10 or so FAVORITES OF 2011

Posted in JIMMY ON MOVIES: Thoughts on Films, The Folks Who Make Them, & Those Who Love Them on January 28th, 2012 by Jim Delaney

2011 was a peculiarly reminiscent year for my favorite movies. Maybe it’s because my age is rapidly approaching the Hitchhiker’s answer to The Big Question. Maybe we are at the cusp of a generational shift, wherein a perfect storm of technology, distribution platforms, and expanding thematic material have led us back to a cultural wild wild west like we have not seen since the Corman generation. Some films hearkened back to the tone of the 1970’s & 80’s films on which I was raised, films created by that film school educated Corman generation: Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese, Spielberg et al. Some featured staple characters of the era: bands of felt and fur, buddy cops, and fringe-dwelling loners. Other films were created by luminaries whose 70’s and 80’s films aided in my nerd evolution: Woody Allen, Werner Herzog, and Pedro Almadovar all hit career highlights in 2011.

10. THE GUARD, written & directed by John Michael McDonagh. McDonagh’s brother Martin wrote and directed IN BRUGES, another stand out film for Brendan Gleeson, which makes me wonder what growing up in their house must have been like?! Gleeson plays County Galway police sergeant Gerry Boyle, a drunken whoring embarrassment of a cop, who realizes he is the one cop in his precinct who is not on take from local drug smugglers. Don Cheadle plays the Felix to Gleeson’s Oscar, FBI agent Wendell Everett. The interplay between these two powerful actors, so natural at their craft that they make delivering award-worthy performances seem easy, reminded me how long it’s been since we’ve had a really good buddy cop movie. Gleefully politically incorrect dialogue, some very unexpected dramatic twists, and a perfectly balanced tone of raunchiness and danger make THE GUARD a more enjoyable experience than a summer full of franchises.

9. THE MUPPETS, directed by James Bobin & RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, directed by Rupert Wyatt. The Muppets and the Apes were as much a part of my upbringing as STAR WARS. It is a great personal joy for me to see both return this year in a style befitting their positions in the nerd pantheon. The Muppets continue to load a cannon full of chickens and fire it at the fourth wall, and the Apes allegorically respond once again to the social and political climate in which they find themselves. It is an entirely different joy to see both return in a manner that hands the baton to a new generation, a direction that will hopefully lead to continued adventures. I’ve heard plenty of fans complain that these films are not up to their predecessors, that our 70’s and 80’s childhoods are somehow being tainted and capitalized upon; I couldn’t disagree more. The movies with Roddy McDowell in Ape make-up and Jim Henson operating Kermit have not gone anywhere. Our childhood is intact. It’s someone elses turn; if you grew up loving these characters, love them enough to let them go. Lose your cargo shorts and Metallica t-shirt, put on some long pants and a shirt with a collar, and take your kids to see the elder statesmen (statesmuppets? statesmonkeys?) of American fantasy films.

8. MONEYBALL, directed by Bennett Miller. written by Stan Chervin, Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. I expected MONEYBALL to be good, but not that it would be a singular story within baseball films, and sports films in general. Miller shows the same sure-handed direction that he did with CAPOTE, similar to Eastwood at his best, allowing each moment to resonate without dragging. Miller’s style is a perfect match for for Zailian’s pace and Sorkin’s dialogue. Though Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) observes the tendency to romanticize baseball, there is very little thrill-of-the-grass here. This movie lives and breathes in the florescent lit cinderblock offices and conference rooms beneath the stadium. MONEYBALL has more in common with the verbal brinksmanship of THIRTEEN DAYS than it does with other sports movies. By the time the story turns to the action on the field, we have become so familiar with the head aches and heart attacks it took to get there, that the loses sting more deeply and the wins are joyous but nonetheless emotionally draining.

7. CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, written & directed by Werner Herzog. I have been a devout fan of Werner Herzog since a revival screening of NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE (which I attended for extra credit in my high school German class) set me on a path of following him to corners of the world and the mind where most filmmakers fear to tread. In the past decade or so I’ve come to appreciate Herzog’s documentaries even more than his narrative films. His blatantly honest and provocatively insightful presence as interviewer and commentator makes his docs a unique experience in the field of nonfiction film. Here he has chosen to use the 3-D format to render one of those remote corners that most of us will never ever get to see, and in greater detail than we ever could have hoped for. The titular caves are in rural France, and contain probably the earliest known examples of cave drawings by prehistoric man. Leave it to Herzog to take an art form so untested that many still see it more as a commercial ploy than a tool of a “serious artist” and use it to explore the most ancient form of human storytelling.

6. 13 ASSASSINS, directed by Takashi Miike. Being a fan of Takashi Miike can be as frustrating an experience as being a Prince fan. These are two such relentlessly creative forces that their output frequently tasks our ability to process all of it. Their work is usually very good, but occasionally mediocre; often when they do something amazing, they’re already two or three projects further down the road by the time we realize it! 13 ASSASSINS is as impressive as Miike’s manic ICHI THE KILLER, but it also contains the gnawing reservedness of AUDITION. When samurai ultra violence erupts, bodies fly and blood spatters like a hurricane. In between those battles though, we are treated to vividly drawn character moments worthy of Kihachi Okamoto. Of course Miike had already completed two features and a television pilot, and was shooting another feature and in pre-production on yet another, by the time 13 ASSASSINS opened in the U.S.

5. THE TREE OF LIFE, written & directed by Terrence Malick. A movie theater in Connecticut reportedly taped a sign inside their box office informing patrons that there would be no refunds for people who do not understand THE TREE OF LIFE. I love Terrence Malick for maintaining the same elegiac vision that frustrated a legion of moviegoers who expected a Pacific Theater companion to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN from the trailers for THE THIN RED LINE. This movie really is nowhere near as challenging as some make it out to be. It is simply the story of the O’Briens, an average family in an average Texas town, with three average children growing up in the 1950’s. What sets it aside from a litany of other coming of age films is that Malick chooses to focus on quiet moments of genuine personal epiphany rather than the same tired big family gathering events that stereotypically drive these stories. We are told very little, but we are shown everything, if we pay attention. My favorite example of this is a sublime moment after Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt, having a damn good year!) threatens his family and evicts his sons from the dinner table. The dinner table has been a standard symbol of the family in so many films. When Mr. O’Brien sits back down to his dinner following the uproar, he does not scoot his chair to the table, he yanks to entire table to his chair. If you cannot understand the significance of the gesture in that image, I wouldn’t give you a refund either!

4. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, written & directed by Woody Allen. It is so great to see Woody Allen back to form. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS contains so much of what has marked his most endearing and enduring comedies: the fantasy of PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, the literacy of LOVE & DEATH, the cultural hero worship of PLAY IT AGAIN SAM, the cinematic visual acuity of SHADOWS & FOG, the free spirited romance of VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA, and the colorfully drawn characters and vivid use of locations from a dozen New York stories. Not content to simply repeat what he is so good at, Woody uses the framework of a standard time travel fantasy to reflect on reconciling oneself with the past, and deliver a little hope to hopeless romantics everywhere.

3. THE SKIN I LIVE IN, written & directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Holy $#!+ Almodóvar is a mad genius?!? Aside from his own impressive resume, I dig him for rescuing my hero Guillermo del Toro from the Hollywood system, by bringing Guillermo to Spain and producing some of his best films. Now Almodóvar raises the bar for intelligent horror so far that even Guillermo must be awe struck. THE SKIN I LIVE IN has elements of EYES WITHOUT A FACE and the nervous energy of early Cronenberg, but the psyche-bending sexual politics and tragic performances are pure Almodóvar. Many Americans, and perhaps many in the international audience, were first introduced to Antonio Banderas by several Almodóvar films in the 1980’s. Happily, Almodóvar’s best film in years also affords him the opportunity to present Banderas with his most challenging role in years. THE SKIN I LIVE IN is that rare kinky quirky celebration of unsettling oddity and plain otherness that I could only recommend to a select type of movie fan; if you have an open mind and indelicate sensibilities, you’ll be in for a helluva ride.

2. DRIVE, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Refn has batted it out of the park yet again. Whether stalking the earth through the eyes of a Danish drug pusher, a one-eyed Viking crusader, a frequent customer of the British penal system, or a Hollywood stunt driver, Refn has an acute ability to explore the inner life of violent men. His judicious delivery of only the information we absolutely need allows DRIVE to sidestep most standard “action movie” cliches, focusing instead on the soul of a man who is comfortable driving 100mph on surface streets, but who is out of his element trying to hold a simple conversation. We don’t need to know why the Driver (Ryan Gosling, also having a damn good year!) is so capable of unleashing skull crushing fury, only that he can, and will. Something in his life has led him excel at driving and close-quarter hand to hand killing. The vast majority of disposable crime movies would give him PTSD military flashbacks, or a reluctant monologue detailing past personal experience with abuse. Instead DRIVE gives us a man who for whatever reason has these abilities, and finds himself tasked with conflicting options to use them, as well as the question of whether that use will make him a villain or a hero. I’ve heard that James Sallis, on whose novel DRIVE is based, has written a sequel that picks up with Driver six years later. Here’s hoping for another movie; Gosling as Driver just might be the coolest antihero since Kurt Russell wore an eyepatch.

1. CITY OF LIFE & DEATH, written & directed by Chuan Lu. I am cheating here to a degree, but also reiterating my 13 ASSASSINS point about international release dates. This movie opened in China in 2009, and played in many other countries and international film festivals throughout 2009 and 2010. The U.S. limited theatrical release did not happen until this year. Scheduling doesn’t matter, CITY OF LIFE & DEATH is one for the ages. The only thing that kept the story from crushing me was the awe that I felt for Chuan Lu’s filmmaking skill. The film follows civilian of Nanjing and Japanese soldiers who invaded in 1937. Masterful black and white cinematography simultaneously recalls Movietone news reels, rule defining textbook films like ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, and rule smashing cinéma vérité luminaries like BATTLE OF ALGIERS. The sound design is every bit as ambitious and unnerving. This is not simply one of the most intense war movies I can think of, it is one of the most flawlessly realized films in any genre that I have ever seen.

PLUS A FEW OTHER FAVORITES:


THE ADJUSTMENT
BUREAU Love is God, God is Love, and you can experience both if you have the right hat.
THE ARTIST I’m so happy that this large an audience and critical mass has embraced a silent film. This should send a message to The Powers That Be that audiences will accept something out of left field as long as it’s good … and has a puppy in it!
ATTACK THE BLOCK makes SUPER 8 look like THE GOONIES.
COLOMBIANA Yes Luc Besson has taken us here before, but Zoe Saldana just might be the bad@$$ love child of Pam Grier and Charles Bronson.
CRAZY STUPID LOVE Like I say, Gosling having a helluva year!
THE DEBT Raise your hand if you knew this was a remake.
DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK Hey, someone still has to champion Hammer style horror films, and I’m just the nerd to do it!
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO See, not all remakes suck, give ’em a chance.
THE HEDGEHOG This is the love story that ONE DAY and LIKE CRAZY advertised themselves as being.
THE MAN NOBODY KNEW To me the hallmark of a good liberal is one who questions his own ideology as vigorously has he does those with whom he disagrees. Carl Colby is my kind of liberal.
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE This is why we have film festivals. Hollywood does what they do, sometimes they even do it well, but it’s very reassuring to see that a movie like this can find an audience.
MELANCHOLIA I know you’re not really a Nazi, Lars, and I’ll always love you for stirring the $#!+storm.
RANGO the Man With No Name wanders into CHINATOWN, disguised as a lizard. What’s not to love?!
WAR HORSE I was totally unprepared for Spielberg to use this story to send a valentine to John Ford and Cecil B. DeMille.
WARRIOR God bless Nick Nolte. I doubt he’ll win his Oscar nomination, but I’m so glad they at least acknowledged him.

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CITY OF LIFE & DEATH aka “Nanjing! Nanjing!” (2009)

Posted in MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on June 18th, 2011 by Jim Delaney

From the Landmark Kendall Sq. Theater, Cambridge, MA on Thursday June 9, 2011.

Written & Directed by Chuan Lu, starring Ye Liu, Yuanyuan Gao, Wei Fan, Hideo Nakaizumi and John Paisley, featuring cinematography by Yu Cao.

Whether as a lunchtime gathering between coworkers, or online as a movie blog or social media community, The Lunch Movie’s raison d’être is to celebrate the good stuff. There are too many good and great movies out there to bother writing negatively about movies that do not spark my enthusiasm. I make an effort to resist generic hyperbole of the “best” or “worst” variety. Once the provenance of know-it-all nerds, like THE SIMPSONS’ Comic Book Guy, these words have been made nearly redundant by critics more adept at synopsizing than analysis. Nonetheless CITY OF LIFE & DEATH stands apart even among a list of movies I love. It is the most profoundly haunting war movie I’ve encountered since APOCALYPSE NOW.

CITY OF LIFE & DEATH was shot in color and printed in black & white suggesting, at first glance, news reels of the era similar to Movietone news. The first hour details the Japanese invasion of Nanking in 1937 where thousands of Chinese soldiers were quickly cut down while fighting to hold their nation’s capital. That initial newsreel sense of the battle sequences expands rapidly to an awareness of extraordinary artistry. We’ve seen this more in still photography from war correspondents than we have in motion pictures. Composition within each frame is as strikingly beautiful as the subject matter is unnerving. “Epic” is a word that has become as squandered as “best” or “worst.” The massive scope of these street-to-street battles, on the scale of A BRIDGE TOO FAR and the finale of FULL METAL JACKET, should serve as a reminder of the true definition of “epic.”

As imposing as this widescreen doomscape is Chuan balances an intimacy with his characters, reminiscent of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, with the urgency of hand-held vérité style as claustrophobic as THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS. In the crush of battle we rarely catch the names of the combatants with whom we become acquainted. Still they become familiar to us even amid the chaos. The few detractors I’ve come across find only the pace of this film to complain about. Everyone acknowledges the breathtaking photography, and compelling performances, but some find certain parts of the story too slow. It is in these quieter moments that the plight of the characters is seared into your soul. There is very little music here, just the dull tap of bullets and hollow thunder of grenades, followed by pin-drop silence. You may find yourself catching your breath along with the soldiers for fear that breathing too deeply could give away their position. The sincere humanity imbued in the Chinese defenders and even some within the Japanese assault, soldiers we may know only briefly before they are killed, draws us ever deeply into this tragic story. The audience is placed in a position similar to the participants by the story’s ensemble structure; any character we embrace could die at any moment, regardless or even in spite of our hope that they may emerge as the protagonist.

The second hour, spanning early 1938 after Nanking has fallen, is where CITY OF LIFE & DEATH may become too much to bear even for those who consider themselves aficionados of war films. Perhaps even more than the Nazi Holocaust or the Armenian Genocide, Nanking is notorious for an unfathomable number of rapes perpetrated within the first few months of the siege. The film manages to be as harrowing for its depiction of broken and battered women, attempting to comfort each other after being assaulted, as it would have been had it lingered in lurid detail of the crimes as they were committed. Yuanyuan Gao plays Miss Jiang, a character inspired by Iris Chang, whose book “The Rape of Nanking” is among the better known accounts of this battle to have been translated into English. Miss Jiang stands, often alone, as the last line of defense against sexual aggression. She tries to warn Chinese women how to avoid drawing the attention of Japanese soldiers. She is tasked with negotiating which women and children will be spared and at what cost. Through Miss Jiang we experience how each woman was forced to sell pieces of her soul for one more day breathing, with only so many pieces to her soul to spare, and so many days she can survive these conditions.

John Paisley plays John Rabe, a true life German businessman, who helped establish the Nanking Safety Zone to protect civilians from Japanese soldiers. In the film Rabe works with Miss Jiang, as well as his own Chinese assistant Mr. Tang (Wei Fan), to protect his workers and their families. John Rabe has been called The Schindler of China; that coupled with this being a black & white film has drawn inevitable and somewhat appropriate comparisons to SCHINDLER’S LIST. Rabe remains an important secondary character, but Miss Jiang and Mr. Tang emerge as the civilian opponents to the invading army, and it is through their steps and missteps that a traditional tale of redemption is carved from all this random sorrow.

The brutal majority within the Japanese forces is embodied by Captain Durdin (Sam Voutas) while Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi) represents the dwindling core of Japanese soldiers who feel their souls diminished with every day they occupy Nanking. Most of the Japanese soldiers are seen as happy to rape and pillage and wipe the Chinese off the face of the earth. Kadokawa stands for a few who realize that they will never be able to return home and think of themselves as human.

Much as I admire CITY OF LIFE & DEATH for having the spirit to be artistically ambitious, and the technical skill to realize those ambitions, it gives me hope on a more practical level as well. Let’s face it, the average American viewer thinks Karate movies and Kung Fu movies are the same thing, and wouldn’t be able to spot the samurai movie between 13 ASSASSINS and RED CLIFF. Euro-centric American audiences seldom recognize that the history and culture of China and Japan are as disparate as Italy and Germany. While pundits like Donald Trump and Lou Dobbs sound alarms about China, younger characters in this movie remind us that there are many Chinese still living who remember Nanking, or who lost family there. The perseverance and determination of Miss Jiang, Mr. Tang and legions of nameless soldiers reveal a Chinese national character that might be less concerned with Soviet style world domination and more concerned with making sure no one is ever again able to threaten them as one neighbor had done. In the end whether you are Chinese or Japanese, Italian or German, or any hyphenate American you will be humbled by this story’s answer to the question “What price survival?”

I thoroughly understand how excessive it sounds to place a recent film in the pantheon with not only the most legendary war films but some of the more significant achievements in the film medium. This is no exaggeration. CITY OF LIFE & DEATH gave me that sense, which occurs a handful of times per decade, that I was experiencing something that would alter my perception regarding cinema and war and the value of life itself. It accomplished this within the first act.

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