Are movies getting better or worse? Or do they pretty much stay the same? I remember watching Dances With Wolves as an 11-year old and being completely enthralled by it. I think my reaction would be a bit more measured now—Why do we need a white protagonist as an intermediary to explore the rape of the American Indian? Actually, Kevin Costner isn’t that great an actor, is he? Isn’t this the plot of Avatar?
Oh, well. Most movies disappoint me in some way or another, but usually when I watch one that’s supposed to be good it’s good. It’s true that I haven’t seen a great one in a while, but it’ll make the experience that much more enjoyable, when I do.
One thing I’ve noticed: There’s so much good television now, our standards for really being impressed by a film have gone up. Production values are appreciated, but they rarely wow us. But the movies still hold the audience experience card—you can’t get a living-room approximation of two hundred people, simultaneously and on cue, bursting into laughter, no matter how cutting-edge your flat screen TV is. Filmmakers would do themselves a favor by thinking about stories which lend themselves to such moments.
Here are some of the more interesting movies I saw this past year:
True Grit—Occasionally I’ve suspected the Coen brothers of goofing with the audience while keeping a straight face. But in the last two Coen films I’ve seen, this and No Country For Old Men (I missed A Serious Man), they make it almost impossible to believe they’re being anything less than forthright. True Grit, based on a 1968 novel by Charles Portis, tells a story so simple you wonder where the cinematic appeal lies. No Country was a gripping chase film which drew you into Josh Brolin’s desperation for the first hour, before dissipating in stolid despair. Grit is a chase film too, but the details are not that interesting. The Coens seem more interested in the characters here, but refrain from telling us anything much about them we don’t learn in the first few minutes. If Fargo is the apotheosis of the brothers’ early style, infusing genre films with their own brand of brilliant dark humor to achieve dramatic motion we never quite see coming, then, in terms of their apparent newfound determination to make movies which succeed on plain narrative terms, No Country is the new Blood Simple, and True Grit is probably somewhere in the Raising Arizona zone. If they ever get to Fargo in this new style it will be a hum-dinger.
The Other Guys—Adam McKay and Jud Apatow are the funniest movie writers of the 21st century, but I’m starting to believe they’ve both already made their masterpieces, which kind of makes me sad. 40-Year Old Virgin comes close to perfecting the use of human foibles for comedic purposes, and Anchorman is in some ways the opposite—a movie stuffed full of sentences that are funny for no explicable reason. (Why is it so awesome and quotable that Ron Burgundy thinks San Diego means “whale’s vagina?” I have no idea. But “panda’s vagina,” “dolphin’s vagina,” “Frankenstein’s vagina,” “baboon testicles”—none of them quite makes sense like the one McKay goes with.) McKay’s movies have a sneaky way of getting you to come back to them and making you fall in love, but I don’t think The Other Guys will repeat that success. The stupidity which is McKay’s natural métier gets interrupted way too often by the 48-Hours-type plot (although there is one action-movie gag that gets a huge laugh). I’d really love for McKay to try another movie in the mold of Anchorman—with completely unbelievable characters and no plot at all. Apatow may be moving on to more serious things, if Funny People is any indication.
The Kids Are All Right—A suburban comedy about the children of a lesbian couple in Southern California meeting their biological father. I watched this with my parents, and halfway through my dad said this movie, with all of the problems its characters were having, was making a statement in disapproval of gay marriage. After it ended he told me that gay marriage was a reality of modern American life, and he appreciated that the gays had issues like anyone did. Gay marriage is not at all what this film is about. But a bad movie probably wouldn’t have turned my dad around like that. (That it’s lesbians probably helped. He quit on Brokeback Mountain right about when Heath Ledger throws Jake Gyllenhal to the floor and starts to frantically shake his belt buckle loose. I kind of like watching movies with my parents which shocks their sensibilities—I know they’re completely left-wing at heart)
Green Zone—Hollywood remains willing to take on the Middle East and the Iraq War, even though the topic’s been a total loser at the box office, which you’d normally bet would be a surefire way to shut them up. But hearing Greg Kinnear as a Paul Bremer stand-in talk about WMDs or de-Baathification, or seeing a fake lunch crowd at the Embassy in Baghdad cheer as President Bush declares Mission Accomplished, doesn’t quite feel right in a movie—it’s either too soon, or, in an age when breaking news is brought to us on the second and movies still take nine months or more to produce, too late. Director Paul Greengrass ingeniously mixes in all of these contemporary real-world references to a quick-paced, action-packed plot, but never comes close to overcoming the queer apathy we experience when presented with these kinds of issues in a movie.
Greenberg—Roger Ebert wrote that this is the role Ben Stiller was born to play, and I guess I agree with him, although we should all be glad he got to make There’s Something About Mary first. I have a natural resistance to indie films about smart, slightly fucked-up people talking to each other and not doing much of anything else. It’s the movies, dahling! Think big! But watching Stiller adapt his misanthropic behavior to a somber, plausible character is fascinating, and the dialogue, on surprisingly frequent occasions, moves beyond writer/director Noah Baumbach’s slightly infuriating deadpan-to-suggest-meaning tone, and gets big laughs.
The Social Network—the most enjoyable experience at the Cineplex I’ve had this year. We get disappointingly old-fashioned lessons in human behavior from director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin, but every aspect of the film is superbly executed.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World—A movie which plays like a video game; and as it turns out, there’s nothing good about that.
The King’s Speech—Is Geoffrey Rush a terrific actor, or a gigantic English ham? You become convinced of both in almost every movie he’s in, and this one is no exception. Colin Firth is very possibly a terrific actor, waiting to get a terrific part. He is very good as the stammering Prince Albert here, but the effect of watching him as a fundamentally good man grasping his way through his strangled-speech affliction is not very much different from the nice but-not-perfect guy he plays in Bridget Jones’ Diary or the poor cuckold we root for in Love, Actually. I suspect when that terrific part comes around, it will either use Firth’s ability to draw sympathy to resounding effect, or play completely against type. (I haven’t yet seen A Single Man.)
Kick-Ass—Graphic novels, I often hear, are the perfect medium to translate to the big screen. They are already visual; the entirety of their stories can be told in two hours; they already have rabid fans. But the results have been as mixed as any other genre, in terms of box office, and honestly I can’t think of a graphic novel adaptation that I thought was really great. (Road to Perdition? Touching, but a little slick. The Watchmen? It’s hard to be as respectful as director Zack Snyder apparently wants us to be, when almost everything we see on screen—the costumes, the determined speeches, the gadgets, the over-the-top violence—we’ve been programmed to want to have fun with.) Kick-Ass does as well as any of them in achieving a proper tone—the violence is serious but not solemn, and the jokes are funny.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1—Okay, I didn’t actually watch this. But I did catch the first ten minutes of Jaws 2 on Starz recently, and I’m wondering: what happened to the innocent bloom of our youth, when we could rely on sequels to be cheap, shameless cash grabs? Why does Iron Man 2 attract A-listers and generate huge box office? Shouldn’t it star Michael Dudikoff in the Robert DowneyJr. role, Lou Gossett Jr. in the Don Cheadles role, and Shannon Tweed in the Gwyneth Paltrow role, and be shot on a $250,000 budget? It’s not a revelation that well-made sequels can work—Empire Strikes Back was made in 1981. I think it’s that in the eighties most competent name directors weren’t willing to sign on to make sequels. But the Potter films seem to attract every new film-festival directing sensation from Latin America. The results are double-edged: sequels are undoubtedly better (sometimes better than the original, like Spider Man 2), but we get to experience less new things as an audience. I for one would rather Christopher Nolan put his energy into something new, rather than bring back Batman and friends to outdo Dark Knight.
Toy Story 3—The best movie I’ve seen this year, and one reason why I don’t quite think Hollywood’s obsession with sequels is necessarily the devil’s work. Might I suggest the folks at Pixar try to do a movie that’s blatantly, as opposed to slyly, marketed to adults? Why wouldn’t they be lights-out at that, too?