20. Beginners

Smiley Rating:

This movie is about one of the most important lessons of all and that is seizing the day.  This movie is quirky.  This movie is quintessentially modern.  This movie is about coming to terms with who you were, who you are, and who you want to be.  This movie is cathartic.  This movie is playfully inventive which reminds me of the French New Wave.  This movie is charming like Melanie Laurent.  This movie is adorable like that Jack Russell.

This movie is emotionally powerful like Christopher Plummer’s Academy Award winning portrayal of a gay man, who, following the death of his wife of 45 years, comes out of the closet at age 75.  This movie is a celebration of life.  This movie is funny like one of those t-shirts that has an ironic slogan written on it.  This movie is about communication, both verbal and nonverbal.  This movie is about how nothing is permanent, how attitudes change, how styles change, and what is considered acceptable and unacceptable changes as well.

This movie is about love.  This movie is about death.  This movie is about life, love, and death, just like a flower represents life, love and death.  This movie is about acceptance.  This movie is full of small intimate details that speak to everyone.  This movie is about seizing the day before it’s too late, which I already said, and I said it again because it’s important.  This movie is about forgiveness.  This movie makes me cry.  This movie makes me smile.  This movie makes me laugh.  This movie is about not knowing what happens next but going for it anyway.  This movie is about the first day of the rest of your life.  This movie is Beginners (Mike Mills, 2010).

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19. Batman Begins

Smiley Rating:

I should probably start by declaring that I have yet to see the third and final installment of Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises.  I should also say that it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen the second installment, The Dark Knight.  And so, while I can’t say for sure what this all builds up to in the end, I can confidently say that this entire franchise is essentially Christopher Nolan’s reaction to the War on Terrorism.  And I don’t mean to bring politics into this, or to be divisive, but Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005), more than anything, establishes and initiates a dynamic conversation regarding idealism and realism.  Both domestically and in regards to foreign policy.

Putting that aside for the time being, I can’t help but think that this “Batman” is the “Batman” its fans have been waiting for and clamoring for their entire lives.  Which isn’t to say that Tim Burton’s “Batman” was entirely inadmissible, because if nothing else, those movies were at least somewhat entertaining, and even somewhat funny.  They, at least, had a certain discernable quality that can be attributed to the vision of Tim Burton.  However, that tongue-in-cheek approach will always result in a tongue-in-cheek movie, which at best is somewhat amusing and at worse is Batman and Robin (1997).  To me, this approach reflects filmmakers who don’t quite believe 100% in what they are doing.  Let’s just say, it can go wrong.

Batman Begins, on the other hand, takes the complete opposite approach.  Here, they decide to hire a competent, self-assured, established director whose style not only meshes well with the content, but who is also an artist that doesn’t take his subjects anything but seriously.  This resoluteness reverberates throughout.  And the result is a fully realized movie pregnant with meaning, as well as a consistent, unyielding tone that compliments the core of the story, and creates a perfect environment for all of the technical departments to thrive in.  What you end up with is an inspiring epic that is visually impressive, psychologically complex, and dark and gritty— just like its main character, Bruce Wayne.  Speaking of, one of the more fitting lines of dialogue now comes to mind: “A guy who dresses up like a bat has issues.”  Couldn’t have said it better, Bruce.  Couldn’t have said it better…  And in this way, among many other ways, Batman Begins is about mental health.  Or should I say mental sickness?  At any rate, it’s about how fear lies at the heart of all of these conflicts, whether mental or otherwise, and that fear is the essence of the entire “Batman” saga/persona.

Which brings me back to my original point regarding politics and the War on Terrorism.  Fear is at the core of the terrorists, as well as the politicians who react to the terrorists.  So, in a way, the initial incarnation of Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” represents our initial reaction to the terrorists.  That is, beat them at their own game.  Crush them.  Put fear into their hearts.  The problem with this— and this is reflected in the moral struggles and lessons Bruce Wayne learns throughout— is that this fear-based reaction, however righteous the initial intentions may be, actually makes things worse.  It prolongs the cycle.  “All creatures feel fear, especially the scary ones.”  By this rationale, if an increased amount of fear is implemented to deter the enemy, that enemy will only become more fearful and therefore incrementally scarier (i.e. the Joker).  This behavior, in the real world, is referred to as an escalating “arms race.”

Speaking of the real world, Batman Begins works as an economic allegory as well.  Just take a look at the setting in which the movie takes place.  Gotham City, which consists of deteriorating infrastructure, too much crime, a widening gap between the rich and the poor, a corrupt government, corrupt corporations, and well…  I can go on further, but I have a feeling you get the idea.    And before I start to sound too gloomy, let me end with what I think is Christopher Nolan’s overall impression he wants to leave us with.  That is, in a word: cooperation.  Not idealism or realism.  Not liberalism or conservatism.  Not public or private.  Not “or,” but “and.”  Idealism AND realism.  Liberalism AND conservatism.  Public AND private.  Both!  Like “Batman” himself, who epitomizes the idea of a private corporation serving the public, not for profit, but for the greater good of mankind.  Economic patriotism, if you will.  A cooperative merging that isn’t based on a blind devotion to an ideology, rather, a devotion to an ideal.  And together we will move towards that ideal— rebuilding together, struggling together, and ultimately confronting and facing our biggest fears… together.


18. Barton Fink

Smiley Rating:

Movies, like dreams, are the life of the mind, and Barton Fink (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1991) is one of the most mysterious, paradoxical minds of all.  The story— a bizarre mix of classical filmmaking and abstract surrealism— is about a critically acclaimed playwright turned screenwriter who is battling expectations and writer’s block while the pressure from a major Hollywood studio mounts, as does the temperature outside.  “We’re all expecting great things from you,” the executive cryptically says.  But just like good screenwriting, Barton Fink is more about what it doesn’t show, than what it shows.  It’s what’s on the other side of the peeling wallpaper.  It’s what’s outside the frame.  It’s what’s inside the box.  It’s what’s inside the head.  Hell, it’s what dreams are made of!  This dream just happens to be more of a strange nightmare, the lingering unsettling kind that you can’t quite shake after you wake up.

Dreaming aside, Barton Fink is an exquisitely made movie that boasts an all-star cast, all providing superlative performances.  The most noteworthy of which is Michael Lerner’s, whose portrayal of an alpha, silver-tongued movie executive is both outrageously hilarious and frightening at the same time.  The cinematography offered by Roger Deakins is crisp with a golden glow (speaking to the “Golden Age of Cinema”), and contains all of the playful camera movement typically found in a Coen Brother’s picture.  The art direction is apt, especially in terms of the creepy, dust-layered, seemingly secluded Hotel Earle that acts as another character unto itself.  And in addition to all of these well-executed elements, is a baffling screenplay that makes you think you know what’s going to come next, but then suddenly goes in a completely different direction.  It is ripe with visual rhymes and echoing motifs, consisting of an uncountable number of references to boxes and heads, including the Eraserhead-like hairstyle of Barton, the mysterious picture frame that constantly prods us to look deeper, as well as the ominous package left behind by John Goodman’s character.  By end, all of this poetry and perplexing depth almost makes you want to pull off your own head (pun intended).

But there is yet another thing this movie does— and perhaps this deals more with its commentary on Hollywood— and that is it creates a paradoxical tension between the creator and the subject.  Between Hollywood and the Audience.  This duality is exemplified in the relationship between John Turturro’s Barton Fink and John Goodman’s Charlie Meadows.  On one hand, Barton’s passionate appeal to making more stories about the “common-man” comes off as arrogant, judgmental, and condescending.  Though his intentions may be well placed, they are misguided.  “You think you know pain, but you’re just a tourist with a typewriter.”  This seems to suggest that the insular Hollywood is clueless, and is thusly misreading and misrepresenting its audience completely.  Or as Charlie clarifies: “You don’t listen!”  With this, the Coen’s are either saying that the audience is stupid, and that they desire only formulistic, easy to understand movies; or that Hollywood doesn’t give the audience enough credit for being smarter, and therefore should provide more thought-provoking material.  Whether that’s what the “common-man” actually wants or not, I can’t say.

And as I write this, I realize Barton Fink, the movie, would be laughing at me right now.  Laughing at me for writing this.  Laughing at me for reading so much into it, and trying so desperately to interpret the various meanings.  I admit this; I say this, because the movie explicitly tells me so.  It’s written in text, in the Bible, so it’s clearly important.  I even paused the movie to be able to write this text down:

“And the king, Nebuchandnezzar, answered and said to the Chaldeans, I recall not my dream; if ye will not make known unto me my dream, and its interpretation, ye shall be cut in pieces, and of your tents shall be made a dunghill.”

My initial reaction to this strange text is that it is absurd and ironically reflects the absurdity of an eager viewer like me trying to desperately interpret this movie.  It’s like trying to recall and interpret someone else’s dream for them, simply by dissecting the way they are eating their salad at lunch.  It’s absurd.  But this text also self-reflexively comments on writing in general, and in particular, writer’s block.  That is, writing isn’t the physical act of typing words into a typewriter, or even seeing words on a page.  Writing happens before that.  It happens in the mind.  It is the intangible challenge of recalling an unknown distant dream, making known that dream unto yourself, and then interpreting it in a way that appeals to all, even the “common-man.”  To be unable to recall this dream, however close to the tip of the tongue it may be, is to be stuck as a writer.  It’s to be me at the end of this movie.

 


17. Away We Go

Smiley Rating:

Imagine you’re enjoying a hot cup of Joe at the trendiest, most eco-friendly coffee shop in town.  In one of the corners, an ultra hip hipster strums his acoustic guitar and sings Phillip Phillips’ “Home” in a soothing, laid back manner, which provides for a nice meditative atmosphere.  And as you sip at your brew for over an hour and a half, you overhear a spattering of very intimate conversations between a diversity of young adults.  Some of these conversations are bizarrely funny, some are deadly serious, and others are just outright strange.  This is how I’d describe the tone of Away We Go (Sam Mendes, 2009), a road-trip romantic comedy that tends to be more of a drama than a comedy, with subject matter that surrounds a young couple who are urgently trying to figure out the best way to raise their soon-to-be newborn child.  Luckily, these unorthodox characters have a great sense of humor and share an even better chemistry, which helps us navigate through this serious material.

The end result is a cozy, yet intimate movie that poses two universal questions.  The first is, what is home?  Is it simply a collection of things and people stuffed between four walls in a specific place?  Or is it something more?  If it is something more, what is it and how would you describe it?  The other question, which is perhaps more elusive, is what’s the best way to raise a child and start a family?  These basic, fundamental questions are what the main characters are exploring throughout, as they travel from place to place, with each new locale providing a different perspective on these inquiries.  Interestingly enough, what these characters reflect is a new, up-and-coming generation who are seemingly untethered from the traditions of the past, and who are searching for perhaps a newer, better way.

What they ultimately discover utilizing this open-minded approach is that on one hand “home” is not just a collection of stuff accumulated in a certain location, rather that STUFF is just the raw materials that creates a foundation.  What holds all of this together, what makes it a “home” regardless of where it is or what is actually in it— is love.  Home is where love is, and in theory, love can be anywhere, shared between anyone.  Now, regarding the other question (how to best raise a child and start a family), their discovery is two-fold.  On one level, Away We Go suggests that the traditions that have been laid before us are indeed the best way to raise a child and start a family.  They are tried and trued.  But on a contrasting level, it simultaneously claims that some of those traditions are demonstrably flawed.  “Bad parents still get to be bad parents.”  With this, the filmmakers seem to be suggesting that there is no answer.  Because, inevitably, the question becomes, “what is best?”  Define “best.”  And “best” is relative.  So, of course there is no answer because there is no one right way.  There is only your way.  You can only do the best you can.  You hope that you’re lucky.  You hope you know the answers.  You hope you teach the right lessons.  You hope that you’re not a fuck up.  And regardless of the methodology you employ and eventually pass on, at the end of the day there is but one thing you can consistently hope to bank on:  home.


16. Art School Confidential

Smiley Rating:

One of the aspects I admire most about a Terry Zwigoff film— and Art School Confidential (Terry Zwigoff, 2006) in particular— is that they seem to be entirely devoid of pretentiousness.  Well, except for maybe Ghost World, which has some definite quirk to it, and therefore is probably the reason why I like that Zwigoff film the most.  I guess I just prefer pretentiousness in movies… but that’s a different story.  As far as this film goes, there’s no razzle-dazzle photography.  The structure is straightforward and to the point.  It doesn’t attempt to break ground stylistically or otherwise.  It just is what it is, and it doesn’t care what others think.  And that’s not only why this film is endearing, but it also happens to be the underlying message.

Now, whether this film accurately portrays “art school” or not, is beside the point.  What it does do, and this is more important than the context, is it captures the “feeling” and the mind-set of what it might be like to go to “art school.”  Funny enough, it reminds me of this segment I recently saw on the Oprah Winfrey Network, where she was interviewing a high-ranking film executive from Paramount.  One of the more indelible lessons from that interview was about “staying in your own movie.”  By this, they meant that everyone’s life is like a movie, and that each of us is the star actor of that movie, and our director just happens to be God.  But what they stressed most about this metaphor was the importance of “staying in your own movie,” and in a way, that’s exactly what Art School Confidential is about.

Or to put in a slightly less metaphorical way, it’s about finding and expressing your true nature.  It’s about the desire to fit in and the quest of finding that place in which you truly do fit.  Juxtaposed to this, and thus illustrating the point, is an eloquent line of dialogue delivered by Malkovich’s character:  “He’s trying to sing in his own voice using someone else’s vocal chords.”  This, in a nutshell, is every artist’s, and even every human’s dilemma.  Who am I?  Why am I?  And while some may find their true calling rather easily (lucky bastards), most of us will struggle in making this discovery.  The reason for this, I think, reflects what I was saying earlier about “staying in your own movie.”  When we envy other people’s success, and compare ourselves, and get caught up in other people’s lives (or in other peoples’ movies), we get discouraged and lose our way.  When we’re in denial, or have unrealistic expectations, or have flawed motives— we lose our way.  We end up trying to sing with someone else’s vocal chords rather than our own.  In this way, Art School Confidential is a strict order.  That is, “listen.”  Listen to your voice.  Stay in your movie.  Stay on your path.  In the end, you will get to where you need.


15. Any Given Sunday

Smiley Rating:

One thing that sometimes infuriates me about sports movies is when the “sportness” of that movie comes off as fake or inauthentic.  Not explicitly so, like mistakenly calling a touchdown a homerun, but in subtle ways that you’d only recognize if you were an avid sports fan.  Like, the way a pitcher winds up to throw a baseball.  Or the way a basketball player dribbles down the court, while calling out a play.  These seem like small, insignificant details, but if they happen to come off as false, it can be deadly, as the worse thing a movie can do is seem phony.  That being said, Any Given Sunday (Oliver Stone, 1999) does a really good job of getting it right.  Despite the fictional football league, the fictional teams, and the fictional players, it actually feels mostly authentic.  Helping this matter, of course, is the fact that the movie is populated by a ton of former players and coaches.  From Jim Brown to Lawrence Taylor to Barry Switzer, these appearances elevated Any Given Sunday to a more authentic level.  Be that as it may, I do have to say that if you’re not a sports fan, or a football fan in particular, you may not catch these details and there’s a decent possibility you’ll be bored before halftime.

Luckily, there’s a lot going on here other than football, especially stylistically speaking.  Some noteworthy choices are the cinematography, which is largely done in inspection-like close ups, as well as the loud, pounding score, which gets the adrenaline rushing.  But perhaps the most interesting technical element is the editing style, which appears to be driven entirely by montage.  By this, I mean the movie is constantly cutting from one shot to another in a rapid-fire way, like you might see in a crazy action sequence or an experimental music video.  Apparently it took 4 editors to accomplish this, and while it led to a fast paced, ultra kinetic movie, I wouldn’t be surprised if it also led to a pounding headache for the viewer.  All of these choices ended up shaping a tone that felt more like a war movie than a sports movie, which creates an interesting parallel between the hierarchies of the military, the hierarchies of professional sports, as well as the spectator nature of the uninvolved citizenry in both.  We happily cheer for our soldiers and our players when they’re in battle, but what happens afterwards?  After the war is over?  After the game has finished?  Do we bring that same intensity in helping these people rehabilitate after the fact, or do we look to save money and write them off instead?  On that note, I actually think Any Given Sunday was way ahead of its time, as it is now fairly common to discuss players’ safety and the effects the game has on the body and mind.

On a lighter note, I probably shouldn’t go on any further without mentioning Al Pacino, who I think is perfect for the role of an aging head coach.  I mean, really, what’s better than Al Pacino constantly yelling at the top of his lungs and giving fiery halftime speeches?  Offering their support is an extensive cast of actors (everyone seems to be in this movie) all of whom give strong performances, most surprisingly of which were the football players themselves, including Lawrence Taylor, a non-actor former football player, who was actually really powerful in this movie.  Even L.L. Cool Jay was competent in his role.

The movie is close to three hours in length, and so it’s more than just a story about an old football player clinging on to his legacy while a young player strives to build his own.  It’s also about race.  It’s about drugs.  It’s about ego.  It’s about war.  It’s about sacrifice.  It’s about coming together.  It’s about loneliness.  It’s about the tension between young and old.  The tug and pull between the past and the future.  But most importantly, it’s about respect.  It’s about how the younger generations and the older generations, while they may not always understand each other, need to learn to respect each other.  The young can learn from the traditions of the old, but the old can also learn from the naiveté of the young.  Together, with mutual respect, I’d say there is no limit to what can be achieved.


14. Annie Hall

Smiley Rating:

This girl once asked me what my favorite movies were.  I wasn’t prepared at the time to give a substantial list of movies; so instead, I chose to rattle off a bunch of directors’ names that have influenced me.  Truffaut.  Kubrick.  Anderson.  Tarantino.  Lynch.  Jarmusch.  Linklater.  Apatow.  Bergman.  Godard.  Kieslowski.  I’m not sure exactly what names I spouted at the time or if they were impressive, but we ended up talking about Woody Allen.  And in particular, we started talking about Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977).  And I remember she asked me, in a very straightforward way: “why do you like it?”  I was completely taken aback by the pointedness of this question, and I hadn’t seen the movie in some time, so I struggled mightily to formulate a satisfying response.  If I were to be asked that same question now, on September 24, 2012, some thirty-five years after the initial release, I would say this:

I like Annie Hall because even after all of those years, and after all the rip offs and imitations, this romantic comedy still somehow comes across as surprisingly fresh, wickedly smart, and extremely experimental.  The disjointed structure and the breaking of the fourth wall, reflects all of those qualities, and more importantly, allows the story to stay fresh no matter how many viewings.  Speaking of fresh, the dialogue is witty almost beyond belief, resulting in too many one-liners to keep track of.  One-liners like, “Hey, don’t knock masturbation – it’s sex with someone I love!”  Or, “My grammy never gave gifts.  She was too busy getting raped by Cossacks.”  Or, “That sex was the most fun I’ve ever had without laughing.”

Adding to the brilliant script is the gritty cinematography offered by the master of darkness, Gordon Willis.  The simple rawness, and the graininess of the film print comments perfectly on the messiness of relationships as well as the setting in which the story takes place (New York).  And while the photography comes off as simple and straightforward, there is actually a lot of movement and some really beautiful, breathtaking compositions.  The fact that this does not intrude on the story or bring too much attention to itself, demonstrates exactly how great a director of photography Gordon Willis actually is.  I often wonder why more comedies don’t aspire to this kind of higher level, photographically speaking.  I’m sure there are many logistical reasons for this, including budgetary restraints, but I would be really interested to see a Judd Apatow-type movie shot by, say, Roger Deakins.

Another timeless, ever-lasting element of Annie Hall is the sizzling chemistry between Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.  They seem perfect for each other.  This palpable energy creates the impression that these two characters are a real couple that has shared real memories.  This, in turn, compliments the way the story unfolds in its hyperactive disjointed manner, which conjures the tone of a casual conversation between two former lovers commiserating about the past.  And just like in real life, these conversations don’t unfold in chronological order, but in chunks of random memories, that remind you of other chunks of memories, that remind you still of other memories.  And despite this disjointedness, I never felt lost, and actually found it rather easy to follow along, which speaks almost entirely to the strength of the transitions between scenes.

But alas, this is a romantic comedy, and therefore it is about love.  In particular, it’s about an island of a character (Alvy Singer), a person who typically shuts himself off from others, but because of this amazing woman (Annie Hall), he is finally able to start to open up, and he even gets a glimpse of true love.  Problem is, it’s too late.  The feeling isn’t mutual.  In this way, I admire how Annie Hall is different from most other romantic comedies.  In most, the love is obvious.  It’s a special feeling one gets when in the presence of their soul mate.  It’s a golden light that emanates, and it’s just a matter of time before they both realize it.  And maybe this “true love” sensation exists in real life, but I think that that’s actually something else.  It’s lust.  Good chemistry.  Kindred spirits, perhaps.  But true love, true love as shown in this movie, is born out of time.  Out of ups and downs.  It happens gradually and it isn’t a specific feeling, it’s something that dawn’s upon you over time.  And most importantly, it’s not guaranteed.  It’s never ever guaranteed.

With that, I’ll go ahead and wrap my impression of the entire movie up with one metaphor.  If Annie Hall were a cupcake, I’d say its foundation would be misanthropy, comedy would be the icing, and sentimentality would be the sprinkles on top.  I have to say, it makes for one hell of an original confection.