Monday, December 28, 2009

Top Ten Movies of the 2000's

As 2009 winds to a close, it seems fitting to review the top 10 movies of the past 10 years. This has been a good decade for films, as the mini-majors have received significant budgets to create lavish dramas from great theater and literature; as a new generation of directors (Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón, Ang Lee, Peter Jackson, the Cohen Brothers, Quintin Tarantino, Jason Reitman, Paul Thomas Anderson, Rob Marshal) have matured into leading artists of our day; as the dramatic events of September 11th and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan influenced our culture to take a more serious turn.

Here, then are my nominations for the best films of the decade - it was a difficult selection, so I'd love to hear thoughts from readers on any other films that you think should make the list, and why.

10. Children of Men, 2006
This amazing piece of cinema (the twenty minute single take toward the end should go on record as the most amazingly staged camera move ever) relies not on special effects, but on the staging and impact of a semi-futuristic story about the inability of the human race to procreate, a world consumed by endless war, and one man's attempt to save a baby. Delivers a knockout, gut-reeling metaphor on the cruelties of civilization that we haven't seen since movies like Clockwork Orange or Dr. Strangelove.

9. Pan's Labyrinth, 2006
Like Cuarón's Children of Men, del Toro's beautiful costume drama about a little girl who fantasizes escape from the clutches of a dictator during the Spanish civil war is an elaborately staged metaphor for a world consumed by cruelty and war, and goes straight for a guttural revelation at the end. Both movies are wonderful stories of innocence and darkness, but Pan's Labyrinth also creates an entire magical world of fairies, princesses, and satyrs: the extraordinary heights of imagination here gives it one up on Cuarón's fable.

8. There Will Be Blood, 2007
Paul Thomas Anderson's flawed masterpiece about the rise and fall of an ambitious oilman has all the scope and drama of our very best of cinema - Citizen Kane or Intolerance. Daniel Day-Lewis delivers an out-sized performance as well. The film is at once both brilliant and incomplete: the resolution feels a bit off; the score is not quite right; there are moments when you question the choice of editing. Is this rapture, or just the edge of incomprehension? To be great, one must take great chances: Anderson does. That he doesn't quite pull it off shouldn't make this film any less of a triumph.

7. Kill Bill Vols 1 & 2, 2003/4
Has there been a film (or films) like this before or since? Kill Bill is the ultimate expression of Tarantino's entire oeuvre, and all the minor Tarantinos who seek to emulate him: an expression of film history distilled beyond self-reference and irony into a new kind of film form, an entire super-ironic parable of pure style. Tarantino's skills as a film scorer (the music is brilliant) are equally matched by his elaborately staged costume drama. Both became instantly iconic in the culture, and possibly no other film this decade has had as much influence on advertising, art, and culture.

6. Up In the Air, 2009
Though released just in time for the end of the decade, this apparently simple little movie captures our times better than anything has in years. The only comedy on the list, director Reitman has made a career this decade of creating these fun, lighthearted tweaks of our popular culture (Juno, Thank You for Smoking); Up in the Air is his best, and the decade's.

5. Chicago, 2002
Rob Marshal's Chicago won the Oscars for 2002 - the first musical to do so in decades - and deservedly so. The movie is a joy to watch; Marshal's insight was to turn the performances into an expression of Roxie's imagination, thus transforming the theatricality and musicality into something that's uniquely cinematic: which is what so many filmed musicals lack. It also didn't hurt that Fosse's music and book was one of his best.

4. The Reader, 2008
It should have won the Oscars last year. A perfect film that tells a unique story about a German teenager's erotic relationship with a ticket taker with a dangerous Nazi past, and how their lives evolve. There're no missteps here, and the movie gets at questions of loyalty, history, complicity, and morality like few have.

3. Brokeback Mountain, 2005
Another movie that should have won the Oscars. This love story of two tragically star-crossed cowboys, based on an Annie Proulx short story, has all the scope, drama, and flair of any of the greatest of Hollywood screen romances. That Ang Lee's story is about two men, and stars up-and-coming leading man Jake Gyllenhaal, and the now immortalized Heath Ledger, makes it all the more remarkable.

2. Lord of the Rings (trilogy), 2001 - 2003
Peter Jackson seemingly went to New Zealand with a crew of young actors (and veterans Ian McKellan, Ian Holm, and Christopher Lee) and there, discovered cinematic gold. The gold just kept coming for three amazing, iconic movies that set the tone for this decade. Filled with everything that old Hollywood used to do and that we still want from our movies: great storytelling, amazing effects, dramatic scenery, and tales of bravery, valor, friendship, and hearts broken. Any one of the three movies could have won the Oscars, but they knew from the start, the ending would be the best.

1. No Country for Old Men, 2007
No other movie this decade has so perfectly captured our era's sense of dread and foreboding. Based on McCarthy's excellent book and directed by perhaps our most original working directors, the Cohen Brothers, the movie came together as something standing even above the typical work of either of these fine artists. Perhaps the purest of any of this decade's examinations of innocence, complicity, and evil, No Country for Old Men goes a step further, and gives us a sense not only of the heart of darkness, but the toll it takes from us as we try to squeeze a bit of justice out of life, as well.

Up In the Air: A Flawless Dramedy

It seems like such a simple movie: George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, an experienced corporate downsizer (he fires people for a living), who books enough air time traveling from town to town that he’s about ready to be indoctrinated into the highly elite 10 million mile airline club. Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a young bright newbie, is his charge, accompanying him on the road to learn about the intricacies of the downsizing industry (times are booming, after all). That’s basically the set up, and the rest is about how Natalie learns that firing people his more than an abstraction, and how Clooney's Ryan moves past his well-practiced cynicism to reconnect to his family and his feelings.

Simple, yes, but there’s not a single wrong move in this seemingly simple dramedy that’s both intelligent and amusing, and that captures our present culture with a stroke of seeming luck (there’s not a film in recent memory that could claim to be quite this relevant).

The movie is actually relevant on two fronts at once. The consistent firings throughout the movie – which eventually demonstrate the entire range of possible reaction – certainly capture the drama (and sardonic irony) behind the headlines of the past year and a half. But perhaps even more to the point is how well the movie captures not only the life of so-called “road warriors,” but the two kinds of lifestyles that have evolved in our modern world: the corporate career (which seem to be for ambitious people who have personal issues driving them away from their home habitats – and whose personal lives tend to be, well, a bit emptier), and the stay-at-homes, those folks born between the coasts who have never, really, left the nest, whose personal lives are a bit too filled with family obligations and messy relationships, and look at suspicion and disdain at the first group, even as they secretly admire their sophistication and envy their experience.

Ryan and Natalie are clearly in the first group, and the story takes them from airport to airport (we get a birds eye view of each city before they land for the scene); Ryan finds a girlfriend, Natalie learns how to do her first firings (she’s good at it), and the movie heads inexorably to its confrontations. Ryan’s apartment, where he supposedly “lives” (about 45 days of the year) is an empty white box, and his single relationship of significance is with another fellow traveler of the skies (after sex in a random hotel in a random city, they check their laptops to see when their schedules bring them into proximity again for a quick nookie). Natalie has subordinated her own talents in order to follow her boyfriend to Omaha, and doesn’t seem to see a contradiction in wanting a stellar career and an idealized home life at the same time. Both are due for reckonings, and when they come, they are both amusing and satisfying.

The scenes when Ryan travels home to Wisconsin for his little sister’s wedding are perhaps the most outstanding. Here, the movie feels not just well crafted but also knowingly authentic: Ryan gets to revisit his high school, and share his experiences with his girlfriend (Alex – played wonderfully by Vera Farmiga), while he’s also forced to intervene in a family squabble, and use his powers of persuasion to make the case for marriage (a case, it must be said, he doesn’t really much agree with). It’s almost his cue to start over, to shed his life and re-assess the steady cynicism he’s had to adopt, and he’s like a teenager again, once again taking a chance on a crush, and leaving himself vulnerable.

Which is another reason I so like this film. It’s neither sentimental nor completely cynical. Instead, it simply seems wise. It’s also about how adults relate to each other, another treat we don’t so often get to see in films these days.

That’s why even though it may be simple, and essentially a light-hearted comedy, I really think Up in the Air belongs on the list of the best ten movies of the decade. It’s happens to be something that not only captures the zeitgeist of the times – it turns that into a keen observation about life, and about characters who know a lot but still have something more to learn.

But what’s most deft about this film is how well it’s constructed – from the superb acting to the editing, to the choice of cinematic moments, like the nice, understated ending. Like the people who’ve been “let go” by their firms, by the time they reach the end of the story, life for both Ryan and Natalie is “up in the air,” and for the first time, as Ryan looks out the airplane window, all he sees are clouds, his destination obscured from view. It’s a nice touch for ending a movie that throughout, so surely knows where it’s going.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Top Ten Gay Movies Of All Time

Seeing A Single Man prompted a discussion about how it would rank in the pantheon of gay themed movies, so it seemed timely to create this post of the top ten gay themed movies of all time. These aren't meant to be movies that are perennial audience favorites ( conducts an annual poll of those), which would naturally include many smaller films centered on young, good-looking couples, or even the movies that are most important to the evolution of "gay cinema" (such a list would have to include such titles as Boys in the Band, Philadelphia, Parting Glances, Longtime Companion, and Angels in America - none of which are included here. Why? Important movies for how they advanced the portrayal of gays on screen - but formally, as movies standing on their own as cinema, less interesting than those that make my list below).

Rather, I've compiled here a list based strictly on the criteria of how well these films hold up as film they would fare in any list of cinematic top ten. It would be no surprise, then, that most of these movies are more recent: directors and studios have only recently begun creating films featuring characters openly identified as gay that are created with the same level of writing, directing, and acting that one might expect from any Oscar-worthy film.

There are actually so many films worthy of mention, that listing only ten would slight some of the quirkier and possibly most interesting. So I've expanded the list to twenty - consider the first ten mentioned below a bonus.

20. Bad Education, 2004
Pedro Almodovar has been the gay bad boy of Spanish cinema for almost three decades; though most of his movies focus on women on the verge of nervous breakdowns, Bad Education seems to be his most personal film, one that brings the irrepressible Almodovar style to the story of two long-lost fiends who are reacquainted, and recall their youths and churchly pecadillos. This film embraces the kind of interesting turns and flamboyant drama that only an auteur like Almodovar can deliver.

19. Paris Is Burning,1990
The movie that introduced the word "vogueing" into the lexicon, inspiring an entire album of Madonna songs. But Jennie Livingston's documentary of underground drag balls still remains a forceful and authentic exploration of a sub-sub culture.

18. Apartment Zero, 1988
A Hitchcockian thriller set in Argentina (there's a strong echo here of Rope), it explores the theme of gay men as Doppelgangers, murderers, and doubles. Perhaps arriving at a moment when gay consciousness was about to change in film, and thus still being very coded about the characters' sexuality, it nevertheless is a stylish thriller well capturing the spirit of independent cinema of its time.

17. The Birdcage, 1996
The remake of the 1978 film, La Cage Aux Folles (which doesn't hold up nearly as well as our memories of this groundbreaking comedy would wish), the Nineties version staring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane is actually a superb comedy of slapstick and sentimentality. There's not a moment of poor timing in this well-directed comedy that seems to perfectly capture the perilous clash of cultures of the Clinton era.

16. Wild Reeds, 1994
This beautiful French film won several awards but has often been overlooked by gay audiences. It tells a story that may be a little oblique for most (centering on a trio of friends - a classic gay/bi-sexual love triangle - during the French Algerian war), it has more in common with New Wave French cinema than with many of the more accessible gay-themed indies of the Nineties. Yet still one of the most beautiful coming of age films made.

15. My Beautiful Laundrette, 1985
The film that put both Stephen Frears and Daniel Day Lewis on the map. Perhaps one of the best depictions of the confluence of race, sexuality, and politics in the 1980s, it wears a bit with time (no film tackling this subject would get away with so little flesh today), but still evokes its time and place so strongly, it may eventually become one of those films that are completely synonymous with its decade.

14. Elephant, 2003
Largely overlooked by all audiences, Gus Van Sant's lose depiction of the events leading up to the shootings at Columbine high school is a brilliant, haunting deconstruction of nihilistic youth. That van Sant imagines that his homicidal shooters are closet lovers may be a stretch of the truth, yet it ads a powerful psychology to what is otherwise an incomprehensible tragedy.

13. L.I.E., 2001
L.I.E. - for Long Island Expressway, amongst other things - tells the story of a fifteen-year-old boy, getting into trouble, who ends up befriending an older man who just happens to like...fifteen year old boys. Of all the small indie films that fall into this kind of creepy, gay pedophilia genre (in which I put films like Chuck and Buck and Happiness), L.I.E. is the best - and not only because it features a stand-out performance from Brian Cox.

12. Maurice, 1987
The grandiloquent interpretation of the E.M Forster novel by filmmakers Merchant and Ivory has all the sumptuousness one would expect from a Merchant/Ivory production, only the two main characters happen to be of the same sex. A classic of literature that stands up with any other work by Forster or the filmmakers.

11. Another Country, 1984
Yet another film on my list starring Colin Firth (did you find the other two?). A wonderfully told tale of the young Guy Burgess and the tangled web between spying and homosexuality.

10. Beautiful Thing, 1996
This fan favorite often makes the list of the top ten gay films, and deservedly so. In the late Nineties, before the big studios bought the indie houses and turned them into mini-majors, there were dozens of heartfelt independent gay movies made on small budgets for eager audiences, including Trick, Go Fish, Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss, Edge of Seventeen, Velvet Goldmine, Bent, and The Broken Hearts Club. Beautiful Thing deserves to top that list, as this story of two young high school students falling in love has a purity of spirit and easy authenticity that elevates this material beyond mere gay love story.

9. Gods and Monsters, 1998
This late-nineties film staring Brendan Fraser and Ian McKellen won a best screenplay Oscar for writer/director Bill Condon (who gave a great acceptance speech - perhaps the first Oscar speech to acknowledge a gay partner). The film, based on a novel by Christopher Bram, is a remarkable story of an artist haunted by his memories of World War One, who looks for beauty in the ugliness about him (and ugliness in the beauty). A wonderful metaphor for the artist's experience - and perhaps the gay man's as well.

8. Paragraph 175, 2000
Perhaps the best gay documentary ever made, Paragraph 175 explores the Nazi persecution of gays, and uncovers some remarkable interviews with those who lived through the nightmare. This fine film is more than a mere catalog of persecution; we hear what it was like for gays in Germany and neighboring countries before, during, and after the war, and find therein a remarkable culture as well as memorable tales of love, loss, and remembrance.

Just because a movie stars Terrance Stamp, Hugo Weaving, and Guy Pierce as three fierce drag queens on a trip across the country, doesn't mean it's good (just look at the sad American remake, To Wong Fu). What catapults Priscilla to the top of the list are the fine performances and the real sense of abandon and adventure captured by director Stephen Elliott. The costumes were fabulous too (even Oscar noticed that).

6. Priest, 1994
Nominated for best film in three film festivals, this movie tackles the subject of gay sexuality and religion head on and without fear. As relevant today as it was fifteen years ago, Priest delivers a powerful story of a gay man coming to terms with his religion that's both erotic and intelligent.

5. Far From Heaven, 2002
This 2002 confection from gay underground auteur Todd Haynes (who started his career directing Barbie dolls and provided us with the absolutely critically influential gay indie, Poison) has received far too little attention for the real cinematic triumph that it is. This film of eerie, stiffling, 1950's surburbia and the "normal" housewife who uncovers her husband's homosexuality and abandons herself into an affair with an African American from the other side of the tracks is a study in film form, and has influenced culture since in ways uncountable - from "True Blood" to "Mad Men."

4. A Single Man, 2009
Tom Ford does more than create pretty pictures here - he develops a film of heightened style from Christopher Isherwood's melancholy novel of lost love. Both a salute to the Italian Cinematic style of Bertolluci, and a kind of glossy, 1960's-era men's cologne commercial, A Single Man is sad and sexy, as well as a powerful statement about the meaning of mature, gay relationships.

3. Boys Don't Cry, 1999
It won Hillary Swank her Oscar, but this movie was more than a star vehicle. The story of Brandon Teena, a transgendered teen born female who preferred life as a male, this fictional account of a true story carried the weight of real drama, as well as that unforgettable performance.

2. Milk, 2008
The second movie by Gus Van Sant to make the list, Milk is a fully realized film that's about both the coming of age of a gay man, and of a political movement. More than any other gay film, Milk fully integrates a portrayal of the gay experience and a very personal love story into a dramatic recreation of the culture and history that now informs every gay person's life.

1. Brokeback Mountain, 2005
Lauded with accolades the world over, it should have won the 2005 Oscar Best Picture. Ang Lee's powerful portrayal of two closeted cowboys discovering their love for each other in the 1960's west is as big a movie as any of the Hollywood greats, and filled in every way with standout elements - from that amazing score, to the bountiful cinematography, to the gossip-worthy backstories of on-set romance, to the breakout performance by Heath Ledger. And let's not forget that breathtaking ending, when Ennis finally places Jack's shirt over his own, as if hanging in eternal embrace. A classic tearjerker, and though not nearly as politically aware as Milk, it's a film that certainly speaks to all audiences, as the very best of movies do.

A Single Man: Stylish Melancholy

Tom Ford's A Single Man - based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood - opens with scenes of a svelte, naked male body, turning luxuriously, anxiously, underwater. It might be a scene for a cologne commercial, except the body seems less an object of desire than a signal of anxiety. Desirable, yes, but also, perhaps, struggling against death.

The next scene illustrates that feeling more definitely: a car accident on a snowy road. A handsome young man has been thrown out of the car, as has a dog - a black and white terrier. Both appear to be dead. A man walks towards the dead man in the car, slowly leans over, and with tremendous tenderness, he kisses him.

The two scenes establish firmly what is to follow, both narratively and visually. The man who is bending over the dead body is George Falconer (Colin Firth), an English teacher at a small, Southern California college in 1962. The dead body is his lover of sixteen years (an ex marine named Jim, now an architect, who lives with George in their fabulously sparse modern home). And the dog, of course, is their dog. The scene is a dream - a kind of farewell - and when George wakes up, he's still in his life, and mourning terribly. There's also another dog, that's gone missing, but Jim's family (whom he was visiting that fateful night) know nothing about it: nor do they know about George, or wish to.

The dead lover would be sad enough, but somehow, the dead dog makes the scene particularly if to emphases not only the totality of everything George has lost, but the purity of it, as well.

What follows is a test of George's will - his will to live, or not live, with the loss of everything so dear. He goes about his job teaching English at the college, and he takes solace with this close friend from England - a woman named Charlie (Julianne Moore), with whom he slept years ago and who still desires him, and has demons of her own.

But like the opening, the story unfolds with the same slick style and studied pace of the most heightened exploration of culture. Perhaps what amazes me most about the film is that Ford is able to find so many great LA sets of mid-century modernism: not only that great house, but the buildings on campus, a bank, a bar, even Charlie's garishly decorated and quaffed arie. The sets here would give "Mad Men" a run for its money, but Ford doesn't limit his sense of style to the decor...there's also the editing, the use of color and light, everything one might expect from the slickest of commercials.

This strength is also, I'm afraid, the movie's weakness. The technique Ford uses to saturate the color of the film whenever George gets a whiff of the life, or lust, of the world around him - that tempts him to come back to life - is lovely, at first, but eventually overused. The same might be said of certain plot devices, like a gun that George carries around, hoping to find a chance to use on himself. Yet Ford has also captured the stylish introspection of the best of Italian cinema, recreating moments from George's life with Jim with just the right degree of nostalgia and romance (even though, at times, their relationship may be a bit too of the hazards of great style), and the scene of his dinner with Charlie, where they both analyze each other's problems over wine and culture, has a breezy authenticity that could come straight of '60's European New Wave cinema.

And even though the movie's ending - which happens suddenly, and carries great symbolism - is unnecessary, even deflating, the film is a great triumph for first-time auteur Ford. It's both sexy and sad, and illustrates with powerful simplicity a committed adult gay marriage, even in the conservative, stylish 1960's, when such a term was rarely applied, or respected. Firth and Moore are both excellent (I wouldn't be surprised if this performance garners Firth an Oscar nomination), as is the supporting cast. It's hard to think of another film like it - that takes a long-term adult gay relationship as a given, and builds from that a story of a completely imagined world. It may be a bit un-polished, but it's still a nice little gem.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Avatar: Cameron's Long-Awaited Metaphor

The basics about Avatar have already been said: it's essentially a politically correct story of indigenous populations rising against the American military machine...only on another world, with high-tech machinery to transport our damaged, young marine hero, Jake Scully (played by a witheringly thin Sam Worthington) into a powerful, alien body on a colorful world of super spectacular graphical effects.

Which is all basically correct. Or to sum it up thusly - Avatar is a pill of politically correct revenge fantasy, wrapped in a colorful, psychedelic mushroom of graphical animation wizardry.

Which is to say that Avatar probably has more in common with Inglourious Basterds than with Dancing With Wolves or Pocahontas (though it certainly shares a zeitgeist with all three). Both Avatar and that Basterds movie imagine the underdog engaged in a violent, satisfying revenge against their oppressors (in Avatar, the Na'Vis are kind of an amalgam of indigenous peoples everywhere - 75% American Indian, but a good portion Palestinian, Druid, and Aborigine as well. In Basterds, the underdogs are just good old Jews).

But what's perhaps more interesting about Avatar to me is how it brings into focus Cameron's long but seemingly disparate career - from Aliens and Terminator through The Abyss, with a detour on the Titanic. Avatar, over a decade in the making, picks up and combines themes from all those movies - the nerdy gallantry of science from The Abyss, the primordial logic of survival of the fittest from Aliens, the implacable, unstoppable force of Terminator, and even the romance and physical joy in the face of mortality of Titanic. In a way, then, Avatar is Cameron's most realized film: a complete world where all these themes toss against each other as Jake, our hero, goes on his journey from disabled jar-head to physically imposing Aboriginal leader.

That journey is a bit predictable, and our viewing party was pretty much twenty minutes ahead of the plot the whole way through (we even predicted one of the lines - when Sam's instructor in the Avatar, Grace, goes out with the phrase "I've got to get a sample"). There's no subtly lost in the story, but then, the editing here is probably the best I've seen of any movie in 2009, so there's not a single wasted moment, either. Sam's DNA is a match for his brother, a member of a science party who transport themselves into Avatars, or created bodies able to live on the alien world of Pandora. The human scientists are able to operate these blue bodies by remote control in order to live among and interact with the native population - the Na'vis. Sam's brother has died, so Sam is recruited to take his place - Cameron takes us through the set up quickly and with breezy humor from two of my favorite actors, Sigourney Weaver and Giovani Ribisi (who plays the factory foreman who's there on Pandora to look for a valuable mineral - "unobtanium"). Ribisi's character is backed up by some pretty heavy duty military machinery, personalized in the imposing personage of Colonel Quaritch, who ends up becoming, naturally, Jake's ultimate nemesis. I'd have preferred it if they'd simply called the mineral they were all searching for "MacGuffin-anium," since that's all it is, but Cameron knows how to sweat the details, here: the data-rich consoles and desktops the science team operate clearly resemble the computers and screens in Cameron's own 3D effects shop - and both sets of machines are able to produce some pretty impressive effects.

Which brings us to the other interesting aspect of the movie: the 3D. This was personally very hard for me to watch (and probably what disappointed me most). There's no real field of vision in the 3D (the camera thoroughly drives areas of focus), so areas of the screen I usually look at were out of focus, and my eyes were constantly being forced to watch the colorful lights or bright action, when that's not how I usually view a movie. It was actually a bit painful and disorienting - especially at first. And I think Cameron intended this. In essence, by putting on the 3D glasses, we're entering our own Avatar: the avatar of Cameron's movie. (Yes, Avatar is its own Avatar.) Not to carry this too far, but this is why I disagree with those critics who say that delivering a fable about the natural world using high-tech gadgetry is disingenuous. Quite the opposite: what Cameron has done here is to Re-create the natural world using technology, the way the Avatar recreates the experience of movement for Jake. Both worlds are, actually, a kind of science fakery (although in Jake's world, he's offered the possibility of transcendence at the end).

That recreation, the dream of the movie (and the dream of Pandora), are both meant to be experienced as if they were real...just as Jake learns to experience his time with the Na'vis, we learn to experience Cameron's world of cinematic wizard on the screen. The movie wants us to fall in to the technology, to get used to the glasses and effects the way Jake gets used to his new body. In this way, then, Cameron seems to be saying that the lessons we learn from the movie are not all that different - and perhaps just as real - as those learned by his hero.

Which may be a good thing. The movie's lesson is simple - as is the experience that Jake (and we, the audience) are taken through. After being thought of only as a moron all his life, the Na'vis treat Jake as having the potential to be a man, and they challenge him to really be all he can be. There's little doubt that over this long and luxurious lesson, filled with spinning, psychedelically colored pinwheels, flying dragons, and a world whose entire nervous system is interconnected, that Jake's allegiances won't dramatically shift. The real question is whether ours will. Is this lesson that Cameron wishes to impart on the mass audience - that in our rapaciousness, our country truly damages the meaningful connections of the civilizations we destroy - is this lesson really learned by the audiences flocking to see Avatar this season?

My sense is, probably not, though maybe some are. Which to me, is a good thing. After all, some of the most beautiful and powerful lessons we ever learn are the simple ones.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Brothers: Bringing the War Home

There are two war movies out this season – The Hurt Locker, and Brothers – and really, after watching Brothers, I have to wonder if we, the American people, don’t owe at least one of them a Best Picture Oscar in February. I know that Brothers, at least, should be a contender.

It sounds like an odd thing to say, but the war in Afghanistan is now the longest war in American history – headed into its eight year – and with even more troops headed over in the next two years, it’s remarkable how absent this battle has been from our consciousness, and our popular culture. Sure, it makes a great backdrop for a mindless summer blockbuster like Transformers. But unlike Viet Nam, say, the war has had very little effect on either our counter-culture or our consciousness.

Brothers may seem like the less obvious choice to intro with a paean to American sentimentality or supporting our troops. And it’s true that this drama mostly takes place in the safe, middle-class suburban landscape of the some unidentified western burg (with only about thirty minutes of B footage of Sam Cahill, played by Toby Maguire, serving his rotation through the Taliban-infested mountains of Afghanistan, scattered throughout). But it’s the psychological effect of this war on both the troops and the families at home which this movie wishes to deeply investigate: and that effect, in the end, is one that this movie clearly takes on by focusing both on the ordinary-seeming dynamics Twenty-First Century American middle-class psychology in confrontation with the stark moral choices poised by a serious war of cultures.

Which is to say, Brothers is a movie that sneaks up on you – that at first seems like a fairly by-the-book family drama about two brothers (Sam, the good older brother, who joins the army and does his duty, and Tommy, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, as the opposite: the rascally younger brother, who’s been in jail for assault and robbery and has no respect for his life) – yet it reveals itself, with a somewhat sudden intensity, to be really something else entirely, a movie about how a veteran survives the ravages of a war that our society seems barely prepared to confront.

The set up to the movie in fact almost seems too pat. Sam is a very good brother, wound tight and burdened with high expectations, as well as a family that depends on him, misses him, and has little understanding for what obligates him to return to the war time after time. Tommy is the very bad brother, who snarls at their father, leers at Sam’s lovely wife Grace (played by a suddenly mature Natalie Portman), and generally skulks around, being sultry, sexy and powerful yet not much help to anyone as his brother leaves his family yet one more time. We can see where this set-up is going, and for a good hour, it pretty much does: Sam is tested under fire, and this good brother is headed for a crack-up, while his counterpart at home (his dobbleganger, one might say) begins to clean up his act – headed in the opposite trajectory – and becoming more attractive to Grace, Sam’s loyal but clearly sensual wife.

Jim Sheridan directs these three (along with Sam Shephard, as the father) with a kind of actor’s studio quality – which gets some fine acting and performances from the ensemble, yet also at times feels a bit too informal, as if the crew were about to break character and needed to try another take. In a way, this style forces you a bit out of the story and into the subtleties of the acting, so the informality to the direction may be intentional, even if it seems slightly sloppy at time. In the end, however, Sheridan coaxes some absorbing performances from Maguire and Gyllenhaal. Both are quite remarkable, their performances almost riding above the surface of the film. While we’ve seen such stand-out performance from Gyllenhaal before (his work in Brokeback Mountain was perhaps unfairly eclipsed by Heath Ledger), this is the first real standout acting I’ve seen from Maguire, catapulting him past his Spiderman boyishness and into the realm of truly interesting leading men. Actually, one of the most enjoyable things about this movie is seeing three iconic child actors finally take the stage as our new leading adult thespians (which is no doubt part of the logic in Portman’s decision to produce the movie).

However, about two-thirds into the film, the movie makes a most daring move: it doesn’t just tweak Sam’s wound up nature, it shatters it completely, when Sam, under the pressure of captivity, makes a single decision that will change his life forever. This break is a courageous thing to do in any story – because afterwards, there are so many dangerous shards that need to be picked up for the story to work. Brothers goes through the heavy lifting of picking up those shards, and in the process, becomes much more of a movie than it seemed to be setting out to be.

When Sam returns home, there are so many ways in which this movie could veer into cliché, yet Brothers steers clear of all of them. What we end up getting are a series of about six amazing scenes, including a dinner scene when Sam’s elder daughter, clearly feeling out her own psychological dark depths, says just the precise thing to precipitate the danger that Sam now poses to his family.

All of this is observed with remarkable insight. The well acted setup that has come before is nothing compared to the explosive denouement that awaits, and in the end, we realize that what has been haunting this entire family for generations are the truths of war too terrible to be uttered. Brothers finally utters those truths…and even if you’ve let thoughts of our eight-year war glide past in the background, or buried on some distant news channel, I challenge you to forget this movie easily.