Rightwing Film Geek

2003 TOP 10 — Honorable Mentions

These were the films that just missed my Top 10 for 2003.


GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING (Peter Webber, Britain) — It’s hard to say what’s most drop-dead gorgeous thing in this movie, Eduardo Serra’s cinematography, Ben Van Os and Cecile Heideman’s art direction or Scarlett Johansson’s face. All three superbly-controlled surfaces seem to do nothing, yet inspire by their mere calm existence. And they evoke and create a world with no artificial light, no mass-produced goods and a servility that can see beyond herself. Misses the Top 10 because Colin Firth as Vermeer gives the weakest performance of his career (oh … to transplant Michel Piccoli from LA BELLE NOISEUSE) and the film doesn’t offer much more than those three swoonable objects. Actually, that’s not quite true, Tom Wilkinson and Judy Parffitt are pretty good as the randy benefactor and the domineering mother-in-law, but they’re roles any middle-aged British character actor could do in his sleep.

HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG (Vadim Perelman, USA) — I’ve written a little about this film already. Misses the Top 10 for reasons stated there — I just never quite fell in love with it.


DOWN WITH LOVE (Peyton Reed, USA) — This overthetop, overacted, overdecorated, overcostumed, and oversplitscreened homage/re-creation on the Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies was the year’s tastiest bon-bon — with pastels that a Castro Street interior decorator would have found excessive. Last year’s Sirk-homage FAR FROM HEAVEN unintentionally showed how difficult it is for a re-creation to keep a straight face under all that artifice. But in an exaggerated comedy, unlike a weepie, such periodisms and incongruities contribute to the fun. I saw DOWN WITH LOVE a couple of days after watching PILLOW TALK, and it helps to have one of those films fresh in your mind. Misses the Top 10 because the last 20 minutes of the movie (roughly, after Renee Zellweger … um … gives a monolog) just isn’t very good or inspired; they’re tying up plot threads. But stay through the closing credits (or best of all, look at the DVD extras) to see Renee and Ewan MacGregor sing “Here’s to Love,” the best scene in the movie and one of the year’s best. Oh. And memo to the Academy: *This* was Renee’s best performance last year (insert grumble about Oscar ignoring comedies.)

phonebooth.jpgPHONE BOOTH (Joel Schumacher, USA) — Nearly every thriller will hype itself with the word “Hitchcockian,” causing film geeks to roll their eyes, but this is one that understands the details of The Master’s style. You can actually be familiar with ouevre and imagine Hitch making PHONE BOOTH. Naturalistically and logically, it doesn’t makes much sense, but I’m not certain it’s really supposed to, like NORTH BY NORTHWEST. The reliance on the villain having supernatural knowledge, the fact that it takes place in a “booth” and the voice on the phone demanding an admission of wrongdoing tells me there’s something else going on here, something that Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer were the first to note about Hitch. Works also as a showcase for director Schumacher (yes, really), who somehow manages to keep the basically one-set film visually alive under very constrained circumstances, like in REAR WINDOW or ROPE. Colin Farrell has an easy, meaty role to play, and though he isn’t exactly great, he’s like Patriots QB Tom Brady — doesn’t have the glowing stats but wins the game mostly by not messing up or fumbling the film away. Actors are cattle, etc. Misses the Top 10 because … well, Hitchcock would have made it better.

DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (Guy Maddin, Canada) — I’ve written a little about this film already. Misses the Top 10 because, fun though it was, I found my admiration a bit more distant than I prefer.


SWEET SIXTEEN (Ken Loach, Britain) — When leftist director Loach hasn’t got politics on (the foreground of) his mind and makes kitchen-sink portraits of working-class urban Britons, he is quite a filmmaker, particularly as a director of actors. He gets a great central performance here from the nonprofessional Martin Compston in the role of Liam, a (smart and tough) juvenile delinquent approaching adulthood — naturalistic, funny, exuberant, defiant, and determined (in both senses). Maybe it takes a Scot to appreciate the exchange: “We’re just trying to keep your customers satisfied,” “You’re a right wee Simon and Garfunkel, you” “well, here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson” (looking at it on my computer screen, I see that it just doesn’t *read* funny. Spoken in Glaswegian patter, it’s hilarious. Trust me.) Misses the Top 10 because the film stacks things too much in Liam’s moral favor. Theo first made this point to me at Toronto, but I became convinced on second viewing during (being purposely vague to avoid spoilers) a stabbing scene — which isn’t really a stabbing scene. Between this and MY NAME IS JOE, Loach should make more films about Glasgow and fewer about Chile.

February 6, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Oscar-bait season, part 2


THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG — Vadim Perelman, USA, 2003, 8

Four Decembers ago, I walked without especially high expectations into THE END OF THE AFFAIR, a bit of Oscar-bait that was respectfully reviewed but was a box-office bust and did poorly at year-end awards. It’s now half-forgotten, I’d say, but I will take to my grave that experience of one of the best films of recent years, a film that had me in tears for the whole second half, which I’ve now seen about 12 times, and to which I responded as personally as if Neil Jordan had made it for me, and me alone.

THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG is that same kind of movie — a stately, inevitable march through characters, neither good nor evil, but trapped by coincidence and circumstance until it spins into a fog-bound tragedy. HOUSE has a real novelistic quality — and I mean that as a compliment — like a Victorian gothic set in the present-day about the claims of two families on a house overlooking the sea.

hsf-arrest2.jpgJennifer Connelly inherited the house from her father, but the county has repossessed it for delinquent taxes — a point she disputes. But while her appeal is pending, the house is purchased by Ben Kingsley, an Iranian Air Force colonel under the Shah. His assets and family’s ability to keep up appearances are dwindling and he buys the home at repossession prices as an investment. There is a sequence early when Kingsley is shown working two menial jobs in rags, changes into gentlemen’s clothes for home, and curtly tells off a swanky-hotel worker who questions him because of his appearance. This is the opposite of the general American custom (dress up at work and down at home) and is one of many ways Kingsley, in a brilliant performance, creates a man from an honor-based culture without making him a petty tyrant.

And that’s part of the other truly special feature of this film — that it caricatures nobody, despite ample “culture-clash” opportunity. I saw Jean Renoir’s masterpiece THE RULES OF THE GAME on TV again recently with its most famous line “That’s the truly horrible thing; that everybody has his reasons” — and HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG is a film entirely in that spirit. The film has no heroes or villains, and lets the conflict play itself out, and not in ways you can necessarily predict.

One of the great pleasures of this film is that, even though you know unspecifically that it ends tragically (think the flashback structure of SUNSET BOULEVARD), it is one of the increasingly-rare films where the first 10 minutes basically doesn’t set up everything else that happens. There. Is. A. Plot. To. Follow. Huzzah!!!!

And yet … still … it wasn’t made for me, and me alone. The oooomph I got for END OF THE AFFAIR was missing (and both films use a similar strategy of repeated scenes; once before you know everything and once after). I didn’t have the same personal connection to the material. Oh, I understand in the abstract the emotions HOUSE wants to tweak all right and this is unquestionably a very strong film. In fact, I’m sure there’s somebody out there, someone whose life story it tells and who will react to HOUSE as I did to AFFAIR. This film is for him, and him alone. But he’s not me.

January 26, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 1 Comment