Dislocation. When I consider the films that I loved the most in 2013, this is the word I think of. The theme of dislocation—uprootedness, geographical and emotional lostness, unstable notions of "home"'—was present in various forms in many films this year.
The final fifteen minutes of Paul Greengrass's Captain Phillips are among the most intense I have seen in any movie in years (particularly the final scene). Certainly, the whole 134 minutes—though it feels like 90 minutes or less—is intense. But its climax and catharsis are breathtaking. It left me feeling shaken, inspired, grieved, and shell shocked, with a distinct sense of "what just happened?!"
Prisoners is about imprisonment on a number of levels. First, the literal sense: in addition to the young kidnapping victims around which the plot revolves, at least four other major characters find themselves imprisoned at various points in the film. The physical imprisonment of one character in the film's genius final shot is especially jarring.
To the Wonder is about a way of seeing—both seeing the world around us, and seeing ourselves properly, something he embodies not just on screen but in his working process. It's no coincidence that it begins with the point of view of Marina and Neil's own cell phone camera (as they travel by train "to the Wonder"). It's the focusing of our attention via lenses on life: perceiving the beauty in the pretty and the ugly, the thrilling and the mundane, and seeing how it all points heavenward. Christ in all; "All things shining" (The Thin Red Line).
It seems our collective cultural memory is ever more truncated. Who of us can remember the Best Picture winners from recent years? Or if you watch the Oscars more for the fashions, who can remember what anyone wore? Memory can be as untrustworthy as it is beloved, as fragile and dangerous as it is indispensable. Perhaps because our frantically paced, fragmented contemporary world reinforces the tenuousness of recollection more than ever, many of this year’s films seemed to wrestle with that very theme.
My best films list will be finished early next week (still a few films to see!) but I’ll go ahead and list my picks for the five best documentaries of the year. Many of these are available on Netflix Instant, and I heartily recommend them to you.
A tender, nuanced portrait of modern city life in Tehran, A Separation is not a political or statement film. It's a film about people and their struggles, specifically two families whose fates become perilously intertwined.
The latest film from Danish provocateur Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dogville), Melancholia opens with a stunning overture, to the music of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, depicting the cataclysmic collision of Earth and a fictitious planet named Melancholia. This sequence, which includes gorgeous slow-mo shots and painterly tableauxs, “gives away” the ending from the outset: the Earth will die, and everything in it. Our foreknowledge of this impending apocalypse colors our perceptions of the family drama that follows—which concerns sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst), Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and their extended dysfunctional family. The juxtaposition of the ridiculous, petty shenanigans of the family and the reality that everything is about to end serves as the film’s central conceit, and it works brilliantly.
Never Let Me Go is a film that sticks with you, packing a punch perhaps more in remembrance than in the actual experience of watching it. It's a startling, unexpected film, mostly in the matter-of-fact manner of its genre-bending exposition. It's a love story set against a sci-fi backdrop, with the elegance of an Austen novel and the quietly somber mood of an Ozu film. It's a jarring experience, and a profoundly moving one.
So much of Exit Through the Gift Shop is shrouded in mystery. The documentary film’s (purported) creator, Banksy, is an elusive British graffiti artist whose identity is unknown, even though he’s the darling of the international art world who routinely sells screen prints for six figure prices. In his first foray into film, Banksy presents us with a characteristically enigmatic but well-executed piece of pop art, billed as “the world’s first Street Art disaster movie."
I love Martin Scorsese. And I loved his latest film, Shutter Island. My full review of the film, in which I focus on its noir treatment of post-war American anxiety and quote Emily Dickinson, can be found on Christianity Today.
The Box is actually quite entertaining and surprisingly thought provoking. It has a great spiritual/philsophical/sci-fi craziness vibe to it (similar to Knowing, which I suggest you rent soon if you haven't seen it). If you liked Richard Kelly's earlier films (Donnie Darko and Southland Tales) you will like this one too. Plus Win Butler of The Arcade Fire composed the score! And it's great.
I love Jim Jarmusch. So I was delighted to be able to see his latest film, The Limits of Control, and write a review for Christianity Today. The film is a strange one, to be sure. It's like Lost in Translation meets Inland Empire, with a dose of 60s-inspired critical theory thrown in. It's made by and for hipsters, so expect a lot of ambiguity, ambient Japanese rock music, and Bill Murray (actually, just a little Bill Murray).
I went to a press screening of W, Oliver Stone's new George W. Bush biopic, last night in L.A. I do not want to say too much about the film itself or my assessment of it yet, but you can read my review on Christianity Today's movies website on Friday.
I will say that it was one of the most interesting movie-going experiences I've had in a long time. The theater was completely full, both with press and average filmgoers. Leonard Maltin was sitting a few rows ahead of me, which was cool. Typical of a West L.A. arthouse movie audience, the crowd was largely partisan towards the left. The first time Dubya (Josh Brolin) showed up on screen, the crowd roared with laughter.
It was a strange atmosphere, though, because I got the sense that this crowd expected Oliver Stone to really destroy George W. Bush--to offer the definitive demonizing portrayal that so many Bush-haters have longed for. They didn't get that, and yet they got a really amazing, complicated film. The crowd didn't know what to do with it. It reminded me of films where the audience forces itself to laugh--and laughs overly loud at the truly funny moments because that's what they thought they signed up for.
In any case, there were a few notable reactions from audience members when the final credits rolled. A few people booed, Leonard Maltin sat mesmerized, and the guy behind me said "I never thought I'd say this, but I was actually charmed by George W. Bush."
For me, it was a strangely therapeutic experience. But I'll go into that in my full review on Friday.
In the meantime, check out my new commentary on election year films, published yesterday on CT.
Bill Maher’s new “I hate religion” agit-prop indulgence, Religulous, is appreciatively passionate and occasionally funny, but all things considered, it’s a rather trifling little film.
There are numerous things to be said about it (both praises and criticisms), and you can find some of them in my 2 star review of the film for Christianity Today.
My reaction was not exactly what I—or Bill Maher—expected. I assumed that I would leave the film totally offended and perhaps a bit distraught. Maher no doubt was banking on me (i.e. the average person of committed religious faith) having a reaction like that.
But after seeing Religulous, I didn’t have much of a strong reaction at all. Maybe it’s because I’d seen all of this stuff before. Maher’s film merely pulls up all the worst, most unrepresentative spokespersons of these faiths. And that is nothing new. Jesus Camp did this in 2006; the “what is Pat Robertson saying this time” media does it on a daily basis.
Religulous is offensive, yes, but not in the sense that Maher hopes it will be. It insults the audience’s intelligence not only because it tells them they are dumb to believe in a deity, but because it assumes—counter to all statistics—that large portions of the potential viewing audience agree. Maher’s film presents an achingly narrow view—the view that religions are all dumb and religious people all stupid—and it doesn’t seem to recognize just how marginal such a position really is.
Bill Maher lives in a bubble if he thinks that there are many people in the world who share his opinion that “religion is the most dangerous threat facing humanity.” He seems ignorant (perhaps willfully) of the fact that most of the smartest people in history have been religious, and that most reform movements and humanitarian aid has had religious origins.
Ultimately, this is why Religulous is so disappointing. It is too wrapped up in itself, too out-of-touch, to have anything to say to anybody. It can be cute, and funny (and frequently is), but it’s not important. It’s intellectually boring. And for a movie so devotedly about a “call to arms” against religion, intellectually boring is the last thing you want to be.
Lest you think I’m uniquely harsh on the film, here is what some other critics are saying:
Kenneth Turan, L.A. Times: “Because [Maher] wants to be amusing above all else, he takes his questions not to sober religious thinkers but to the assorted fruits and nuts that populate the fringes of religion just as they do the fringes of atheism. The humor he creates at their expense proves nothing except that dealing from a stacked deck benefits no one but the dealer.”
Rafer Guzman, Newsday: “It's a nasty, condescending, small-minded film, self-amused and ultimately self-defeating. Its only accomplishment is to make atheists look bad.”
Kirk Honeycutt, Hollywood Reporter: “The problem, if you're going to take Maher's inquiry seriously, is whom he chooses to question and where he chooses to go. For the most part, he verbally jousts with evangelical charlatans and redneck whack jobs… Maher doesn't risk questioning a learned theologian.”
I have three new reviews up at CT Movies today--the most I've ever published on a given day. I reviewed Hounddog, Lakeview Terrace, and Appaloosa. Of the three, I'd recommend the latter two if you are looking for a new movie to see this weekend that isn't Ghost Town or The Duchess. Hounddog is, well... I gave it a generous 1 out of 4 stars. Here are some excerpts from the reviews:
Hounddog (1 star): "Films as committed to obscurity as Hounddog rarely work, and in efforts to achieve artistic mystery and subtlety they frequently come across as quite heavy-handed. Here, the heavy-handedness includes a plot that is utterly predictable, characters that are offensively stereotypical, and an overall palette that tries so hard to look Southern (sepia tones, lightning bugs, humidity, whiskey, black men with spiritual wisdom) that it winds up looking like not much at all."
Lakeview Terrace (2.5 stars): "Lakeview Terrace is like Crash in a cul-de-sac. It's a film about race; it's set in L.A.; it features a corrupt LAPD cop. Ultimately, it doesn't take itself quite as seriously as Crash does, however, and instead of using car crashes as a metaphor it uses another Southern California staple: out-of-control wildfires."
Appaloosa (2.5 stars): "As Virgil, Harris embodies a man who is in many ways a classic, John Wayne-esque western figure: grizzled and slightly brutish, but principled and with a heart of gold. He's uneducated, but wise in the ways of the world. He frequently must ask Everett for the proper vocabulary when he is trying to make a point—words like "obsolete" and "byproduct." Everett, meanwhile, is the quieter, double-barrel-shotgun-toting sidekick—an intelligent man who secretly wonders why we even have laws. Both are superb quick-draw gunmen, and both teeter precariously on the edge of using their talents for non-lawful purposes."
D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back was significant on a number of levels—but perhaps most of all for the way that it made “public” the direct cinema/cinema verite style in America. Pioneered in the states by Robert Drew and Richard Leacock’s “Drew Associates” (whose 1960’s production of Primary is often considered the first major film of its style), direct cinema utilized technological developments in portable cameras and sync sound to more organically capture “reality” in an unobtrusive manner.
Last week I attended a screening and panel discussion of the film,The Visitor. This beautiful film from director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent) tackles a very complicated, current issue: immigration. I won’t go into too much detail about the film here (you can read my Christianity Today review here), but I will say that the film is refreshing in the way that it humanizes (rather than politicizes) the immigrant issue. And in this hyper-politicized election year—in which immigration is sure to be a major, divisive talking point—perhaps humanizing is what we need.
As a resident of Los Angeles and Southern California, I have seen the effects of immigration firsthand. I worked for a year at a restaurant in Beverly Hills, where most every kitchen worker was a Spanish-speaking immigrant (legal status unknown). I’ve seen the way that they are treated (by employers, customers, white coworkers), the way that they appreciate their minimum wage (usually sent home to families in Mexico, El Salvador, or wherever it may be). Most importantly, I’ve seen their kindness, diligence, and humanity, which is (apparently) hard for many in America to recognize.
I understand that immigration is a complicated issue. It’s an issue that, in some ways, sits at the nexus of many of the major issues America struggles with today: the economy, globalization, terrorism, racism, nationalism, etc. As such, it’s not an issue that we can easily come to terms with. Even so, I think that the prevailing discourses about immigration (especially from the far right) are very counterproductive. It’s frustrating to listen to conservative radio in L.A. and hear the ugly antagonism and veiled racism beneath the traditional “they’re taking our jobs, depleting our resources, ruining our education system” statements.
On the other side, it’s frustrating to hear the far left use the “we’re all immigrants” rhetoric to justify the presence of 12 million+ illegal immigrants in the U.S. today. After all, there’s a big (and legal) difference between immigrants who go through the arduous naturalization process and immigrants who do not. It’s a legal distinction, and a matter of fairness: should we reward (with amnesty) those who don’t play by the rules, even while millions others do?
Obviously there are arguments for all sides in this debate, and simple answers will not do. But I think that the first thing we should do—especially those of us who claim Christian compassion—is to begin to look at immigrants (legal and illegal) as fellow humans, not as foreign invaders. As The Visitor points out, there is more commonality than difference—on a human level—between people of different races, nationalities, and classes. We all want to survive, to do the best by our selves and our families. We need to get past our nativistic fears (post-9/11 or otherwise) and approach this issue rationally, with prudence and compassion.