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The Unmentionables

The end of my spring semester was so hectic this year that I quite forgot about transitioning into summer and reflecting back on my best experiences of the past few months until the time was upon me (well, a little more than that even, if we’re being honest). Then, as I assembled a list of my favorite viewing experiences of the year so far, I noticed something rather odd: I’ve hardly said a word about any of them here at Moviegoings. I mean, it was a busy semester, but come on. Well, that is precisely the sort of oversight that this post is designed to rectify. So for starters, and in no particular order, here are my top ten favorite movies of the spring:

This Is Spinal Tap

Coraline

Synecdoche, New York

Shotgun Stories

Smile

Radio Days

Frozen River

Frost/Nixon

Crimes and Misdemeanors

The Third Man

With the exception of Coraline, which I reviewed upon its release, and The Third Man, which was one of the films I covered in my recent essay on evil in noir, I’ve hardly said a word about any of these films. I was thoroughly pleased at the chance to revisit The Third Man and discover an immense appreciation for it. I “saw” it once before several years ago at the end of a long day, and I’m certain that I was asleep during long portions of it. It is a flawless film, both in style and in substance, that I expect to come back to again and again. Joseph Cotten (one of my favorite actors) and Orson Welles deliver amazing performances, and director Reed makes glorious use of light and shadow amid the amazing backdrop of war-torn Vienna. The result, to my mind, rivals the often-praised Citizen Kane in technique.

On the lighter side, I finally got around to seeing This Is Spinal Tap, oddly the only Christopher Guest mockumentary I had never experienced. It’s take on the lives of a fading rock band had me rolling on the floor, laughing hysterically. Seriously, not a good movie to watch if anyone in the house is trying to sleep. I was also vastly amused and entertained by the 1975 satire on beauty pageants Smile, featuring (among others) Bruce Dern, Barbara Feldon, and a very young Melanie Griffith. I highly recommend, particularly to anyone that has enjoyed Little Miss Sunshine or Drop Dead Gorgeous.

Far less comedic (though it has its moments) is Charlie Kaufman’s amazing directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, which features a great cast and a mind-bending story conceit. Leave it to Kaufman to venture into uncharted cinematic territory in order to deliver his own brand of thought-provoking ruminations on the meaning of life. The film was shockingly ignored at Oscar time, and I can only presume from this omission and from the nature of the big winner of the night that this was not a year to be challenging or original.

Meanwhile, this marks the year where I finally “discovered” Woody Allen. I had seen a few of his lesser offerings at one time or another, but I couldn’t really get into most of them. And, after all, the guy has been cranking out roughly a film a year for the past four decades. It takes a little effort to even begin scratching the surface. I still have a lot to see, but I’m already having a great time with the little that I’ve experienced. My two favorites so far have been Radio Days and Crimes and Misdemeanors, a comedy and a drama, respectively. Radio Days is nostalgia-inducing hymn to the glories of America before television, and as a longtime fan of all sorts of old radio programs, I loved it. Even better, though, was Crimes and Misdemeanors, which asks a lot of questions about doing good and doing evil, some easy, some far less easy, and challenges the audience to come up with their own answers.

On the independent front I was also challenged and moved by Shotgun Stories and Frozen River. The former offers a grim examination of the cyclical nature of violence as it tracks the escalation of a feud between two sets of half-brothers after the death of the father they all share. The latter tells a harrowing story about poor Americans struggling to get by on the margins of society as it follows a desperate mother who turns to the dangerous but lucrative practice of ferrying illegal immigrants across the border from Canada in order to provide for herself and her two sons.

Last, but not least, there is my favorite of the Oscar best picture nominees this year (which never had the ghost of a prayer to win): Frost/Nixon. Who knew that a film based on a stage play based on a series of decades-old television interviews could be so thrilling and compelling? I am told that the story’s central conceit (that Frost wrenched an admission of guilt out of a recalcitrant Nixon in the final session) is based on, at best, a misconception. That’s good to know, but I wasn’t expecting much in the way of literal historical fidelity anyway. I still feel that the film manages to capture the essential spirit of the time (both that time and this one, in a way), and I felt that on the whole it was very well done. I’m anxious to see it again.

Honorable Mentions:

Love and Death

Here’s another Allen movie that a really enjoyed, and it serves as the perfect illustration of one of the things I appreciate most about his movies. Namely, that even when they seem light and inconsequential, as does this zany parody of great 19th-century Russian works by authors like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, there is often a weight ideas at work in the background that is well-worth paying attention to, and always the feeling of a smart, highly literate intelligence pulling the strings that makes it all worthwhile.

The Reader

There is a lot going on in The Reader that works to obscure both its cinematic excellence and the impact of its message about the banality of evil, the impressionability of youth, and the incredible power of both literacy and literature. This is a shame, as it will prevent many people from ever seeing it, and prevent many of those who do see it from fully engaging with the ideas in play. I found it to be a more-than-slightly depressing journey that was probably more graphic than it needed to be (although its core sense of morality is rock-solid), and it took me a few days to really absorb the full impact of what it had to say. With that in mind, I think it should be approached thoughtfully and with caution by viewers who are prepared for the experience. Perhaps I will be one of those viewers again at some point in the future. Meanwhile, it did challenge me to revisit and reconsider The English Patient, which I did not care for at all the first time through.

The Duchess

I was completely shocked by how much I enjoyed this film, which appeared at first glance to be a thoroughly-conventional bodice-ripping period piece. Quite apart from the fact that the film’s production design was absolutely gorgeous throughout, I was impressed by the superior performances on display. Even more, though, I was delighted by the film’s stubborn refusal to cheapen itself by lionizing its heroine and vilifying her husband, opting instead for a rich, multi-dimensional take on these characters and their lives. Top marks for successfully navigating an often-mediocre genre.

12 Monkeys

There’s nothing particularly new about the idea of someone or something from the future traveling back in time to change history, but nobody does it like Terry Gilliam. Bruce Willis plays a convict sent back to gather information on a devastating virus that will soon wipe out most of the earth’s population, but he is almost immediately picked up and committed to an insane asylum. Before long, the audience is starting to have serious doubts about his sanity, and things only get stranger from there. This movie is intense and full of virtuoso touches (I particularly loved the scene that referenced the transformation from Vertigo). Really something.

Capturing the Friedmans

This disturbing documentary the total meltdown of a seemingly-normal American family when two of its members are charged with an unimaginably-heinous crime and are crushed under the weight of insanity that results. Throughout this long ordeal, many of the family’s most intimate moments were caught on film thanks to their shared obsession with video cameras. The result may be difficult to sit through, but having closely studied the phenomenon of media-fueled mass hysteria during the 1970s and 1980s, which included many such cases, I was extremely interested in seeing this. I was not disappointed.

Mighty Aphrodite

This will be my 4th and final word on Woody Allen, for now. I really loved this one: a childless couple adopts a boy who turns out to be extremely intelligent. The new father, Lenny, becomes obsessed with discovering where the child came from, and seeks out the birth mother, who turns out to be a prostitute, porn star, and complete bimbo. Horrified, Lenny sets out to try and reform her. The reality of the film’s modern setting is frequently destroyed by the invasive intrusions of a Greek chorus, led by F. Murray Abraham, who narrate the proceedings and occasionally dispense advice to the characters.

My Neighbor Totoro

Who needs Pixar when you have Hayao Miyazaki? (Just kidding, Pixar. Please don’t go anywhere.) Seriously, though, I have grown to love Miyazaki’s beautifully-animated films and his charming, touching, and frequently enchanting stories. And I still have so many left to see. This one is a simple tale about a father and two little girls who move out to a house in the country while the girls’ mother is in the hospital. Once there, the girls discover and are befriended by strange and magical creatures called Totoros, and various adventures ensue. Watching the movie was such a thoroughly absorbing experience, and an entirely pleasant one; which is just what I’ve come to expect from Miyazaki’s films.

Watchmen

This adaptation of a famous graphic novel (which I haven’t read) is far from perfect. In fact, in parts it’s downright messy, but I was sucked in by the compelling alternate reality that it creates, and by its thought-provoking deconstruction of the entire superhero genre. I could be wrong, but I felt the film had some important things to say, and that it was worth remembering.

Slumdog Millionaire

I know I took a shot at this movie earlier in the context of the many awards it won at the Oscar ceremony, but that was mostly sour grapes based on the feeling that this film didn’t even belong on a list of the top ten films of the year, let alone at the head of such a list. I haven’t let the fact that silly academy voters gave this decidedly not-great film more Oscars than Lawrence of Arabia influence my personal enjoyment of it as a fluffy and romantic heart-warmer set in one of the poorest places on the planet. I had a lot of problems with this movie when I first saw it, but then I realized that I ought to be thinking of it as purely a fairy tale, not as any sort of depiction of actual reality. While this unfortunately carves out any hope of a really meaningful impact or message to the thing, what remains is quite enjoyable and very well-made. I love the exhilarating and cathartic musical number at the end. The long and short is: Slumdog Millionaire is good and worth seeing, just don’t let all of the awards attention convince you that this movie is something that it’s not.

The Palm Beach Story

I declare The Palm Beach Story a giant among screwball comedies. It is everything that you could hope for from a classic of the genre, but most importantly it features one of the most thoroughly original opening credit sequences you will ever see and a side-splitting, last-second plot development that I wouldn’t spoil for the world. Claudette Colbert is ridiculously adorable as she navigates one insanely improbable situation after another. If you only see one movie from 1942 . . . Well, you should probably see Casablanca. But if you see two, make the second one The Palm Beach Story!

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~ by Jared on May 10, 2009.

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