Saturday, January 19, 2013

Amour: a measure of love

Is there a more austere director working in cinema right now than Michael Haneke? There is a steel-cut precision to how his films are crafted. Ordinarily, this Austrian filmmaker's surgical coldness is off-putting (see Cache, The White Ribbon, Funny Games) and many a viewer has come away frustrated because Haneke resolutely refuses exposition or personal commentary on the subject at hand in his films. Find what you will in his movies, which are often structured as puzzles, and if the puzzle goes unsolved, so be it. With his latest film Amour though, Haneke finally finds a topic that complements his style. In telling a story that is overtly prone to sentimentalization, Hanneke's detachment becomes his greatest strength.

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva in Michael Heneke's Amour
Most of us go to films to be entertained, for a temporary reprieve from our real problems. But Hanneke does something unexpected with Amour. He flips the camera back at the audience. So that instead of an entertainment, what we are seeing on the screen is our own all too real life with all of its unbearable burdens. Quite simply the film is about an octogenarian who has to deal with his wife's sudden decline in mental and physical health. Who amongst us has not dealt with the aging - and rapid deterioration in the health - of a loved one. Is there a greater trial than watching someone you love slip away? By focusing the unwavering camera on the punishing everyday details of an elderly man facing the fading away of his wife, the movie becomes an exacting chronicle of the price this act is going to extract from him. Make no mistake, in many ways this is a horror film.

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva in Michael Haneke's Amour
I have to be honest: while I was watching Amour, it did not move me in the moment (was it because it was too harsh, too real, in the immediate to warm up to?) But since having seen it, I am unable to shake it off. It has summoned old memories - of grandfathers and uncles and many others who have spiraled hopelessly into worsening health - and fostered introspection about my own future. And this why I believe this film has resonated with audiences since its release. And definitely with members of the Academy, who have bestowed this french movie with the coveted Best Film as well as Best Foreign Film Oscar nominations.

This is probably Haneke's most accessible film. Forget the usual stupid, superficial depictions of young love in cinema. This film's view of love is for the ages - of love (between two individuals) that has survived across decades, and is immune to analysis, beyond judgment. Of two fates entwined. Does one individual in such a couple have the resolve to submit to whatever it takes to support and care for the other? Every older couple in the world defined by one that is ill and the other who is the caretaker knows of the inevitable end to their story. And it is in this universality that the film finds its power. The film, set in Paris, begins with an explicit reveal of the fate of one spouse. But even then, the last few scenes of the film delve into the mildly surreal and leave a sense of ambiguity - that presents both a puzzle to be solved, and grants a small manner of hope, should you seek to find it, in this grim film. I am still not sure what the exact conclusion of this film is, and while this has been infuriating with other Haneke films, it is transcended by the overall arc of the movie here.

If I have a major complaint about the film, it is in its choice to have this story play out within the confines of those living in privilege. The elegant Parisian apartment in which the couple live seems ironically even more sprawling when it needs to be traversed by those whose physical health is rapidly deteriorating. The husband and wife, well-regarded music teachers, have lived a rich life, both in terms of culture as well as financial fortitude. Might not the central theme of the film been even more devastating had the couple led a less affluent, more middle-class, or even an economically challenged life. In real life, the greater tragedies related to aging are made that much worse due to financial turmoil.

Judge Haneke how you will about his approach to cinema, but there is no doubting his masterly confidence as a craftsman. Like his other films, Amour is constructed almost exclusively of imperceptibly long, elegantly-framed single shots. These actors (and you could not ask for a more marvelous, seasoned pair than Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) do not get a reprieve, as they emote and move in and out of a patiently waiting camera. There is no quick cutting, or sudden reaction shots to grant them any concession. Who but the best actors can submit to this uncompromising way of filming?

There are scenes here that are hard to forget. There is that signature shot earlier in the film of a large group seated in a classical music concert hall just before the start of a recital and there are close to fifty individuals on the screen (which is reminiscent of the closing shot of Cache). Somewhere in this crowd, Haneke places his two protagonists, and if your eyes should seek them out, then fine; if not, well that's another way to approach the film. And then there is another unbroken shot later in the movie where the husband shuffles ever so slowly, pursuing a pigeon that has wandered into the apartment, as he tries to catch it with a blanket. That such little actions of a single person can generate so much anxiety in the viewer is a measure of the film's success.

Amour is easily one of the most honest movies that I have seen about aging.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Best of 2012: Performances

It is the night before the announcement of the Oscar nominations for 2012 cinematic achievements. And by this time the selections in each category are already predictable, each pick so thoroughly vetted, debated, handicapped and politicized, that many of us will revel in finding the few errant names that sneak past expectations to win a nomination.

Below are my picks of the best of 2012 performances, a list that for the most part will not have much in common with what will appear in the Oscar nominations tomorrow. Also, I have refused to limit to only 5 picks in each category; if the point of such lists is to enable recognition, all the better to be generous when doing so.

Adam Scott (and Jennifer Westfeldt) in Friends With Kids
So here are the actors who I think are best in class, listed in the rank order of my appreciation of their work.

Best Actor, Male
John Hawkes, The Sessions
Adam Scott, Friends With Kids
Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour
Suraj Sharma, Life of Pi
Matthew McConaughey, Killer Joe
Rosemarie DeWitt in Your Sister's Sister
Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln
Denis Lavant, Holy Motors
Tom Holland, The Impossible
Liam Neeson, The Grey
Channing Tatum, 21 Jump Street
Jason Segal, Jeff Who Lives At Home

Best Actor, Female
Rosemarie DeWitt, Your Sister's Sister
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Rashida Jones, Celeste and Jesse Forever
Naomi Watts, The Impossible
Emily Blunt, Your Sister's Sister
Michael Fassbender in Prometheus
Cecile de France, The Kid With A Bike
Melanie Lynskey, Hello I Must Be Going
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

Best Supporting Actor, Male
Michael Fassbender, Prometheus
Sam Rockwell, Seven Psychopaths
Michael Pena, End Of Watch
Christopher Walken, A Late Quartet
Irrfan Khan, Life Of Pi
Thomas Dorat, The Kid With A Bike
Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Bryan Cranston, Argo
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Susan Sarandon in Jeff Who Lives At Home
Woody Harrelson, Seven Psychopaths

Best Supporting Actor, Female
Susan Sarandon, Jeff Who Lives At Home
Salma Hayek, Savages
Judi Dench, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Catherine Keener, A Late Quartet
Emma Watson, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Anne Hathaway, The Dark Knight Rises

Let me know which of these picks got stuck in your craw, and which ones were criminally left out.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Best of 2012: Movies

I have often wondered why films possess me so. Why do any of us go to the movies? Often to be entertained, sometimes to walk in the unfamiliar shoes of another, sometimes to be dazzled and wowed, sometimes to be educated, sometimes for a distraction from personal troubles, and sometimes to simply laugh. As we lower ourselves into the theatre seat, so does also sit down our expectation regarding the film we are about to see. And every once in a while the film defeats those expectations. It wrestles us into a place we are unprepared to be. And in spite of all the objective rationalization we may try to apply to what is unfolding on the screen, it forces an involuntary emotional reaction. I live for such moments. When a film simply takes me over.

There are few who will argue that 2012 was uncommonly rich in terms of its cinematic offerings. There were many films that elicited in me a deep abiding respect (Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln). Many that left me giddily entertained (The Dark Knight Rises, Looper, Premium Rush). And several that informed me about things I was completely unaware of (Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, Reportero, La Camioneta). But as in prior years, the movies that made it on my year-end Best Films list were those that, in a small way or large, flipped something within my emotional circuitry:

1. Life Of Pi
On the surface this is a simple man-versus-beast story: following a shipwreck in the Pacific Ocean, a boy is abandoned on a lifeboat along with a tiger, and both have to learn to survive the ordeal together. But the scope of the film runs deeper. Like the Yann Martel novel the film is based on, it comments on the nature of, and the need for, faith. And on the necessary deceit that accompanies most story-telling. Featuring one of the better examples of an unreliable narrator, there is much to debate about after seeing this film, and I could talk about it for hours. But forget the philosophy and just enjoy the movie for its visual mastery; it is unlikely anything more impressive was projected on to a cinema screen this year. Featuring game-changing use of 3D, the film’s greatest achievement is in its ability to make you emotionally invested in the relationship between a boy and a tiger. Which is no small feat considering how many (myself included) had long considered Martel’s book unfilmable. There is a scene late in the film, where overcome by despair, hunger, sea-sickness and the unrelenting hopelessness of being lost at sea for months, the boy places the tiger’s head in his lap and hugs him; for that moment the tiger is not a predator and the boy is beyond fear. My mom tells me this moved her uncontrollably to tears, and I am not going to argue with her about the power of that moment. An adventure film with gorgeous visuals that makes you think, while also being emotionally persuasive? I cannot reasonably ask for more from a movie.

2. The Impossible
The Impossible is the sort of movie that gives melodrama a good name. It is a harrowing account of a family’s experiences in the aftermath of the South Asian tsunami from a few years ago. When you have just awakened from a terrible natural disaster, what is your greater immediate imperative? To search for your missing loved ones or to help strangers around you needing acute assistance? The film is structured around the awakening in the conscience of the oldest son, (played in an award-worthy performance by the young Tom Holland), who realizes that the only way his separated father and siblings might have survived the disaster is if some complete stranger might have in turn helped them. It is rare for films these days to go big with sentimentality. But The Impossible achieves such an unquestionable sense of authenticity with its main characters that it earns the right to draw on grand-scale emotionality. This film is being written off in some circles as being manipulative and overwrought. But what can I say, when you are seated in that cinema seat, you feel what you feel. And I left this film feeling grateful and raw.

3. Argo
Already celebrated as a critical and commercial success (the San Diego Film Critics Society named it the best film of the year), Argo is a telling of the unbelievable-if-it-weren’t-true CIA plans in the seventies to rescue American consulate workers out of Iran at a time of considerable anti-American sentiments in the country. It is both a nail-biting political thriller and a fond and humorous send-up of Hollywood at a time when it existed at its flashiest. I am a tremendous fan of the film, and can comment on much I admire about it. Let me stick to these: First, I am glad it has finally granted Ben Affleck accreditation as a top-tier American director. Second, more established directors could learn from this film about economy in story-telling; there isn’t a wasted shot in this crisply crafted movie (Tom Hooper, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino take note). Finally, where many filmmakers, even accomplished ones fumble with how a movie is wrapped up, notice the deftness of touch to the last few scenes of Argo, that manage to be both wistful and heartening.

4. Cloud Atlas
I am a sucker for big, sprawling, visionary films, and this one got a rough deal at the box-office. How much more ambitious can a movie get than one that tells six separate stories bridging across more than two hundred years - starting from the early explorers of the Pacific seas, then to the present day, then to a future dystopian world and then finally to a post-apocalyptic one. The film (and the David Mitchell novel that it is based on) resolutely avoids easy connections across the six stories. Many found the quest to find the underlying theme of the movie frustrating. But I found the absence of overtly obvious connections refreshing. Let the viewer find what they will. And I found every story an indictment of the human instinct to oppress the less fortunate. We have been a miserable species for thousands of years, and will likely continue to oppress even in the future. And the only hope we stand to break out of this cycle is through kindness. This may sound a little too glib to some, but it had a surprisingly strong resonance for me. Yes, there are parts of the film that are frustrating (that dialect in the post-apocalyptic world) and others that are downright silly (Hugo Weaving in devil-incarnation mode, trying hard not to induce giggles). But I was also surprisingly moved by parts of the film. Thank God someone is thinking to make movies of such boundless scope still.

5. Your Sister’s Sister
If there is one film on this list that I would beg people to go out of their way to seek out, it would be this one. I have boundless affection for this movie.  It takes three characters: a grieving man, his best friend and her sister, and allows them to be complex and contrary and watches them interact in authentic ways. This is likely the most human film I saw this year. When you have Rosemary DeWitt, Emily Blunt and Mark Duplass inhabit these characters, you get something approaching a minor miracle. This is DIY (Do It Yourself) filmmaking at its best; director Lynn Shelton mentioned after the Toronto International Film Festival screening of the movie that as a starting point, the three main characters were fleshed out in a fair bit of detail, and the rest of the movie was improvised and allowed to develop organically from these characters. There is a scene in the film of Rosemary DeWitt and Emily Blunt lying in bed, their heads on a pillow, as they chat late into the night. That they unequivocally convince you of the intimacy between siblings is a marvel of great acting, writing and direction. The film also, by the way, features the best last scene of any I have seen this year. Some films you want to hug; this one I want to hug long and hard.

6. Prometheus
There is more originality in the first ten pre-credits minutes of this film than most entire films. Like Cloud Atlas, with which it shares more than a passing resemblance, Prometheus has ambition to burn. At all times a sci-fi marvel of Production Design, the film every once in a while steps into all-out horror. Even when it fails to satisfyingly answer all of the questions it asks (including, nothing less than where we, as human beings, came from), I admired that the film asks these questions at all. And then there is that superb pacing, always a hallmark of Ridley Scott films. And here, a much discussed scene of gestational termination provides a master class on how to build tension in cinema. This is a beautiful, flawed, visionary piece of work.

7. The Sessions
The Sessions taps into a topic seldom dealt with in the popular arts: the sexuality of the disabled. This is a small-scale film that evokes some big issues. The movie is based on the real-life story of Mark O'Brian, a Berkeley area poet/journalist, who after being afflicted with childhood polio, needed to live in an iron lung and had no useable motor movements below his neck. In a fearless performance, Helen Hunt plays a sex-therapist who tries to assist O’Brian with fulfilling his desire to lose his virginity. It is a tricky role, depicting the complexities of a woman with a husband and son and conventional life, who, as part of her professional career is required to get physically intimate with others. John Hawkes, that charismatic and effortlessly menacing actor from Winter's Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene is unrecognizable here in the lead role as a man constantly shrunk down to size in the presence of the medical equipment around him. The film features some stellar writing, especially when it gets into decidedly unchartered territory, and performances that make you forget that you are watching actors. I found this an original, intimate, and affecting film

8. English Vinglish
A film about a housewife in India who is not particularly appreciated by her family, not least because she is unable to speak English, doesn’t exactly sound like must-see cinema. But this film is a marvel of the small things that define most lives: small gestures, small slights, small actions. I suspect many found the movie overly simple and conventional, but I delighted in its subtle observations. Gauri Shinde, the director, also had the unreasonably good sense to bring back to cinema one-time screen legend Sridevi to play the title character. And she reminds us of the effortless chemistry all good actors have with the camera. The film is considerably undone by an uncharacteristically heavy handed final thirty minutes. But perhaps because it resonated with my own experiences, I look back at the film as a whole with a smile on my face.

9. Searching For Sugar Man
A good documentary should inform about crucial issues. The best ones have the potential to elicit social reform; change the way we live. And all effective ones ought to tell us a little bit more about how we live today. Searching for Sugar Man does none of these things, and yet was one of the best cinematic experiences of the year for me. The filmmakers pursue the mystery of Sixto Rodriguez, a 1970s cult musician, who in spite of tremendous critical reception from his peers at the time, garnered no popular success in the US. A documentary about this elusive Dylanesque troubadour hardly sounds like compelling viewing. But once I started watching this film, I was pulled into it whole, in spite of myself. Sobering and unpredictable, this movie is the one thing that eludes most films: inspiring.

10. The Grey
On the face of it this is a survivalist film, of a group of men stranded in the arctic cold after their plane crash-lands into a wilderness populated by predatory wolves. To make it through, they need to learn not only to combat their lethal surroundings but also each other’s behaviors so they can make it to safety. We have seen this man versus nature story before, but what elevates this film is how it finds the means to fold in some remarkably effective philosophical musings. Are we destined to simply play out a fate written for us, or can we willfully change the future? Lost without any chance of external help and suddenly on the food chain of larger beasts, some men find the fight for survival futile while others are willing to fight to the last breath. Best of all, the movie finds in its last act, something approximating grace, a poetry of despair. Not bad for what might seem like a standard-issue Liam Neeson action movie.

A testament to the high quality of films released in 2012 is that the following additional films (listed alphabetically) could have easily made it on this list: Anna Karenina, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Friends With Kids, How To Survive A Plague, Killer Joe, The Perks of Being A WallFlower, Silver Linings Playbook and Zero Dark Thirty.

Other quality films from the year that I cannot allow to go unmentioned include Ferrari Ki Sawaari, Jeff Who Lives At Home, The Kid With A Bike, Looper, Moonrise Kingdom, People Like Us, Promised Land and Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World.