Monday, December 20, 2010

Best in '10 - The Films

The Ghost Writer - Whenever Roman Polanski constructs a thriller, he manages to take you some place you haven’t been before. When it works (Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and Frantic), it’s an incredibly powerful experience. When it doesn’t (The Ninth Gate, Bitter Moon), it’s just silly. Here, it works surprisingly well. Given the “impossible” Cape house (a set) and all the green screen backgrounds (and the fact that someplace in Germany doubles for Cape Cod), it’s rather remarkable that The Ghost Writer succeeds at all. The best thrillers all have a tremendous sense of place. And Polanski’s “apartment trilogy” (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant) all have an extremely strong sense of place – to say nothing of the brilliant Chinatown. Perhaps it’s because Polanski’s got a durable and believable story here – by Fatherland author Robert Harris – based on seemingly realistic events and worked by an especially expert and believable cast including Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams (who probably knows this sort of thing inside and out, though her pouty, sad look seems hard to believe – especially during the film’s wonderfully invigorating climax), the great Tom Wilkinson, Eli Walllach and Timothy Hutton. Unfortunately Kim Cattrall (using a horrid British accent) is brought in to imitate Emmanuelle Seigner, much as Mrs. Polanski imitates Ms. Cattrall – much better – in Dario Argento’s awful Giallo. It’s a shame Ms. Seigner couldn’t have been here. Many other fine character actors are here, though. The key to this intriguing puzzle has something in common with Harris’ own Enigma and the film finally provides the incredibly great Ewan McGregor, as the unnamed “Ghost” (shades of Rebecca), with a meaty role that more than one or two people can appreciate. This is the best thriller I’ve seen since The International.

Harry Brown – Michael Caine gives a riveting performance as an aging and friendless widower who rebels against the youthful corruption he sees all around him and is forced to live with every day. I’ve seen Harry Brown described as “Death Wish in London.” But this plays more believably and rings truer on so many more levels, aided by scripter Gary Young’s perfectly subjective viewpoint, first-time director Daniel Barber’s incisive way of telling a story with very few words, Martin Ruhe’s fires-of-hell cinematography and some extremely beautiful and believable performances by Emily Mortimer, David Bradley and Michael Caine in one of his very best lead performances in years (face it, Caine is great in everything he does). The performances of the actors playing the young thugs are memorable too. Interesting how the film’s ultra-generic title – Caine’s ultra-generic character’s name – calls up any number of curiously-related film allusions: Dirty Harry, Harry Palmer, Foxy Brown, Jackie Brown (or Jack Carter). This is a great film, with at least one extraordinarily powerful set piece, choreographed at a drug dealer’s lair.

Red Riding - This excellent exploration in overwhelming, long-term corruption set in West Yorkshire, England, was produced in three parts totaling some 300 minutes for Britain’s Channel 4 in March 2009, but never made it to American video screens until 2010. It’s the kind of thing American cable TV channels would never touch or falsely glamorize in some bizarre way: gritty and realistic, sad and scary, thought-provoking and philosophical. Each surprisingly well-connected part, scripted by Tony Grisoni based on David Peace’s novel, was directed dramatically differently by a different director: the best of the three, In The Year of Our Lord 1974, was directed by Julian Jarrold (Kinky Boots, Brideshead Revisited) – with a sensationally adept performance by hottie and the new Spiderman, Andrew Garfield, as journalist Eddie “Scoop” Dunford; In The Year of Our Lord 1980 was directed by James Marsh (Man on a Wire) – with a remarkably intuitive performance from Paddy Considine (Hot Fuzz, The Cry of the Owl) as Peter Hunter; and In The Year of Our Lord 1983 was directed by Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie, Shopgirl). There are many great British actors here, all doing a tremendous job, giving realistic performances with no trace of the usual American react-to-green-screen crap that passes for acting these days. Sometimes it’s so painful, yet still so hard to look away. Special kudos to actor Robert Sheehan as B.J., who gives one of the most sensational performances of all here.

Shutter Island - Author Dennis Lehane has a special talent for writing about haunted individuals. He doesn’t deal with ghosts and the supernatural. But his work often seems so otherworldly that it seems to take place on another plane of existence. Here, Martin Scorsese directs one of Lehane’s novels in one of the most phantasmagorical methods imaginable, yet what he conceives is utterly correct and completely appropriate. Shutter Island is nothing like Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River or Ben Affleck’s excellent Gone, Baby, Gone. It’s more like Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliantly under-valued Marnie (1964), where we are dropped into someone’s private hell and, just like the character in the movie, horrifically unable to escape. Scorsese provides many filmic clues to this horrific place – mostly from Hitchcock (Rebecca, Suspicion, Vertigo, The Birds and, of course, the obviously green-screened fakery that recalls so much of Marnie’s painted backdrops and rear-screen projection) but also from a few Fritz Lang films, George Cukor’s Gaslight, Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase, Robert Wise’s The Haunting, Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor and, even one of my faves, Alan Parker’s Angel Heart. Leonardo DiCaprio impresses as Teddy Daniels (a lot of what he does here is heart-wrenching) – more than he has ever done on screen outside of Gilbert Grape or Catch Me If You Can - but an expert cast including Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Emily Mortimer and Jackie Earle Haley (doing a grown up The Day of the Locust shtick) all positively shine here. Like Michael Mann’s terrific Collateral, Shutter Island is manufactured to look natural. But even though this film looks unreal, its truths stick with you long after the charade is over – just like what usually happens in a Dennis Lehane story. The music score, supervised by Robbie Robertson and consisting of existing pieces of 20th century classical work, is as utterly perfect and as brilliant as the John Adams music used for I Am Love. This is one film I never expected to appreciate, much less even like. But it grabs me over and over again.

A Single Man - This jolt of bravura filmmaking came as a complete surprise. The perfectly simple story, based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel and written, financed (!) and directed with exceptional beauty by American fashion designer (!) Tom Ford, comes together (or apart?) like some sort of Chinese puzzle, though it’s refreshingly more European in its unraveling. Neither judgmental nor resolute, it is like a tone poem on the beauty and ugliness of living and the up and down joys of life. Revolving around a spectacular performance by the great Colin Firth, who plays George, a British college professor in California in 1962 who has lost his lover/partner/longtime companion/significant other/whatever-you-call-it these days (or then), Jim, to a car accident, A Single Man is a fairly common story about an everyman who experiences loneliness on a profound level. Firth is, however, uncommonly good here. He can convey more in a glance than many can with pages of dialogue or CGI effects. It is one of the great film performances of all time – though the great actor will no doubt win accolades for less controversial roles. This is one of the finest performances Julianne Moore has ever given too, as Charley, George’s best friend, an alcoholic divorcee who copes with sever loneliness in her own way(s). Nicholas Hoult, who plays a pivotal role as the young Kenny, is much better than he should be (he really is quite a fine actor) but he’s probably just too beautiful to be believed in the role he plays. Still, he neither escapes any sense of believability nor eludes the belief that he can somehow save George’s life. Ford, with the help of Spanish cinematographer Eduard Grau, sculpts a truly elegant looking piece of cinema here too, from George’s beautiful Mercedes coupe to the gorgeous Schaffer house in Glendale, California, designed by Modernist architect John Lautner. It all looks and sounds so 1962 (like Mad Men, whose star, Jon Hamm, has an unbilled voice cameo here). But it feels completely perfect and timeless.

Honorable Mention: I Am Love - yet another great Tilda Swinton performance, this one in a Russian form of Italian (!), about the dangers of a parent discovering passion after a lifetime of avoiding it; The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the first – and to date – best adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s popular novels, intricately executed with exceptional performances by Michael Nygvist as Mikael Blomkvist and, especially, the fearless Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander; and Zombieland, which is much more fun than many such movies made to be fun actually are.

Waste of Time: Alice in Wonderland, Giallo, Inception, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 - all directed by folks I’ve greatly admired.

Notable DVDs: Ellery Queen Mysteries, Psycho: 50th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray).

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