Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
I wasn’t going to create this list, much less post it. But my friend John, of The Harvey and Bob Show, got an itch in my brain about it and I found that the exercise was much more interesting than my previous entry.
If I were a professional critic it would be my job to list ten films purely on the basis of their strengths as cinema. Since nobody is paying me I instead list these films based on a combination of personal emotion, a sense of the decade as a worldly paradigm, and also their strengths as cinema.
10. The Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring (2001, Peter Jackson)
I was born the same year Star Wars came out and was too young to appreciate the subtler nuances of either The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi on their first theatrical releases. I never knew what it was to be grabbed by the first film and then wait in agony for the second and third installments. And no, Lucas’ prequels did not do that for me.
Fellowship of The Ring, however, did just that. I watched the first movie filled with a strangely childlike wonder, dazzled by the created world, drawn in by the unique, larger-than-life characters. And I was 24 at the time. Still my favorite of the three, my mind retains a thousand details of that first viewing–the first 17 notes of the main theme, Ian McKellen’s plucky and powerful Gandalf the Grey, the sight of a river rising up in the form of stampeding horses, Aragorn cold-cocking a goblin in the midst of a massive weapons melee, Boromir sinking to his knees riddled with arrows. I recall walking out of the theater breathless and feeling, yes, finally, the agony of knowing that I had to survive another year on the planet just to see more of the story.
Seeing these films also became a yearly tradition with my future in-laws, which played a small part, I would hazard, in them agreeing to become my future in-laws.
9. The Fall (2006, Tarsem Singh)
A woefully under-viewed film that I love not only because of the clear ambition and passion that director Singh had for the project–made mostly with his own funds over four years in 20 locations–but because the The Fall is about the relationship between story, storyteller, and audience, and the way that this relationship can shape the world.
What starts out with a clearly fictional and fantastic tale told by a convalescing stuntman to an impressionable young girl slowly begins to evolve and disintegrate as the storyteller’s personal demons begin to gnaw at him, and soon the child has had to pick up the story in order to ensure the survival not only of its characters but of the storyteller himself. The film not only acknowledges its narrative power as a visual medium but also goes into the nature of storytelling as an aural medium in which the audience forms the visuals based on their own worldview–consider for example that when the storyteller speaks of “The Indian” he intends to describe a Native American, while the girl instead formulates an image of an East Indian much like the ones she knows in her own life. As somebody who is fascinated by the lines between fact and fiction, between reality and perception, and within the discrepancies of communication, I could not have been more enamored of this movie.
8. Hero (2002, Zhang Yimou)
A martial arts epic that takes the extreme human concepts of love and war and not only displays them writ large, but also dives into the murky complexity of what happens at the smallest sparks of the inferno. Yimou’s masterful and passionate tale of assassins and emperors gives you the impossible warriors and otherworldly physics found in most wuxia films but also places special emphasis on the art of martial arts, contemplating the relationship of swordplay not only to dance, but also poetry, music, painting, and the written word. The most intricate and beautiful battles in this film do not happen in the narrative present of this movie, but in the forethought and memories of the warriors who fought them and the stories told by the survivors–in many cases unreliably remembered or told by design of the characters or Yimou. And as cinema, the film is breathtakingly gorgeous, utilizing slow motion for its philosophical qualities and drawing individual stories-within-stories in their own lush single-color palettes. When I decided to build my show Contraption entirely in shades of blue and white it was in part inspired by this film.
7. Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Danny Boyle)
I love that the story of producing Slumdog Millionaire is a mirror of the story within Slumdog Millionaire–originally ignored by distributors, set to be consigned to a direct-to-DVD release, somehow the right set of eyes and initiative saw the potential before them and granted it a wide theatrical release, where it won over audiences and ultimately ran away with the top prize at the Academy Awards. A modern fairy tale that roots itself in the East Indian cultural ideas of destiny and one’s place in the universe, Slumdog never shies away from the harsher realities of its protagonist’s poverty but refuses to accept them as an already written epitaph. Indeed, the quality most present in Jamal Malik absent in most everybody around him is an intriguing sense that what he sees laid out before him is not necessarily what his path should be. But my primary affection for the movie is that it is completely alive onscreen, actively moving without succumbing to the kinetic mishmash of other modern films, using light, shadow, fire, rain, and dust in ways that suggest something not filmed as much as sewn onto fabric and allowed to fly freely in the wind.
6. Up In The Air (2009, Jason Reitman)
I’ve been fired from jobs twice now. It hurt like hell both times, even when I knew, in the back of my mind (a) that it was coming, (b) that on some level I deserved it, and (c) that I no longer wanted to be at that job anyway. Up In The Air is a film about attachments; those we cultivate, those we allow to wither, and the ones we never realized we needed. Ryan Bingham, as played pitch-perfect by George Clooney, is a creature whose livelihood relies on convincing others that losing one of the most important attachments in their life is not only survivable but preferable, that what they thought they needed was actually an obstacle to what they always wanted. His lifestyle, alternately, relies on a personal philosophy of maintaining no attachments beyond the items in his single item of luggage.
So it comes as a shock to him when he realizes the ways that his purposeful disconnection has left him adrift, that the miles he covets and the time he spends in airports have been little more than distance and minutes. By film’s end, when his first attempt to break free of himself has gone sour, it becomes clear that the tragedy of Ryan Bingham is that he is so talented at his own empty existence that he will always be that person unless somebody truly special is able to fire him from the business of being himself.
5. There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson)
Like Up In The Air, Anderson’s loose adaptation of the Upton Sinclair novel Oil! is primarily a character study of an individual man doomed by his own momentum…in this case, 1900s oil-man Daniel Plainview, not played but embodied by a superb Daniel Day-Lewis. It would be easy to look at Plainview’s ruthless business sense and dismiss him as a greedy, unfeeling sonofabitch whose only concern is his pursuit of wealth. It would be easy to hear Plainview’s own words about “the competition in me” and consider him a misanthrope through-and-through, self-obsessed, blind to all but his own interests. It would be easy to ignore Plainview entirely as a human being and to examine Anderson’s film primarily for the conflict between Plainview and Eli Sunday and expound on the allegory of Commerce Vs. Spirit.
None of these interpretations get to the heart of Plainview’s ultimate ruination–the fact is that beneath his predatory glint Plainview is a man who desperately wants to care about the world but has been disappointed so many times that his only remaining reaction is to crush the whole of the world beneath his boot heel. While it may seem at first that his adopted son H.W. is little more than a prop for his sales pitch, it is clear at several moments how much he dearly cares for the boy, how much he still cares for him even as he cruelly rejects him when he goes off to seek his own fortune (it could be argued, for that matter, that Plainview’s cruelty in that moment is for H.W.’s benefit, allowing him to act as Daniel’s competitor without feeling any hesitation or sentimentality for the old man). It is clear that Plainview truly wanted Henry to be his brother and that the betrayal was felt not simply a betrayal from one man but from the whole of the universe. Eli’s humiliation of Plainview in the church proves to be the final straw, and is especially horrific because it is a condemnation of Eli as well–had he truly been a man of spirit and faith, and not a petty, vindictive child, he could possibly have brought Daniel some measure of salvation. Instead, Eli assures that, for the rest of his life, Daniel will feel no sympathy for mankind ever again. The maniac who ultimately destroys Eli is a monster of Eli’s own making; he is also the conscious choice of a man who saw no value in retaining his soul. I will remember this performance, this character, this cautionary tale, for as long as I live; a reminder of who I would hope never to be.
4. Brick (2005, Rian Johnson)
Impressive on so many levels of execution that I barely know where to begin. Writer-director Johnson’s first film is a detective yarn about a world-weary 17 year-old, told entirely in the twisty linguistics of Dashiell Hammett, that removes most of the shadows of noir and replaces them with California daylight. It should be goofy as hell; that it is not, that it is in fact one of the most gripping such detective stories placed on film is a testament to all parties involved. Johnson’s understanding of how to handle the tone of his film, keeping it well away from deconstruction or self-parody, intensely committed at all times to the reality he’s created, is a textbook definition of Vision. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who emerged from the past decade as my favorite young actor, is revelatory; every single moment he exists onscreen as Brendan Frye is compelling…from his gangly, guarded posture, his line deliveries like feint-hook combinations, the intelligence hiding behind his glasses, everything is in service to the characterization and the script. The score, I should also point out, by Rian’s cousin Nathan Johnson, is an enigmatic mix of both noir and western, as deep and difficult to predict as every character in the story. I watch this film at least twice a year and it never fails to show me something I missed the last time.
3. The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)
Superhero films are not supposed to do the things that The Dark Knight does. Even postmodern deconstructions of the superhero genre aren’t supposed to do what The Dark Knight does. A “mature” superhero film gives you more graphic violence and occasionally stops to contemplate the nature of said violence. Nolan’s incredible sequel to his own Batman Begins doesn’t forget that it’s a film about men dressing up and doing horribly painful things to each other, but it also examines what it means to be an appointed–or self-appointed–guardian of society, and the ways that power and tragedy can combine to corrupt the most incorruptible. Anchored by a number of excellent performances and deft storytelling, The Dark Knight also emerges as a film that we as a nation deserved for the decade we’ve had, one in which our protectors failed us and our enemies not only murdered and confused us but at times simply stood back and watched as we, in our fear and paranoia, decided to destroy ourselves even further in a misguided attempt to feel safe again. It also takes a close look at the nature of self-identity and the decisions one makes that reveal to oneself who they always wanted to be. Batman is shown clearly to be a persona, but also shown to be the only persona that was able to survive being Batman. Nolan offers a compelling argument that it is the willingness to sacrifice himself at the level of his own intrinsic humanity, not the gadgetry and the superior fighting skills, that truly make him a hero.
2. The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) (2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
The most hopeful and human film I saw in the last ten years that nonetheless puts you through all kinds of searing, heartbreaking hell before it deposits you on the shore of the ocean at sunrise. The Lives of Others tells a story of a Stasi officer in East Germany, one Gerd Wiesler, a true believer in the ideals of the communist government who is slowly having his faith stripped away as he watches those ideals manhandled by small, selfish men in positions of power. When a superior demands he conduct surveillance on an otherwise innocent playwright (a man just as devout a communist as Wiesler, in some ways), he at first complies with his usual degree of professionalism and cold zeal. However, his immersion in the life of his target slowly begins to overwhelm him with the understanding of what it means to love and be loved, what it means to be involved with other people instead of simply lording over their lives from on high. The course of action he embarks upon is at times tense, at times achingly sweet, and ultimately redemptive for not only him but the lives of those others he touched. A remarkable film from start to finish and a reminder that basic human decency can be found in unexpected places, in the midst of seemingly impossible situations, and that this human decency has incredible power if correctly applied.
1. WALL• E (2008, Andrew Stanton)
Above I referred to The Dark Knight as the film we deserved; this is the sort of film we should one day hope to be worthy of. Left behind on an uninhabitable Earth to attempt to clean up after our apathy, our protagonist, not perspicacious but incredibly articulate, examines our detritus and manages to find beauty in the smallest bits of junk and a single discarded video cassette. Not entirely understanding of his own loneliness, he still finds himself filled with longing for contact…and when that contact arrives, his eagerness speaks for all of us. The society of the film’s future has become so focused on its things and its luxury that it has forgotten the simple joy of interaction in the same physical space; WALL•E ends up fomenting revolution almost entirely by accident, focused less on changing the paradigm than he is on making EVE, the object of his affection, happy.
The suggestion, then, is that doing something for the happiness of another is the sort of action that changes the world. Maybe not immediately, maybe not all at once. But it does change the world.
And the next ten, in no particular order:
Good Night and Good Luck (2005, George Clooney)
The Incredibles (2004, Brad Bird)
Synecdoche, New York (2008, Charlie Kaufman)
Almost Famous (2000, Cameron Crowe)
Lars and the Real Girl (2007, Craig Gillespie)
The Prestige, (2006, Christopher Nolan)
Gone Baby Gone (2007, Ben Affleck)
Pan’s Labyrinth (El Labertino del Fauno) (2006, Guillermo del Toro)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009, Wes Anderson)
The Bourne Supremacy (2004, Paul Greengrass)