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.

 

1children

#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: The Bourne Ultimatum

 

I really thought this review was already on this site, but I couldn’t find it. That makes it fair game for “From the Archive.” The motivation for sharing it this week seems pretty obvious, I suppose. So, this is probably already more than enough preamble.

In many respects, The Bourne Ultimatum, the third installment in the film series following the exploits of spy Jason Bourne, is much like the first two offerings. These films aren’t like their equivalents in the Bond series: there is no new supervillain to be bested, no grand scheme for world domination to subvert. There is simply a dedicated, deadly man hampered by a faulty memory, trying to discover who he is, his efforts raising the fears of the government agency that once directed his missions. What’s different is that director Paul Greengrass has built upon the strong prior films and crafted an entry that is more taut, memorable and satisfying.

It’s especially fascinating to note the ways in which Greengras adapts the precise attention to procedural detail he mastered in United 93 to this film. When the government agents track Bourne from their war roo of technical espionage marvels, it’s hard not to recall similar scenes of air traffic control stations and F.A.A. offices in United. That lingering authenticity helps to ground Ultimatum, adding the tension of heightened plausibility to the most sensational scenes.

And there is no shortage of sensational scenes. The character of Bourne has been established as a extraordinary weapon, devastating in hand-to-hand combat and relentlessly driven. Greengrass takes those prompts to develop extraordinary action sequences. Bourne’s inventiveness in a fistfight makes him seem like a less whimsical Jackie Chan, and there are car chases that actually make that tired old trope of action movies seem relevant again. The scenes are kinetic and the handheld cameras swirl and bob and weave to keep up with it all. The images are shaky and woozy and yet always manageable for a viewer. There may be a desire to immediately rewatch a particular sequence, but that’s to admire the staging. Other films spur that urge out of a need to decipher mystifying cross-cutting.

The Bourne Ultimatum is tight and intelligent. That doesn’t necessarily give it emotional resonance, though. As Bourne makes fresh discoveries about himself and his history, it doesn’t have the gut-shot impact it should. In this instance, the issue doesn’t arise from indifference or a lack of capability. The moments intended to cut to the heart simply can’t compare with the great accomplishment of those that get the blood pumping through their daring thrills.

Top Ten Movies of 2013 — Number Ten

Director Paul Greengrass is great at the particulars of a film’s story. That’s what made United 93 comes across a model of titanic restraint when it arrived, its keen attention to the simplest details of people reacting to terrible turns of history providing an emotional poignancy that Hollywood script speechifying could never muster. Even his contributions to the Bourne series are at their best when tightly focused on the physical mechanics of the scenes. And that’s what gives Captain Phillips its bracing immediacy. Based on actual events that took place in 2009, the film follows the hijacking of a cargo ship by Somali pirates, bringing an attention to depicting the situation that is clinical without ever undercutting the harrowing tension. It is impressive across its entire running time, and Tom Hanks gives a stalwart, dedicated performance as the eponymous captain of the seized vessel. It is in the final minutes when the film delivers most impactfully, staying with the scenario after similar cinematic endeavors choose to look away, gifting the characters with the peacefulness of a slow dissolve to closing credits. Captain Phillips makes it clear that the trauma is only beginning for the people involved when the plot is at an end. In the real world, there’s no credit roll to obscure the agonizing aftershocks of those who’ve experienced brutality. Through his commitment to truth, Greengrass–aiding by Hanks, in the single most powerful scene of his career–offers a stark reminder of that fact.

On your way to a world that others might have missed

A single scene can’t make a bad movie into a good movie, but it is possible to transform a good movie into one that’s near-great. At the very end of Captain Phillips, the new docudrama about a 2009 encounter between an American-owned freighter ship and a small band of Somali pirates, director Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray choose to extend the film one crucial scene past the point when most fictions and fictionalizations of this sort would end. Audiences have been well-trained to view the culmination of whatever critical situation that drives the plot as the proper end of the story, but these filmmakers know that a deep, dark plunge creates rough water that can stretch for miles. The devastating final minutes of Captain Phillips not only carry their own impact, but cast everything that preceded it, already harrowing material, in even starker terms. There’s now no denying the power of the story. Greengrass and Ray make sure of that.

Actually, Tom Hanks does, too. The actor plays Richard Phillips as a fairly no-nonsense skipper of the massive ship, growing curtly passive aggressive when he feels the crewman are dawdling too lunch during their break. There’s a resolute level-headedness to the character and the actor, especially once the pirates have taken over his ship. Phillips doesn’t suddenly become an action hero, nor does he exhibit a preternatural ability to outthink his adversaries. He does, however, keep trying, and Hanks shows him operating with little more than a somewhat skilled everyman’s ingenuity. He is simply a guy doing his job. It just so happens that the job has gotten more difficult than it ever should have been. That’s a concept that carries through the entire film, applying to other sailors on Phillips’s ship and even some of the Somali pirates, who are clearly in over their heads in a illicit profession that they feel is the only choice they have given the dire circumstances at home. It’s one of many parallels drawn between the two crews and the two captains, the sense that they are trapped in circumstances beyond their reasonable reckoning. When Phillips briefly berates his crew for complaining about the dangers in the journey–they are workers and not military men, after all–it is later echoed by the leader of the Somali pirates, Muse (Barkhad Abdi). It’s a measure of the relative subtlety of the filmmakers that Phillips overhears this familiar exchange, but doesn’t understand it because it’s in a language foreign to his ears, depriving the narrative of the epiphanic moment of understanding the similarities that exist between the opposing forces. That would be too easy, and Captain Phillips, whatever it is, definitely isn’t built to take the easiest route.

This film presents Greengrass in the mode that suits him best, hunkered down with the mechanics of real-life travails. As was the case with his brave, excellent United 93, Greengrass is more interested in the simple, tense ways people respond to crisis than in whipping up some sort of motivating backstory. Greengrass realizes that the more mundane the situation–more than anything, Phillips simply follows procedure throughout the film–the more relatable it will be, and that will make it far more gripping than some sort of trumped up drama. It’s when Greengrass slips into considerations of greater conspiracies and easy villainy (as he did with his last film, Green Zone) that he loses his focus and, therefore, his impact. Captain Phillips is instead an example of Greengrass at his best: lean, committed and, best of all, willing to show every last repercussion of the situation he depicts.

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.

Spectrum Check

After a customary end-of-the-year rest, the Spectrum Culture site returned with a spiffy new redesign this week. It was fairly low-content for the first week back, so my contributions were limited to pitching in on a couple of lists.

First, I wrote on the latest Black Keys albums for our collection of the “honorable mentions” when it came to the best albums of last year. Besides that, the site has an annual tradition–in keeping with the features built around assessing older albums and films with fresh eyes–of kicking off the new year by looking back to the best pop culture of five years earlier. I wrote about The Lives of Others and United 93 for the film feature and Neko Case for the music feature.