Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Tree Housers –

It’s rather cozy up here, so let me slip out of my black cape and put down my scythe, because indeed there was much that I did connect with – and much that did surprise me – over this past year, and I’d be remiss not to share the love. I may lament all that I failed to remember, but 2010 still included so many shots, moments and performances that I couldn’t possibly forget.

To start off with some films that have already been mentioned …

How could I forget Sweetgrass? Jim, you said it: there’s nothing quite like it, and I hope it will find a larger audience on DVD. As I wrote in my review back in June, “whereas so many documentaries feel like long-form journalism (not that there’s anything wrong with that), Sweetgrass is cinema. It’s without omniscient narration, talking-head interviews or any other clues that might help explain what’s going on. It’s an experience, not a lecture. It’s something to feel, not something to learn.” And, boy, we feel it: the cold, the damp, the monotony, the tranquility. It’s all there. Aesthetically, it’s far from flashy – and those hoping for Planet Earth-esque HD imagery will be sorely disappointed – but there are two zooms in Sweetgrass that rival anything else I’ve seen all year: one that backs away from a very intimate (and hilarious) moment to bask in the majestic yet punishing surroundings, and one that zooms in from a striking panorama to show us how all those creatures are moving right along, hoofloose and fancy free, amidst the awe-striking terrain.

Also, how could I forget Blue Valentine, which so gracefully weaves heart-swells with heartbreak? I felt overcome with warmth during the scene in which Ryan Gosling’s Dean serenades Michelle Williams’ tap-dancing Cindy with his miniature guitar, not just because their musical flirtation is so sweetly performed but because director Derek Cianfrance frames it all so tenderly, giving Dean and Cindy their own private nook on public sidewalk. That scene really has no business working, but somehow it does. And if in moments here and there Blue Valentine has a heavier hand than it needs, what sets it apart are its so many moments of small, unflinching reality. The best scene, for my money, is the one just after Dean and Cindy finally lose it: Cindy has demanded a divorce, Dean has thrown his wedding ring into some tall weeds, and they’re about to drive off and leave the scene of the crime when Dean hops out of the car, walks over to those weeds and starts looking for his wedding ring – and then, moments later, Cindy joins him. At that moment, their relationship is over. There’s no hope. There’s no reason to find the ring. But they search anyway, because they once loved one another so much, and they can’t bear to disrespect that love more than they already have. They can’t stand one another, but they also can’t stand to hurt one another. Life is like that. Messy. It’s a simple scene that says so much.

On that note, how could I forget the second scene in The Social Network, when we watch Mark Zuckerberg walking through the Harvard campus, removed from the very kind of social interaction that he’ll soon try to foster online? How could I forget the name of the restaurant owned by Mark Ruffalo’s Paul in The Kids Are All Right, “WYSIWYG,” the acronym for “What You See Is What You Get,” thus doubling as the perfect name for a restaurant that serves organic food and the perfect key to understanding Paul. (If the film made any overt reference to the restaurant’s name whatsoever, such as calling it by name, rather than letting it hang there in the background, it would have ruined the moment.) And how could I forget Annette Bening’s terrific performance in The Great Outdoors, when … oh, sorry. I had an Armond White moment there. Moving on …

There are so many films we haven’t discussed yet that touched me – great films with great moments…

For example, the high point of True Grit – if it isn’t the scene in which Mattie and Little Blackie cross the river – is the transition from LaBoeuf’s rescue of Mattie on the hilltop to the showdown between Rooster and Lucky Ned (and three of Lucky Ned’s gang) on the valley floor. Thanks to John Wayne and Henry Hathaway’s 1969 version of Charles Portis’ novel, the “Fill your hand!” scene is the stuff of classic cinema, and so how do the Coens take us to it? Not with an abrupt cut, but instead with a crane shot – the camera rising above LaBoeuf and Mattie, who turn to look down on the meadow below them much like Siskel and Ebert used to turn from their spot in the balcony to look at the theater screen on At the Movies. It’s as if the Coens are saying, “Yes, here’s the signature scene that you’ve been waiting for, and we can’t wait to sit back and watch it, too.” If LaBoeuf had suddenly procured some popcorn from inside his jacket, I wouldn’t have objected.

And speaking of tough guys who aren’t afraid to be outmanned, what about the scene in Winter’s Bone when that garage door lifts up and reveals John Hawkes’ Teardrop? I won’t forget that! And I also won’t forget the shot of Ree running on the elevated walkway above the livestock as she chases after Thump, or the shot of Teardrop in the side mirror of his truck, staring down the sheriff. Nor will I forget the throwback thrill of the train shootout in The Good, The Bad, The Weird or the refreshingly lighthearted sight gag in The Town when a policeman happily looks the other way. Heck, 2010’s films include sounds that I cherish: chopping in Mother, sprouting feathers in Black Swan and –in a film I’m desperate to see again because I don’t remember it as much as I’d like – nervous breathing in Fish Tank.

Those are snatches of just some of my favorite films of the year. But there were also some great moments in some mediocre or downright brutal films, and I might end up remembering those, too. All these months later, I can still picture that stunning wide shot in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood as Robin and his (merry?) men ride their horses to meet the enemy on the coast. (So what if they happily give away the high ground after that? What military commander has ever wanted the high ground?) I can also picture the way Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tatum are always leaning up against one another or playfully wrestling Dear John, an effortless portrait of young, budding love, when simple touch is exhilarating. And I’m still stunned by the power of the finale of The Last Airbender, when Aang finally harnesses his power and M. Night Shayamalan finally avoids triggering my gag reflex for the first time since The Village. (Because, yeah, I like The Village.)

Look at all those moments! And I haven’t discussed 127 Hours, which is the only 2010 film I’ve seen three times. So, sure, despite all the films that “got away,” and despite my gloomy first post, there are still quite a few memories worth pasting into my cinematic scrapbook. So many memories, in fact, that right now I feel like I’m hogging the paste. Who’s next?











Kevin J. Olson said...

One thing I absolutely hate is when people are so quick to claim that 'such and such year was a bad year for movie...' Blech. There are always memorable moments when we look close enough, and I like how you lay that out here, Jason.

I can think of a movie like Shutter Island which has a lot of problems, but I found it to be an intriguing work filled with memorable moments (Mahler playing over papers floating in a Nazi officer's building, the visual nod to Black Narcissus, the opening shot of a ferry emerging from the fog, etc.) that basically shows an old master having a lot of fun making an exploitation movie.

What was I getting at...oh yes, this idea that every year seems to be a "disappointing" year. I don't get it. People can interpret it as me being too easy on movies (or too easily entertained...whatever that means), but I think it's because I think it's what you're getting at here, Jason, and that is that the collective moments from the films of a certain year always remind me how thankful I am for the cinema.

Yes, 2010 was no 1999 or 2007 (two of the most memorable years of my young life), but so what? Why does that immediately qualify it as being disappointing? One of the things I've noticed from my favorite online critics and bloggers is that they really look at what's on the screen and how it makes them feel and why.

I may not remember every movie I saw this year, but I know that I'll remember the passing of a note from The Ghost Writer, the run from a bar to a dorm in The Social Network, the retrieval of a family member in Winter's Bone, the way Bening plays with her glasses in The Kids Are Alright (I'm glad that Sheila mentioned this! It was one of the first things I mentioned to my wife when we walked out of the theater.), the moment Jason mentions from True Grit, Emma Stone's acting in Easy A, Angelina Jolie's profile against the Russian sunset in Salt, the beautiful dance from Splice, the opening of Mother, the initial "sex" scene in The Killer Inside Me, Natalie Portman's descent in Black Swan...

There's so many more...and sometimes one movie has 30 moments and sometimes it has one...whatever it may be they all contribute to making whatever year they appear in memorable. As long as there is film (and, as of recently, television that is as good as film) there will always be memorable years. It doesn't matter if you're a Formalist or if you absolutely have to judge a film within its social context and based on the kind of commentary it makes about that context...the movies are memorable to all of us in different ways. But they're always memorable. As long as people continue to come at the movies (making them, criticizing them) from different perspectives (I like Jim and Dennis' point about how they both viewed Speed Racer differently), there will always be various memories waiting for us at the movies.

Whew. That was a lot of rambling. There might be a salient point in there somewhere.

S. Porath said...

Kevin- I also hate when people are quick to claim how bad a year was...but, the fact is, any year that does not provide a single new favorite seems a bit bland. 2009 had Inglorious Basterds and A Serious Man, 2008 had In Bruges and A Christmas far, nothing from 2010 transcended being very, very, good.
Add to that the disconnect one feels when one think that the most acclaimed movie of the year is an ill-conceived and unambitious one (though still pretty good) and that other darlings -like The Kids Are Alright- are actually pandering and callow.
The most engaged I've felt about a film in 2010 was with Shutter Island, which was a crushing dissapointment the first time and a thrilling discovery the second time...And that was nearly a year ago. Plenty of films to catch up with, but it's hard to get excited about 2010 when even the ones I really, really liked (Mother, Hadewijch, Infiltration, Harry Potter 7, Scott Pilgrim, How I Ended the Summer, Animal Kingdom, Inception, The Ghost Writer, Winter's Bone, Please Give, among others) didn't stay with me very long or grow in my mind.

Kevin J. Olson said...

True, S. Porath, but I don't like comparing one year to another. All I can do at the end of year is think, "did this year make me smile or make me glad to be a cinephile? Did it provide me with some great moments and memories?" For me, the answer has always been an emphatic "yes." I can't fault the films of 2010 for not producing something like Inglorious Basterds -- which seems to me a once in a lifetime type film -- but I can look at was produced and find the great there. I actually think The Social Network is the type of film you claim to have failed to discover this year. That film exhilarated me in a way that Basterds did. It actually made me eager to go out to the theater more than once to see it. I've seen the film three times now, and I'm still finding new things in it or new things to enjoy about it.

Again, perhaps I'm too easy or too cheery when it comes to thinking about movies, or maybe it's because I also try not to exclude my film experiences of a certain year to films released during that year? Does that make sense?

I like the way Ed Howard does his year-end list, honestly. It's all stuff that he's discovered or come to for the first time during the year. He doesn't limit himself to films released in 2010. Now, I understand that a paid critic can't really do that, but perhaps that's why I'm never "disappointed" in a year because I know that year will always have for me countless films I still have yet to see (I don't even have the space here to tell you how many "prestige" directors' films I haven't seen).

Finally, "Boardwalk Empire" may not have been released in theaters, but some of its episodes were more cinematic than a lot of the movies released...and they provided me with great moments and memories that made this year wonderful.

Once again, I apologize for the rambling!

Stephen said...

Very interesting discussion as always.

I'm a little perturbed that there has been no mention of Jean-Luc Godard's FILM SOCIALISME, as far as I can tell.

That is a film that can be dissected, read and reread (it is not a place, like other films, but a map to the place) in a quasi-scientific manner but, more importantly, a film to be ravished by. It is chock full of wonderful moments (sharks viewed like Coffee leaves, a comparison between crowds facing Mecca and audience all facing the cinema screen and so on...)

I too would nominate the ending of THE LAST AIRBENDER, which manages to convey a true feeling of awe (whereas fear and destruction was the aim in the animated series) and the love-making scene in Park Chan Wook's THIRST - both ravenous and tender, and long enough for a sense of communion and love to take over.

One point. The tone is sometimes a little superior (unnecessarily) regarding the average movie-goer and their perceptions of, and need to perceive, the mechanics of a film. It's apt perhaps that these discussions, wonderful as they are, are taking place in a tree house perched up on high rather than a shed.

Richard Bellamy said...

There you go, Jason! I knew it wasn't that bad! And I bet you could add more. I like your best moments here, some of them inspiring me to see films that don't make it to Cape Cod. You have the advantage of a big city!

And I like how you point out great moments in mediocre, even bad, films. I guess Skyline is a dreadfully written movie, and the acting ain't any better, but there are some fine shots of the dark sky glowering over L.A. and the alien craft descending. Also, you know I always give sci-fi movies a lot of leeway.

On the other hand, when the little Airbender dude finally harnessed his powers, there was just not enough drama or even visual impact in that moment for me to overcome how stupified I had become by that disaster of a movie.

I did like moments in Dear John, and it has Seyfried.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Stephen - my first piece here stuck up for the "average viewer". More to come!

Jason Bellamy said...

I only have a second, but wanted to address two things from Stephen before I forget:

The tone is sometimes a little superior (unnecessarily) regarding the average movie-goer and their perceptions of, and need to perceive, the mechanics of a film.

Fair point. And good for us to keep in mind. I'm not sure if this helps, but I think our comments on that subject were spun out of elements of Matt's post that weren't quoted (but that we all read), which are in the spirit of remembering that we all began as average moviegoers, and also being honest that we aren't that anymore. So I think we're just trying to grapple with how to get more average moviegoers to want to go beyond that -- precisely because we're so sure they'll enjoy the view from this side of the canyon. If that sounds elitist, I don't mean it to. But maybe it is. Anyway, I appreciate you saying that. Because if we want to build a bridge we have to not make it look like a wall.

One more thing ...

I'm a little perturbed that there has been no mention of Jean-Luc Godard's FILM SOCIALISME, as far as I can tell.

Alas, I just haven't had the opportunity to see it. And I suspect that might go for the other Tree Housers. So, if you haven't, let me recommend my partner in conversations Ed Howard, who has written not just one but two posts on that film.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

As for Film Socialisme, I had an opportunity to see it at the AFI Film Fest this past November. I was there with a fellow film lover who is far more well-versed in Godard than am I, but we were both excited at the rare opportunity to see a late-period JLG film, especially this one, in a 1,000-seat auditorium with a packed house. (That just doesn't happen, like, ever.) The AFI host introduced the film and made a point of noting the size of the crowd and to not worry if it all got a little confusing-- the multilingual movie (French, Arabic, German, to name just a few languages heard in the film) wouldn't really be a Godard movie if it were fully digestible in one take, right? He then talked about the movie's "Navajo English" subtitles which had been much buzzed about wherever the movie itself was buzzed about, beginning at last year's Cannes Film Festival. The subtitles, composed and approved by Godard, were apparently the filmmaker’s way of addressing the inadequacies of the spoken word (particularly English) to convey the meaning within the image and the way one image butts up against another and sometimes shares space with another. The "Navajo English" was apparently deliberately muddled and was often used in the film, according to our host, as a distraction or a way of subverting or otherwise confusing the viewer regarding the images and languages on the screen. In other words, Godard, rather than giving his film up to some faceless post-production house to be translated, well or badly, from the original languages, used the opportunity to add yet another of experience to the film he created.

So imagine our surprise, then, when the first five minutes or so unspooled (not an accurate description, as the movie was digitally resented, but you get my drift) sans subtitles of any kind, even over the German and Arabic languages that were being spoken. Wow, I thought, Godard really is fucking with us in this one, isn’t he, that rascal! Suddenly the lights came up, the host sheepishly walked out to the front of the auditorium and, to everyone’s astonishment, announced that the digital version made available to the AFI for this once-in-a-lifetime screening did not include Godard’s “Navajo English” subtitles! Most of the audience went with it—I heard reports from some people whose French is good that it was still hard to follow, and impossible to do so when the languages shifted away from French to other tongues. My friend (who speaks French fluently) and I looked at each other with resignation and not just a little disgust, and we decided to leave. Sure, I could have stayed and pretended I was getting something out of it beyond the imagery, which, based on what I did see, must have been strangely beautiful. But I felt the subtitles in this case were absolutely part of the experience Godard intended, and as such I didn’t much cotton to sitting there and missing out on that experience. Life is just too short. (“I endured Film Socialisme sans subtitles and all I got was some crummy film crit street cred!”) Maybe that was the wrong decision, but I don’t regret it, and I am sure that when the opportunity comes to see Film Socialisme intact, on DVD, I will take advantage of it. But, really, I just couldn’t believe that such a blunder could slip by the QC at AFI, of all institutions. How’s that for relating to the “average” viewer?

Richard Bellamy said...

the collective moments from the films of a certain year always remind me how thankful I am for the cinema.

Well said, Kevin. My most recent post presented an image from each movie I saw this year, and I expressed how much fun I have at the movies despite the infrequent highs and the many lows, but you say it better here. In the final analysis, I felt satisfied this past year with the collective best moments.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Thanks, Hokahey. Whenever I get around to doing my top 10 for the year, I am going to simply do images without the name of the film or some arbitrary ranking. Not that those things are bad (I always enjoy compiling a good list), but because the exercise feels more genuine that way. It's basically me just saying: "Here are the visual reasons for what I found exhilarating this year. Enjoy."

It gets back to what Jim does so well on his blog: the looking at an image and trying to understand not just the motivation for why the creators of the film made that image, but trying to really find the reasons for why it makes us feel the way it makes us feel.

Stephen said...


I'm sorry, Sheila, I must have missed it. I'll go back.


"So I think we're just trying to grapple with how to get more average moviegoers to want to go beyond that -- precisely because we're so sure they'll enjoy the view from this side of the canyon. If that sounds elitist, I don't mean it to."

Yes, that's fair enough. It was really a minor point, but one I wanted to make given the quality (I would welcome a lot more of this) of the discussion.

About Film Socialisme, I have read Ed's pieces, and they are very good too. It's a film to be grappled with.


"But, really, I just couldn’t believe that such a blunder could slip by the QC at AFI, of all institutions. How’s that for relating to the “average” viewer?"

Haha! Good point. I saw it (and own it) with removable Navajo subtitles. Whether you can or are allowed to understand his film (only Godard does fully) it can be enjoyed as a stream of brilliant images and sounds.