May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
January 6, 2010
At the end of every year, film critics everywhere engage in conversations and debates about the films that inspired them and disappointed them, striving to determine which were “the best.”
This quest for “the best” It brings out the best in some: They inspire more adventurous moviegoing through their zealous celebrations of their favorites. It brings out the worst in others, who make their arguments as if there is a clear and objective way to rank cinematic achievements, and then argue as if their conclusions are the One True View.
At Filmwell, we’re aware that each person’s experience with a movie is different. We come to the theater with different interests and different experiences that will cause us to receive images and stories with personal particularity.
Lists can be fun – I personally enjoy the process of comparing and contrasting, because it makes me look closer and reflect on films after the initial buzz has burned off. But it can be daunting to assess and describe a whole film in a few paragraphs, as if we’re trying to write a definitive travel guide to a strange city that we’ve only just begun to explore. And to do so for a year’s worth of movies, especially when some of us see hundreds ever year… it’s rather ridiculous if you think much about it.
What is more, the process can complicate a person’s experience of a movie. If we go in to a high-rated movie, our expectations are probably high, and that might interfere with seeing the film for what it is. Filmwell’s Michael Leary told me that he’s concerned about how “list-making fosters the commodification of our cinema experiences, in that it tends to force us to evaluate all these great experiences as consumers ranking their taste-tested preferences.”
So we thought we’d take this opportunity to share something a little different, a little more personal. We challenged ourselves to share a few scenes that have stayed with us, that have impressed us either for their formal distinctions or for – if I may quote Ebert again – their “elevating” qualities. Or maybe they just provoked a hearty laugh.
For me, some of those moments occurred in films that I might not necessarily put at the top of my “favorite movies of the year” list. But it doesn’t matter: Sometimes one moment can make a whole film worthwhile. I can remember a moment in Douglas McGrath’s adaptation of Emma – the version that starred Gwyneth Paltrow – in which a careless word at a social gathering struck one of the characters like a gunshot, and I felt that pain so sharply that this rather forgettable film ended up making a difference in my life. And while I cherish Andrei Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo, there is one moment that exists apart from the rest of the film in my memory, an unexpected rush of wind across a field that nearly lifted me out of my seat. It was something like what Moses must have felt walking an ordinary path on an ordinary day and stumbling onto a blazing bush that would not go up in smoke: a moment of experiencing a profound mystery.
To play with a line from Ratatouille: Not every film is extraordinary. But extraordinary cinematic experiences can occur in the middle of just about any kind of movie.
In the next few days, we’ll share with you a few moments that we’ll carry like souvenirs from 2009. And we’d encourage you to share some of your own, so we have the chance to discover them too.
– Jeffrey Overstreet
Even a torrent of inside historical and political references could not dislodge me from the edge of my seat. This a film on crack. The constantly moving, surprising, playful, knowing, camerawork and cutting is a roller coaster that never leaves the track. Sheer joy in the journey pushed back the hopelessly complex and confusing backstory of Italian corruption to hold me spellbound. The imagined confessional where the title character, seven-time Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, explains that one has to commit a certain amount of evil to do any great good left me close to hyperventilating. New Year’s Resolution: bone up on postwar Italian politics and then plant myself in front of the torrent again.
This film offers a plainspoken yet discreet perspective of the inner and outer journeys of a pair of individuals — and a nation. The latter moves from background to foreground in a scene where a character we just met and never really get to know looks right into the camera and recites a long poem. Ordinarily, such a “in your face” statement of themes implicit in a film can cut the legs from beneath it. But I was swept up by this poem, by the poet, by the nation, by the embarassing openness — I found it all so unexpectedly moving. “No poetry after Auschwitz,” goes the saying. Maybe poetry is all we can have, after Auschwitz, in speaking of the otherwise unspeakable.
Another film where the foreground is a matter of working toward what is in the background — in a way that is perhaps less round-about than it at first may seem. This film had me from the over-the-shoulder shot of Juan, held in his seat by Sica the dog, under interogation by beer-bellied mechanic Don Heber. (The deal was sealed a few shots later as Juan watched Don and his dog eating cereal together.) A second choice for favorite scene here is the long black screen accompanied by audio from Enter the Dragon.)
The tour-de-farce discourse on law and language that marks the climax of this film’s deadpan entangling and disentangling of these categories took my breath away. Cristi, the cop, is on the receiving end of a “by the Book” lecture from his boss, and resists the comically-labored conclusion that abstract universal rule is more sacred than practical human particularity, when it comes to either legalistic or linguistic matters. My second favorite debating partner for Cristi in this film is his wife, who is some kind of expert on linguistics, or at least grammar, and has the difficult task of helping her very practical husband see why the poet insists on mediating his feelings with image rather than just stating them as matters of fact.
Taking pride in our sunset shots involves taking credit for Someone else’s work. But for this one I will acknowledge an extra measure of credit for Ramin Bahrini, who ordinarily wields such a smooth, organic camera that you hardly even notice it — except here, in the only “pretty” shot of this film. I wanted to stare at it forever, perhaps less for its beauty than as an infinite space that might hold the emotions I needed to channel at that point in the film. I was nearly as awed to realize that with this film, the kid (an American born director of Iranian parantage) was calling out the old gunslinger, Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian director to beat, whose classic Taste of Cherry features a guy driving around looking for somebody to help him kill himself. Whether cherries or sunsets are sufficient answers to “the one truly serious philosophical problem” is another serious philosophical problem, but I do know I left this film grateful to be alive, and for life.
Almost nothing happens in the films of Albert Serra, at least if we’re talking about plot, leaving room for something to happen that has nothing to do with plot. Birdsong patiently follows the Three Kings on their quest for the Christ child, three comic, fallible, persistant magi searching earnestly through a landscape that is all foreground: there is only the archetypal search and the material reality of their setting. This collision of the ultra-naturalistic and the ultra-symbolic comes to a climax in the scene with the Holy Family, where Mary cradles a literal Lamb in her arms (at one point the creature pees on the Mother of God!) Bringing together the poles of figurative and literal in this sequence absolutely took off the top of my head (not literally, thankfully, but still): for it is precisely this short-circuiting flash that is the Incarnation, the embodyment of the Word or Idea into Flesh. It’s what I need most from art, and desperately seek, hopefully as faithfully as Serra’s own wise men, and am so incredibly grateful, like they, to find.
How’s that saying go? Something about the days being long, the years being short? That typically applies to raising children (and it’s true), but it was just applicable to my movie-watching this year. Sadly, I think I only saw 5 or 6 movies in the theatre this year. Which is probably not something a film blogger should admit, but it’s the truth. Suffice to say, my list of scenes is going to be short… very short.
Of all the movies I saw this year, only one has any scenes that really stick with me. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the other movies I saw — the geek in me loved Star Trek, for example, but I wouldn’t say anything therein stuck with me once the coolness and appreciation for J.J. Abrams’ effort had cooled. No, it was Ponyo, the latest from Hayao Miyazaki, that stuck with me. Which, if you’ve read any of my Filmwell columns, shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Now, on my Miyazaki meter, Ponyo falls somewhere in the middle — but even middling Miyazaki is ten times better than the best that most directors can produce. And Ponyo boils down to one scene for me. It’s not when the ocean is at the height of its magic-induced mayhem, or when Ponyo and Sōsuke make their way through the flooded primordial landscape. It occurs when Ponyo is sitting at Sōsuke’s table and is attempting to drink a cup of tea and hold onto a towel at the same time. As she gulps down the beverage, the towel slips more and more until it falls off her shoulder. It’s such a trivial little detail but I was fascinated because who takes the time to animate a falling towel? Miyazaki does, and I love him all the more for it.
Jeffrey Overstreet watches far too many movies, writes film reviews and two weekly columns for ChristianityTodayMovies.com, maintains the Web site LookingCloser.org, contributes to Paste Magazine, and is at work on a series of novels. He works at Seattle Pacific University.