I tend to describe Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s Tully, which seemed to be shrugged off when it was released in 2018, as “Follies, but about motherhood”, a reference that, though it may only register for some people, seems apt to me: certainly, it is about the challenges of motherhood (in particular, raising three children), and the skewed and inequitable manner in which the labor and work of motherhood is discussed, and a thoughtful character study of a woman, Margo (Charlize Theron), experiencing postpartum depression. I think it is also about the lives we lead, the ones which we wish explored and embodied, and the struggle to reconcile our past dreams and aspirations with present reality. Read the rest of this entry »
This list should have come about probably… um, six or seven months ago. But, I don’t get out often and my social life is more of a social networking life, so that generally prevents me from seeing a lot of films in the theater throughout the year. Personal ethics and the voices in my head prevent me from pirating or streaming generally, so I either end up seeing the film in the theater (I see an average of about… nine films in theater a year. I know, awesome) or I’ll catch the film on home video.
Anyways, last year was a pretty good year for film. I won’t say it was overly grand or abymal (I will, however, say, that the Oscars were abysmal), because how can you really compare a year to another just based on the films. I don’t even think if “more great films” were released on year than another would make it a “better year in film”. Aside from considering social/political/economic relevance, I don’t think the year matters as much anymore. That being said, the best films (to me) were the darkest ones. And they all, at least with regard to my list, had to do with life. Yes, you could argue that every film has to do with life, but the top ten films I chose from 2011 dealt with life in a particularly large magnitude. The ending of life on earth. The beginning of life on earth. The life of a man seeking redemption and meaning. What it means to live in your skin. What it means to grow up and live life as an adult. What it means to care and nurture for life. What it means for your life to be owned by someone else. What it means to consider the possibility of the end of all life. The ability to life as yourself and not as a lie. And what it means to live life in the present and reconcile nostalgia for the painful truth of now. And, in an honorable mention, what it means to give up your life for that of your bratty daughter. Yes, more than anything, I think the underlying theme of the best films of 2011 was about Life.
Which is ironic, because I don’t have one.
1. Melancholia | Directed by Lars von Trier
It’s no secret that Lars von Trier is the benevolent sadist of art cinema. His films are rarely easy to watch, always beautiful, and always challenging. With Melancholia, he presents to us an operating staging of the end of the world. Though, the end of the world hardly means anything in comparison to the characters he studies in the film and the lives he analyzes. The fly by planet may be that manifestation of depression for Justine, but it’s Kirsten Dunst’s stand out performance that makes the end of the world so memorable. Charlotte Gainsbourg, too, is outstanding ass Justine’s older sister, and their relationship dynamic slowly disintegrates throughout the film. The cinematography, despite being hand held in nature, still captures beautiful scenes and portraits. The impact Justine has, as her emotions fly out of control, is just as damaging as the collision of Earth and Melancholia. But that’s what great art is: a collision of beautiful ideas, sounds, images, and emotion.
2. The Tree of Life | Directed by Terrence Malick
It seems far less important understanding or analyzing the film than it is simply basking in all of its beautiful, daring, and undoubtedly striking spell. At its core, the film may (or may not) be about a family in Texas, as a child begins to rebel against his strict father. But, throughout that story of man versus nature, Terrence Malick dares us to sit and watch as the universe comes together before our eyes. It can be a turn-off for some, but one has to admire his audacity and the sheer scope of the challenge. Brad Pitt’s fierce storm of acting and Jessica Chastain’s effervescent mother nature is a wonder to behold. Love it or hate it, The Tree of Life certainly is a wonder.
3. Drive | Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
What Nicolas Winding Refn often does is say a lot without saying a word. This is especially true of his minimalist, post-modern, nostalgic Drive, in which Ryan Gosling fleshes out an entire character, sans origin story, and still makes us care for his journey in search of self. It’s a credit to Gosling’s ability as an actor that he can convey so much with just a, shall we say, vacant and dreamy look in his eye. With its ‘80s-esque pumped soundtrack, the turbulent and shocking bursts of violence, the neon drenched cinematography, and the love story at the center of everything, the film shifts between being completely original and out of left field and being “Camus Behind the Wheel”.
4. The Skin I Live In | Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Although Pedro Almodóvar revisits his usual themes In The Skin I Live In, the approach is, well, rather different. Taking a page out of Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face, The Skin I Live In mixes horror, a little science fiction, and classic domestic drama for one of the most compelling thrillers of the year. With its production design that negates sterility with fruitful virility, the non-linear story, and superb cast, the film dances around decadent and painful themes of identity, sexuality, and masculinity. The story, though, retains a dark yet bubbly and soapy aspect, sure to please anyone who likes a good twist. Almodóvar’s experiment in horror examines what it means to live as who you are versus who you were meant to be.
5. Young Adult | Directed by Jason Reitman
I sure as hell hope that I don’t end up knowing, or turning into, Mavis from Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s righteous and darkly hilarious Young Adult. Charlize Theron has the looks to have played a high school bitch, and she fits right into the role, almost as if she’d been playing it since birth. Cody’s razor sharp screenplay not only contains painfully funny dialogue, but even more painful examinations of disappointment and maturity, or lack thereof. She is as stuck in the past as one could ever be, manifesting her desires in her dying young adult book series. Joined by a stellar Patton Oswalt, maybe these guys should have paid attention during history, as they ended up being doomed and repeating it.
6. We Need to Talk About Kevin | Directed by Lynne Ramsay
(I’ll have to review this in full later.) It isn’t what you think it is and the trailer does a good job misrepresenting it. I say that as a compliment, for nothing can prepare you for the thrilling rollercoaster that is We Need to Talk About Kevin. With its subjective, completely non-linear style, cracked, broken and fragmented like memories, Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller make the most out of sneers, looks of contempt, and a haunting score. The looks convey more volatility and pain than the dialogue, and director Lynne Ramsay is perfectly aware of that. This is acting and cinematography and direction that kills. For all of its title, once you reach the end of the film, you may be left completely speechless.
7. Martha Marcy May Marlene | Directed by Sean Durkin
A part of me really, really wanted for Elizabeth Olsen to get an Oscar nod for this film. Actually, all of me did, as she would have completely deserved it. But, Olsen does what her sisters didn’t (or couldn’t, I don’t know) do: she challenged herself right off the bat. Playing a damaged girl returning home after escaping a cult, Olsen is effortlessly professional on screen, at once making you think that she’s been doing this for years yet still retaining the naiveté needed to make her character believable. Sean Durkin’s tale of a life owned and then a life trying to get a hold of itself once more is cynical, scary, but downright enthralling.
8. Take Shelter | Directed by Jeff Nichols
More like Apocalypse Wow, if you know what I mean. So many of the year’s best films were actor driven, and Take Shelter is no different. Led by Michael Shannon and his visions of the apocalypse, his descent into madness is arguably one of the most convincing ever on screen. It’s never over the top or hammy, and throughout his problem, there is always a sense of vulnerability that’s there. Jessica Chastain once again pops up and once again gives a superb performance as Shannon’s wife. It’s all about the world ending, and whose lives mean the most to him and how he intends on protecting them.
9. Beginners | Directed by Mike Mills
It may be a little quirky, but it is, above all, incredibly sincere. Beginners is about life, love, and relationship dynamics, but I’m sure you already knew that from the trailer. With its subjective, twee perspective, Ewan McGregor embarks on a new life with a new girl as he remembers when he and his father embarked on a new life when his father came out of the closet. Christopher Plummer is endearing and perfect, as is Melanie Laurents, both of whom give beautifully naturalistic performances. Punctuated by different memories and cute storytelling elements, throughout its entirety, there’s never a false note. Its honesty is the most refreshing thing about it.
10. Midnight in Paris | Directed by Woody ALlen
If you know me or talk to me, you may be a tad surprised that a Woody Allen film, one that I raved and ranted about since its release, is this “low” on the list. Well, a) lists and rankings are essentially arbitrary and b) it’s not that my opinion has changed, it’s that I’ve restrained myself a little. Nevertheless Woody Allen’s delightful tale of the dangers of nostalgia is a pitch perfect comedy that hits every right note. Owen Wilson brings something new to the Woody archetype, making his struggling screenwriter his own, while the supporting cast is absolutely amazing. From mean girl Rachel McAdams, the pedantic Michael Sheen, and the tons of historical figures that appear as Gil travels back to Paris in the 1920’s (notably Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, and Dali), Allen is at the top of his game here. Midnight in Paris is a film that both warns one of the dangers of nostalgia, but enjoys it all the same.
Honorable Mention: Mildred Pierce | Directed by Todd Haynes
Okay, technically, this appeared on HBO as a mini-series, but it also premiered at the Venice Film Festival as a five hour movie. Mildred Pierce, for all of its length, is the closest anyone will ever get to a transliteration of a novel, every word and scene from James M. Cain’s noirish domestic drama brought to life by Kate Winslet. Winslet continues to impress me, taking on the role of the thankless mother as she gives in to her willful daughter’s demands. It’s a sight for the eyes, with the glorious cinematography and production value once again showing off HBO’s good tastes. Todd Haynes classic techniques and attention to detail is to die for. Winslet, though, is clearly the star, and won’t take no for an answer.
Last, but Certainly Not Least: Rango | Directed by Gore Verbinski
Rango is the perfect example of an animated film that just so happens to be aimed at kids, but whose subverted subject matter is elegantly and fantastically handled. It’s a quasi-Western about a lizard who, as the convention holds, pretends to be something he is not. Conventions notwithstanding, the dialogue, allusions, and voice work are enough to wipe any of the inconsistencies out of mind. The animation, however… will blow your mind. Industrial Light and Magic, you know the guys who brought Star Wars to life, make their first feature film and it is gorgeous. It’s photorealistic to the point where you have to squint to make sure it’s only computer generated imagery. Johnny Depp is wonderful, of course. With a story ripped out of Chinatown, Rango superbly goes where all animated films go but few do with such panache: self-reflexivity and meta-humor.
Come back in 12 months for my inevitable belated Top 10 of 2012!
In high school, you have your usual archetypes that have been forever parodied in movies on TV and in John Hughes films. Everyone hopes, however, that by the time you get to college and then get out of college, everyone else will have outgrown those labels and grown up, become their own person, live in the present, and make something of themselves. For some people, growing out of the adolescent state of mind and high school mentality is not as easy as it looks. And it is not nearly as funny as it seems to be when slackers are seen on TV. Encountering the person who still lives in the past and has never grown up is actually kind of dark and depressing. Such an encounter has been dramatized brilliantly by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno) and director Jason Reitman in the film Young Adult. Enter woman-child Mavis Gary, played with pathos by Charlize Theron, a woman who is damaged, living in the past, and so fascinatingly layered, she becomes one of the most cleverly created characters of 2011 and one of the best performances of last year.
Mavis was the most popular girl in her school, epitomizing that horribly affecting high school archetype. She knows the lifestyle so well; she is able to manifest it through the characters she writes in the young adult book series she ghostwrites. At one point in this story, she probably was at the peak of success, with a husband and a good job, retaining her good looks, and on a sad note, still retaining the persona of her high school self. Now, she is divorced, her series is ending, and she gets notification that her high school sweet heart just had a baby. Unsatisfied with the one night stands, the constant drinking, and the state of her life in general, she heads back to her old stomping grounds to win her boyfriend back. Yeah, even though he is happily married with a newborn. On the way, she picks up a strange partner, though in comparison the voice of reason. Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), the victim of a high school hate crime, seems to be just as lost in the past as she is, but at least he is, to an extent more logical. Nevertheless, the two make an interesting team, as he tries to stop her from sabotaging her ex-boyfriend’s marriage.
The success of the film is reliant on three factors: the screenwriting, the directing, and the performances. Diablo Cody owns this film as much as Charlize Theron does, if not more so. Here, Cody has developed fully fleshed out characters and dark, snarky dialogue. Dropping the jargon from Juno, she goes for “just as lyrical” without all the slang. If anything, it proves to be biting and stinging at every syllable. Her humor walks the line of cringe-worthy awkward and flat out hysterical, always balancing the two in the appropriate scenes, without needing to feel desperate. The darkness of the film is accentuated by the dialogue, especially for that of Mavis, whose every line is incredibly narcissistic and immature.
Charlize Theron takes the role and makes it one of the most memorable dark-comedic performances, or just performances, in recent memory. The woman spits fire. Theron is able to completely embody the character that Cody has created and not make forceful changes to it. She is able to make it her own, but not too much, not to the extent where it does not feel like Cody’s character anymore. It is, in essence, a beautiful collaboration. Theron imbues her character with extreme narcissism and un-likability, almost a complete level of insufferableness. But I say that as a compliment. Mavis is barely a sympathetic character in any way at all, as every action she takes is in her own interest. She sees no one else as really worthy of thought, the two exceptions being Matt and her ex, Buddy (Patrick Wilson). It is a testament to both Theron and Cody that they make the protagonist someone whom you do not actually root for or are sympathetic towards, but still make the character fascinating and the film engrossing. Cody writes the character of an emotionally stunted individual, and Theron brings it to life effortlessly. There seems to be a complete emotional change in Theron to channel this kind of wicked character. With that, Theron rings great comedic timing and a sarcastic sensibility to Mavis. Otherwise, Mavis would just be the cold hearted bitch she was in high school. Theron does not try to make the character too fragile, otherwise that would be too predictable. Instead, with she presents Mavis as the hard, superficial shell she always has been. And Theron plays this role damn well, without hesitance or second-thoughts.
That Mavis still lives in her high school years makes the fact that she manifests the life she wish she were still living through the characters in her steadily failing young adult book series. Unable to attain the man she wants, the friends she wished she had, and the popularity that once surrounded her, writing those things is easy (even if it means she has adhere to a “character bible”). The horrible irony that surrounds Mavis’ life is only ironic to us because it is what she wished she had. In reality, this fate in not entirely surprising. The way she approaches it, with complete insanity and apparently without much thought, is what moves the story and adds to the dark humor of the film. Without this irony, the film would fall flat and be just another story about just another ne’er-do-well chasing after nostalgia.
Patton Oswalt demonstrates some dramatic range here, something that seemed hard to do on his recurring role on the television sitcom The King of Queens. Having nearly given up on life, he seems to be in limbo: wallowing in the self-pity he felt when being assaulted in high school and yet realizing that he is a failure when he should be out in the real world. The jarring mentality is refreshing from a character standpoint, something one does not see that often in film. He would want nothing more than to be on his own, but disabled by the attack, he is reliant on others and still has yet to leave the hobunk town that Mavis wanted so much to escape from. It may also be the first time I have seen a “man-child” character (who is almost as emotionally stunted as Mavis herself) who is not a horrible pig that makes the popular crass jokes that infect much of the comedies of the last decade. The thing is, Matt is worse off than Mavis. While Mavis’ life is sad, it still seems to be better than most of those in her small town, although she lacks the “happiness factor”. Matt is physically stunted, as well as emotionally, and slumped in a deep depression that makes it so when he is alone, he regresses into the same deluded and immature state as Mavis. However, like Mavis, the film does not make you sympathize them or even pity them. Observing them seems to be fine for the filmmakers. (I admit fully and completely that Cody, Oswalt, and Theron were robbed of Oscar nods this year.)
The directing here is pleasantly restrained, as it was with Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking. His second collaboration with Diablo Cody, Jason Reitman lets the screenplay tell the story, but still adds his flavor here and there. His visual style is evident through the bleak tone in color palette, but his directorial style takes a slight change in how he presents the characters on the screen. In his previous films, he has made seriously unlikable characters into likeable ones by the end of the film. While this is equally Cody’s doing, Reitman refuses to redeem these pathetic people and simply present them as they are, flaws and all. Kind of brave in an industry where there has to be some semblance of a happy ending or some redeemable factor. Reitman lets the characters continue their perpetual circle of unhappiness and immaturity.
There are some people who grow up, and then there are those who simply do not. You cannot help but pity them a little, but when you meet Mavis Gary, you will think for a moment, “No wonder why her life sucks.” Schadenfreude aside, Reitman, Cody, Theron, and Oswalt make a passed-out-from-intoxication black comedy into something that shines. Its characters are meticulously constructed by Cody, acutely performed by Theron and Oswalt, and scathing portrayed on the screen by Reitman. In the end, in a strange way, you can’t help but love to hate these people. So, they’re damaged. So, they’re emotionally stunted. Growing up is hard to do, especially for these two.
(Author’s Note: I almost called this review “Another Kind of Monster“, but I didn’t really think it was fair calling Mavis a monster. Just an emotionally stunted bitch.)
2012 in Film: #58
Juno (2006) | Directed by Jason Reitman
Thoughts: Diablo Cody’s, erm, interesting jargon is extremely grating for the first fifteen minutes or so of the film, but as Ellen Page’s nuanced character begins to realize the enormity of her situation, the language, as do the characters, tone it back a bit to give more vulnerable performances. JK Simmons and Alison Janney, as Juno’s parents, give the best performances, with every line totally amusing. Jennifer Garner is surprisingly moving in the film.