Eyes & Ears 2011: Part 1

The Academy Award nominations were announced yesterday morning.  I thought this was as good a time as any to post the Eyes portion of my annual Eyes & Ears lists.  The following are the ten films I held most dearly from 2011.

Contagion – Steven Soderbergh’s thriller teaches us that a director who cares about craft can play our emotions like a fiddle.  That’s all Soderbergh has ever cared about – craft.  And this expertly crafted pandemic film is effective in all its goals.  From the raw performances to the razor-sharp cinematography, “Contagion” is that rare Hollywood thriller that dares to get under its audience members’ skin.  It’s a compelling portrayal of fear and the lengths humans will go to survive.  Notable here are Jennifer Ehle as a selfless scientist intent on discovering a cure, and Jude Law as a blogger activist.

Terri – This bizarre little gem won me over when I finally realized it had not succumbed to the phoniness of its countless indie counterparts.  “Terri” is filled to the brim with moments of jaw-dropping honesty. The film’s fine performers – most notably its lead, Jacob Wysocki – never spell out how we should feel or think.  We’re left, as in real life, to make judgments on the characters as their behavior unfolds.  I think alumni from rural high schools will watch this movie with warmness, admiring its portrait of outsiders and concluding it all feels real.

Hanna – From Joe Wright, the director of “Atonement” and “Pride and Prejudice”, comes this unlikely action film, which I have difficulty comparing to any other conventional action films.  There is a smoothness to the on-screen action and camerawork that remind me of “Munich”, as well as moments of bizarre beauty that evoke “A Clockwork Orange”.  Confused?  Good.  Watch the film with open arms and discover a unique and risky genre-bender.

The Descendants – Let’s be honest, sometimes George Clooney plays the same suave, silver fox he’s played in a dozen movies.  But here, director Alexander Payne puts his lead in one impossible situation after another.  “The Descendants” is a surprisingly plot-driven drama-comedy in which Clooney’s Matt King has to reconcile familial transgressions while his wife lies comatose and his ancestors’ priceless land is sized up for sale.  But this all works; the characters are given dimension with each new plot turn.  I admire Payne’s decisions directorially.  What is ultimately a very sad movie is also very funny, often simultaneously, and this is largely because all melodrama is cut off at its zenith.  Watch closely: just as a character is about to spill his soul totally – tears and snot and all – the hand of Payne sweeps in to ruin the moment.  I can see viewers leaving the film feeling unresolved.  I felt free to choose what to feel.

Midnight in Paris – I think Woody Allen – for all his accolades as a writer – is as skilled a director who has ever lived.  He surely has some clunkers under his belt, but when he succeeds, he seriously succeeds.  “Midnight in Paris” is the latest in his European film collection and it is as romantic about its city as “Manhattan” was to its city, and an even better film altogether.  Here, we see Owen Wilson in one of his finest performances (playing the role of Woody Allen to neurotic perfection) and a cast indulging in the material.  This is a movie filled with charm and beauty, and from it we clearly sense Allen’s love of literature.  For years, his movies have alluded to this (all his characters are astonishingly well-read) but in “Midnight in Paris” we see Allen the Romantic trumping Allen the Cynic in full close-up.  It’s a wonderful experience.

Trust – To watch David Schwimmer on “Friends” with his outlandish facial expression and comic overreactions, it’s hard to believe he could direct such a subtle and devastating film.  “Trust”, Schwimmer’s second feature film as a director, centers on the rape of a teenage girl named Annie (which is not shown in full detail).  Annie and her family struggles to cope with the consequences, and during this process Schwimmer creates a sense of longing that does not find fulfillment by the movie’s end.  And so, with Annie, we also long for acceptance, and fatherly protection, and perfect love.  Those are good things to long for, and the movie rightly concludes they’ll never be fulfilled in this world.

Melancholia – If not for the strange comedic undertones, “Melancholia” would be almost too much to bear.  I’m thinking back on several scenes and laughing about them, which was not my first reaction.  This is a bold and brilliant film about the end of all things, and its director Lars von Trier is wise to fill the palette with impossibly beautiful images.  Surely von Trier is playing with us every step of the way (how else could we laugh at such nihilism?) but none of it is mean-spirited, like his previous film “Antichrist”.  If you leave dumbfounded, don’t fret; even the characters are dumbfounded!  At the heart of the film’s mystery is a career-shaping performance by Kirsten Dunst, whose character Justine suffers from paralyzing depression.  The portrayal is harrowing and funny, depending on the context, and it helps us understand that “Melancholia” is about needing to resolve the irresolvable.  From prematurely ended scenes to a soundtrack littered with Wagner’s un-resolving “Tristan” theme*, von Trier builds and builds to an inevitable finale.

Hugo – An orphan boy lives and works within the walls of a train station in Paris.  His purpose is to keep the clocks running.  All the axles and wheels – they all have a purpose too, but someone has to make them move.  The boy is Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and his hostile relationship with an old toymaker is the centerpiece of this uproariously charming children’s fable from Martin Scorsese.  “Hugo” should be celebrated for its cinematography and score, for its intricate production design, for its blissful editing, even for its 3D.  Yes, all those things are superlative.  But I cherish “Hugo” for its message of purpose.  “If the whole world is a machine,” Hugo says, “there couldn’t be extra parts, which means I have to be here for a reason.”  This is a movie rooted in love – love for the characters and the time period, even love for cinema itself.  Indeed, the night I saw “Hugo” was the night I fell in love too.

Drive – Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish director of “Drive”, showcases a directorial command we usually see in directors 15 years his senior.  “Drive” is a masterpiece of tone and mood.  Even with a lead character that speaks barely a paragraph of dialogue the entire film, “Drive” is a clincher.  It quietly moves at a slow pace most of the time, which only heightens the shock of its more violent sequences.   I’m telling you, Refn is a true talent and this film is one of the finest action thrillers ever made – strange, atmospheric, risky, and filled with one amazing performance after another.

The Tree of Life – For charm and nostalgia, for warmth and beauty, for mystery and profundity, for grace and truth, for frustration and ambiguity, for beginnings and ends, look no further than Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”.  This polarizing film from an elusive and legendary director is as ambitious as the most grandiose movies that came before it.  It’s also desperately personal, more so than the most raw of film dramas.  “The Tree of Life” is about the loss of innocence, about guilt and forgiveness.  It’s about suffering needlessly.  It compares the woes and awes of its characters to those of Job, who was tempted to curse God and die.  Indeed Jack (Hunter McCracken), the young central character of the film is also tempted to curse God, and he comes very close to doing it.  “The Tree of Life” attempts to show us what God did before we were ever here and what he’s still doing now even though we can’t see him, and the intense and sometimes cold emotions that follow make the film one of the wonders of modern cinema.

My Own Private Award Ceremony:

Stellar Teenage Performance Award: Jacob Wysocki – “Terri”; Shailene Woodley – “The Descendants”; Liana Liberato – “Trust”

Awkward Wedding Reception Award: “Melancholia” (which was purposely awkward) & “Breaking Dawn Part 1” (which was accidentally awkward)

Award for Slapstick Actors in Dramas with Outcast Teenagers: Will Ferrell – “Everything Must Go” & John C. Reilly – “Terri”

Movies About Movies Award: “Hugo” & “The Artist”

Eschatological Award: “Melancholia”, “The Tree of Life”, “The Future” & “Another Earth”

Did your favorites from 2011 appear on my list?  What did I leave out?

*Thanks to Ricky Hutton for explaining the “Tristan” theme to me.  His insights helped me understand another layer of von Trier’s madness.

Eyes & Ears 2010: Part II

It is a hard thing to take risks in the film industry.  When one model begins to make money, that model is all we see for quite sometime.  So I was delighted that the best films I saw in 2010 usually took big risks.  Whether the story was convoluted or the visual style was iconoclastic, 2010 marked the making of movies with unusual grit.

Here are some of the best movies from 2010:

Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell cope with the destruction of their small town in "The Crazies".

The Crazies – It’s hard for even me to believe how thoroughly entertained I was by “The Crazies”.  This is a well-acted and deceptively well-directed horror film.  Director Breck Eisner (that’s Michael Eisner’s son) makes almost every decision correctly and displays a firm grasp on an unforgiving genre.  This version of “The Crazies” is a far cry superior to George Romero’s original, and here’s one major reason why: it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Eisner is working with exhausted material, but he elevates it with expert timing.  There are several great suspense sequences here (the pitchfork, the buzz-saw, the knife) and moments of perfectly timed comedic irony.  So often, this kind of material never rises above B-movie schlock.  “The Crazies” is an updated B-movie, to be sure, but it’s a stylish and lovingly made B-movie.  And it’s definitely not schlock.

The Ghost Writer – There are few directors currently working in film who can construct a scene with the prowess of Roman Polanski.  He works on a level foreign to most modern filmmakers.  This is on clear display in “The Ghost Writer”, a political thriller bursting with the atmosphere of a taut noir and the expert handling of Alfred Hitchcock (that’s very high praise).  I treasured “The Ghost Writer” for the craftsmanship on display, for its conniving and devious characters, and for a final scene so perfectly executed it almost took my breath away.

Exit Through the Gift Shop – This hilarious and insightful documentary was thought to be a hoax – and why shouldn’t it have been confused as a big joke?  The story is so unlikely and absurd that it seems impossible that it could be authentic.  The director and star, an enigmatic street artist named Banksy, brings us the story of Thierry Guetta, one of the great mysteries of modern film.  He’s an over-zealous amateur filmmaker obsessed with documenting the work of street artists like Banksy.  His experiences bring him into the art world – not as a filmmaker, but as a street artist himself.  His methods and motivations are maniacal at best.  “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is a provocative and delightfully self-aware discussion of art and dares to ask the tough questions this subject sometimes requires.  You’ll leave this movie satisfied by its humor and intrigued by its thoughtfulness.

Jennifer Lawrence in "Winter's Bone"

 

Winter’s Bone – My original comments on “Winter’s Bone” included this statement: “…rural depravity is much more interesting than its urban counterpart and ‘Winter’s Bone’ is neck-deep in it.”  The setting of “Winter’s Bone” is the barren, frigid Ozarks; the depravity seems to seep from the ground.  There is quiet menace permeating this story and, what’s more surprising, a quiet heroine who dwarfs that menace with an iron-will love for her family.  Jennifer Lawrence is the actress behind the character Ree Dolly, who is forced to find her meth-dealer father before the authorities seize her house.  (He used the family house as collateral to post bail.)  Ree wears multiple hats – sister, mother, and detective – as she looks after her unstable mother and younger siblings and descends into the subversive culture of dealers and junkies.  This is a small and powerful film, directed with respect by Debra Granik.

The Book of Eli – To my great surprise, “The Book of Eli” is a movie with a bold vision.  Aesthetically, the film is brilliantly composed.  The Hughes Brothers, the film’s directors, know how to block a scene with great style.  The action is often contemplative and nuanced; sometimes we are barely involved, merely spectators.  Thematically, the movie makes claims that most mainstream movies wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole – namely that the Bible is more than a book.  “The Book of Eli” implies that the Bible has divine staying power, that it is a tenable document, and that it is not simply a document, but a force.  Christians will appreciate how seriously the movie approaches the Bible and the reverence the movie ascribes to it.  I was surely surprised by that and equally surprised that this movie is a superlative post-apocalyptic tale.  Denzel Washington is a good fit for a role that, in the hands of a younger actor, would come off crass and unconvincing.  Also noteworthy are the technical achievements of the music, cinematography, and editing.  Unlike most modern action films, these strands weave together seamlessly and with purpose.  “The Book of Eli” is a visually exciting picture, a bold sci-fi epic, and something more.

Inception – Here’s another visually exciting picture.  Christopher Nolan’s film frustrates audiences.  On one hand, many people have complained the movie is too confusing to follow.  On the other hand, many others have claimed it is so locked into its own systematic rules that it takes few creative leaps and spells out too much.  I’m convinced that “Inception” is a risky mainstream release.  I cannot think of too many other big-budget action dramas that require a general audience to pay so close attention.  Yes, there’s rigidity to the narrative’s rules, but there are also big ideas here.  I cherish the film for taking risks in a large public venue.  Nolan’s scope is impressive and his plotting is thrilling, and “Inception” boasts some of the great visual wonders of the last generation of film.

Toy Story 3 – What Disney and Pixar have achieved in the “Toy Story” franchise is very nearly a cinematic miracle.  To think that a children’s franchise could continue 15 years after its original installment was released and still somehow have an audience who cares is borderline ludicrous.  But “Toy Story 3” proves that good storytelling can bridge even the biggest gaps in years and, here, the bridge is built by weaving that very dilemma into the film’s storyline itself.  In the movie, Andy is about to leave for college and his departure could mean for Woody, Buzz, and all their friends that Andy’s affection was only as good as their usefulness to him.  On one level, “Toy Story 3” is a sophisticated look at relationships.  It seems to insist that showing affection for another is a choice and not solely based on emotions, which is contrary to the messages of mainstream entertainment.  The toys serve as a great device for this aspect of the story – we see them relate to Andy and to each other.  There are multiple moments of true emotional intensity and scenes depicting hope in the final moments of despair.  I commend the filmmakers for exercising boldness in a medium that so often talks down to its audience.

Michael Douglas coaches Jesse Eisenberg in "Solitary Man"

Solitary Man – “Solitary Man” boasts probably the most underrated script of 2010.  The script, by Brian Koppelman (who also co-directed the film), is wickedly perceptive.  It tells the story of Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas) an aging and possibly dying man.  Where, at one point, Ben was a well-liked and successful car salesman, he is now an embarrassment to his family and a stain in his social circles.  Ben is a bad man and the movie is a fascinating study of what makes him so bad.  Ben is bad because he’s mortal, and he perpetuates his badness by acting like that’s untrue.  “Solitary Man” is about a man who surrounds himself with people and pleasure and finds at the end of each escapade that he is still very much alone.  He’s a man seemingly incapable of a suppliant attitude towards anyone; even in his most needy moments, he dons his façade with arrogant pride.  When Ben chaperones a college visit to his alma mater with his girlfriend’s daughter, his sins are amplified as he passes on his hedonistic expertise onto university students.  “Solitary Man” is also about the cycle of sin, and on its most basic level (whether the filmmakers intended it or not) the movie speaks volumes on the divorcing power of our transgressions.  Sin separates us.  This movie warns us to steer clear of the behavior of Ben Kalmen, lest we all remain solitary men.

The Social Network – And now here’s a script just as striking and important as “Solitary Man” that actually has been noticed.  I think Aaron Sorkin’s script for “The Social Network” is a milestone.  So much of the dialogue seems to be nothing more than verbiage, but most of those words belong to the film’s principle, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg).  Indeed Zuckerberg is portrayed as a man whose confidence is built on verbiage.  As long as he can confuse or defeat his listeners with his words, then he remains in control.  And therein lie grand themes of communication and coherence in “The Social Network” – or rather, the breakdown of communication and coherence.  The tragic irony of Facebook, according to the film, is that its creator is essentially only friends with a series of 1’s and 0’s.  Zuckerberg cannot communicate unless he is “winning”.  We don’t like this about him, but Facebook gives us the same option – to win every conversation, to dominate and manage our friendships, to present to the world only what we love best about ourselves.  David Fincher directed “The Social Network” and his visual hallmarks are a perfect fit for Sorkin’s script.  He digs deep into the motivations of these characters – from Zuckerberg to his estranged friend, Eduardo Saverin, to the Winklevoss twins – and, if we’re honest, maybe we’ll conclude that all of them are nefarious.  They just communicate it differently…

Colin Firth in a career-high performance as King George VI in "The King's Speech".

 

The King’s Speech – When “The King’s Speech” was over, I felt my body relenting in a way similar to the moments after seeing an action film.  And yet, there’s not an ounce of “movie action” in it.  It’s simply the effect of the movie.  Tom Hooper, the film’s director, shoots with harsh compositions.  In this way, he makes conflict a central ingredient to the film’s very texture.  This approach makes for probably the most involving movie I saw in 2010.  I remember it in terms of emotions more than I do individual moments, which is so often how I remember real life.  It’s the story of the man who became King George VI (Colin Firth).  He’s a hopelessly unconfident man and he speaks with a stammer, which, of course, poses a dilemma for the leader of a monarchy.  Bertie, as his family knows him, is a slave, not so much to his stammer, but to deep-seated fear.  He finds a speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) who knows the stammer itself is not the problem.  What unfolds is one cinema’s great onscreen friendships, marked by a slew of amazing performances led by Firth and Rush.  “The King’s Speech” is a masterful period piece; it beautifully throws into the brink of World War II.  It is an endlessly insightful look into the disparities between royalty and laymen.  It is a movie executed with technical command.  It’s funny and intense and, at times, heart-breaking.  But, more than anything, this is a very moving and inspiring story about two close friends.

What were your favorites from 2010?

Eyes & Ears 2010: Part I

Every year I find somewhere online to post what I annually call “Eyes and Ears”, a two-part list of the best music and movies I listened to and saw from the year prior.  I’m a little late for the count this year, but I’ll post them anyway.

The best case scenario is that these lists will lead to discussions where music and movie suggestions are traded and all the participants expand their tastes.

So let’s begin with the music.  In 2010, I didn’t listen to nearly the amount of different artists as I usually do over the course of a year, but this gave me an opportunity to listen deeply to the albums and artists in which I did invest.  I’m not a music critic, but when I jump on a band’s wagon, I’m there for a long time and I explore the terrain.  That happened in a big way in 2010.  Here are my top albums of 2010, pretty much in order (counting down).

“Beautiful Things” – Gungor – Self-described as “liturgical post-rock”, Gungor will be a confusing experience for the modern CCM worship guru.  And to that I say, great!  Let’s shake up our complacent understanding of worship!  “Beautiful Things” is a meditative piece, and what makes it unique is its focus.  The title refers to God as a creative force, namely in the act of re-creating people.  You make beautiful things out of dust | You make beautiful things out of us go the lyrics to the title track, as front man Michael Gungor sings to a God who formed us from dust and caused our dead hearts to long after Him.  This album does not havea naïve view of God; it takes His holiness seriously.  It assumes that, since God is holy, everything He does is good and beautiful. That inspires worship.

“Contra” – Vampire Weekend – Here is a band that is endlessly intriguing to me.  Vampire Weekend seem to have no agenda.  So many of the lyrics of “Contra” seem nonsensical.  But these four Ivy Leaguers know exactly what they are singing about.  In “Contra”, Vampire Weekend accomplishes (as with their first album) constant musical surprise.  It is nearly impossible to predict what the following musical phrase will hold, how the rhythm will hiccup us into a brand new perspective.  What’s exciting about an album like this is that it assures us Vampire Weekend is not just messing around.  There’s method to this sonic madness.

 

“Sigh No More” – Mumford and SonsServe God, love me, and mend. With these words, Mumford and Sons opens “Sigh No More”.  And from here each track seems to expound on those three imperatives (which, I would say, are a summary of the Great Commandments).  The album is equal parts romance and grit.  It surges forward like a train through songs about hard times and lost love and new life.   Lead singer Marcus Mumford passionately laments about life’s transgressions, then revels in the cleansing power of grace.  There’s conflict in the DNA of the music and lyrics, like the band’s members are searching for truer, better definitions of love.  They search with gusto, and by the end, they conclude that love is a very serious and complex thing.  It is corrective; it covers sin; it awakens souls; it sets us free; it is supportive; it dismisses our fears.  Love causes us to breathe deeply and sigh no more.

“Between Two Worlds” – Trip Lee – Trip Lee is a rap artist unashamed about his huge, bold message of grace.  But more than that, Lee is a gifted communicator.  “Between Two Worlds” is a platform for him to preach the gospel with profound poetical artistry.  With each listen, I’m stunned by the amount of content Lee inserts into each song.  He’s preaching practical and theological truth, using each song as an opportunity to expose the blatant contradictions of the hip-hop and broad American culture.  He condemns careless living in relationships and the use of money.  He condemns the destructive pride that once ruled his heart.  But over this, he magnifies the gospel of grace – the message that Jesus Christ saves sinners by becoming sin.  The great triumph of “Between Two Worlds” is its no-holds-barred picture of a changed heart looking away from itself to a God of goodness who provides and distributes and saves perfectly.

“Take a Bow” – Greg Laswell – The Chicago native Greg Laswell populates “Take a Bow” with the paradoxical charm of his sorrowful voice.  Unless I’m mistaken, Laswell is almost exclusively writing to or about a girl.  Whoever the girl is or was, she inspired an album of gorgeous chord progressions and vocal melodies, an album laced with romantic lament.  Sometimes Laswell is melancholic; sometimes playful or upbeat or even hopeful.  He’s always in control musically.  He demonstrates admirable vocal range and unpredictable melodies.  I’m impressed mostly with the total cohesive nature of the album.  It’s not one-note – no, far from that.  “Take a Bow” is truly dynamic.

“The Suburbs” – Arcade Fire – In “The Suburbs”, Arcade Fire maintain the same experimental spontaneity that populated their first two albums, but still exercise a great deal of musical maturity.  “The Suburbs” is both entertaining and strangely hypnotic – which I’d say is an Arcade Fire hallmark.  There are moments of ethereal beauty and passages of remarkable lyricism, and somewhere in there we get hints of big sweeping themes flowing from the monotony of suburban life.  The album talks much of waiting around and wasting time, then conjures images of almost apocalyptic proportions, as though we will be taken by surprise when it all ends.

 

“Suburba” – House of Heroes – Like the previous album on this list, House of Heroes’ “Suburba” is a grand portrait of small-town life.  HOH demonstrate here that they have a firm understanding of drama.  “Suburba” is very nearly a “concept album” in that it loosely tells a linear story.  At times, the epical scope of the instrumentation and sweeping lyrics feel like a bold Broadway musical.  Somewhere along the line, it becomes clear that HOH is telling the story of a man (or men?) who races through the motions of a suburban existence.  There are leading ladies, gang wars, high school rivalries, deadbeat dads and dead-end jobs.  There are striking social class comparisons.  There is romance and tragedy.  And through this, our hero encounters what he calls a Spirit fire growing inside me.  Indeed, “Suburba” is the story of how a man can lose his identity in the high-stakes dramas of suburban living.  I related to this album on several levels; the imagery and atmosphere are just right.

“Jars of Clay Presents The Shelter” – Jars of Clay

There was one album in 2010 that, without fail, caused worship and thankfulness to well up in me.  Jars of Clay’s “The Shelter” is a blazingly brilliant functional theology of the Church.  The title comes from an Irish proverb that says, “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”  For Jars, it is clear this proverb was a perfect definition of how the Church was meant to function.  “The Shelter” is beautifully woven and spun from this definition.  It inspired the songwriting, the artwork, and even the manner of recording.  Appearing on the album are more than a dozen of the most gifted and contemplative music artists in modern Christendom – from Sara Groves and David Crowder to Brandon Heath and Gungor – who all contributed their words and voices.  This is not a gimmick or a ploy to sell to a larger audience.  It is a breathtaking practical application of the album’s very theme.  By listening to “The Shelter”, you are listening to the Church.  The album emphasizes the practice of love and sacrifice in light of Christ’s love and sacrifice for us demonstrated in the gospel.  Every song pinpoints another glorious angle on this theme.  From “Small Rebellions”, where Jars rightly assumes that loving people requires small daily rebellions against our wicked hearts, to “Lay it Down”, where we get a picture of believers bearing each other burdens as a way to mirror the ultimate burden-bearing act of Christ on the cross.  “The Shelter” is convicting and encouraging.  It exists to edify its audience.  Why?  Because its audience is the Church!  The Bible constantly points to God as our shelter – a hiding place amid the storms and trials of this life.  “The Shelter” understands that the Church – the Body of Christ – exists to shelter its individual members while we wait on this earth.  But most importantly (as the lyrics remind us repeatedly) “The Shelter” proclaims that the unblemished life and atoning work of Jesus Christ means for us, His Body, this very thing: we will never walk alone again, in this life or the next.