Monday, 7 February 2011

Encore Awards: Auspicious Cinema

I’ll get around to listing my official list of favourite films some time soon, but I was thinking recently – and for some months now – how treacherous the act of grading films can be at times. No, this is not that long-awaited article explaining my sometimes strange grades, but it’s something that occurred to me most notably when Nicholas (one of my writing idols) made this note on his website. Sometimes when I review a film that I don’t like, I’ll include an aside saying it’s a laudable effort. It’s not evidence of me being apologetic – sometimes films have importance beyond how good a film it is; and Nick’s words strike a chord when I look over the films that are my favourite– and the ones that aren’t.  Value, originality and risk is what he looks at and this list of films below  are those I consider to be propitious contributions to cinema. Not the films I remember most fondly (although, some turn up there) but the films that are important – those films that are worth your time, even if you don’t love them. (Come on; just check the dictionary to see what auspicious means.) If you will, this is the list of ten films that you shouldn’t have missed last year.
(click on the photos for reviews)

Agora (A-) Director: Alejandro Amenábar; originally written by Alejandro Amenábar and Mateo Gil, inspired by true events
Amenbar was interested in the idea of Hypatia, a feminist before her time – before feminists even. It’s more than plot that makes this a notable one, though. Amenbar and company recreate the world of the era through few special effects, but mostly from built-from-scratch production design. Perhaps I’m alone on this, but the persistent presence of objectivity in it is something to take note of. It’s not a sword and sandal epic of yore that has a specific agenda – sure it contorts historical facts to its advantages, but Agora is a bit like its heroine in being interested in examining all aspects of everything. And perhaps, that makes the transition from the first to the second half a bit splotchy – but it’s still laudable.

The Ghost Writer (B+) Director: Roman Polanski; adapted by Roman Polanski and Robert Harris from the novel The Ghost by Robert Harris
I feel a bit silly, because in my natural state of knowing nothing before I saw The Ghost Writer it wasn’t until the second attempt that I was able to glean the potential parallels between Tony Blair – and only after it was pointed out to me (I can be especially clueless about current affairs at times). Not that Polanski’s latest only has importance on that front only. What’s most noticeable about Polanski’s work here is how audacious his directing style still is. He’s still one of the most important cinematic entities alive, and he crafts a film about a man we have no idea about but keeps it finely tuned along with the excellent script. The Ghost Writer won’t top my list of favourite films, but the work put it into it marks it as the most prominent film of 2010 (including, but not relegated to its technical achievements).
Inception (B-/C+) Director: Chris Nolan; originally written by Christopher Nolan
I was not the biggest fan of Inception when it came out, and if anything my feelings have lessened but that doesn’t prevent me from admiring Nolan’s vision. No, my disliking Inception was not an example of me being deliberately subversive. Nolan is responsible for a significant portion of the actually story and he deserves credit for the scope of the film. I don’t think he succeeds as well as he might in the creation of completely lucid film, but Inception is the sort of achievement that’s important as a valid example of cinema moving forward – and getting more audacious. For that, I applaud him.
Scott Pilgrim vs the World (B+) Director: Edgar Wright; adapted by Edgar Wright and Mark Baccall from a graphic novel by Brian Lee O'Malley
There are a number of reasons that I’ve been miffed about the lukewarm reception Scott Pilgrim vs the World seems to have gotten this past year, and I’ll take solace in it becoming a potential cult classic. It’s not because I happen to like it, I might opine that this is probably the most significant comic to screen adaptation of the last decade. Strong words? Bear with me. Scott Pilgrim’s steadfast devotion to the things that define its generation (Nathan gives a thoughtful review on just that) AND its ability to satisfy the niche without making persons not in that niche audience balk is a significant asset that many films of the type don’t have. It seems as if it sets itself up for a box, but the overwhelming youthfulness of it all is not a crutch but one of its strong suits – one of many.
The Social Network (A-) Director: David Fincher; adapted by Aaron Sorkin from the novel The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich and inspired by true events
To an extent I feel as if The Social Network is being celebrated for the wrong things. It doesn’t end up on my list because it reinvents the wheel, it’s here because Sorkin’s script wilily presents us with the most basic of human entities (friendship and jealousy) and Fincher, so astutely, takes up the mantle to helm the piece ensuring that it’s more than about Zuckerberg or facebook. I feel a bit lofty claiming that it’s some sort of social parable for civilisation today and to an extent it’s just a bit too serious for its own good. It’s possible that misrepresentation on this front has attracted claims of its misogynistic ways. In assessing The Social Network, though, it’s better to understand its importance through smaller lenses like human emotion than larger entities like internet addiction (not that human emotion is a “small” entity, but on a curve its less voluble – and more in tune with The Social Network’s inherently smaller – but  not necessarily lesser – standards).
FINALISTS: Fish Tank (C+) doesn’t thrill me half as much as it does most, but Arnold’s debut is still admirable. Narrative issues aside, she has a striking sense of interest in her protagonist that’s sorely lacking in many coming-of-age films. For Colored Girls (B-) is flawed, but it’s disingenuous not to note the superb attempts that Perry takes in adapting this VERY theatrical piece and trying to maintain that beating theatrical heart and reconciling it with the cinema. Howl (C+) is even more faulty than the former, and I sort of wish that Epstein would have had the guts to be a little less prosaic with how he paced the story – but, that aside, he does some original things with Ginsberg’s life and it makes me interested in seeing him tackling another biographical piece – he seems to have an unbridled enthusiasm for it. Night Catches Us (B/B-) is not a history lesson, and Hamilton is not interested in forwarding a cause shrouded in a pedestrian story. Sometimes she's too reticent for her own good, but the drama she creates is taut and gutsy and most importantly adeptly handled. And, Shutter Island (B) – this one is notable, in particular, for its technical achievements and Scorsese’s ability to utilise past genres while still managing to make the film his, despite that ending – which he can’t be blamed for.
SEMI-FINALISTS: The American; Blue Valentine; Greenberg; The Kids Are All Right
Do you get where I’m going here, or am I confusing? (Again, I say, read Nick’s post) Have you been in the same boat, a film worthy of your respect that you may not love? What’s the most IMPORTANT film of 2010 for you?


Robert said...

How embarrassing it is that I haven't seen so many of these auspicious films! You and I are definitely on the same boat with "Inception" but I really like your take on it - it is the classic blockbuster action flick moving forward, becoming more intelligent, showing that maybe audiences don't mind a bit of thinking every once in a while.

I think "Dogtooth" and "Blue Valentine" definitely fall in this category for me. I didn't personally adore either but I think they're really daring and important pieces of filmmaking.

TomS said...

Interesting post, Andrew. I used to live and die by the star-ratings given by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.

I think "Black Swan", of all of this year's films, will endure as an artistic moment that contemporary audiences have been scared to embrace. It is ahead of its time in terms of technical brilliance, telling a multi-layered story that affects the mind and heart on many levels. Those who are willing to enter its inferno of coming-of-age symbols will be forever changed.

Socially, "The Kids Are All Right" is important on two fronts: first, it takes advantage of the zeitgiest to tell a story that is as much a comment on how we live today as anything that has been produced this year. Second, it tells that story in an offhand way, minimizing its uniqueness to find some universal truths.

Amir said...

First of all, this is really scary. Since I started rating films in 2011, I decided I'd change my method a bit from last year, and I wrote a draft to explain how I was going to sort of adopt Nick's system.
It was nearly EXACTLY the same as what you've written. deja vu.
(I'm not adopting it after all anyway. haha)

As for the question you pose at the end, I think Dogtooth really wins this for me this year. Except, it also tops my list of favourites. The American is a good example of something I didn't love but admired. It was an inspired piece of work. Scott Pilgrim was kinda the same. I loved how it integrated the video game feel into the film unlike anything else I'd ever seen, but the film overall is not my cup of tea. The portugese film "Eccentricities of a Blonde Hair Girl" is another example. I didn't fall in love with it, but it's so admirable (and adorable) how it materializes an ancient love story template and typical poetic quirks (man looking at the woman's eyes through the windows, woman holding a chinese fan, that type of thing) in a modern setting.

Anonymous said...

I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz' performance as Hypatia. I thought the film was beautifully shot, a bit uneven, but a wonderful exploration of modern themes in a historical context. However, this is a fictionalized version of Hypatia's life. Many folks forget that this is the artist's way of making a point and believe it's all true. For more about the historical Hypatia, I recommend a very readable biography Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995). I also have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog - not a movie review, just a "reel vs. real" discussion.

Luke said...

Wow, what a great notion - it definitely feels that way after seeing some of these movies... that they aren't "favorites," but you feel glad that you did your civic duty and saw them. I mean, I liked The Social Network, so it's probably a bad example, but it's totally an event movie that's like required viewing. Interesting category, Andrew!

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

ugh, dogtooth i REALLY need to see that. on inception, i don't think it's necessarily highbrow but yes i do think it's the way forward and the amalgamation of the technical aspects is thrilling (and praiseworthy).

LOVE that reading on the kids are all right, tom. we'll have to disagree on black swan which i like more than one half of the top ten there, but for me it doesn't do much in terms of being daring. it's beautifully done, of course - but i don't credit it with being very inventive.

amir your thoughts on the american are spot on for me. grading films can be such a chore, especially when you want to make sure you got it "right".

faith well, of course, agora is not a history lesson. i can imagine all the inaccuracies, but more than its story it's technical proficiency is impressive. hypatia IS an interesting character, indeed.

luke yeah, that's a nice way to describe - movie lovers' civic duty.