Terrence Malick’s continued examination of the conflict between a spiritual ideal and reality resumes in his new film, Song to Song. The erudite director fixes his gaze on the Austin, Texas music scene where shades of red and blue, movement and stillness, and penury and luxury inform a dense text on the contradictory forces that propel people in and out of happiness. It is in equal measures his most fragmented work and his most narratively driven since at least The New World. And while it shares many of the thematic discomforts found in his previous narrative film, Knight of Cups, i.e; a petrifying fear of nothingness and a hollow longing for experience, it’s a notably more romantic and buoyant enterprise. While it’s unlikely to persuade Malick’s dissenters back into the fold, those who reveled in the romanticism of The New World may find something in Song to Song to admire.Read More
Terrence Malick’s cinema, particularly those films produced within this decade, place unusual demands on a viewer. With a relaxed obligation to plot (something that could be considered threadbare in The Tree of Life to nil in Knight of Cups) and an experimental sophistication that rejects traditional formalistic notions, the apostasy from the Church of Malick seems to be increasing in membership with every passing film. Those who maintain a rigid allegiance to his earlier films, Badlands and Day of Heaven, will likely have continued doubts of Malick’s visionary gifts with Knight of Cups. But those who have accepted and embraced his new visions of distorted realities, spiritual crises, and existential anxieties in The Tree of Life and particularly To the Wonder will be further moved by Malick's continued expressionistic experimentalism. Knight of Cups is a canonical work that further solidifies Malick’s position as the most significant figure in contemporary American cinema.Read More
Terrence Malick’s methodology over the past few years has entered an enterprise of poetic lyricism where traditional narrative constraints succumb to spiritual headiness. At their hearts, films like The Thin Red Line and The New World maintained a liberal and sparsely plotted sensibility that were akin to Malick’s first two films, Badlands and Days of Heaven. But beginning with The Tree of Life and continuing in To the Wonder, Malick tilts his camera in favor of a more enigmatic and sensual experience. The results have been contentious with devout followers to the church of Malick dismissing his latest work as too sparse and empty. When compared to the grandiosity of The Tree of Life, To the Wonder is small – though there few films comparable in scope and ambition as The Tree of Life. Smale-scaled Malick remains a remarkable effort and in To the Wonder’s case, it’s an illustrious visage that embarks to tell a simple story of lover’s plight and the realities that are difficult to acknowledge.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.
When Jeff Bridges won his Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Crazy Heart, there was little debate to if he would win. After decades of nominations, starting with his excellent work in The Last Picture Show, Bridges had established himself as a true Hollywood actor. He had earned his spot. He had paid his dues. He deserved recognition. Excuse the actual content of the performance (which, I must say, was very good); he could go no longer without winning an Oscar. Martin Scorsese’s quest for an Oscar was perhaps even more tragic. How this man could have gone without being nominated for his direction in Taxi Driver is beyond me. But he chugged along and produced his greatest directorial effort in Raging Bull. He failed to get the gold. This was then followed by subsequent nominations for Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, and The Aviator. No such luck there either. It always struck me as a cruel joke that Scorsese would be victorious for his direction in The Departed – his most stylistically flawed and directorially muted outing yet.
This is often the case – talented auteurs who have a life work of exceptional performances and/or films find themselves getting recognized for efforts less than the trail behind them. It’s a flawed system, but it is part of the appeal of the whole awards season – there are narratives to mined and extracted. When Colin Firth won for his performance in The King’s Speech, there was a sense of entitlement to the award. After all, the year prior, he gave an arguably better performance in A Single Man. But that was the year that Jeff Bridges had rolled out and annihilated any competition. It was Colin’s turn. And as part of a greater narrative, The King’s Speech ended up dominating the conversation over David Fincher’s critically lauded The Social Network. It's yet another rebuff for Fincher on behalf of the Academy, Fincher must be feeling a little anxious about when it will indeed be his turn for the award. Because when you direct something as technically proficient and stellar as The Social Network, well, I have to wonder when my turn would be too.
At this point in the conversation, there seems to be one concrete nominee that Oscar prognosticators can generally agree upon – it’s that Christopher Plummer’s performance in Beginners is virtually set. With a career that began in the 50s, Plummer astoundingly only has one Oscar nomination (The Last Station). From his performances in The Sound of Music to The Insider, Plummer stands as an actor who tends to get overlooked by voting bodies. While someone like Peter O’Toole, who has been nominated on 8 separate occasions (with 8 losses), at least he is in the conversation. With Plummer, there seems to be a need to recognize the unrecognized; the mere fact that he has been working as long as he has with only one nomination is enough to work a narrative around his Oscar bid.
Plummer’s bid took an unexpected hit yesterday though when the trailer for Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close dropped. The trailer hints at a performance from another actor who has seen constant slights throughout his career – Max von Sydow is now in contention. With such a storied career, he too, has only had one Oscar nomination for the film Pelle the Conqueror. I’m a bit more familiar with Sydow’s career, and found him to give excellent performances in both The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Hannah and Her Sisters. Both performances went unrecognized.
There’s a narrative to be mined out of these two. Both Plummer and Sydow are of the same age and have contributed their part in the language of films. They have starred in landmark features and have worked their way through smaller independent works. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close largely remains a question mark at this point, but the credentials are there. Plummer may hold a slight edge now, but we’re still very early into the Oscar season for there to be a clear cut winner, and frankly, I sense that the conversation could shift to Sydow’s favor by December.
Speaking of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I have to wonder if there’s any director with the sort of track record that Stephen Daldry has. He has made three films, Billy Elliot, The Hours, and The Reader. All three films have snagged Daldry the coveted Best Director nomination. None have secured him the win. It’s interesting, in so much that there, again, can be a narrative mined out of Daldry’s shortcomings. I’m hedging my bets that Daldry’s film will not be nominated for Best Picture, but is it feasible for Daldry to get nominated for direction? Given the nature in which the Best Picture landscape has changed in the past year, and the general disagreeable tone I got out of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’s trailer, I’m sensing that the film won’t be much of a play and will ruin Daldry’s streak. It’s all speculation at this point, but that’s the nature of the game.
If there’s one director that certainly deserves recognition, it’s Terrence Malick. Having perhaps reluctantly accepted the role of cinephiles' new director of worship following the death of Stanley Kubrick, it’s not hard to understand the following that Malick has. Of course, this is coming from someone who worships at the altar of Malick; so again, I have to put my feelings aside on these sort of things. But there certainly seems to be a group of people out there who are going to vote in his masterwork The Tree of Life into the Best Picture category, and with that, I find it difficult that anyone could neglect that craftsmanship that is employed in creating the film. Malick is the film, and the very specific and methodical way it is constructed leads me to believe that he will get recognized for his direction. It would mark only the second time he will receive notice for his stellar directorial work in a career that has spanned four decades.
At the center of Malick’s film is a performance from Brad Pitt that has shown a different side of the actor. Well, I shouldn’t say that entirely, as Pitt has, for the past few years, made some incredibly interesting character decisions that certainly adds credibility to his legacy. Perhaps taking himself more seriously, the actor has worked with an array of talented directors such as Joel & Ethan Coen, Andrew Dominik, and David Fincher to develop and hone his craft. With Fox Searchlight pushing Pitt for supporting in The Tree of Life, I sense that he will be the year’s only double nominee, as his lead performance in Moneyball has garnered him praise as his best performance to date. In a year where the Best Actor field is as crowded as it is, a nomination is a reward in itself. But there’s a certain novelty to the possibility of getting nominated in two separate acting categories, and given what Pitt has done for Hollywood in general, a win might be the self-congratulatory pat on the back for his good work.
Pitt would have his hands full to take a potential win from possible nominees in Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow. And the Best Actor field is no guarantee either, particularly when you’re dealing with one of an overdue actor like Gary Oldman. Having had a career resurgence with his work in Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise, Oldman seems to be in line for his first nomination. Having often been considered a snub for performances in Sid & Nancy and The Contender, Oldman stands as an actor whose time may have finally come. With Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the actor is receiving some of his best buzz yet, and has been amongst the key figures in the Best Actor race to get a nomination. Given Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’s December release date and growing buzz for Oldman, I’d say it looks like he’ll finally score that nomination, perhaps on track to securing that win.
As you can see, the site is still in construction, so excuse the clutter. Check out the Contenders section for my most up-to-date predictions. Check out next Monday for another addition of Cinema Chatter. Until then, check out upcoming reviews for The Hustler, Branded to Kill, and In Cold Blood!
An ethereal flame flickers at the beginning and end of The Tree of Life – the creator watches over us. A shadow of death is cast upon the film’s central personalities – less characters but human conceptions of nature and grace, fierce will and love. The loss of a son, of a brother, sparks our voyage. We span through time, from the genesis of existence, to an Eden-like visage in Waco, Texas, to a stripped-down, ultra-modern present, to a beach where the dead walk. The images that bind these locales in place are of the most exquisite variety, though ambiguous in nature. There is a rationale in the way the images are laced together, particularly when characters, in hushed voice-over, ask God why? Malick thusly responds on His behalf, though such juxtaposition between present and past can be jarring.
In a way, The Tree of Life is a stream of consciousness. While there is an attempt at linearity through time, Malick moves between images with the utmost speed – his camera swoops in and out as the Earth is created, as dinosaurs roam, as a family endures, as a man is haunted by loss. Like memories, our ability to recall can sometimes only be contained in bits and pieces or we can recall every detail – this is when Malick stands still and holds.
Interpretations of the film are undoubtedly varied. My knee-jerk reaction was of confusion- so many lingering images seemed incompressible – the rush of waterfalls, the sun-flowers, etc. Reading more about the film and about Terrence Malick’s family history gives me a sense that the film is a confession – an attempt to reconcile the death of his own brother. Scenes with young Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his brother R.L. (Laramie Eppler) contain such a breathtaking level of detail, beauty, and sincerity that it’s difficult not to become unhinged by their interactions. R.L., whose death begins the grieving process of the entirety of the film, is largely a blank slate. He plays the guitar, smiles from ear to ear when interacting with his brothers, and has a cloud of sadness lingering in his disposition. He is also the first one to openly defy his father, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt). He refuses to partake in violence, avoids conflict with his Jack, and trusts him. These are the details that mark him, but little else is known – we gather this information from the scattered, memory-like trance in which Malick moves the film. Is this the way he remembers his brother?
The film’s larger conflict stems from the battle between Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien. Symbolic figures, Mr. O’Brien represent fierce will and determination; he instills these notions in his sons out of love. Such love is harsh, and misconstrued by the children as being vindictive. Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) is the proverbial ying to Mr. O’Brien’s yang. Beauty and grace are the qualities she instills in her children, wherein kindness is her effective mode of parenthood. Unlike Mr. O’Brien, her emotions are open. But the two parents operate under contradictory terms, wherein the line in the sand is distinct – they are two opposing forces. This proves to be a causal element behind the present-day Jack’s (Sean Penn) emotional insecurities. As a child, the elements of nature and grace surround Jack – sunlight bathes his childhood, sewing together a gleaming sense of happiness when with his mother. But the fierce will of Jack’s father has overtaken nature – as an aging architect, Jack is surrounded by cold infrastructures and a barren existence.
All this leaves to question – is this film too much geared toward Malick’s personal perspective or does it carry a sense of universality? That’s a difficult question to answer, largely because while I may not share Malick’s spirituality or experience of Midwestern suburban life, I am able to appreciate his evocation of nature and portrayal of family. The crisis that Jack experiences as both a child and adult is expressed so viscerally that your senses may not be able to comprehend the anxiety, longing, anger, and love thrown at you – it’s without a doubt the most challenging of Malick’s filmography. Things may be spelled out in a clear way through voice-overs, but the images that couple the voices are often hard to decipher and emotionally ambiguous.
There’s only one emotional certainty throughout the film, and that’s in its conclusion - The Tree of Life ends on a note of optimism. My reading of it leads me to believe that despite the harshness of life, despite the loss and death that plagues us in our existence, the end of the road serves to unite us together. The path isn’t distinct – love and fierce will are not mutually exclusive. It’s not a distinct answer to what happens to us when we die, but rather one of hopefulness. We’ll encounter those that we love, past and present, leave things unspoken, and reconcile our differences. For most people, spiritual or not, that’s an afterlife that’s worth living for.