A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
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5. "Wendy and Lucy" (Kelly Reichardt, heartbreaker). A couple bad breaks and a stubborn act of unkindness push a girl and her dog over the edge, from a marginal migratory existence into near-invisibility. Wendy (Michelle Williams) is driving to Alaska with her dog Lucy to find work in the fishing industry, probably in a cannery. (Note to Eastern critics who found this notion strange or fanciful: It's not even unusual. Many people, especially young people, in the Pacific Northwest head to Alaska for good-paying seasonal work.) Only a few acts of kindness manage to keep her from falling off the map entirely. This (almost) opening shot (again, I present only a chunk from the middle) is scored to the humming in her head, and represents a perfect miniature of the movie as a whole: Wendy and Lucy walking in the woods, playing fetch, moving in and out of the frame, passing through light and shadow, occasionally disappearing behind trunks and thickets, then emerging on the other side. (Christopher Long has a beautiful appreciation of the shot and the film at DVDTown.)
4. "Pineapple Express" (stoner comedy, bromantic comedy, genre parody, crime, action, gangster, Ninja movie). OK, I won't rehash the conceptual comedy that, for me, turns decent stuff into giddy hilarity, but the context and the execution provide the awesome high here. Take this brief exchange between Dale (Seth Rogen) and his dope dealer Saul (James Franco). This is a moment of joy in a budding friendship -- a minor conversation that Saul takes as an affirmation of worth: "Thanks, man." Is there a better depiction of how friends can make you feel better about yourself -- especially new friends, or friends who haven't really become your friends yet? (The poster on the wall, about a man who had a dream of footprints in the sand, provides hilarious foreshadowing: "It was then that I carried you...")
3. "A Christmas Tale" (Arnaud Desplechin; family comedy). More frames, mirrors, windows, doors, reflections, screens...! Young Paul, who has been seized by disorienting mental disturbances, arrives in the big old ancestral home of his maternal grandparents, where he sees Max Reinhardt's 1935 "A Midsummer Night's Dream" on TV, and a wolf in the doorway of an adjoining room. That's nothing compared to what's going on in his multi-layered extended family, gathered under one roof for the first time in ages. As John Magary phrased it in the introduction to a splendid interview with Desplechin, "A Christmas Tale" "breathes jolly, sulphuric air into that old bucking bronco we thought we'd whipped: the dysfunctional family holiday. Tireless, goofy, enraging, laughing in the face of Dull... 'How does he make these things?' I wondered." Yeah, me too.
2. "The Edge of Heaven" (Fatih Akin; network-narrative drama). A Turkish professor who teaches Goethe at the University of Hamburg, his father, a prostitute, her daughter, her daughter's lover, her mother, a German book store in Istanbul, a prison, a hotel room, an underground network of militant political activists, murder... These are some of the elements in the narrative web of "The Edge of Heaven," and they don't begin to give you an idea of what the movie is "about," or what it feels like as it unfolds. And that's about all I want to say about that right now, except to note that the gradual intersection of two converging roads -- as depicted in the first shot in the excerpt used above -- was among the most exhilarating moments in movies this year.
1. "In Bruges" (Martin McDonagh; gangster comedy, metaphysical thriller, travelogue,
homage nod-of-the-head). Two Irish Catholic sinners (hitmen, actually) spend some time in an in-betweeny place, a gorgeous fairy-tale tourist trap that's also "the best-preserved Medieval town in Belgium, apparently." The paternal Ken (Brendan Gleeson) wants to take in the sights -- the churches, the museums, the "old buildings." The impetuous and incorrigible boy (Colin Farrell, a five-year-old in a young man's body) wants to get drunk and get laid. They've been told to stay put and keep a low profile until they hear from Harry (Ralph Fiennes) about their next job. And there's a gorgeous girl in the Belgian film industry who's working on a Dutch film that's shooting in town. About a midget.
The two finest, funniest, most moving male lead performances of the year (one is unthinkable without the other) in the directorial debut of the year -- a film that's riddled with profane humor and unexpected poignance, and that treats violence as shocking and painful again (McDonagh studied Peckinpah), something few post-"Pulp Fiction" films besides "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood" have been able to do so effectively.
+ Bonus: "Che" (Steven Soderbergh; instructional documentary, with re-enactments). Though most of the film is presented like "How To" manual for cult-of-personality socialist revolution (Part I: How To...; Part II: How Not To...), this is a Mizoguchi shot. A few men wade into a river. These men, this river. Here, now. But the ripples from their actions will be felt around the world, throughout history...
Coda: The dreamer, having awakened, returns to her slumbers.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
A look at John Sayles' brilliant "The Brother From Another Planet."