Greatish Performances #48

mila kunis greatish

#48 — Mila Kunis as Lily in Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

When my past assertions that Mila Kunis delivers one of the strongest performances — maybe the strongest performance — in Black Swan were met with surprise of even derision, I had a brief, glib explanation at the ready: She’s the only person in the film bothering to play a character recognizable as a genuine human being for the duration of Darren Aronofsky’s deliberately bonkers ballet drama. The animosity embedded in the sentiment unfortunately implies faint praise, so let me try a different approach. As Lily, the cohort, confidante, competitor, and confusing crush to ascending ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), Kunis is keenly attentive and subtly unpredictable.

My previous shorthand celebration of Kunis’s performance does hint at an important narrative-assisting chore that she does exceedingly well. As Aronofsky’s storytelling soars is swooping circles ever higher under the power of waxen wings, Lily is in a constant mode of assessment. Kunis plays Lily’s reactions artfully, signalling that Lily is sizing up scenarios and the people moving perilously through them. Kunis occasionally comes across as sly or cunning, with a discombobulating tendency to shift quickly into mere playfulness. In more leaden ways, Lily is a mirror of Nina in the narrative (Kunis got cast in the role despite very limited dramatic film work to that point in large part because of her vague resemblance to Portman). In Kunis’s rendering, sometimes seemingly apart from Aronofsky’s thesis, Lily is yet another side of Nina that has gotten lost, seeing and experiencing the same tests of the psyche without succumbing to them. Kunis projects personal certainty, the very quality that Portman’s Nina most lacks.

Part of the character’s evident strength is attributable to the rascally sense of humor Kunis brings to the role. Every other performer in Black Swan subscribes to the operatic excess of Aronofsky’s vision, unable to totally shed the floridness. Kunis seems constantly on the verge of whispering, “Let’s get out of here,” maybe to her costars or maybe to the audience, and absconding to a more sedate neighboring film to sip red wine and indulge in amused eye rolls. Rather than giving Kunis a disruptive air of disengagement, the veneer of pending escape paradoxically embeds her deeper in Black Swan. As mania shimmers across the film, Kunis remains clear and solid, unmoved by the bombastic shenanigans. She’s stays put, providing the useful reminder of realness amid the fantastical. Without the real, the fantasy has no impact, especially when the outcomes grow more dire. It is the authenticity of Kunis’s emotions — her enthusiasm, her razor-edged sarcasm, her suspicion, her offhand warmth — that gives the film its weight.

Whether it’s directorial intent or the sharp instincts of an actor slipping through and offering a lucky countermeasure (I have cause to believe its the latter), Kunis provides a beautifully natural performance in Black Swan. I believe in the person she plays. Thanks to the easygoing worldliness Kunis brings to the role, I can imagine Lily apart from the confines of the narrative, living a life before and after this notably fraught production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. For me, she exists apart from the existential circus. Under the circumstances, I can think of few more impressive acting accomplishments.


About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic
#35 — James Gandolfini in The Mexican
#36 — Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
#38 — Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
#40 — Katie Holmes in Pieces of April
#41 — Brie Larson in Short Term 12
#42 — Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums
#43 — Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings
#44 — Matthew Macfadyen in Pride & Prejudice
#45 — Peter Fonda in Ulee’s Gold
#46 — Raul Julia in The Addams Family
#47 — Delroy Lindo in Clockers

From the Archive — Tiny Furniture

tiny furniture

A fantastic article published this week addressed the dilemma that is Lena Dunham. A heralded new voice when her HBO show Girls premiered, Dunham has become one of those creators whose public persona inevitably — and, for many, damagingly — infiltrates the fictions they spin. Much as I try to separate artist and art, I’m not immune to the encroachment of external knowledge. I found Girls to be daring and insightful in its first season, but gradually looking past the external baggage wore me out. Correctly or not, I felt like I kept spotting Dunham’s defensiveness and festering animosities cropping up in the narrative and character choices. I do have some evidence, however, that my misgivings about Dunham’s work predated her more regrettable moments in the limelight. Before Girls (but after announcement of the partnership with Judd Apatow that led to the series), I reviewed Dunham’s debut feature, Tiny Furniture, for Spectrum Culture. Although loads of my writing is still housed there, I can’t find that particular piece. It may have gotten lost in the shuffle when the site changed platforms a few years back. Whatever the reason for its absence, I’ll take that as justification to reclaim it and share it in my own humble digital space.

The time immediately following college holds unique challenges. After the highly regimented structure of an existence spent toiling at academic pursuits falls away, the endless possibilities that remain stare back like a malevolent abyss. Forecasting from childhood, that openness sounds great — astronaut, cowboy, and fireman seem equally viable vocational pursuits, even pursued simultaneously — but in the harsh light of adulthood it’s tougher to choose a grown-up professional pathway. Hell, it’s hard to believe that being a grown-up has happened, or ever will. This purgatory of maturity is where Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture resides.

Dunham plays Aura, a young woman with a crisp new undergraduate degree in film theory. She returns from college in Ohio to move back in with her family in New York City. Her mother, Siri (Laurie Simmons), is an accomplished artist, and her younger sister, Nadine (Grace Dunham), is enough of a prodigy that the possibility of Aura matching her accomplishments is dryly acknowledged as unlikely. In this environment, Aura’s sense of uncorrectable drift is only heightened.

As Aura tries to find her footing, she reconnects with her old friend Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), a pointedly disaffected, proudly unmotivated young woman who can barely let a moment pass without dropping a hipper-than-thou reference to Picnic at Hanging Rock or Marianne Faithfull. Charlotte is Aura’s funhouse mirror reflection, just as detached from a socially acceptable personal trajectory, but embracing her meandering path with confidence and self-satisfaction. Aura is checked out because she doesn’t know how to meet the world. Charlotte, on the other hand, has gone that route because she’s already surveyed the world and decided it deserves little more than snotty contempt.

Kirke is terrific in the part, bringing a jagged authority to her scenes. Her performance is one of the movie’s stronger elements, but it also serves to illuminate one of its problems. In addition to casting herself as Aura, Dunham recruited her actual mother and sister to inhabit the corresponding roles on screen. They’re all fine, exhibiting a pleasantly unaccomplished quality suited to the themes and feel of the film. But there’s also a nagging sense that some added depth to the main performances would be beneficial. The procession of flat line deliveries can make it feel more like an early morning table read with especially tired actors instead of a finished movie. When Dunham is sharing a scene with Kirke, or Merritt Wever as her friend from college who’s planning to become her roommate in the big city, the distance between her acting and the performance she could be giving comes into sharp focus.

There’s a similar first draft quality to Dunham’s writing and directing too, although that proves far more winning. Judd Apatow famously courted Dunham to become part of his ramshackle troupe of comic voices after seeing Tiny Furniture, and it’s not hard to figure out what appealed to him. The film has the same sort of soft structure as Apatow’s directorial efforts, a preference for letting the uncomfortable messiness of the brutally real have priority over the construction of a clean, sharp narrative. Aura endures a multitude of humiliations, but they’re not dispensed as mounting farce. They just happen, and, in the moment anyway, getting chewed out for tardiness at a demeaning job doesn’t feel that much worse than having a long flirtation culminate with a quickie in the most demeaning place imaginable. Everything’s bad, and if that’s so, why be hung up on determining which things are worse?

The whole movie is a defeated shrug. Relationships shift like the wind, culture has dissipated so thoroughly that fame can be achieved without any accompanying material success, and epiphanies are as fanciful as the vague promise of living happily ever after. It’s entirely possible that the best anyone can hope for is a few moments of simple satisfaction here and there: a chance to share stories or be reminded that mistakes lose their impact as they fade from memory. Lena Dunham’s film doesn’t romanticize or draw anguish from these observations. Instead it discovers a sort of weary grace, a sense that maybe enduring is its own achievement.

Banks, Bergman, Hamilton, Limon, Polanski

1971 (Johanna Hamilton, 2014). Clearly positioned as a history lesson for those who venerate Edward Snowden for his digital freedom fighting in bringing to light information about the U.S. government’s shady spying on its own citizens, 1971 focuses in on a break-in at a Pennsylvania FBI office in the year of the title. Those who are shocked by the modern transgressions against privacy can watch this documentary for a bracing reminder that federal crime-fighting agencies are in full-scale same-as-it-ever-was territory, Patriot Act or not. Of course, that doesn’t make current abuses acceptable, but the indignation is best shaped as part of a long arc instead of flashpoint ire over supposedly unprecedented betrayal. The film is solid, admirably underplaying its coup, captured on the coattails of the Betty Medsger book that inspired it, of revealing the identities of the perpetrators who remained unnamed for forty years. It unfortunately has the now commonplace indulgence of dramatizing the events for which footage is unavailable and could have better explored the splintered paths followed by the radicals in the decades since their altruistic crime. Overall, though, it makes a case for the value in pushing back against oppressive power structures, especially in a nation that is supposed to be resolutely of the people.

Fair Game (Doug Limon, 2010). This docudrama traces the Bush administration’s outing of Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) as an undercover CIA agent, in clear violation of federal law and in a cheap attempt to cover up their own virulent dishonesty in the run-up to the Iraq War. The film is at its best when screenwriters Jez and John Butterworth stick to the plain mechanics of governmental officials and agencies at cross-purposes. It falters nearly everywhere else, as attempts to dramatize the interpersonal conflicts that the tense days stirred up feel leaden and didactic. Watts is strong and believable as Plame, but Sean Penn is clearly coasting as her aggrieved husband, Joseph Wilson. Limon, trying on serious filmmaking as a break from action spectacles, overcompensates for the perceived staidness of the story, too often flopping his camera around in a misguided attempt to create visual dynamism.

The Silence (Ingmar Bergman, 1963). This is Bergman at his chilliest and most emotionally abstract, even though the storyline hints at melodrama. Two sisters (Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom) are traveling, along with the young son (Jörgen Lindström) of one of them, and stop to stay in a fading grand hotel. There are tensions at play, perhaps stirred by immediate stressors (one of the sisters in gravely ill) but more likely the culmination of long-fermenting conflict. Sven Nykvist’s cinematography is typically intoxicating in its gloomy beauty, and Bergman was in the midst of his long peak of crafting cinema that defied expectation in its willingness to engage in elusive rumination. Still, the archness of the tone is sometimes a little too distancing, making this comes across as a bit of rough draft for future masterworks.

Carnage (Roman Polanski, 2011). The screen adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s stage work (the screenplay is co-credited to the original playwright and Polanski) is a quintessential example of making inert cinema by adamantly refusing to reshape material for a different form. With few exceptions, Polanski opts for structures and staging that could have worked as well in a theater as on a screen. The film could have arguably still been salvaged by strong performances, especially given the impressive stature of the cast assembled. But every last one of them overacts to at least a degree, with Jodie Foster, amazingly enough, the worst offender and Christoph Waltz coming the closest to a respectable turn, if only because the officiousness of his acting actually suits the character. To be fair, the film begins with abounding inherent problems in Reza’s story, which is so labored and contrived that it would take a succession of moviemaking miracles to make it emerge as something sharply real.

Pitch Perfect 2 (Elizabeth Banks, 2015). I was hardly enamored with the first screen dance with a capella underdogs the Barden Bellas, but it looks sprightly and heartfelt compared with its witless sequels. The troupe is now three-time defending champs, soaring with diva-esque self-assurance until an accidental act of on-stage lewdness leads to an improbable ban from national collegiate competition, with only a daunting worldwide showcase available as a pathway to retribution. Banks directs with a frenetic indifference to coherently shaping the narrative, not that the screenplay by Kay Cannon (who also wrote the first film) has any evident concern for solid structure or internal consistency. It’s a bunch of lackluster ideas and shapeless jokes heedlessly heaped together, as if upended a laundry basket onto a mattress will magically result in a crisply made bed.

Garnett, Gondry, Hitchcock, Sturges, Susser

The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946). This adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1934 novel is a film noir classic. It’s an exemplar of the form, and perhaps the perfect introduction to the dark charms of the sub-genre built around the basest of human instincts and the shadows in which the manifestation of those urges are obscured, if only because it spells out its duplicitous so plainly. It’s also, sad to say, only a middling film, unfurling its plot with a rushed anxiousness that sometimes leaves behind necessary depth and character development. Tay Garnett’s directing is moody, but also a little rote, as if the whole form was still trying to find its way from the plainness of the Hollywood soundstage to the far more evocative urban caverns of existential bleakness that would follow. John Garfield and Lana Turner are both sharp in their leading roles, but even they can’t quite obscure the labored grinding of the narrative wheels.

The Green Hornet (Michel Gondry, 2011). There was plenty of scoffing when Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg signed on to write a film version of the regularly recycled old radio series hero the Green Hornet. That reaction remained but became tinted with intrigue when Michel Gondry agreed to direct. It would be nice to report that this unlikely crew of creators found their way to a devious little masterpiece or at least a sharp entertainment, but the resulting film is even worse than the scathing speculation could have anticipated. Rogen plays layabout playboy Britt Reid who’s stirred into do-gooding by the death of his media magnate father and the discovery that there’s a gadget-generating kung fu master on the household staff, just waiting to be recruited as a sidekick. The film never settles into a coherent concept, sometimes trying to be a hipper superhero adventure, sometimes playing around with daft satire and occasionally even getting mired in the overt casualness of a weekend home movie project. There’s every indication that all were baffled by this material but no one wanted to admit it, so they plowed ahead anyway. The Green Hornet feels like everyone was standing around expecting that the bluff would be called any minute.

Hesher (Spencer Susser, 2010). Joseph Gordon-Levitt is solid as ever in playing a easily enraged wild child who forcibly inserts himself in the lives of a family wracked by grief over the car crash death of a young wife and mother, but the film that surrounds him is populated too blatantly by indie film cliches. Spencer Susser directs with a dedication to the bleached moodiness of a certain brand of cinematic depression chic that leaves the film straining from start to finish. He, and just about everyone else involved, could have actually used some lessons in anarchic freedom from the film’s title character. That spirit may not have completely saved the film, but would have at least freed it up a bit.

The Great Escape (John Sturges, 1963). Considering it against modern films that position themselves as eager crowd-pleasers, The Great Escape inspired genuine anger in me. It is smart, polished, energetic and terrifically entertaining, and it makes it look so effortless. I know it’s not, as the actual top-grossing film of 1963 made abundantly clear, but director John Sturges’s tale of a group of crafty, rascally inmates of a Nazi POW camp plotting and perpetrating the getaway of the title still represents a time, perhaps somewhat mythic, when filmmakers believed the surest route to box office success was toiling to make sure a film is actually good instead of the current equivalent of crassly hitting as many theorized audience enticements as possible. Running just under three hours, the film is paradoxically brisk and light, offering a primer on the art of sustaining dramatic momentum. It’s known as the film that cemented Steve McQueen’s fame, but the film’s best performance may very well belong to another paragon of American masculinity, James Garner. He plays his wry G.I., who has a way with securing elusive items, with a infectious spirit of beleaguered charm and bullish nobility.

Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954). It’s hardly novel to note a recurring pertinence to Alfred Hitchcock’s famed thriller about voyeurism practiced by a wheelchair-bound photographer with a sharp view through the windows of neighbors across his apartment building’s courtyard. In American culture, prying eyes never go out of style. Still, a fresh viewing put me in mind of the unique development of falsely-felt intimacy in an internet culture driven by social media. After weeks of convalescence, Jimmy Stewart’s L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies feels like he fully knows those across the way whose existence he sees in glimpses as a he moves from room to room, just as someone know might conjure up a connection on the basis of the skipping stone of a Twitter feed, willfully oblivious to the import of all that’s beyond their gaze hidden behind the borders. There’s also a cunningly wonderful depiction of the ways that individuals stick doggedly to their own version of the truth no matter what contradictory data comes their way that actually winds up making the moment that Jeff is proved right a touch disappointing. Hitchcock’s directing is expert, of course. Rear Window may represent his most ideal balance between dynamic inventiveness and smooth narrative storytelling.

Aja, Cameron, Hanks, Ophüls, Saladoff

Piranha (Alexandre Aja, 2010). It’s remarkable that a film that so overtly embraces its own willful trashiness can still be dour, flatfooted and boring as hell. Richard Dreyfuss’s early cameo as a scruffy boater who’s a victim of carnivorous fish is only the first overt reference to Steven Spielberg’s superlative Jaws. The entire plot about the vicious water-dwellers is essentially lifted from the earlier feature, with the family vacation crowds in a terrorized tourist tour replaced by ribald Spring Breakers, all the better to fill the screen with R-rated nudity. It’s gory, ridiculous and almost deliberately inept. It’s also no fun at all, largely because Alexandre Aja directs it with no verve whatsoever.

Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks, 2011). After the relentlessly fantastic That Thing You Do!, I was certain that the presence of Tom Hanks’s name in the writing and directing slots of a film’s credits would always be a cause for celebration. He sure proved me wrong. Fifteen years after his chronicle of the one-hit Wonders, Hanks returned to the director’s chair to film a script he co-wrote with Nia Vardalos, creator of the miserably bad runaway success My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which Hanks, let us never forget (or forgive), was instrumental in getting to the screen in the first place. Larry Crowne concerns the middle-aged fellow of the title, played by Hanks, who’s downsized from his appliance store job, leading him to pursue a degree at the local community college. There he encounters and whole new band of mild misfit friends and pursues a romance with one of his teachers. It’s all hopelessly drab and not a single moment rings true. Hank probably thought he was generating something wistful and sweet to serve as a thoughtful counter to the misery of those confined to the static middle in the American class war, but his stabs at empathy come across as condescending. What’s worse, there’s no live in the film, which only highlights how completely it’s devoid of cleverness and panache.

Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls, 1948). The film that’s largely considered German director Max Ophüls’s clearest masterpiece from his Hollywood years is moody, wise and psychologically astute. Joan Fontaine plays the writer of correspondence of the title, sending off a letter to a famed pianist (Louis Jourdan) in Vienna in the first part of the 20th century. She details her longstanding love for him, including a passage in his life when he romanced her and tossed her away. Ophüls has an incredible capability for covering mood with the shadows in a scene and the way his camera eases through the delicate moments. Fontaine is striking in the role, playing a woman through a wide range of years and across a long arc of swelling emotional destitution. The two together provide the ideal cinematic definition of heartbreak, a state only slightly salved by a sharp dose of time-delayed comeuppance.

Hot Coffee (Susan Saladoff, 2011). I remember watching an episode of Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect shortly after elderly Stella Liebeck won a lawsuit against McDonald’s for third degree burns she sustained after spilling hot coffee she had just purchased while going through the drive-thru of one of their many restaurants. Maher was mocking the supposedly frivolous lawsuit, as many were at the time, until Ralph Nader challenged him with some details that were largely absent from the frothing public commentary: the facts of the case. Susan Saladoff’s documentary does the same, incorporating the information into a broader exploration of the multitude of ways that corporations have conspired with elected officials and the more pliable members of the legal profession to insulate themselves against answering for the malfeasance they perpetrate against their consumers in the name of bolstering their bottom line, regardless of the human cost. Saladoff makes a compelling argument and presents it as a rock-solid piece of documentary journalism. It’s more steady than sensational, but that can often prove to be the more effective approach.

The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984). Now that he’s become practically a franchise unto himself, it’s worth remembering that James Cameron’s breakthrough with The Terminator came after a decidedly unpromising early career. He was following up a writing and directing gig with the film Piranha II: The Spawning, after all. The introduction of the time-traveling cyborg assassins of futuristic evil machine overlord Skynet and the saga centered around the Connor clan seems dated and an even a little cheesy now (it’s admirable restraint on Cameron’s part that he’s never pulled a Lucas and tried to clean up the drifting models and soundstage dystopia of the future war), but there’s also a charming earnestness to it. This is tenderfoot sci-fi nerd Cameron eagerly sharing his vision, unconcerned about how he can leverage it into a recurring profit center. It may not be uniformly great (it’s possible no film with Michael Biehn ever could be), but it’s still commendable.

Kosinski, McQueen, Melville, Reichardt, Young

Tron: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, 2010). “You’re messing with my Zen thing, man!” Is there another actor working today besides Jeff Bridges who could deliver a line like that and make it sound plausible? In the never-ending quest to mine every cinematic artifact from the past three to four decades and turn it into a sparkling new franchise, Disney delivers the sequel, almost three decades in the making, that almost no one waited anxiously to see. What’s more, someone apparently decided that the best way to honor the zippy innocence of the original digital groundbreaker was to heap a whole bunch of impenetrable mythology onto it. What was once fun now aspires to be some intricate sci-fi narrative and becomes grindingly dull in the process. It also decisively proves what I’m sure everyone already suspected: just because you can create a CGI young Jeff Bridges to interact with all the other characters doesn’t mean you should create a CGI young Jeff Bridges to interact with all the other characters. Kosinski directs like someone who doesn’t actually know that all the material he’s shooting is supposed to be stitched together to tell a story.

Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967). This adaptation of Frederick Knott’s hit stage play from the prior year also marks the last Audrey Hepburn film released before she settled into semi-retirement. It would be almost a decade before her next screen outing. As a sort of swan song, Hepburn couldn’t have asked much better. She plays a blind woman who is conned and then terrorized by a group of vicious thugs in her apartment because they’re sure she is in possession of a doll with a pricey batch of heroin sewn into it. Hepburn gets to rail and wail and stumble around in fevered desperation. She also gets to show the ever-stirring thought process of a woman whose sightless condition has taught her to get by on her wits. The adapted screenplay, credited to Robert Carrington and Jane-Howard Carrington, makes excellent use of the situation, exploiting all the shifting possibilities in clever, reasonable ways, all of it further enhanced by Young’s tight, shrewd direction. Alan Arkin plays the most menacing of the thugs, and even his flourish-filled overplaying is a delight, given the actor’s extensive history as the most understated person on screen in any number of films.

Le Doulos (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1962). Melville’s crime drama is as hard and dark as a black onyx. based on a Pierre Lesou novel, the film follows a con named Maurice, played with an edgy sense of crushing inevitability by Serge Reggiani, who has just been released from prison and begins his life as a free man by murdering an old cohort and stealing some hot jewels from him. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays another criminal who is drawn into the ex-con’s plan to rob a wealthy man’s estate. When things go wrong, as things often do in these sorts of films, the recriminations and suspicions begin to fly, especially as the police proceed with their investigation with clear indicators that they’ve got an informant somewhere within the extended crew. By the time the time the whole plot unfolds, all the layered details are absolutely dizzying, which can either be seen as Melville’s satiric upending of film noir tropes or his gleeful attempt to top them all. Either way, it makes for a stylish romp that’s fun to watch, especially on those occasions when Melville makes his camera glide through scenes like an elegant dance, such as a scene in a police station that proceeds at length without a cut.

Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008). In telling the true-life tale of the brutality endured by incarcerated Provisional Irish Republican Army combatants in the early nineteen-eighties, director Steve McQueen takes a fiercely unconventional approach. He shreds established methods of structuring such a film, spending much of the first half with a couple of characters who barely factor into the second half, and introducing the clear protagonist of the latter portion of the film in such casual, offhand ways that the viewer can feel as baffled and unmoored as the inmates onscreen. He also shares some of Melville’s disdain for breaking scenes into pieces, best seen in the film’s centerpiece, a lengthy discussion between Bobby Sands and a priest that the prison has brought in on the eve of the former’s famed hunger strike. For over ten minutes, the film is nothing more than a single static shot of these two men talking, and it’s absolutely riveting, thanks both to the bravery of McQueen’s choice and the performances of Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham in the two roles. (McQueen’s compulsion to let a scene play out at length is less effective when it’s a wide shot of a guard cleaning up a piss-soaked floor that he refuses to cut away from.) It’s no wonder this film and performance immediately rocketed Fassbender up the lists of actors that everyone wanted to work with. He went through a startling physical transformation to play Sands during the hunger strike and that’s the least impressive part of the performance. Fassbender brings an intensity to every moment that signals, as much as anything else, that Sands will go through with his convictions to the devastating end.

Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008). After the open-ended meandering of Old Joy, Reichardt decided to try a plot on for size, albeit a slight one, still built more on emotional impressions than intricate twists and turns. Michelle Williams plays Wendy, a young homeless woman traveling with her dog, Lucy, a few hundred dollars, a grinding old car and an Alaskan destination. Her already dim fortunes take a turn for the worse in Oregon when a series of events, beginning with her car not starting, bring her to a new low point. Resolutely sad and understated, Reichardt’s film operates with a quiet, pained understanding of how small lives proceed, not just that of the title character, but those she encounters, especially a kindly old drug store security guard, marvelously played by Wally Dalton. It’s a splendid showcase for Williams, who increasingly seems utterly unable to give a performance that’s not a wellspring of truth. Fine as it is, it’s finally a bit too minor key, lacking the sort of wily invention that distinguished Reichardt’s next film.

Campbell, Cukor, Curtiz, Gluck, von Donnersmarck

Adam’s Rib (George Cukor, 1949). Probably the apex of the onscreen collaborations between Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, largely because the storyline involving married attorneys facing off against one another in a high-profile trial allowed for the sort of warm, frightfully intelligent banter that served the duo best. For most of the film, the interplay is infectiously delightful, especially as presented by the sure lens of George Cukor, who demonstrates an unerring sense of timing, including knowing when to just lean back and let his stars cut back and forth across the frame. The screenplay by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin is sharp and spry, although it falters just a bit in the third act as it takes a turn for the melancholy that feels obligatory rather than earned. Still, to understand whey the Hepburn-Tracy team is still the gauge for onscreen chemistry, there’s no better place to start.

20,000 Years in Sing Sing (Michael Curtiz, 1932). And here’s Spence again. This was an early role for Tracy, released just two years after his feature debut in Up the River, which was also Humphrey Bogart’s first film. The drama stars Tracy as a street thug who gets imprisoned in Sing Sing, initially meeting every challenge with the same surliness that meant survival on the outside. He eventually solidifies into a man defined by a stark, somber moral code, a quality that is tested when the warden implausibly grants him temporary release to check on his injured girlfriend. Curtiz direction is plodding but also sure-footed. Tracy is already honing his atypically naturalistic style, but the main pleasure comes from watching Bette Davis, also early in her career, burn up the screen with a few scenes as the tragic, brash, conceited girlfriend.

Green Lantern (Martin Campbell, 2011). I’m tempted to argue that there are simply some superhero concepts that should stay in the comic books, but I never would have guessed that the mighty Thor had what it takes to become a commercially viable film franchise, so what do I know? So maybe the real problems with bringing Green Lantern to the screen lie within the execution. Start with a fleet of casting errors, beginning with the guy in the titular role. Given that his default mode is a sort of smarmy, glib self-satisfaction (even when playing a put-upon underling), it shouldn’t have been all that surprising that the sense of wonder that the performance requires is well beyond his capabilities, and he’s not so hot with the rapidly mounting maturity that comes with sudden responsibility, either. There are other basic misjudgements, such as making the costume a mass of swirling energy that only compounds the film’s degeneration into a CGI eyesore, a mass of digital mayhem that director Martin Campbell barely tries to hone into something coherent. The only element that’s entertaining at all is the performance of Peter Sarsgaard as a nerdy scientist who undergoes a gruesome transformation, mainly because he clearly decided to try out every oddball line delivery he could come up with.

Friends with Benefits (Will Gluck, 2011). Will Gluck’s Easy A is one of happier surprises of recent years, unmistakably messy but with charm to burn. It’s a terrific showcase for Emma Stone (she may never have a better one, in fact), but it also has wit and irresistible flavor all along the edges. Gluck’s premise for his follow-up may have been hackneyed enough that it was the second 2011 film to revolve around previously platonic friends who agree to enter into a sexual relationship with the promise of no emotional escalation, but there was hope he could work similar magic. Well, he almost does. Just as Stone delivered a devastating depth charge of charisma in Easy A, Mila Kunis holds the screen with uncommon firmness here. Her scenes with Patricia Clarkson (a carryover from Easy A, which just shows that Gluck has exemplary taste in assembling his stock company) show what Kunis can do with someone who can match her nicely. Unfortunately, her primary costar is Justin Timberlake, who remains a mediocre actor at best. If a film is going to be this predictable, it best sparkle in every other way. Friends with Benefits surely doesn’t manage that.

The Tourist (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2010). This supposedly glamorous pairing of Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, both at the presumed height of their movie star potency, was such a critical and commercial bomb that’s already become a punchline representing Hollywood ignominy. It’s reputation is well deserved. This thriller about globe-trotting spies, double-crosses and mistaken identity aims for the sort of playful intrigue Alfred Hitchcock once pulled off with great aplomb, but the whole affair is inert mush. As it keeps doubling back on itself, it rapidly becomes clear that the plot has so many holes that the movie would be best projected onto a Wiffle ball. It’s astounding that Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck could follow up the sublime The Lives of Others with this painful drivel.

Eastwood, Polanski, Rosenberg, Siodmak, Wyatt

Hereafter (Clint Eastwood, 2010). Clint Eastwood will often dismiss anyone trying to read too much subtext of grand personal artistic statement in his films. They’re just pictures to the steely-eyed director. Certainly this ponderous rumination of mortality holds no added passion or weight that might be expected from a guy entering into his eighties and, therefore, maybe a little interested in considering what might be out there beyond this mortal coil. Instead Eastwood plods through a notably facile script from Peter Morgan bringing together multiple story threads in ways that would strain credulity to breaking if they weren’t so completely uninteresting that any audience interest in gauging narrative veracity likely withered away like a malnourished sapling. Matt Damon is particular adrift, utterly unconvincing as a man with a genuine capacity to communicate with the deceased. Damon plays it with all the gravity of a guy with an uncommon knack for Sudoku.

Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965). Polanski’s psychological horror film about a lovely young Belgian woman who gradually but assuredly goes mad when she’s left alone in her apartment is a vivid piece of directorial genius. Practically ever frame of the film sparks with the energy of restless, confident creativity. Polanski teeters between the woman’s troubled, troubling visions and the hard reality of a life deteriorating from the inside out with all sorts of repugnant debris around the living quarters as evidence of the tragic destruction. Catherine Deneuve plays the woman, and it’s entirely possible that she never had a better cinematic vehicle for her natural onscreen paradoxical appeal of iciness intertwined with irresistible allure. The film is dark, shocking and morbidly funny. Best of all, it’s consistently brilliant.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011). I think it’s a measure of how rotten the general output of Hollywood studios has gotten, especially during the summer months, that this fresh attempt to reboot the quintessential nineteen-seventies film franchise was greeted with exultant appreciation. The screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (previously responsible for pure junk in the nineties) does a reasonable job of imagining how the topsy-turvy future of the original films came to pass, right up to news coverage of the launch of a rocket that presumably has Charlton Heston aboard. But there’s very little that’s truly inspired about it and they leave a few plot holes big enough for a hefty chimpanzee to ride a tire swing through. Director Rupert Wyatt maintains an odd tone that’s a hybrid of bruising seriousness and tongue-in-cheek play that admittedly has its moments, especially when the painfully dull human characters cede the storyline completely to the fast-evolving simians. Too often, though, it’s dumb without being dumb fun.

The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946). Terse, nasty and completely convincing in its bleak depiction of small, crooked American lives, The Killers served as a helluva debut for Burt Lancaster, who looks for all the world like an impenetrable brick wall that became sentient and strode onto a movie set. Adapted and freely, insightfully expanded upon from an Ernest Hemingway short story, the film concerns a hood whose past catches up with him. Most of the film is told in flashback, tracking his descent, and Lancaster plays the man repeatedly staggered by life with a feverish certainty. Director Robert Siodmak drenches the film in stark, moody foreboding. There’s not a moment when the danger of a tough, uncompromising world isn’t fully present in the storytelling. Ava Gardner, also in one of her earliest starring roles, is called upon to do little more than play a woman so achingly beautiful that she can effortlessly convince men to make choices that run directly against their own sense of self-preservation. Unsurprisingly, she’s up to the task.

The Drowning Pool (Stuart Rosenberg, 1975). Nearly ten years after playing detective Lew Harper, Paul Newman returned to the role for this sleepwalking sequel. A cinematic revolution took place between the two films, but there’s no indication of that whatsoever as director Stuart Rosenberg presents every bit of the film in the most pedestrian manner possible. Even pairing Newman with wife Joanne Woodward couldn’t lend a spark to the proceedings. A movie’s in real trouble when its most interesting portion is an opening sequence in which the protagonist silently, grumpily futzes around with a car in an airport parking lot. The film also features a young Melanie Griffith as a sexually precocious teenage girl blithely wandering into danger because that’s just what she did then.

Clooney, Goldwyn, Kiarostami, Taylor, Vaughn

The Help (Tate Taylor, 2011). I think a strong, important movie can (and arguably should) be made about the continued racial-based social inequities imposed in the American South–really all over the country, but those below the Mason-Dixon line had a special skill for it–in the early nineteen-sixties as the power of the Civil Rights movement was beginning the much needed push back against the monied classes that wanted to maintain some diluted but still despicable variation on the slavery system abolished about a century earlier. The Help, for all its noble intentions, simply isn’t that movie. Even putting aside the film’s antiquated notion that the best way to structure a story about the plight of a minority group is by telling it through the eyes of a sympathetic white ally, the whole thing is laden with clichés and single-note characterizations so insipid that they smack of stereotypes that were seemingly buried decades ago. As the first mistreated maid willing to tell her tale of woe to Emma Stone’s fledgling journalist character, Viola Davis labors mightily to instill inner stirrings of humanity in her blandly totemic character, but the material repels subtlety. And I still don’t get the praise heaped on Octavia Spencer’s performance from all sorts of quarters, including, of course, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The role–not the character’s place in life, but the actual role–is marginally more progressive than the one that won Butterfly McQueen an Oscar in the same category over seventy years earlier. She even punctuates one scene by taking a big, defiant bite out of a piece of fried chicken, a gesture done with no sense of irony or meta-commentary. Tate Taylor directs the film with the perfunctory, artless gloss of an old TV movie, the sort that were shot fast and without overt care. Jessica Chastain is the one person who can point to her efforts here with properly placed pride. She invests her eager, unsophisticated, underestimated Southern wife with a vivid sense of personality and ascending strength.

The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011). In theory, I think it’s great that George Clooney is dedicated to reviving the filmmaking principles of nineteen-seventies American cinema. Increasingly, though, it seems that he’s transposing all the wrong parts, embracing the solemn inertness that sometimes plagued the most self-serious material while eschewing the unapologetic intelligence that made the stiffness easier to forgive. Based on a stage play, The Ides of March is nestled in the intensity of a hard-fought campaign for U.S. President, and yet it never feels like there is anything meaningful at stake, even as the specter of awful scandal intrudes. For his cast, Clooney has assembled some amazing actors (and Evan Rachel Wood, too!) and given them almost nothing to do. For anyone wondering what one of Aaron Sorkin’s politically-driven projects would look like with all the clever dialogue stripped away and replaced with thudding exposition and bland pontificating, Ides of March provides the sad answer.

X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn, 2011). After letting Brett Ratner drive the otherwise creatively admirable X-Men movie franchise straight into a wall fashioned from unbreakable adamantium, maybe the only choice (aside from developing a horrendous solo spinoff, that is) was a drastic reinvention. For that, the title and basic concept of a fine retro comic book series written by Jeff Parker was pilfered: the film focuses on the very beginnings of Charles Xavier’s efforts to rescue mutants from a fearful society and give them safe haven in an upstate New York school. The film is set in the early nineteen-sixties and structures at least one major sequence around reimagining actual historical events, a playfulness that the film could frankly use more of. Sometimes it seems the filmmakers want to have fun with nostalgic costumes and set design, equipping the more villainous mutants, for example, with the sort of mobile headquarters that would make any Bond baddie of the era highly jealous. Unfortunately, the default mode is a dull plod through an origin adventure that ultimately has far too many characters to allow any of them to develop much past dully simple iterations. Michael Fassbender is the only actor who creates a compelling character, in part because he has the most to work with as the man who would be Magneto, but also through sheer force of fierce, dark charisma.

Conviction (Tony Goldwyn, 2010). One of the hungriest of the Oscar-hungry movies from 2010, Conviction got some gentle attention all through the lead-up to the main attraction only to be completely ignored by Academy membership. Good call on their part, as the film is toothless and almost entirely devoid of energy. Based on a true story, the film stars Hilary Swank as a woman who is motivated to pursue a law degree in order to help her brother, who she’s sure was wrongly convicted of murder. The script by Pamela Gray consistently focuses on the wrong details, racing past the daunting educational climb undertaken by the main character in favor of an utterly predictable trudge through the twists and turns in the reexamined case. By the numbers work like this is why I often need to remind myself that Swank completely deserved both of those Oscars she won. How there can be such vast distance between her performances in Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby and damn near everything else she’s ever done on screen is one of the modern cinematic mysteries that I’ve never been able to crack. She’s entirely outpaced here by Minnie Driver as a brusque, forthright classmate and Juliette Lewis, intricately alive as ragged, impoverished woman who is a key witness in the case. Tony Goldwyn directs the whole thing as if he’s worried about upsetting someone.

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010). I’ve already expounded on my appreciation for Abbas Kiarostami’s delicate narrative sleight of hand. The primary pleasure of the film derives from its devoutly unassuming nature. Kiarostami uses his decision to shift the reality of the central relationship at the midpoint of the film not as means to cover up a lack of emotional integrity but rather to for a deeper exploration the tricky interpersonal terrain that exists between people. Both Juliette Binoche and William Shimell are strong in their lengthy duet with the former especially adept at developing a personality that is at once brightly unpredictable and wholly understandable and clear. Though those American moviegoers that recoil from subtitles are oblivious to this fact, Binoche has spent recent years taking her acting to remarkable new levels, making a claim with performances in Caché, Breaking and Entering, Flight of the Red Balloon, Summer Hours and this film towards being considered the finest actress working today.

Greengrass, Nolfi, Scorsese, Van Dyke, Winer

George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Martin Scorsese, 2011). It’s very fun to watch Martin Scorsese in this later phase of his career in which he clearly feels empowered and has the accumulated goodwill and respect to make whatever damn movie he feels like at any given time. If that means he’s sometimes going to flip through his record collection and say, “Hey, what about this guy?,” so be it. This documentary on the Quiet Beatle isn’t hugely revelatory in any way, but it’s a nice, creative compendium of the life and art of someone whose undervalued membership in the most significant band in the history of rock ‘n’ roll alone makes him a compelling figure. Scorsese largely sidesteps the most familiar clips and photos in favor of digger a little deeper into the massive archives dedicated to Harrison and his former band, stringing it all together in a way that respects chronology, but also leaves room to let the progression of the film be dictated by mood. The best moments are those that capture Harrison in offhand ways that capture the cynical wit that shaped his talent. I’ll always value the moment that Harrison greets Paul McCartney, decades after they bandmates, by asking the oblivious rock legend if he’s wearing a genuine vegetarian leather jacket. At well over three hours, the whole thing is too long, but it’s harder to figure out what to cut out. The dullest portions for me revolve around Harrison’s ever-evolving spirituality, but that would perhaps be the least appropriate material to excise.

Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, 2010). Paul Greengrass seems perfectly suited to working an Iraq War movie that deals directly with the machinations that went into starting the conflict in the first place. On paper, it combines the strength for dense information soundly considered that elevated United 93 with the clear, kinetic filmmaking that got him major hits with the second and third Bourne films. In execution, though, it’s a bland, muddled mess. Matt Damon plays an Army officer weary over being sent on horrible dangerous missions to look for hidden stockpiles of weapons that don’t actually exist. He begins exploring some leads on his own, uncovering the horrible truth about deliberate manipulations of intelligence to lead the nation to war under false pretenses. It’s a worthy topic, but it has no dramatic heft in Greengrass’s exploration of it. The revelations will be shocking to only the deeply misinformed, and the film is otherwise sadly inert, amazingly generating no tension from soldiers being continually and needlessly put in harm’s way.

The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1934). Nick and Nora Charles investigate the disappearance of a friend, tipping back cocktails and occasionally pausing to watch their beloved fox terrier do the occasional charming trick. The Thin Man is one of the great entertainments of its era, building a good, complex, assiduously honest mystery while infusing the whole affair with an abundance of charm and grace. Myrna Loy has star power to spare as Nora, but it’s naturally William Powell who owns the film as Nick, making intelligence and comfortable decadence into the finest qualities a man could possibly aspire to, especially if they’re exhibited in tandem. Screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich amazingly take the hardness of Dashiell Hammett’s language and transform it into pure, irresistible froth, practicing the sort of storytelling alchemy that was at its apex during that first decade or so after movies learned to talk.

Arthur (Jason Winer, 2011). I’m increasingly realizing what a small minority I’m in for holding the following opinion, but here goes: I think the remake of Arthur is pretty good. It certainly doesn’t reach the unlikely heights of writer-director Steve Gordon’s 1981 original, but it has an agreeable exuberance and just enough embedded cleverness to the humor. It tries to find its own voice even as it sticks to the general plot of the earlier film. Russell Brand is amusing and occasionally even inspired as Arthur Bach, the childlike scion of a wealthy family who distracts himself from his miseries with drink. It’s a gloss on the persona he’s stuck with for most of his film outings, but with innocence in place of arrogance, fearfulness in place of contempt. For me, it wears better than the well-established alternative. There are issues, to be sure: Helen Mirren never quite figures out how to give her sardonic nanny character a fresh voice (but then the Oscar-winning John Gielgud performance is arguably even tougher to best or reinvent than Dudley Moore’s ribald comic turn as the title character) and poor Greta Gerwig seems doomed to follow precisely in Parker Posey’s tire tracks as an actress who is vividly inventive in indie features and utterly stranded in big studio fare.

The Adjustment Bureau (George Nolfi, 2011). There has to be a point when filmmakers collectively decide that adapting Philip K. Dick stories for the big screen is a purely foolhardy endeavor. Either that, or they’ll consider providing an artistic example of the definition of insanity. In this latest stab at the impossible, Bourne Ultimatum and Ocean’s Twelve screenwriter George Nolfi makes his directorial debut by trying to wrestle Dick’s “Adjustment Team” into cinematic shape. Matt Damon stars as a man who discovered the fedora-topped agents who orchestrate reality to make sure it coheres to some grand plan concocted by an unseen higher power known only as The Chairman. It’s his love for a talented dancer played by Emily Blunt that causes him to continually push his predetermined charmed life off the rails. Positioned as a thriller with political commentary tossed into a mind-bending turbine, the film is instead unbearably pretentious silliness. The conceit of needing special magic hats in order to gain access to the backstage passages that the adjustment officers use to travel rapidly from place to place is especially goofy, making it seem like the universe is controlled by some weird hipster angels.