Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Halftime Show

I’m working on the 2005-in-review article, honest. Consider this a warm-up.

1. DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY- quite possibly the most joyous chronicle of an Event since WOODSTOCK 36 years ago. Although this film- and this Event for that matter- lacks the logistical and pop-culture magnitude of the Woodstock fest, it fascinates in its own right by introducing all sorts of people whose lives have been touched by the Block Party. Chappelle, a genial and appreciative master of ceremonies, clearly cares for those who love him, and the Block Party is about and for these people- the artists who perform, the fans who made the trip, the locals who live in the neighborhood. Perhaps director Michel Gondry’s greatest achievement, however, is his invigorating use of editing to examine the event from all angles- onstage and backstage, preparation and performance, past and present.

2. THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU- Cristi Puiu’s harrowing odyssey through the Romanian medical establishment is hard to watch at times, but it’s also vital cinema. What makes the film feel like a gut punch is that it doesn’t demonize the doctors who are hesitant to treat Lazarescu- sure, it’s comforting to think that every patient should be treated with empathy, but if medical professionals had an emotional stake in every patient the job would be too difficult to bear. And so Lazarescu is carried from hospital to hospital, growing progressively worse, until the idea of "death with dignity," much less a miracle cure, seems the cruelest joke of all.

3. TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY- to quote the film, "because it’s funny. Isn’t that enough?" It is for me, at least until I get a chance to see it again. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon set a new standard for bickering costars in this, Michael Winterbottom’s mockumentary chronicle of his abortive attempts to adapt the notoriously "unadaptable" novel. As light and clever as his previous film, 9 SONGS was turgid and listless.

4. L’ENFANT- not quite first-rate Dardenne brothers, but no matter. The film’s boldest gambit is its focus on Bruno, an opportunist and a nigh-unlikable young man who would sell his newborn child for a sack full of Euros without so much as batting an eye. The Dardennes wisely realize that Bruno has to be a tough nut to crack in order for his redemption to mean anything, so softening him or justifying his actions would drain the film of much of its impact.

5. BRICK- in the year’s best filmmaking debut to date, director Rian Johnson throws together two unlikely bedfellows (the pulpy detective thriller and the high-school drama) and the result is a credit to both genres. In case there was any doubt, this film makes it official- Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the best American actor of his generation.

6. BUBBLE- Steven Soderbergh’s experiment in hi-def filmmaking (and distribution) is a low-key but effective portrait of lives that exist far away even from Hollywood’s conception of "small-town America." Instead of making his characters into rubes worthy of derision, he is generally curious about them and their milieu, in which hard work is a fact of life and role of religion in everyday life goes unquestioned. Even the violent turn the film takes is handled with an understated, plainspoken grace.

7. THE PROPOSITION- it’s the flies I remember most. The film’s Australia is swarming with them, crawling over the faces of natives and recent settlers alike. Director John Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave ambitiously attempt to explode practically every genre convention- moral codes, filial loyalty, the encroachment of civilization- and in doing so creates the Western to end all Westerns, though it’s set Down Under. Because honestly, where can the genre go from here?

8. UNITED 93- Too soon? Hardly. While this film is most effective in its first hour, which re-creates in painstaking detail (mostly from the perspective of various air traffic control stations) how things went wrong on 9/11, the entire film resolutely avoids exploiting the tragedy for cheap drama. Director Paul Greengrass wisely doesn’t politicize the events of September 11, 2001, and he avoids falling into the ELEPHANT trap by creating a sense of immediacy, as if placing us back on that fateful day, aghast at what we see, unsure of what lies ahead.

9. MANDERLAY- yes, it lacks the freshness of DOGVILLE, to say nothing of the previous film’s infinitely rich allegorical universe, but warmed-over Von Trier is still more potent than just about anything else out there.

10. NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD- Neil Young. Jonathan Demme. Two great tastes that taste great together.

And the worst…

BATTLE IN HEAVEN- thank you, Carlos Reygadas, for demonstrating once and for all the difference between artsy and artful. I could care less that you want your movie- with shots the Mexican flag being raised or lowered and scenes of a hot chick having sex with a fat dude- to take on deeper allegorical meaning. If you can’t make the onscreen action work of its own accord, then any deeper meaning it might have in your mind won’t amount to a damn thing.

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