Monday, December 22, 2008

2008 Top 10: A good year for women

By Elise Nakhnikian

2008 was a good year for women in film. Four of my favorite movies this year -- Happy Go Lucky, Wendy and Lucy, Trouble the Water, and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days – are built around extremely capable and sympathetic women, and there are memorable female characters in all six of the others. It may just be a fluke – this year’s picks are from seven different countries, and it doesn’t seem likely that they’re all experiencing a simultaneous renaissance in women’s roles – but it’s a hopeful sign.

Happy-Go-Lucky. The effervescent Poppy (Sally Hawkins), an English primary school teacher with a wide-open heart and eyes to match, sees hopeful signs everywhere. Unused to that much guileless good cheer in the movies, except from ditzy dames and all those infantile adults played by Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell and their pals, I wondered what was wrong with her at first. Then I braced myself for the trouble she was bound to get into (girls in movies can’t be friendly to scary strangers, can they?) But finally I relaxed and just enjoyed director Mike Leigh’s “anti-miserabilist film.” Leigh’s and Hawkins’ portrait of a generous, loving, and vivacious woman is a delight. Like its heroine, it’s also deeper than you may at first assume.

The Class. Like Poppy, François Bégaudeau of Laurent Cantet’s The Class is a caring schoolteacher whose kids are a multicultural mélange. The characters and plots of both films were developed in months of workshops and improvisation, giving them a feel of caught-on-the-fly reality. (That documentary feel is particularly strong in The Class, since Bégaudeau is an actual teacher who plays a version of himself, and the kids in the class are all students in a Parisian school much like the one where he taught.) But where Happy-Go-Lucky is mostly about Poppy’s personal life, The Class takes place almost entirely within the walls of the school (the movie’s French title literally translates to Between the Walls). The cultural conflicts and communication gaps between the well-meaning but sometimes blundering teacher and his equally good-hearted but easily offended students feel painfully real, making us think about how acculturation works and what we’re really meant to learn in school.

The Edge of Heaven. Another sensitive and insightful exploration of the chain reactions that can occur – for better and for worse – when cultures collide, The Edge of Heaven tells the gracefully interwoven stories of three sets of parents and their adult children as they shuttle between Turkey and Germany. You learn so much about its six main characters that, by the end of the movie, you feel almost as if they were part of your own family. It’s an amazing achievement: an intelligently structured, deeply felt story about the power of old-fashioned virtues like kindness, forgiveness, and love.

Synecdoche, New York. Watching screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s first outing as a director of his own work is like finding yourself inside someone else’s dream: always intense, often achingly beautiful, and frequently incomprehensible, with sudden sideways leaps into the absurd. Speaking more to our subconscious than our conscious minds, this profoundly moving movie somehow manages to peel aside the veils of self-delusion we all hide behind, leaving us face to face with the elemental truth of our shared humanity.

Mad Detective. Hong Kong’s prolific Johnny To hit another home run with this funny, poignant, stylish hard-guy mystery about a wildly unconventional detective. Is former police detective Bun certifiably insane or does he have a supernatural gift – or both? To keeps you guessing as a rookie cop enlists the forcibly retired pro to help track down a cop killer. As usual, To takes you far enough inside his main character’s lives that you care what happens to them when they start blasting away at one another, unleashing maximum mayhem in claustrophobically close quarters. And Bun’s intriguing, often absurd visions, Cheng Siu Keung’s beautiful cinematography, and a charismatic cast help make this unassuming genre film a great escape.

Trouble the Water. If you see nothing else about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, see this movie. As Katrina approached New Orleans, Kimberly Rivers Roberts was there with a video camera. A natural leader, Roberts picked up her camera and roamed her neighborhood, checking in with friends and relatives who, like her, had no car and could not afford a ticket out of town. She kept the camera rolling after the storm hit, filming the rising water and the chaos outside, the people she brought into her attic, and their odyssey as she, her husband, and some of their neighbors left the only home they had known to try to put down roots elsewhere. Two weeks into the Roberts’ journey, documentarians Carl Deal and Tia Lessin (whose credit include Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine, and No Direction Home: Bob Dylan) joined them. Trouble the Water combines Roberts’ footage with Deal’s and Lessin’s to paint a riveting and ultimately inspiring picture of their struggle to survive. The real damage, the film makes brutally clear, was done not by the storm but by the government whose stunning indifference – even antipathy -- to the poor people of the city is documented in literal black-and-white.

Wendy and Lucy. We learn almost nothing about where Wendy (Michelle Williams) came from or what led to her being homeless and almost flat broke, living out of her ailing car with her beloved dog, Lucy. But as we watch her navigate an unforeseen stop on her way to Alaska, accepting occasional kindnesses and enduring occasional indignities with the same self-contained dignity while doing her beleaguered best to take care of her dog, we learn enough about her character to care deeply about her fate. This spare, beautifully shot fiction (the film is based on a Jonathan Raymond short story), with its soundtrack of train whistles promising an escape Wendy may not ever achieve, boils reality down to its essence, and not knowing Wendy’s back story helps. As you wonder what knocked this warily resourceful, conscientious young woman off the grid, you can’t help but think about all the real people you probably encounter in your daily life who are in the same boat.

Still Life. In its recent push to industrialize, China has been transforming on a scale unprecedented in human history. Morphing from a primarily rural society to a primarily urban one in the space of a generation or two has made China the world’s rising superpower, but it has also caused tremendous upheaval in the lives of its people. Director Jia Zhangke has made an art of recording the effects of those cataclysmic changes on individual people – a perspective, he notes, that has been left out of the official record. At a recent New York screening of his 24 City, Zhang said he sees history as “a mixture of reality and imagination.” That’s a good description of Still Life, the beautifully filmed, deceptively simple tale of a couple of people who go back to the alien landscape of a mostly leveled town, which will soon be flooded as part of the enormous Three Gorges dam project. The two are searching for spouses they lost in an enormous sea of constantly moving humanity. The movie feels slow and uneventful at first, but as the details and atmosphere soak in you begin to appreciate how densely textured Jia’s composition is, layering the frustrations and scams encountered by the unassuming main characters with the poignancy of losing not just your own personal past but an entire, ancient city and everyone in it. Filming on location while workers destroyed the city and mixing in real people with the professional actors adds to the movie’s near-documentary feel.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. This grim tale follows Gabita, a college student in search of an illegal late-term abortion (Laura Vasiliu) in Ceauşescu’s Romania, and Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), the sad-eyed roommate who helps her get it, for about 24 hours. It starts in the middle of a conversation and ends during a lull in another, and it feels so realistic that you almost forget that Gabita’s and Otilia’s lives don’t continue beyond the frame of the film. But thank goodness they don’t, since the two are mired in a nightmarish totalitarian world. Nothing works as it should even when they go by the book, and getting what they need on the black market requires enormous tenacity, ingenuity, toughness, and personal sacrifice – almost all of it from Otilia. As we watch her soldier through this day from hell we steadily gain respect and empathy for this admirable young woman, so her final bleak stare into the camera – which contains a bitter awareness of just how stuck she is – cuts like a knife.

Tell No One. This Hitchcockian French thriller is based on a Harlan Coben book, and it owes much of its appeal to his signature elements, including strong, unconventional female characters and an ordinary-guy main character who finds himself on the lam and turns out to have a hero’s ability to think – and run – fast. The acting is excellent, artfully planted red herrings add texture and suspense, and we get an intriguing tour of Paris, from high-society horse shows to low-rent back alleys. Though the pace is brisk and the plot complicated, we never get lost, in part because so much is conveyed without words. And somewhat miraculously – especially since there isn’t a moment of tiresome exposition – every loose end is neatly and ingeniously tied up. This is an elegant piece of work, as beautifully put together as those show horses.

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