As he did with his oddball western Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch mashes up another genre and produces an esoteric look at the gangster film as seen through the eyes of a hitman who lives by the ancient code of the samurai. It's a bizarre film (especially the moments of dialogue between our protagonist and a French ice-cream salesman) that I think is meant to be seen as more a cartoon than something super serious (characters are frequently seen throughout watching cartoons); Jarmusch even has one of the gangsters die in such a cartoonish way that he seems to call a spade a spade and just cop to it as the same thing happens in a cartoon a character is watching prior to the gangster's death. This is Forrest Whitaker's best performance, and it's one of Jarmusch's masterpieces as he satirizes the gangster genre while simultaneously paying homage to it. That's what makes Ghost Dog work so well is the serious matter in which Jarmusch treats his main character...this isn't some kind of eccentricity, this is a way of like for our hitman, and Jarmusch never condescends; rather, his film is a contemplative genre picture (again, much like Dead Man) as a lot of the film is sans dialogue as The Rza's fantastic soundtrack guides us through the action.
Perhaps Lee's most mature film to date, 25th Hour is the director's powerful mediation on New York post September 11th. What's amazing about the film for me is that as a person who is neither a Spike Lee fan or an Edward Norton fan I absolutely loved this film. Norton's character must make sense of his life on the day before he is set to go to prison for seven years; he does this by assembling as many of his friends and family together, and what ensues are powerful, insightful, and poignant conversations about a fallen city and a fallen man. The impressive ensemble includes Rosario Dawson, Barry Peppers, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Bryan Cox. Two scenes stand out: a conversation over looking ground zero and why New York is home for these characters, and the final moments when Norton's character is en route to prison and he passes by people he knows, imaging what could have been.
Michael Mann's brilliant nighttime vision of Los Angeles as seen through the eyes of our protagonist Max (Jaime Foxx in his first real role, and he's fantastic here), a cab driver who one late night picks up a mysterious fare by the name of "Vincent" (Tom Cruise). Vincent turns out to be a hitman, and the rest of the film is Max trying to maneuver and negotiate around his inevitable end (even though Vincent says he'll pay Max a lot of money for driving him to five different locations where he will kill five key witnesses). The film's narrative is almost entirely told within the confines of the cab, and it's there that the film is its most interesting as Max and Vincent debate philosophies and what "good" and "evil" mean. It's also where Mann's digital photography (this being the first all-out digital picture Mann attempted, though some of it still had to be shot with film)is most impressive as he's able to capture extreme close-ups in natural darkness. The cinematography appropriately feels claustrophobic as we feel the weight bearing down on Max. The film's best scene is one where for once Vincent and Max are silent, and as Max is driving Vincent to his next location he stops the cab because a couple of wolves cross the street. This odd occurrence shows Max that his situation is probably going to end with his death as he looks at the wolves and realizes that Vincent is nothing but a wolf (he even has silver hair and a gray suit), a natural born killer, and any promises of sparing Max's life were probably in vain. It's a wonderful moment of silence as we watch the wolves cross the street, and then in typical Mann fashion he starts blaring the rock music and moves his characters to their next location. It's one of Mann's most fascinating crime pictures, and in typical Mann fashion there are deeper questions about existence, and there is an attention to detail to these characters' professions that is rarely found in other films.
Almost ten years ago Kenneth Lonergan made You Can Count on Me, a film about a brother and sister that seemed painfully realistic. Buried beneath the nuances was something universally identifiable for those of us who have siblings. The film had two breakthrough performances: one from Laura Linney, one of our finest actresses working today, and the other from Mark Ruffalo, channeling his inner Brando (his characters name is even Terry, reminding the viewer of Brando's finest performance from On the Waterfront) and doing a helluva job never hamming it up. It's a film of tremendous power and honesty, a film that evades every conventional emotional "gotcha" moment to deliver something honest and understated. In other words: real. Executive produced by Lonergan's friend Martin Scorsese, it's easy to see how he was attracted to such a familial story (think about the families in Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Raging Bull), but friendship aside (Lonergan went on to help write Gangs of New York) I think Scorsese saw a film that had special elements in it: a film that doesn't play by Hollywood's conventions when it comes to a family drama. Lonergan's camera takes its time and meanders though the small town capturing real-life moments that remind the viewer of the kind of honest, documentary-like filmmaking style of John Cassavetes. Ruffalo's Terry is a performance that catapulted him to many starring roles, and Sammy got Linney a well deserved Oscar nomination and solidified her place as one of the go-to actresses who may not grace the cover of magazines (Joan Allen and Catherine Keener are others, too), but turn in great, under-appreciated performances film after film.
Oh, Peter Weir, where have you been? One of our greatest filmmakers tackled the beloved Patrick O'Brien series in 2003 with mixed reaction. For those of use that weren't gauging the film's success on how much stuff blew up it was one of the biggest surprises of the year. Weir sure direction never fails here as he trades stunts and explosions for heart and dialogue about honor and friendship during times of battle when those things are usually pushed aside in favor of survival and love of country. Rarely has an action film stopped to consider how something like music can bind men together in battle, and make two varying opinions (that of Russell Crowe's Capt. Jack Aubrey and Paul Bettany's Dr. Stephen Maturin) meld into a mutual respect. Oh, there's action, and it's all shot beautifully by Weir's old friend Russell Boyd (The Last Wave and Picnic at Hanging Rock) and edited without too much frenzy by Lee Smith. It took Weir five years to make this after his fantastic The Truman Show in 1998, and it will be seven years and counting now until his next film is released. I guess good things come to those who wait. If ever a film was need of being expanded into a series Master and Commander is one of them. Somehow four (!) Pirates movies have been made, but this series still remains unexpanded. What a shame.
Steven Spielberg's bit of revisionist history is one of the best "historical" film's the American master has made. After the kidnapping and massacre of eleven Israeli Olympians during the Munich games in 1972 by the terrorist group Black September, the government wages a secret war to avenge their deaths. Leading that secret war is Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana) who is labeled as the leader more so because he makes the perfect fall guy than any kind of skills he has. With him are a group of people who all specialize in one thing or another giving the film the feel of a more traditional global thriller/action film like Ronin. However, the ramifications and the reverberations of the violence are far more realistic and extreme in Spielberg's film. What makes the film so great is that it really considers how revenge and violence haunt those who partake, and it seeks to ask difficult questions, opening up dialogue rather than debate on the hot topic issues that seem to swirl around Israeli/Palestinian relations. However, more than just the profound and contemplative subtext about isolation (that final shot, pictured above, is as powerful as it gets) and how the government used these people tog et what they wanted, the film works merely on the surface as a good old fashioned thriller, and Spielberg is in rare form here as he seems elated to be able to make an adult action film. It's not quite his masterpiece of the decade, but it's one of the most important films of his esteemed oeuvre.
What many consider Paul Thomas Anderson's magnum opus, his sweeping epic about oil, religion, and alpha males is something that Kubrick (not to mention John Huston and Robert Altman) would have found fascinating and wholly absorbing. Robert Elswit's sweeping camera slowly tracks the barren countryside being raped by the oil companies, and Johnny Greenwood's brilliant score appropriately conveys the urgency that Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) seeks to make everything his own; the musical score also wonderfully represents how everything is crashing down on Daniel, a man who seems to be slowly losing his sanity. One of the film's best moments comes when Daniel and a man posing as his brother go for a dip in the ocean. As they discuss their "past" with each other on the sand of the beach Daniel realizes that everything this guy is saying doesn't match up, and Anderson wisely just keeps the camera close on Daniel as we can see the wheels turning as he realizes what a fool he's been for allowing this imposter to get so close to him (this coming after the famous speech from the movie where he talks about hating everyone because of the competitiveness in him, and getting away from "these people"). It's a bit of brilliant acting in a film filled with manic and gonzo performances from Day-Lewis and Paul Dano who plays Daniel's antagonist. The film is too big and too rich with visual metaphor to be simply a viewing experience: this is a film you must give yourself to. I didn't think the film was that great (interesting , yes, but not great) when I first saw it...I've seen it five times since and the film has bettered with each subsequent viewing. That's the sign of a masterpiece.
Perhaps the best film ever about writing Curtis Hanson's masterful adaptation of Michael Chabon's novel also boasts arguable the best performance of Michael Douglas' career. Professor Grady Tripp is one of the most realized characters I've seen in films about academia (the film also reminds me in that regard of Kingsly Amis' famous and brilliant Lucky Jim). His cynicism about his field, and more specifically his colleagues, is hilariously on point for anyone like myself who spent four years with Lit. professors. Tobey Maguire is also quite good as wonder boy James Leer, a brilliant, suicidal (those almost go hand-in-hand in literature) writer who is Grady's student. When James attends a party with Grady and steels a jacket worn by Marlyn Monroe all kinds of crazy things begin to happen to Grady and James. The wacky situations never seem gratuitous, and the quieter moments of the film offer up some real powerful, elegiac moments about following up expectations (Grady's been working on a follow up to his hit book for seven years) and growing older and obsolete in your field of expertise. The film's music (especially the song by Bob Dylan written for the film) is not just wonderful, but also makes sense when you stop to consider such "wonder boys" as Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan all contributed to the soundtrack as they probably understand what it's like have expectations bearing down on you. The cinematography by the great Dante Spinotti perfectly evokes the cold, icy Pittsburgh landscapes. It's a film that any aspiring writer or lover of literature needs to see.
The Dardenne's love to use simple titles that mean a whole lot more to their characters, and in the case of L'Enfnat it's a representation of how the main characters act. Bruno and Sonia are typical Dardenne characters, which is to say that they are atypical for American audiences...because here are two characters who live off benefits and whatever they can steal, and when they have a newborn baby, and the realization that they're going to have to support that baby, the filmmakers don't trivialize the situation like most American films would. There is no sentimentality here. Bruno seeks to commit a horrible act all in the name of not wanting to grow up, and when he realizes the mistake he's made there's no grandstanding, just the simple and introspective camera of the Dardenne's staying put so that we can see into these characters' souls. The stripped down, minimalist aesthetic of the Dardenne's is hard for some to take, but it's appropriate for their subjects in question because the camera is acting as another character, and even though some of their subjects are hard to watch as we see them continue to screw up and fail, the Dardenne's dare us to find the humanity in Bruno and Sonia. It's a powerful film about the consequences of our decisions, and those decisions shape the men or women we become.
The Coen Brothers are truly two of the greatest filmmakers of my generation. Virtually every film is a masterpiece and although they have their shortcomings with the narrative arc of some of their films, they are never boring. They understand film language (which is to say, visual literacy) and when they are at their best, they are reinventing the genre they are working in. Like Blood Simple and Fargo, and now perhaps their greatest achievement, No Country For Old Men, they reinvent the genre again and raise the bar to new heights. The film still has the classic Coen dialogue that makes you laugh in inappropriate places, but it may also be their most serious film since the grossly underrated, Miller’s Crossing (which still contains absurdest elements). Javier Bardem creates one of cinema's most memorable monsters with his portrayal of Antone Chigurh (like sugar) who is the epitome of the death. He has no pity, no remorse; he works on fate and fate alone. His character epitomizes the fear we have as humans: uncertainty. The fear of not knowing what is to come, or worse, not knowing when it will be coming. How can we predict what is unpredictable? How can we attempt to understand or rationalize what is irrational? These are the central questions to Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same name which acts as the source material for the film. There is no character development for Chigurh, no setting up of scenes as we enter the film in medias res, and are left wondering what this monster is all about. It’s a dark and nihilistic film, not offering a central character like Margie from Fargo to point out that “it’s a beautiful day”; rather, it has a character who sits around wondering “what if” and whether or not Chigurh is still out there, and if he will ever stop. Yes it’s dark, but it also contrasts that darkness with beautiful cinematography by the always great Roger Deakins, and it’s simply a joy to watch all of these masters of their craft at work.