Regardless of in what little esteem I hold The Academy, Oscar Week is nevertheless a meaningful time to reflect on what was made, what was made well, and what was made well enough to be remembered (for whatever reason). Unlike the collective known as The Academy, I have not seen all the nominated films; neither am I influenced by big money or industry bias. If I had a Best Picture category, it would not be limited to fiction or nationality, and for the last year’s worth of viewing, here are the films of the past year that mattered to me:
- Grizzly Man: An incredible documentary (for reasons I list below and here) about one man’s inability to acknowledge the chasm between man and beast over which he is attempting to fly. Superb filmmaking.
- Brokeback Mountain: A true tragedy filmed and paced with genuine elegance and emotional intelligence. The best performance of the year is Ledger’s. Great sheep footage. Reduces notions of masculinity to mere byproduct of predominant culture, revealing the genderless joys and agonies of genuine human love.
- A History of Violence: A possible criticism of this film is that it’s as close as Cronenberg will ever come to Lynch — although that can also be construed as a compliment. Although it contains elements of the auteur’s body of work (bodily mutilation, mental illness, antiseptic tone) it follows a late trend initiated with his previous film (Spider) away from science fiction and technology and into archetypal family tragedies (even if they are dysfunctional families). Certainly well-crafted, with an excellent third-act performance from William Hurt. Mortenson and Bello are also strong in their work.
- Fateless: Most reviews have referred to this Hungarian historical fiction as a real stand-out in the Holocaust film genre, and in this case I think that is justified praise and not just reductive pigeon-holing. With such a topic and subject (a Hungarian teenaged boy), there is always the risk and responsibility of treating each respectfully, accurately, and meaningfully. But can we add “originally” to that list? Yes. Otherwise the films lumped together in this category would never be seen as individual takes on this great human tragedy. There is not just one truth to the events of the Holocaust, and as such there is not — can never be — simply just one cinematic truth about it. What distinguishes this film is its use of formalism to convey the process of dehumanization of one soul as he processes through the ____ (to say “horrors” or “tragedies” would be of course inadequate, so I’ll leave this blank for now)s of concentration camp. Although filmed in color, the compositions grow increasingly grayer and bleaker; near the end, it could pass for black and white. Also worthy is its portrayal of Hungarians in this time period, a viewpoint previously mostly uninvestigated in feature filmmaking.
- Munich: A film made with careful attention to portraying moral characters moved to commit immoral acts. It’s still the typically dumbed-down approach to script-writing, but Eric Bana’s character is thoroughly developed and provocatively understandable. Cleverly, it’s a thriller with a moral center, which makes each murder more squeamish for the audience than the previous. A well-edited film, slightly more ambitious than usual from Spielberg, and unconventional-for-him use of slow motion during a sex-scene to complete a character arc. Also, meticulous use of documentary footage to enhance fictional reenactment. Also also, probably his most graphically violent film (yes, more so than Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List).
- Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room: I didn’t learn anything new from this film, but I learned more about what I already knew — which is probably better. Despite the human, political, and economic flaws pointed out in this film, it is probably most disturbing that nothing is really changing in our culture to prevent it from continuing to happen.
- The Squid and the Whale: It’s comedically-tempting but disingenuous to say that Jeff Daniels’s beard is his greatest feat of acting in this period-Brooklyn coming-of-[divorced-parents]-age drama; he’s actually quite good at embodying blind, unscrupulous sophism (even as he decries his son’s intentions to be a philistine). The brothers have all the best lines, and the set design is great. The movie follows a predictable arc, but arrives at its conclusion soundly and movingly. A great New York movie.
A winner? Some of these films will likely be forgotten. Only half will probably linger with me for good; only two or three would ever be useful as a pedagogical tool; and probably only Grizzly Man will enter my own personal canon. These were the films that were most immaculately written, acted, shot, crafted, and assembled. I endorse them as worthy of their running time, worthy of their medium. They communicated important ideas about humans of the past and the present, how and what we loved and how and what we coveted.
Of all these, I can credit only The Squid and the Whale with eliciting genuine laughter (although its tone is mostly one of somber, confused crisis). On the whole, these were staid, stark, sober works. They questioned, unsettled, weakened, and challenged the good things we like to think are true about humanity; they confirmed what we secretly know to be. They are all, fundamentally, tragedies: historical, marital, personal, American, ecological, economical, and mostly masculine. Maybe I just don’t see enough mainstream comedies anymore.
Most disturbing moment in a fictional film: Despite the atrocities portrayed in Schindler’s List, I think perhaps the single most disturbing shot Spielberg has ever composed was scene in which the female assassin is murdered in Amsterdam. It is graphically violent not because she is shot (we see that all the time) but because she realistically suffers in real time, gasping for air. She is also partially nude. Somehow, the scene is not merely lurid or R-rated, but beyond: it is cruel. What redeems it is its significance to the moral climate of the film, to the characters’ attempts to justify their revenge. I have seen plenty of death in movies, and this is one of the spookiest.
Most disturbing moment in a documentary: Herzog wisely avoids allowing his audience to see or even hear the recording of this most disturbing moment: it’s when his subject — the deceased Timothy Treadwell — is fatally mauled by a starved male grizzly bear. This is a moment so powerfully dark and awful and real that even approaching its periphery I was moved to the limits of emotional composure. Instead, Herzog burdens himself with the role as witness: we see him listen to the recording on Treadwell’s camera of the killing for the first time. His reaction is what ours would have been, but we are spared its full force. Although perhaps merely following the common wisdom once perfectly expressed by Dickinson as “Tell all the the truth, but tell it slant/ success in circuit lies”, in a way I think this shows how all great artists are responsible for sharing some vision of truth they have glimpsed, even though in its purest form that vision can never been fully expressed. In this case, the purest documentary form of truth was too dangerous to fully express without the director as middle-man. Had we been allowed to hear it, I suspect I would have been momentarily satisfied but soon after, and permanently, regretful for have to carry it around in me; and I would have lost a lot of respect for the film.
Best Actor: I love awarding actors, but not the way as is normally done. Why nominate five actors each year? Why not just award as many as seem worthy of the award? Aren’t we diminishing the value of a nomination (if not the award itself) if there is a designated quota to fill each year? How do these arbitrary quotas relate at all to the standards of artistry for which they purportedly commend? This goes for all the categories. Shouldn’t we use up those extra spots to give decent films more exposure? Only if they are good enough to deserve that exposure. If something or someone is not thoroughly worthy of winning the award, it or he or she should not even be mentioned with the other deserving candidates. Perhaps in some years, there may not even BE a Best Actor or Supporting Actress. It is possible for ONE YEAR to pass, is it not, that there is not an EARTH-SHATTERING PERFORMANCE. Okay, okay. I know, the awards are just to award the Best of the Year…but doesn’t that detract from the value previous wins? Anyway, this year only one actor truly astounded me: Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain. This is far and a way the biggest accomplishment of the year: every bit as technically challenging and nuanced as P.S. Hoffman(who has been just as good and better in countless other roles)’s Capote, while also carrying and enriching a tremendously tragic story behind and inside of it. At times Ledger was so convincing and compelling that Gyllenhal came off cartoonishly ridiculous alongside him (especially attached to that lame moustache late in the film).
Films I Didn’t Get to See But Wanted To: Murderball, March of the Penguins, No Direction Home.
Finally, I’d like to comment on something else that makes reviewing the value of a year’s worth of films difficult: what about all the films I saw this year that were not necessarily new, but which left indelible impressions upon my understanding of love, life, art, history, faith, etc. ? This year I started using Amanda’s library card to access the outstanding media collection at the Middle Country Public Library. The number of great films I’ve taken in just in this past few months is far greater than that of the new films I appreciated this year. Midnight Cowboy, Jazz on a Summer’s Day, The Last Waltz, Mean Streets, Fanny and Alexander, Hoop Dreams, All About Eve, Throne of Blood, The Stones of Summer, Cheers: The Complete 4th Season, Slacker… The list goes on, and I’m still just trying to break even.