Thursday, December 29, 2011

My 2011 Top 10

1. The Tree of Life

The winner of this year’s main prize at Cannes and the subject of millions of pixels’ worth of online debate, Terrence Malick’s fifth feature as writer/director over the last 38 years is to cinephiles what Halley’s Comet is to astronomers: an eagerly anticipated and rarely seen phenomenon. Read more

2. Certified Copy

A French expat living in Tuscany with her teenage son drops in on a lecture by an Englishman on a book tour. (He’s James Miller; she never gets a name, but since she’s played by the great Juliette Binoche, she hardly needs one.) She leaves him her card through his Italian translator, and he shows up the following Sunday for a visit that turns into a day-long date.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Talking to Pariah Director Dee Rees

After a brief post-college career in marketing, Nashville native Dee Rees returned to college to major in film at NYU. She wrote the script for Pariah, which recently won her a Breakthrough Director prize from the Gotham Independent Film Awards, while interning on her professor and mentor Spike Lee’s Inside Man. I talked to her earlier this month in the Waldorf Hotel.

I was interested to read that Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara were two of your favorite authors, since they’ re favorites of mine too. What do you like about them in particular?
They write about coming of age in a different way, and identity and self and what is home. Their characters always had internal conflict. For me growing up, those were the stories that made me feel like I was not by myself.

Pariah is so detailed and emotionally authentic that it feels very personal, but you grew up in Nashville and it’s also very specifically about a slice of African-American and gay culture in Brooklyn. Did you have to do a lot of research to get the Brooklyn part right?
I don’t research. I just write and then check afterwards. When I was coming out, I was living in Brooklyn and going to these gay clubs, so this is the scene I was kind of thrust into.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin

The two Spielberg movies opening this week represent the two sides of this prodigiously talented but often disappointing director. A mashup of deeply personal themes (mostly boys with daddy issues and/or with no parents in sight) and high-gloss Hollywood technology and tropes, Spielberg’s work seesaws between moving and maudlin. War Horse is gorgeously composed old-school schmaltz, with its relentless score and heroic low-angle shots of blue-eyed heroes against great expanses of sky. But if that stale hunk of cornbread is Spielberg at his most suffocatingly sentimental, The Adventures of Tintin is the director at his best: playful, energetic, and brimming with genuine wonder.

Friday, December 16, 2011


The theory that the United States is poised to fall like the Roman empire, and for pretty much the same reasons, is hardly new, but it’s rarely been presented more compellingly than in Ralph Fiennes’ X-treme Shakespeare version of Coriolanus.

In an impressive directorial debut, the actor transposes the classical Rome of Shakespeare’s play to an ashy, underlit modern-day Europe (the film was shot in Bosnia), packing the screen with all the markers of modern warfare and civil unrest. Brutal battles between Rome and its Volscian neighbors feature Humvees and RPGs, shot-up cars with slaughtered civilians spilling out of their half-open doors, and terrified prisoners in dank torture chambers. Meanwhile, hordes of Romans take to the street at home like so many 99 percenters, protesting the hoarding of goods by a thin slice of the oligarchy while the rest of the people starve.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Like Crazy

A connect-the-dots love story, Like Crazy works as much because of what it leaves out as because of what it includes.

Director Drake Doremus, his co-writer Ben York Jones, and editor Jonathan Alberts often start or end a scene in the midst of an action or skip months at a time in the otherwise linear timeline, so we have to keep figuring out what we just missed. That helps maintain interest in what might otherwise have felt like a pretty standard story about a first love that burns alternately hot and cold but just won’t fizzle out.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Daguerréotypes is playing on December 12 at the Maysles Cinema.

An openhearted, unpretentious film genius who often seems to be reinventing her medium as she goes, Agnès Varda is particularly gifted at uncovering fascinating stories where most people would never think to look. In Daguerréotypes (1976), she turns her camera on her own neighbors, the shopkeepers of Rue Daguerre, the street where she then lived—and still does, 60 years after she first moved in.

She plays with theatricalism, opening with and frequently cutting back to the magician who stages a show on Rue Daguerre while she’s filming, and who will, she promises, “erase logical ideas … and lull an already still world.” But this is at heart a quiet work of unobtrusive observation, an exercise in what you can see if you look long and closely enough at any “average street with people passing, talking … the silent majority with a dreadful mask,” as Varda puts it in voiceover.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

London River

A Frenchman of Algerian descent, London River writer/director Rachid Bouchareb works in the didactic-humanist tradition of Alejandro González Iñárritu and Fatih Akin. When their films are good, they’re very, very good, but when they’re bad they drown out their own artistry, beating the drum so loudly for brotherhood and justice that you pull back from the story instead of leaning into it and wind up feeling numb.

London River doesn't have the emotional complexity or unpredictability of Bouchareb’s greatest film, Days of Glory, but it’s not his worst either. Grounded in a real event, the July 7, 2005, suicide bombings of three subways and a bus in London by Islamic extremists and filmed in a raw, pseudo-documentarian style, London River seems bent on reminding us that we’re all brothers and sisters under the skin and that Muslims can make excellent neighbors, but stellar acting by its two leads saves it from playing like mere propaganda.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


Martin Scorsese’s latest film and his first children’s movie, Hugo starts with a tracking shot even longer and more thrilling than the one at the start of Goodfellas. After swooping down from the sky, though the streets of 1930s Paris, and into a train station, the camera slows down to introduce us to the station where almost all the action will take place. It ends with a closeup of Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who lives in a hidden room above the ceiling, as he peers out at the passing pageant.

Hugo’s child’s-eye view exaggerates and simplifies the world of the station, but Scorsese and his team bring it to richly detailed life. Whole subcultures (like the cozy bistro’s blasé musicians) and subplots (like the budding romance between Richard Griffiths’ sweetly awkward middle-aged man and his kindly crush, played by Frances de la Tour) are sketched in just a few strokes.