PROJECT NIM (James Marsh, USA)
Someone comes up to you and suggests performing and funding a scientific study of raising a chimpanzee as a human being and teaching him human language. If your immediate reaction is “yeah, that sounds interesting, here’s the money,” you might find PROJECT NIM lacking. If your immediate reaction is that of a normal person and of the functional-“all” until quite recently — that is, you look to the side, make a polite excuse and slowly back away — PROJECT NIM is a brilliant, pitch-black comedy about just such a 1970s hippie-science experiment, and how some forms of animal research really are about man’s view of man, to the detriment of both man and beast.
Marsh, whose previous documentary was the Oscar-winner MAN ON WIRE, isn’t terribly interested in the science of the Project Nim experiment itself — which had to do with efforts to rebut Noam Chomsky’s theory that language properly-understood is a uniquely human attribute, hard-wired in us, absent in animals. The chimp, taken from his mother at birth and kept away from all other chimps until he was 5 years ago, was named Nim Chimpsky, a fact that is in the film and which point I “got,” but it is not explained in the film and I don’t think Chomsky is even explicitly mentioned (I was distressed some years ago to learn that there is a subject in the world on which I’m a hard-core Chomskyite). The experiment’s trajectory also seems a little telescoped — lead researcher Herbert Terrace acknowledges the experiment has failed rather suddenly, though one suspects the motivation was other.
But the experiment itself is really just a Maguffin, or the occasion for the particulars of this hilarious sick joke, which (YAY!!) comes out on DVD and Blu next week. What Marsh is interested in, and he succeeds magnificently, is an Errol Morris-like portrait of human folly, human nature and how we anthropomorphize animals, and do much else, to play out our own ideas and agendas. The first words in my notes are “Errol Morris, minus Glass score [instead] more conventional strumming.” Indeed, you could almost say NIM was the second-best Morris comedy of 2011 (hint … hint …). Marsh has dramatic, portentous title cards to divide up the tale, cuts to interview subjects in an eccentrically-lit stage, and also uses some re-creations to fill in narrative gaps where archival footage doesn’t exist (though there is plenty of such footage). The Morris-aping (sorry) does, however, get a little much in the lengthy show-offy pans that introduce characters when they give their sit-down interviews today.
The other film that went through my mind a lot watching this one was GRIZZLY MAN, also about people (or in that case, one person) who don’t respect the difference between man and animals. In one of Herzog’s many unforgettable scenes, an Alaska Native says incredulously that while his people have lived beside the grizzlies forever, Treadwell “tried to become a bear, and we know you can’t do that.” PROJECT NIM is about that same sin in its opposite form, the one preferred by our technological materialist society — man wanting to make an animal into a man (curiously, the animals themselves never initiate these projects). While there’s plenty to laugh at in the Herzog film (and I did some), it was hard to really let loose because we knew right from the start that this folly ended with the grisly (sorry) deaths of two people. In PROJECT NIM, the stakes are a little lower.
“You Make My Dreams,” 500 DAYS OF SUMMER — Only people who don’t have a silly bone in their bodies, and so should not be reading this site, could fail to love this scene — so impossibly giddy, scored to such a bouncy piece of 80s pop cheese, a feeling of literal head-over-heels love as the whole universe impossibly cooperates in the impossible. (And the “impossible” part we’re told right from the beginning — giving the scene and the whole movie a wiser undercurrent.)
The Kids in the Chatroom, ADORATION — Another encapsulation of the film in miniature — or at least one strand of Egoyan’s messy thoughts. The hero Simon writes a story that becomes an Internet when some revelations about it are made — and what happens in this scene is that Simon’s friends debate via face-to-face chat what he did, what it meant, and rebut each other and get angry at Simon, at those in the story, at each other until Egoyan explodes the screen with more and more mostly-anonymous talking heads saying stuff that eventually becomes indistinct noise. Welcome to democratic mediated reality. Speaking of which …
Rob’s tribute film, AFTERSCHOOL — Mike has the scene posted here after it placed #15 in the overall results, which I’m not sure comes across as even very good outside of context, and it makes Rob seem like a bigger asshole than he is. But again that’s a fair representation of the film as a whole, which is off-putting in some ways — stylized past the point of recognition, radically subjective. But the scene and the film wind up being both a subjective cri de coeur from a wounded soul and an objective cautionary tale about such souls.
Interrogating the two old ladies, THE BAD LIEUTENANT — PORT OF CALL: NEW ORLEANS — I’m pretty sure it’ll be outpolled by iguana-cam and the dancing soul, but this was the most batshit-funny scene in the film. From the start, with Cage doing an entrance from behind a door and then — well, a dada-insane bit of business that is so unexpected that even to describe it would be to spoil it by “goosing” you. And Cage growls over-the-top about being on 1 1/2 hours’ sleep as he interrogates a woman by playing with the tubes on another lady’s breathing machine — it’s like Jack Bauer played as a sick joke.
Taking the art teacher hostage, BRONSON — Now here’s an equally theatrical crime scene that is in every possible way the opposite of the TBL:POCNO scene. And yet, it’s a bit of a joke in the heart of the titular character who commits the crime, declaring with flair and panache that it was the capper to the REAL work of art that was his life of crime. Such a CLOCKWORK ORANGE Nietzschean act, which director Refn and actor Hardy indulge (they have to somewhat, lest the film be moralistic posturing), is aiming for my sweet spot.
The Boys Bloom, BROTHERS BLOOM — Mike has the scene posted here after it placed #18 in the overall results. An equally theatrical crime scene that is in every possible way the opposite of both the BRONSON and TBL:POCNO scenes — it’s like BUGSY MALONE set to a nursery rhyme. And the brilliance of Johnson’s writing is that he effectively hides his format — nobody realized until seeing it spelled out that the entire narration is in perfect rhyme and meter.
Ending, DRAG ME TO HELL — Hard to say much about without spoiling, obviously, except that it bumped the film up to clear “pro” vote from a marginal one (or even a “mixed”). Suffice to say that if you loved the ending of (click and drag to read) THE WAGES OF FEAR — this is just as sudden, just as pitiless and moral(istic?), and even more of a nawwwww—
Guitar sale, EXTRACT — This YouTube clip picks up the scene a minute or so into it, but you’ll get the point (you see the last minute of what previously had been going on). Hal Sparks in a Dana Carvey “Garth” mullet; two men pretending to do their job while really acting out something else, and the element that REALLY makes it work — the other customer in the background (this clip only has his last gesture). If only the rest of the film could have lived up to this, the opening scene.
The effect of sodium hydroxide, GOOD HAIR — Damn. By dropping this scene, I did something to GOOD HAIR that before this year I had never done to any film I gave at least an 8 grade — not given a single Skandie point in any category. (Like my hero Obama, I do ascribe to the “spread the wealth” philosophy.) Damn. As I said in my review, this was the scene I wanted to happen the minute I found out what the active ingredient in hair relaxant is. And then the white scientist has the exactly the same reaction at the end of Chris’s experiment.
Shave and a haircut, two fists, HUNGER — My actual choice for the best scene in HUNGER (it would not have been here, trust me) was declared ineligible for length’s sake, even though it’s as unified as any scene you’ll ever see. I decided to list this brutal scene instead, from “Act 1, Life inside the Maze” as a demonstration that, as we comfortable few are wont to forget, when you deal with obstreperous people, even treating them well sometimes cannot be done by acts of commendable civility.
Car bomb, THE HURT LOCKER — Mike has the scene posted here after it placed #12 in the overall results. Possibly the white knuckle scene of the year because Bigelow finds good excuses to spin things out, in the curiosity of a character for whom this is all, if not exactly a game, sufficiently routine not to be scared into a state of freedom from all excrement.
Job interview, OBSERVE AND REPORT — The scene in question begins about 4:10 into this general highlight clip and takes up the rest of its 6:30. The scenes in the first 4 minutes are generally very good, but what they can really do, for right here, is set up Rogen’s character and what makes this specific scene so hilarious. Rogen’s low-key assurance and bonhomie co-exists in the same body with some really twisted darkness and a soul-defining obsession. His character is trying to make a good impression, and by his own lights, he damn well is. (And the other scenes also have me kicking myself for forgetting short-listing Celia Weston for Supporting Female, though her highlight — “just beer” — isn’t here.)
Dillinger in the FBI office, PUBLIC ENEMIES — Mike has the scene posted here after it placed #17 in the overall results. It’s funnier really in concept than when you’re watching it, though that retrospective glance is probably the point. Even if it’s just a legend or myth, it’s the kind of “true myth” that points to something broader that really IS true. Could, say, Osama bin Laden show up at the Justice Department today and do this? In a mediated, post-McLuhan world … no. But Dillinger in the 1930s (or Bonnie and Clyde; both in real life and the Arthur Penn movie) … yes.
Bomb shelter, THE ROAD — The movie’s one sequence of lightness, of reverie, of security, and of something like what we recognize as a materially normal life (says Victor, typing during record blizzards that already have knocked out his electricity five or six times, albeit only once for more than a minute or two). Though I don’t consider that “happy feeling” per se why the scene is great and memorable, as if happy scenes are better than sad scenes — no, the reason this scene is great is the gap between the father’s relief and the boy’s incredulity at a world he knows nothing of. And the reason it comes to an end.
The Spinners vs. Muhammad Ali, SOUL POWER — Damn. By dropping this scene, I did something to SOUL POWER that before this year I had never done to any film I gave at least an 8 grade — not given a single Skandie point in any category. (Like my hero Obama, etc., etc. … What makes this scene stand out, in a film not short of great concert numbers, is that it shows the not-merely-historical link between the concert and the Rumble in the Jungle — in how much Ali learned from the great R&B stars (and they from him) in terms of the brash-talking persona, strutting his stuff in public, and dancing about the ring. Damn.
The meaning of the song, STILL WALKING — Dunno how well this scene, a quiet scene near the end, would really play outside of context, and cannot really describe what it’s about beyond the title. Let’s just say it’s a very low-key, almost-stifled, equivalent of the night quarrel in AUTUMN SONATA, where one character tells another what he knows and has thought about him for decades but never had reason or occasion to say before now.
Die Männer, A WOMAN IN BERLIN — I haven’t seen this since Toronto but I remember saying to myself every manner of “what the frack/this can’t have been true” (though it obviously was). I could hardly believe characters in this situation would say this. Or maybe it was just harmless “he doesn’t pay any attention to me” girl-talk, only with really really REALLY amped-up stakes that the women themselves hardly notice any more.
Atom Egoyan, ADORATION — A comeback film for Egoyan, both in terms of quality and style. The ending doesn’t come off, a la EXOTICA (indeed “it’s kinda dumb” is more accurate). But the return of the chilly formalism, the piecing together of things that aren’t exactly what they seem, and the postmodern concern with what people say about a thing over the thing itself.
Uli Edel, THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX — This is not a great film and the script loses control of events (like the Red Army Faction itself, perhaps) at the end. But the force and excitement it did have, given the soggy historical-drama trajectory and my British boy’s knowledge of West German¹ politics in the 60s and 70s, comes from Edel’s staging and framing — swift, direct and as overwhelming as a terrorist attack. Starting to wonder if his LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN might seem the same way to me now.
Werner Herzog, THE BAD LIEUTENANT — PORT OF CALL: NEW ORLEANS — The only way Herzog’s direction is not awesome is if you believe that he didn’t notice Cage’s incandescently ludicrous comic performance. And in that case, he’s not weak or misguided or failed — he’s a complete effing incompetent twit. The man who made GRIZZLY MAN, KASPAR HAUSER, AGUIRRE, NOSFERATU, FITZCARRALDO, STROSZEK is not a complete effing incompetent twit. Indeed, he might even be considered to have a thing for “touched” performers and characters. Ergo, it is awesome.
Henry Selick, CORALINE — Sigh. Dropped the wonderfully creepy Grimm/Dahl-like CORALINE right at the end again, like with Dakota Fanning. And, like all animated films of its kind, it was a sweated-out labor of love. Especially for its director. I feel like a complete tool.
Neill Blomkamp, DISTRICT 9 — I’m not the world’s biggest science-fiction or monster-movie fan (still haven’t seen AVATAR), so the fact Blomkamp’s film held my attention is some kind of feat in itself. The pace is kept quick and the various levels of “reality” and “discourse” clear, and thus funny (though the end really hurts the film).
Sam Raimi, DRAG ME TO HELL — I’m not the world’s biggest science-fiction or monster-movie fan (still haven’t seen AVATAR), so the fact Raimi’s film held my attention is some kind of feat in itself. Raimi knows how to use space and score to “goose” you for pulpy shocks aplenty, even when you know your goose is being cooked (though it’s really the end that saves the film).
Steven Soderbergh, THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE — Yes, the “mo-fo.” Orchestrates a few ideas (and not very deep ones, frankly) and some conventionally “weak” actors into a strong whole. It’s like that scene in SOUL FOOD where the chef turns a filet-o-fish into high continental cuisine via his presentation. Only for real.
Corneliu Porumboiu, POLICE, ADJECTIVE — Boring roolz … plot droolz!!! Something I probably didn’t emphasize enough in describing the strange effect of POLICE, ADJECTIVE is that, whatever else it may be, it obviously betrays artful design, breaking the “all wordless following” pattern in about three specific ways, all repeated. Porumboiu is playing us like a piano, and while it’s perfectly fair not to like his tune, it’s clearly being played by a virtuoso.
Olivier Assayas, SUMMER HOURS — I had never been a big Assayas fan, only going as high as a 6-grade on CLEAN (though I’ve not seen COLD WATER or IRMA VEP). But I’ve never denied Assayas has directorial chops, just bad script ideas, and maybe that’s what hurt him here. His film — my #3 for the year — was such a leap forward that I attributed all the newfound dazzle to the script. (So … um … look for beaucoup points in that category.)
Francis Coppola, TETRO — Now I contradict myself, as TETRO fits into, and even diegetically refers to, Coppola’s increasing theatricality (naming Vincent Gallo’s character “dark [mood]” is almost Belliniesque). In other words, it’s all style and operatic flourish and Archers color and inky black-and-white — all hail the director. Too bad the story managed to be both obvious, when you could follow it, and obscure, when you couldn’t — all curse the writer.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan, THREE MONKEYS — Translate my words on Coppola into Turkish and they could stand basically unchanged, though I think Ceylan’s direction a bit less grand and his family-feud story a bit cleaner.
Leos Carax, TOKYO! — Another French director whose previous work I wasn’t a great fan of (admittedly just LES AMANTS DU PONT-NEUF), though unlike with Assayas, Carax got weirder and more juvenile. We get the persecuted outsider and the rest of it (maybe given what Merde does, he ought to be persecuted). It would be terrible if Carax didn’t dance around (and sometimes gleefully leap past) the line between demented and perverted, essentially in service of a sick joke. And Merde’s being a 40-minute short in an anthology prevented it from overstaying its welcome as what it is — a singular experience out of Carax’s infantile brain.
Pete Docter, UP — Sigh. Dropped the wonderfully joyful and heart-breakingly wise UP right at the end again, like with Christopher Plummer. And, like even animated films of this kind, it was a sweated-out labor of love. Especially for its director. I feel like a complete tool.
Michael Haneke, WHITE RIBBON — My man Mikey gets short-listed by right. And if it had just been a lame script, he might have snuck his way in. But some of his directorial choices just as clearly watered-down the Germanic scold I love. Still, will be rooting for WHITE RIBBON to win the Foreign-Film Oscar, not because it’s good, mind you, but to see Michael Haneke’s give an acceptance speech to AMPAS.
¹ Yes, kids … “West Germany.” I had to learn as an adult how to say simply “Germany” in the present tense. And get off my lawn!!
Jane Campion, BRIGHT STAR — Yeah, there’s all that sissy Keats poetry and stuff, but that isn’t why Campion’s script is good. It’s because she begins from the POV of a character with artistic impulses of her own (I wish she’d done more with the feminist fashion-as-women’s-art subtext) and because she makes images that match without mimicking the poetry and/or letters being read.
Pedro Almodovar, BROKEN EMBRACES — Shucked it away earlier than usual for a Pedro script because, at the end of the day, it just takes too long to peel away all the layers. But nobody can braid storylines, play with multiple levels of discourse, and find an emotional connection in garish gestures and details than Pedro can.
Brock Norman Brock and Nicolas Winding Refn, BRONSON — I thought about short-listing Refn’s operatic direction, but then decided … no, here what works is really the script, which structures the film around several bold conceits. Tell a biographical story in an un-biopicky way — as a stage autobiography, performed without a real fourth wall by a man who wants to create his own legend in our mind. While at the same time, resisting the “Rosebud” temptation to have the gimmick be the explanation for “Bronson’s” life.
Andreas Dresen and Jorg Hochschild, CLOUD 9 — I compared this film in my Toronto capsule to SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, and no higher compliment exists. The script structures itself around a to-and-fro between sexual reverie and bitter quarrels, the latter gradually taking over and then finally enfolding things.
Wes Anderson, FANTASTIC MR. FOX — Yes, I relented after declaring Wes! dead to me after THE DARJEELING LIMITED. Primarily because “Roald Dahl cartoon” sounded like something that would anchor and restrain him. It does somewhat, or at least makes the archness less annoying. It’s may be Wes Anderson’s CHICKEN RUN, but that’s still CHICKEN RUN.
Chris Rock et al, GOOD HAIR — Yes, seriously. It IS a documentary, but in the genre of the comic essay, not cinema verite. And while I don’t know how much of the on-screen comedy is improvised, when it’s being done by the same person performing and co-writing the voiceover, it’s enough to consider it a unified writing work. And on those terms — it was really funny. And edumacational without being hectoring.
Bahareh Azimi and Ramin Bahrani, GOODBYE SOLO — I freely admit that the last third is a bit … not exactly “contrived,” more like “telegraphed.” But like the Italian neorealists AO Scott and others have compared him to, and contrary to how Bahrani’s (and the Italians’) films look, Bahrani meticulously plans everything after working it all out with his non-pros. Everything that looks accidental or “real” is in Azimi and Bahrani’s script.
Rachel Weisz, BROTHERS BLOOM — Disappointed that this film foundered at the box office, as I thought it really showed another side to Weisz’s talents — a heedlessly entitled screwball-comedy heroine like Katharine Hepburn whose both thoroughly charming and thoroughly off-putting.
Jennifer Lawrence, THE BURNING PLAIN — I remembered being impressed by her performance in one of Arriaga’s two stories at the Toronto Film Festival, but I haven’t seen the film since and it’s all just too indistinct in my head to avoid the “shuck that one away” temptation.
Beth Grant, EXTRACT — Gossipy old ladies on the assembly line are always funny. Particularly when the competition they have in their own films is Ben Affleck fumbling away the easiest character in the book — the bartender/best-buddy/shit-stirrer role
Tilda Swinton, THE LIMITS OF CONTROL — OK, sue me for not having seen Tilda’s other performance this year. Who goes to see weird subtitled movies by frog “auteurs.” In a perverse way, though Jarmusch’s repetition of the “people with info” scene makes for tedious drama, it does enable you to determine the best actor among the “people with info.”
Cloris Leachman, NEW YORK, I LOVE YOU — Unlike with Eli Wallach, I did recognize her. But the effect was the opposite — I had affection for her and the memories of all she has done on film. As if she’s an old family member whom we need to take care of, despite her mouth. In other words, an old Cloris Leachman.
Monique, PRECIOUS — I have to join the chorus somewhere. ya know. I was already primed both to hate her character and be annoyed by an over-the-top evil performance, but … well, I wasn’t. However, there is another PRECIOUS actress that nobody is mentioning that will appear later and underline a clear difference in acting philosophy.
Irina Potapenko, REVANCHE — It’s very hard to play shrewder-but-inferior in the relationship successfully. You might actually be hurt by performing in a language (German) other than your audience’s (me only talks English good), thus lacking the linguistic cues. But if it ain’t your language, it makes sense that she’d follow his cockamamie schemes.
Miriam Makeba, SOUL POWER — Yeah, no joke. I seriously did consider her, only deciding against it at the end because she only has a few moments. But … I remember those moments vividly as shaping a person I had very little previous knowledge of, unlike James Brown. She got bumped or dissed the first night but when her time on stage came, she left it behind and wowed everybody with her infectious joy — a joy she has to feel while we know she doesn’t. (My notes from the time said people applauded in the Toronto theater.) All the while telling people, with the biggest smile in the world, how “The Click Song” is not a novelty, as they were consuming it.
Juliette Binoche, SUMMER HOURS — Maybe it’s time to just acknowledge that she’s always awesome in everything. But here, she plays a San Francisco bobo without resorting to the easy cliche. You can see Natalie Portman in this role in the American remake … and you can be quietly grateful that it’s someone this calm, with this much range.
Vera Farmiga, UP IN THE AIR — Yeah, her character is somewhat of an easy sex fantasy (as if Clooney isn’t). Highlight to see vague SPOLIER: But two words — Red. Herring. (And she’s as good on both sides of it.)
Anna Kendrick, UP IN THE AIR — Seeing her in this role about 3-4 years after she played a high-school debater was so perfect. It’s the same mixture of start-from-zero rationalism and young cocksureness. It’s not exactly arrogance, but a belief that one’s plan is rational and that’s all there is to it. Also nails the awkwardness of firing someone when you’re not used to it. Already regretting dropping her.
Ptolemy Slocum, (UNTITLED) — I considered him just to annoy Sicinski, as he’s playing a hilariously vicious caricature of the Bad Modern Artists whom Waz loves. Just kidding bud. Sorta.
Horst Rehberg, CLOUD 9 — Plays a 70-year-old man with a convincingly heedless, romantic (and Romantic) 20-year-old’s soul. He always has the sparkle that Ursula Werner only sometimes does — and therein lies the drama. This year was filled with “nearly” performances in German films.
Timothy Spall, THE DAMNED UNITED — Proves he doesn’t need Mike Leigh to inhabit a working-class Joe (yes … men in his position at that time weren’t filthy-rich — part of the film’s interest). And the reconciliation scene with Clough at his home doesn’t have a hint of anachronistic gayness as a result.
Peter Sarsgaard, AN EDUCATION — Why is Carey Mulligan getting all the Hosannas in Excelsis for this film? The charming villain is always the better role, and Sarsgaard oozes it like pretty pus.
Anthony Mackie, THE HURT LOCKER — After playing the enemies of Tupac Shakur and Eminem … pffft to al Qaeda in Iraq. Mackie has all the charisma needed to be a great star, and maybe his Jesse Owens and (less likely) Buddy Bolden biopics will make him one. He and Jeremy Renner nail soldiers’ ornery chemistry (most importantly, the drunken barracks carousing) without a hint of anachronistic gayness or psychopathy.
Tom Waits, THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS — Why is Heath Ledger getting all the Hosannas in Excelsis for this film (OK, besides THAT)? The charming villain is always the better role, and Waits oozes it like pretty pus.
James Gandolfini, IN THE LOOP — But here’s the opposite end. In a movie that’s all a barrage of would-be farcical “flow” (to the point of exhaustion and without being terribly funny to me — the timing was never right), Gandolfini provided the little “ebb,” the few moments of non-showing-off solidity.
Hilmi Sözer, JERICHOW — Damn. I so wanted to give JERICHOW something. May have been prevented by the fact I didn’t get a chance to see it a second time, in retrospect with full knowledge of everything including … the end … (especially considering how blown away Sicinski was by JERICHOW). Lack of a second viewing meant the film stayed a “solid 7” — and thus always on the (ahem) outside looking in. Sorry Waz. No joke.
Eli Wallach, NEW YORK, I LOVE YOU — It really takes something to stand out in an omnibus of 11 or so shorts. And something else again to be a huge star of decades ago, not rely on the instant-recognition factor, not rely on pity for the elderly. I honestly had to look him up — who played the husband in the last piece, about the love remaining between the old couple? Him? Really?
Kristyan Ferrer, SIN NOMBRE — Had to look up his name too. He’s the young kid who wants to join the teenagers trip to El Norte — for various reasons. Like Wallach, only at the other end of the life cycle, Ferrer plays a role that easily could have reduced to age-pathos or alternatively to easy kid-brutalism (e.g. the film the people who hated CITY OF GOD imagined they saw).
Christopher Plummer, UP — Hurt to also leave out Plummer, who is having a nice late-career renaissance between this film, PARNASSUS and LAST STATION. Plummer’s also done quite a bit of voice acting lately (IIRC, Burton’s 9 and narrating THE GOSPEL OF JOHN), and ideally for this type of “Bond villain” role, he has a low, quiet but resonant voice with menace he can turn on and off.
Paul Bettany, THE YOUNG VICTORIA — I hated Lord Melbourne. That means Bettany was awesome.
(spoiler), ZOMBIELAND — It’s only a single-sequence cameo, and it very much relies on who he is. But it’s too funny and he’s too good — needed counterpoint, both to downplay Woody Harrelson’s “I can’t believe it” fanboy slobbering and to be taken aback by Abigail Breslin’s “who?” incredulity.
As usual, fewer memorable performances/roles in the female-acting categories versus the male ones — 19 runners-up among the lead men, versus just 9 for the women. You know, maybe Catharine MacKinnon is on to something …
Maya Rudolph, AWAY WE GO — Verily did I dislike her character (and her husband) from the start as bubble-headed bohemians, but by the end, she’d won me over, though it is for God alone to know whether this was because everybody the picaresque pair meet is even more annoying (why, Maggie … why …)
Penelope Cruz, BROKEN EMBRACES — Why, Academy … why. If you’re gonna nominate Penelope Cruz this year, why not do so in a role where she shows off something other than her lingerie, her ass and her mascara — like her actual ability to act (at least in Spanish and/or for Pedro)
Michelle Pfeiffer, CHERI — Miscast in the role of Colette’s retired voluptuary Lea, but somehow makes it work for her, most especially meta-cinematically (you have to be thin and obviously sexy even to play a 50-something role, i.e., Pfeiffer’s age) and what that says about female lead roles. Maybe Catharine MacK…
Dakota Fanning, CORALINE — Every year, I make a point of seeking out voice roles in animated films (though only 1 of the 4 I short-listed made the cut this year). It’s a legitimate form of acting that Oscar hardly ever acknowledges. Fanning’s got girlish curiosity and frustration to spare in her voice.
Alison Lohman, DRAG ME TO HELL — Every year, I make a point of seeking out roles in action or genre films, another legitimate form of acting that Oscar hardly ever acknowledges. She both exudes non-obnoxious middle-class entitlement and convincingly sacrifies a kitten.
Melanie Laurent, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS — Where does Tarantino find these unknown (to me anyway) or thought-washed-up actors who somehow give credible performances in the “movie movie” roles. Probably hurt by Diane Kreuger’s even greater awesomeness (in a showier and “movie”-er role).
Robin Wright Penn, THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE — Sometimes you just give pity consideration that a good and talented actress found herself stuck with such a ridiculous script and managed to come out not completely sucking. The key is not to overplay the too-many Big Scenes.
Nina Hoss, A WOMAN IN BERLIN — Like in JERICHOW, though not as much, Hoss gives an extremely understated, opaque borderline-wooden performance that might remind one of the young Joan Fontaine (oft derided as “wooden”). But she’s hiding from the Commies, in the only film ever to make me take seriously radical-feminist claim all sex is rape. Maybe Catharine MacKinnon …
Emily Blunt, THE YOUNG VICTORIA — An awards-bait role but at least it’s not a glorified impersonation, as we have no recordings or photos of Victoria from this era (her earliest photo dates from 1844). Blunt’s playing gives us a mostly feminist-anachronism-free portrait of a woman who, because she wields (even-limited) political power, can’t let men take advantage of her. So, nah … Catharine MacKinnon is full of it.
Well, it’s now Skandie time, and Mike is unveiling the Top 20 at his site Listen, Eggroll. So in the next couple of weeks, before posting my entire ballot proper, I’ll be posting a few words about the films, performances, etc., I voted for. And to start with, about those I DIDN’T vote for.
My procedure every year is to devote a day to making a short list of contenders, based on the Eligible Films list, and what has managed to stay with me, as of late January of the next year (all eligible films started to screen commercially in New York during 2009, and did so for at least a week). Then I shuck away, until I’m left with 10 in each of the categories. I’ll start with the acting categories — these are the Lead Male Performances that I short-listed but DIDN’T vote for. In this and other categories, the bold-face and the lead art are from the last one I eliminated — the #11, as it were.
Joseph Gordon Leavitt, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER — So what if he can do the sensitive emo dork role in his sleep? In *this* sensitive emo dork, there’s not a trace of self-righteousness or whininess.
Willem Defoe, ANTICHRIST — When asked at Toronto “how does one prepare as an actor for a scene where you’re genitally mutilated,” he replied “you don’t.” Really — that’s all that need be said.
Lluis Homar, BROKEN EMBRACES — Shows off a late middle-age “this is my last chance” hunger that prevented his character from being either a dirty old man or a petty tyrant. Pedro should work with him more.
Mark Ruffalo, BROTHERS BLOOM — His occasional cocksure self-regard really works well in this role but he keeps it in rein and appropriately artificial, as the however-illogical ending requires (think — or don’t — what Mark Wahlberg would have done here).
Sasha Baron Cohen, BRUNO — Yes, the film as a whole was a misfire, but when Cohen gets a provocation really cooking, with the right audience he can milk it better than the best professional wrestling heel.
Clive Owen, DUPLICITY — Blows away George Clooney’s performance in UP IN THE AIR in the category of Sheer Old-School Glamour Dripping Off His Fingers role of 2009 — playing a rogue.
George Clooney, FANTASTIC MR. FOX — Blows away George Clooney’s performance in UP IN THE AIR in the category of Sheer Old-School Glamour Dripping Off His Fingers role of 2009 — playing a rogue.
Souleymane Sy Savane, GOODBYE SOLO — Here is the very opposite of Sheer Old School … etc. — a performance that feels like (even if it isn’t) a real person playing a slightly-fictionalized version of himself, a la 40s De Sica and Rossellini.
Mark Duplass, HUMPDAY — Here is the very opposite of Sheer Old School … etc. — a performance that feels like (even if it isn’t) a real person playing a slightly-fictionalized version of himself, a la 40s Visconti.
Morgan Freeman, INVICTUS — Went back and forth on this one. Even if it is just an imitation, it’s a damn good one, and good casting too — the man who played God portraying our era’s secular saint.
Benno Furmann, JERICHOW — Probably the least-known performance in this bunch, but it’s a triumph of masculine physicality and mannerism creating a not-black-souled viciousness (Waz isn’t wrong in saying it’s a bit wooden, but also not wrong in saying …)
Kim Yung-ho, NIGHT AND DAY — Probably the least-known performance in this bunch, but it’s a triumph of utter self-absorption and complete cluelessness that somehow doesn’t create a Mister Magoo or (mere) Innocent Abroad
Micah Sloat, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY — Along with Katie Featherstone (not among Actress Runners-Up … hint, hint), he creates something new and exciting — effectively natural performance in a completely self-referential genre (the YouTube home movie)
Dragos Bucur, POLICE, ADJECTIVE — Eve was correct … he is awesome at eating soup, though look for someone even more awesome at chopping wood in the main list.
Viggo Mortensen, THE ROAD — The testimony to this performance is that the film, which pretty much rests entirely on his shoulders and has only the most elemental of plots, is even watchable (in fact, pretty good in my opinion)
Colin Firth, A SINGLE MAN — Seeing D’Arcy as a Christopher Isherwood character was disconcerting, but like Mortensen, he fills out a simple-content movie, though only as far as watchability in his case (the ending is unforgivable, sorry)
Charles Berling, SUMMER HOURS — Among the kids in the family, he’s the audience-identification figure, and Berling has the right mix of idealism and pragmatism (Binoche and Regnier are different shades of pragmatic) to pull off the needed surrender.
Teruyuki Kagawa, TOKYO SONATA — He has the bits I remember best from Toronto 2007 (I saw it alongside NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and so hated its last reel that I’ve never gone back to it) — the pride-shame mix in dealing with his family.
Woody Harrelson, ZOMBIELAND — Remember how awesome Woody the Bartender was. Here’s a completely different type of comic “character role,” sure, but Harrelson shows he hasn’t lost it. He should just do comedy from now on.
It’s almost the end of the decade and, as he did in 1999, Mike D’Angelo has asked us Skandie voters to pick our 10 favorite films of the decade and our 10 favorite performances (one category only; male and female, lead and supporting). He’s about halfway through the countdown now at his blog Listen, Eggroll.
Here are my ballots, with the Mike-request proviso that I not give away the point totals. To that same end, I’ve also listed them in alphabetical order, so as not to suggest any order of preference. There’s also links to those among the films and the actors’ films that I’ve written about.
BEST FILMS OF THE 00s
CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (Andrew Jarecki, USA) — review essay here
THE CHILD (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium) — review essay here
DOGVILLE (Lars von Trier, Denmark) — review essay here
4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS (Cristian Mungiu, Romania) — TIFF review here; with expansions here and here
GRIZZLY MAN (Werner Herzog, USA) — review essay here
MEMENTO (Christopher Nolan, USA)
LA PIANISTE (Michael Haneke, France/Austria)
SILENT LIGHT (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico) — TIFF review here; with review essay here
SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR (Roy Andersson, Sweden)
TIME OUT (Laurent Cantet, France)
BEST ACTORS OF THE 00s
Bjork, DANCER IN THE DARK — review of the film here
Russell Crowe, CINDERELLA MAN — review of the film here
Ryan Gosling, THE BELIEVER
Olivier Gourmet, THE SON — review of the film here
Isabelle Huppert, LA PIANISTE
Heath Ledger, THE DARK KNIGHT
Maia Morgenstern, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST — review of the film here
Simon Pegg, HOT FUZZ
Aurelien Recoing, TIME OUT
Imelda Staunton, VERA DRAKE — review of the film here
We’re now in film-geek awards season. Paul has started going through the awards categories in the Muriels (next year, I fearlessly predict a knockdown drag-out in the 50th anniversary category — NORTH BY NORTHWEST vs. SOME LIKE IT HOT). And in the Skandies poll in which I vote, and which I went to considerable time and expense to see a single eligible film right at deadline, Mike already has reached #12 in the daily countdown.
In deference to Mike’s oft-expressed wishes, I will not reveal my ballot until after the end of the countdown, when it becomes public anyway.
But this is what got left on the cutting-room floor — i.e., the performances, scenes, etc. that I short-listed as I put the ballot together and went over my “film seen” list, but got shucked away as I whittled the list in each category down to 10. So these are all thing I *did not* vote for, but was of a mind to at one point. The asterisks indicate the entry was the last one to get eliminated — the #11, as it were.