Posts Tagged ‘Woody Allen’

Favourite films of the decade

September 8, 2020

Remember the 2010s? About nine months ago, at the turn of the new year, film buffs the world over were busily compiling lists of their favourite films of the decade that was. Even I, though but a middling buff, thought to do the same, but there was that handful of film I thought I’d like to see, or see again, before writing my list. Then 2020 happened, and that handful of films is still, for the most part, unseen by me.  Since the film-watching forecast doesn’t appear likely to change in the foreseeable future, I think the time is right to post my list and move on.

And so, here they are: my favourite films of the years 2010-2019.

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1. The Tree of Life
(Terrence Malick, 2011)

No surprise here. Standing head and shoulders above anything else on this list is Terrence Malick’s magnificent The Tree of Life. My love for the film is unstinting. I have written appreciatively, and at moderate length, about it here.

I would go as far as to say this: if (and I emphasize if) the first century-or-so of cinema has produced anything worthy to rank with our greatest artistic achievements — we are moving here into the realm where we contemplate The Divine Comedy or King Lear or Don Giovanni or the Sistine Chapel or Apollo and Daphne — then I contend that among our leading candidates must be this film, which marshals all the many resources of the medium to explore the highest thoughts and the deepest reservoirs of memory and feeling. It is a film that traces the tendrils of regret and loss to the place, deep down, where they terminate in reconciliation and redemption. It is a film that not even the fortified immanent frame of modernity is able to contain, for no film has better apprehended the mystery of being. It is great in its many specific details — that house underwater, that cry of anguish, that homily, that dance, that light — and great in its vaulting ambition — that universe! The Tree of Life is a glorious, colossal masterpiece.

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2. Arrival
(Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

When I praised Arrival on a previous occasion I described it as “a surprisingly beautiful meditation on maternal love and sacrifice disguised as a nerdy puzzle about linguistics dressed up as an alien invasion movie”, and I can’t improve on that. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric film, beautifully shot, and elevated by a superb lead performance from Amy Adams. I wish more science fiction films were as thoughtful and textured. I love the slow pacing, the nuts-and-bolts approach it takes to its subject matter, the dreamy cinematography, and the strong currents of feeling that it quietly cultivates. Acknowledging that it is first and foremost a worthy work of art, not a “message movie”, some readers might be interested to learn that it has a claim to be, by a considerable margin, the most subtle and unconventional and, arguably, the most powerful pro-life film of the decade.

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3. Midnight in Paris
(Woody Allen, 2011)

Comedies sometimes get short shrift when accolades are being dispensed, so I am happy to have two excellent examples on my list.  Midnight in Paris is that rare thing: a perfect romantic comedy, and, even better, one in which “romantic” can be taken in a wider sense than is usual. It’s a comedy about love, to be sure, but it’s also about the romance of Parisian streets, of midnight strolls, of magic, of wonder, and of dreams come to life.

Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, a Hollywood screenwriter who aspires to greater literary achievements, who has come to Paris with his fiancee (Rachel McAdams) on holiday. Gil feels as many North Americans do when they go to Europe: that its streets and sites are touched with the glory of those great men and women, his idols and heroes, who trod those stones before him. For Gil, Paris is perfumed with the memories of the golden age of the 1920s, when Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein lived there. When, during one of his midnight walks, a 1920’s-vintage car rolls up to the curb and he is beckoned inside, he cannot resist, and so the delightful story unfolds…

The film is about nostalgia, its pleasures and its pitfalls, and is suffused with a spirit of humility and appreciation. Allen’s neuroses are present, but more moderate and winsome than usual. (It helps that Allen himself remains off-screen, although Wilson does a pretty decent imitation.) Is nostalgia a failure to face the world squarely? Is it possible to really love the past in a way that doesn’t distort it? Are we all prisoners of our own time? And, if so, what are we to do with our affection and admiration for times and places other than our own? Big questions, but handled with generosity and wit. It’s a golden film.

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4. Brooklyn
(John Crowley, 2015)

Unlike some, or perhaps most, of the films on this list, Brooklyn has no grand ambitions and no particular sense of style. What it does have is a compelling human story and a superb actress in the lead role, and those two elements together carry it through triumphantly. Saoirse Ronan, playing a young Irish woman emigrating to New York in the 1950s, has a quiet but commanding presence, and that lilt is irresistible. I have a soft spot for stories about being away and returning home, and here, where it’s ambiguous whether Ireland or New York is home, that soft spot got prodded pretty often. It’s a wonderful film that feels like a classic.

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5. Love & Friendship
(Whit Stillman, 2016)

I’ve now seen Love & Friendship three times, and its charms have not faded. Adapted by Stillman from a little-known novella by Jane Austen, it follows Lady Susan Vernon (played by Stillman regular Kate Beckinsale) as she picks her way through the lives of her circle of friends and relations in the quest to obtain marriages for herself and her grown daughter. It’s a film that has humour in its very bones, starting with the title and proceeding through the situations, the characters, the dialogue, the music, and the tone. Everything works together.

Lady Susan is a delightful creation: a prodigy of manipulativeness whose capacity for duplicity is boundless and whose conscience is dead. The men in her life, especially, with one notable exception, are helpless before her combination of feminine charms and devious wit. Stillman’s films have all been, to some degree, comedies of manners, so he and Austen are kindred spirits. It feels to me that the period setting, with its latitude for elegant and articulate dialogue, is especially friendly to his comedic instincts. Though the film is, at some level, a showcase for guile and hypocrisy, it eventually comes around, as every Austen adaptation must, to a happy ending, and one that feels honest to me. Treachery may have its fascination, but virtue is the charm that most adorns the fair.

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6. Gravity
(Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)

Action films are usually not quiet and slow enough for me, but I make an exception for this thrill ride, which opens with one of the greatest long takes in the history of cinema — 17 minutes of swirling, vertigo-inducing movie magic — and pursues its relentless way through a sea of troubles. The movie is like an arrow released from a bow: once begun, it stops at nothing until it reaches its target, and I can’t think of another action film that kept me on the edge of my seat so effectively. With just enough background to humanize the characters, and just enough symbolism to hint at deeper significance, I found it very satisfying, even on re-watch. Sandra Bullock, of all people, is terrific in the lead role, but the film really belongs to Cuarón.

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7. Paterson
(Jim Jarmusch, 2016)

Not everyone shares my liking for slow, quiet films, but I am optimistic that most people would appreciate Paterson, a slow, quiet film about a New Jersey bus driver with an avocation as a poet — or is it the other way around?  Paterson is something like Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith”, a man whose exterior life looks thoroughly ordinary but whose interior is dramatically alive. Unlike Kierkegaard’s knight, Paterson is basically content, appreciative, and patient, bearing his burdens humbly and grateful for the good in his life. The film is about contentment, and is itself mostly content to be contented. Absent a great conflict, Jarmusch gives the film shape by following Paterson for a few days, and making the sequence of days analogous to a sequence of stanzas, each different from the others, but following a similar structure. It’s a nice example of unity in the manner and the matter of a story. At the heart of the film is a beautiful portrait of Paterson’s marriage — a June and December marriage if there ever was one, but one of the most attractive I’ve ever seen on screen. It’s an altogether lovely film; quiet, observant, and gentle at heart.

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8. Phantom Thread
(Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017)

Anderson seems to have gradually left behind the Dionysian freedom of his early films in favour of something more controlled and subdued, and Phantom Thread is positively Apollonian in construction, classic in every respect, from its elegant camera work to its beautiful sets and costumes and masterclass acting. It is a love story, but Anderson has a way of taking his films where we do not expect them to go, and the final act of Phantom Thread strays well outside established conventions. To be perfectly frank, it sickens and turns sour, leaving a distinctly unpleasant aftertaste. But it appears on this list because I am trying to be honest, and nine-tenths of this were among the purest and most luxuriant filmcraft of the decade for me.

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9. La La Land
(Damien Chazelle, 2016)

It’s a bittersweet picture; when first I saw it I tasted mostly the sweet, when next mostly the bitter, but in both cases I was left charmed and touched by this portrait of a pair whose course of love does not run smooth. Sebastian and Mia are caught between following their dreams and following their love. They can try to do both, but life is hard, and something has to give.

It’s a musical, of course, which adds a welcome splash of ebullience to what might otherwise be just sad, and the wonderful epilogue rings all the emotional changes you could wish for. It left me teary-eyed and elated, and that is a rare feat.

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10. Personal Shopper
(Olivier Assayas, 2016)

Competition for this tenth spot on the list has been fierce. Bloodied and beaten films lie askew on the field, but rising slowly to its feet in their midst, a look of grim triumph on its face, is Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, an alluring film that never does what we expect, becomes more puzzling and fascinating as it proceeds, and concludes by increasing rather than resolving the tension it generates. Part ghost story, part study in grief, and part existential mystery, it makes it to this list mostly on the strength of several sequences that I simply haven’t been able to get out of my mind. I don’t think any other film I saw this decade involved me quite so thoroughly in its perplexing details, or provoked me to quite so many frame-by-frame re-examinations of particular scenes. It’s far from being a perfect film, and is in some respects downright vexing, but curiously satisfying too.

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Honourable mentions: A Hidden Life (2019); Sudoeste (2012); Parasite (2019); Inside Llewyn Davis (2013); First Reformed (2017); A Ghost Story (2017); La Sapienza (2014); Knight of Cups (2016); Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018); The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018).

Animated: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018); 24 Frames (2017); Winnie the Pooh (2011).

Science Fiction: Never Let Me Go (2010); Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014); A Quiet Place (2018).

Action: Inception (2013) ; Dunkirk (2017); Edge of Tomorrow (2014).

Horror: The Witch (2015); It Follows (2014); The Conjuring (2013).

Documentaries: Tim’s Vermeer (2013); The Act of Killing (2012); They Shall Not Grow Old (2018).

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Comments welcome!

Favourites of 2012: Film

December 27, 2012

I didn’t go often to the cinema in 2012, but I did manage to see quite a few films at home. I’ve divided the films below into those which were new — either in theater or on DVD — in 2012, and those which were older but which I saw for the first time this year.

I have said before that I am a film-going dullard, with little innate feel for the medium and a poor acquaintance with its history. This year I made a concerted effort to overcome some of this ignorance by watching a number of “classics”. I saw films by great directors like Jean Renoir (The Rules of the Game), Orsen Welles (The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil), Yasujirō Ozu (Tokyo Story), Werner Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath of God), and even Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown). I watched classic film noir (Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep), classic western (The Searchers), classic romance (Roman Holiday), classic musical (Singin’ in the Rain), and classic horror (The Uninvited, The Innocents, The Haunting). I watched adaptations of Shakespeare spanning nearly 80 years of cinema, from the 1935 A Midsummer Night’s Dream up through Laurence Olivier’s 1955 Richard III to Roman Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth and Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 Coriolanus. I staged for myself a Woody Allen mini-festival, watching in sequence a sampling of his more highly-regarded films (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanours, Match Point, and Midnight in Paris). I saw quirky little films by auteurs (Brian Linklater’s Bernie and Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress) and massive blockbusters by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises) and whoever-the-perpetrator-was (The Avengers).

Sad to say, my affinity for films with broadly classic status continued to have low valence. With a few exceptions, noted below, the famous pictures in the list above mostly failed to resonate strongly with me. Naturally I am willing to accept that this is due to my own insensibility. (Although I will say that how anyone could think The Searchers one of the greatest films is beyond my powers of imagination to grasp.)

Unquestionably my favourite film of the year was Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which I saw again on DVD. Since this was also my favourite film of 2011, I will not belabour the point, but simply direct interested readers to last year’s list. Next to that magnificent achievement (the film, not my list) the films I am about to discuss appear wan and pale. But if one can forget about Malick for a while, colour begins to seep back into them and they can be enjoyed on their own terms.

To the business at hand!

Recent Films

Midnight_in_Paris_PosterMidnight in Paris
(Woody Allen, 2011)

I did not have any clear idea of what to expect from Woody Allen’s film about Paris in the 1920s. I knew that it starred Owen Wilson in a lead role, which would normally have led me to give it a wide berth, but the reviews were strong and the film sounded appealing. I had seen only one other of Allen’s films prior to this one — it was Annie Hall — and that many years ago, so even my sense of what a Woody Allen picture is like was hazy. In some sense, that may have been an advantage, for I now see that Midnight in Paris is a fairly atypical Allen film, and in a good way.

It is atypical in that it is genuinely light-hearted, and willing to risk a sense of nostalgic wonder without letting Allen’s besetting vice — hair-trigger self-consciousness — get in the way. It is true that the film eventually comes around to seeing itself as a kind of psychoanalytic-therapy-by-fantasy, but even this is done in such a winsome manner — thanks, in so small degree, to a surprisingly endearing performance by Wilson — that it does not spoil the fun.

The basic premise of the story is that Wilson, a struggling writer on a visit to Paris with his fiancée and her family, is magically transported back to the Paris of the 1920s, a time and place that he has always considered “golden”, and where he meets many of his cultural idols, such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. (The Wikipedia page gives a nice run-down of the famous real-life figures who are portrayed on screen. I had hoped for a glimpse of Stravinsky, but I was disappointed. Probably they were unable to find anyone ugly enough to play him convincingly.) He is so enraptured by this experience that he is tempted to remain in the past, but reflection on this temptation leads to his learning a Very Valuable Lesson.

I suppose one could see the film as a kind of progressive’s catechism about the evils of “living in the past”, but it did not play that way to me. The nostalgia, ostensibly denounced in the end, was too sincerely conveyed to be entirely effaced, and even the denunciation was handled with a winking ineptitude that softened the blow. I came away from the film with a spring in my step.

Take_Shelter_posterTake Shelter
(Jeff Nichols, 2011)

This is a quiet and spare little film that plays like a realistic domestic drama but turns out to be a fable, or something. The story charts the struggles of a young family in rural America as their husband/father descends slowly into madness, prey to delusions and paranoia and troubled by ominous dreams. It is played unsensationally, and is all the more frightening for it. How would you manage if the one you loved began making poor judgements that gradually imperiled the family’s livelihood and safety? At what point would you realize that something was seriously wrong? How would you broach the subject with him or her? How would this behaviour, and these fears, affect relationships within the family? These questions are all raised by the script, and made compelling by superb performances from Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. The third main presence in the film, uncredited, is the sky above the family farm. The film’s range is admittedly limited, more or less striking a sustained note of brooding tension, but it is remarkably effective given its slim means. See it with friends and family and you will be arguing about the film’s ending until well into the night.

The official trailer for the film gives too much away, so here is another, made by a YouTuber named Peter Gergis:

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Older Films

double-indemnityDouble Indemnity
(Billy Wilder, 1944)

After many more or less failed attempts to learn to appreciate older films (“older” here meaning, say, more than fifty years old), I decided this year to try a different tack: genre films. I hoped that the familiar conventional elements of such films might pave the way for me to some extent. I believe this strategy has worked; at least, I thoroughly enjoyed this film.

Double Indemnity is considered a classic example of film noir, and with good reason. Based on the novel by James M. Cain, the screenplay was co-written by Billy Wilder and none other than Raymond Chandler. The dialogue is as hard-bitten as one could hope for, and the cinematography, rendered (obviously) in atmospheric black and white, is a perfect match for the story.

It is a crime drama, but the drama derives not from suspense as to who committed the crime — we are told this in the opening scene — nor even as to how the crime was carried out — though it is true that much of the plot is involved with unfolding the (rather implausible) details. As Roger Ebert points out in his review of the film for his “Great Movies” series, in the end the film’s fascination turns on the character and motives of the two central figures (played by Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck). What do they see in one another? Are they in love, or is one using the other? Why is each willing to trust the other? (Does each trust the other?) What do they really want? And are we, as the audience, expected to sympathize with them, or is the film a dark comedy in which we watch, with a certain satisfaction, as the foolish pave their own path to destruction? You tell me.

This was not the only Billy Wilder film I watched this year. The Marilyn Monroe comedy Some Like it Hot has a strong reputation, but I much preferred Double Indemnity.

roman-holiday-posterRoman Holiday
(William Wyler, 1953)

What a wonderful surprise! Here we have a charming romance with a winsome lead couple (in Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck), a spectacular backdrop (Rome, of course, and gloriously so), an intriguing premise, and a bittersweet finish that wrings the heart. Hepburn plays a modern-day princess who, fed up with endless days of official protocols and rigorous scheduling, escapes from her handlers to enjoy an incognito day of adventure in Rome. It is impossible to imagine a modern film observing the decorum and achieving the dignity of this romantic fantasy. The film floats on an air of sweet fun, pointing up at every turn the blessings of the simple life, and it avoids a conventional “Hollywood ending” in favour of a tough-minded, but very right, example of love and sacrifice. Hepburn is marvellous; I hadn’t seen her on screen before, but I am now compiling a list of her other films for future viewing. Would I have liked Roman Holiday as much if it had been filmed in another city? I don’t have to answer that.

the-innocentsThe Innocents
(Jack Clayton, 1961)

It was Martin Scorcese’s praise of this film that attracted me. I have no liking for graphic horror, but this promised to be a quiet, oblique affair with an undercurrent of supernatural tension. The story is about two children who return home from boarding school to take up their studies under a new governess on a large, remote English estate. The children are strange, eerie, and the governess is slowly drawn into a frightening mystery. The film is unusually unsettling, not for anything explicit, for for subtle touches that accumulate. The young girl, in particular, made my hair stand on end: something about her eyes and her voice. To be honest, I had reached a point in the film where, too frightened to continue, I was going to turn it off, when one of the characters spoke a name that I recognized: “Peter Quint”. Relief washed over me: I realized I was watching an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Fortified with new courage — not because James’ story is not scary, but because I knew I was on terrain I had trodden before without lasting damage — I was able to see it through. It’s a good film, with an uncanny atmosphere, recommended to those with a taste for such things.

match-pointMatch Point
(Woody Allen, 2005)

One doesn’t expect a thriller from Woody Allen, and this film, about which I knew nothing prior to watching apart from the general acclaim it had garnered, took me by surprise. It is about a middle-class tennis instructor in London who, by a series of fortunate events, marries into a wealthy family. He then commits an act that imperils both his marriage and his new social status, and to protect himself he goes on to commit even worse acts, desperately trying to keep the consequences at bay. The general set-up is similar in many respects to Allen’s earlier Crimes and Misdemeanors (which I watched later), but in my opinion Match Point is much the better of the two.

I admire the film’s ability to make gripping drama out of very ordinary materials. Early in the film four characters meet together for coffee, a meeting such as might happen thousands of times on any given day in a large city. Yet it is from the dynamics of those relationships, and nothing more, that the whole drama of the story unfolds. I also admire the film’s portrayal of the snowball effect of decisions and actions; one evil act contains within it the seed of all that follows, and the effort to cut off that growth only makes things worse and worse. Finally, the plotting of Match Point is superb: the structure, with all of its considerable intricacies and cunning diversions, fits together like clockwork. Allen deserved his Academy Award nomination for the screenplay.

Many commentators on the film have remarked on its cynical ending, and, it is true, one could read it as deeply pessimistic. It is probably intended to be read that way. Nonetheless I think it leaves enough unspoken to permit a more ambiguous interpretation. It is the sort of film for which one’s final interpretation rests to a great extent on how one interprets a facial expression in the closing frames. Quite apart from anything else, I cannot help but admire the craftsmanship of any film that can bring things to such a fine point.

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Other films I enjoyed, but not so much as to write about them here:
  • Recent: Argo (2012), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Damsels in Distress (2011), Drive (2011), Moneyball (2011), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
  • Older: The Way (2010), Ponyo (2008), The Ninth Day (2004), The Thin Red Line (1998), Annie Hall (1977), The Song of Bernadette (1943)

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Finally, I’d like to say a few words about two excellent music-related “movies” that I saw this year.

ballet-russesStravinsky and the Ballets Russes records live performances of two of Stravinsky’s early ballets, The Firebird, which premiered in 1910, and The Rite of Spring, from 1913. In this modern production from the St. Petersburg Mariisnky Theatre, they have tried to reproduce the choreography and costumes of the famous original productions in Paris. Now, I am not one to sit contentedly through a ballet, but I found these productions fascinating from start to finish. The Firebird, Stravinsky’s first major commission, comes across as a startlingly beautiful work; it is far easier to appreciate the music’s frequent changes in texture and tempi when one sees the accompanying dances, which (and I can hardly believe I am saying this) are really splendid. The Rite of Spring is another beast altogether. One of the surprising things Richard Taruskin said in his discussion of this piece and its famous premiere in the Oxford History of Western Music is that the riot which accompanied the first performance may well have been in response to the choreography rather than (as is usually supposed) the music. Seeing this performance convinced me that he may well be right: the dancing is crude, formless, chaotic, replacing elegance for violence at every opportunity. It is easy to see why lovers of ballet, which until then had been a genre nearly entirely insulated from the incursions of modernism, would have taken offense. I won’t say that I liked it, but it was very interesting to see, and if you love Stravinsky I would say this is probably essential viewing.

Bob Dylan - The Other Side Of The Mirror  [2007]-frontSecond is The Other Side of the Mirror, which documents Bob Dylan’s famous Newport Folk Festival concerts in 1963, 1964, and 1965. The footage is offered largely without commentary, so this is simply an opportunity to hear and see Dylan during what was perhaps the most artistically fertile period of his life. It is frankly astounding to consider how much he changed in those few years, morphing from the earnest strummer of folk tunes in 1963 to the enigmatic bard of 1965. We also see more of the infamous 1965 electric set than was shown in Scorcese’s No Direction Home (if memory serves). Warmly recommended to those who love Bob Dylan.

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Anything I missed? As always, comments are welcome.