Archive for January 5th, 2010

Screen grab from Jane Campion's 'Bright Star', the best film of 2009 in a photo finish.

by Sam Juliano

     Putting together a ‘Best Films of the Year’ list for 2009, was an extremely tedious and thankless endeavor, as it was impossible to accomodate all the films that I felt were worthy of such an honor, and in fact at one point or another seemed a certainty to make the final cut.  Two of my personal favorites, genre films Star Trek and District 9 failed to secure spaces in the final twelve, because eight “foreign” films (three French, one Japanese, one Australian, one Swedish, one Romanian, and one British) left room for only four American entries.  After those four, Star Trek and District 9 would have been next up.  For the first time in over a decade, my #10 slot (traditionally a tie between two films) is now a three-way tie, making my “ten-best” list really a “dozen-best.”  All things considered, I don’t think this is an unfair compromise at all, as I simply was unable to decide between the Japanese, French and British films that finally share that spot, and a placement in “The List.”  The quality difference between #1 and that three-way 10th place tie is minimal, meaning that the numerical routine is largely a one to create a dramatic unveiling.  Still, I attempted to list them in this fashion and after much shuffling (I need to get a life, is there really any importance to this in the grand scheme of things?  Ha!) I finally settled on the current allignment.  Deciding the #1 position between Jane Campion’s beautiful and intoxicating Bright Star and the visually spectacular Avatar was excrutiatingly difficult, but I am content with my decision.  In any case, thse two films were cinematic “epiphanies” for me, and together they head up a list of impressive work from home and abroad.  (note:  I included comprehensive capsule essays for the Top 4, but after that I went with basic and brief summaries.)

 #1  Bright Star (Campion) Australia

 New Zealand-born director Jane Campion’s rapturous film Bright Star, based on a biographical volume by Andrew Motion, tells the story of Keats’s brief but intensely passionate relationship with 19 year-old Fanny Brawne when the poet was 24 and nearing the throws of the tuberculosis that eventually claimed his life in Rome a year later.  As the film opens, Keats has just returned from a walking tour of Scotland with his friend, fellow poet Charles Brown, who is a neighbor of the Brawne family, which includes  Fanny, 14 year-old Sam and 9 year-old Toots.  it a difficult time for Keats financially, and Brown affords him vital assistance telling Keats: “Your writing is the finest thing in my life.”  Needless to say such a scenario lends itself to an upcoming conflict as Keats’s blossoming affection for Fanny is rebuffed by Charles who accuses her of “making a religion out of flirting,” but it’s clear enough that there is some jealousy at play too.  Charles feels that his friend’s artistic soul is at risk by this affair, which is sure to mute inspiration.  But at this point Keats is actually maturing even further, as both Nightingale and Melancholy are written at this time after the death of his brother Thomas to tuberculosis and a preminition of his own death to the same illness.

    At the time Keats and Fanny begin their relationship, the poet had just completed his masterful Endymion, which opens with the famous lines (“A thing of beauty is a joy forever:/Its loveliness increases; It will never/Pass into nothingness; but still will keep/A bower quiet for us, and a sleep/Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.)  Predictably the poem is rejected in literary circles back in London, but Fanny’s a huge fan, and she’s tried to impress Keats by immersing herself in the works of his heroes: Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton.  But Keats’s poverty row status earns him no respect from Mrs. Brawne, who cares only about her daughter’s financial well-being and not about love and happiness.

    Bright Star is really about Brawne, as Campion is content to utilize the poet’s letters and prose as sensuous presence, even though the actor Ben Whishaw gives an affecting, if oddly withdrawn performance as the doomed romantic genius. (But in view of the real-life passing of his brother at that point, constant melancholy would be expected.)  It’s understandable that Campion, a fervent feminist would apply her focus on the female half of the short-lived relationship and its psychological and emotional underpinnings.  It’s clear that Campion was deeply moved by the tragic brevity of the Keats-Brawne affair, and she infuses the film with unabashed emotionalism, by wedding literature to music.  It’s hard not to react when one hears Abbie Cornish, (an Australian with a dark-eyed gaze) who delivers an exquisite and soulful performance as Brawne, reading of the poem “Bright Star” (printed at the outset of this essay) written specifically for her, in a pathetically sobbing and chocked up voice.  And when the stunning Ode to a Nightingale (“Where but to think is to be full of sorrow/And leaden-eyed despairs”) is recited over Mozart’s “Serenade in B, K. 361, Adagio, during the closing credits it’s a sublime, emotionally wrenching moment that you know can only be experienced at the movies.   But perhaps most significantly it’s the silences and non-verbal interactions between Whishaw and Cornish that are the most effective here.

          The cinematographer Greig Fraser makes excellent use of light and air in his quaint county settings, that always seems to bring awareness for nature even in the indoor segments.  The metaphorical butterfly scene, rich in symbolism is a visceral highlight, but the real showcase is a ravishing field of purple flowers that has becoming an art house allure for fans.  Janet Patterson’s costume design in this film is revelatory, and it’s home spun embroidering helps to forge some modest character metamorphosis, and a fine delineation of social class.  It’s the finest work of its kind in many a moon.  First-time feature film composer Mark Bradshaw has written about 20 to 25 minutes of his own material to compliment the use of classical music and his mainly violin-laden work here is haunting, and a subtle undercurrent to the hard-earned emotions that realize full flourish in the final scenes.

      By charting a direct path to the human heart, with compelling prosaic-style direction, Jane Campion tells a story in Bright Star that seemingly needed to be told, and the result is the director’s best film, and one of the most piercingly beautiful in years.  It’s 2009’s best film.

    #2  Avatar  (James Cameron)  USA

Screen grab from James Cameron's 'Avatar'

   Five years ago James Cameron announced that his next film would be a technologically astute blend of live-action and computer-generated imagry that would alter the cinematic landscape.  His story of humans invading the planet Pandora in the year 2154, begins as an exploratory tale involving a team of two scientists and a crippled ex-Marine named Jake Scully who replaces his late twin brother in a scientific experiment, by which he assists in roaming the planet with other remote-controlled bodies, which have been cloned from human and indigenous DNA (the avitars of the film’s title).  This distant world is the source of a valuable and expensive mineral.  The controlled beings are a close approximation of the of the planet’s native Na’Vi, a tall, blue and cat-like species. Jake begins his “sojourn” as an observer, and he soon discovers the beauty, enchantment and danger of Pandora. 

     But then the story takes a drastic turn when Colonel Miles Quaritch requests that Jake “spy” for the coroporate bosses, a request that Jake agrees to after he’s promised exorbitantly expensive surgery to repair his damaged spine.  Predictably, but no less compellingly Jake learns the culture and mores of Na’Vi tribe from a beautiful warrior Neytiri, with whom he immediately develops a permanent bond with.  Of course the immersion into the tribe allows Quaritch to gain the tactical intelligence he needs to enact complete obliteration of the indigenous population.  A large part of

large part of this number is located directly above the planet’s biggest vein of the ultra-precious metal “unobtanium” and if the human leader of this mission, Parker Selfridge is unable to accomplish success by willing complicity, he’s prepared to employ lethal force.  Sully at first agrees with the plan, but after he (in his ‘avatar’ form) falls in love with Neytiri, the story borrows the white-turned-Indian plot thrust of Dances With Wolves.  But Cameron is no fool and he knows the emotional prospects of  a storytelling device where an oppressed people can rise up with the help of one, smitten by true love, and shoot an arrow into the advanced barbarians that threaten their very existence. 

     The narrative device is hardly original but it serves as a potent underpinning to the awesome spectacle that plays out here, culminating in a final hour of action-packed intensity that has the thrills of an endless roller coaster, filled with all the genre conventions, like hanging from the end of a cliff, falling in a canyon into a cascading river, or an all-out CGI battle, a la Return of the King.  But Cameron and his technical staff have succeeded with some nifty digital deception that has raised the bar for such technology.  Hence Avatar pulsates, almost breathing a life of its own in it’s conversion from movie to immersive experience.  A dominant percentage of the film’s locations are quite apparently CGI too, inducing one to wonder if they should called this an “animated film with live-action” or a “live-action film with some animated aspects and sequences.”  Such is this seamless immersion of what is real and what is not to create an illuminative world of arresting images, swirling, incandescent colors and an awe-inspiring beauty that elevates one’s consciousness to a

to a state of spirituality rarely aspired to, much less achieved in any film.  There is an arresting naturalism that almost leaps off the screen which is populated by sumptuous images of day-glo vegetation and the exotic creatures controlled by the Na’Vi.  The lengthy stretches of the movie that are sensory and wordless are as rapturous (very much in tone poem mode) as anything every seen on the screen, and this kind of visual cinema, where narrative is more of a hinderance than a benefit, is Avatar’s most extraordinary quality and it’s true selling point.  It’s true that Cameron keeps insisting that the film needs to tie together plot strands, but this was unecessary, if not particularly harmful.  In this sense, it’s to be noted here that some critics have taken issue with the pedestrian nature of a dialogue, a point I reject in the name of cinematic purity.  Avatar is neither a satiric comedy nor a trenchant stage drama.  Characters and words tell the story, but they are pawns to purvey cinematic expression.  Those who are awed by and feel the film’s magic won’t feel the simplistic dialogue which seems to combine New Age expression and macho agression, is either abnormal or detrimental.  That said, it’s abundantly clear that Cameron’s storytelling prowess widely trumps his talents as a writer of prose.

    But it all comes down to the wonderment and astounding visual tapestries, accentuated by the metamorphosis of a character who sees the inherent beauty in a culture ravaged by war, internal strife and foreign invasion.  This creates in the viewer an emotion so powerful that it defies description.  It’s almost like you found some clues to the meaning of life.  But short of those lofty aspersions, the film raises questions of mortality and existence (much in the style of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain- a giant willow tree holding the meaning of life for all living things echoes the Tree of Life in Aronofsky’s film) and with a ruminative flow that recalls Terrence Malick) that turn a futuristic planetary action thriller into a far more profound philosophical experience.  The blend of mysticism and environmentalism evident in Avatar also suggests Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, whose influence might also be discerned in the scenes of awe and wonderment set in the centerpiece forest sequences.  Avatar is so overwhelming that any objections to pedestrian dialogue or plotting are really beside the point.  This is no movie but an “experience” that has become all too rare these days.

    #3   35 Shots of Rum (Denis)   France

35 Rhums

Enigmatic French director Claire Denis has long ignored traditional plot conventions and a preponderance of dialogue to craft seemingly oblique dramas that have favored physicality and wordless expression.  The noted auteur stays the course in what can rightfully be seen as her most accesible film to date, 35 Shots of Rum, a purposely aimless study of a short time in the life of a small group of Parisians.  Typically, Denis doesn’t rush to present the relationship between characters, and only gradually does the audience discover the revealing narrative data.  And with a noted sparcity of dialogue, her films, this one included, have been maddening for some cinematic prospectors who desire more than the meagre narrative information on display.  The fimmaking style here is abstract, and any hint of linear structure is dashed by small snippets from the characters’ lives which posess little continuity to mirror the way characters meet and interact in real life, which is also a series of encounters and time spent together with no necessary order or sequence.

The obvious influence of the great Yashujiro Ozu’s 1949 masterpiece Late Spring becomes apparent, even without a blunt admission from Denis herself, who explained in an interview for Daily Plastic’s Robert Davis: “I’ve been dreaming for many years of making an homage to Ozu, because actually it’s the story of my grandfather and my mother.  She was raised by her father.  And once I took her to see a retrospective of Ozu, and she really had a sort of shock to see that film [Late Spring].  That was like maybe ten, fifteen years ago, and I told her, “Maybe, once, I will try to make a film like that for you.”  The film’s central focus is on a widowed train conductor named Lionel (played by Alex Descas) who was previously employed in the overseas department at Guadeloupe, and his daughter Josephine (Mati Diop), who reside in a Parisian housing complex with Lionel’s ex-girlfriend, chain-smoking Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) a taxi driver with doleful eyes, and Noe (Gregoire Colin) a good-looking young man who is dating Josephine.  The relationships are well-established at the beginning of the film, so there isn’t any need for any kind of exposition.  So the stage is set for the the central plot machination in Late Spring, where the daughter must begin the new phase of her life apart from her parent.

Yet it’s clear enough that the father and daughter initially seem unable to show any affinity for making any major changes, and much of the film is an emotional stalemate of sorts, compounded by their symbiotic existence.  Yet there is more than a hint in the film that cessation of movement, a major theme in 35 Shots of Rum, can result in tragic consequences as in the scene where Lionel discovers the body of a recently retired fellow worker.  Lionel equates this death symbolically to the failure to “switch tracks.”  As in Denis’ previous films, the actual ‘drama’ is in the commonplace when nothing happens, except for extended looks or glances and the communication of whispers.  Yet the film isn’t any kind of a puzzle or mystery, as Denis is far more interesting in how the characters interact, how they feel, and what decisions they reach.  She’s interested in the fabric of their lives, not the specifics of what is resolved.

     The issue of dependence is and inter-connection is given supreme definition in the film’s most extraordinary scene, (in fact one of the most unforgettable scenes in any film this year) when the four characters take refuge in a restaurant during a rainstorm and commence some slow-dancing to the Commodores’ “Night Shift.”  Considering the complete dearth of dialogue, it’s rather astounding what is effectively communicated here: trepidation and aspirations, and what these people really want and need in their life.  There’s clearly a fear of human connection the retreat into privacy is a kind of human shield to avert being hurt. Long-time Denis collaborator, cinematographer Agnes Godard helps to accentuate the dimly-lit interiors, and close-ups are dominant.  It’s somewhat miraculous how Denis is able to employ minimalism to stir this kind of character depth.  It’s a scene of repressed energy, and it’s Denis’ trademark.  Orchestrating the filmmaker’s focus and vision the four principals deliver affecting and finely-modulated understated performances that create full-bodied characters who navigate tenuous emotional waters.  Unsurprisingly, Descas and Diop are the catalysts for connecting people with events, and their work is studied and technically adroit.  Denis again examines ethnic diversity in contemporary France with great insight, and in the end 35 Shots of Rum is one of her most accessible works.

   #4    Up  (Doctor)   USA

UP 1

 A silent poetic montage that opens Pixar’s latest animated offering, titled Up, follows Carl and Ellie–two children who develop a close friendship that leads to marriage, bliss and dreams of travel and a far away paradise in the southern hemisphere.  The sequence shows both the moments of triumph and adversity and in so doing chronicles the timeless life concerns of love, loss and the passage of time.  But when Ellie gets sick and passes on leaving Carl to make a fateful decision, the film segues into a fantasy inspired consciously or not by Virginia Lee Burton’s Caldecott Medal-winning picture book The Little House, which presents the life cycle of a house being implanted by industrialization, and Albert Lamorisee’s beautiful French short The Red Balloon, which features a boy whisked up into the air by colorful balloons to attain a spiritual nirvana.  It’s a priceless sequence, imbued with sweet poignancy that surely ranks among the best work done in any animated film, and it’s difficult to sustain.  Yet, in large measure, Up doesn’t violate the precious delicacy of its celebrated opening, and utilizes a deft combination of humor, fantasy and adventure to produce what is surely one of the studio’s three best films. (WALL-E and Ratatouille are the others).  Apart from the superhero-dominated The Incredibles, this is the only Pixar movie that features human beings in the major roles.


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by Allan Fish

(USA 1920 71m) DVD1

The curse of the red men

p  Maurice Tourneur  d  Maurice Tourneur, Clarence Brown (uncredited)  w  Robert Dillon  novel  James Fenimore Cooper  ph  Philippe R.DuBois, Charles Van Enger  m  R.J.Miller (1993 reissue)  art  Fluyd Mueller, Ben Carré  cos  Ben Carré

Wallace Beery (Magua), Harry Lorraine (Hawkeye), Barbara Bedford (Cora Munro), Alan Roscoe (Uncas), Lillian Hall (Alice Munro), Henry Woodward (Major Heyward), James Gordon (Colonel Munro), Theodore Lorch (Chingachgook), Boris Karloff (Indian),

There have been many versions of Cooper’s classic tale since the dawn of sound and yet somehow none of them come close to the power of this silent masterwork.  One particularly recalls the 1936 version with Randolph Scott as Hawkeye and Bruce Cabot in another typically nasty portrayal as the villainous Magua, while I can still recall watching the Michael Mann 1992 effort in my local cinema with a sense of disbelief.  Not at the film necessarily, which was serviceable enough, but in the way the plot had been put into a blender until it bore no relation to the original novel whatsoever, even killing off the wrong sister and turning said wrong’s sister’s romantic aspirations towards Hawkeye, not the noble Uncas.  For all its old school captions of ‘dark hair’, ‘yellow hair’ and ‘red men’, this 1920 classic was more faithful and not half so long drawn out. (more…)

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