Favorite Discoveries of 2008

Things are just the same as they always were, only, you’re the same as you were, too, so I guess things will never be the same again.

-Lucy (Irene Dunne), to her soon-to-be ex-husband Jerry (Cary Grant) in Leo McCarey’s witty, marriage-themed comedy, The Awful Truth

I see a healthy number of films each year, and I enjoy most of them on some level. At the end of the year though, those that come to mind are those that I want to come back to, the films that I can look at and say: you’re that same as you always were, so I guess things will never be the same again. I am thinking of those films that change the way I look at the world or propel me toward greater love and kindness in relationships, those that make me reconsider my commitments or capture something beautiful, true or good. Here are ten discoveries this year that fit that category for me:

3 Bad Men (Ford, 1926)
John Ford’s first masterpiece, this silent film shows early in his career his gift for mythologizing the American west. He brings together melodrama and comedy in such a seamless fashion as the film takes on an epic stature during the lead-up to the Dakota land rush. Here too we see one of the earliest instances in Ford of his “good-bad men” characters, tainted heroes who serve justice and the community even as they remain outside both.

The Awful Truth (McCarey, 1937)
I quoted it above, and its clever, quick-hitting dialogue immediately makes this an enjoyable comedy about a couple on the way to getting a divorce. However, what most impresses me about the film is its commitment to its moral vision—imbuing the marriage of these two selfish people with an almost sacramental reverence, a point that becomes most clear in the film’s final moments.

To Be or Not to Be (Lubitsch, 1942)
Many years ago I saw The Shop Around the Corner and knew that were I in the mood for good comedy, I could trust director Ernst Lubitsch. Sadly, it took me all those years to see another, and this was simply magnificent. The writing is stellar, while the timing and delivery rarely misfire. However, I loved most the deft alternating between screwball comedy and the dark themes of its 1942 Poland locale. Lubitsch, in following this Polish acting troupe as its members attempt to mount resistance to the Nazi invaders, wants us to laugh all the way through, yet never forget the harsh realities of the time.

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Black Narcissus (Powell & Pressberger, 1947)
Black Narcissus marks my first exposure to the directing team of Powell & Pressberger, and I suspect I’ll track down as many of their films as possible in the near future. A story of a small group of nuns traveling to the Himalayas to open a school, the film possesses a profoundly spiritual quality to it, delving into the pursuit of true purity, the roots of evil and discouragement, and most significantly, what it means to humbly serve a people in the name of Christ.

Out of the Past (Tourneur, 1947)
Out of the Past possesses all the key elements of a quintessential film noir—the dame (Jane Greer) in distress who’s more dangerous than she appears, the hard-boiled loner (Robert Mitchum) trying to rise above the corruption, the slick businessman (Kirk Douglas) who really does believe money buys anything, and of course there’s that style—beautiful black and white photography, lonely barrooms and hilltop houses, and dialogue that suggests stores of never-ending confidence or masks deep-seated fears. Director Jacques Tourneur’s mise en scène creates a visual tension that works well in this kind of film–two people talk in a cafe while a mysterious third listens in the background; two lovers meet on a beach near fishing boats and nets, hoping not to get caught; and so on. We wonder as the film rolls on whether Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey can rise above his past, whether he can actually start anew, and all the while a church sits silently in the background of the small town, leaving us wondering if it has anything to offer this poor lost soul.

Early Summer (Ozu, 1951)
I really need to see more Ozu. Every time I see one of his films, I am amazed by the way he uses simple, everyday occurrences among families to create deeply moving stories. The rich characterizations add depth, but Ozu’s camera in particular has a way of capturing the interaction between family members that can emphasize the connectedness they have with one another while subtly revealing the fault lines that threaten to separate them. I especially appreciate Early Summer for its comic handling of his common, familial theme, yet he does so without compromising the emotional depth of their relationships.

I Vitelloni (Fellini, 1953)
I caught up on early Fellini this year, and while I enjoyed them all, I Vittelloni was my favorite of the bunch. It’s quiet and unassuming narrator drifts through the film, often put upon but rarely standing up for himself. Instead, his loud and boisterous friends require constant attention as they get themselves entangled in various troubles. Fellini is just so good at capturing the passions of youth, in all their fleeting joy, but also in the inevitable pain that follows. The ending here, as in most of his 50s films, expresses the poignance and heartache of life in the modern world.

The Sun Shines Bright (Ford, 1953)/ Judge Priest (Ford, 1934)
These are John Ford’s two films based on a series of Judge Priest stories, set in late 19th century Kentucky. The 1934 Will Rogers film is simply delightful, filled with comedy and surprising pathos. However, the lesser-known later film from 1953, starring Charles Winninger, was my favorite viewing experience of the year. The story finds Priest in the midst of a re-election campaign, thus much comedy comes out of him trying to drum up support. However, Ford’s portrayal of the town as a splintered little society, with its drunken failures, judgmental prudes, and people of competing interests. Priest, as a respected citizen, stands in the midst of all this, and finds himself in the role of chief mediator—everyone comes to him to solve their problems, but with a close election expected, he may not be good enough to lead them any longer. As the film follows Priest, we see a story of an aging man, looking out at a town that has largely passed him by, but one that still desperately needs him. His wisdom, courage, and sly sense of humor make Priest one of my favorite characters in film. I would be remiss were I not to mention the film’s formal control, expressed best in its climax. This includes what to my mind is the greatest sequence in any Ford film: a funeral procession that proceeds largely without dialogue for several minutes, ending with a sermon at the church. The poetry of Ford’s cinema is never clearer than in this scene—beautiful and humane.

The Conversation (Coppola, 1974)
The movie Coppola made between the first two Godfather movies, I probably prefer it to both of those more championed films. It’s less epic, to be sure, but its ideas seem more complex. Here we have a man who believes that in secretly recording a conversation, he can discover the truth about the two people he tapes. But as he continues to listen, this simplistic notion of truth begins to disintegrate, causing him to lose his confidence in technology, and ultimately himself. What began as a simple contract job becomes a life-altering event. Coppola’s sound design is always interesting here, as the film uses snippets of the original taped conversation throughout the film to communicate the break-up of this man’s mind. It continues to stand as a profound and surprisingly contemporary commentary on modern society.

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Satantango (Tarr, 1994)
I finally caught up with Bela Tarr’s seven-and-a-half hour masterpiece, and it was everything I’d hoped it would be. Grim, yes, but somehow, through watching the bleak existence of a small group of people, the film reveals some spark, something truly human. Allowing space for more than tragedy, Tarr finds moments for laughter, celebration, and compassion as well. Tarr’s lengthy shots encourage contemplation, and as the human condition plays itself out in this film, there is much to consider about how we see ourselves in these people and how we react to the kinds of people portrayed in this film.

Other discoveries this year: Cat People (Tourneur, 1942), Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford, 1939), They Were Expendable (Ford, 1945), Laura (Preminger, 1944), The Namesake (Nair, 2006)

Since my quotient of recently released movies has dropped off drastically post-progeny, here are five movies from 2007 that I especially enjoyed. Yes, that’s how far behind I am. But who’s complaining?

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(Check back here on January 1, 2010 for my favorite films of 2008!!)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Domink, 2007)
Full disclosure: I was put off by the title and avoided this for a while. But once the film began, I was in. Dominik is going for something poetic and the beautiful images cause a number of people to make comparisons to Malick. I call all such comments bunk. Rather, it seems that the film stumbles in its narration, which was too intrusive, too focused on spelling out feelings and events, and in the process pulls the viewer away from the more visceral elements that have been built up by the visuals and the editing. That said, I really did like it. The film admirably plays with the notion of tragedy, prodding us to examine our own reactions to the events of James’ life, and Ford’s place in it.

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Away From Her (Polley, 2007)
I’ve liked Sarah Polley for some time—yes, I’m thinking of you, The Sweet Hereafter—even as she starred in movies that didn’t always utilize her gifts as an actress—yes, I’m thinking of you, Go. But even as a fan, I was blown away by the confidence and sensitivity in her feature film debut about an aging couple dealing with the wife’s Alzheimer’s disease. While the performances shine, it’s the writing and directing I found so invigorating—a willingness to avoid spelling out every little feeling, to have characters say just enough and leave the rest to expression, tone, and the like. Plus, the camera seems to have a voice of its own, through expressive framing, mise en scène, and tracking shots.

I’m Not There (Haynes, 2007)
This Dylan biopic seemed to leave people in one of three camps: loved it, hated it, or confused by it. Consider me in the loved it category. Once I had heard six different actors were portraying Dylan, I gave up all expectations of narrative coherence, instead opting to sit back, enjoy the music, and let the film make its impressions where it would. It’s better, I think, to conceive of this film like a poem—connections between scenes remain opaque, while the vision of Dylan becomes less a historical narrative and more like a piece of music, suggesting emotions and ideas but refusing to put them together into a simple or straightforward narrative.

Lars and the Real Girl (Gillespie, 2007)
The one that most moved me among these “new” films, Lars takes a ridiculous idea for a plot and creates something surprisingly gentle and touching. Gosling’s sensitive portrayal of the withdrawn Lars certainly contributes to that, but I most appreciated the extended reflection on the goodness of his community, both at church and in the wider world. Even as it strained credulity in the closing scenes, I didn’t care, because Lars does something few films these days even attempt: it portrays goodness and offers a vision of what it might actually look like in the world, how it might soothe the pains of modern life and offer something akin to resurrection for those life seems to have passed by.

Manufactured Landscapes (Baichwal, 2007)
I was taken in immediately, during the nearly ten-minute opening tracking shot through that colossal Chinese factory. Based on the photography of Edward Burtynsky, the film examines the effects of manufacturing on the geography of our world. Instead of limestone caves and snow-capped peaks, Burtynsky shoots the gaping remains of iron quarries and mountains of discarded computer chips in Chinese villages, leaving us to think about not only what the endless consumption of products does to the land and sea, but also its impact on the hungry and poor around the world.

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