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My film of the year!
Sofia Coppola's Somewhere is a rare jewel in this year's crop of movies: a film that actually made me feel and think about the characters, a film that mesmerized me with its stillness and its quietness, a film that I know I will return to, for its haunting mix of loneliness and the gentle love that family can offer.
A highly personal film rather than simply an autobiographical one (Woody Allen's Manhattan comes to mind as a reference, not in terms of feel but in how that movie reflected both his love of New York and foreshadowed his relationship with a much younger woman), Somewhere draws a deeply shadowed yet highly subtle portrait of a celebrity-scored father- daughter relationship.
The father, superbly played by Stephen Dorff, is a not-quite-A-list movie star, Johnny Marco, who spends much of the movie holed up in LA's wonderfully atmospheric and unique Château Marmont hotel. There, he mixes empty and quite movingly lonely sexual encounters (including a series of almost identical pole dances in his room that have a post-post-Fellini bizarreness to them) with time spent with his eleven year old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning; more about her in a moment) whose quiet maturity seems totally earned and not in the least precocious, and is the glue that holds both Marco's life and the film together.
While there are echoes of Coppola's wonderful Lost In Translation in this setup and in the film's isolated environment of hotels and cars (Milan's luxurious Hotel Principe Di Savoia provides a lush interlude from the Château) Somewhere is an even braver movie, exchanging the always engaging yet sardonic Bull Murray for a performance by Stephen Dorff that brings to mind the alienation of Antonioni and Kubrick.
There are two scenes in particular, both nods to 2001, that strikingly portray not just Marco's/Dorff's shipwrecked status as a character, but his intimations of mortality.
One has him sitting motionless while latex (or the like) is applied over his entire head for a special effects mask that will be used in one of the films he makes that we never even glimpse.
Once the application is complete, he is left alone in silence (save for a distant ringing phone), an amorphous blob of a head distinguished only by nose holes, his labored breathing amplified to resemble that of the astronauts in 2001 particularly the sequence where HAL's (the ship's computer's) brain is disassembled, just as Marco's life is being disassembled here.
The second scene is a simple shot of Johnny Marco eating breakfast alone at the Château Marmont. Its framing, I am certain, is intended to echo the cosmic isolation of the astronaut at the end of 2001, eating and living out his days in an alien-designed Louis Quinze "hotel suite" in space doubtless if Sofia Coppola were an alien designing an environment for a human, she would pick much the same decor!
If Somewhere sounds bleak, it might have been were it not for its sly humor (in one scene Marco actually falls asleep during semi-anonymous sex, so routine is it for him) and the extraordinary humanity brought by Elle Fanning, as Marco's daughter, Cleo.
In a performance as delicately shaded as Dorff's (which says much about Coppola's direction of actors), Fanning conjures an eleven year old who seems both an utterly normal LA pre-teen (I hate the word, "tween"!) and at the same time a girl who is convincingly comfortable around the trappings of celebrity success hotel living, slightly flirtatious adult "friends of your father," limos, press conferences and a somewhat Fellini-esquire movie premiere.
Very little is explained at least in dialogue or exposition in the relationship between Cleo and her dad, but the unforced warmth and evident strains of their relationship say everything.
In particular, the reproving glance that Cleo gives Marco at the hotel in Milan, after an unwelcome breakfast encounter with one of Marco's seemingly endless flow of meaningless, glamorous lovers, says everything as does the pained, and perhaps at last conscious look with which Marco responds.
It is tempting to see in this father-daughter portrait a personal expose of Sofia Coppola's relationship with her own celebrity (and cinematic guru) father, Francis Ford Coppola, but I suspect she has been more subtle than that.
While Cleo is dealing with both an absent father and mother (here it is Marco's ex-wife, Layla, played by Lala Sloatman), just as Coppola herself was forced to do at points in her young life, Somewhere feels too authentically a work of art to be straight-up autobiography.
I can imagine her showing it to her parents (Francis Ford Coppola is one of the executive producers, and Sofia's brother Roman is a producer), and their complex recognition of aspects of themselves but also of sufficient distance in the fictionalization of Marco, Cleo and Layla to make it bearable, and to make them proud.
While Somewhere probably won't achieve the commercial heft of Lost In Translation, it marks a maturing of Sofia Coppola's already unique talent. I have long been an admirer and think she is one of the most groundbreaking filmmakers of the past decade, with a voice as distinctive and courageous as Wong Kar-Wai or Paul Thomas Anderson.
Hopefully the film will attract Oscar attention, not least for Stephen Dorff's and Elle Fanning's greatly underplayed yet endearing performances and also for Coppola's screenplay and direction.
Its pace and subtlety are far removed from most films of the moment, but like the more reflective films of the 1970s that clearly influenced Sofia Coppola, Somewhere is that rare movie that allows you time to form your own thoughts while watching it, rather than being hand-fed from one effects-laden "big moment" to the next.
Original, beautiful, funny...and remarkable 3D
First, this film is excellent with or without the 3D. It is beautifully written and designed, brilliantly directed by Henry Selick, the characters are totally engaging, the tone is perfect animated-suburban-teen-goth with a sardonic edge, and the whole movie feels fresh and funny and dark and satisfying.
Visually, it is stunning...and in 3D it is even more stunning. The circus mice alone (a relatively minor element, but quite unforgettable) make it worth seeing in 3D, and the decidedly trippy garden in the parallel world (eat your heart out, Alice In Wonderland) made a friend of ours long for the days of 1990s rave culture!
One word of warning: it is fairly scary by children's movies standards, but a lot depends on the child, and although at times it seems to echo (in a fairly gentle way) Japanese horror movies of late, there is probably nothing more disturbing here than Cruella de Vil in Disney's original animated 101 Dalmatians.
Even the score feels fresh, much of it performed by the Hungarian Radio Orchestra (if I remember correctly from the credits) but with contributions, too, from Bruno Coulais and They Might Be Giants (who made one of the best children's CDs, No!).
See Coraline and make every effort to see it in 3D. And if you do, sit through the entire closing credits, for there is a nice little kicker right at the end.
A wonderful, moving, important film: go see it!
I had high expectations of Milk, being a fan both of Gus Van Sant and Sean Penn, but this film totally surpassed anything I was expecting.
It is beautiful, engaging, moving, stirring, powerful and, of course, ultimately desperately sad in terms of the assassinations of both San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (no plot spoiler here, since their deaths are announced in newsreel footage within the first few minutes of the movie), but at the same time its portrait of a man of true courage and of the activism he stirred transcends the tragedy.
Penn gives an astonishing performance as Milk, one that I hope earns him this year's Best Actor Oscar, because he captures the humanity, joy and rightful anger of the man without once slipping into any kind of gay stereotype. When you see Milk/Penn's tearful response to the fate of the Anti-Gay Proposition 6 (the "Briggs Initiative", widely promoted by the deeply disturbing so-called Christian singer, Anita Bryant), you witness a moment that feels acutely judged, in terms of Milk's emotions, sexuality and personality. And Penn, who has his own fine record as an activist, brings real passion to Milk's powerful, original and courageous approach to "gay rights."
Josh Brolin, like the entire cast, is outstanding in his role as City Supervisor Dan White, to whom Milk shows great sympathy early on - attending the christening of White's child when all the other supervisors fail to turn up.
Gus Van Sant's direction is a perfectly judged blend of drama, humor and finely-paced use of newsreel, which, along with Danny Elfman's excellent score, draws echoes at times of the Holocaust, given the black and white images of gay men crammed into old police wagons. (I do not mean to diminish the Holocaust, but the echoes seem deliberate, given the Nazis' own persecution of homosexuals.)
While I believe that Elephant remains Van Sant's most remarkable movie in terms of its use of time, its beautiful long tracking shots and silences, and above all its surprising and very underplayed approach to another horrific subject (the Columbine shootings), Milk is a more accessible movie and I hope it finds a wide, wide audience and does great box office, not simply to benefit the movie but to inform the public.
This is a film about fundamental human rights, not gay rights, and it should be seen in particular by all those who continue to campaign, often in the misused name of their religion, against gays and lesbians. The recent passage of Prop. 8 in California, on the same day that President-Elect Obama was swept into office, was a sad irony, and I only pray that ultimately - and soon - everyone will embrace the notion that all people deserve the same rights, that all people experience the same love (if they are lucky) and that in a world where love sometimes seems in short supply, we should celebrate it, not limit it.
Milk is an important film, one of the few this year that is actually about something. I strongly urge everyone to see it.
An extraordinary film
Frank Langella's performance as Nixon is truly moving in this remarkable film by Ron Howard, which gripped me for its entirety. As someone who grew up during the Watergate hearings, and who reviled Nixon as the embodiment not just of corruption but of the worst kind of interventionist, even genocidal, American politics, this film gives substance to a man who, in later years (especially the GW Bush years, which make Nixon look like a political and intellectual colossus), achieved something of a place in history beyond the scandal of Watergate.
But what Frost/Nixon - and in particular Langella - does is give humanity to the man. We see his arrogance, his love of power, his need to win (hinted at wonderfully in a moment when he is jogging in his San Clemente home to rousing music), but we also see his inner conflicts, his regrets, the fact that perhaps more than simply his crimes regarding Watergate haunted him - that the impact of his decisions on South East Asia were not entirely remote from him, either. And in a sequence that I will not reveal, to avoid spoiling the plot, we also see a hint of his madness, for it is that, I think, rather than senility. (You have to see it to understand this.)
Ron Howard and playwright/screenwriter Peter Morgan have achieved a remarkable feat in adapting the stage play, which sadly I did not see. Not for a moment does this feel stage bound; instead it is a compelling human portrait of two men - for Frost is fascinating, too, and Michael Sheen captures both his much criticized (at the time) surface gloss and also his deeper fears - but above all of the impact that each of our decisions, large and small, and not least if you are leader of the "Free World," have on us all.
A film filled with wonder
I cannot say enough about how beautiful and surprising Wall-E is in both its conception as, essentially, a love story between a trash compacter and a robot, and its execution as one of the most moving, wondrous films about mankind and space since 2001: A Space Odyssey, to which it is clearly a loving homage.
Our almost-four-year-old son rarely sees films because we follow the Waldorf/Steiner approach to life for young children, which excludes TV and computers (which hasn't stopped him from becoming extremely proficient in the latter simply, it seems, by instinct), but in the past week he has watched Cars two or three times, because he had a summer cold, and then Wall-E in the movie theater.
Seeing Cars again reminded me of how warm and rich Pixar's films are: the debt they owe to the best of classic Disney animation (and the classic Disney animators who worked with them to teach them what they knew) is apparent, but more than that, the Pixar storytellers and animators use computer technology not simply as a tool, but to create a rich palette of both stunning visuals and emotional warmth and honesty.
Wall-E goes farther than even the beauty of Finding Nemo in taking three-dimensional animation to new spheres...quite literally when Wall-E and Eva, his robot companion, dance through space. I won't say too much about Wall-E's retro taste in movies (on videocassette, no less, which is a technology that intrigues our son because he has only ever seen a VHS tape in its case, never an actual player) because it is such a touching surprise, but the fact that the yearning between two supposedly inanimate (in the original sense) objects can move you to tears is a testament to director Andrew Stanton and his story team and animation team's mastery and originality.
This is a film that gently arouses your thoughts and emotions about humankind and is never clumsy in doing so. It is funny, incredibly dark and gritty for a mainstream "family" movie, and yet also soars to amazing heights of wonder and beauty.
When Wall-E, the movie and the trash compacter, take their audience through space with all the excitement and grace, but way more humor, that Stanley Kubrick did roughly forty years ago, the most appropriate word is the grossly overused but for once totally accurate: AWESOME!!!!
There Will Be Blood (2007)
This film raises the game for everyone out there. I have loved all of Paul Thomas Anderson's work, including his greatly underrated Punch-Drunk Love, but this is a huge leap from any of the previous movies into a realm, as others have said, inhabited by classics such as Treasure of the Sierra Madre - and then some. Every element of this film is astonishing, from the opening twenty minutes, which feature virtually no dialog, to Jonny Greenwood's score, which I have heard criticized as too imposing but which seems just about perfect to me (and brings to mind the non-Blue Danube elements of 2001 at its most experimental). Daniel Day-Lewis' performance is in a league of its own: his voice, his mannerisms, his physical movement, his stunted emotions, are flesh and blood, and hauntingly so, in a way that even Tommy Lee Jones in In The Valley of Elah (which I thought was a pretty staggering performance) can't quite attain. I will watch this film again and again simply to see something so raw and so moving and so gut-wrenching. This is why I love movies; this is what made me want to make movies when I was fourteen years old.
Mad Men (2007)
A perfect cocktail of early 1960s Mad Ave Noir
I don't watch TV drama usually, with rare exceptions: The Sopranos (especially the early seasons) and Entourage, if that counts. Mad Men is one of the most original, refreshingly dark and complex shows I've ever seen on TV. Despite its potential for soap opera story lines, it consistently transcends expectations and explores fascinating characters and a radically changing social environment in a beautifully shot, artfully designed and, above all, excellently acted manner. After watching virtually no TV recently (less than three hours per week), my wife and I have been hooked all week, catching up on every episode - although we have yet to see the first, which a technical glitch in our On Demand service is holding tantalizingly out of reach. I loved Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, and this is like a generously extended - and in some respects even more fascinating - adjunct to that. Madison Avenue is the perfect prism through which to view the early 1960s, and Mad Men, with its post-noir, Nixon/JFK/beatnik/martini melange, is a hugely enjoyable, finely measured cocktail that leaves just the right taste in the mouth.
Tales of the Riverbank (1960)
Wonderful memories of childhood
I grew up in Britain watching Tales of the Riverbank, and as the parent now of a toddler in Los Angeles, I wish I could get hold of some episodes on DVD.
We allow our son to watch only very limited TV - never live, always selected from our DVR or two or three favorite DVDs (a 1980s claymation Curious George, for example, and A Charlie Brown Christmas, which is still totally magical) - and I recall the relaxed rhythm and charming Johnny Morris voice-over of Hammy the Hamster's adventures as an influence on my own love of animals, as well as my burgeoning interest in film-making (I think I tried to recreate scenes myself with my own poor hamster).
I haven't seen this series since childhood, and it only came to mind the other day when my wife and I were discussing the role TV should or should not play in our child's upbringing, but I remember it as a gem, both in terms of its story lines and its gentle love of life.
This is one of the films (even though shown on TV, it absolutely qualifies as cinema) that shaped my childhood, my politics, and my love of film-making and its true potential. I remember being simply blown away, not merely by the intensity of the violence and aggression (I had never seen war filmed like this), but by the passion and the pain of the "ordinary people" - the Scots, especially the Scottish women - as they witnessed the English brutality around them. Totally extraordinary to me also, was the fact that the camera team felt so moved as to intercede in the violence - not merely breaking the boundaries of media "objectivity" in a way that had rarely, if ever, been done before in 1964, but also breaking the boundaries of time - remember, we are in a war here that is taking place in 1746, and yet it seems perfectly natural and believable to have a camera team pushing into frame, protesting the behavior of the English troops.
Peter Watkins went on to make many groundbreaking movies, but little can touch Culloden - the closest is Punishment Park, which uses much the same techniques to follow a group of students and protesters in a slightly fictionalized and rather fascist USA, where (as I recall - I haven't seen the movie in years), they are given a "choice" between internment or a (loaded) chance to "run", with the risk/likelihood of being shot and killed by their paramilitary pursuers.
A minor personal note: I saw Culloden on TV while I was very young and at school in Britain. It is a hard film to find - at least until the recent DVD - but I came across it again at the Sydney Public Library, of all places, during a trip to Australia in the 1990s, and sat watching it on 16mm, on a Moviola in the library - as stunned and moved as I had been the first time I saw it. It was reassuring to know that its power had not diminished.
One of the most beautiful films I have ever seen
I thought that Wong Kar Wai's In The Mood For Love was my ultimate "mood" movie - a film I would watch the way you listen to a piece of music (I especially found it calming and meditative on airplane journeys), for its tone, its exquisite performances and visuals, its unbelievably subtle and intriguing direction, the fact that Kar Wai, almost alone among contemporary filmmakers, does something new with cinema: he is not content simply to tell stories, to structure plots; he captures emotion and human frailty in a way that is wholly cinematic; he excites about the possibility of film the way that Godard or Fellini used to excite - but in a style unique to Kar Wai.
Then I watched 2046. At first, while I loved its performances, its stunning visuals, its beautiful music, its tearful yet sometimes funny emotions, I did not think it the equal of In The Mood For Love. Now, after repeated viewings on DVD, I find myself drawn back to it as much, if not more, as the earlier movie. They are both, for me, cinema at its best: not simply a story that leads from A to B to C, but a complex emotional journey through time and the human heart. Images from both films haunt my memory; the music is exquisite; the clothes and sets are always superb; the performances break your heart.
Wong Kar Wai is a musician as much as a filmmaker: he makes movies that are like works of music. You can "listen" to them from beginning to end, you can enjoy "phrases" from them alone, simply playing the scenes that you wish to revisit. You play them to create a mood or to satisfy one. He is a consummate filmmaker, and I only wish there were more movies like his being made to break the mold of what we are told is drama.