This essay was originally featured on VeryAware.com.
Before he was asking audiences what their favorite scary movie was, Wes Craven made a scream with the infamous and terrifying A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREETin 1984. As profitable as that series would end up being, spawning six sequels, one cross over film, and a much maligned 2010 remake, Wes Craven stepped away after the first film. However, in 1994, he saw an opportunity to test out some of the self-referential and meta commentary that would pretty much define his work when SCREAM would be released two years later in 1996. WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE is the best of the NIGHTMARE sequels, and one of the best and most underrated horror films ever made. Not only did it set up the themes of SCREAM and its subsequent franchise, but it provided commentary on the process of filmmaking and what happens to that when a little nightmare called franchising happens.
Opening in on what looks like another run of the mill Freddy Krueger film, the camera pulls back from a dilapidated dungeon to reveal a film crew and… the making of another run of the mill Freddy Krueger film. So, it seems, from the first frame, Craven knows what audiences, regardless of their loyalty to the franchise, have come to expect from the series. There’s something different with the tone though. The sense of foreboding and classic Gothicism mixed the postmodernity people have come to be familiar with, but more than that, a sense of revisionism.
But, perhaps, we should explain what’s going on before jumping head first into the film. Heather Lagenkamp is married, has a son, and the NIGHTMARE franchise is pretty much behind her, since it’s been ten years since the original. She has, however, been receiving anonymous calls, having strange nightmares, and is getting the feeling that her past is coming to haunt her in reality. Her son, Dylan, is sleepwalking and experiencing similar nightmarish occurrences. He’ll be standing in the kitchen watching the original film on the television, transfixed by the man with the knives for fingers beckoning the audience towards the screen. Wes Craven, meanwhile, is working on a “top secret” film project, which turns out to be the product of new nightmares he’s been having. Parts of this sound familiar, don’t they?
Wes Craven’s reentry into the NIGHTMARE series is unique for a number of reasons, but probably first and foremost for its ability to uniquely blend fiction and reality, and address that approach head on. Heather Lagenkamp, who played Nancy in the original NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, plays herself. Robert Englund, Freddy himself, Robert Shaye, the franchise producer, Wes Craven, the creator and mastermind, and other cast and crew from the series all make appearances, setting up the film as if there really is going to be another NIGHTMARE film. This is instead of the audience knowing they’re watching another nightmare film. Even some of the camerawork set in reality, with its pseudo-documentary, cinema verite-ish handheld style, suggests that we’re watching something akin to a making-of instead of an actual film. This, however, only lasts part of the time. As much as Craven may like to tease his audience, he doesn’t like robbing them of the experience completely.
The nightmares Heather has been having bring the evil of Freddy Krueger, that notorious slasher icon who may or may not need a manicure, to reality. The nightmares her son has been having bring the horror home. Which may be one of the points Craven is making. Although the influence of horror on children or audiences has been touched upon once or twice before (Michael Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES or Tom Six’s THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE II: FULL SEQUENCE), it really has not been done with the nuance (yes, you read correctly) that Craven was able to achieve with his NEW NIGHTMARE. Several times, minor characters ask Lagenkamp if she has allowed her son to watch the films she’s done and vehemently declare that they have a negative effect on children. And several times we see Dylan standing in the kitchen, staring at the screen or chanting that devilishly catchy rhyme: One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…
Freddy looks different in this film. Wildly different. As if forged in the ninth circle of Hell, the revisionist approach to the design of the character is almost a reinvention, something that is, again, addressed directly in the film. Wes Craven, when speaking to Heather about the script, discusses the evil that has manifested itself as Freddy. In this conversation, he skewers the insatiable producers who feel the need to make sequel after sequel, saying, “But the problem comes when the story dies. It can get too familiar… or somebody waters it down to make it an easier sell…” You see, folks, even Craven knows his limits! A good part of the film is spent illustrating the difficulties of coming to terms with reinventing or remaking something that is incredibly familiar and the hurdles that must be made in order to make that seem like a fresh sell the fans will enjoy. (The fans are a very demanding people.)
He is, of course, commenting on revisionism in general. As a director who has had his fair share of films remade (THE HILLS HAVE EYES, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, etc.), it’s interesting for him to approach the topic at all. But his reinvention of an iconic character would, in some ways, pave the way for Christopher Nolan’s reinvention of Batman and his further critiques on remakes, reboots, and rehashes in SCREAM 4. Not to mention that the script itself makes several appearances in the film, further accentuating the meta-ness. Not only does it appear in the film, but scenes that directly correlate with scenes on the page are almost read from the page. Spooky, huh?
Oh, did I mention the film is actually scary? Apart from being a very smart horror film (with some flaws and pacing issues), Craven brings some Hitchcock worthy suspense. Although it is, at heart, a slasher film (if an intelligent one), the film is so rooted in how meta it is that the simplicity of the Boogeyman walking around and killing people in their dreams is not enough. Like Craven says, it gets too familiar. So, the fear and the scares come from the paranoia and worry from Heather and the maternal fear of what is happening with her son. Watching a child basically having an epilepsy episode just after growling “Never sleep again” is scarier than just having Freddy slash his way through Los Angeles. But when he does appear, the new look – more monstrous than a man just burnt alive – is terrifying.
It’s that fear of what will happen to a child if he or she does watch horror films which Craven is commenting upon. The end of the film takes place in the same dream world dungeon, straight out of Hell, as the set that we see in the beginning of the film. After the deed is done and Heather and her son fall out of bed back into reality, we are left with a thought: the dichotomy between reality and fiction has clearly been made. Therefore, why is it so hard for other people to discern that? The harsh contrast of the jagged edges of the fiction and the innocuous realism of reality are distinctly made, and yet there are people who confuse the two. Craven makes the point in saying that Freddy is “making his way from film and into reality”. That inability to distinguish the two might be the most fearsome thing of all.
WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE is an underrated gem that shows that the writer-director could play the self-referential commentary game before SCREAM. With some nice performances and true terror, the film shines with its insightful look at the influence of horror films on the public and its very self-aware style. Perhaps the point of the film, besides making you think, is that you can and should sleep again. Because it’s all a dream, or rather, a nightmare…
Film is dead. Or is dying. Or is an old folk’s home hooked up to a machine. Or something. (Was I supposed to wear black to the funeral?) The tangibility of film, undoubtedly, is disappearing. As a medium, the transition to digital is terrifying to some and embraced by others. Even as a culture, things are being called into question, and nails are (prematurely) being hammered into the coffin. With that, the film world, dying or being resurrected (You decide!), is producing some fascinating, vexing, and perplexing responses. In one corner, you have pop-auteur Quentin Tarantino saying he’s essentially quitting filmmaking, saying digital [projection?] is “television in public”. In another corner, you have Leos Carax’s gorgeous, complex, surreal masterpiece Holy Motors, which seems to document cinematic and performance history from the beginning, but also perform a wistful eulogy for celluloid. And then you have a little film called V/H/S, an anthology horror film which shouldn’t work, shouldn’t be good, and damn well shouldn’t be nearly as compelling as it is.
Consisting of five vignettes and one “framework”, V/H/S is not my cup of tea. It’s a found footage film. I have no affinity for the style, as I find it generally lacking in substance and too reliant on teenage misogyny and sloppy improvisation and editing. That it is a horror film is not inherently bad; I like a good horror film. But putting found footage and horror together has, lately, been kind of disastrous. I never cared for Paranormal Activity, and when I woke up from my nap during the film, I found out there was a fifth one in the works. The Devil Inside might be the most infamous mainstream, wide released internet commercial ever. Apollo 18, Paranormal Entity, etc. all basically play to the same elements, with no style or panache, never mind insight. What shocked me about V/H/S, more than its lurid short stories, was its subversion of… so many different aspects of the style, the medium, the genre, and the times we live in.
Magnetic Tape as Memory and Nostalgia
The film is built around a very loose framework, which is, in a way, a segment on its own. Called “Tape 56”, a group of male delinquents (shocking) break into a house in search for a specific tape. When they retrieve the tape, they will be compensated with money. While in the dark house, they come across a bounty of other tapes, and, as curiosity killed the cat, they begin watching them. And on each, there is a segment of the film.
Most of the segments have no specific time or setting, but the information can be inferred by the technology that is used to film each story. “Tape 56” is filmed with a shoulder mount camcorder, probably one reminiscent of the 1980s (where the style recalls some of the ‘80s grunge of Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers). “Amateur Night” is filmed with a tiny spy camera in the nose of a pair of Woody Allen-ish looking glasses. “Second Honeymoon” and “Tuesday the 17th” are filmed with your typical DV camera. “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” is told via a Skype webcam session. And “10/31/98” is told through a tape camcorder from, you guessed it, the late ‘90s, but as a “nanny cam”.
What does all this mean? There’s a certain, deliberate nostalgia, for all of its anachronisms, instead of lessening the film’s quality, enhance it. Yeah, the quality is poor, but it’s supposed to be. You have to wonder, how do some of these formats, from the glasses camera to the Skype conversation, even get on a VHS tape? It all seems to the concept of the tangibility of film. For all of film’s (as an artistic medium) evolution, from celluloid to digital, from VHS to DVD to Blu-ray, it’s still the artistic medium that matters. But there’s a wistfulness about the production of the film. The democratization of film isn’t the issue; it’s the permanency of it. Even though these anachronistic set pieces and devices shouldn’t work, the desire to keep them existing is so powerful that they appear on rocking, old school VHS tapes. It isn’t only the concept of how these shorts were filmed that matters; it is also how they are addressed in each segment. The glasses are more voyeuristic than most found footage films dare to be, especially in the middle of subverting a trope; the DV recorders hold secrets, and in “Tuesday the 17th” they address the technical fallacies of the device (tracking issues and pixelization); the Skype conversation works to show the evolution of emotional intimacy over the web; and the nanny cam again works as voyeurism, but as a way to “protect your loved ones” on tape. The female lead in “Second Honeymoon” even says that her purpose is to keep the memories of the road trip.
That such devices and mediums are either evolving into more complex, “better” things or disappearing altogether, is something that V/H/S wants to address. Maybe it’s simultaneously yearning for the simplicity, even the corniness of the past while embracing the future of how films are made digitally. Maybe it does not want to let go of the memories stored on magnetic tape. Maybe V/H/S is nostalgia manifested.
Realism as Artifice
One of the big selling points of found footage films is that the film is told from specific perspectives and that it provides a sense of realism. It’s the bastard child of cinema verite filmmaking and narrative filmmaking. Instead of actors breaking that imaginary fourth wall, the “found footage” serves as more of an openly transparent fourth wall, and one that has no qualms with letting its audience in on the action. Found footage is like “American neo-realism”: generally portraying middle class people (sometimes lower class) doing very naturalistic actions in maybe somewhat unnatural situations. (My analogy would work better if the peasants had the cameras, no?) So, most of the found footage horror, for all of its implausibility, is supposed to seem real. It is supposed to walk that fine line of realism and fantastical horror, from the banal conversations in Paranormal Activity to the natural lack of direction in The Blair Witch Project: it’s supposed to be “real”. On some levels, it may succeed: When my sister went to see Blair Witch upon its original release, she came back from the theater, petrified and asking my mother desperately if the “historical background” of the film was real.
V/H/S does not exactly have no regard for the realism in found footage, but it intentionally subverts that idea. In comparison to most found footage horror films, what you see in this one is entirely implausible. A demon woman killing your friends as she has sex with them, a headless zombie, a supernatural serial killer that destroys the line between seeing and believing (all those tracking errors!), a woman being used as an alien incubator, an exorcism. The only segment of the bunch that seems a remote possibility is Ti West’s emotionally and suspenseful bounded “Second Honeymoon”, where a man is murdered by his wife’s lesbian lover while on a road trip.
What is more, each segment begins normally enough (as with all horror films), but allowing its anachronistic prop to be part of that normality. Sex cam voyeurism is commonplace to the douche bags in “Amateur Night”, whether the actual use of the glasses is an experiment or not. Being hoodlums and recording the adventures is commonplace. Recording your friends on a road trip (and leading them to their death!) is routine. Skyping with your significant other. Going to a Halloween party/watching over your kid with a monitor. All of these are presented as something we would expect from the characters.
The normalcy of it all shows in the film’s execution, or rather the execution of each segment by the respective characters. Needless to say, it is very poor. It’s grainy, sporadically filmed, shaky, a nightmare… But purposefully. Common for the style, this transcends “bad cinematography”. But it is, in my belief, completely supposed to. These are your everyday schlubs, horn dogs, lovers, etc. and they have no desire to adhere to the aesthetic principals that many filmmakers hold themselves to. They are normal people having a good time. And it shows. The deliriousness of some segments (“Tape 56”, “Amateur Night”) contrasted against the comparatively sereneness of others (“Second Honeymoon”, “Tuesday the 17th”, “That Sick Thing…”) makes it look like the mash up, compilation video it’s supposed to be. Or, rather, the random selection of videos that just happen to be there. That complete lack of awareness for consistency works in the film’s favor in subverting its supposed realism.
With the “Second Honeymoon” segment aside, the blatant disregard for realism is fascinating. Here you have a style of filmmaking that is intentionally created to form a certain kind of intimacy with the viewer, and in that you have completely ridiculous situations. It isn’t merely the supernatural aspect of it, but the way the artifice affects the medium and affects the storytelling. The found footage is immediately used to gain a sense of trust, but the trust is bent in half when it is present with wild characters and actions. What V/H/S is able to accomplish is revealing the fraudulence of “found footage” itself. It shatters the illusory nature. It works to tear away the curtain and show the fakery behind something that is used to be “real”. If found footage is the Wizard of Oz of filmmaking, V/H/S is the rather sadistic Dorothy.
Medium as Narrative Device
It is inherent that the camera in a found footage film plays a direct part in the film. As opposed to the camera being a spectator that records the actions, situations, and images in any given film, found footage puts you right there, not only a medium through which the story is told, but as a character as well. Found footage gives you a specific perspective, generally from one character, but the difference being is that that perspective, despite the fact that it is essentially linked to the carrier and works as the eyes of that character, is actually an objective look at what is occurring. It happens to be a rather paradoxical thing in found footage cinema: it’s supposed to be a character, and yet it works objectively (unlike the camera in Antonioni’s Blowup).
Despite the paradoxical quality of found footage, walking the line between the objective and the subjective, in V/H/S it takes on another duty: the narrative device. This is fairly prevalent in found footage films, but again, many do not address it with the same or with as much self-awareness as this does. Not only is a VHS tape a MacGuffin for the first segment, the moment a tape is popped in, the tape itself, the medium on which the story has been recorded, it suddenly becomes self-reflexive and works as the narrative device that pushes the characters. Much like the idea of the magnetic tape working as nostalgia, the tape works as the thing through which the actions are found. The stories are not merely just stories, but documentation of what has once occurred and what affects the hoodlums in “Tape 56”.
“Tape 56” is interesting all by itself (although it is my least favorite of the segments). It is the framework through which the film is told, which means that as opposed to being one straight segment, it bounces back and forth between the tapes found and the characters in the segment. Thus, the VHS tapes that hold the rest of the segments of the film all have their own influences on a character or characters in “Tape 56”. Generally speaking, though, the effect is superficially minimal. It isn’t necessarily the reactions which are proof that the medium works as the narrative device; in fact, it’s just the opposite.
That there is a blue screen and a constant jumping around between previous stupid things the guys have done serves as your device. The VHS tapes, all of them, work as a record of the past and of the present. The guy trying to secretly make a sex tape (all the while using that lame “The red light means it’s off!” excuse), the garage assault, and the breaking and entering are parts of a whole that serve both as the format through which the film is told as well as the driving force.
Magnetic tape has a finite length in a cassette, which means that the jumping back and forth to what may be the present and what may be the past inherently forces the film and the story to drive forward. The film must continue running through until the end. That is what I mean by medium as narrative device.
But with the other segments implementing anachronistic technology, what does that mean for them? It means the same thing. The story is help on tapes, making the tangible medium the device by pushing it forward mechanically. Not to mention that the rest of the devices all have a specific limit through which they can record and by what means. And while each character holds the camera, it becomes character driven, thus connecting the links between medium as character and not just innocuous spectator. The camera as character is then active in the decisions made, shaping the film.
Even its fly on the wall nature works to push the story forward. If every experience for the characters then has a certain kind of immediacy in an environment where it tends to be the boring routine, recording it then places meaning upon each action.
Like the tape in each VHS cassette, the story won’t stop and can’t stop. It must go on.
V/H/S is not an inherently “good” movie, but it is compelling enough that much of its disregard is unwarranted. The fear factor is negligible (though I am not really the best to ask), and some segments are significantly better than others. But the anthological nature of the film, for all of its inconsistency and frantic randomness does everything to make the film more interesting and worthy of a watch. The film seems to represent not only a bizarre experiment done by Ti West, Joe Swanberg, Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Glenn McQuaid, and Radio Silence, but as discernible and physical evidence that film, however you want to define it, is changing. While it does everything to subvert the found footage style, it works to make the medium represent wistful nostalgia, to further blur the lines between realism and artifice, and to make the medium itself drive the story and not just tell it. While perhaps not as essentially entertaining as, say, The Cabin in the Woods, V/H/S is another horror film from 2012 that does far more than most expect it to. To some extent, it does more: it takes full advantage of its own style and medium. It looks at its own LCD monitor and history. It looks the audience right in the eye, thereby allowing the audience to look at itself.
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!
2012 in Film: #61
10 Things I Hate About You (1999) | Directed by Gil Junger
Thoughts: Oh, how I love a good teen comedy. From Mean Girls to Easy A and of course the John Hughes of the 1980’s, they just have a certain wit about that that reminds me, strangely, of screwball comedies. The fast paced dialogue and merciless repartee between characters in this film is perfectly reminiscent of Bringing Up Baby or The Philadelphia Story. But this, here, is an update of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are awesome, and it’s just a sheer delight to watch.