At the heart of Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi epic Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which opens in theaters for its 40th anniversary September 1st) and Todd Haynes’ (whose new film, Wonderstruck, will play at NYFF) masterpiece [Safe] is the all-consuming desire to feel comfort and belonging when the world you live in offers no such pleasure. Though different in form and approach, Spielberg, whose unapologetic sentimentality is a hallmark of his work, and Haynes, who makes heady, intellectually rigorous movies that more often than not comment on sentimentality than are necessarily culpable of it, find a common feeling that infects both of their lead characters: displacement and — no pun intended — alienation. Read the rest of this entry »
“You can’t really what it is to want things until you’re at least thirty. And then with each passing year, it gets bigger, because the want is more and the possibility is less. Like how each passing year of your life seems faster because it’s a smaller portion of your total life. Like that, but in reverse. Everything becomes pure want.”
Looking in no particular direction, Brooke (Greta Gerwig) says this to Tracy (Lola Kirke) as her life is falling apart. “Everything is pure want.” Maybe that desire, inexplicable and ineffable and uncontrollable, is the biggest running theme in my list, and to get personal, my life. In the films featured on this list and in my personal life, there’s the want for intimacy, to be validated, to be wanted, to be seen and heard, to find stability, to be human, to ache, to feel pleasure, to transcend or eschew convention. It’s full of flaws, complexities, and nuances. And it’s not that those wants or desired be fulfilled that matters: it’s the articulation that might matter more. It’s not only cinematic, it’s human.
As much as I watched movies growing up, I spent more time reading in my youth than watching film. As a result, I was very much the typical “Read the book before the movie” kind of person and often staunchly the “book was better than the movie” person as well. This included things from Dracula, the Harry Potter book series, the cases of Sherlock Holmes, the works of Agatha Christie, the James Bond books, and even the somewhat frivolous choice of Jane Austen (I had a thing for English writers, I guess). However, as I grew to be a better writer, as I grew to love film more passionately, and as I grew to be a better film watcher I slowly drifted from that state of mind to one of “treat the two as almost separate entities”. I’ve become the kind of person who will pipe up defending a film’s interpretation of a book, even if drastic changes are made and even if I didn’t like the film. A film should be able to stand on its own and be as broadly accessible as possible, right? That may be so, but I noticed very recently that, despite my mild evolution in thought, I still relapse into the same state of mind when watching certain television adaptations of works. From HBO’s Todd Haynes directed adaptation of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce to the British television series that adapted Poirot and Miss Marple to the incredible I, Claudius, I’ve inadvertently made a strange exception. And I don’t quite understand why, but I will try to discuss it further here.
One of my most vivid memories as a child is one that takes me back to second grade. I was lying on the bed in the upstairs bedroom of my grandmother’s house listening to the audio book of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, narrated by the great Jim Dale. (Full disclosure: A lot of my “reading” was actually done by audio book. I have no shame.) Sure, the Harry Potter books make not be the literary masterpieces a lot of people my age would purport them to be, but I really do enjoy them and, at that age, I found them to be quite magical. There was so much depth and detail, the characters seemed so fully realized, and I wanted to be a part of that world. I assumed, as do probably most people at that age when reading a book, that the film adaptation would take me to that world exactly as I had imagined. But it didn’t.
Much to my dismay, I was unable to really make much out of the first three movies, which to me, were a fiasco (they still aren’t great, really). But I was so in tune to my own interpretation of the book that it never occurred to me a) the director has his own ideas b) the author has their own intentions and c) the adaptations should be able to stand on their own, in order to make the world more open. Also, there was an issue with running time, so there was that as well. (I still find it kind of strange that director David Yates decided to make the longest book into the shortest film. Clever, but strange.) My own ego was at work here, and fully manifested itself in a very angry letter written to the film’s producers (this is again, in second grade) begging them to adapt as completely as possible Book Five to the screen. All the tiny, minute details, all of the characters, story arcs, dialogue, etc. I was 9, and I thought I was entitled to a complete version of the film. A transliteration. (The letter remained unsent, for the record.)
I had the same issues with several other films, but I think the majesty of something I saw as so fantastical and enjoyable really struck me. Seeing those changes in the film versions of my favorite books literally offended me. I scoffed at the screen. I probably deemed whatever film it was poor due to the numerous changes. The 1931 Todd Browning version of Dracula always annoyed me because they omitted several characters, “destroying” an intriguing plot. For, at that age, I could not be satiated unless it was as accurate as possible.
However, as I grew older and I began to understood film more and more as medium, as an entertainment device, etc. I realized that these departures should be fine, so long as they cohere with the rest of the film. It’s the reason I had such an issue with the screen version of Les Miserables: you approach a film almost blindly usually, with very little context. That’s supposed to be made up in exposition, extra scenes, etc. Les Miz didn’t have that, but neither did the musical. The reason being is that the approach is different. The point being, with no context, you should be able to go into a film adaptation of a book and get a majority of it. Sure, there will be some nuances missed or not understood, some in jokes to please the readers, etc., but generally speaking, it should be a simple, fun, engaging ride.
Now that I’ve understood that literature and cinema, despite their connections and roots, should be able to operate alone, there are a few exceptions I’ve noticed, in terms of how I treat and come back from a film. One of the first is The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I count this as a notable exception because the film was directed by its original author, Stephen Chbosky, who also wrote the film’s screenplay. Rarely, as far as I know, does the original author direct and write the screenplay of the film version (the focus being “and”). In that film, you’re supposed to get the full vision, the full realization of the characters that the author created. And, all said and done, it’s pretty good. There are some notable differences in how the subject matter is treated, and with that ambiguity comes a couple problems: Chbosky spent so much time tiptoeing around certain aspects of his original novel that he mentions a couple things and then drops them without resolution. A couple characters jump the gun and don’t make a “complete circle” in terms of evolution. But, all things considered, these are pretty minor issues. The most important stuff is in there. And yet it’s not a transliteration. It still remains a film that can be treated separately from its source material.
I talked about transliterations a while back in my review for Mildred Pierce and I would like to bring it up again. I haven’t read the entirety of the original novel, but, rewatching the series, I’m struck not only how faithful the series is, but how good it is. Part of the issue of transliterations conceptually is that it doesn’t bring much originality to the table. It suffocates the work (see: Zack Snyder’s Watchmen). But even though Mildred Pierce was exhaustively adapted, using a majority of the dialogue and nearly every scene from the book, it still breathes life into the novel. It is not merely because it’s a film of the novel, but because it still remains an interpretation, primarily that of director Todd Haynes. In interviews, Haynes stated that although there book was essentially the text, he wanted to have every screen from Mildred’s perspective, giving the film a slightly subjective lens. That alone frees it from being exhaustingly dull and commonplace. What may be as important as the source material in an adaptation is the passion the maker brings to it, which includes their interpretation.
That said, had this not occurred, had the film not so lovingly been adapted from the book, with the words practically lifted off the page, I don’t think I would have given the film a pass. It’s a curious thing I’ve noticed over the last few days, actually. For some reason, I’m less inclined to give television adaptations any kind of leniency than I am film.
With film, you’re allotted a narrow amount of time, usually, which means that a lot has to be cut out and a lot has to change in order to meet those constraints (though, I still don’t understand why the dialogue can’t be retained). With television, you’re given an incredible amount of freedom, especially in terms of time, if not necessarily with budget. So, I believe the preconception I approach television adatations with (and others do the same, I think) is: “They have all that time, which means they should be able to get in a majority of the details in there.”
I’ve been rewatching some of the more recent ITV adaptations of Agatha Christie’s books, particularly those starring the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and the spinster Miss Marple. I’m a bit rusty on the novels, but I still remember a fairly good deal about them, at least the main arcs and characterizations. But I noticed some rather drastic deviations. The Nicolas Winding Refn directed episode of Marple called “Nemesis” retains one conceit from the novel and throws the rest away, even changing the murder, the victim, the perpetrator, and the motive. SparkNotes, in comparison, would be far more accurate. I resented this change. Why bother changing all of that? Why bother adapting that book in the first place? For the episode “By the Pricking of My Thumbs”, one of the protagonists is characterized as a resentful alcoholic. Um, why? Was it an attempt to add depth to that character? Was it an attempt to fix a plot hole? (The novel was originally intended for Christie’s Nick and Nora-esque detectives, Tommy and Tuppence, who are relegated to supporting roles in the TV adaptation.) 2010 brought a new adaptation of Christie’s most famous novel Murder on the Orient Express, but even then, I found the changes to be extraordinarily inessential. The darker tone, the focus on Poirot being a Catholic, the change of characters, the drop of an important piece of evidence, etc. No, that episode did not “pass my test”. The book had earlier been adapted by Sidney Lumet in 1974 (garnering Ingrid Bergman with her third Academy Award), and that one was rather accurate, but also contained seemingly bizarre, “unnoticeable” changes. Many of the changes in both television series’ earlier incarnations would probably only be noticeable to avid readers, so why bother changing them at all if they’re so minute?
The approach is the same: more time, more reason to add or retain details. I, Claudius (based on the books I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves) gets it right (including chunks of dialogue too), so why can’t everyone else? It may not have to be a transliteration, but the faithfulness was lacking in the Christie series.
To completely generalize, I believe that we hold film adaptations of books under such scrutiny because it is usually a book that we care deeply about. As much as I adore and love cinema, books are something very special and unique. They can be just as, if not more, transportive than film. But, I believe it’s good to let go, to allow the two to be, for the sake of an analogy, cousins, if not brothers and sisters. And I believe that I hold television accountable, not only because of the spacious room they seem to be given in how they’re able to tell their story, but because I want to be enveloped in what I fell in love with for a longer period of time than a movie adaptation can do. It’s not right, but it’s my flaw.
That said, I love film and books both completely and passionately.
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: #86
Mildred Pierce (2011) | Directed by Todd Haynes
Thoughts: Mildred Pierce is the closest thing anyone will ever get to a transliteration of any novel. However, as surprising and refreshing as that is, the lead performances are what make the series so incredible. Kate Winslet is at her best playing Mildred, showing her off as both vulnerable and strong. Morgan Turner and Evan Rachel Wood portray Veda as the archetypal bitch, and so very well. Their clashing and individual lives intertwining like barbed wire makes the final episodes soapy and delicious. Though the pacing is slow at times, it is arguably one of the best book to screen adaptations ever. Astounding in every sense of the word, Mildred Pierce delivers.