Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Greetings, fellow Tree House climbers!

It took me a while to find the key to the padlock, but found it I have, so you may now consider the door to the 2011 SLIFR Movie Tree House officially opened. There are a couple of cosmetic changes this year that should be addressed. First of all, we have a new tree house. Last year’s was very picturesque and had about it a bit of the old Swiss Family Robinson panache-- perfectly charming—but I think you’ll agree this year’s is not only a little roomier inside but also has a bit more magic and mystique about it as well. We’ve obtained it from the set of Wes Anderson’s upcoming movie Moonrise Kingdom, and although the climb is perhaps a little more treacherous than before (shoring up some of those rickety steps was pretty scary, I can tell you) it will be worth it. I’ve put up some of my favorite one-sheets for decoration. I’ve also brought up some board games to keep us amused during the down time in between posts (a round of Ouija is guaranteed to be a lot more fun, and certainly scarier than a screener of The Devil Inside). And I think you’ll like the addition of the vintage Pepsi cooler, the installation of which afforded me the opportunity of staging my own version of Fitzcarraldo’s little riverboat conundrum.

But given the star quality of this year's Tree House membership the effort has already been well worth it. I’d like to officially offer hearty return welcomes to Jason Bellamy, Jim Emerson and Sheila O’Malley, all of whom helped me inaugurate this project last year, as well as first-time welcomes to two new members of our little group, Simon Abrams and Steven Boone. That’s a roster the proprietor of any precariously perched clubhouse would be proud to be associated with, and I am extremely happy that you’ve all offered to spend time with me here within these walls this week.

Let’s get to it, shall we? I’m still basking in the insta-tanned glow of the Golden Globes—a necessary by-product of life in Los Angeles this time of year, I’m afraid, whether one pays much attention to awards shows or not. I know the thing is, especially for those of us whose interest is keener than the average bear, whether we write about cinema, or film, or the movies, to claim disgust or irrelevance when it comes to these flashy events. But the awards themselves need not be taken seriously in order to recognize the attraction, the fun to be had from indulging in the glitz, the hypocrisy, the cringe-inducing sincerity (or lack thereof) of a show like the Golden Globes. I think where it gets kind of depressing for me is when that shroud-like feeling starts to settle in, the realization that for many people, with the coronation of a precious few titles and the establishment of Oscar front-runners (whatever that means) the richness and diversity of even a so-so movie year, much less one as good as the one we’ve just experienced, gets bottled and packaged in such a way as to becoming boring. Whatever your reaction to the individual movies, it’s unfortunate no matter how you slice it that 2011 has already become, as far as televised awards shows are concerned, the year of The Descendants, The Artist, maybe Hugo, maybe The Help, and then all those other pictures that aren’t quite up to snuff.

That’s why I consider a gathering like ours a celebration, especially if it means (and it will) talking about movies that would never make it onto the stage of the average star-studded award show, movies that we react to with personal passion, in the negative as well as the positive. The movies of 2011 will have meant something uniquely individual to each one of us, and the celebratory aspect of considering them is not derived from trying to reach a consensus on what’s best. The fun comes in examining how and why conclusions and observations about the movies of the year vary, even among those of us who might be expected to dismiss more mainstream choices in favor of an equally calcified set of approved critical favorites.

So let’s celebrate. One of my favorite things to do each year, despite all the public wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth that comes with it in some circles, is compiling my top 10 list for the year. It’s a tough process, and in most ways an absurd one, the idea of superficially ranking the meaningful and disposable movies I saw during the previous year as if they were race cars or reality show contestants. But it gives me a chance to get my mental house in order, to remember elements and moments within the movies I saw that might otherwise slip away. And on some level the organizational aspect of list-making is simply invigorating to me, a recharging of batteries that brings into clearer focus why I value the experience of having seen all the movies I did in a year, even the crappy ones. It’s a chance for me to remember and share with others movies I value that might not rank high in the general conversation.

This is why I love reading year-end critics’ lists too—to have my memory jogged, my opinions challenged, to be delighted in the curious taste and odd, sometimes inexplicable predilections of others. One of my favorite lists this year comes from everyone’s go-to curmudgeon Armond White. His annual Better Than List seems a strange concept unto itself—each movie has its conceptual partner, a movie of ostensibly similar intent or relativity, that can be used to demonstrate its superiority over the other movie. But this list almost always reminds me of something I’ve forgotten about or at least provides the amusement of seeing movies that wouldn’t seem to be in the least way connected butt up against each other in White’s morally specific universe. It would have never occurred to me, for example, to mention Paul and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives as spiritual cousins of any sort, or Jack and Jill’s “affectionate, very broad ethic satire” as a corrective to The Descendants, but White insists on the connection despite my own myopic resistance. And despite my frequently raised eyebrows, I was this year quite grateful for this pugnacious critic’s reliable lionization of Steven Spielberg in the face of the perplexingly dismissive Director’s Guild award nominations.

In some way, however, there was more than my share of sympathy in 2011 for being on the outside of critical consensus. As the lists started piling up, I found myself unable to relate to the enthusiasm and reverence that greeted Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and those old worries about whether I’d missed something obvious to everyone else reared their heads yet again. I just couldn’t drink so deeply from the impressionistic gallery of images Malick had conjured. Rather than accepting that, for Monty Python as well as for most of us, pinning down the meaning of life is a somewhat elusive endeavor, Malick bravely insists on pursuing a unique perspective on natural, prehistoric and cosmic existence, as he always does. But the difference this time is that the imagery seems untethered to anything as ordinary as dramatic empathy and involvement in the director’s quest for the Big Statement. Immediately after seeing The Tree of Life I wrote this:

“I don't know, if this movie were the only evidence, that I'd say Malick is a visually brilliant filmmaker. To me that phrase is meant to describe someone who knows how to marshal the power of images, not just as individual creations, but as pieces of a whole, or as a philosophy of design or, most important, the curiously undeniable urge to tell a story. It's when the images add up to something other than a director's microscopic, fleeting attention to the minutiae of the world around him that I start to sit up and pay attention.”

As of January 2012, it’s a chore for me to recall anything but fragments of images from The Tree of Life beyond that wonderful sequence in which the oldest boy’s growing up amongst his two younger siblings is compressed into a beautiful visual essay about the way a child might see the surrounding world. It seems to me it is with this gaze that Malick most clearly relates. Unfortunately, a child’s focus is also all over the map, and that too is a feeling I get from The Tree of Life. So am I crazy in having to admit that I have higher regard for Your Highness or Captain America: The First Avenger or Troll Hunter or Contagion than I do for The Tree of Life? You tell me.

In compiling my list for the year I also had the strange experience of having my expectations for how that list might look at the end of the year scrambled and significantly altered by three very different movie experiences, two of which I just happened to have on the same night less than two weeks ago. Typically, the sense of what might be atop the crow’s nest of my best of the year doesn’t fluctuate too much—the year I crowned Speed Racer as my movie of the year I thought long and hard before realizing no other movie hit me the way that one did and that it deserved the position. And for the entirety of this year, in fact since October of 2010, when I first saw it, Meek’s Cutoff enjoyed the status of being my preemptive choice for best movie of 2011. Then I saw Melancholia, which for me redefined the possibility of empathy in stunning cinematic language.

And then, with no expectations of being overly impressed, I saw War Horse, a genuine epic full of grandeur and, at the same time, intimate moments and overwhelming storytelling artistry, and I felt my entire list had been upended the way an infant lays waste to a castle made of wooden blocks. (There’s a moment in War Horse in which Spielberg dissolves from a swatch of stitching laid across Emily Watson’s lap to her son toiling over a rocky patch of land that is so marvelous and so—again-- empathetic that I had to fight the urge to stand up and applaud.) I was on such a high after coming home from seeing War Horse that I couldn’t sleep, so I began watching a Blu-ray of Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry and soon found myself completely absorbed in its gorgeous contemplative association of the emergence of artistic awareness with the awareness of evil and one’s own physical deterioration. The four movies couldn’t be more different—well, I suppose Meek’s Cutoff and Poetry reside in the same general arena of “slow cinema”—and yet they had all made a mess of what I had previously thought was a list that was shaping up right on schedule.

Which, really, just adds to the fun, when it’s all said and not yet done. So what are you all thinking about as we begin to try to put some perspective of our own on this past movie year? What have been some of your favorite moments? Are the genuflections they make toward movie history enough to sustain either The Artist or Hugo? (And speaking of film preservation, did any of you hear about this?) And what are the movies you want to yell and scream and evangelize about that no one else cares to? (My nominee in this category: The Guard. Isn’t Brendan Gleeson just about peerless in this movie? Yet I suspect he will go unremembered at the Oscars—I have to say I audibly gasped when the camera cut to him and I realized he was among the Golden Globe nominees for Best Actor.) The Tree House walls are not soundproof, but the neighbors are very forgiving. Let the yelling and screaming and evangelizing begin!



Thom McGregor said...

Another Earth, Melancholia, Beginners, Harry Potter and the etc. Pt. 2, Take Shelter, Tree of Life, Went the Day Well?, Super 8, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Bridesmaids, War Horse-- all good, nothing lifechanging. Still have to see The Artist and Pina. Maybe best time at the movies was seeing "West Side Story" on the big screen with Emma (11 years old), and having her fall in love with it at about the same age I fell in love with it all those years ago.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Dennis - great stuff, this is going to be fun! I didn't mention this in my first piece, but your feeling about "missing" something in Tree of Life was how I felt about War Horse. I didn't hate it or anything - I just clearly was not seeing in it what other people were seeing.

graig gilkeson said...

A few movies that I wish had gotten more attention in 2011: the strange, beguiling TO DIE LIKE A MAN; the claustrophobic, harrowing one act play that was LEAP YEAR; the surprising, touching short story that was TERRI; LETTERS FROM THE BIG MAN, a soulful sasquatch movie that played out like a collaboration between John Sayles and Joe; and the awesome TYRANNOSAUR with the awesome Olivia Coleman and the awesome Peter Mullan and the awesome Eddie Marsan. Jeff Wells wasn't wrong on that one.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

God, Poetry was an awesome experience. I saw it only a few weeks after seeing Secret Sunshine and that was a one two punch that hit me hard. I've been debating whether to see War Horse before it leaves--I have a lot of other movies on my plate--but I think you've convinced me to see it tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

I think I shared a lot of your frustration with Tree of Life. That said, I am really glad that I got out to the theater to see it; the music and Malick's visuals washing over me was a great experience. I think the source of my frustration is that the film plays at the notion of having a narrative, but I think that Malick was intending to dump it from the beginning, using the actors working hard on the movie they thought they were making as a rudimentary template in which he will shatter and use only shards to mirror what he is looking at. It is something akin to using real blood in a painting to stand in for red paint. It doesn't really seem fair to the actors. It doesn't seem that he really respects what they do. That being said I suppose the artist is entitled to his process. xego