Gone Girl’s overt mystery of whether or not Nick Dunne murdered his wife may be resolved midway through the film, but the real mystery is never reconciled. The question that director David Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn posit is one of simple, Earthly conceit: what are you thinking? It’s one of the great unanswerable questions that we find ourselves asking our significant others and it is at some point that we agree to accept their answer, placing faith in a bond fostered by time. But in the end, we can never really know. Gone Girl is a brash exaggeration of that question, given lurid flourishes and highlighted by Fincher’s cold formal proficiency. It is not Fincher’s best film, but it is a welcome and playfully self-aware effort that signals a director in full command of his craft.Read More
A theme of transitioning and great loss seems to arise from most of my favorite films of 2011. Whether it be a mother transitioning to normalcy after the loss of a family or a loner sex addict transitioning to a brother role, the year’s best films have seen characters contend with moments of great duress. Sometimes that character overcomes, sometimes they don’t. Other times, it’s left to the audience to decipher an ambiguous ending.
The world has ended on a multitude of occasions, as this time, it was our great directors that questioned our position in the world. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia visualized the coming apocalypse with the greatest intensity, but filmmakers like Jeff Nichols and Terrence Malick astutely tied images of the beginning and end of the world with a personal story of kinship on a literal and spiritual level.
The end of the world came from a widespread pandemic in Contagion. It also operated through the government, as seen in Werner Herzog’s documentary Into the Abyss. In both cases, the deceased left a permanent mark on the living.
It was a banner year for documentaries, as Herzog’s aforementioned film and Cave of Forgotten Dreams dealt with our own morality in a literal and figurative sense. Steve James’ The Interrupters questioned the conditions of which we live, wherein Chicago’s south side functions as less a home and more of a warzone. Asif Kapadia’s Senna brought to the forefront how a man’s legacy can be defined by the way he confronts death on a daily basis. Meanwhile, Errol Morris’ Tabloid proves just how silly our preoccupations of celebrity can really be. All five films rejected the sort of narrative gimmickry that became a staple of 2010’s documentaries, such as Exit Through the Gift Shop or Catfish.
This embrace of formal narrative storytelling seeped into the world of fiction, as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen and Michel Hazanavicius told fairly traditional stories that embraced films of old. In Hugo, The Artist, and Midnight in Paris there’s a rich appreciation for pioneer filmmakers, the silent age of film, and a bygone era.
There were plenty of fascinating films that touched upon a contemporary note. George Clooney’s The Ides of March was dismissed as having nothing new to say. It’s unfortunate, as the film evoked more a spirit of a time rather than attempted to tread new ground – for that, it was remarkably successful. One can accuse Bennett Miller’s Moneyball for being dated in its observations, but like The Ides of March, the narrative is mined out of a personal story within the larger arch.
Smaller films dwelled in a vast emotional terrain, as seen in Sean Durkin’s haunting debut feature Martha Marcy May Marlene, where a wounded young woman confronts her demons while attempting to reconcile lingering issues with her sister. Mike Mills’ Beginners delicately spoke to the echoing affect that our parents relationships can have on our own. Similarly, Azazel Jacobs’ Terri illustrated how the absence of parental guidance can prohibit a boy’s social growth.
Like any year, there are films that I unfortunately was not able to see. Roman Polanski’s Carnage, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, and Oren Moverman’s Rampart were among some of the many films that I had eagerly wanted to see but were not available to me. Regardless, all those films, along with several other late releases, will be coming my way in the coming months.
And despite missing out on several films, narrowing it all down to ten proved to be a difficult feat. Indeed, it was so difficult that I had to improvise with a rather convenient tie to start off my list. I typically avoid doing such a thing, but it was such a great year for film that I really couldn’t avoid it. So let’s begin.
There’s a fine line that divides The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Shame. Fincher’s film, like most of his other work, dwells in the world of obsession, where violence upon women is commonplace. On the other spectrum, McQueen’s picture studies the fabric of sex addiction, where a man uses women (and other men) to feed into his obsession. Fincher and McQueen both utilize a chilly perspective in looking at their characters, wherein a cold detachment from both directors heightens the lingering trauma that resides in their central characters. Both films scantly bring you in for warmth, but when they do, there’s a grand emotional consequence for letting you in.
3D filmmaking remains a work in progress, but what Martin Scorsese achieved in Hugo offers a certain level of validation for the technology. Scorsese’s swift hand and keen eye uses the technology to broaden your perspective, as the world that he creates is rich in detail. The train station that the title character inhabits breathes in its storybook enchantment. The whole feature feels like a spectacle, though is wisely grounded with an enamoring narrative about the importance of film preservation. Despite being an excellent craftsman, I’ve always been a bit resistant to Scorsese’s more recent pictures. But with Hugo, the filmmaker surprises me by showing me how humane he can be in a world of magical cinematic reverence.
Pedro Almodóvar’s films tend to dwell on the nature of gender and the roles one adopts from birth. Despite usually exhibiting flamboyant melodrama, all his previous pictures tended to be grounded in a sort of reality. With The Skin I Live In, Almodóvar dabbles in genre filmmaking, wherein the reality of the narrative is foggy. The minor tonal tweak is enough to make for his best film to date, as The Skin I Live In demonstrates a surreal quality whilst maintaining Almodóvar’s thematic and visual tendencies. There’s a palpable sense of loss that lingers throughout the picture, even if you haven’t figured out why. Wisely constructed as a jigsaw puzzle, The Skin I Live In is the sort of exhilarating piece of cinema that widens your eyes in stunned awe.
Stylish internalization is the best way that I can describe Nicholas Winding Refn’s filmmaking approach. On paper, Drive is a simple picture that has been done before. But under Refn’s precise eye, the film become can be both bombastic and subdued. The Los Angeles backdrop pulsates, even as its main character remains stoic. And as the simmer turns into a boil, Drive escalates its stylistic violence to an incredible degree. Despite not being the sort of film I gravitate toward, Drive excels at merely simply having presence – it’s the sort of picture that gets stuck in your head like a pop song.
Submarine presents an interesting alternative to the sort of British filmmaking that Edgar Wright introduced in his television show Spaced and Shaun of the Dead - that’s to say, Richard Ayoade has modified Wright’s dry wit and jarring (though effective) stylism to emphasize loneliness. Wright’s films have flourished when parodying genre filmmaking (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) or adapting a graphic novel (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), but there’s a distinct absence of emotional gravity to the proceedings. Richard Ayoade’s effort addresses that absence by utilizing Wright’s sensibilities within the context of a coming-of-age story. Despite the familiar material, the whole picture comes together with such style, ushering a fresh and exciting writer-director in the process.
Midnight in Paris was the summer film that evoked the greatest sense of wonder and glee. Following a career low-point in 2010 with You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, Allen leaves the London-scape for Paris, where he mines for his richest material in years. While Midnight in Paris remains true to Allen’s tendencies for repetition, it nevertheless remains a magical experience. Recalling a narrative like The Purple Rose of Cairo, Midnight in Paris views 1920’s Paris with nostalgic reverence, with subtle jabs through in here and there. With Owen Wilson operating as the best Woody Allen-proxy in years, Midnight in Paris marks Woody Allen’s finest achievement since 1984’s Broadway Danny Rose.
“How’re you gonna live your dash?” It’s a line that’s uttered near the end of Into the Abyss and serves to underscore the sense of hopelessness that prevails throughout the picture. Werner Herzog, who is known for his rather surreal and poetic manner of speech, remains startlingly muted throughout most of the documentary, wherein he interviews death row inmates, executioners, and family of the murdered. Their “dash”, the line between their birth and death date, is filled with sorrow. And throughout Into the Abyss, that sense of sorrow is felt with such profundity and shock. It’s not just shock about why people murder – its shock about the society that exercises it as a ritual, without ever analyzing the social conditions that contribute to such wrongdoing. Not even Werner Herzog seems to know what to say when staring at the eyes of a man facing death. I don’t think I would either.
At one point, The Tree of Life didn’t seem like it would ever be realized. Year after year, the picture would be promised, only for its release date to be pushed back. And then it came. The film obviously rubs people the wrong way – it’s incredibly dense and subscribes to a Christian ideology that alienates viewers. But coming from a secular position, The Tree of Life’s density is a strength, its Christian perspective a personal one. The outlook that Malick adopts may be tied to a divinity, but the overall compassionate tone of the picture transcends religion – it really does serve as an analysis of humanism. From its visualization of the origin of the universe to its delicate handling of a family in crisis, The Tree of Life has ambition to spare. But what Malick achieves with the picture remains nothing short of a spectacle.
What Terrence Malick achieves in The Tree of Life on the macro level, Jeff Nichols achieves in Take Shelter on the micro level. Working with Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, Jeff Nichols carefully constructs a portrait of a family in great duress, wherein a man’s visions of the coming apocalypse is costing him his family. The sort of imagery that Shannon envisions – of storm clouds pouring motor oil, of his child being kidnapped following a car crash – is constructed with such relentless tension and fear. But with visions of a great storm growing in intensity, it’s Shannon’s family that remains strong by his side, affirming a sense of unity between husband and wife.
In a year where films have transported us through time and detailed the creation of the Earth, no film has left me so emotionally drained and viscerally engaged as Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin.
There is indeed a lot to talk about. We could talk about how Lionel Shriver’s novel, which is comprised of verbose correspondence from a wife to her husband, is fragmented into a kaleidoscopic picture of greater intensity. As an adapted screenplay, Lynne Ramsay bravely analyzes the context of the novel, wherein its protagonist recalls her life through memory. Ramsay astutely visualizes the concept of memory by fragmenting her narrative, leaving the audience to piece together the pieces.
We could talk about the rich sound design of the picture, which assaults the viewer with a great sense of fear through the mundanity of suburban life – a curtain blowing in the wind and a sprinkler echo with greater meaning than anyone could imagine. With Ramsay’s eclectic taste in music, she infuses We Need to Talk About Kevin with a edgier tone. Her choice in music serves to give the audience some time to breathe, as the main character’s emotional plight assaults you from all angles.
We could talk about Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller. The two actors give incredibly naked performances, delicately exposing each other’s emotional weaknesses throughout the picture. The fragmented nature of the narrative works against the two, especially since the film is very much a directorial essay. But the two manage to register on such a kinetic that hypnotizes audiences.
There’s much to mull over in We Need to Talk About Kevin. In the end, one can look at parenthood under a different lens. Or perhaps, it all remains intact. Blood serves as a great bond. We’re all united to something or someone that we are expected to love – even if we might not want to be.
If films like Zodiac and The Social Network have proved anything, it’s that David Fincher’s strengths remain vested in the procedural. Working with Jeff Cronenweth’s chilly cinematography and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ collection of The Social Network’s B-Sides, David Fincher sustains a formidable command over the tonal nature of his film. Obsession becomes the prevalent theme that endures throughout The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, as we view characters through a very meticulous and observational lens. Operatic in nature, Fincher’s ability to wrest tension out of the most mundane activities deserves its praises and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo realizes much of its suspense from moments of computer hacking and ill-conceived stakeouts. But if there’s one film from Fincher’s oeuvre that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is most familiar with, it would be his 1995 effort, Se7en.
Both Se7en and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo share a much darker edge to the nature of crime and obsession. Steve Zallian’s adaptation of Steig Larsson’s novel rather bluntly positions both Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) as characters shaped by their personal trauma, whereupon the film’s central mystery serves to feed into their obsessive desires. But despite the rather shoddy way in which the two characters initially come across, David Fincher’s attention to detail and efficient filmmaking carries The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in its duller opening stretches.
As the film takes shape and the mystery begins to unfold, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo shifts from an exercise of Fincher’s formal craftsmanship to a Rooney Mara showcase. Along with Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Mara gives one of the best performances of the year. There’s an incredible bravado and twinge of comedy that she brings to the role, wherein she delicately balances toughness and warmth. Her character is riddled with a great deal of feminist contradictions, but despite the inconsistencies in design, Mara infuses the character with so much needed vulnerability. It’s particularly remarkable given that she essentially evokes the greatest emotional reaction throughout the film, despite possessing the most gothic and radical of appearances.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo falters in a much of the same way a film like Se7en never achieved its possibilities. There are certain preoccupations that Zallian must contend with before he’s able to give the characters much to chew on, and despite the rather hokey twist of a mystery, the film can be surprisingly dense in actually reaching its conclusion. There’s a lot of emphasis on building the film’s twist into something plausible, which is unfortunate, because Fincher seems to be more comfortable in getting that sort of thing across visually. In one of Fincher’s finest moments, he cuts between Mara and Craig as they’re piecing together the mystery. Little dialogue is uttered, as Reznor and Ross’ score inhabits the space. Instead, we see the two go through hundreds of newspaper articles, cross-referencing search engines, and doubling back on that. It’s an incredibly tense scene that sets up the finale quite well and does so in a limited time frame.
The film’s other preoccupation stems from a friendship between Mara and Craig’s characters. It’s not given much narrative space, but the limited time that it does consume are among the film’s highlights. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo continues the same sort of stoic tone found in Fincher’s The Social Network, whereupon we analyze the world through a very frigid perspective. But when that perspective offers warmth, it serves to truly bring the whole picture together.
Part of what enamors me about the whole concept of Oscar prognostication is the mystery of it all. It’s trying to separate between your own taste and those of a larger voting body. It’s attempting to understand the perspective of studios in terms of pushing one actor over another. There’s nothing artistic about the process; if anything, it strips the artistry of filmmaking to a science. The science can become repetitive and mind-numbing; at my recent prescreening of Young Adult, director Jason Reitman expressed fatigue when dealing with the press and pundits. After the disappointing performance of Up in the Air following a long festival campaign to push the film, it’s no wonder he has opted to pursue smaller individual venues to get the word out. It works for me; Young Adult is one of the year’s best films, and the whole experience of having him, writer Diablo Cody, and actor Patton Oswalt to do Q&A was terrific.
Just a year after Reitman’s Up in the Air fiasco, director David Fincher went all out on a press campaign for The Social Network. The film was critically lauded and looked to have had its Best Picture and Best Director wins sealed; that is until the Producers Guild of America awarded The King’s Speech instead. Things went south fast for The Social Network, so it’s no wonder Fincher has opted against any sort of awards campaign on his part for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
But as you can see on the updated sidebar, I’m thinking the film is going to play big. Like the Coens’ True Grit, I’m getting a sense that it’ll be the sort of late player that doesn’t have a wider buzz circulating around it until after its release. And perhaps this is a bold statement, but I’m thinking the film will be a larger commercial player than any of Spielberg’s films in the December timeframe.
Part of what makes this whole prognosticating thing a snap is that I’m working with historical data. When you have someone like Meryl Streep, who’s been nominated 16 times since 1979, it’s going to be likely that she’ll be nominated again given the weight of her role in The Iron Lady. Sight unseen, you’re taking a logical bet. Similarly, Steven Spielberg’s one-two punch with War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin lead me to believe that he’ll secure a nomination (for the former, though it’s not out of the question for the latter) for either Best Picture and/or Best Director. Numbers are on your side.
There are plenty of curveballs to throw you off though; there are typically one or two first-time nominees who enter the field. From there, you’re basing your information on others expectations, adding up praise and subtracting dismissals. One can attempt to create a formula to the whole affair, but then, there are those odd-ball nominations that simply come out of nowhere and can’t be justified (Tommy Lee Jones for In The Valley of Elah for one).
But as we wait for the upcoming New York Film Critics Circle to outline what will certainly alleviate confusion as to who are “contenders” (which will be followed by the National Board of Review’s top films), it’s all guesswork. And well, it’s the best time for this sort of thing; it’s probably the closest any Oscar pundit gets to actually implementing their own cinematic taste into the proceedings.
So for now, here’s my first stab at predicting the 2012 Academy Awards. It’ll be lots of fun to see how off I am come February 26.
Best Picture: The Artist
Best Director: Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
Best Actor: George Clooney, The Descendants
Best Actress: Viola Davis, The Help
Best Supporting Actor: Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life
Best Supporting Actress: Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus
Best Writing (Adapted): The Descendants (Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne, Jim Rash)
Best Writing (Original): The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
Best Art Direction: Hugo
Best Cinematography: The Tree of Life
Best Costume Design: The Artist
Best Film Editing: The Artist
Best Makeup: The Iron Lady
Best Music (Original Score): War Horse
Best Music (Original Song): The Muppets
Best Sound Editing: War Horse
Best Sound Mixing: The Adventures of Tintin
Best Visual Effects: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Best Animated Feature: The Adventures of Tintin
Best Documentary Feature: Tabloid
Best Foreign Language Film: A Separation
As I’ve wrapped up my festival viewings and with Halloween fast-approaching, I thought it time to look at some of my favorite horror films. Mind you, the whole concept of what constitutes a “horror” film tends to be defined by the individual person; like a comedy, what’s funny or scary to one person is not necessarily the case for another.
But there’s a certain compulsion we all have as cinephiles to look at the horror genre fondly; as children, it’s almost a rite of passage to watch that film that keeps us up for the night. As our definitions of horror broadens, there’s still that nostalgic appreciation we have for films that rather than plucking at our heart strings, outright go for the stab.
Today’s Thursday Ten focuses on the horror films that don’t necessarily fit comfortably within the traditional definition of horror, but rather cross boundaries that strike a more personal chord. Not a single film here has a vampire, werewolf, or zombie; sometimes fear is best realized in something that’s closer to home.
10. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)
It’s a fear that I can only assume is a mother’s worst nightmare: what if their child commits an unthinkable crime? Anchored in a reality that is all too authentic, Lynne Ramsay’s brilliant adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel explores the daily routine of a grief-stricken mother as she contends with the fact that her oldest son had committed a school shooting, serving to dismantle her household and make her the community’s social pariah. The film strikes an absolutely nerve-wracking tone with its sound-editing; the sound of school children screaming for their lives haunts Tilda Swinton’s character at every turn, and effectively instills an on-going sense of anxiety that Ramsay maintains from scene to scene.
9. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
Fear and insanity stemming from isolation; it’s a theme that recurs in several of Kubrick’s films and is most overt in this adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. The implications of Jack Torrance’s (Jack Nicholson) insanity stem beyond gory hallucinations and a violent rampage; there’s the disintegration of the family unit and even more frightening – the idea that there is a larger omnipotent force motivating him. Marked with Kubrick’s own obsessive attention to detail, The Shining is a landmark piece of filmmaking that is relentless in maintaining an uneasy atmosphere. As the film unites two converging narrative arcs, there’s a petrifying sense that we’re delving deeper into the hedge maze of insanity.
8. The Hitcher (Robert Harmon, 1986)
What, in the end, do we have if not our own identity? The Hitcher questions how we arrive at defining ourselves, as well as how the landscape we identify with can turn its back on us. The Hitcher is as much a parable on a boy’s ascent into adulthood as it is an analysis on violent shift in times. A boy (C. Thomas Howell) is accused of a massive crime spree; he becomes the victim of both a real chase by the police and an existential chase by his demon (represented chillingly by Rutger Hauer). The Hitcher is smartly positioned as the sort of horror/thriller that never attempts to explain the why of it all; the world is not always kind enough to give us an explanation.
7. Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)
Unlike the aforementioned We Need to Talk About Kevin, I don’t assume that this is a mother’s worst nightmare; I know it has to be. It’s the deliberate pacing that makes Rosemary’s Baby so effective; Roman Polanski allows his film to linger as we get accustomed to our central couple in Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes. And only then are we introduced to their mysterious neighbors. He lingers on their eerie behavior before we become aware of what Rosemary’s pregnancy means to her husband and those neighbors. It’s not just that Rosemary births the spawn of Satan; it’s that it was an orchestration led by the one she trusted the most. The echoing chant of Hail Satan leaves its mark.
6. Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992)
A relic of my childhood, Candyman was the type of film that I wanted to brave through, but ultimately, its imagery and closeness to home often sent me out of the living room within its opening ten minutes. Even as an adult, the film gives me an uneasy feeling. It could be the accented voice of Tony Todd as the title character. Or perhaps it’s the gruesomeness of how he slaughters his victims. Or perhaps it’s how Candyman is beckoned – say his name five times in the mirror. Or maybe it’s because I recognize the various Chicago locations throughout the film and living only a few miles away gives me chills. It’s probably a little bit of it all.
5. Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)
Days removed from Repulsion made walking down a dark narrow corridor a test of will. The film is an exercise in paranoia and the extent in which one can be overwhelmed by the confines of a closed-off living space. As part of Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy, Repulsion is a perpetual example of how eeriness and fear can be induced through the everyday. A precursor to a film like Black Swan, Repulsion unravels as the sort of psychological horror that focuses on the fear of isolation; confined to an apartment, your mind turns against you. The biting of fingernails, the cracks on the ground, , razor blades, and hands protruding through the walls will likely worm their way into your nightmares for weeks.
4. The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)
While the aforementioned Repulsion dwells on psychological horror, The Fly dwells on the physical manifestation of it. The virtues and conflicts of the film are deeply rooted in reality; themes of unrequited love, success, greed, and fears are realized with such grace. The happenstance that the film implements science-fiction elements through the physical transformation of its main character (Jeff Goldblum, in his best role) serves to amplify the horror considerably. As Goldblum decays in front of our eyes, the lingering sense that all he had worked for, the love that he attempts to realize, is slipping away; it is the greatest horror of all. Few films have been able to so effectively contemplate our mortality all while implementing such a gruesome science-fiction element.
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
2001: A Space Odyssey stands as my most atypical example of what constitutes a horror film. But it’s a film that instills a great deal of fear and dread into me every time I watch it. This fear typically stems from the overwhelming isolation I derive from it; as the narrative unfolds, the fear of man against machine and the fight against being left behind in the vastness of space is profoundly moving and quite simply, terrifying. Much like The Shining, the setting serves as an immense undercurrent to maintain this sense of isolation. One can even look as the computerized HAL and Jack Torrance as two characters of the same lineage; their descent into insanity can be interpreted as being a product of their environments.
2. Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1966)
The recurring theme throughout most of this list is that I tend to respond to horror films that touch upon themes of mortality, conflict in identity, the circumstances of insanity, isolation, and anxiety toward one’s ascent to adulthood. Seconds touches upon all of these themes in one way or another, and does so within a finely scripted and incredibly directed effort from John Frankenheimer. With a nuanced performance from Rock Hudson, Frankenheimer redefines the question of what it means to be human, what it means to walk in someone else’s shoes, and the devastating loneliness and extreme anxiety that stems from it all. The film bares some of the most impressive direction and editing I’ve ever seen in any film, which only serves accentuate the surreal terror on display.
1. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
I wrote a great deal about my appreciation for David Fincher’s masterful Zodiac. What makes it stand out from all of my favorite “horror” films is the simplicity in which it achieves its horror elements. Given the procedural nature of the film, there’s this immediate connection you have with every character, wherein you understand where they stand, their traits, and what motivates them. So when you place them in a reality where an unknown assailant is murdering people, you are immediately thrust into their world and feel what they feel. The investigation, the mystery, and the prevailing sense that there is someone out there planning to kill is persistent throughout Zodiac.
Obsession is the prevailing theme throughout Zodiac and it comes from all sides. It comes from the filmmaking, which is so exact and attuned to the details and setting. It also comes from Robert Graysmith’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) obsession with finding out who the Zodiac killer is eventually puts him and his family at risk. And that scene, where Robert Graysmith thinks he may have cracked the case, finding himself alone in a basement with his prime suspect, is the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in film.
The Essential Series
The Essential Series is merely a way for me to account and write about films that hold a special place in my heart. They are films that I believe display an acute sense of filmmaking that provoke an emotional connection. They are also films that I have seen more than once, thereby giving me a chance to reflect on elements that I may have missed in my initial viewing.
Directed by David Fincher Screenplay by James Vanderbilt Based on Robert Graysmith’s Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked
Revisiting Zodiac is rarely an occurrence I plan ahead of time. It’s not a particularly uplifting film, but it’s one that grips me every time I watch it – few movies have such an effect on repeated viewings. There’s always something new to take out of it, making for one of the more rewarding experiences in my collection, and thereby prompting me to give it another viewing.
The notion of a serial killer and the terror he inflicts upon a select few is probably the least interesting way to view the film. This is largely because Fincher and company encapsulate a variety of different perspectives that make for an extremely layered and dense experience. Part police procedural, part thriller, part media study, part character study, Zodiac allows the audience to embrace the controlled chaos. It’s extremely smart in its narrative presentation, as the film’s large cast in introduced and fleshed out in compelling and thought-provoking ways. Take the introduction of Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), an important character to the whole of the narrative; he is not introduced until 30 minutes into the film. With him, he brings the police procedural aspect of the story to the forefront, despite the newspaper media characters (Robert Graysmith and Paul Avery) steering the film’s direction for the past half-hour. The two sides, media and law, meet in such an organic way, serving to highlight the precision of the screenwriting.
Vanderbilt, along with Fincher, illustrates an excellent method of lapsing time, wherein technique and writing flourish to create rich characters. In a restaurant, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is late for his date with Melanie (Chloe Sevigny). A bit absent minded, while still maintaining that straight-man gullibility, Graysmith notes that his friend Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) received an ominous tip that will lead him on the outskirts of San Francisco. As Robert discusses the situation with Melanie, they begin to realize the danger that Paul may be in. Melanie is cautiously fascinated by Robert’s conviction, and decides to take their meal to go as they wait for Paul’s call at Robert’s place. The scene wraps with Paul calling Robert and Melanie, early in the morning, with Melanie admitting that their date was one of the most interesting she has had.
Fast-forward, years into the timeline. Robert is now obsessed with uncovering the mystery of the Zodiac. Like Avery, one can trace a similar downtrodden trajectory for Robert. And again, like Avery, Robert’s sense of time and space is disjointed. He has a meeting set with handwriting expert Sherwood Morrill (Philip Baker Hall), and is unaware of the distance between the two. Melanie, now his wife, makes him aware of that fact. As their relationship deteriorates under Robert’s growing obsession, Melanie recalls that first date – it was the date that never ended.
All this, of course, serves to highlight how the film is not focused on the murders themselves. Fincher instead uses Gyllenhaal in his most effective role. He’s obsessive, yes, but also grounded by emotions that are relatable to anyone. The sense of being close to something, to uncovering the truth about something mythical, is the sort of emotional pull that Fincher and Gyllenhaal effectively convey.
Harry Savides’ gorgeous cinematography is not merely icing on the cake, but an absolutely necessary component to creating the film’s incredibly foreboding atmosphere. Savides has displayed a keen knack for shooting California in interesting and eclectic ways – from the hazy Los Angeles in the recent Greenberg to the dimly-lit San Francisco in Zodiac. Interestingly enough, my favorite example of Savides’ technical prowess in Zodiac is in a scene that takes place indoors. Graysmith, believing to be on the cusp of retrieving proof regarding the Zodiac’s identity, meets with Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer) – a confidant of the suspected. Here, the writing, visuals, and direction blend into the wickedly suspenseful. Graysmith follows Vaughn into his basement to retrieve posters that may have the Zodiac’s writing on it. Earlier in the film, we discover that the Zodiac has a basement – basements being a rarity in the California region during the time period. The suspense simmers. The basement is dimly lit, with a storm going on outside that makes every sound reverberate. Vaughn is positioned under one of the few lights in the basement. Graysmith distances himself, realizing that the situation could be more than he bargained for. The storm creates the illusion of foot-steps, Vaughn’s face is barely viewable in the dim lighting, and the fear escalates. So much going on in one scene, all brought together by writing and technique.
The attention to detail, the precision in filmmaking, and the fascinating approach to its already compelling subject matter is enough to make Zodiac a film worthy of praise. The film did not get the attention it ought to have received (it was a minor box office success, making barely enough to cover its budget), nor did it receive acclaim for larger awards bodies. But as I look back on it, rewatching the film every once in a while, I get wrapped up in what it provides – a compelling story with fleshed out characters and the technical prowess to complete the package.
While this year’s crop of Academy Award nominees sport an usually high caliber of excellent films and performances, I thought I would share what “would’ve been” if I were the sole authority behind the nominees.
The American Black Swan Blue Valentine Exit Through the Gift Shop The Ghost Writer Greenberg The Illusionist The Social Network Somewhere True Grit
The American was never going to be a best picture contender, largely due to its muted main character and subtle emotional payoff. But Anton Corbijn delicately places the audience in a world of such impeccable beauty and danger. Like Control, Corbijn presents a world of such lush visual appeal, compounded with a level of suspense and drama that is unlike any mainstream Hollywood film. The fact that it topped the U.S. box office upon its release speaks volumes on the interesting way it was marketed, as well as audience expectations.
Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine may have had difficulty in obtaining its R rating, but the controversy surrounding it has worked in its benefit, as it has thus far been greeted with modest success. Undeniably flawed in structure, Cianfrance manages to curb criticism by relying on technique – distance between characters is expressed not only through the dialogue and situation, but also through the context of visual space. Oh, and it helps to have two of the most talented young actors give career best performances.
Exit Through the Gift Shop defied expectations with its selection by the documentary committee, but I’ll take it a step further by placing it among the years ten best. In a field that is meant to represent the artistic best of a field, this small documentary makes bold criticisms on the nature of art itself. Disputing the reality of the situation goes against the point – with the commodification of art, does what it mean to us change?
Short-term memory is an unfortunate condition most members of the Academy suffer, as early release films like Shutter Island (if only for its technical accomplishments) and especially The Ghost Writer go unrewarded. It’s a shame, as the film caters to a traditional taste that I considered right along with the Academy’s taste. But should not lead one to dismiss Roman Polanski’s film – it is a smartly constructed piece of work that reconstructs the notion of identity and sense of place. Its real-life implications are superfluous- I wasn’t thinking about Tony Blair or Roman Polanski when I was watching the film – I was thinking about The Ghost himself.
Los Angeles doesn’t look quite the same for either of its main characters in both Somewhere and Greenberg. Both films depict lifestyles of those in fortunate positions, one moreso than the other. But the film expands on the simple premise of “the rich have problems too” by implicating issues that extend beyond the reach of money. Their connection with people is hindered through their neurosis (in the case of Greenberg) or surroundings (Somewhere). Both films offer a human drama that may not burst with energy, but instead move in a dream-like haze. Nonetheless, they are helmed by writer-directors who use their surroundings as a means of expressing a deep-rooted discomfort with how to relate.
Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist successfully secured a Best Animated Film nomination, even though its chances are nil given that it’s in contention with a billion dollar behemoth known as Toy Story 3. Toy Story 3 certainly exhibited flashes of serene emotional resonance, but nothing quite plucked at my heart strings like Chomet’s fantastic adaptation of a Jacques Tati screenplay. Perhaps best expressing what I thought to be the theme of 2010 (illusion vs. reality), Chomet uses his two characters – a magician and a child- to convey how important a belief in magic can be.
Thankfully, the Academy has gone on to recognize The Social Network, Black Swan, and True Grit, three films that have racked up enough awards and recognition to keep me happy.
Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan Sylvain Chomet, The Illusionist Derek Cianfrance, Blue Valentine David Fincher, The Social Network Roman Polanski, The Ghost Writer
Nothing so readily stood out this year as a purely directorial exercise like previous years (Tom Ford’s A Single Man for 2009, Steve McQueen’s Hunger in 2008, or Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in 2007), which makes this a difficult category to narrow down. It’s hard to imagine Black Swan without Aronofsky at the helm – his speed induced rhythms pulsate through the screen. Similarly though, and perhaps most impressive, is how Sylvain Chomet manages to distinguish himself with his specific type of animated style in The Illusionist – it’s only his second film.
I’ve already praised Derek Cianfrance’s stellar work on a minimal budget in Blue Valentine, wherein he emphasizes distance and disinterest through the framing and positioning of actors in specific yet subtle ways. This too, is only his second feature film.
David Fincher blends his own sense of kinetic energy with a script that, for all intensive purposes, ought to resist it. But the results are among Fincher’s best (second-best to Zodiac, for clarification purposes), as he manages to make moments in The Social Network that may come across as dull on paper (computer hacking) into something with raw intensity.
Finally, Roman Polanski combines his usual fare of paranoia in the realm of the political in The Ghost Writer, emphasizing desolation and paranoia. There’s a sense of confinement that is shared by the main character and the audience, wherein we too, become gated in. Polanski directs with virtuosity, with one scene in particular, where The Ghost believes he is being followed after interacting with a possible CIA agent – we aren’t sure if he’s being followed, nor is the character, but there’s a fear that mounts, engulfing the character and the audience whole.
Actor in a Leading Role
Stephen Dorff, Somewhere Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network James Franco, 127 Hours Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine Ben Stiller, Greenberg
I don’t believe I’ve seen Stephen Dorff in anything but Somewhere but given his filmography, I don’t think it would be too farfetched to assume that this was a career best performance. Dorff exhibits quiet restraint as action-movie star Johnny Marco going through the motions. Of the five, it’s the least showy role, yet might be the best.
Jesse Eisenberg provides one of his best performances, acting against the typical nice-guy-nerd niche that media outlets would have you believe he is typecast as. There has always been a level of nuance to his characters, though his role in The Social Network serves to express his range as an actor most clearly. His facial tics and hand gestures go beyond mimicry, and instead, he creates an image of Mark Zuckerberg that is entirely his own.
127 Hours offers any actor the chance to showcase their acting chops, as the film’s central conceit involves a man who is stuck between a rock and a hard place with no one else around him. James Franco, within the confines of a limited space, is able to express pain, joy, and desperation with a sense of fluidity and realism.
Albeit the lesser performance of the leading co-stars, Ryan Gosling still manages to impress in a Blue Valentine. Not only is his physical transformation convincing, but his mannerisms and vocal modifications are the sort of thing that displays sincerity to the character he is playing.
Ben Stiller’s performance in Greenberg received its share of critical acclaim from independent awards groups, but the film’s early release and modest perspective made larger guild support impossible. Nonetheless, Stiller asks for no sympathy in the title character role, instead coming across as a stubborn, aging man whose projected ambivalence is a front for his desire to make some sort of lasting social connection.
Actress in a Leading Role
Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy Greta Gerwig, Greenberg Zoe Kazan, The Exploding Girl Natalie Portman, Black Swan Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine
In a particularly strong year for women, narrowing down five performances within both the supporting and lead categories proved to be a difficult feat. Also, a lot of tip-toeing and off-the-cuff decisions had to be made regarding the potential category each performance would fit in – perhaps another indicator for how strong a year it was for women is reflected in the notion that so many supporting characters could be moved to lead without much debate.
In a film that won’t receive a wide release until 2011, I simply had to include Juliette Binoche’s astounding performance in Certified Copy. Perhaps stating the obvious, she is certainly one of the best actresses working today, if not the best. With a filmography that includes such stellar performances in Summer Hours, Cache, Blue, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Lovers on the Bridge, etc, I would hope people don’t take her for granted.
Walking into Greenberg, my knowledge of Greta Gerwig was nil. Yet from the film’s opening scene, you begin to acknowledge her immense talent. While not conventionally beautiful, she possesses a lanky physique that exudes of tender awkwardness that is capable of eliciting both laughs and sorrow. Her role as a young adult on the cusp of trying to figure out her place in the world works as an interesting dynamic to Ben Stiller’s role. Perhaps most impressive is how when the two share screentime together, it’s Gerwig that commands more of a presence.
I had seen Zoe Kazan in minor roles in minor films, such as Me and Orson Welles and Revolutionary Road. She made the most of what she was given with, but I never gathered that she was capable of such subtle emotional resonance as seen in The Exploding Girl. Her role called for something larger than the world around her. In one of the more heart-wrenching scenes of 2010, Kazan takes a phone call from her soon to be ex-boyfriend. You only hear her part of the conversation, but you gather from her quivering voice that it’s all coming to an end.
The current awards climate dictates that Natalie Portman’s role in Black Swan will come out victorious. Not to go along with the cattle, but it’s hard to ignore the elegance and level of control in owning the role as the warped ballerina Nina Sayers. From her toe-crushing preparation to the level of fright attached to her innocence, her performance was utterly compelling.
Blue Valentine provides two of the best young actors sporting their acting skills, with Michelle Williams edging out her co-star. Williams has developed into one of my favorite actresses, giving great performances in solo-vehicles like Wendy and Lucy. Her smaller roles tend to be the best aspect of any given film (Shutter Island). And in Blue Valentine, she manages to do more with less. While her co-star had the meatier role, Williams refuses to succumb to stereotypes and plays her role as a sexually active teen turned mother and wife with the utmost conviction.