorical house fire. An abattoir of retarded children. By representing something truly adult by Hollywood’s standards (an accomplishment I sincerely appreciate), it simultaneously devalues everything the comic stands for. It’s big. It’s dumb as fuck. It’s kind of important. I can only throw my hands in the air. “The Watchmen Review” is doomed to continue forever, and Watchmen itself is doomed by its very nature to never be appropriately adapted. It’s a film that by all rights should never have been made; but here it is.