From the Archive: A Prairie Home Companion

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I don’t have much to add to the review below (originally published at my former online home), except to note that every great director deserves to have a final film as perfect of a closing statement as this one is for Robert Altman.

Enjoyment of the new(ish) film A Prairie Home Companion is not predicated on an appreciation for the long-running radio program that shares its name, but it may be dependent on an admiration for the work of Robert Altman.

That particular logic problem answer is based on a case study of one. I plainly don’t enjoy Garrison Keillor’s radio program, finding its gentle homespun storytelling and plunking musical performances to be achingly dull. I’ve tried to find its charm, genuinely hoping to discover that ingratiating warmth that keeps dedicated public radio listeners coming back week after week. Instead, I’m left as perplexed as Homer Simpson when he famously encountered a Keillor doppelganger while watching a PBS pledge drive and responded by smacking the side of the set in futile hope that it would jar some actual entertainment value out of the performer.

And yet…

Generally, I enjoyed the film. Keillor’s script (based on a story co-conceived with TV writer and Minnesota educator Ken LaZebnik) focuses on the production of a lightly fictionalized version of his radio show. Hanging heavy over the typical hustle and bustle of a live radio program featuring multiple musical performers is a sense of mild dread as a major media company has just bought out their home radio station and there are expectations that this performance may be the last. Interspersed are hints of relationships between the characters and backstories that come lightly into play through the dense conversations backstage and, occasionally, on mike.

All of these plot details feel somewhat incidental, though, and not by faulty narrative construction, but by design. Altman has rarely been concerned with the rigors of linear storytelling. He’s much more fascinated with submerging his films into a culture and soaking it in. He wants to convey how a place, a time, a group of people feel. What is it like to move through life with a group of characters for a while? There is a main plot that moves through the 105 minutes of the film, and several smaller stories that drifts along in its wake, but Altman primarily seeks to bring to the screen the work of performers, the effort and strain and combativeness and playfulness of the troupe that mounts this production. Keillor’s radio show is an affected reflection of Midwestern stasis, but the film he’s made with Robert Altman is about the focused stage managers and anxious musicians that manufacture the artifice. In their toils, it finds a bracing energy that enlivens the lengthy portions of the radio show performances that help fill the film.

When a film is more about the parts than the whole, the consistent excellence of those parts becomes extremely important and that’s where Companion picks up some static. There are pleasures aplenty provided by the large cast, led by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as singing sisters, the last remaining remnants of a family act that toured the county fair circuit (to Keillor’s credit, he understands that you’ll not find a better city name to use as a ready-made punchline than Wisconsin’s Oshkosh, and making this the sisters’ hometown allow him to drop the O-bomb with impunity). The mastery of Altman’s trademark naturalistic, overlapping dialogue that they demonstrated at this year’s Oscar ceremony serves them well here. I suspect a satisfying film could be wrestled together solely and strictly from this tandem’s extended dressing room conversations. While the more jagged edges given to Tomlin’s character offer her a little more to do, Streep deserves admiration for her astonishing ease and comfort with the on-stage performances. Thirteen Oscar nominations de damned, watching her here it’s well within the realm of imagination that she could bypass future film work and wind down her career having the time of her life with a weekly gig at the Fitzgerald Theater.

Not faring as well is Kevin Kline, portraying the official show detective (already an odd conceit) Guy Noir, whose name is apparently taken from a recurring radio show character, but I presume the tiresome physical shtick he engages in is freshly created for the film. Perhaps Kline brought in some of the rejected gags from his prior production. Everyone else lands somewhere in between, although singing cowboy duo Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly can claim one of the film’s most unlikely comic highpoints with their final song.

This is hardly one of Altman’s masterworks. It doesn’t have the bite of Nashville or The Player, nor does it have the focus of Gosford Park. But it does have the restless bustle of his better efforts, that incessant inquiry into overlooked corners where little moments are as telling as sweeping stories and big points. It is truly, unmistakably Altmanesque.

From the Archive: Little Miss Sunshine

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As Battle of the Sexes makes its initial, limited-engagement foray into theaters this weekend, I double-checked the filmography of co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, figuring that I’d been largely tuning out their work since their feature debut, Little Miss Sunshine, became a sleeper hit and a Best Picture Oscar contender. Instead, I found that there hasn’t been much to ignore. In the eleven years between their debut and their latest, the husband-and-wife team delivered only one other film, the poorly-received Ruby Sparks. Here’s why I wasn’t paying attention: I really disliked Little Miss Sunshine. This review originally appeared at my former online home.    

Little Miss Sunshine is the sort of film I’d expect a powerful computer to create after compiling data gleaned from all of the comedic films that generated buzz at the Sundance Film Festival over the years. It’s a road movie with a dysfunctional family at the core. It’s got an old person who uses foul language and illegal drugs, a self-help guru who can’t get his own life in order, a teenager who’s sense of personal detachment from the world has led to a vow of silence, and on and on. The movie is so mercilessly crammed with archly colorful details that the family drinks from McDonald’s glassware and embark on their roadtrip in a dilapidated old VW bus. It feels orchestrated rather than created, carefully engineered to hit the Sundance jackpot. On that front, mission accomplished.

Despite the scorn sprinkled through the above paragraph, that’s not automatically a damning crime. One of the things we get from going to the movies is that comforting satisfaction of the familiar or the expected. Sometimes when a movie ends exactly the way we expect it to, it feels right rather than disappointingly predictable. That’s even true for independent fare, when all the pieces lining up properly can be an indication of artistic assurance. The problem with Little Miss Sunshine is that it has little to offer besides its standard-issue parts. The film aims it satiric darts at easy targets and can’t even capitalize on the comedic possibilities offered by the characters. The few times they are allowed to really spark off of each other generally correspond to the moments when the film briefly generates some energy. When Steve Carell starts giving Greg Kinnear a backseat lesson in sarcasm, cherish it. It’s like won’t soon come again.

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (veterans of music videos and Mr. Show) assemble the film adequately, at least having the sense to give their talented cast the room to squeeze whatever they can from Michael Arndt’s limp screenplay. It’s always satisfying to see Alan Arkin and Toni Collette, no matter how much you long for them to have something beyond the simplistic to dig into. Arkin has the designated showboat role, but Collette fares better in some respects, occassionally inserting an intriguing detail in a fluttery throwaway or small reaction. Carell continues to combine crack comic timing with a genuine investment in real acting, and Kinnear is as good as he’s ever been here, hitting the right mark of irritable worry for his character with a constitent level of commitment that–Oscar nomination be damned–is fairly rare for him.

I kept waiting for these gifted performers to pull it together, to transcend their thin material. Despite scattered memorable moments–the methodology employed by Abigail Breslin’s Olive to retrieve her emotionally wounded brother is an especially nice example–the film remains defiantly tethered. The family never feels like people with long-standing relationships, and the emotional turning points are too often driven by illogical story construction, ludicrous coincidence or plain old plot holes.

Near the end, there’s a scene that involves the family members stepping up to support one of their own in an especially low moment. The result is an exuberant celebration of the character’s ill-conceived choice, the entire family united through the mutual embrace of their own off-kilter connection to the world they move through. It’s not a great moment, but it’s one of the places where the familiarity of the filmmaking choice at least feels right. With Little Miss Sunshine, those glancing connections to genuine accomplishment are the best you can get.

From the Archive: Dreamgirls

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The proper way for me to raid my own writing history to align with the major release this weekend entails unearthing my original radio review for the animated classic Beauty and the Beast, from 1991. I did write one at the time. And I was fairly proud of it, if I’m recalling correctly. That review is lost to the eroding waters of time (or at least taped into a box that hasn’t been accessed in a good long time). So I’ll instead look to the director of the new live-action take on Disney’s finest animated effort (Pixar movies don’t count). This review of Dreamgirls first appeared at my former online home.

The new movie musical Dreamgirls has two distinctly different halves, separated by the number “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” which has to stand as one of the most impressive showstoppers in the annals of Broadway. Of course it’s not hard to spot that the song signals the act break when the production is on the stage, but it’s more than that. The two sides of the movie are quite different in their effectiveness. Some of that may derive from shortcomings or strengths inherent to the material, but there’s some clear filmmaking choices shaping the impact as well.

Writer-director Bill Condon previously helmed the marvelous Gods and Monsters and the compromised Kinsey (and Candyman II, what the hell?) but the main bullet point on his resume that landed him this long-developing gig was the screenplay adaptation for the Oscar-winning film version of Chicago. In that film, he notably invented the notion that all of the music performances were the imaginings of the obsessive Roxie Hart, so desperate for her place on the stage that she sees the whole world as a grand music performance. Here, Condon has the luxury of the primary storyline charting the rise of a Motown-styled “girl group” called the Dreams (a veiled-so-thinly-you-may-not-even-notice-the-cloth-hanging-there version of the Supremes) and the freshly invented Detroit record label they help make into a major force. For the most part, characters don’t break into song while walking down the street, but while they’re on stage or in a recording studio, keeping it more grounded in reality, which modern audiences seem to need with their musicals.

That hurts him somewhat, too, as there are a few moments that require that sort of old-style staging with characters singing to one another not because they’re putting on a show, but because they’re expressing emotion or even passing along exposition through song. These few moments are rare enough that they sit somewhat uneasily in the film. More problematically, much of the first act is an overdirected jumble that progresses too rapidly. We feel like we’re watching the characters proceed without really knowing them, as Condon seems more interested in creating some razzle dazzle with his shot choices and editing techniques.

Sometimes that distance from the characters is a natural extension of their very construction. Eddie Murphy plays James “Thunder” Early, a consolidation of James Brown, Little Richard, Bobby Womack…hell, by the time he shows up in a colorful knit hat singing “message songs” it starts to seem that Early is meant to be every black male who carried a tune in front of a microphone between 1955 and 1975. The character is a skilled performer of R&B, soul, funk and even delivers a proto-rap song in a defiant television performance. Presumably we’ll need to wait for some sort of DVD extended director’s cut to see him master delta blues and invent trip hop. That the character has any recognizable through-line at all is a credit to Murphy’s performance. In the past, his best work has been marked by a sort of freeform creativity, a whipsmart fluidity that finds the comic truth (or, on occasion, the poignancy) in any given moment with a considered liberation from the rigors of maintaining the bigger picture of the character or the film. He achieves the opposite here, completely subsuming any tendencies he might have towards caricature, shifting quickly past the most obvious earmarks of his pop chart inspirations to lock onto the echoing disappointment of Early’s life. It may not even be accurate to say this is Murphy’s career-best performance, but it’s the first time I’ve seen him approach a role as an actor rather than as a performer.

Generally, the strength of the performers helps that second half gel into something potent and moving. Condon finds a more agreeable rhythm, letting the stories unfold gracefully while concentrating his fussier energies on the more enjoyable diversion of filling the background with entertaining pastiches of Motown hallmarks, from album covers to performers. Besides Murphy, Jamie Foxx is excellent as the film’s Berry Gordy stand-in, quietly establishing the firm, menacing strength and decisiveness of a powerful man. And then there’s Jennifer Hudson, keeper of the most tragic and triumphant story arc as Effie White, the member of the Dreams whose place at the front is supplanted by a prettier, safer singer played by Beyonce Knowles. Hudson performs “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” with the appropriate raw abandon and just pulling off that moment practically guarantees an invite to the Kodak Theater. She’d solid throughout, playing Effie’s self-defeating righteousness with a smooth, on-target emotional efficiency, but it’s the centerpiece song that really sticks. The belted anguish of the moment hits the heart hard and elevates everything that follows.

From the Archive: My Ballot, 2006

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The other day, I provide my list of the twenty performances from 2016 films that I would have submitted on an Oscar ballot had I been given the opportunity to do so. This is an exercise is wishcasting that I have been indulging in for an absurdly long time. In online platforms alone, it has been over ten years of offering my haughty views of which performers were most deserving of awards consideration in any given year. Since ten is a nice round number, I thought I’d drag out my anointed score of acting titans from the film year 2006, originally posted in my first online home, complete with the original commentary, without tempting finesses to make me look more prescient than I was. At least I managed to go four-for-four in predicting the actual winners.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
1. Helen Mirren, The Queen
2. Ellen Page, Hard Candy
3. Luminita Gheorghiu, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
4. Kate Winslet, Little Children
5. Penelope Cruz, Volver

Despite my previous griping about the uniformity of the various critics’ awards this year, I have to wholeheartedly agree with the consensus pick. This is in part because the performance is that good, but also due to the field being that weak. Honestly, Ellen Page is the only other performance that I consider even close to Mirren’s work in The Queen and I’m pleased that she was one of the only people to wrest an award from the Dame’s hands this year (albeit from a critics’ organization pretty far down the food chain). Mirren will win tonight, and it will be the most deserving acting award of the night.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
1. Leonardo DiCaprio, The Departed
2. Clive Owen, Children of Men
3. Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson
4. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brick
5. Kazunari Ninomiya, Letters from Iwo Jima

Hey look, me and the Oscars agree on Ryan Gosling and that’s it! Just wait until we get to Supporting Actress. I haven’t bothered with Blood Diamond, but that must be a helluva performance if it’s better than the tightrope anguish of Dicaprio’s work in The Departed. Among the many sadnesses of Children of Men neglectful treatment during the awards season is that Clive Owen’s masterfully reserved performance has gone under-appreciated. Having finally seen Gosling’s lived-in edginess in Half Nelson, I’m pleased as can be that he got invited to come clap for someone else. I’ve already typed my piece about Gordon-Levitt, so I’ll just note the great empathy Ninomiya earns as the Japanese soldier who embodies the cultural shift in perceptions of glory and self-sacrifice in Eastwood’s good World War II this year. As for tonight’s likely winner Forest Whitaker, I think it’s a supporting performance rather than a lead (he’s completely absent for a good twenty to thirty minutes in the middle of the film), and I don’t think he really deserves a nomination in that category either.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
1. Vera Farmiga, The Departed
2. Lily Tomlin, A Prairie Home Companion
3. Claire-Hope Ashitey, Children of Men
4. Maribel Verdu, Pan’s Labyrinth
5. Meryl Streep, A Prairie Home Companion

Among the Oscar nominees, I like the work of Rinko Kikuchi in Babel, but I think that’s largely due to the fact that her storyline is the only one that had any feel of truth to it. As much as I do like all of the performances here, the only person here who really had a chance to make it the big dance was Farmiga, and I’m not entirely sure how Warner Brothers botched the acting categories so badly with The Departed. It would be so much nicer if Streep were being honored for the charming flightiness of her performance in Altman’s closing work than the amusing single-note novelty of The Devil Wears Prada, but I’ll concede that I’m more curmudgeonly about that performance than most. By the way, I also think that Maribel Verdu shoulda been a contender for Y Tu Mama Tambien. Maybe if she gets around to working with the least talented member of the Three Amigos, she’ll actually get some deserved recognition. Bitter? Yeah, a little bit. As to the way tonight will actually play out, Jennifer Hudson remains a lock. Certainly the Dreamgirls soul train isn’t charging as hard as everyone assumed it would be, but the Babel performers will split, and its way too early to give Cate Blanchett her second. That leaves the ten-year-old and they’re not prepared to do that yet again, are they? If they are, expect that stupid yellow bus to win Best Picture. Back to Jennifer Hudson, I think that’s really a lead performance, and I don’t think she really deserves a nomination in that category either.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
1. Michael Sheen, The Queen
2. Danny Huston, The Proposition
3. Michael Caine, Children of Men
4. Mark Wahlberg, The Departed
5. Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls

Listen, I know Danny Huston never had a chance for the wild inspiration of his work in the The Proposition and the Academy is going to foolishly prefer the more self-consciously serious work of Michael Caine, but they couldn’t have shared some of that Queen love for Sheen’s work, which is just as fine as Mirren’s? For tonight’s ceremony, smart money stays on Murphy to win, although the money that’s been moved over to Alan Arkin isn’t so dumb. I don’t especially like Alan Arkin’s performance in Little Miss Sunshine because, like almost everything else in the film, it feels too cutesy and familiar, but there’s nothing wrong with an Oscar having Arkin’s name engraved on it. We can just all pretend it’s actually for The In-Laws or something.

From the Archive: The Departed

I haven’t done the math, but I’d confidently wager that there’s no other director about whom I’ve written more often and more enthusiastically than Martin Scorsese. The movie review radio program I co-hosted and co-produced debuted in the fall of 1990, meaning we covered Goodfellas within our first few shows. There were times that it seemed I said the title of that movies more often than I spoke my own name during the first year of the show. On the occasion of Scorsese’s latest, Silence, going into wider release this weekend, here’s the first of his films that I wrote on after reviving my practice of slinging my opinions around in jumbles of words. This originally appeared at my former digital home.

Real hardcore movie geeks rejoiced at the news that Martin Scorsese and Jack Nicholson were finally working together. The preeminent director and actor from the great grungy heyday of late-1960’s-to-early-1980’s American cinema had probably exchanged handshakes at plenty of award ceremonies, but they had never found themselves on opposite sides of the camera on the same project, in no small part because all the roles that might have interested Nicholson were reserved for Bobby De Niro. With that storied director-actor partnership seemingly on permanent hiatus (excluding his recent documentary work from the count, Scorsese has now made five films over the past eleven years without De Niro, the longest stretch without a collaboration since Mean Streets), there’s suddenly a place for Jack on the call sheet.

For all that anticipation, there’s nothing especially momentous about Nicholson’s work here. He’s very good, to be sure, but Scorsese doesn’t pull anything new or startling out of him, as directors like Sean Penn and Alexander Payne have managed in recent years. Instead, as Boston mob boss Frank Costello, Jack Nicholson gives about the performance a seasoned moviegoer expects from him, although when you’re talking about a talent as prodigious as that of Mr. Three-Time-Oscar-Winner, there are still abundant rewards in witnessing the familiar.

That soft caveat is the only thing even close to a reservation that can be voiced about Martin Scorsese’s new film The Departed. In fact, Nicholson’s performance is one of the only parts of this remarkable film that doesn’t demand breathless hyperbole. The film is that good.

A remake of the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, this new effort features a byzantine plot that I wouldn’t want to take a crack at recounting even if I weren’t already averse to story recaps. Besides, sorting through the curlicues of the story is a significant part of the fun. I’m not sure that Scorsese has ever spun this many plates in one of his films, and I’m quite certain than this represents a new peak in sheer exuberance for his material. After toiling away on Oscar-friendly projects that were blithely ignored by the powers-that-give-out-awards despite their accessible excellence, Scorsese tears into this project with the same ferocious ingenuity and fearless narrative spelunking that marks his very best work. He infuses the film with the same sort of undercurrent of devilish playfulness that shows up in Alfred Hitchcock’s most enduring films (he even throws in an out-of-left-field visual quoting of The Master at one point), resulting in something that is preposterously entertaining.

It is also violent, vicious and relentlessly profane. It is uncompromising and startling. In pushing the film to the brink, Scorsese deeply understands something that is utterly lost on the breed of directors that believes dropping in sudden violence is a short-cut to arty edginess. Scorsese understands that truly powerful filmmaking is achieved when character development is first and foremost. Only then will there be any real emotional impact achieved through adding elements that will start the MPAA ratings board hyperventilating. Bullets fly fast and free in The Departed and each one strikes the pysche as assuredly as it rattles the surround-sound.

Scorsese enlists a league of exemplary co-conspirators. This begins with the raggedly ripping screenplay by William Monahan and includes a list of vital performances, ranging from juicy supporting turns by Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg and Martin Sheen (as good as he’s even been) to wonderful work at the fringes from David O’Hara and Goodfellas vet Kevin Corrigan. Matt Damon exploits his naturally-emanating stolid citizenship to great effect, and Vera Farmiga is commanding in a role that could have easily gotten lost amidst the cracked heads and butch banter. She’s so strong and securely at home, in fact, that I wouldn’t be surprised to see her turn into the first actress to become a Scorsese regular. Best of all is Leonardo DiCaprio, proving once and for all why he’s Scorsese’s “new De Niro.” DiCaprio finds his character’s anxiety, anger and neediness and then cuts deep. In a film full of raw elements, DiCaprio’s performance is the rawest, and it carries with it a power that enriches everything else around it.

Sometimes I wonder why I give so much of my personal time over to movies, especially when I’m trudging away from jackknifed semis like All The King’s Men (2006 version) or emerging from the deadingly whimsy of Little Miss Sunshine. Of course, the reason is simple: sometimes there are achievements like The Departed.

From the Archive: Top Ten Movies of 2006

Recent weeks have seen an online avalanche of top ten lists from movie critics of all stripes. I live in the frigid north, however, and it takes certain cinematic offerings a little longer to fight their way through the sleet and snow to our various multiplex screens. So, as usual, I need to wait a little bit on that particular exercise in backwards counting. As a bit of a stopgap, here’s my equivalent list from ten years ago, which just so happened to be a movie year I found to be particularly strong. Following my usual methodology, this writing was originally presented as ten entries scattered across a few weeks. I’ve compiled them here, so be prepared. It’s turned into something of a long read.

#1–Children of Men

It’s the extraordinary confidence of director Alfonso Cuarón that I think of first; confidence not only in his capabilities to pull off bravura feats of staging, but also a surprisingly assured belief that the audience will comprehend all the complexities of the story without overt exposition and explanation. Set some twenty years in the future, after two decades of global human infertility have reshaped the very nature of how societies operate, Cuarón’s film is bursting with important, telling details, many of them revealed in the bustling backgrounds or through the passing references in shared reminiscences. The film is focused on lives as they are lived, and it moves with unobtrusive observation, letting the truths of the world emerge naturally. That approach is especially brave as the film has so much to say. Like the best of true science fiction, it offer pointed commentary on the travails and triumphs of modern life by providing a glimpse of the future we are potentially building. Cuarón’s commentary is not offered up through boilerplate political speeches or leaden allegories to current issues, but through simple revelations of troubled places and events that are utterly recognizable, maybe not as directly connected to where we sit today, but certainly just a few poorly chosen steps away. The England depicted here, with it’s ever-present propaganda and dehumanizing cages for captured illegal immigrants, is a harrowing vision, but also one that could be right in front of us after glancing away from the forces of control and hatred that currently fill op-ed pages and throttle discourse. In loosely adapting a novella by P.D. James, Cuarón works the central concept of this dystopian future unleavened by the rejuvenating promise of new generations with astonishing depth. He shows us all the futility, fear, struggle, and pained hope that can be imagined, and does so with startling technical accomplishments that manage to place us as literally in the midst of this world as any film could. The riskiest moments play out as extended single-takes with no apparent edits and none of the safe trickery of filmmakers remodeling time. We are there, trailing Clive Owen as he rushes through a city street war zone or in the claustrophobic confines of a cramped vehicle as horrors are spilling across the windshield. Cuarón takes the recent technical advances in filmmaking and thinks beyond what is cool to determineswhat can be done to truly enrich his work. His success in this is thrilling, enrapturing, even moving. More so than other film of 2006, or of recent years for that matter, Children of Men shimmers and shines with the gratifying intellectual friction of a movie that attains the status of great art.

#2–The Departed

I don’t know if I can come up with another film as vividly alive as this one. There’s already been too much cineaste chatter about The Departed as a “return to form” for director Martin Scorsese, mostly from film writers eager to congratulate themselves for not being duped by the high aspirations (or blatant Oscar-grabbing as far as they’re concerned) of Gangs of New York and The Aviator. As far as I’m concerned, those are exceptional films as well, and certainly nothing Scorsese needs to retreat from. The Departed isn’t about giving up on high art to get back to the mean streets where he belongs. What really marks it as a fresh accomplishment is Scorsese’s urgency to fill the screen with as many ideas as he possibly can. There’s a breakneck pace to the film, especially in the earlier sequences, as Scorsese expertly figures out how to convey all the necessary information, motivation and emotional pretzels in the clearest, quickest way possible. He’s always created dense films, but this may be the first time that he’s made a movie that’s seemingly in a race with itself. It’s a measure of his astounding craftsmanship, and that of his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, that it never turns into a blurred rush. It is a quickened pulse project on screen, and it feels for all the world like the way movies should always be. The complicated dance of a story examines the photo negative worlds of cops and robbers and what it’s like to exist in the murky gray in between. As you might expect, that’s fertile ground for the cast which is populated by performers reaching new personal heights. Of special note is Leonardo DiCaprio, who is a steel coil held tight but always threatening to burst open. It is a performance of glowers and undercurrents with feverish intensity that mirrors the film and, in the end, helps ground its blistering screenplay, hurtling spirits and achievements in technique in the anxious fumblings of haunting misjudgments human tragedy. So, while it’s wrong to call The Departed a comeback for Scorsese, I will concede that for the first time in years he has made a film that can leave you blissfully exhausted from explaining everything that’s great about it. That’s not a standard any filmmaker should have to live up to, but today what I’m saying to you is this: when you’re facing a film as great as this one, what does it matter?

#3–The Queen

Helen Mirren is indeed as wonderful in The Queen as the uniformly bestowed honors this Oscar season would have you believe. Her performance is not some flat duplication of newsroom footage, but a fully realized exploration of a person. In a way, the fact that she is playing the current sitting Queen of England is almost incidental. She has thought about the ways in which generational distance can insulate someone from changing times, the confused pain of having a private matter a great preoccupation of an international public stage and the struggle of someone whose very sense of purpose is slipping through her delicate gloved hands. These are the elements she channels into her portrayal; these shape the portrait more assuredly than any title does. Except, of course, that the fact that this is the current sitting Queen of England is anything but incidental. Director Stephen Frears could have proved himself a master movie tactician simply by training his camera on Mirren’s expressive face (which he does in fact do, to his great benefit) but he also digs into the complexities of Peter Morgan’s deeply intelligent screenplay. He finds the ways in which this story with the public and personal twisted together in its DNA takes the events in the week after Princess Diana’s untimely death — the warm empathy of Tony Blair’s outreach to the British people, the stubborn silence from the royals — and illuminates a whole collection of modern truths about the dusty crumbling of monarchy, the elevation of likability over experience in our leaders, and the increasing fascinated aggrandizement of public figures. With a veteran filmmaker’s clarity, Frears brings out the best in every element, every performer. Every moment that could ring false — from a symbolic stag to a gesture of caring from a small girl — instead locks in as perfectly right. One more plaudit: as wonderful as Mirren is, she is matched by Michael Sheen as freshly minted Prime Minister Tony Blair. He goes through the most pronounced change in the film, beginning as a skeptical soul convinced that the royal family is a blundering relic of the past and finishing as a believer in their strength, sense of duty, and distant dedication to their subjects. The transformation occurs over the course of a rocky week, and Sheen somehow manages to make the journey not only believable, but admirable.

#4–Pan’s Labyrinth

It is one thing to imagine magnificent wonders, it is quite another to make them come alive in a convincing, eloquent way on-screen. The great achievement of Guillermo del Toro’s film is not the dark splendor of his imaginings, but his deft directorial touch to best showcase these inspirations. He build shadows around his creations that accentuate their deep, strange beauties. Those shadows seep into the storytelling, too. Franco’s Spain provides the setting, but in many ways it is just a big, grim metaphor for the general muted pains of childhood. That is dramatized more directly in the challenges faced by twelve-year-old Ofelia as she endures her new stepfather, a harsh captain in the new militaristic regime. Played with luminous simplicity by Ivana Baquero, the character escapes the dread of her new daily life by retreating into fantasy, and this is where del Toro’s wild things come out to play. Despite the temptation to see her escape as something truly magical, del Toro never seems completely willing to grant the audience that courtesy. The fantastic elements are surprisingly limited, not because of a lack of interest on the part of del Toro, but because to overstate the levels of retreat available to our heroine is to present a story that is tragically untrue. The pain of loss and the cut of a blade have a jarring way of taking precedence. The safety of wishes for something beyond the injurious hardships of the worst of existence is fleeting, not lasting. Sometimes the best that can be hoped for is for the splendid, lovely lie of a picture of paradise that washes over bleak reality at precisely the right moment. In the sadly beautiful ending del Toro constructs, he reaches out with that tattered gift.

#5–Brick

If the hard-boiled rat-a-tat-tat of classic film noir dialogue is the way we wished we could talk, then there are moments in Brick that are so jubilantly potent that they could very well represent the verbal aspirations of classic film noir characters. The script by Rian Johnson is absolutely enraptured by language, layering in cinder block poetry and other spoken pyrotechnics with unabashed glee. Johnson takes full advantage of his conceit — a murder mystery with a high school backdrop — finding sly humor in the contrasts of tough-guy banter including references to homeroom and parent-teacher conferences, and even justifying the dense conversations as the enduring influence of a “tough but fair” teacher of “Accelerated English.” His directing matches the script, stylish and dense with rewarding details. The whole endeavor has the same devilish intelligence as early Coen brothers, and I have few greater compliments at my disposal. A film like this is aiding immensely by strong acting. While players up and down the cast list come through, it’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead role who has the greatest challenge and emerges with the most impressive accomplishment. His shoulders hunched against the world, his bruised face a road map of wrong turns and untimely bravado, Gordon-Levitt brings a probing intelligence to his scenes and offers just a hint of caution behind the pained heroism. He gets the stoic veneer just right and brings equal conviction to the underlying raw nerve emotions that come from betrayal. The performance is as sharp as the words he’s given to shape it, and in the case of Brick that’s really saying something.

#6–Letters from Iwo Jima

The conventional wisdom says that Clint Eastwood’s late career directorial reemergence is enriched by a anti-violence sentiment that serves as a sort of corrective to the stardom he achieved in no small part by asking helpless punks to wager on whether or not there were any bullets in his gun while he pulled the trigger. I’m not sure I buy that, and I doubt that Eastwood buys it either. Maybe instead he’s just finally reached the point where he can make whatever films he wants without having to come up with some sort of giveback to the studio –h e can make White Hunter, Black Heart without making The Rookie, he can deliver Bird without having to agree to stroll through another Dirty Harry picture — and that freedom emboldens him in his choices. Or maybe he’s just following his own personal curiosity a little further than he did previously. That’s what led him here after all; preparing for the Iwo Jima battle sequences in Flags of Our Fathers he thought about the Japanese adversaries as frightened, noble men instead of faceless, nameless enemies and wondered what it would be like to tell their story. The result is a potent, moving film that bravely immerses itself in the culture of the Japanese soldiers burrowed into tunnels on the island. As opposed to many Hollywood films, Eastwood doesn’t feel the need to give us a white man as entryway into this time and place, nor does he bury the film in bookish exposition to explain the unique particulars of their views. He simply shows us the men who prefer suicide to the indignity of defeat on the battlefield, and the imposed norm of proudly charging into an battle that cannot be won because you are doing it for the greater glory of Japan. But Eastwood also takes great care to show the conflicting views, the growing notion of the nobility, even tactical wisdom of self-preservation. Things are simply not clear-cut, because, after all, it wasn’t a nation defending that island, it was men. With great care and respect, Eastwood’s film brings us closer to those men and everything they lost.

#7–United 93

With the careful calm of a detached sociologist, writer-director Paul Greengrass grapples with the most charged day in recent American history. His entryway to September 11th is the one airliner weapon that didn’t strike its target, seemingly due to the intervention of the hijacked passengers. Without diminishing the bravery of this response one iota, the film’s reasoned portrayal shows that fighting back against the terrorists was less an act of thunderous heroism than the instinctual reaction to being backed into a terrible corner. This isn’t to say that these people onscreen act with fevered desperation. Instead, it is the nonplussed self-assurance of people who have been reduced to a single viable option. There is tension and there is worry, but the predominant sensation is that of inevitability. That coheres nicely with world outside the fuselage as Greengrass portrays it. By dramatizing the reactions in various air traffic control centers and in the headquarters of the Federal Aviation Administration, Greengrass depicts that Tuesday transforming from just-another-day to something far more troubling. Greengrass takes care to show that it didn’t occur in some cataclysmic way when the first tower was hit, but through the dawning realization that a vast scheme was unfolding in a sky absolutely filled with planes. There’s not much characterization to the people in the film, which only serves to heighten the impact. Without trumped up screenplay quirks and other sorts of Hollywood color and backstory, everyone seems all the more vivid, just people going about their lives until history took them into its unrelenting jaws. It is by saying less about them and portraying their individual pieces of September 11th with a verisimilitude that even most documentaries don’t achieve that Greengrass pays them the ultimate tribute. They are not fictionalized, they are real. And they are unforgettable.

#8–L’Enfant

A young man whose livelihood is completely dependent on petty crimes raises a small sum of money by selling his newborn son. The one sentence plot description is bleak and devastating, a thumbnail sketch of the rottenness of humanity. And yet, while that description is entirely accurate, it’s also misleading. There’s no denying that the choice of the central character is horrid, but the stunning trick Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s film pulls off is making the viewer understand why he does it. You don’t sympathize with him or feel he deserves some sort of second chance. As he rushes around his destitute Belgian city trying to reclaim the child with the juvenile impatience of someone who’s more concerned with getting out of trouble than the wellbeing of his offspring, you in fact can find more and more reason to dislike him. The film makes you understand by developing the character so well that his impetuous nature, simplified world-view and underdeveloped emotional maturity is laid bare. You can despise the action he takes and yet recognize how, to him, it was perfectly reasonable, as plain and uncomplicated of a dilemma as which jacket to put on when a chill hits the air. The Dardennes aren’t interested in some sort of expose or trumped up examination of the terrible misfortunes that plague the world. They simply tell a sad, quietly powerful story with great acumen, conveying with equal precision the instant joys of a playful wrestling match with a lover and the smothering panic of a remote, unprotected interaction with criminals unburdened by mercy. The Dardennes are equally merciless, but they’re also free of judgment. In the end, that evenness is what gives this film of small, wounded lives its lingering power.

#9–Volver

When it comes to the storytelling, Talk to Her was more bold and unique, and Bad Education was more richly complex, like a tight, satisfying novel. Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver can feel like a softer cousin to those films, not to mention the bustling fresh establishment of a unique cinematic voice that is All About My Mother. Yet Volver lingers in its own way for its own reasons. Almodóvar’s audaciousness is restrained and his insights more refined. There are none of those Almodóvarian moments seemingly designed for little more than eliciting gasps. Instead there is a discipline to the proceedings, a focus that helps the whole film cohere thematically. Almodovar has long been renowned for his affectionately constructed female characters, and that comes through with grand clarity here, as the film repeatedly allows its women some level of tender liberation from men who have caused them harm. One could argue that even extends to the reclamation of his former collaborator Penélope Cruz from the Hollywood star machine that has stranded her in a series of English-language performances that have been strained at best, but more often downright embarrassing. She seems to have a decent enough command of the language, but no capability to work with it in believable rhythms. Working in her native language untwists her tongue. The words pour out of her rapidly, forcefully, passionately. She builds the character out of pain and heartache, and finally a little hope. And it is the strength of Almodovar’s filmmaking and the potency of his empathy for the characters that makes that hope feel well deserved and decisively earned.

#10–A Prairie Home Companion

I’ll concede right up front that this selection is as much a tribute to a storied career as a celebration of this particular film. Of course, it’s not like I’m making room for Prêt-à-Porter or something, trying to pretend a disastrous movie is wonderful just to get in one more testimonial to the grandmaster skills of director Robert Altman. A Prairie Home Companion is a little wonder in its own right: rambunctiously funny, disarmingly thoughtful, and, in the end, a grand appreciation of the happy messiness of creation. In using his longtime radio program as a launching point for a screenplay, Garrison Keillor brings us a production filled with his trademark mix of nostalgic music and homespun humor and also takes us backstage to the tumult, roving distractions, and barbed dressing room conversations. All this serves to enrich the showmanship on stage and the songs being belted into the shining, silver microphones. It’s one thing to hear and see Keillor effortlessly rattle off a long monologue extolling the virtues of some sponsor. It’s quite another when he’s doing so with consummate unflappability as a stage manager struggles with a towering stack of papers, trying to find the one sheet that he requires to usher the show to the next segment. As the film world mourned the death of Robert Altman, the considerations of mortality in this film became prime fodder for discussions. The prevailing sentiment presented here is that you meet the end not with heavy speeches or maudlin proclamations, but with the same simple, dignified dedication that was brought to every day, every show, and, one can extrapolate, every film. Indeed, and bravo.

From the Archive: Wordplay

This was written for my former digital home. That’s about all I have to add this week. 

The new documentary Wordplay is strongest in the final section, when its focus remains fixed on the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament held annually in Stamford, Connecticut. First-time director Patrick Creadon has followed the methodology established by Jeffrey Blitz with his winning examination of the stresses and triumphs of the youthful participants in the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee, 2002’s Spellbound: find an off-the-beaten-path competitive event (the event itself will provide some built-in drama), identify some compelling characters among the participants, then point, shoot and pray from some cinematic serendipity. That approach has helped films like Murderball and Mad Hot Ballroom garner levels of attention that most non-fiction filmmakers can only dream of. In the case of Wordplay, the eventual arrival of the large-scale puzzle battle gives the film some purpose and drive that is more elusive in the early-going.

Creadon devotes a lot of time to establishing the simple presence of crossword puzzles in the daily rituals of people. This makes some sense when he’s aiming the camera at those who will figure in the competition that closes the film, less so when it’s the Jon Stewart or the Indigo Girls. It’s unclear if Creadon is trying to make puzzle-solving seem more normal by connecting some celebrities to the activity or just add a dash a glamour to his film, figuring a Newsweek cover boy or two will help the promotional effort more than New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz, who is the central figure of the film. Regardless of the motivation, when you’re watching Yankee hurler Mike Mussina explain how much he enjoys solving the Times crossword during the season, you know you’re watching filler. Granted, the film needs to provide somethng leading up to the contest, especially since people solving crosswords individually across rows of tables has some definite shortcomings cinematically, but Creadon would have been better served spending more time on the history of the puzzle-solving pasttime, or further examining how these things get created in the first place (watching puzzle-crafter Merl Reagle at work is an early highlight).

The tournament that closes the film has a few notable twists and turns to make things implausibly exciting (and, at one key moment, heartbreaking). Better yet, Creadon captures the sense of community that develops at these sorts of events. Certainly the film has previously taken its various “characters” and held them up for some gentle ridicule, their effusive expertise in connecting words coming across as comically foreign in our cultural context which only values such skills when deployed in the service of reciting NFL transactions or financial market minutiae. Me, I have a series of colorful jerseys hanging in the closet of my glass house, so I’ll not take shots at the idiosyncracies of those onscreen. I do recognize that sense of camaraderie that exists between those who devote ample amounts of time to an endeavor that’s outside the norm, the relief and celebration of encountering others who share your minor obsessions. Creadon seems to recognize it, too, and captures it lovingly. While the puzzlers onscreen dream of winning the tournament, Creadon shows us that they continually return simply because they enjoy the simple experience of participating and celebrating everyone else who shares their passion.