Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Thirteen

#13 — Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)
It is perhaps a marker of the diminished expectations of any film that is dominated and driven by action sequences that Ang Lee’s involvement in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon initially seemed perplexing. Lee had made his mark with films that were about conversations rather than fisticuffs, films that were deeply invested in character. Even the battle sequences and other violent skirmishes in the film he’d made immediately prior, the flawed but underrated Civil War drama Ride with the Devil, were entirely secondary to small focused scenes that examined how the characters interacted with one another. This martial arts epic seemed drastically removed from the sort of film that previously attracted his interest and drew out his knowing depictions of humanity. And then Lee, who’d already demonstrated an admirable range, proved that doubting him wasn’t a sound instinct. Like the lithe warriors he tracked across the screen, it seemed he could do anything.

It’s to his great credit that he accomplished this by resolutely sticking with his well-established greatest strength as a filmmaker. Specifically, he focused on the characters. There’s much to admire in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on a purely technical level. The crystalline elegance of Peter Pau’s cinematography, the perfectly calibrated editing of Tim Squyres, the propulsive score by Tan Dun, and unquestionably the roundly celebrated action choreography by Wo Ping Yuen all contribute mightily to the film’s impact. Yet, consistently wondrous as all these elements are, there are plenty of lesser films out there with individual components that are worthy of equal praise. It is Lee’s inspiration that draws them together to a cohesive, compelling whole, and the unifying thread is the attention paid to the story, the script, and, perhaps most importantly, the people that populate the film. We may marvel at their feat of athleticism, but that wouldn’t matter much if they weren’t just as fascinating when sitting somberly around a table contemplating the heartaches of the past.

Based on a novel by Wang Du Lu, and adapted for the screen by Hui-Ling Wang, Kuo Jung Tsai and Lee’s regular collaborator James Schamus, the film is ultimately quite simple. Set in 18th century China, the film revolves around a fabled sword called Green Destiny, the warrior who gives it up in part as gesture of his retirement, and the fiery young woman who steals it away. From these threads a great cinematic tapestry is woven, getting at matters of nobility, integrity, how glory can be earned and stolen, and how duty can defer personal desire. All these different tugs and shoves of human emotion are conveying beautifully by the cast assembled by Lee. Chow Yun-Fat quietly conveys the ways in which a lifetime lived in honor and service can leave a man considering all he has given up just as assuredly as he can look back with pride at his accomplishments. Similarly, Michelle Yeoh invests the woman who has been his longtime friend and ally, a formidable fighter in her own right, with a regal self-assurance that is as appealing as it is formidable. Then there’s Zhang Ziyi, a thrilling whirldwind as the young woman whose predetermined place in the world doesn’t match well with her fervent desire for boundless adventure.

These roles are so well-developed and then acted with appropriate skill, that the action sequences become a expression of character. Watching Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi face off in hand-to-hand combat typified by lightning-fast movement, exquisite grace, and agility that pays the laws of gravity no mind is incredibly exciting, but it also draws us in further to them, gives us a greater understanding of the people they’re playing. Furthermore, Lee strives to find the beauty in these sequences, as well, using lovely wire-work to send his combatants up the the shifting luxury of the treetops or skipping gently across moonlit roofs. There’s visual splendor there, but there’s also a sense of the way these individuals connect to the world around them. It is breathtaking, but avoids the pitfall of a wavering focus. The film doesn’t stop for the action sequences. Instead, it demands that the action sequences contribute to everything else the film is trying to convey. These moments get the blood pumping, but they also stir the soul.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is assembled with evident care. It is inspirational and surprisingly moving, an unrelenting feast for the eyes and a film that is unafraid to scratch at deeper ideas, to get at the way we are shaped by the expectations we build for ourselves. The athletic feats it puts on display may flirt with the delightfully impossible, but it is the most grounded elements, the fully identifiable glimpses of love, envy, bravery and regret, that truly send it soaring.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

Here it comes, here it comes, here comes the serious bit


So this is what Jewish fatalism looks like stretched out to feature length. The new film from Ethan and Joel Coen, A Serious Man, focuses on a college professor at the dawn of the nineteen-seventies, facing a tenure hearing and crumbling personal life. He’s generally saddled with a dour parade of bad news, and the film is primarily about his increasingly frayed attempts to weather the storm. How do you keep soldiering on through life when fate seems determined to crush you? Within this grim cloud of a movie, the Coen brothers generate dark drama and a brand of humor black enough to somehow make the laughs feel like their accompanied by inhaled soot.

The Coens have long been skilled practitioners of gleefully warped storytelling, matching the cynicism of their writing with bold and inventive camerawork. What has sometimes gotten lost in the admiration of their willingness to send their camera and their characters careening around like hapless residents of a pinball game is their mastery of the mechanics of film narrative and visual storytelling. Throughout their latest effort, the efficiency and artfulness of the images consistently impresses. The opening of the film is a sort of preface, a film short on its own, a story from a distant, snow-blown past that presumably explaining the origins of the bad luck that will soon follow. It is amusing on its own terms, but it also exemplifies how to build tension, use off-screen space, develop characters with a just a few quick strokes, build timing into the storytelling. It is a perfect nugget of writing and directing. By standing somewhat apart from the rest of the film, it offers a reminder of the technical craftsmanship of the Coens, and further illuminates the inspiration of what will follow.

That’s part of what makes the Coens great directors. Another part is their splendid collaborations with actors, seen here in the extraordinary lead performance by Michael Stuhlbarg. As the fresh sources of dismay continue to mount for his character, Stuhlbarg shows how close his character is to breaking. He’s like a windshield that’s sustained a pinpoint crack that gradually spreads until it’s a spiderweb of fractures covering the entire surface, the glass quivering but not quite reaching the point of shattering. At times, the anguish contained right under the surface is almost unbearable. Stuhlbarg conveys this with precision. In the fleeting moments when the character gets some respire, you gratefully exhale with him.

It’s not always an easy film to sit through, but that’s largely the point. As opposed to other filmmakers who can occasionally veer towards sadistic when they bring their bleak worldview to the screen, the Coens take a rueful laugh-to-keep-from-crying approach. They don’t blink, carrying out their vision without the pause of a second guess, right up to the fantastic final shot. It wouldn’t be much fun to live in the world that the Coens see through their lens in A Serious Man, but it’s incredibly rewarding to watch it.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Fourteen

#14 — Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)
It is a love story, like a thousand movies than came before, and a thousand that will follow. It adheres to that most familiar of trajectories: two people meet, gradually fall into in one another’s arms, and face impediments to being together. There are two potential paths to the closing credits, one ending in bliss, the other in tragedy. Despite the familiarity, Brokeback Mountain is uniquely special. It’s not just that this romance is between two men, cowboys drawn to each other while charged with looking over a herd of sheep together on an isolated mountainside. Instead, it’s that, under the sensitive direction of Ang Lee, the shared gender of the two lovers almost becomes immaterial. While it is a major part of what holds them apart–arguably, it’s even the sole reason that they can’t be together openly and happily, why they need to keep trekking out to remote corners of nature to experience their shared ardor–it doesn’t hang over the film like a thrumming issue or a political stance reshaped into drama. Instead, we focus on these characters, and who they are to one another. It stops being about two men in love, and starts being about two people in love. Maybe the film’s not special despite the familiarity. Maybe the familiarity is what makes it special.

Starting with a short story written by Annie Proulx, and utilizing a screenplay adaptation by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, Ang Lee builds his film with a surfeit of tender dignity. Lee largely sets aside any sort of agenda in favor of focusing on the relationship, trying to understand everything about his two lead characters, their connections and the reasons why they can’t help but run away from part of their own selves, perhaps the part that makes them happiest. The movie is frank and unashamed of the physical romance between them. Indeed, the camera presses in close as they kiss and caress. It’s not meant to be titillating or sensationalistic. It is straightforward, simply capturing the intensity of their passion. It’s all part of the compulsion to really know these people, deeply and with great empathy.

After an opening that focuses at length on the way the men found each other, got to know each other, fell in love with each other, the film shifts to carefully hopscotching through their lives largely lived apart. Their small accomplishments and more common echoes of heartbreak are parsed out with diligent attention to the most telling moments. There’s a shrewd economy to the storytelling. It doesn’t get mired in overly extended scenes or burdensome explanations. It lets people talk to each with honesty and authenticity, feeling more like captured reality than staged fiction. The movie lingers on these people as they all, in one way or another, struggle to open their hearts. The intimacy of it all enhances the emotional power, makes the sorrow almost too much to bear.

With so much ground to cover, and so much depth to dive into, the film is a tremendous challenge for the actors involved, and, as they excel in the parts, an equally powerful showcase. As one of the men enmeshed in love affair kept secret, Jake Gyllenhaal has to both show the glee and bravado of his character, but also how it keeps it under wraps. He gets at the ways in which the constant hiding of himself weakens every bit of his resolve, and how he starts to cautiously edge out of the shadow he’s built his life within. Gyllenhaal is especially strong in the later scenes, properly playing his character as a man who’s lived with undue burdens, signaling a growing impatience with his own compromises through a building ferocity and every bit of his demeanor. Michelle Williams operates with a different sort of mounting desperation as the wife of one of the men, living with a different sort of loneliness as she senses more than understand the fragility of her marriage and family. Watching her strain to comprehend how the promises she believed in got upended is one of the film’s most moving elements.

To a degree, both these actors reach the high emotions of their roles because they’re playing against an actor who’s achieving something stunning with the riveting internalization of everything his character feels. Heath Ledger plays Ennis del Mar, the half of the relationship who’s most fearful of the implications of his attraction, with a compelling restraint. Ennis is laconic, practically a closed circuit. His very physicality is locked up with his inability to let himself out, to confront the world openly in any meaningful way. He takes such cautious steps with his wife and daughter that the meaning, the vitality, of his relationship with Gyllenhaal’s character has an added weight. He is the only person that inspired Ennis to shed his crippling reticence. He gave Ennis life. He gave Ennis himself. Ledger locks into the character with a commitment that is startling. Just think of the drastic difference between this and his Oscar-winning role, released just three years later, as the malevolent, make-up coated Joker in The Dark Knight. The contrast demonstrates just how deeply Ledger gets into his character, how much Ennis is embodied rather than played.

The beauty of Brokeback Mountain is that it feels like anyone’s story. It has a universal quality, relatable for anyone who’s ever been lonely, anyone who’s ever been in love, and had that love, for any reason whatsoever, go unrequited. It is, in the end, just another love story. Like a thousand movies that came before. Like a thousand movies that will follow. And yet few of those others will reach the heights of Ang Lee’s masterful film. It is about two men, but it belongs to anyone willing to open their heart to it.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

One for Friday: Ed Haynes, “Splash”

In this weekly space, I write a lot about music I procured fifteen or twenty years ago. Back then I was getting albums on vinyl, on CD, and, if desperate, on cassette. While it was no harder to find the newest U2 or R.E.M. record than it was to find Milli Vanilli or Aerosmith, a significant amount of the music that captured my interest required some hunting to get a copy (or sometimes pleading with whatever small label originally serviced the radio station with a second copy that could be added to a poor radio station staffer’s collection). Often the most desired release was so obscure that the mention of it would elicit little more that a perplexed stare at even the coolest record stores. One album that fit into that category was Ed Haynes Sings Ed Haynes. Sardonic and sly, the album was a sterling collection of humorous (but not pushily funny) songs, played with artful simplicity by Haynes. It was the perfect record to grab when something attention-getting was needed for an on-air mix.

I’m not sure how I got a cassette copy of the album, but I did. Through all my years of having no fancier option than a tape deck in my cars, it was one of the only things that was not a mix to receive regular play. I’ve combed through various used bins over the years, snapping up a surprising number of little-known releases that I was introduced to during those bygone days toiling in that central Wisconsin radio studio, but I’ve never seen that Haynes album.

So that’s why I’m thankful for the way the Web has changed how we find music. Even putting aside the “Long Tail” theory and the remarkable capability to easily buy anything being actively offered for sale, there’s this whole army of people out there getting the music out there. Admittedly, this usually involves ignoring copyright law, but a fair number of people seem to stick with dispensing music that wouldn’t get exposure otherwise. And, for what it’s worth, a significant number of the things that I’ve purchased in recent years, driving money towards the artists and independent record stores that I favor, I wouldn’t have discovered without this vast, wonderfully sprawling online community of music fans.

I don’t have all of the Ed Haynes album any longer, but thanks to a few of those individuals out there on the digital frontier, I have some of the songs. And every time “Splash” shuffles up, I do want to go our and get me a six pack of Rolling Rock.

Ed Haynes, “Splash”

(Disclaimer: The Sings Ed Haynes album appears to be about as far out of print as a record can get, but there are other releases available from the artist in question. The song posted here is done so with the understanding that there’s no readily available means to acquire the song. If anyone with due authority to do so asks me to remove the song, I will gladly comply.)

Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Fifteen

#15 — American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, 2003)
The past decade was a good time for deconstructed narrative in film. Beginning with the mad flush of creativity of the cinematic year 1999, when the likes of Being John Malkovich, Run Lola Run, Fight Club, and even marginally more conventional fare like The Matrix and The Sixth Sense, were as much about the structure of storytelling as they were the travails of their respective characters, there was a newfound willingness (newfound outside of experimental film anyway) to bend the track of traditional film narrative into a sort of cinematic Mobius strip. That fresh freedom, and the vitally important audience awareness of the rules of narrative that came with it, allowed filmmakers of all persuasions to push boundaries in different ways across the past ten years. Creators such as Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry were especially keen to comment on their own work as it unspooled, but it was a pervasive enough trend that markers of meta could be found in any number of films. Sometimes it was a signal of self-importance. More often, it represented abundant creativity. That quality is present in American Splendor, couple with a charged playfulness that may not entirely suit its central figure. It does, however, elevate the whole project to the rare air of deviously clever entertainment.

American Splendor is also the title of the underground comic book series written by Harvey Pekar since the mid-seventies. Autobiographical by design, the series was renowned for its immersion in the mundane, serving as a direct refutation of the sort of spandex-clad supermen that usually populated publications structured around sequential art laid out in square panels. Pekar was known for relating simple stories of his life as a file clerk in Cleveland. The film doesn’t strictly adapt those stories as much as it tries to capture the spirit of them. It is about Harvey’s perpetually strained relationships and minor obsessions, but it is also about the process of him shaping it into his own sort of art, how that are shapes his life and how he shapes his life to accommodate that art. It is equally about the creator and the creation.

This makes it especially fitting that Springer Berman and Pulcini approach the material with a willingness to stretch it out, fully testing its parameters. They cast Paul Giamatti to play Harvey Pekar in the film, but also recruited Pekar to appear in it. He narrates the film and also sits before the camera to get interviewed by the filmmakers, answering questions about the situations that have just been dramatized, leveling the deadened skepticism of his gaze at the camera and he waxes with a battered incredulous amusement about the film itself, the very premise that anyone is interested in him, that anyone is proffering his story with the sort of phoniness that is necessary for a fictionalized film version. At their most daring, Springer Berman and Pulcini let their different world intermingle. Paul Giammati finishes a scene as Pekar, “Cut!” is audibly yelled, and he walks onto another, different styled set to watch the man he’s just played engage in a discussion about jelly beans, utterly unaffected by the cameras rolling a few feet in front of him. And when Harvey reaches his highest peak of notoriety (at least before the movie) by appearing on David Letterman’s old Late Night show on NBC, Springer Berman and Pulcini structure a scene around Pekar stalking unhappily around the green room with Giamatti playing Pekar, only to have him walk out for his segment, getting replaced by his real life counterpart in actual footage from the show. It never feels manipulative, never feels pointlessly showy. Instead, it’s just taking advantage of every possible avenue to get at truthfulness, a strategy entirely in keeping with Pekar’s agitated pronouncements against human fakery. Over the years, Pekar’s printed representation was rendered by several different artists. In its alternating methods of depicting Pekar, the film version of American Splendor manages to achieve its own sort of variety.

That sort of approach could easily undermine the performances, putting the actors next to those they’re depicting, potentially inviting unfavorable comparisons. Instead, it enhances them. Giamatti doesn’t deliver a perfect impersonation of Pekar, but the actual man’s demeanor is a compelling testimony as to how effectively the actor has captured his personality and his acerbic defeatism. Similarly, Hope Davis captures something more important that vocal cadences or physical resemblance about Pekar’s wife and collaborator Joyce Brabner. She finds a morose intelligence and inherent empathy that goes a long way towards explaining her attraction to and endurance with Pekar. Judah Friedlander, on the other hand, is an uncanny mimic of self-proclaimed “ultimate nerd” Toby Radloff, absolutely vanishing into the part, a magic trick illuminated by the one moment in which he’s allowed to briefly break character. In every instance, the inclusion of the real figures serves as proof of the high quality of the acting.

American Splendor is as unlikely of a film as Pekar’s original stories were as comic book adventures. There’s no real hook, a resolutely dour protagonist and a storyline that wanders with something close to aimlessness. There’s also a rewarding tendency to find inspiration in the smallest, most unlikely things, and, finally, a tinge of hopefulness, or at least dented grace, lurking within the pessimism. It’s the sort of movie that Harvey Pekar deserves. And that’s high praise.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Sixteen

#16 — Shattered Glass (Billy Ray, 2003)
There’s a pleasing irony at the heart of Billy Ray’s Shattered Glass. In making a film based on real events, Ray has a certain amount of leeway to embellish and rearrange, shifting the details of the story to enhance the drama. Indeed, there’s even an expectation that he’ll do so, jettisoning those elements that don’t work, and potentially inventing others that will clarify his points and smooth the messiness of lives and situations that have no obligation to adhere to the cleanliness of a three-act structure. And yet the film clearly strives to convey its scenarios with a laudatory commitment to accuracy in depicting the downfall of journalist Stephen Glass. The fiction filmmaker is an assiduously honest reporter. The reporter is a weaver of pure fiction.

Stephen Glass was a writer and associate editor for The New Republic, a magazine held in such high regard and wielding such influence that it was regularly referred to as “the in flight magazine of Air Force One.” His career started to unravel when reporters from the fledgling online offshoot of Forbes looked into a article entitled “Hack Heaven,” which related the tale of executives from a company called Jukt Micronics negotiating with a juvenile expert in digital malfeasance. They discovered that the story was a complete fabrication. It was an exercise in creative writing in the guise of a news piece.

Ray’s film is daring in its simplicity. This is a film about intelligent people figuring things out as one crafty individual tries to keep the damaging truth obscured. There are no car crashes or chase scenes, no displays of last minute bravado that lead to an improbably rescue. The most dangerous moment involves accidentally running a stop sign. In the absence of quick, easy ways to goose the audience to attention, Ray manages to make it gripping when two people try to puzzle out a strange detail in the story by simultaneously calling the same phone number. A mounting pile of recently read magazines makes for a more memorable image than any number of computer enhanced spectacles that flooded multiplexes in recent years. Billy Ray makes magic with the intellectual certainty of his approach, one that values thoughtfulness over aggression, patience over frenetic energy, and intelligence over empty dazzle. Other filmmakers would have taken this material and goosed it up with frivolous material that could be cut into an appealing trailer. Ray has confidence that the story as it stands is worth telling. After all, that’s why he wanted to tell it.

He couldn’t have a better collaborator for a film rendered in this style than Peter Sarsgaard. Cast as Charles Lane, the editor of the publication when the story of Glass’s breach of journalistic ethics breaks, Sarsgaard is a master of understatement. He doesn’t play Lane as some sort of noble crusader, honing in instead on the idea that he’s a man of plainspoken integrity simply doing his job. He reacts to the growing controversy that threatens to swamp the reputation of the magazine, a reputation that stands as its greatest asset, with a mix of deliberate consideration and contained frustration, all informed by a mounting sense that he should have realized the problem far earlier had he not be hampered by his own caution over challenging the professionalism of a popular member of the staff. Like everyone else at the magazine, he was fooled by Glass’s in-house showmanship, the way he pitched his stories with a gawky disbelief at stumbling onto something so sensational. Sarsgaard subtly, artfully gets at Lane’s sense of responsibility and betrayal–betrayed by Glass, but also betrayed by his own failure to trust his instincts–and plays it all with such calm that the moments in which he explodes with anger are purely riveting.

The rest of the cast tackles their corners of the film with similar dedication. Steve Zahn and Rosario Dawson have only a few scenes as the reporters who expose Glass, but they still manage to suggest the entirety of their professional dynamic. As fellow members of the New Republic staff, Melanie Lynskey and Chloe Sevigny take different approaches to showing the sorts of protective emotions that Glass inspired in his fellow workers (and Sevigny deserves special celebration for the scenes in which she flashes a hair-trigger fury that is strangely entertaining). Then there’s Hayden Christensen as Glass, worming into the insinuating neediness of the man, the constant quest for validation that causes him to practical beg his friends to verify that they enjoy his company. It’s a clear line from this anxious behavior to cooking up fanciful stories to please his friends, his editors, his distant readers. Christensen taps into this unappealing–yet paradoxically endearing–qualities with a refreshing lack of vanity.

It’s a fascinating story well told, but it also represents something greater, more troubling. Shattered Glass gets at the vicious erosion of standards in the field of journalism, a process that continues unabated to this day. Serious, measured reporting on important topics is quickly sacrificed to shiny carnival acts more likely to inspire laughter than thought. And it’s all greeted, even by those who should know better, those who should be protecting the sanctity of their once noble profession, with delighted applause. It was never a slippery slope, it was a treacherous cliff. And Billy Ray’s film shows just how easy it is to charge right off of it.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)