Las películas del año con (oh no!) optimismo

22 12 2008

Una lista de película que de seguro no llegarán nunca al cine en Puerto Rico (al menos la mayoría), but here’s hoping que Fine Arts Café nos salve… al menos después de que se ganen dos o tres oscares algunas de ellas. Y de paso una mirada a la industria del cine en la tan actual y totipotente crisis económica. Manohla Dargis escribe para el NYTimes:

happy

YOU can’t make everyone happy,” a woman says in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” Mike Leigh’s film about an irrepressible young teacher named Poppy, played with infectious good will and gurgling laughter by Sally Hawkins. “There’s no harm in trying, is there?” Poppy replies, with a smile as bright and warming as the sun. It is hard to argue with the sun when it beats down on you as relentlessly as Poppy.

And so, dear (and hostile) reader, it is in the admittedly alien spirit of optimism that I offer you my 10 favorite films, and some thoughts about the year in film. Optimism, I should add, perhaps needlessly, does not come naturally to me. Hope is for suckers (or so I believed!) and those who think Carrie really will find her happily-ever-after by marrying Mr. Big. I tend to embrace my inner Caden Cotard, the theater director played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York,” a grievously underloved film about life and death and every agonized and beautiful thing in between, including art and the scratch-scratch of those who are trying to leave their marks on the world.

Like Caden, I generally don’t see the proverbial glass half empty; I tend to see it drained to the last sinedoquedrop, chewed up and swallowed, jagged shard by shard. For a lot of people both in the movie world and in journalism, this has been the year of eating glass, which is even worse when you know those who have lost their jobs. Not long ago I went to a press screening expecting to be greeted by the publicist handling the film. She never showed because she had been told to stick around the office to wait for the official confirmation that her company had gone belly up. That news, by the way, was delivered by e-mail.

The next day she and I exchanged goodbye e-mail messages, and she thanked me for a review of another movie that she had been representing. “I just wish,” she added, “a good review meant something these days.” I understand what she means, but she was talking as a publicist, as someone for whom the value of a review comes down to whether it can help sell a movie in a fearsomely overcrowded market. But selling movies isn’t the job of the reviewer, which is something I wish some of my colleagues would remember whenever they start moaning about how critics don’t have power anymore. As if making (or breaking) movies were part of the gig. It isn’t, and never should have been.

flightThat doesn’t mean critics don’t advocate and try to nudge (or push) you into theaters. And I do wish more of you had checked out the likes of “Alexandra,” a spooky, ethereally beautiful meditation on war and national identity from the Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov, which ushers you into an extraordinary, vivid world unlike any that materialized at the local multiplex. Or “Flight of the Red Balloon,” a tenderly expressive film about childhood and its end from the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, an artist whose camera soars even as his worldview remains grounded in real life. Or “Silent Light,” a rapturous love story set in a northern Mexican Mennonite community from Carlos Reygadas. Or “Paranoid Park,” the one great film from Gus Van Sant to come out this year.

Mr. Van Sant’s other film, of course, is “Milk,” a touching if aesthetically unremarkable biography of Harvey Milk, the assassinated gay rights pioneer. I like “Milk,” which has a strong, showy, often moving performance from Sean Penn as Milk and one gorgeously directed and choreographed sequence — shot by the great cinematographer Harris Savides — in which Josh Brolin, oiled in flop sweat and hair grease as Milk’s killer, Dan White, walks alone through a series of grim institutional corridors that put the killer’s existential isolation and desperate journey into bold visual terms. “Milk” is undeniably moving, but it earns most of its power from its historical resonance and because it holds up a mirror to another charismatic community organizer who rose from the streets on a message of hope.

I wish “Milk” well, because I want Mr. Van Sant, usually one of the most aesthetically venturesome American darkknight1directors working today, to keep making movies. I’m also rooting for “Milk,” which was made by Focus Features, a specialty division of Universal Studios, because it represents the kind of serious, midsize production that seems most in peril these days. The big studios like being in the big movie business, but it’s rare that art enters the equation as forcefully as it does in “The Dark Knight,” the Christopher Nolan film that earned critical love on its release but is now being shunned by critics’ groups that seem to think complexity, self-conscious contradictions and beauty are exclusive to the art house.

“The Dark Knight” was one of the few good things to come out of Warner Brothers this year. In the spring the studio shut down two of its specialty divisions, Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse, and gutted another of its companies, New Line Cinema. This is bad news for those who lost their jobs and for mainstream American movies of a certain size and provenance. Warner Independent and Picturehouse released some unfortunate titles, but sometimes they were also responsible for the only decent movies to come off the Warner lot, including George Clooney’s intelligent gloss on the showdown between Edward R. Murrow and Joseph McCarthy, “Good Night, and Good Luck”; Guillermo del Toro’s eerie wartime fairy tale, “Pan’s Labyrinth”; and Fernando Eimbcke’s low-key, low-budget charmer “Duck Season.”

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that more specialty divisions keep afloat. Without them it’s hard to see how a modern masterwork like Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” which was released last year by Paramount Vantage — whose ranks were radically thinned this year — will be made. Over the past few decades the studios siphoned talent from the independent sector, including filmmakers like Mr. Anderson and Mr. Nolan, and went into the art-house business. I have deeply ambivalent feelings about how this incursion affected the independent world (it turned the Sundance Film Festival into a frenzied meat market, among other unfortunate developments), but there’s no question that American mainstream movies have been better for it.

The tough times have been even tougher on nonstudio companies, including the British outfit Tartan Films, which shut down entirely, and ThinkFilm, which teetered on the edge this year and saw the departure of one of its founders, Mark Urman, who headed to a new venture. Despite its woes, ThinkFilm released some solid films this year, including another of my favorites, “Encounters at the End of the World,” in which Werner Herzog goes deep and way down south to the Antarctic only to surface with an elegiac meditation on life and death among creatures great and microscopic. Mr. Herzog dedicated this digitally shot wonderment to his longtime friend, the critic Roger Ebert, who, despite losing his voice to illness, has continued to express his movie love with admirable vigor.

still-lifeThere are glimmers. While independent distributors have taken plenty of hits, veteran outfits like New Yorker Films, which released another of my favorites, Jia Zhang-ke’s “Still Life,” and newcomers like Oscilloscope Pictures, which put out my last (though not least) favorite of the year, Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy,” are keeping the faith. When I was in college, I once helped program an entire semester’s worth of attractions just by cherry-picking titles from the New Yorker Films back catalog. The company’s longevity seems something of a miracle, as does the consistent quality of its releases. If nothing else, companies like these offer stubborn proof that there remains a serious audience for the kinds of serious movies that Ms. Reichardt, Mr. Herzog and others keep making against often daunting odds.

At the risk of sounding stoned on hope, I offer the following heresy: The movies are fine. Sometimes they’re great; occasionally they’re magnificent. The movie and news businesses are hurting, true, but any year that brings films like “Still Life” into American theaters — along with “Momma’s Man,” “Reprise,” “Ballast,” “The Class,” “Boarding Gate,” “A Christmas Tale,” “The Duchess of Langeais,” “Gran Torino,” “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29,” “My Winnipeg,” “The Last Mistress,” “The Order of Myths,” “Trouble the Water,” “Frownland,” “Patti Smith: Dream of Life,” “Mad Detective,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “Che” and “Wall-E,” or rather its first superb 15 minutes (which bear remarkable resemblance to the first 15 minutes of “There Will Be Blood,” though that’s another story) — cannot be deemed a washout.

There is, of course, perverse pleasure in ending the year with an angry rant, as I have proven in the past, if only to myself. But given the clanging of so much bad news, I thought I would try a change of pace. I’m not sure if optimism becomes me, but it sure feels nice. Every year filmmakers from around the world offer us stories filled with grief and tragedy that either feed our souls or rip out another little piece. I tend to fall for movies like these, but I also swoon for those filled with grace and generous sentiments, like “Happy-Go-Lucky,” that suggest that one way to face hard times (and raging driving instructors) is with an open heart and smile. Quickly now: give it a try!


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22 12 2008
dokken1

Dream Theater is in the studio again, and I can’t wait to see what magic they produce!

9 01 2010
Las películas del año con (oh no!) optimismo « ComUnArte | Las Verdades De Mr. Y

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