For a minute there, a discussion kicked off in 2012 about whether film culture was dead, dying, comatose, reviving or healthy. But this is a vast, indigestible, daunting topic, the kind of sprawling landscape that only shows its true nature from thirty thousand feet, the same way climate change doesn’t depend on the weather forecast. And so the conversation took the easy way out and turned into list-making instead.
Trying to assess film culture by ranking the current films and forgetting the culture is looking through the wrong end of the telescope, and lists aren’t the tool for turning it around. It’s understandable that list-making is currently the proof-of-life ritual by which movie commentators show their potency, but diminishing returns set in once the number of lists on offer passes the first five thousand or so, not least since it swamps the casual audience clear out of the conversation and leaves us talking to ourselves. A better analysis will have to account for the fact that while we were waving our shopping lists at each other, mainstream movie escapism squirmed and morphed again in its role as the biggest cultural drug-delivery system on the books, and $365-million-worth of real people went to Taken 2.
In other words, a snapshot of film culture in my neck of the woods will need to include that my favourite film of the year was twelve years old and shown at a festival to a few hundred people; and that I read reviews of Killer Joe which thought it was written by a woman. Let’s not even get started on how Project X is not a teen comedy.
This year’s list:
Cosmopolis although I like it more now than I did then.
Damsels in Distress in which Richard Strauss composed the waltzes and the twist was popularized by someone named Chubbard Checker. Having belatedly spotted that Last Days of Disco is a stone-cold masterpiece, Damsels strikes me as quirk of a high American blend and another examination of Whit Stillman’s favourite people, those caught on the horns of doubt vs certainty. Once again the static is eventually released as song and dance; no surprise that for someone as perfectly attuned to verbal wit as Whit, musical numbers are a superior form of discourse, communication at a pitch so pure only dogs can hear it.
Dredd, a welcome return to the kind of sci-fi set ten minutes into the future.
Elena, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s piece of needling unease about a homely well-meaning wife who finds herself in need of her older husband’s money and ends up pondering the poisoner’s handbook has subtexts that are not exactly opaque: weep for Mother Russia, again or still. Exquisitely acted, especially by Elena Lyadova as a spark of brunette fire in the gloomy landscape, the magic touch is the addition of existing Philip Glass music, a cerebral way to generate unease without cheapening the mix with anything as superfluous as authentic noir. Any film operating under Glass has actual respiration going on, and this one breathes deeply.
Haywire: Up the amazon, says my notebook. Haywire is very knowing about what transpires when performers who ply their trade in other physical disciplines turn up as actors. In this case what transpires is Gina Carano’s posture and the striking balance of her running action, which Steven Soderbergh features in long uncut shots as the camera-car tries to keep up. Plus the film is fascinating to watch, full of space and light and color planes that prove what skilled cameramen like “Peter Andrews” can do with the RED, and expertly paced thanks to the subtle editing finesse of “Mary Ann Bernard.” What a team they make.
Margaret: Broadly speaking, Margaret looks exactly like what it is: a film by a playwright kept awake by 9/11 who wrote a script with a million words in it, found himself unable to complete, got sued, got depressed, and watched Martin Scorsese wade into the footage until something emerged that had all the rhythms and cross-cuts and rapid jags of the Scorsese experience. But broadly-speaking is no way to tackle this thing. Margaret is a New York film to the core, wracked with the dire unease of a city undergoing a painful crisis of existence but not knowing what to do about it, which is exactly what its lead character endures too. Kenneth Lonergan’s efforts have yielded my favourite type of movie, the kind powered by the belief that actors talking to each other is the sweetest sight of all. And no praise is too high for Anna Paquin, screaming and scheming and self-deluding in a fog of personal confusion. It never occurred to me before how well Ms. Paquin’s off-kilter air would suit an elliptical editing style in the Scorsese manner, but she seems to be jerking with life’s electricity. (The biggest disappointment of the re-edited longer version is that this current is largely quenched.) The mind boggles at what might have happened if Margaret had come out on schedule just a few years after 25th Hour, in which Ms. Paquin incarnated an entirely different pole of the post-Ground Zero experience with equal fire. She could have written her own ticket to the Moon.
Room 237: The tendency of documentary makers to be coolly aloof on matters of pop culture lets Room 237 adopt a serious expression without ever actually presenting a coherent position on its own topic. But more to the point, and pace Jonathan Rosenbaum, the film perfectly explores one vein of modern film reviewing: the idea that art should not be allowed to ripple outwards and become internalized to influence and cajole, but is instead something to burrow into and unlock and nudge in the ribs about its cool in-jokes. Much cobblers to that.
Rust and Bone: The state-of-the-art in CGI limb removal is impressive, but it’s Marion Cotillard’s physicality, heaving and hauling her useless body across the floor and the look in her eyes when she does it, that stings. Plus the film syncs neatly with Jacques Audiard’s earlier The Beat That My Heart Skipped and the frustrations of Romain Duris’ disobedient fingers.
Silver Linings Playbook: Not a great film, but clearly Jennifer Lawrence’s time has come. I guess not many people saw The Burning Plain, or her time would have come in 2008. Her kohl-eyed petulance is the second-best thing seen in Silver Linings Playbook; the best thing is the brief glimpse of a cinema marquee advertising Midnight Meat Train, which makes me think I’ve misjudged someone in this film’s chain of command completely.
And my Film Of The Year, the year in question being 2000: Kaza-hana, courtesy of the Edinburgh Film Festival’s Shinji Sômai retrospective this year. Another humane tumult, but an interior kind, with more compassion and less dread. Kyôko Koizumi, bracelets jangling, dances around her depression on a gorgeously photographed cross-country jaunt before finally succumbing to the void next to an icy river. By that point you would have given a lot to stop that from happening. Luckily Tadanobu Asano takes care of it instead, thus getting his atonement for Battleship in twelve years early.