Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Eight

#8 — The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)
Those whose entire knowledge of superheroes derives from visits to the cineplex–and I still find it remarkable that a working background acquired through such means could be so much more thorough that I ever would have imagined ten years ago–can be forgiven for not realizes precisely how much Brad Bird’s The Incredibles is indebted to The Fantastic Four. This assertion is in reference to the comic book stories crafted by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby beginning in the early nineteen-sixties and extending across more than a hundred issues into the next decade. The most significant similarity doesn’t lie in the powers wielded by the protagonists of the respective adventures–both teams include a strong man, a person that can stretch their body like it’s constructed of especially pliable rubber bands, and someone who can use to power of invisibility to not just disappear but to cast spherical force fields around herself and others–but in the concept of the familial nature of a team of superheroes made literal.

In each of these invaluable pop culture artifacts, the simple innovation is to build the story around characters first, fantastical exploits second. Just as Lee and Kirby were breaking free of the simplified norms of comics with their creation, so too is Brad Bird hammering out something richer and more rewarding than the stitched-together collection of set pieces that is the default approach to superhero movies, or, for that matter, animated films. This doesn’t mean the film compromises the effectiveness of its action in favor of something more staid or cerebral. Quite the contrary. It is filled with exciting, perfectly directed sequences of kinetic wonder. Bird has his thrills and thinks them, too.

The film finds our heroes living a dreary suburban existence several years after the damage left in the wake of their daring exploits led to lawsuits which in turn led to regulations making costumed vigilantes illegal. Bob Parr, the former Mr. Incredible, is especially miserable, sneaking out at night to engage in illicit do-gooding until a mysterious benefactor starts offering him hefty paychecks in exchange for secret missions. The occupational woes of Bob Parr may make the littlest viewers fidget a bit, but it’s all part of the valuable depth that Bird builds into his film. It’s simply a story of retired superheroes drawn back to their grand crime-fighting but it carries a metaphorical weight that relates to anyone who longingly dreams of past glories, the fearlessness and ease of youth that they’ve left behind. Having the heroes return from exile builds a few spare plot twists into the film. More importantly, it adds greater greater urgency to the moments when they’re needed, greater triumph to their successes. It is that ever common theme of embracing one’s own identity, bolstered by reaching it on a completely novel path.

The characters are vividly drawn in every respect. Each member of the uniquely enhanced nuclear family at the core of the film virtually pops off the screen. Besides the previously mentioned Bob Parr, there’s his wife Helen, the former Elastigirl, who realizes that holding a family together is even more fraught with danger than any fierce battle she ever engaged in. Their daughter Violet (as in shrinking) is a typical teen burdened by self-esteem issues, using her power to literally disappear as a more effective means of retreat from a world that seems incredibly unaccommodating to her. Then there’s Dash, about to graduate from the fourth grade, acting out and fiercely unhappy about his inability to use his speedster powers to realize his full potential. He knows full well that the sentiment that everyone’s special, as well-meaning as it may be, is just “another way of saying no one is.” Every aspect of the characters is well thought out and depicted with telling details.

That same care extends to all the ancillary characters with a particular achievement in the creation of Edna Mole, the mildly maniacal seamstress who once specialized in costumes for superheroes, or as she puts it, she “used to design for gods.” Visually, she looks like Linda Hunt merged with one of those cylindrical little humanoids that populated old Fisher Price playsets. As voiced by Bird himself, Edna is a spectacular firebrand, a fashionista diva with a gleaming glee at the idea of stretched spandex across the most powerful beings on the planet, and railing against the deadly folly of capes as she does it. Another fascinating character is, appropriately, the villain of the piece, a cauldron of slighted malevolence that dubs himself syndrome, so envious of the heroes streaking across the skies that he concocts a scheme to dabble in their world. He can’t achieve greatness; he can only concoct a bastardized version of it that’s as phony as Clark Kent’s eyeglasses.

Bird’s is unyieldingly dynamic in the construction of the film. He’s working in animation, but clearly doesn’t see that as a excuse to avoid thinking cinematically. It is, in fact, an impetus to push that part of his creativity to greater heights, injecting scenes with the verve of effortlessly achieving the impossible. Heroes careen and bend across the rooftops, and their arch-enemies reside in the secret hideouts that Bond villains can only dream about, with entry ways through split open waterfalls and walls made of pulsating magma. The film bounds and crashes, spins and tickles, and then finally settles into its own brand of domestic bliss, one that redefines the notions of equality, partnership and togetherness. Young Dash would be pleased to know that The Incredibles proves decisively that “special” is a term that should only be ascribed to certain films, those that possess the same sort of daring that might cause a masked wonder to leap into the arms of peril for the benefit of all mankind. The Incredibles is indeed special.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Nine

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#9 — Up (Pete Docter with Bob Peterson, 2009)
Let’s start where everyone starts in discussing Up, with the sequence that seemingly inspires universal agreement about its excellence. With just a few minutes of screen-time, Pete Docter and Bob Peterson lovingly depict the arc of an adult life, or, more precisely, a pair of adult lives intertwined. The marriage of Carl and Ellie Fredericksen is glimpsed in a few brief moments scattered over their years together: picnics on a hill, maintaining their home, making plans for the future and watching as fate, sometimes unkindly, changes those plans. With inspired economy and an absence of dialogue, fully drawn people emerge and we come to understand them deeply–their joys, disappointments, humble accomplishments, and little compromises that accumulate until entire dreams have been consigned to deep storage on the uppermost shelf of the closet. This passage does not stand out just because of its profound artistry, its note-perfect encapsulation of the pieces that make up a person’s passage across the years. It doesn’t stand out because it is unique. In fact, quite the opposite is true. It exemplifies everything rewarding about the approach common to films issued under the Pixar banner–the investment in character, the tender understanding of human emotion, the commitment to visual storytelling–to such a degree that it serves as a fresh evidence that the group of creators that sign their name to the studio’s product collectively stand as the finest, most consistent filmmakers working at the dawn of the 21st century.

While entertaining, bright and ultimately hopeful, the film begins with melancholy as Carl, now elderly and alone, is suffering as a busy, indifferent world literally closes in on him. Inspired by a childhood pledge, and bolstered by his occupational experience with helium-filled diversions, Carl figures out a way to affix enough colorful balloons to the andirons of his fireplace to lift his clapboard house toward the heavens, bound by air for South America and the promise of adventure. That is fanciful and strangely inspiring all on its own, something that could serve as the grand ending to another film. Here it is just the beginning, leading into a plot that sets Carl, accompanied by a stowaway scout and a communicative canine, off to confront his boyhood hero, who’s evolved into a megalomaniacal poacher. Docter and Peterson, who are also the credited screenwriters, get every last possibility out of the material they set into motion, taking special glee at the ability they’ve afforded themselves to both defy gravity and use it as the greatest danger their characters face.

The computer animation makes them the absolute masters of everything within the frame, a responsibility they fulfill with striking design work and incredible attention to detail. The characters carry some of their personality with them in their respective visual designs from the series of squat blocks that make up Carl to the rounded, rolling energy of his youthful companion, Russell, to the battalion of dogs they eventually encounter, all of them constructed to convey some facet of who they are and how they fit into the story. What’s more, within those designs and the imagery they move amidst, there is a broad mass of information, all of it lovingly rendered. When hundreds of balloons emerge from the chimney of Carl’s home like a multicolored cloud, the way they move, shift, bob and flow into place it is a lush spectacle, but one that is meant to convince just as assuredly as it is designed to dazzle. When the abode held aloft casts a shadow on the streets below, the patches of colorful light thrown down by the balloons move with it, a trail of translucent beauty. The animators have clearly thought about how that would look, and, even though we only see it for a fleeting moment, made sure it was depicted exactly right. It’s bits and pieces like that, and the care that goes into them, that amass to make the film gripping and oddly believable. Up may be rife with wild invention, but it also follows the rules it establishes. It never cheats. It asks us to believe that a house can fly, but also allows that a house has weight, and popping some of those balloons will have an impact.

Thematically, the film operates as a set of fascinating contradictions. Carl follows through on the deferred conquest of the outside world, striking out for the imposing, distant waterfall that represented his beloved Ellie’s ideal, but he does so from the safety of his own residence, literally taking his house with him as he travels. Then there is the simple, disarmingly sweet message that the best way to find one’s self is to look outside, spotting the inherent truisms of one’s own person in the reflection of someone else’s eyes, or, more importantly, someone else’s heart. Carl accomplishes this with young Russell, but he’d also had that with Ellie, from the moment they met as kids and her rapid verbal cascades helped fill up his silences, completed his very thoughts, flooded his imagination, made him better. One of the great achievements of Up is that Ellie is a bold character that is vividly present throughout the entire film, even though she is not seen after the first few minutes. She is there in the pages of a scrapbook, in the memories encased within a home, in the parts of Carl that give him the strength to get past his hesitancy and his curmudgeonly disinterest in those around him. Indeed, the most moving aspect of Up is watching Carl come to the realization that Ellie may be gone, but she will always be with him.

This is all proffered up with elegance and insight. The mechanics of narrative that are simultaneously the simplest and the most rewarding are used by Docter and Peterson like highly familiar tools, like a hammer in the hand of a lifelong carpenter. Details that initially seem to have little purpose beyond getting a laugh or revealing something about a character prove to have greater value as the film progresses. The character dynamics are well thought out, and remain true from beginning to end, developing notably but naturally. The film becomes radical through reasserting the fundamentals of cinematic storytelling. It reminds us that, for all the toil and energy that goes into generating emotional responses in moviegoers, often the greatest impact can come from a single image if the necessary work has been done to give that image weight, even (or especially) if that image is of nothing more than a bottle cap pinned to a shirt.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Ten

#10 — Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000)
It’s all about those records under the bed, a treasure trove of rock ‘n’ roll left by a departing sibling with the promise that there are life-changing notes contained within the collection. When young William Miller finds them, he flips through the strange squares carefully, lightly passing his hands over the surfaces of the worn cardboard covers as if they’re something mystical. The reverence that Cameron Crowe instills in this moment can almost make you believe that listening to The Who’s Tommy by candlelight is the surest path to enlightenment. That, above all else, is what Crowe accomplishes with Almost Famous. He captures the allure of great rock ‘n’ roll music perfectly, in a way that I don’t think any other film ever has. It is a secret club where outsiderness is the main criterion for entry, where naked revelry, literally and figuratively, is the purest expression of its essence. It’s where a guitar chord, played just the right way, at just the right volume, is inexplicably a mirror held up to the soul.

It’s important to note that Crowe had a vitally pertinent personal history to draw upon to achieve this goal. By the age of fifteen, Crowe was contributing articles to Rolling Stone, jetting around with the likes of Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers Band at a time when earning ink in Jann Wenner’s publication was tantamount to true rock legitimacy. It’s that autobiography that Crowe uses to shape his film, redrawing himself as the previously mentioned William Miller, a youth with smarts and passion, but somewhat lacking in wiles. He enters the realm of rock journalism as a true believing fan, but a bit of a neophyte at the trickier aspects of life, like wooing women or generally navigating through interpersonal relationships fraught with dangerous trapdoors. As he tags along on tour with up-and-coming rock band Stillwater, struggling to pull together enough material for a coherent story, he builds fragile bonds with the individuals band members and stronger but more perilous connections with the collection of groupies that cluster around them, a gregarious pack that have proudly dubbed themselves “Band Aides.” Patrick Fugit plays the role with the appropriate level of unveiled delight, further amplifying the sense that the character has stumbled into a music fan’s golden palace.

Crowe’s screenplay is a winning combination of nicely observed character moments and ceaselessly clever humor. James L. Brooks was one of Crowe’s most devoted mentors as he moved from screenwriter to writer-director, and the film bears the welcome mark of that influence. Crowe doesn’t pass up the chance for a funny line, but also endeavors to make every word spoken somehow revelatory. From the members of Miller’s immediate family to the entire entourage around the band, we know everyone well by the end of the film. Even a collection of Topeka teens at a suburban party crashed by one of the band members feel real and thought out. It’s as if Crowe believes in the wide-ranging power of rock ‘n’ roll to such a degree that he wants to be sure he honors every person who hears the beat, closes their eyes and nods along.

The actors match this devotion with performances that still stand, nearly ten years later, as career pinnacles. As Stillwater’s lead guitarist, Billy Crudup churns together bright charisma with a creeping narcissism that is potentially an inevitable byproduct of having thousands of people scream their delight at you for the act of nicely manipulating a sextet of metal strings. Jason Lee plays the flip side as a lead singer, a growing star in his own right who is nonetheless threatened by the creeping fear that his sideman is starting to eclipse him. Kate Hudson is positively luminous as Penny Lane, the leader of the Band Aides, a young woman who is smarter than she cares to let on, but also helpless to resist the choices she knows are suspect. She nicely realizes both the inner vulnerability that draws her heart in to music in the first place, and the thin veneer of impervious confidence she uses to cover it up. It would take willful amnesia to declare Frances McDormand’s performance as William Miller’s intensely cerebral mother her career peak, but she does deserve accolades for playing the character as a person of uncompromising strength instead of the sort of domineering shrew that usually emerges in such roles. Crowe devotes a lot of screen-time to establishing that mother Miller is such a fearsome presence that even a phone conversation will leave the other party shaken and freaked out, so much so that it seems an insurmountable task to portray that experience in a way that matches the legend. Then McDormand gets the chance to actually play that scene, and delivers marvelously, demonstrating that forcefulness doesn’t require histrionics, just certainty and the intelligence to back it up.

Penny Lane notes that she tells her fellow Band Aides “if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends,” which is a splendid summation of the appeal of music fandom, the sense that the great songs and the heightened emotions that they inspire are always available, a needle drop away. Cameron Crowe’s entire film is a testimony to that, an extended tribute to the music he’s loved so much over the years and the era in which he discovered it, when the musicians were still wild and free enough to take over entire hotels like conquering armies, and yet it was somehow still innocent enough that whole communities could crop up that felt safe and oddly nurturing. Vital information could be relayed by an exuberant fan in an autograph-adorned t-shirt, and the surest sign that culture was starting to curdle involved the newest citizens taking a less egalitarian view about saving some catered steak for some of the people who arrive backstage a little later. One more fantastic performance in the film belongs to Philip Seymour Hoffman, amused and weary as legendary rock critic Lester Bangs. He speaks perhaps the most profound words in the film when he says “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.” There’s no doubt that the film includes some confession from Crowe that, no matter what sort of rock star existence he got to jog along parallel to, holding out a microphone in hope of a pithy, telling comment, he himself is uncool. And Almost Famous is indeed valuable currency.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Eleven

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#11 — Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008)
This is what a family looks like. This is what a family feels like. Though Rachel Getting Married takes place over the course of just a couple of days, the momentous weekend of a wedding, whole histories are splayed out before us, not in the form of burdensome exposition or clumsily shared backstory, but interwoven into every exchange between the different family members. Jenny Lumet’s boldly abrasive script demonstrates a keen understanding of how people who know each other deeply can use that knowledge as verbal weaponry, instinctively building double-meaning into a sentence, causing praise to come with a sword slicing mercilessly at inner frailties, embedded insecurities that have been learned in a lifetime of imposed togetherness. Families learn one another, meaning they know how to hurt just as surely as they are the ones that have the best chance at accelerating the healing process. The film begins with the blackest sheep of the family making a temporary return from a rehab center for the nuptials, and it is immediately clear that coming home is like walking into an angry hug. The squeeze is just a bit too tight, to knock out her breath and remind her that she is not impervious to them. She returns the hug in kind.

It is a movie of raw emotions, but there is also a warmth to it. When damaged families are at the center of a film, there’s often a veneer of judgment imposed by the director and the other cinematic collaborators. It’s a form of distancing from the pain onscreen, a throat-clearing insistence that the poorest examples of human behavior being depicted couldn’t possibly represent a personal truth, a shared compulsion for treating loved ones with scalding unkindness. They are just adhering to Leo Tolstoy’s durable adage, gravitating to the unhappy family because the uniqueness of their dismay makes them better suited for the rigors of dramatic storytelling. That common approach leads to a distance not only between the creator and the characters, but, in turn, between the audience and the work of art. Characters are held up for exhibition, not understanding. A resolutely inquisitive humanist by artistic nature, Jonathan Demme takes a different approach. He is far more intimate, working from a empathetical standpoint. There’s a clear desire to figure out these people onscreen, what makes them wince, what makes them beam, what gives them some respite, however brief, from the emotional aches that dog them. Drama is built around conflict, but there’s something deeper that can be achieved through examining the underlying feelings that lead to the conflicts in the first place.

Demme achieves this through an incredible patient technique that has some of the quality of Direct Cinema, the documentary style of eternally rolling cameras favored by the Maysles brothers and others. At times, Demme seems inclined to be as thorough in his depiction of the weekend wedding as a devoted uncle with a fully-charged camcorder. He takes in as much as he reasonably can, sticking with scenes for extended stretches of time, often lingering after the drama has peaked, all the better to catch the revealing after effects. Among the many benefits, this is a gift for the actors. Anne Hathaway is absolutely revelatory as the wild child barely trying to contain herself as she stands next to her sister who is by default the current center of attention. She nearly quivers with anxiety, wracked by equal doses of worry and guilt, her need for constant and dutiful verification of her worth usually undermined by revulsion over her own neediness, which in turn leads to more awful behavior. Hathaway approaches this character without hesitation, playing the most unlikable facets with conviction and never backing away to plead for greater sympathy than she deserves. She’s backed by a grand team: Rosemarie DeWitt as the titular bride, armed through years of preparation to undercut her sister’s dark energy; Debra Winger as the imperious mother of the bride, pulled back to the family she’s effectively abandoned, doing so with brittle reluctance that leaves it own bruises; and Bill Irwin as the patriarch, barely holding on as the worst moments of the family’s recent history threaten to swamp his soul entirely, leaving him to try and generate happiness out of thin air. Given extra time to work with, they add wrinkles and dimensions to their roles. It’s hard to conceive of any of these characters developed more fully than they are here.

There is something uniquely truthful about the film. It captures the way that painful moments can knock the oxygen out of a room, but also implicitly notes that life progresses after the moment has passed. A toast delivered at an overpopulated rehearsal dinner table may be intensely uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean someone else won’t pick up a glass when its done and offer up their own words. Demme appreciates many things about how people operate, including the fact that no matter what chasms are created, someone will always find a way to cross them. Especially if that someone is family, a person who knows better than anyone the value of traversing that span.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Twelve

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#12 — About Schmidt (Alexander Payne, 2002)
One of the cinematic stands that I’ve taken with some regularity is that Jack Nicholson is the finest actor who made film his primary medium. This argument carries more weight with those who hear his name and have automatic associations with his nineteen-seventies heyday of The Last Detail and Chinatown than it does with the movie fans whose mental reference volumes immediately flip open to the nineteen-nineties section, sullied by fare like Man Trouble and Wolf. While there may be ample evidence for those holding a contrary opinion, I maintain the view, bolstered by the knowledge that, at a time when many of his peers have settled into a procession of paycheck performances in lowest common denominator studio dross, Nicholson can still step up and deliver a piece of acting that demonstrates fearless invention and borderline genius. That’s exactly what he does in Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt.

So many of Nicholson’s career high points have involved devilish portrayals of untamed souls, wild men enraptured by their own freedom, that it can be easy to forget that he has an impressive range, particularly for someone who doesn’t tend to bury himself in identity-obscuring make-up or other tricks. Still, while I’ve seen Nicholson give interesting performances in a wide variety of roles, I’m not sure he’s ever played another character as weak as Warren Schmidt. This isn’t to say that Schmidt is a weakly drawn character. On the contrary, Payne and his regular screenplay collaborator Jim Taylor imbue the role with contradictions and self-deluding views. There’s an involving psychological nuance built into the character. Instead, Schmidt himself is a weak man, a man who’s lived a small life, and lived it in unremarkable fashion. The greatest act of rebellion he can muster is stopping at the Dairy Queen for a illicit treat, and even then he can be no bolder than the medium size. He is at loose ends when he retires from his bland insurance industry job, and is further stranded when he suddenly finds himself a widower. With no support from the patterns and safety nets he’s constructed for himself, Schmidt is largely inept at connecting with the world, finding solace only in gently self-aggrandizing letters he writes to the destitute African child he’s agreed to support through an international aid organization. He’s facing down his own mortality and the wrenching disappointment of an uninspired existence. And he’s doing so from the starting point of utter defeat. Nicholson plays all this with tenderness and insight. He may be charged with winning laughs as Schmidt, but he never pushes for them with mugging or other desperate techniques. Instead, he just plays the role honestly.

Of course, it takes more than one great performance to make a great film. About Schmidt has more than one great performance. Using a novel by Louis Begley as a starting point, Payne and Taylor construct a screenplay that merges forlorn poignancy and bleak satire like interlocking fingers. It’s the same scathing comedy that they brought to their previous features, 1996’s Citizen Ruth and 1999’s Election, but tempered by a deeper interest in the characters they put through the wringer. There’s not an affection for them, particularly, but there is a greater willingness to let them grow and breathe and develop as real, recognizable people. They are humbled and hurt by their problems, but they are also facing them, taking them on to the best of their shaky abilities.

That’s a boon to all of the actors. Like Nicholson, they make the most of the meaty material they’re given. As Schmidt’s daughter, Hope Davis finds wellsprings of feeling. She knows she’s settling in life, just the way her father did, and she seethes in frustration, as if she wants to hurry along the compromises just to get them over with. As her unfortunately-coiffed husband-to-be, Dermot Mulroney initially seems to be skewing too close to caricature, a sensation that’s quickly dispelled as it becomes clear that he’s not condescending to his character. Indeed, he’s playing him as arguably the film’s only truly sympathetic person, the kind of guy who emanates almost uncomfortable levels of sweet sincerity as he tries to share the material he used to deal with his aunt’s demise, hopefully asserting that it’ll probably still be helpful even though much of the workbook is already filled in. He’s the only one who’s not jaded, who still views life with any degree of hopefulness. He may appear ridiculous, but the openness of his soul makes him endearing. Adding a cymbal crash to the proceedings is Kathy Bates, playing the sort of brash, pushy character that had become her strongest suit by this point. It’s the epitome of a performance free from vanity, presenting comically hateful behavior as inherent as motherly instinct.

The film is hysterically funny even as the laughs stick in the throat a bit, stifled by the story’s shadows of unhappiness. Payne’s command of tone is the film’s not-so-secret weapon, pulling the humor out of moments large and small, conflicts of high embarrassment and the simple image of Warren Schmidt sipping on his convenience store soda as a conversation with a Native American clerk brings him to the late-in-life, and largely unmoving, revelation that the man’s ancestors got “a raw deal.” Tone is perhaps the most difficult aspect of filmmaking to master, one that eludes many skilled directors. It’s also an aspect that Payne gets precisely right, all the way the film’s perfectly pitched, plainly devastating closing shot.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Thirteen

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

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

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

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

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

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Fourteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)