It was the year of the endangered baby.
Tsotsi, L’Enfant, The Nativity Story, Pan’s Labyrinth,Children of Men… all of these films were focused on either infants or unborn children who are carried through terrible danger.
But that was a subset of films characterized by a larger similarity….
It was the year of the nightmare.
So many of the year’s most memorable films were about apocalyptic situations, that this moviegoer felt trapped in book of stories by Kafka.
In Children of Men, the world is ending due to infertility, terrorism, anarchy, and despair.
In Apocalypto, humanity descends into such depravity that human sacrifice is celebrated.
In The New World, Europeans claim America as a new promised land, and then proceed to murder each other and betray the natives, even as the natives themselves are inclined to distrust and violence.
In Pan’s Labyrinth, a girl finds herself trapped in the “care” of a neglectful mother and a cold-hearted, murderous stepfather.
And in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, a man finds himself besieged by physical maladies and then caught up in a nightmare on par with Dante’s Inferno… the Romanian health care system, in which doctors and nurses suffer from insufficient resources, exhausting work hours, overcrowded hospitals, and volatile tempers, making lives miserable for each other and their troubled patients as well.
Speaking of feeling trapped, how about poor Marie Antoinette, lonely and trapped in a world of superficiality and custom? Or Queen Elizabeth (in The Queen), besieged by her own people, watching her whole life and tradition torn down around her?
Clint Eastwood took us to the Battle of Iwo Jima… twice… to learn about how little America understood the hellish experience of our own soldiers (in Flags of Our Fathers), and how the Japanese soldiers found themselves sent to certain death by their misguided leaders (Letters from Iwo Jima).
Personally, I found the beauty pageant at the end of Little Miss Sunshine to be almost as harrowing and horrifying as Iwo Jima.
Poor Leonardo DiCaprio had to play characters trapped in two separate nightmares — caught in a morass of moral compromise in The Departed, and in the corruption of the South African diamond trade in Blood Diamond.
Then, Borat caught so many Americans behaving reprehensibly on camera, that he made us embarrassed to be in the same country with those bigots, racists, and their far too “tolerant” families, friends, and neighbors.
In United 93, many of us chose to live through the last desperate minutes of those Americans trapped in a plane seized by terrorists. And the film did not soften any blows. It was the most grueling moviegoing experience of my own life, and I do not hastily recommend it.
And yet, while many of these films sent me staggering out of the theater desperate for light, air, and reminders of hope, each of these films… and many more besides… made powerful impressions. Because each of these nightmares emphasized that humankind cannot save itself, that we have messed things up beyond repair and need help from somewhere else, something beyond ourselves.
Moreover, in some of these nightmares, we saw powerful beacons of beauty, truth, and hope.
Trapped in a nightmare quite unlike anyone else’s, Harold Crik had to escape the voice in his head that was narrating him toward certain death. And ultimately, he stopped worrying about death so much and focused more on taking his first steps toward a meaningful life, in Stranger than Fiction.
A young, principled German woman found herself imprisoned by Nazis, but her spirit could not be jailed, and even though the enemy did their best to crush her, the testimony of her resilient virtue overcame them all (in Sophie Scholl: The Final Days).
And in The New World, Pocahontas and John Rolfe showed that love… true, faithful, selfless love… can overcome any wounds, any betrayals, any cultural shifts or loss. In fact, in The New World, creation itself became the conveyor of hope, declaring the glory of the Great Spirit Himself, and issuing a call to all of the film’s characters… a call of conscience and love.
Here are my twenty-five favorite films of 2006 at this date (sure to be revised), and a few more recommendations besides.
Some of them contain harsh content that require I encourage viewers to proceed with extreme caution — they’re too much for young viewers and too volatile for many adults as well. But I found them meaningful and redeeming in their truthful reflections about good and evil, as well as in their various aesthetic achievements.
PLEASE NOTE: Here are some 2006 titles I have not yet seen, any one of which could end up in my Top 25 once I’ve seen them. I’ve heard wonderful things about all of them:
L’Enfer (based on Krzysztof Kieslowski’s script)
Battle in Heaven
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
It may seem arrogant for me to make such a big deal about MY picks of the year. It is, after all, just one man’s opinion.
But I’ll be honest: it makes me feel better to have a place to share my recommendations. After all, many critics reward films merely for technical excellence or for audacity. The Oscars usually reward entertainment or politics rather than art, and their rules exclude many worthy films from overseas.
Art is about so much more than these aspects. It is about how all of the technical aspects support a vision, and how that vision communicates to us.
Most importantly, we must consider if what any given film offers us is truly meaningful, or if it is instead merely an expression of ego or ignorance or prejudice, or perhaps a cleverly packaged lie.
I don’t claim to have the authority to pronounce THE BEST FILM OF THE YEAR. But I can share which titles have proven most meaningful and impressive to me in repeated viewings, and which offer sustaining, inspiring, and revelatory visions.
The New World
A colleague of mind joked that I have a “New World complex.” If that’s the case, I’m happy to be afflicted. The New World is my favorite cinematic work since Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy, and will be in my short list of favorite films for many years to come.
I have already written so much about this film. I have seen it seven times this year… four times in a theater, three times on DVD. It is one of the most beautiful works of light and sound I’ve ever experienced, and it works more like poetry than prose, more like painting than writing. Terrence Malick’s The New World speaks to me powerfully in a very personal way, and does so more and more with each viewing. It fills me with gratitude toward Malick, the cast, and to God himself, who served up everything that they caught on camera.
I simply cannot wait for Malick to release his extended-version DVD, which is rumored to be in development. We should all be grateful if we find even one work of art in our lifetimes that stirs and inspires us the way this one inspires me.
After I wrote my review, declaring my appreciation for Malick’s work, I received a phone call from one of the director’s family members. He said he had never called a film critic before. He said that he was excited to see that someone out there had understood the movie. I was shocked, and a little dismayed… because I would hope that many would appreciate it. I am certain that I am not alone. Moreover, I am only beginning to understand it. The thrill is in making progress, and discovering more with each viewing.
You’ll find my review of the film here. But I was constrained by the word-count limit on that review, so if you want to read more about what I see in this film, read the second-to-last chapter of my book Through a Screen Darkly, where I’ve fumbled for words to detail what I see in this film.
To consider the film even further, I contacted Relevant film critic Brett McCracken. And I’m posting that conversation here for you…
I’ve grown so weary of the sarcastic remarks in response to The New World. So many people have complained in email, on my blog, or elsewhere, saying, “The dialogue is so cheesy that I turned it off.” “We just kept waiting for something to happen, so we turned it off.” “It’s just a bunch of pretty pictures.” “Malick has no sense of pacing.”
It took me a while to learn that Malick doesn’t make the same kind of films others do. He’s not trying to entertain us with sharp, witty dialogue or dazzling violence. He’s interested in something else entirely. He sees the environment to be as much of a “character” in the film as the human beings. In trying to explain what I love about this approach, I end up sounding like Yoda: You have to unlearn what you have learned. And then I just sound pretentious and, as one fellow said, “elitist.”
I enjoyed your insightful review, Brett. What do you think are the film’s greatest strengths? What would you include in a primer on “How to Watch a Film by Terrence Malick”?
I grow weary of the comments about the film as well, but mostly sad that people don’t seem willing to open up in the way that you have to with a Malick film.
Movie-goers today bring with them a filmic vocabulary and cinema-savvy like never before, and it leads them to watch films in far too cerebral ways. We want to understand the symbolism, see plot points coming, basically be able to digest the film and be done with it; much as we digest a new CD or book — we get some pleasure out of the act of acquiring and listening/reading the work, but most of the thrill comes with being done with it. Another thing crossed off the list.
This is the type of methodology that destroys the immense offerings of something like a Malick film (really, all art). Lewis wrote in his “Experiment in Criticism” that we often approach art as users, when we should really situate ourselves as “receivers.” If I wrote a manual on how to view Malick, that would be lesson #1. Do not go into the theater hoping to decipher the film’s mystery or understand its complexities. Just sit there and let it wash over you. Be in the time and place of the images and sound, and let them surround you. It’s like sitting in front of a Rothko painting: if you try to see some profound revelation emerge in the solid colors, you will miss the transcendent beauty of just sitting there and receiving the work as is.
The chief strength of The New World is that it approaches the world’s beauty and sadness as a receiver rather than a user. Large portions of the film’s shots, dialogue, and even characters do not service the plot in the way we have come to expect in cinema. Rather, it approaches existence from a God’s-eye view, peaking in on the whispers and locusts that sometimes say more about goodness and truth than grand soliloquies or climaxes.
I’ve read some complaints that the Native Americans were idealized in The New World, in the same way I feel that Eastwood showed us the Japanese armies through rose-colored glasses in Letters from Iwo Jima. I didn’t get that sense. When John Smith ventures into the Powhatan territory, he sees a skull hanging from a branch. And he looks like he’s about to become a human sacrifice later on. I have a feeling that a longer cut may show us even more that will admit that these natives were just as capable of gross errors in judgment, violence, and hatred as the Europeans.
Do you think the film needed to temper its celebration of the natives’ culture with more attention to their blindspots and weaknesses?
I don’t think the politics of racial or cultural representation are at all on Malick’s radar when he makes a film. Perhaps they are by default in the case of The New World, since our culture can’t really look at that point in history except through the lens of colonialism, but part of what makes The New Worldstand out is that it ignores any of these political notions. Malick is showing us that there are deeper, more human things about this story than the clashing of cultures.
Do you have a favorite moment in the film?
Hard to pick a favorite. Each of the “Das Rhiengold” music/montage sequences could be put up there, especially the last one where John Rolfe and son board the ship to return to the “New World” once more, and the music swirls to a glorious climax and we are left with the silent image of the tree.
There are clear echoes of Malick’s previous work throughout this film… the wind in the grass, the monologues, the rhythms.
Do you feel he’s grown as a filmmaker since Days of Heaven? Since A Thin Red Line?
As much as The New World is reminiscent of his previous films, I do think it is a step forward artistically. Specifically his uses of words in this film — even less narrative and more ambient than The Thin Red Line — I found to be extremely effective. That said, if the measure of a filmmaker’s growth is in the broadening appeal or reception of his films, I thinkThe New World might have been a step back. That is, he gained no new fans as a result of The New World.
What other filmmakers strike you has having some grasp of what you describe as a sense of “receiving” in their films?
Well, I’m not sure there’s anyone who grasps it in the VISUAL sense as well as Malick (aside from maybe David Gordon Green, who has modeled his naturalist style and built upon Malick in this regard), but there are plenty of directors who recognize the sense of “receiving” in other ways. I think of Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, and maybe even Kieslowski, who seem to let meaning come out of their actors, settings and moods moreso than forcing meaning upon them. It’s more of a European sensibility, I think, to be so laissez faire with “meaning.” Patrice Leconte is a good example, too, and Wim Wenders and the Dardennes — directors who have a floating, unobtrusive, patient way with the camera.
And it was such a great year at the movies, in that we had new treasures not only from Malick, but also Wenders and the Dardennes as well. I think Jacob Aaron Estes, who made Mean Creek, also has potential as an inheritor of Malick’s watchfulnes.
But for now, Malick is indeed the master of this kind of poetry. I hope he works with his cinematographer, Lubezki, again. Lubezki turned in both of the year’s most enthralling visual experiences… The New World and Children of Men. And yet, they’re worlds apart, quite literally. In fact, after watching Children of Men, with all of its devastating violence and despair, I found myself longing to go back to The New World again… for restoration.
With surpassing excellence, and exemplary restraint, Paul Greengrass and a talented cast recreated the fall of United Flight 93 about as convincingly as it could possibly be done.
And by refusing to turn it into a story that caters to the audience, but focusing instead on the details of the day, they honored the Americans who worked so hard in the middle of so much panic, horror, and nightmare, in order to foil the plans of an enemy bent on destruction.
At the same time, the terrorists themselves were portrayed just as they and their kind truly are… human beings with passionate beliefs and a commitment to their cause.
Thus, we are left to ponder an enemy that is truly human, instead of a cartoon villain with a maniacal laugh. This is far more believable, and far more terrifying.
This isn’t a movie about patriotism… it’s a movie about cold-hearted evil. It’s about a clash of worldviews. It’s about standing up and giving your all when faced with overwhelming and bewildering evil.
The film could so easily have been turned into some sharpened tool for political maneuvering. Instead, it is a work of art.
I don’t recommend it lightly, for it is as harsh a nightmare as any film I know. While it was ultimately a rewarding experience for me, it was also the most painful two hours of moviemaking I’ve ever experienced, and I do not dare assume that others would have the same experience.
But it is exceedingly well made, and worthy of more praise than it has received thus far.
To think back through my experience with United 93, and to consider the perspective of one of my favorite critics, I contacted Steven D. Greydanus of Decent Films. Here’s our conversation:
I didn’t want to see United 93. I didn’t want to re-open the wounds of September 11th. It still hurts too much, frankly. And it’s not like I haven’t struggled with thinking through what it must have “really been like.”
But when the film received such high praise, I realized I have something along the lines of a critical obligation to see the film. So I determined to put myself through it.
I was as impressed as everyone else. It’s powerfully made. Convincingly acted. To borrow some words frequently attributed to the Pope regarding The Passion of the Christ: “It is as it was.”
I was especially impressed with the way Greengrass refused to pain the terrorists as villains. Instead, he just painted them. Their actions spoke for themselves. And the film does not seek to give us any particular consolation or hope. The actions of the Americans who fought back… those speak of courage, desperation, and an understanding of the risks.
Exactly. The passengers’ actions spoke for themselves too, didn’t they? Just like the terrorists. Since they all died, that’s all we have to go on now, what it comes down to — what they did in their last hours on earth.
I’m glad that Greengrass refused to demonize the terrorists, but didn’t try to explain them either. He also doesn’t try to explain the passengers, which I think is equally critical. The last thing I want in a film like this is a screenwriter delving into biographies and back stories, trying to make us feel like we know these people.
I didn’t know them. I can never know them. Show me what they did, as best as we can figure it, and I can honor that and be moved by that. Show me well-rounded characters developed by a Hollywood screenwriter, and you haven’t brought me closer to the real people, you’ve obscured them.
Some critics have complained that United 93‘s restraint and objectivity reduces it to a mere recreation rather than offering a point of view. I don’t agree at all. The choice to look at 9/11 through the lens of this particular flight, rather than any of the others where nothing went wrong for the terrorists, implies a point of view. And I don’t think you can avoid the fact that the film has a perspective on the coherency of the government’s response, for example.
In the end, though, I don’t need Greengrass to tell me that terrorism is evil and people who resist it are heroes. If you put up a statue in a park honoring soldiers who died there in some war, you don’t need to provide a lot of commentary on the larger social issues of the war in order to establish the meaning of the statue. The statue speaks for itself. So does this film.
You praised the film in an eloquent review. I’m curious: Do you stand by your review? Have its merits increased in your estimation?
Yes on both counts, but I wouldn’t change my review, because the increase in my estimation of the film occurred between seeing it for the first time and writing the review. When I first walked out of the theater after the screening, I felt that I had seen an exceptional film, but as the days and weeks went by my appreciation for the film only grew. Then I saw the film again on DVD right around September 11, 2006, and that experience confirmed my estimation of the film. United 93 is the best American film I saw all year, and probably the best film from anywhere.
I’m concerned a bit that if the film is too-much celebrated, it will inspire a new genre: the “you are there” approach to human nightmares. Cinema already lends itself more to portraying the darkness than the light. (How rarely we see a powerful portrayal of the light.) While this film portrays both, I am a bit worried that the emphasis on how vividly it portrays the violence, fear, and horror of the event will lead to films that exploit the horrors of the human experience. We already have World Trade Center, United 93, the more speculative and fictionalized JFK, and now Spike Lee is making a film about the L.A. riots. What would you hope that filmmakers learn from this movie?
I initially approached United 93 with much the same trepidation you describe. I don’t want to spend 90 minutes vicariously experiencing the shock and fear and horror of someone else’s last hours on earth for its own sake. I think a comparable film about Ground Zero would be very, very hard to make well, whether you focused on survivors or victims, because at Ground Zero the decisive action belongs to the terrorists. They hit the towers; the towers fell; lots of people were killed. I’m grateful for every soul that wasn’t killed, and I appreciate the heroism of the first respondents who rushed into the burning building, but at best every survival was a mitigation of the tragedy, not a victory per se. I think Stone’s World Trade Center illustrates pretty well the difficulty in telling that story.
What makes United 93 different, of course, is that it’s the story of the terrorists’ one real defeat that day. Not an unmitigated defeat — it’s not like the passengers wrested away control of the plane, landed it safely, and returned to their families while the terrorists went to trial — but still this plane did not reach its target because the passengers stood up to the terrorists. They took control of the situation away from the terrorists. That to me is a story worth telling, and I’m grateful to Greengrass for the thoughtfulness and integrity of his telling.
When I think of “you are there” cinema of nightmares, I think of the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan. I haven’t seen Ryan since it came out, but in retrospect I suspect if I saw it today I would be skeptical of it, because whatever the opening sequence may have to say about the Normandy invasion, the rest of the film seems a pretty thin context for talking about Normandy. It’s not like the film is about “WWII” or “the Nazis” or “the Holocaust” in any adequate way that makes sense of the Normandy invasion sequence. By contrast, the first hour of United 93 — during which there is no onscreen violence or terror, only blips on computer monitors — establishes exactly what is at stake on this day and on this flight, and the context for the passengers’ actions in the end.
I hope filmmakers looking at what makes United 93work — and to an extent what is missing in World Trade Center — recognize that it’s not enough to depict characters undergoing horrific experiences and either surviving or not surviving. What matters first of all is a moral context, a reason for telling this story. Also, I think it’s crucial to be as honest as possible and not pander to the audience by punching up the heroism of the “good guys” or the villainy of the “bad guys,” or by indulging the audience’s desire to see the bad guys get theirs. It’s crucial that the last fifteen minutes of United 93 doesn’t play like the triumphant ending of an action movie — that the passengers aren’t suddenly transformed into an elite fighting machine, and the terrorists aren’t satisfyingly whomped. That would ruin the film for me.
My review is here.
And to celebrate this remarkable work of dignity, insight, and intelligence, I took some time to talk it over with my friend Greg Wright of Past the Popcorn.
Mirren has been big-screen royalty for more than a decade, in my opinion. But this really is a wonderful, career-crowning role for her, isn’t it? What is it, do you think, that she does that sets her apart from so many other actresses?
In general, I’m the wrong guy to ask about that. Historically, I have not been keen on Mirren. I was already a pretty jaded moviegoer by the time The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover came out, so it seemed pretty sniggeringly sophomoric to me. Sadly, the film journals I was reading about that time started trumpeting Mirren as the cat’s meow, so I began associating Mirren, subconsciously, with sophomoric, self-important, sniggering, arthouse enlightenment. It was patently unfair, I’m sure, but there it is. (Her earlier complicity, like so many other actors of repute, in Guccione’s Caligula didn’t help my opinion, either.)
So The Queen was like lifting blinders off for me. I’m probably due for a critical reassessment of her earlier work. (I still don’t care for her off-screen persona, though, however “real” that may be.)
Ah, well… you should check out the Prime Suspectseries some time. That’s as good as anything she’s done.
I’m interested particularly in the film’s turning point… the scene involving the stag.
Some found the symbolism of the stag too heavy-handed… just a simple plot device to help the Queen find some sympathy for Diana. I thought, however, that it might also be cathartic to the Queen, as if the magnificence of the royal history might be the thing that was lost, and that she was mourning for the monarchy and its dignity.
Did you find the film simplistic or heavy-handed at all?
If not for the final touch, I think I’d have found it simplistic. (And I wish I could have talked about this in my review, but it would have been a spoiler…)
But when she hears of the stag’s death, takes time out from preparations to return to London, and drives over to see the beast dressed out and decapitated… Well, at that point the device becomes not merely a simple-minded means of commenting on the press pursuit of Diana, but also a more sophisticated means of addressing the reverse classism of disdain for the royal family. After all, what has been easier to take potshots at the royalty for, during the last hundred years or so, but those silly royal hunts? Yet in reality, those who have turned their back on the monarchy have just traded in one silly kind of hunt for another.
So Frears takes the device, bends it back on itself, and it becomes a unifying symbolism for multiple levels of commentary and critique. Brilliant.
It’s a rare film that shows us two sides of a conflict and allows us to sympathize powerfully with both. There’s something… wow, I almost want to say “Christian”… about this movie. Call it a “work of reconciliation,” if you will. We start out chuckling at the seeming lunacy of the Queen’s formality and the perpetuation of such an outdated institution. And somehow, Frears masterfully brings us into some measure of respect and, for some, even admiration.
What was your experience of that journey? How did he do it?
Well, the stag was for me the central device. And given the mythic associations of the stag for Britons, I rather imagine that Frears did intend a spiritual dimension to that as well, which may be some of what you sense. Of course, the other part of Frear’s success on that level has got to be the script, which demands that Queen Elizabeth II comes around to respect Blair, too. I dare say that a Godly value — not a Christian one, necessarily, though — is seeing value in things with which we disagree, even despise.
Think, for instance, of the way in which Scripture can condemn King David through the voice of the prophet Nathan, and yet see that, given the passion of David’s repentance, he was still “a man after God’s own heart.”
One of the elders at my church is fond of the refrain, “But this is not the end of the story!” Too often, in real life or in our critique of art, we pass judgment on the basis of thinking that we are seeing the end of the story when, in fact, we are not. We are only getting a look at a part of the story, and an intermediate end, perhaps, to that one episode. But according to Scripture, mercy triumphs over judgment — and that’s because Godly mercy really knows what the end of the story is!
What Frears accomplishes here is achieving a unique glimpse into two opposing stories — and being merciful to each, through each other.’
What could filmmakers… perhaps especially Christian filmmakers… learn from this?
Not being afraid of those moments that require mercy, but without passing judgment. A movie like Alpha Dog, for instance, could very easily have been made by a Christian from that perspective, without changing a thing about it. At the end of that movie, the character played by Sharon Stone rages against God, saying, “If He’s got some great plan for my life, He’d better show me — ’cause I’m not seeing it.” And that’s a completely legitimate artistic vision, if we remember that “this is not the end of the story.” Stone’s character speaks from the depths of grief. Alpha Dog, in its own way, tells two thirds of Job’s story — but it doesn’t tell it all, and doesn’t need to.
On the flip side, Facing the Giants was criticized by Christian reviewers because it ostensibly sold the “health and prosperity” gospel. Not at all.
Again, Taylor’s spiritual and material turnaround is only a part of his story, and the film itself never promises that Coach Taylor and his wife will never again face trials or poverty.
Christian storytellers should feel equally comfortable telling stories of hopeless despair or boundless joy (as they feel called to do so), without fear of being called a degenerate on the one hand or a Pollyanna (or heretic) on the other. The question should simply be: how well, in 100 minutes or so, can one part of God’s story — the human story — be told? It’s up to preachers and teachers (and parents and critics) to help fill in the rest of the story.
Do you have a favorite moment that sticks with you from this film?
Well, it’s a small one, really — when Charles travels to Paris to positively identify Diana’s body. When he goes into the room, the camera — which has been following him down the hall — comes to a halt outside the door. Charles passes in alone, and the camera, still in the same shot, lingers outside. Frears knows where to draw the lines of propriety, and consciously calls our attention to our culture’s insatiable appetite for crossing them.
I had an enlightening discussion with director Todd Field about his second feature film, Little Children, when the film came out, but haven’t had a chance to transcribe and publish it due to a pile-up of deadlines. He had some interesting things to say about his own childhood, and I came to learn that he was, in fact, the projectionist at the 99-cent theater in my neighborhood where I would go watch double-features all weekend as a kid. Keep checking Looking Closer, and I’ll get it to you sometime soon.
In the meantime, I talked about the film with Crosswalk‘sChristian Hamaker. And although the movie didn’t show up in Crosswalk’s top ten of the year, he’s quite enthusiastic about it.
Little Children is such a brave, complicated film. How many American movies have we seen in which we’re told to “follow our hearts” at the expense of integrity, responsibility, and humility? Here’s a film that say, “The heart wants what it wants… and it will lead you into trouble if you don’t proceed with maturity and responsibility.”
Yes, “The heart wants what it wants, BUT…” Ah, the “anti Woody Allen” approach, at last. I’ve waited a long time for a film like this.
What did you make of the inclusion of voice-over narrative?
It’s the voice-over that, first and foremost, makesLittle Children so much more than just another suburban-angst movie. Witty and knowing without being smarmy or catty, the voice-over lets viewers nod along with the expressed assessment of detached amusement and increasing concern over the characters’ actions, yet still allows room for compassion toward the people on screen.
Those people are, to varying degrees, desperate. Desperately unhappy. Desperately angry. Desperate to put the past behind them. Their actions are always misguided, and yet they try to justify them. The movie’s strength is that we understand their inner misery but can’t approve of the self-destructive and naive choices — and, for once, the filmmakers don’t want us to approve. How refreshing.
We get to be the adults, scrutinizing the behavior of the “children” on screen. But we’re not just the adults, we’re more like parents, hoping for the best for all concerned. That means that we want them to learn the hard lessons that need to be learned — before they dig themselves an even deeper hole.
The film ends with an indication of change. Self recognition dawns for all. Will there be forgiveness?
We don’t know for sure what lies ahead for these broken characters, but Field and Perotta let us know that hope is not far off.
And then, to get the perspective of someone who knows the book, I talked with my friend and newly published author Sara Zarr:
Sara, you’ve read the book and seen the film. You’re also a writer with an eye for nuance and detail when it comes to stories about characters in troubled relationships. What impressed you about Tom Perrota’s book?
It’s been awhile since I read the book, but what I love about Perrotta as a writer (I’ve also read Election,another of his novels adapted into a good movie), is that he writes without pretense. He tells complex stories in quite a simple way and in (relatively) few pages. Election is maybe 200 pages, Little Children about 350. Compare that to, say, The Corrections or any John Irving novel and you really appreciate what Perrotta is able to do so thriftily. He writes with the muscle of someone writing thrillers or courtroom dramas but tells these emotionally complex domestic stories. They resonate because most of us don’t end up testifying in a murder trial or tracking a serial killer; the big dramas of our lives are the domestic ones. With Little Children, specifically, Perrotta manages to engage the reader in each character’s side of the story by writing from multiple points of view and you end up sympathizing with everyone. At least I did.
I haven’t read the book, and I’m curious… what impresses you about this adaptation? Does it represent Perrota’s ideas and themes effectively?
I think it’s a great adaptation. I probably had six or eight months between reading the book and seeing the movie, so the details of how various plot points might have been changed are hazy, but it seemed ultimately to communicate what he did with the book. Since Perrotta himself worked on the screenplay this isn’t exactly a surprise. Necessarily, he couldn’t follow every character’s story for the movie, and Sarah, Kate Winslet’s character, was the right choice for focus. She’s really the outsider of the story. I do think that in the book we see Sarah in a slightly brighter light. That is, in the book her flaws are more readily apparent while the movie is a bit easier on her.
I was particularly sympathetic toward Kate Winslet’s character. She was so disillusioned with her life, so trapped, and did not seem likely to get any cooperation from her husband. It’s easy to see how she could fall into something like an affair. But most American films celebrate such rebelliousness. Did this story surprise you, as it did me, with where the path of reckless indulgence leads?
Well, adultery is a very particular kind of rebelliousness and I don’t know that it’s usuallycelebrated in film, exactly, but it is often romanticized (when it doesn’t lead to stabbings). Since I’d read the book, obviously, the direction it took wasn’t a surprise but seeing it on screen reminded me what a complex issue it is. You end up really rooting for Sarah to go ahead and get together with the Prom King because, well, you kind of convince yourself she deserves it. But no stone is cast without causing ripples, and both the book and the movie look closely at each potential ripple and its implications.
Does the film do anything better than the book?
I think the movie ending is better than the book ending, and Perrotta has said as much in interviews. One big thing you miss if you don’t read the book is a more nuanced look at Sarah’s husband and their marriage. His story is pretty much dropped in the movie.
What do you take away from Little Children that is meaningful to you?
Well, I just think it’s one of those rare reflections of humanity that movies often get wrong by at least a few degrees if not a few thousand. I’ve heard people write it off as “just another American Beauty ” but they are two radically, radically different films. WhereAmerican Beauty (as fine a piece of cinematic art as it is) is hard and cynical and defeatist, Little Childrenhas hope.
What’s your favorite moment in the film?
The opening scene with Sarah and the other moms on the playground is, I think, a perfect encapsulation of what women — well, all people, really — struggle with every day, usually expressed in ways so immeasurably small we can hardly articulate them even to ourselves: the weight of expectation, failure to measure up, dreams unfulfilled, longing to identify ourselves as special while also fitting in, the uncertain futures of our children, the ever-hovering potential for disappointment — in ourselves and in others. It’s all right there in a simple two or three minute scene with sparse dialog. That’s great filmmaking, and it comes directly from the text of the novel.
Pan’s Labyrinth is a fantastic fairy tale, but not one for children. The troubles young Ofelia must endure are terrifying indeed. No wonder she allows herself to be “spirited away” into a labyrinth of monsters. What she learns there is a lesson of humble service, selfless courage, and sacrificial love.
Unfortunately, Pan’s Labyrinth also writes off faith in God, scorns the church in a single broad-stroke condemnation, and suggests that only imagination and innocence will save us. Still, as Lewis and Tolkien knew, the imagination will bring us back to the truth of the gospel every time. And it does here too, with a story full of reminders that we were born for a different kind of world, and if we are brave we can find our way back to that small forgotten road.
To reconsider Guillermo Del Toro’s film, I tracked downChristian Hamaker, film critic for Crosswalk:
I thought Pan’s Labyrinth was one of the best fantasy films I’ve ever seen, in that it’s true to the spirit of so many fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. It’s dark, spooky, full of meddling monsters and misbehaving adults. And the creatures of faerie are not always cute and likeable… they’re mischievous and dangerous.
Plus, it was just beautifully filmed… from the creatures to the environments. The two worlds, real and make-believe, merged seamlessly.
I also loved Ofelia. She was smart, imperfect, but ultimately heroic.
And the myth about the lost princess added such a spiritual dimension to the storytelling, one that echoed the gospel rather clearly, don’t you think?
What impressed you about the film?
And what do you think of the portrayal of the Spanish Civil War? Was this a fair representation, do you think? Or did it oversimplify things in favor of the Communist rebels?
I’ve never been a big fan of fantasy films, but Pan’s Labyrinth has almost single-handedly changed that. Whether because of a lack of imagination or intellect, my cool reactions to fantasy films during my early years found an even shakier foundation when I became a Christian, and decided that anything mythic, or anything that alluded to the gospel, had to be dismissed as a dangerous spiritual counterfeit — something that had much more potential to do spiritual damage than good.
Guillermo del Toro’s film fits that template — mythic, with themes of self-sacrifice, belief in things unseen, and an eternal perspective. But here the story comes from a filmmaker opposed to the Christian faith — a man who rejected the chance to film The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe because he was uncomfortable with the idea of Aslan’s resurrection.
Fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have touched Pan’s Labyrinth with a ten-foot pole.
But ten days ago, sitting in a movie theater and seeing it for the first time (I’ve seen it a second time since), I sat amazed. Here was a movie that, aside from any spiritual import, did an exceptional job of telling a story. From the opening moments and the discovery of the fairy, I was captivated by the idea of another world, one that provided hope in a time of ugly warfare.
About the warfare: The Civil War sequences have come under some early criticism for not captivating some critics the way the fantasy sequences do. Having seen the movie a second time, I disagree with that assessment. The fierce performance by Sergi Lopez, who plays the Captain, could have been one-dimensional, but while he’s a tyrant throughout the film, he becomes an increasing threat to those around him as the film unspools, and his presence gives the non-fantasy sequences an element of unpredictability that kept me riveted. We know something bad is going to happen whenever he’s on screen, but how bad, and at whose expense? The doctor and the housekeeper are touching, even if we can’t always agree with their methods or allegiances (I think del Toro wants us to approve of them unconditionally, but that doesn’t hurt the movie).
But back to the spiritual elements. Belief in things unseen, a calling to a higher purpose, willingness to follow a path of obedience even when we don’t know where it might lead — all of these resonated with my Christian experience. The faun remains a question mark through most of the film — can he be trusted? Should he be feared? And, in the end, the viewer is forced to decide if “blind obedience” is ever an acceptable path, or something to be rejected by questioning those who demand we follow them. The answer in the life of the believer, it seems to me, is that we can follow somewhat blindly at times, depending on the source of the one who demands our service. But the film presents much more suspect figures — in the real world and the fantasy world — who ask us to follow them unquestioningly. And, in light of that, I think the film presents an acceptable approach to such demands.
In short, Pan’s Labyrinth captured my imagination. I had thought several films in recent years had done the same, but del Toro’s film re-sets the bar. So many memorable images, and such moments of grace amid the horrors. I can’t speak any more highly of the film, and I do hope that Christians who are reticent to see fantasy films will give Pan’s Labyrinth a chance.
Children of Men
Here’s my review of Children of Men.
While Children of Men is as extraordinary a glimpse of a nightmare future as Blade Runner, it bears the frustrating distinction of being a cruel revision of the book on which it is based.
At least one of the film’s five screenwriters seems to have contradicted the author of the source material, P.D. James, on many points. Thus, the story does not resonate with James’ Christian worldview as powerfully as it might have.
Nevertheless, while the film boasts some of the greatest visual effects sequences ever devised, its greatest strength is the way it echoes the gospel… in the idea of a miraculous child being born into trouble and sheltered from the wicked ploys of men in power.
To explore the complicated and challenging Children of Men, I sought out writer/director Scott Derrickson, who made The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and who is developing some rather exciting projects for the future;
As a filmmaker, you know how much a director has to coordinate while he sits behind the camera. So what were you thinking about as you watched Children of Men for the first time? Or were you so caught up in the story that you didn’t have a chance to think about the directing?
I was very caught up with the story, but I couldn’t help but notice the long, single shot action sequences. I know that Cuaron stitched some of those sequences digitally, so that what appears to be one 10 minute action shot is really 4 or 5 shots, but while watching the movie, I couldn’t believe how perfectly choreographed they were. That’s very, very hard to do, because you are stuck with what you shoot, and if you get into the editing room and it’s moving too slow, or something feels “off”, there’s nothing you can do about it — you can’t edit it down. There are very few directors who have the skill to pull something like that off.
What impresses you about Cuaron’s work here?
I think the single most impressive thing directorially about the film is how he built this remarkable dystopian world (one of the best in film history), yet he was never focusing on that during the film. These truly astonishing sets would sometimes just fly by, or be deep in the background. Most directors would work harder to showcase that stuff, linger on it more, but Cuaron stayed focused on the characters and the story, and let all of that production value stay consistently in support of what really mattered in the film.
Are you familiar with the novel?
Only from what I’ve read since the film came out.
There is some heated debate right now about the nature of this “adaptation,” considering that the five screenwriters have basically taken P.D. James’ > novel and turned it on its head. What do you think about the “ethics of adaptation,” so to speak. Do fans of the novel have a right to be upset about just how far this film strays from James’ text, and just how differently the film explores its themes?
Sure, fans of the novel can be unhappy — they loved the book, and if the film is a vast departure from that, you can’t blame them for being disgruntled. But ethically, I have no problem at all with what Cuaron and his writers did — a filmmaker’s responsibility when adapting material is to make the best film possible. I feel this way because the writers of the book chose to hand over the rights to such liberal adaptations of their work. If it’s a high enough priority for a novelist to see that his book is more faithfully adapted, he can contractually require that, or simply not sell the rights. The filmmakers had ever right to do what they did, and that right was given to them by the novelist.
Others have argued that the film paints an unreasonably bleak portrait of humanity, and that the result reveals a certain contempt for humankind on the part of the storytellers. While I watched it, though, it felt like a sort of collage-nightmare of all the world’s current crises… and I felt about the world very much the way I do when I watch the news. This is, in a microcosm, the violent, hate-filled world we’re living in. And at the same time, there are a few people here and there who are willing to play their part, do what it takes, show grace and mercy, and invest themselves in hope.
I suppose this is why it’s my favorite film of the year. This is a film with a very truthful anthropology at work. We are not, in our core nature, bent toward selflessness. The film assumes that if the hope of the future were taken from us, we would behave very badly, which is absolutely true. And yet, amidst that chaotic apocalypse, there is some grace breaking through, and the small light of this child and the acts of those protecting the child, illuminates so much darkness.
Did the film strike you as cynical? Unreasonably bleak?
Not at all. I was very teary-eyed by the end of the film. The feeling of hope that I felt at the presence of this Christ-type child, born into a bleak and violent world, spoke so deeply to me. It made me think about why I believe what I believe, but more importantly, it made me feel why that belief is so truly beautiful.
I asked Cuaron what he thought about P.D. James’ deliberate crafting of the story as a sort of “Christian fable” (to use her words), and he said he didn’t want to “God out of the equation,” but rather to stress our responsibility to fix the world that we have broken. He said that he doesn’t think we should put our faith in God to save the world, but make it our own responsibility… and since we’ve made such a mess of things we’ll have to put our hope in the next generation.
Did you get that sense from this film?
I sensed a sublime combination of the two — a divine presence working through these few people who were struggling to literally save humanity. Is that not a perfect metaphor for what people of faith ought to be? The vessels of God’s redemption? Perhaps I would find the book too easy, I don’t know. I do know that watching the film was one of the most deeply satisfying film experiences I’ve ever had.
Personally, I think I can see that in the film’s focus on “The Human Project” (which wasn’t in the novel). But then again, nobody explains where this baby has come from, and that suggests that, against Cuaron’s best efforts, we can still see a suggestion of God’s intervention into this speculative history.
Yes, it’s that mystical sense of the divine in these people, and it’s obvious absence everywhere else. To me, that is so much more powerful, even more truthful, than a more direct portrayal of God or Christian salvation.
It’s a thin line for an artist to walk… the line between reveling in the *spectacle* of violence, and portraying violence in such a sobering way that it reflects the evils of the real world. Do you feel Cuaron managed this balance well, without becoming indulgent?
Regarding the portrayal of violence, I think this actually may be my favorite film ever made. It doesn’t shy away from the violence at all, but it doesn’t it revel in it either — it just shows it for what it is. But most striking to me was how the Clive Owen character never picks up a gun, even though he has opportunities to do so. He doesn’t want to be violent. I really felt the power of that in the film. And the one time he is violent — when he bashes the guy’s face who’s coming through the door — it is so horrible and shocking (as that kind of violence should be), but you understand that it was the one moment when he had no choice. He had to do it. If he hadn’t, the child would be lost.
L’Enfant (The Child)
The Dardennes have given us four masterpieces in a row, each one a subtle parable about tests of conscience and character in a hard world. This film lives up to the high standard the Dardennes have set. Like Kieslowski’s Decalogue, their films will last and provoke meaningful discussions for many years to come.
I chatted with blogger/bookseller Adam Walter about L’Enfant,and learned it was his first experience of a film by the Dardenne brothers.
If you were going to help open this film up to viewers who many not know what they’re getting into, what would you suggest?
One key to enjoying the more challenging films that the cinema world has to offer is: learn not to get hung up on whether you like the main characters. Learn to watch films about characters you cannot identify with, films about jerks, idiots, pathetic criminals, and other wretched human beings. Learn the value in seeing human folly taken to an extreme. True, some directors today like to rub the noses of their audiences in meaningless misery. But it’s also in the job description for some storytellers to push us beyond our comfort zone. So, finally, learn to tell the sadists from the real artists; sometimes it isn’t the easiest thing to do.
Is there a particular moment that sticks with you from the film?
The really odd moment when the street-rat father attempts to recover his child after selling it earlier that day. The bizarre, anonymous nature of this scene and the way the characters interact as they carry off this secondary transaction… It’s just so bizarre, tense, and perfectly in-step with the tone of the picture. The scene could easily have derailed into melodrama. But instead it maintains the tense minimalism that the directors have established for the film.
I’m glad you enjoyed it. You have a lot of great viewing ahead of you: La Promesse, Rosetta, and my favorite… The Son.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
No doubt, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is the movie from 2006 that art-film lovers will spend the most time celebrating and discussing.
It is the most subtle, sophisticated, and carefully crafted work I’ve seen this year… and arguably the work of greatest compassion.
The film follows the journey of a hard-drinking, lonely old man from the afternoon when his health takes a sudden turn for the worse, to the urgent conferences he has with his concerned neighbors, to several ambulance rides to several hospitals, and into a number of memorably maddening encounters with doctors.
Sound like a compelling film? Probably not. But that’s what I’m here to tell you: It *is* compelling, the way some of your worst nightmares are compelling. And it is rich with literary allusions, extraordinary performances, and revealing conversations that come across so effortlessly that many will miss their dimension and relevance.
Lazarescu boasts a cast so talented that they almost convince us we’re watching a documentary. It features one of the most compassionate and admirable characters I’ve seen in years… Mioara, a longsuffering nurse who stands beside her patient valiantly until he gets to the place he needs to go.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is landing in the top five lists of almost all film critics who have seen it, and I can certainly understand why. In fact, many have voted it their #1 choice of the year. No doubt about it… we are witnessing the arrival of a master.
Having said that, my admiration of The Death of Mr. Lazarescuis not accompanied by the kind of enjoyment that inspires passionate enthusiasm. Puiu’s film is deliberately focused on a nightmarish, cramped, crowded journey through a maze of professional and personal dysfunction, causing us to ask who is in the most trouble here… the patient or the doctors. The film’s aesthetic seems deliberately focused on the cold, sterile environments, thus excluding the kind of beauty and grace that filmmaker’s with wider eyes (like Kieslowski’s Blue, for example, of Zvaginetsev’s The Return) so naturally captured in almost any environment.
I suspect I’ll grow to appreciate more with repeated viewings. Speaking of my own experience, I’m coming to recognize when an encounter with a film is merely a first wave of discovery, and when I’m absorbing just about everything a film has to offer. In this case, I’ve only just begun, and I look forward to what subsequent encounters with the film, and the experiences of others, will reveal. It is clearly a masterwork of literary scripting and naturalistic performances. I cannot argue with those critics groups who are celebrating it as the best film of the year. But art affects and inspires each of us differently. I appreciate and admire this film enormously, and will recommend it readily, but I cannot say it was particularly meaningful and nourishing to me as I move through a world in which the madness of bureaucracy and the cruelty of others makes me look to art for sustenance, meaning, and glory.
COMING SOON: A visit with J. Robert Parks about The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.
Sophie Scholl: The Last Days
Buy this film for your family. Show it to your kids when they’re old enough to absorb it and discuss it.
Treasure this film.
COMING SOON: A conversation about Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, with Steven D. Greydanus.
Little Miss Sunshine
Army of Shadows
Try to imagine what it would have been like if Robert Bresson had directed Munich.
If you can manage that, you’ll have a pretty good grasp of whatArmy of Shadows is like. It’s an nail-bitingly intense (I can testify from experience — a couple of ragged nails here) spy thriller about the French resistance to the Nazis in 1942 and 1943. And boy is it bleak. In fact, by the end of the film I was wondering if these freedom fighters had done more damage to each other than they had to the Nazis, and yet you can’t help but stand in awe of their dedication, courage, and sacrifice.
And it has the ring of truth. Jean-Pierre Melville, the director, had some experience with the resistance, and there is an exciting realism to the tension, the danger, and the miserable places where the agents in this network must meet and hide. The moral dilemmas they face… the bullets they must fire merely because of a dangerous hunch… the whimpering appeals for mercy from the villains they capture… it forces viewers into life-and-death situations so intense that I was reminded of Miller’s Crossing and The Godfather. This film belongs on lists of the best films about World War 2, even though it feels more like a gangster flick than a war movie.
I would be very surprised to learn that Spielberg had not seen this before making Munich. There are scenes, and even characters, that bear strong resemblances to scenes and characters in this film.
I almost wrote that Army of Shadows is filmed in black-and-white, but then I began to remember traces of color. Suffice it to say that, from its opening frames, the use of color and shadow in the film amplifies the bleakness, the sense of doom that engulfs the bold endeavors of these agents. (It didn’t help matters that I saw it in a dusty old arthouse theater today that was full of big ugly moths, and the bugs kept flying in front of the projector, giving the impression of a horror movie as the characters were frequently buffeted by massive fluttering phantoms.)
And the lead actor, Lino Ventura, is extraordinary. He looks like Peter Sellers, with a hint of Elvis Costello, and the slow-burn intensity of Robert DeNiro in Ronin. He’s not a macho hero… in fact, the Sellers resemblance really became strong whenever he was challenged to do something bold or violent. In spite of the grim circumstances, his first parachute jump — a solo jump from a military plane at night — is quite comical.
Having only read the local film summary, I know next to nothing about Melville, and I’m anxious to learn more and see more. Just as I felt I’d stumbled onto a secret reservoir of ideas and inspiration for Spielberg and Lucas when I started watching early Miyazaki cartoons, I swear that Spielberg’s a Melville fan… or at least a fan of this film. But watch out… Munich is positively cheery compared to Army of Shadows.
To celebrate this film, I enjoyed an email exchange with frequent Looking Closer guest reviewer Ken Morefield, who catalogues his reviews at Viewpoint.
I’m sure it makes me look like some kind of elitist cinephile to include a French film from the 1960s in my top ten, but wow… Army of Shadows is a great thriller. I’m so glad it finally made it to the big screen in the U.S.
It’s subtle, suspenseful, with memorable lead characters and an arresting sense of realism. It’s interesting how realism can make a story so much less predictable. I couldn’t help but wonder if this film might have been one of Spielberg’s main references as he made Munich. I admire that film insofar as it aspires to achieve the same kind of virtues that “Army of Shadows” has in spades.
What impressed you about the movie? If you were going to pitch it to folks who flinch at the idea of a watching a forty year-old French film?
I wouldn’t pitch it to those folks. “The best embodiments of truth are but bonds and fetters to him who cannot accept them as such” as George MacDonald says in Wilfrid Cumbermede. You start down that road and inevitably you end up in a place where you are a scold instead of a critic and about as effective as the parent at a restaurant who is pleading with the child having a temper tantrum to just have two bites of his vegetables.
In other words, by the time you are dealing with that particular response — “subtitles!?! black and white?!?!” you’re pretty much past the point (or your audience is not yet at the developmental stage) where pitching an idea is of much use to anyone. Your choices at that point are either, “because I said so and I’m your boss at the moment” or to go all the way back to square one and try to figure out where you went wrong in the past that you now have such a whiny brat on your hands.
But, I digress, and I’m sure the last thing the readers of Looking Closer want or need is one more voice berating them for preferring commercial entertainment over film art.
So, to answer your question… hmmmmm… what was the question, again? Oh, yes, what impressed me about Army of Shadows? You know, some of us are having a roundtable discussion about this film for next month’s MHP, and there are two things that I keep coming back to in my own thoughts: the film’s tone and it’s scope.
I wrote in my blog about the film that I appreciated the way it lamented violence and its effects on the human soul without glorifying self-damnation or tortured guilt in a Romantic way that simultaneously undercuts that message and allows the audience to revel in the very things the film is supposedly denouncing.
As far as scope, well, I think the end forces me to contemplate the questions the film raises as universal ones which we all must confront rather than necessarily just those wrought by war. This is a tad overstated, but too often I walk away from films that talk about horrific times or events with a ”wow, it sucked to be them; I’m glad I live now” response. Or I feel like I’m in a Kafkaesque Monty Python skit, “You think that was awful, let me tell you how bad I had it…”
The war pushes universal questions about life’s meaning to the surface, but the answers aren’t to be found in successfully navigating the plot narratives of our lives. Boy that sounds pretentious, doesn’t it? Add to that its a prison story, a break out story, a philosophical mediation.
There’s a lot going on.
So few films these days reward multiple viewings. If we rescreen a film it is to tap into the nostalgic feeling created by remembering how much we enjoyed watching it the first time — a sort of ritual exercise.Army of Shadows is one of those films that reveals more of itself on subsequent viewings and hence the viewing experience is new and enhanced rather than merely an attempt to recapture the first, primal emotion.
My review of The Departed is here.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, so, to refresh my memory, I discussed it with Russ Breimeier, who wrote theChristianity Today review.
I was, at first, disappointed to hear this project was going forward. I liked the cleverness of the original,Infernal Affairs, and the performances too. It was lean, mean, and memorable. I was worried this would turn into just a flashy American remake. I wasn’t prepared for… well… such spectacular flash. So many great actors, and all of them doing unforgettable stuff.
You wrote a great review for CT. Do you stand by that opinion? Do you appreciate it more now, a couple of months down the road?
For the most part, I do, though I find The Departedless impressive the more I see it. Still, considering how bad a track record Hollywood has with remakes, this one’s generally done right. The story translates well to the mean streets of Boston. The intricate twists and setups of the original are more or less intact. But hands down, the main reason to catch it is the explosive performances of the actors, all pretty much at the top of their game. I’m finding that this is the movie in which critics of Leonardo DiCaprio are finally taking him seriously.
Considering the themes and storytelling, I still give the edge to Infernal Affairs, especially now that I’ve learned that it’s at least as epic as The Departed. I didn’t know it had a subsequent prequel and sequel, both releasing in America this February. Still, The Departed is a pretty terrific crime drama, and one that will almost surely earn Martin Scorsese his much elusive Oscar for Best Director.
*Should* it earn him that Oscar, though? I think it’s one of his great-but-not-classic works, and it’d be a shame to have his Oscar arrive for what was basically an American twist on someone else’s movie.
And frankly, I think he should have reined in Nicholson. At this point in his career, I don’t buy Nicholson as a character anymore… because he just seems to be hamming it up and indulging us with tricks he knows we enjoy. Here, he just turned up the hamminess to “11.”
Still, DiCaprio. Silencing his critics at last. I always knew he would. And Wahlberg… if he wins a Supporting Actor nomination, that’s well-deserved. Wahlberg, like DiCaprio and Damon, has been underrated as an actor, and misunderstood as a mere fashion boy. He’s so talented.
I’m also getting pounded with protests from Christian viewers who think the profanity in the film disqualifies it as proper viewing. At first I want to say, “You should visit the back alleys of Boston and listen in on what gangsters and cops say to each other sometime.” On the other hand, sometimes I think it’s lazy writing to let the profanity serve as punctuation marks, when eloquence and great acting can serve just as well or better. What would you say to those angry respondents?
Well, there I disagree a bit. It’s someone else’s story, and therefore not original, but it’s not a shot-for-shot remake of Infernal Affairs either. Scorsese still made artistic decisions — some good, some not so good, and some borrowed from the original. Plus he elicited some amazing performances from his cast. I think it’s *his* work that makes the movie a success. In less capable hands, it might have come off more as a Hollywood-ized rehash than the solid movie it is.
I hear what you’re saying with Nicholson, but there are other critics I know who say he’s as good as he’s ever been in this movie. I’m somewhere in between. He’s a little too over the top at times and a lot of it is his usual shtick. But there are other moments in the film where I think he’s brilliant — no one makes unhinged menace quite as charming as Jack Nicholson.
I’ll admit, Wahlberg is pretty terrific in the film, though why is he? I wonder if people aren’t enjoying the part simply because of his gruff personality with dialogue that’s 95.4% profanity. Not to take too much away from him — he’s hilarious — but is it really one of the year’s most memorable performances because of his acting chops? DiCaprio and Damon were far more impressive to me, as was the underrated Alec Baldwin for his funny, high-strung performance.
I certainly understand where Christian critics of this movie are coming from — believe me, it was not an easy film to review for Christianity Today! The simple answer is this: If you’re easily offended by profanity,do not see this film. It’s easily one of the most vulgar I’ve seen in quite a while as far as language and brutal violence go. Instead, I highly recommend renting the superior and generally tamer Infernal Affairs. It’s not as violent, there’s considerably less profanity, and the themes about inner struggles between good and evil are much stronger.
Still, while profanity and violence aren’t necessary to make a good crime drama (again, Infernal Affairs and plenty of others demonstrate that), do such qualities negate the themes and messages we can glean from a movie like The Departed? The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is one of my favorites from the last year, and it’s also got plenty of profanity and violence, but as a Christian, I also recognize that it has some of the year’s strongest redemption themes. Personally, I don’t like putting God in a box, because I’ve learned that the Holy Spirit can speak to me in even the darkest of places. But I’m one that’s always had to cope with people using profanity around me — at school and at previous jobs. It’s up to readers to find reviews like yours and mine to let them know if there is offensive content in a movie and let them decide for themselves. The Departed is not a family film, but it’s still got a fascinating story, interesting themes, and some of the year’s strongest acting.
Regarding Wahlberg, I thought he did a great job of playing his tough-guyness for comedy. And that dialogue came so naturally to him, you’d think he’s talked like that his whole life. I loved Baldwin too, although I thought his part was played with tongue firmly in cheek.
And what about Sheen? His was a quieter role, but the more I think about the film, the more I see him as vital part of this movie. Moreover, he’s portrayed as a Catholic (which Sheen is, I believe), and makes what is arguably the film’s most selfless decision.
Do you see a redemption story in this, the way you see it in Melquiades Estrada? Or is it primarily a bleak “humanity will destroy itself” vision of the world?
Agreed with Sheen. I just wish his role were expanded considerably more. His character represents the moral center of the story — the light to Nicholson’s darkness. The Departed would have benefited from more of him.
Melquiades Estrada was far more redemptive, as wasInfernal Affairs. But I still believe there’s more to The Departed than self-destruction. It still begs questions about the choices we make and why we make them. It touches on temptation and corruption as it pertains to good vs. evil, forcing us to consider our motivations for our actions. And you have to wonder why this movie went with a more philosophical title thanInfernal Affairs — what do you think is trying to be expressed in the film by zeroing in on the priest’s words, “Heaven holds the faithful departed.” Is it our need for redemption and a higher power? That we’re all capable of depravity? Or is it merely well-intentioned Catholic liturgy?
Personally, I think the title contributes to turning the film into a question.. the way most Scorsese pictures end up being questions… like Job’s questions to God. That’s why Scorsese’s films last (well, that and their excellence on just about every level). He is feverishly concerned with the success of evil men, with injustice, with the seeming-ruination of righteous men and the corruption of well-intentioned human beings. He continually offers up stories of men who fall into evil because they hardly have any choice. In this film, are there any truly “faithful departed”? The world seems a labyrinth in which all paths lead to destruction.
And yet, Scorsese has roots in Catholicism, so he is constantly asking: Is there mercy? Is there grace? Can we see it in this world? I think he usually ends up concluding that, no, we cannot glimpse that grace in this world. And yet, at the same time, he reaffirms the necessity for grace by enlivening the viewer’s conscience in every single picture, so that we come away angry at injustice, shaken by the darkness, and longing for resolution.
That’s why I can’t wait to see his adaptation of Shazuko Endo’s Silence. I can’t think of another book that brings those questions to such a painful, exquisite expression.
Favorite moment in the film?
I think Scorsese and his cinematographer handled the back alley pursuit between Sullivan and Costigan beautifully. Great camera work, great suspense — it’s the moment in the film that comes closest to the cat-and-mouse feel of the original. You?
If a movie can make my spine tingle by merely bringing two characters into the same space at the same time, that means the movie has developed powerful characters and compelling conflict. It happened in Michael Mann’s Heat, when Pacino pulled DeNiro over on the freeway, and then they met for coffee. Two people chatting, but more tension than any epic battle. It happened in Secrets and Lies, when Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste sat down to share a cup of tea, and we waited for the earthquake of realization. Here, when Damon and DiCaprio finally meet in the same place at the same time, you just want to scream.
As does the lead-up to it — I love the cell phone tag that happens before that, but of course, credit the original for that bit of brilliance.
15, 16. (tie)
The Science of Sleep
Two immensely talented directors — Michel Gondry and Sofia Coppola — released masterful, memorable, and powerfully personal visions this year.
Both films excel in creativity and wild imagination.
Both tell us as much about their creators as they do about their characters.
And both were sorely overlooked.
My review of The Science of Sleep is here.
This is one of those films… like Amelie and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind… that you can’t easily describe. You just have to see the magic for yourself.
To revisit the magic, I talked with film critic Peter Suderman. Peter contributes film criticism to National Review Online andThe Washington Times. His blog is alarm-alarm.com.
Some critics found The Science of Sleep to be redundant, with its conceptual playfulness and its story of a troubled romance, after Gondry’s brilliant collaboration with Charlie Kauffman on Eternal Sunshine. But I found it to be a smaller, quieter, more personal work… one that felt strangely autobiographical in a way. I think we’re seeing more than just Gondry’s usual zany scissors-and-glue improvs. I think this film is all about what he cares about most, and the frustration that a creative genius can experience while trying to connect with “normal” human life.
How did it strike you?
It’s tough for any movie to compete with Eternal Sunshine, but Science of Sleep doesn’t have to. It is, as you say, a different sort of thing — more intimate, less universal. My understanding is that it’s based a little bit on Gondry’s real life (in terms of events) and my sense is that it’s based deeply on his emotional life (in terms of the feelings it evokes). Gondry’s work has always been a mix of childlike play, adolescent romance, mild crudeness, and confusion and anxiety with the responsibilities of being an adult and fitting in. Sleep, I think, is the most perfect blend of all those themes — and it’s as much an insight into the mental and emotional life of quirky genius Gondry as anything else.
Charlotte Gainsbourg was a surprise choice to play opposite Gael Garcia Bernal here. I thought she was wonderfully offbeat and surprisingly real. If I passed her on the street, I’d have a hard time remembering that this was just a character and not a real artist. What do you think drew Gondry to cast her?
Offbeat and real is exactly right: I think what worked about Gainsbourg’s performance (and I imagine what drew Gondry to her) was that it reflected the film’s dedication to a sort of cluttered naturalism. In the same way that the movie gave us young store clerks who lived in creaky, tiny, old apartments (rather than the shiny, trendy, impossibly expensive homes we see entry level worker types living in in so many movies), it also gave us the very attractive yet understated, naturalistic Gainsbourg. Like everything else in the movie, she has an abundance of life and energy — but she’s not quite together either.
She’s not a supermodel, not at all a typical Hollywood female fantasy. In fact, by being lovely without being a fantasy she represents all that the daydreaming Stéphane — only comfortable in his fantasy life — cannot attain.
I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I heard some grumbling about it in various reviews, as if Gondry just ran out of ideas and stopped. Did you find it confounding, or do you think that was the right place to wrap things up? What do you think that final glimpse Stéphane and Stéphanie is about?
I heard this too, but I think this was mostly a result of critics not giving the film a chance and not missing the very subtle clues embedded in the film. In fact, I think the ending is the best part of the movie — the most conceptually innovative from a narrative standpoint and the most emotionally honest. I’ll have to go into some spoilers to discuss it any further (so skip the rest of this question if you’ve not seen the movie).
Toward the end of the film, Stéphane takes a stuffed horse from Stéphanie, opens up the stuffing and inserts mechanical parts. He then sneaks into her room to leave it for her, but as he’s in her apartment, she comes home and (understandably) finds his invasion intensely creepy. He mopes back to his bedroom, lies down, and pulls a pillow over his head, and becomes very still as the camera slowly pushes in.
As the camera pulls then slowly back out, Stéphanie calls and we see that, amazingly, the mechanical horse is galloping around her apartment, coming alive as if it has a mind of its own. Soon after, Stéphane has a huge creative success at his office which wasn’t even hinted at previously (and seems completely unlikely). Other strange occurrences begin to happen (speech begins to take on strange properties; a coworker decides to toss his television in the river). In other words, as the camera pushed in, Stéphane fell asleep, and the film’s final twenty minutes or so are simply a dream — one in which his reality and fantasies have finally merged.
What irked many of the critics, I think, was the last scene. In it, Stéphane, after being given all the opportunities in the world to control himself, is still crude, juvenile, and selfish in his behavior toward Stéphanie. But I found this tender, sad, and surprisingly honest: the boyish artist Stéphane must retreat to his dreams to have any success, but even there he is foiled by his own immaturity. His childishness is the source of his great creative gift, but also blocks him from the person he believes he wants most. Even in his dreams he cannot escape who he is.
I’ve not actually heard anyone really discuss the ending in detail (movie criticism desperately needs better outlets for spoiler reviews and discussion; not being able to talk about how a film ends can make it awfully difficult to get into the heart of what makes a film work or not) — what did you think of it?
I need to see it again, but I felt that Stéphane and Stéphanie had reached a sort of impasse… ending the film with a question mark: Can free, imaginative, whimsical, irrational people make a relationship work, when a relationship requires responsibility, direct communication, and trust? Can the recklessness that is required for real genius and invention exist hand-in-hand with a lasting, meaningful bond? It felt like we’d arrived at the crux of the question about freedom and responsibility — the heart wants what it wants, but it is very difficult for a heart to grow up.
Still, it ends with a gesture of tenderness and affection, which is comforting in the presence of such a familiar and difficult dilemma.
I kept thinking of C.S. Lewis’s words about childish-ness: “When I became a man, I put away childish things… including the fear of being childish and the desire to be very grown up.” Both characters might carry this as a mantra. But the problem is… they do need to grow up if they’re going to survive in a world that is unkind to creative geniuses.
Thus, the whole film felt like a sad song by Gondry about his own struggles… but also a surprisingly self-aware assessment, a humble self-diagnosis.
That’s why I’m rating this film in a tie with Marie Antoinette: two films by talented artists about their own lives, their own struggles, and their own startling confessions of irresponsibility and longing.
Is there anyone working in film today with creative vision as refreshing and groundbreaking as Gondry?
I think you’re right to put this film up against Marie Antoinette; they’re definitely two of a kind (although I liked Antoinette better). This fall, we actually saw a number of similar films about young adults struggling to make the transition out of adolescence — bothAntoinette and Sleep as well as The Last Kiss and Andrew Bujalski’s super-indie Mutual Attraction (I wrote a short piece about the four films here.). I think we’re witnessing the development of a new kind of coming of age film (or at least a variation), in which, instead of facing the pressures of adulthood right out of high school or college, young adults are finding they can sort of drift into their adult lives and delay the process of “growing up” till their mid or late 20s — sometimes even later. The threshold for establishing yourself has become increasingly blurry for many young adults, and these films are a reaction to that.
As for similar filmmakers, well, Spike Jonze is the obvious choice, though his work has more of a madcap quirkiness compared to Gondry’s dreamy melancholy. I might put David Lynch in the same category too, though his work often has an underlying menace that not everyone will find refreshing. (I’m finally seeing Inland Empire this evening, and I have to say: I’m excited. Seeing Lynch in the theater is an experience like little else.) No matter who else might make the list, though, Gondry is certainly one to watch.
I’m seeing Inland Empire the day after tomorrow (if Seattle doesn’t get another load of snow dropped on it). I can’t wait to share first impressions. Thanks for you sharing your thoughts, Peter. I look forward to seeing more of your work in The National Review!
Just as Brett McCracken was one of the few reviewers I met this year who really appreciated The New World, so he also happened to enjoy Marie Antoinette. Is there a connection?
Marie Antoinette, like The New World, really divided audiences this year. But I trust Sofia Coppola… Lost in Translation was such a poetic work about loneliness and disillusionment with marriage, with adulthood, with regret. But it spoke in what Darren Hughes might call “Long Pauses,” profound silences, and its imagery spoke so much louder than its words. So when I heard Coppola was working on “an historical epic,” I was expecting exactly what frustrated so many people… a focus on aesthetics more than narrative, emotions more than the march of history, mood more than drama.
Did any responses to this film frustrate you? What do you think people need to understand in order to appreciate Marie Antoinette?
And what were your favorite moments? I loved the sunrise. And the getting-dressed-by-too-many-people scene.
The response to the film did frustrate me, because so many people dismissed it as superfluous, trifling, and merely an exercise in opulent style. Yes, it may be thus, but to me the over-the-top stylization — apart from being gorgeous in every aesthetic facet — is central to the film’s character and themes.
The sunrise scene is key — and yes, probably my favorite as well. Interesting that Sofia Coppola has at least one “melancholy sunrise” moment in each of her films. Who can forget Kirsten Dunst’s character in The Virgin Suicides waking up alone on the football field after prom night? Or the final goodbye scene in Tokyo between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation? The scene in Antoinette is similarly wrenching to me, because it evokes — just as the others do — that universal feeling of waking up to a cold, harsh world. It is that feeling in the pit of your stomach of emptiness and existential fatigue, that usually subsides as the sun rises higher, but is nonetheless harshest in the early hours of the “morning after.”
Even without these “morning after” type moments of lonely reflection, Antoinette is a great achievement in artistry. The costumes, sets, cinematography, and music are all wonderful. I especially loved hearing The Cure’s “Plainsong” as Louis and Marie march down the church steps after their coronation.
Yes, but how I wanted more than just the opening notes! (That’s my favorite song on one of my favorite albums.)
I think audiences today are so bombarded by style that they have no use for something that uses style as its primary storytelling mechanism. But we forget that this is what cinema IS: Primarily an exercise in FORM. We can all read the narrative of Marie Antoinette’s life in any number of books, but something like what Sofia Coppola has created could never be captured in a book, or in any medium other than film.
It feels to me like all of Coppola’s films are about herself, to a large degree. Born into the Coppola family, I’m sure she’s led a somewhat insulated, privileged life. And she seems very aware of that… there’s an alienation, a loneliness, and an accompanying sense of sadness in all of her main characters.
In a blog comment to my first-impression thoughts on the film, another viewer wrote that he agreed that the film was, to some degree, about Coppola herself, but that this was a problem. He felt like Coppola was too narcissistic, too busy telling us about poor, poor Sofia and not thinking enough about experiences outside of her own. I think he has a point, but then again, I think her “outsider” status gives her a unique perspective on the rest of the world that is both revealing of other people’s superficiality while at the same time including herself as participating and even indulging in it.
Do you think she’s just saying the same thing in each movie, and that maybe she should broaden her horizons? Is that too much to ask of her?
I actually do think it is too much to ask an artist to “broaden” their art beyond the realm of the personal. Sofia’s films definitely are dealing with issues that she finds relevant to her life as a Coppola celebutante, but they have also resonated with other audiences. I think art is most effective when it is rooted in local, personal experience — because that is what we know best. And that can take a wide variety of forms, from an 18th century queen to a 1970s teen girl. But as long as it is true, audiences can feel it as such and see their own experiences in it. And so to diminish an artist’s work because it might be selfish or indulgent is not always valid, because sometimes the most narcissistic art is the most widely applicable.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
What can I say? The twelve-year-old in me loved it. We so rarely get a big, sprawling adventure movie that remembers how to have fun. We so rarely get a villain who is scary while at the same time being a character so original you want to see him again and again. Bill Nighy should get an Oscar nomination for his work as Davey Jones. And Johnny Depp… well… Captain Jack is the character he was born to play. Many disagree with me, but I think this is a much more impressive film than the original… the most fun I’ve had with an adventure film in ages.
My review is here.
18, 19. (tie)
A Prairie Home Companion
(Two films about the problem with the fast-paced, self-centered present… and the glory of the slow-paced, community-oriented past.)
Here’s my review of Cars.
Here’s my review of A Prairie Home Companion.
I mean… just LOOK at them.
They’re so alike.
And yet so very different.
Couldn’t possibly decide which I prefer.
They’re set in the same era, and they’re both about troubled magicians.
The Prestige is big, noisy, and powerful… full of speed and fury and wild ideas and great performances.
The Illusionist is quieter, more thoughtful, more of a fairy tale in nature.
The Prestige is about pride.
The Illusionist is about true love.
The Prestige features fantastic performances by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, a memorable turn by David Bowie, and a not-so-memorable turn by Scarlett Johansson.
The Illusionist features fantastic performances by Paul Giamatti and Edward Norton, a memorable turn by Rufus Sewell, and a surprisingly adequate turn by Jessica Biel.
I love them both, and I’ll watch either one of them at the drop of a magic hat.
I enjoyed an email conversation with ChristianityToday.com film critic Todd Hertz about The Illusionist, and… of course… The Prestige came up:
The Illusionist really surprised me. I’m not sure what I was expecting but I was powerfully impressed, yet again, by Paul Giamatti. I think this is one of his best performances… one that’s even more striking in contrast to his amusing Lady in the Water turn.
Norton was also riveting. It’s such an understated performance… as is Sewell’s, which could easily have been too loud and flamboyantly wicked.
It’s interesting that we had three prominent pictures about magicians this year. Any guesses what that’s all about? (And two starred Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson. Weird.)
The Prestige was big, showy, noisy, and intense. But I felt like this one, while simpler and more old-fashioned, was just as enjoyable. I loved the cinematography, the music by Phillip Glass. What made it memorable for you?
Comparing The Illusionist to The Prestige is really interesting to me. In many ways, The Prestige is probably the “better” movie. But yet, I enjoy The Illusionist more. I’ll watch it many times. I may not need to see The Prestige a second time. The Illusionisthas a better story. It’s not flashy or mindblowing or especially shocking, but it’s just good storytelling with, like you said, really expert acting. You can just have fun with The Illusionist.
Unlike in the The Prestige, where I felt I was watching a smart, slick Hollywood presentation, The Illusionistmade me feel more like I was just reading a good story. That’s a real tribute to the directing and acting. I agree with you, the real standout performance here is Giamatti. I love the quietness he brings to his inspector. Whenever dealing with Sewell’s Crown Prince Leopold, he approaches this powerful man with a gentle carefulness and fear crossed with reverence. It’s a very balanced performance. Other actors would have made the inspector too over-the-top and goofy. In addition, I feel like Sewell and Norton do their parts so well that they are overlooked. Really, the word for all their acting seems to be gentle. Actually, that may be a good keyword for the film itself.
What did you think, though, of Jessica Biel? Was she just a pretty face, or did she pass the test in such talented company?
Good question about Jessica Biel. Actually, when I left the theater, her performance was the first thing I commented on to a friend. Like the others, she played understated but did it so well. Used to seeing her in schlock roles, she really stepped it up and showed some dramatic talent.
I have a couple questions for you. One of our fellow ChristianityMoviesToday.com reviewers wrote, “Some viewers may see through the plot’s central illusion early on; others may be as fooled as most of the characters.” Did you know where the movie was headed? I’ll admit that there was a moment about halfway in where I was able to predict the movie’s surprises, but unlike some movies that are built around a big twist, I didn’t feel that figuring it out ruined enjoyment of the movie. I still was so sucked into the unveiling of the story that I didn’t even care that I kind of had it guessed. And that’s exactly why watching it more than once is still really fun — knowing what’s coming doesn’t hurt because the movie’s value is in the world it creates.
One thing that I’ve thought about after seeing the movie is Sewell’s Crown Prince Leopold. Do you at any point in the film feel bad for him? While he was the “bad guy,” I wasn’t so sure at times he really was. I sympathized with him. On the other hand, Norton is our hero but I really questioned some of his actions. I wanted to feel good about Norton, but kept thinking, “Hmm, is he really the good guy?” What did you think?
Because of all of the evenings I’ve spent watching PBSMystery! with Anne, I’m just programmed to try and figure out the trick. And yeah, I had good guesses fairly quickly this time. But, like you said, the film was so well-made that it didn’t really matter. They played the game so well.
Prince Leopold was basically a big spoiled baby who couldn’t tolerate anybody saying “No” to him… probably his parents’ fault. I felt sorry for him insofar as he was unable to catch a grander vision and humble himself to let love have its way. He was also a product of the Enlightenment… uncomfortable with and threatened by mystery. He had to show his dominance by reducing everything to rational behavior, demonstrating that the human mind is sovereign.
Unfortunately, the film plays into that tendency too… giving us the satisfaction of finding a rationalexplanation for everything, and squeezing all mystery from the equation. Unless, of course, you appreciate the mystery of True Love, which rejects rational decision-making and insists on the sovereignty of something strange and mysterious.
Norton’s character is admirable in that he is fighting for true love. But no, he’s not entirely justified in his endeavors to bend and break laws. I’m glad he admitted to the crowd that everything was a trick, because it’s not a good idea to encourage people’s curiosity about the occult. Fortunately, the film steered clear of that.
Great points. I agree with you that Leopold wasn’t admirable in the way he viewed and treated love. And Eisenheim (Norton) is our bold fighter for true love. But when it was all said and done, I considered what Eisenheim had done for love wasn’t really admirable. He played dirty pool. He didn’t do evil, no. But he created a scenario where evil was done. And his character pays no consequences for it. So in the end, I am not sure Leopold was as bad of a guy or ruler that we thought or that he deserved what he got.
But even though I left the film wondering if I really agreed that our hero Eisenheim really did the right things for love, the plot lent to some great discussions (like this one) and made for an intriguing story. I think the lasting image I have of the film is Paul Giamatti’s inspector standing in the train tunnel at the film’s conclusion. The moment is all Giamatti. His character thinks through all that’s happened. And then, he leaves us with a gentle and knowing smile. It was a well-played scene and a fitting end to a movie that made me think and left me with a smile.
Don’t Come Knocking
One of the highlights of my year was my telephone interview with director Wim Wenders.
I’ve paid tribute to him in two chapters of Through a Screen Darkly. In Chapter Two, I’ve written quite a bit about this film… which marks the reunion of Wenders with Sam Shephard for their first project since their collaborative masterpiece: Paris, Texas.
No, it doesn’t work as well as I wish it would. But it’s so ambitious, so deeply felt and personal, and such a wild ride… I love it for how far it reaches, even if it doesn’t quite grasp enough to satisfy. Aronofsky has a fantastic imagination and a maverick spirit. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
24, 25. (tie)
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
(Two tough, dusty, violent Westerns)
Two contemporary “Westerns” in genre, The Proposition andThe Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada feel like adaptations of classic novels.
But both are powerful works of visual art as well, both conveying their ideas through the deep lines of their characters’ weatherbeaten faces as they endure, and carry out, startling violence.
The Proposition is an extremely violent… and yet surprisingly contemplative… work about human nature, the illusion of “civilization,” and justice. Written by Nick Cave, it serves up some of the year’s bloodiest scenes, but it also includes some of the finest performances.
Danny Huston, who has had an incredible year as an essential supporting actor, stands out to me for a performance that reminds me of his father, John. And there are other memorable turns from John Hurt and Emily Watson.
But the film really belongs to the two leads: Guy Pearce seems to have boiled himself down into some kind of Guy Pearce Concentrate… he’s like an animal in this film, battered by the elements, clinging to sanity, and wrestling with his conscience as if it is an alien thing he’s never really dealt with before.
And Ray Winstone dominates the picture with his finest work since Sexy Beast. He looks like he’s been sculpted from the clay, the dust, and the sweat of Australia. Dressed up in his officer’s uniform, he’s not fooling anybody… he’s as capable of monstrous behavior as anyone. But he, too, is wrestling with his conscience, trying to figure out what in the world a lawman should do when the wilderness around him cannot be tamed.
It’s a tough picture, hard to watch, and scathingly brutal. But it does ask essential questions: Justice is necessary, but how much does it cost the man who carries it out? What does killing, even in the name of righteousness, cost a man? And what happens if someone doesn’t suffer that cost?
My review of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is here. But it’s been almost a year since I discussed it with anyone, so I thought I’d strike up a conversation with one of the film’s biggest fans… Christianity Today film critic Josh Hurst… who declared it an immediate favorite when he caught a sneak preview at the beginning of the year.
You’ve really got to hand it to Tommy Lee Jones: We might have expected that his directorial debut would be tough, earthy, and rugged because, well, so is he.
But I never expected it would look so good, or that he would capture his own finest performance in what has become a rather impressive career.
And further, who knew that he’d be so adept with storytelling of such a literary quality….
What impressed you most about this film?
Many critics have noted the fact that Jones wrote his Harvard thesis on the great Southern writer Flannery O’Connor, and indeed, his film, more than any other that I’ve seen, seems to embody the spirit of O’Connor’s worldview. He portrays mankind as utterly depraved and self-centered, capable of the most abominable kinds of cruelty and inclined against any hint of grace or compassion. Thus, grace must be visited upon them in a jarring, even brutal manner — some of the characters undergo some gruesomely violent and harsh trials, but Jones seems to suggest that it’s for their own good. It’s not violence for the sake of violence — it’s grace being enacted upon characters who have so deafened themselves to the Divine that the only thing that’ll get their attention is brokenness. The movie takes us on a harsh, often harrowing journey, but it culminates in some glorious images of faith and repentance that are nothing short of joyful.
While I agree that there’s a focus on hard-hearted characters learning lessons the hard way, I find myself rather puzzled by parts of the picture.
Sure, the film takes us through some particularly rigorous trials, but do you think all of these characters are learning something by the end?
Clearly, the obvious dunce of the film is the border guard, Mike Horton. But what about Pete Perkins? What is his journey about?
And the film, set as it is on the border, lends itself to interpretation as a commentary on American engagement with immigrants. But that may have more to do with timing than intent. Did you feel the film meant to comment on current issues of immigration and citizenship?
Perkins is an interesting character. I think it’s possible to interpret him as a sort of divine instrument — “God’s avenging angel,” as it were. Or, to be more precise — he THINKS he’s God’s avenging angel; whether or not he actually is is a bit more ambiguous. Throughout the film, though, there are references to his mental condition — early in the movie, people tell him he’s crazy and he immediately denies it. By the end of the film, though, people call him crazy and he doesn’t respond. It seems he doesn’t know how to respond. Perhaps he really is crazy — a sort of holy fool. His journey, then, is perhaps one of self-realization, as he comes to understand a bit more about his own nature.
As for the politics of the movie… well, I don’t think Jones necessarily meant it as a political statement per se. I think the emphasis is on human depravity and the universal need for redemption; certainly it promotes compassion toward our neighbors — even the illegal ones! — but I don’t think it’s meant to endorse of condone any particular immigration policy. In some ways the immigration issues are more part of the film’s tropes and trappings than the actual themes.
Arriaga is better known for the scripts he’s written for Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu, including Babel. In those scripts, he’s choreographed several different storylines, weaving them together and stretching them around the framework of a central theme. Here, he keeps things focused on a small group of people focused on the same story. And it makes me hope that he’ll write some more stories at this scale. In the Innaritu projects, he tends to bring in so many stories of trauma, desperation, and disaster that, to me, it begins to feel a bit preposterous and overwrought. The Three Burials felt more plausible and contemplative than the others.
But I’ve noticed that you’ve rated Babel higher in your top ten list. Would you agree? Do you have a favorite Arriaga script?
What do you take away from this film? What does it mean to you personally?
Do you have a favorite moment?
Babel and Three Burials are such different films — one so sprawling and ambitious, one so focused and small-scale — that comparing them doesn’t make that much sense to me. I think both are equally great from a screenwriting perspective.
I think what really moved me about the film upon first viewing — and continues to impress me on subsequent viewings — is the clear call for repentance in the final act. There are a number of recent films that rightly, even inspiringly remind us that redemption and grace are very much realities, but how often does a film so powerfully speak about the need for behavioral modification in conjunction with that redemption? That ties in with my favorite moment in the film — the final sequence of Perkins and Horton building the city, and particularly of Horton’s apology to Melquiades, followed by his final words as Perkins rides away.
Films I wish I could wedge into the top 25:
for the way it continues the awe-inspiring “Up” series by Michael Apted, and at last broaches the subject of religious faith.
The Painted Veil
for beautiful cinematography and natural beauty, and for the thoughtful examination of a marriage, brought to life in memorable performances by Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. Also… Best Opening Credit Sequence of the year!
for being one of those rare, beautiful, lasting classics of family cinema in the vein of The Secret of Roan Innish and The Little Princess, and for excellent performances by Peter O’Toole and Peter Dinklage.
for its two fantastic lead performances, and its insightful, sobering commentary on the legacy of the Civil Rights movement.
Notes on a Scandal
for Judi Dench and Bill Nighy.
The Last King of Scotland
for Forrest Whitaker (but not for the way it turns a story about mass murder into a thriller about a white man’s love affair).
for its lead performance, its cinematography, and its simple tale of redemption.
A Scanner Darkly
for its enthralling animation and its powerful immersion into the disorienting reality of junkies.
The Second Chance
for Steve Taylor’s brave, convincing, compelling foray into one of the troubling trends of church culture. Make more movies, Mr. Taylor. You’ve got the knack.
Flags of Our Fathers
for its exploration of how we can spin stories to serve our own purposes… even if they honorable purposes. (So, why did you then go and spin the story of the Japanese experience in such a way that viewers forget just how cruel and barbaric the Japanese soldiers were known to be?)
I chatted with blogger/bookseller Adam Walter about Inside Man:
To some people, this was a step down for Spike Lee… a flashy Hollywood genre film. For me, it was one of the most satisfying films he’s made. Do you think it’s a great Lee film, or just a good one?
Well, like a lot of people, I really love Do the Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues. And I thought Clockerswas a really good film, but then Lee just lost my interest over the years and–as with Woody Allen recently–I’d see maybe every second or third film he made. With The 25th Hour, he showed me he could hold my interest again. Inside Man is kind of the same deal.
Regardless of whether a director has any social concerns that are obvious in the story, he or she has got to tell a really compelling story, and that’s where, unfortunately, a lot of our successful directors today are dropping the ball–they’ve just forgotten what keeps a moviegoer enthralled. If you want to lace your film with a “socially responsible” message, fine. If you want to do an FX spectacle, fine. If you want to lampoon American consumerism, fine. Just don’t let anything get in the way of telling a compelling visual story, with thoughtful consideration given to character and plot. This was all taken into consideration this year not only by Lee but also by the directors of Thank You for Smoking, The Prestige, A Scanner Darkly, andThe Science of Sleep. While none of these films would make my Top 5 of the year, they’re all wonderful films that their directors can be proud of. Inside Man wasn’t one of Lee’s great films, but it was one of his very good ones. I think a director is lucky if he has a couple “greats” in him and a handful of really entertaining, largely-flawless films like this. And for my money, this year Lee skunked Martin Scorsese on his own turf. That alone has got to be worth something.
What impressed you about it?
A lot of things. Strong characters and performances. A strong mood and style, nicely reminiscent, at points, of some thrillers of the 70s and early 80s. And I really appreciated the negative achievements too: no big plot holes or absurd coincidences. Though the story was clever, it wasn’t overly clever. That is, the filmmakers didn’t “mug” for the camera.
Do you think the film is About Something that gives it more weight than a mere bank-heist flick?
Not really. There may be some background themes that you can lean hard on, if you had some reason to. Mostly, though, I think it’s just an excellent thriller that didn’t ruin its chances by attempting to be something that it wasn’t.