Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009 - My Year in Film and Video

In comparison with the year in tunes, it feels like I've hardly seen any movies this year. Maybe it's because, going back over my list, there wasn't anything I saw in the theater that really grabbed me. I suppose I should just delete "film" from the post title, then, but why mess with a tradition?

That being said, I managed to uncover quite a bit of good older stuff this year and catch up with some classics I'd previously neglected. It was a particularly good year for documentaries.

Without further ado, the most memorable movies of my past year:

Throne of Blood (1957): Akira Kurosawa does Macbeth, reset in feudal Japan, of course. It's as good as it sounds (if you like that kind of thing). The Criterion Collection essay that goes along with this version says many critics consider this the best adaptation of Macbeth and I see no need to argue.

Harakiri (1962): Harakiri is a form of seppuku, Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment. That may give you some idea that things will not end well in this film, which begins with a disgraced samurai seeking permission from a noble lord to commit harakiri in his castle and, thus, with honor. But in this time, disgraced samurai are known to make this request hoping that the lord will take pity on them and provide some support. What follows is an unfolding of multiple tales of "honor," revenge, and the importance of perception. Brilliant, but bloody.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985): I mentioned this the other day in a discussion of biopics, as this really doesn't fit the bill. Yukio Mishima is one of Japan's most celebrate authors. He also happened to be a hard right iconoclast complete with his own private army. Did I mention that he committed seppuku after taking over a Tokyo military headquarters? Amazingly, director Paul Schrader (better known for his scripts, including Taxi Driver) manages to explore what made the man tick, using a combination of styles including some beautifully rendered scenes from four of Mishima's books. This is not a "cradle to grave" biopic. Rather, it's a meditation on what the life of a particular man might have meant. Thought provoking and, in places, amazing to look at.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988): A caution: don't watch this movie at the end of a long hard day. You'll probably slit your wrists. After all, it's the story of a pair of orphans during World War II - dad's in the Imperial Navy and most likely dead, mom is killed during an American bombing raid. Yes, it's a cartoon. Yes, it's Japanese. No, it's not a kiddie flick (not even a little bit). Having said that, this is a sad, beautiful, heart wrenching, amazing movie. Exceptionally powerful, but I've' got no real desire to watch it again any time soon.

Grizzly Man (2005)/Man on Wire (2008): I think of these two documentaries as a set because they illustrate one of the unfortunate truths about how people react to docs - the often get so wrapped up in the person or persons depicted that they lose sight of the skill of the filmmaker. In both of these flicks, what you think about them comes down largely to how you feel about their subjects, both certified eccentrics.

Grizzly Man is about Timothy Treadwell, who spent 13 summers amongst grizzly bears in the Alaskan wilderness before being killed and eaten by one of them. Treadwell was certainly a lost soul, at sea in the human world. Depending on your worldview, his dancing with the bears was either a wonderful act of conservation and education or a stupid meddling with the violence of nature that ended up costing him (and his girlfriend) his life. How you feel about Treadwell probably matches up with what you think of the film.

Man on Wire is about Phillipe Petit, an ebullient French acrobat who, along with a team of assistants, strung a tightrope between the top of the then unfinished World Trade Center towers in 1974. Petit is the shining star at the heart of Man on Wire, a man so full of joy and wonder about what he did that he's really hard to resist. Or he's incredibly annoying and you want to smack him in the face. I found Petit a fascinating subject and thus loved the film, but I know he rubbed others the wrong way.

Deliver Us From Evil (2006): I blogged about this film, a documentary about the fallout from the Catholic church sex abuse scandal in a particular parish, here. Not really any more to say.

War/Dance (2007): As you know if you're a regular reader, I am not exactly a fuzzy "up with people" kind of person. I'm a cynic, a skeptic, and more often than not, a curmudgeon. But even I am not beyond being reached by an uplifting tale of the underdog making good. In this case, the underdogs are Ugandan school children, refugees from a war zone, who compete in Uganda's annual National Music Competition. The kids dance, sing, and drum their way through the film with great heart and skill. It is a great example of music being a therapeutic outlet for some very troubled souls. Not only is there a lot of great performance footage, there's also quite a bit of beautiful cinematography of the landscape. Highly recommended.

Forbidden Lie$ (2007): This is not a perfect documentary. In fact, over a couple of viewings, its flaws become more apparent. Notice, however, that I was compelled to watch it twice. Regardless of its flaws, this is a fascinating study of a hoax and the hoaxer, who just keeps digging and digging and never makes her way out. If you want to see what the "fraud personality" looks like, this is your chance.

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008): I blogged about this flick, and its aggravating protagonist, here, and my impression still stands - the fact that Mike Leigh makes me care about Poppy and even root for her is a testament to his skills as a director.

Sita Sings the Blues (2008): Back in March I blogged about this flick, a cause of Roger Ebert, that was sitting in distribution purgatory. I'm happy to report that while Sita may still be blue, she's now available on DVD at Netflix (and no doubt elsewhere). I enjoyed it immensely on the small computer screen, so I really look forward to getting it on the TV and seeing it "full" sized.

In Bruges (2008): A good flick, but a weird one. It has funny bits, but it's not really comedy. It has heavy bits, but it's not really drama. Oh, and there's a midget. Be warned - the two main characters are professional killers. If that fact alone will get your dander up, stay away. If morally ambiguity doesn't turn you off, it's well worth it. It sort of falls apart in the end, but that's a minor quibble. Dark comedy is hard to do well, and In Bruges does a lot more right than it does wrong.

In the Loop (2009): Satire is hard to do well, too, especially if you're satirizing a current event that is no laughing matter. Although it's never mentioned, the Iraq War is the subject of the scathingly vulgar and funny film. When a British cabinet minster casually tells a radio interviewer that war is "unforeseeable" the hawks and doves in his own government, as well as ours, line up to use the moment for their own ends. As a result, the most powerful nations in the world stumble into something that really shouldn't be stumbled into. Like I said, it's not really that funny, but In the Loop mines a lot of comedy gold from the serious subject, sort of like Dr. Strangelove. And if you love the vulgar put down, the master craftsman played by Peter Capaldi will give you oodles of new material.

That's it for the Year in Film and Video. Will any of these pop up as something You Aughta See later this week? Tune in to find out!

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