Sunday, December 21, 2008

Recent Screenings: 2008

I haven't done a Recent Screenings post since January 2008, which is too bad, because I've seen some excellent films this year.

Alas, few of them were actually released in 2008, so if you're looking for a Best of 2008 list, you'll have to go elsewhere. Here are some possibilities: Roger Ebert, Anthony Lane and John Waters.

Meanwhile, from films I saw for the first time in 2008, here are twenty I enjoyed the most. My Ten Favorite, in alphabetical order, followed by ten more worth watching.

Black Narcissus (1947) - There's no easy way to describe this haunting and mesmerizing film. I avoided it for several years, because the idea of Deborah Kerr playing an Anglican nun made me yawn just thinking about it. But I was very wrong. The great directing team of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger create a lush, fascinating world and then delve into some powerful questions. Kerr has been chosen to lead four other nuns in an effort to start a convent and infirmary high up on a mountain in the Himalayas within a strange former palace. Cultures, religions, and individual personalities come into conflict. Erotic tensions build up. The wind howls through the isolated and eerie palace. People lose their minds. British colonialism seems ridiculous and powerless in the face of spiritual and cultural forces thousands of years old. Who is observing who? What does spirituality really mean? Powell & Pressburger slowly increase the pressure until it explodes in a disturbing climax - something like beautiful horror.

Death at a Funeral (2007) - One of the funniest films I've seen in years. A classic in black comedy. Drugs, midgets, closet homosexuals, cranky old guys in wheelchairs, scatological humor, and lots of family dysfunction. All at a funeral. Viewers should know by the end of the first scene if this is going to be their cup of tea.

In Bruges (2008) - Brutal, violent, profane, politically incorrect, and darkly humorous. With surprisingly intelligent contours. Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell play hit men sent to the medieval city of Bruges to wait for their next assignment. Gleeson, a tired old pro, calmly takes in the beauty and history of the city. Farrell, who recently botched his first assignment, fumes and rages, a seemingly shallow young man incapable of appreciating the finer things in life. Over time, the men form an interesting bond, as Farrell slowly comes unglued by guilt. The acting is superb all around, with Farrell delivering his best performance ever. Ralph Fiennes almost steals the show, however, as their "complicated" Irish thug boss. I didn't see a lot of new films in 2008, but this may have been my favorite.

Iron Man (2008) - I'm tired of super-hero/comic book movies, but it's impossible not to enjoy Robet Downey Jr.'s performance in Iron Man. A smart, funny, well-paced film that doesn't take itself too seriously - what the Spider Man series had going for it before its abysmal third installment. This one held up well on a second viewing; I have serious reservations, however, about its inevitable sequal.

King Lear (1987) - Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. With Burgess Meredith as "Don Learo," Molly Ringwald as Cordelia, Woody Allen as Mr. Alien, Norman Mailer as "The Great Writer," and controversial theatre director Peter Sellars, who also worked on the "script," as William Shakespeare Junior the Fifth.

It would take a very long post to properly examine this film, not to mention telling the back story of its production, which is one of the most fascinating (and/or disastrous) in cinema history.

Vincent Canby at The New York Times called the movie "tired, familiar and out of date." Time Out says it's "Godard's dullest and least accomplished [movie] for some time." User Comments on IMDB are filled with hatred and rage.

Meanwhile, Kevin Thomas of The Los Angeles Times hails it as "a work of certified genius," and The National Film Archive of India places it on a list of the Greatest Films of All Time.

There are two important things to keep in mind about Godard and his King Lear project:

1) Godard lost interest in making traditional narrative films sometime in the early-to-mid 1960s. As a general rule, it's always better to approach one of his works as a cinematic poem or visual philosophical treatise rather than a "movie." Anyone who comes to this film expecting a story based on Shakespeare's King Lear will be greatly flummoxed, then furious. Kurosawa's Ran this is not.

2) Nobody seems to read or consider the sub-title of this work - King Lear: Fear and Loathing. A Study. An Approach. A Clearing. No Thing. Does that sound like you're about to enter Kenneth Branagh territory? Yet"a study, an approach, a clearing" is a fair explanation of Godard's project.

When you also take a look at the cast list and the names of some of the characters (Woody Allen as Mr. Alien?) one wonders why anyone thinks this is going to be a normal re-telling of Shakespeare's classic. Yet they do. And they get really, really angry when they encounter Jean-Luc Godard tearing apart the Bard and using him to investigate the very meaning of written and visual language.

Not an easy work, granted (though not that difficult either, if you just let it be what is.) But Godard's King Lear was the most thought-provoking and inspirational film I saw in 2008.

It's no wonder that many critics hate Godard, because he's basically challenging the very nature of narrative film, and making us think about our relationship to words and images. He's been trying since the early 1970s to create a new kind of cinema, and though he's failed in many ways, one gets the feeling that his attempts will be remembered and finally investigated more fully in the future. (The advent of YouTube, for example, seems to fall in line with ideas Godard was working on in the early 1970s.) And King Lear, in many ways, is his main treatise on the subject.

He also explores the historic relationship of the film industry to capitalism and mobsterism. Burgess Meredith is given the impossible task of playing a godfather version of Lear, and he does an amazing job. I scoffed beforehand at the idea of the Penguin playing Lear, but I was wrong.

In addition to being intellectually fascinating, King Lear is also quite funny in parts. And there are moments of stunning beauty, when Godard reminds us that he is a master at creating some of the most powerful images in cinema.

I certainly wouldn't recommend this film to everyone, but if you're willing to drop all expectations at the door and enter in, you may be pleasantly surprised.

Either that, or you're going to hate the movie, hate Godard and hate me.

Modern Times (1936) and City Lights (1931) - I don't know why it took me so long to see these two classics by Charlie Chaplin. My great loss. In Kabbalah, one is not supposed to enter the orchard until his or her fortieth year. Perhaps I had to wait about that long to fully enter into the orchard of Chaplin.

Modern Times was a great place to start. City Lights was both funny and beautiful.

So much cinema comes from these two Chaplin films.

No Country for Old Men (2007) - So much has been written about Joel and Ethan Coen's Oscar-winning film that I have little to add. Warning for the squeamish - this is a very violent film. If you can get through the disturbing opening scene, you can get through the rest of the movie. And you should, because it's a powerful film, the best work by the Coens in a long time. One piece of advice: Everything will make more sense, especially the ending, if you think of Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh as Death.

Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979) - Werner Herzog does Dracula, with Klaus Kinski as the vampyre and Bruno Ganz and Isabelle Adjani as the young couple he haunts. Herzog creates a beautifully creepy atmosphere from the first moments of the film and never sways. Great for Halloween.

Sherlock Jr. (1924) One Week (1920) The General (1927) - Buster Keaton classics. I had actually seen The General, but it was great to re-watch it after so many years. What an amazing film. Yes, it's funny, but I had forgotten how much of an adventure it is, as Keaton winds up behind enemy lines during the American Civil War.

Sherlock Jr. is like an hour-long catalog of cinematic gags and amazing stunts that would later be used throughout film history. Delightful. One Week reminds one that the early days of film coincided with Surrealism in art, and the two were often much closer together at the time than we realize.

WALL·E (2008) - Ebert calls this "the best science-fiction movie in years." The first 45 minutes miraculously combine Chaplin and Keaton with an end-of-the world scenario out of The Omega Man. Though it's an animated film, the "camera work," editing and and directing feel reminiscent of live-action classics. It may be classified as a "family" film, but it offers up one of the best contemporary critiques of our consumer culture. And a bumbling but deeply curious trash-compacting robot reminds us what it means to be human.

Ten Other FIlms I Enjoyed.

Ballada o soldate [Ballad of a Soldier] (1959) - A simple, beautiful and powerful film from the Soviet Union.

Forever Female (1954) - William Holden, Paul Douglas and Ginger Rogers in a literary comedy about the theatre world. Alas, we never see these kinds of movies anymore.

In the Valley of Elah (2007) - Tommy Lee Jones kicked ass in 2007.

Juno (2007) - Funny and quirky enough not to slide into schmaltz.

The Limey (1999) - Intelligent Soderbergh thriller with old Brit Terence Stamp in L.A. trying to find out who killed his daughter.

Muerte de un ciclista [Death of a Cyclist] (1955) - The most famous work by Javier Bardem's uncle. Kind of a Spanish Hitchcock/Clouzot thing.

Nashville (1975) - I'm not a big Altman fan, but this was a masterpiece. Henry Gibson and Lily Tomlin - only a few years removed from TV's Laugh-In - deliver amazing performances.

Rendition (2007) - Excellent political thriller with Jake Gyllenhaal.

The River (1951) and Partie de campagne [A Day in the Country] (1936) - Two Jean Renoir classics. The River is based on a novel by Rumer Godden, who also wrote the novel Black Narcissus.

Sang d'un poète, Le [Blood of a Poet] (1930) - Cocteau's first film. A must-see.


crystal said...

Wow - lots of films!

I read about In Bruges when it came out and it sounded really good. Ebert liked it too.

I remember Nashville - Keith Carradine sings that song "I'm Easy" :)

In the Valley of Elah - very upsetting and good. I visited a website about other soldiers who had been killed after coming back here, like the guy the movie was based on.

Saw City Lights long ago - fun.

Thanks for the reviews. You always introduce me to movies I didn't know about.

cowboyangel said...

Hey Crystal,

Yes, probably too many movies. that's what happens when I don't post any reviews for a while.

You would remember Keith Carradine! ;-) That was the popular song from the movie. But the whole soundtrack was pretty impressive. His scene with Lily Tomlin was quite powerful - maybe the best scene in the film.

I was disappointed to see that Ebert didn't pick In Bruges as one of his Top 20 movies of 2008. It made some other lists. He wrote a nice review of it. But then he writes nice reviews about a lot of films. I would recommend it, though it can be a bit brutal.

Jeff said...

Cool list. I was channel surfing one night and I happened to stumble upon Black Narcissus by accident. I didn't see the whole thing, I came in at around the part where Powell was wowing everyone by singing Christmas hymns (cynically) at the service in the monastary, but I was blown away by it. I thought to myself, now what is THIS? It seemed like a movie way, WAY ahead of its time. I can't imagine how people must have responded to it in 1947. That was quite a torrid and half-mad performance by Deborah Kerr. It's hard to imagine that's the same Deborah Kerr playing a nun who also played a nun in Heaven Knows Mr. Alison several years later.

I'm not a huge Colin Farrell fan, but I saw him interviewed by Charlie Rose along with the director of In Bruges and it looked pretty good. That's one I have to see.

Just wondering, if you are into western throwbacks at all, that is... Did you happen to see 3:10 to Yuma? That was in 2007. It had some pretty good performances by Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, plus a great breakout appearance by Ben Foster as a chilling and very quirky villain.

cowboyangel said...


You're right, Black Narcissus does seem ahead of its time. Glad you caught part of it.

I think many people have had mixed feelings about Colin Farrell, myself included. But he does very well in In Bruges. That's not one to watch with the whole family, btw. In case you hadn't figured that out. :-)

I've checked out 3:10 to Yuma twice from the Library, and both times La Reina snubbed it. She'll usually watch westerns with me, and she likes Crowe and Bale, so I'm not sure what the issue is. Just not in the mood, I guess. Now that you've recommended it, I'll try a third time and watch it alone if necessary. I've wanted to see it.

Fiona said...

I reluctantly went to see Death at a Funeral, basically because my mother begged me to go. Any movie that has me practically pissing myself, gets a thumbs up.

I recently re-watched Brazil and was taken aback by the similarity between Peter Vaughan's scenes in the two movies. I didn't remember the one in Brazil but I will never forget the one in Death at a Funeral. I'm feeling a little sick even now just thinking about it.

cowboyangel said...

Pissing oneself is definitely a good indicator of comedy excellence. Up there with falling on the floor. that almost happened to me with Death at a Funeral.

Funny, I didn't realize Vaughan was in Brazil - haven't seen it in many, many years. should go back and watch it.