Thursday, March 31, 2011

Minority Report (2002) A Film by Steven Spielberg

The more I think about Steven Spielberg, the more I feel he is, at heart, a sci-fi director. As hinted at by his statement that he "dream(s) for a living", his ability to conjure up futuristic worlds from scratch and move freely within them, rendering reality somewhere in the middle ground between distracting sensationalism and grounded present-tense filth, is high among the ranks of cinema's great world-builders, and his grasp of how supernatural, extraterrestrial, and hyper-technological fictionalizations provide some kind of symbolic mirror to modernity is worth analyzing. With Minority Report, a bona fide Tom Cruise vehicle that's as much about glorifying the man's almost parodically insistent action sprint and ultra-cool self-assurance as it is about anything else, Spielberg creates a vividly urban futuristic environment where today's practices of airtight security, individualized consumerism, and extreme democracy have run amock, morphing into a kind of oppressive totalitarianism this very system blindly set out to avoid. The governmental infrastructure in the film is faceless, although the questionable merits of its corporate justice system - a preventative police force that hinges on the fantastic mental abilities of three captive "precogs" who predict murders - are shouted at passersby throughout the city on a regular basis.

Spielberg is adept at quickly immersing the viewer in the particulars of this scientifically and technologically dependent society, pulling out all the stops in a muscular opening sequence depicting John Anderton (Cruise), the head sheriff in this futuristic context, navigating a dense network of visual cues provided to him by the precogs and subsequently stopping a domestic murder at the last second. The scene functions as a killer race against time, but it also communicates through its mise-en-scene and production design the way the general public has become desensitized to this weird, confrontational form of justice, a process that leads a herd of heavily suited officers trampling across a suburban playground, the children and parents around them stopping to look not in destabilized shock but in comfort and fascination. Similar responses are elicited by the equally jarring billboard advertisements around the city, which actively name-call people by scanning their retinas and try to specifically target products to them. While superficially very glossy and radiant, it's also an environment where personal unrest and economic hardship abound, points Spielberg highlights later in a moving aerial shot through an urban ghetto (a sequence that looks like an early demo for Enter the Void). The look and feel of this world are deftly conveyed within minutes of the film's opening, lending the firm social and political background that supports all of Minority Report's cerebral drama and clever plot turns.

When Anderton suddenly discovers himself as the guilty party in a future murder (a ludicrous notion on the surface that could only fly in this hermetic scenario), it sets the narrative in suspenseful motion, pitting Anderton against the entire company for whom he was hitherto the leader. Now the justice force is rallied up by Anderton's nemesis, the precrime skeptic and more conventional cop Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), whose involvement in the pursuit is largely derived from his desire to prove to Anderton the ethical dilemma of the whole precrime framework, the idea that a person can be arrested for a crime that they haven't yet physically committed. (The police force's wholehearted dedication to the capture of Anderton at the neglect of all other crimes that could feasibly be taking place is one of the forgivably silly sleights of hand that Spielberg always assumes suspension of disbelief will fully account for.) Anderton and Witwer's philosophical debates about fate, science, and not to mention the ethics of imprisoning three shaved savants who are still unmistakably human for judicial purposes are key inquiries only outwardly expressed in one early scene that nonetheless give the film a speculative weight not normally encountered in a work of such breakneck speed and crowd-pleasing effect. Spielberg - with the exception of A.I. - is generally not one to confidently dive into these heady subtexts, but their existence here serves to give multiple layers of resonance to the film's arguably fatalistic sprawl, which positions Anderton in a situation where he can, according to the most gifted precog Agatha (Samantha Morton), change the future given his knowledge of it.

The film vacillates throughout between bleak, moody blacks and blues and Spielberg's characteristically angelic overexposure. Especially as the narrative approaches its climax (Anderton's murder), and thus at the peak of the protagonist's fate-altering authority, it becomes progressively more tantalizing to assign the latter with cosmic or holy significance. As Agatha guides Anderton through a packed shopping mall while he's hotly pursued by the police, tipping him off to every muscle movement that will keep him out of the team's field of vision, the setting is bathed in a glow of spiritual light, as if Anderton is walking through heaven in his sudden opportunity to "play God." Spielberg seems to be momentarily entertaining this possibility of divine intervention if only to quickly dismiss it, nodding moments after to Anderton's - and perhaps humanity's - consuming desire to know and understand his (its) future. In the kind of telling composition Spielberg so casually and expertly integrates into his action staging, Agatha tries to hold Anderton back in a tight two-shot, a Persona-like image that underscores Anderton's shallow idea of progress and Agatha's more knowing one. Of course, in spite of his insistence on refusing to murder his victim, Anderton does, finding that the precrime forces are, conveniently enough for the narrative, delayed in their timing of the crime.

This explosive payoff leads organically to a larger mystery centering around the unlikely interconnectedness of two minor narrative threads: the stray and seemingly random snippet of visual information Agatha urges Anderton to see early on in the film as well as the disappearance, several years before, of Anderton's young son. At the other end of this late-stage mystery is the kind of "gotcha" twist expected of a film with so many red-herrings and hunches proved wrong, but it's admittedly a very surprising and thrilling one that subtly reveals itself, and the whole film, to be about the essentially irreparable flaw in such a limited democracy that values absolutes in its calculated and scientific engagement with justice rather than accounting for all the gray areas between non-criminal behavior and murders. Some Spielberg enthusiasts have noted the unlikelihood that Spielberg would be so harshly critiquing a system that he supposedly believes is theoretically workable (although that's a depressing thought that I frankly can't get behind), but to me it seems quite clear; for a film that handles its tonal shifts from dark, serious drama to witty sight gags (quite literally) with such careful precision, it seems improbable for it to not be aware of or confident in its own political and philosophical implications. As expected, Spielberg ties it up in a wholly unsatisfying and unconvincing bow that is plain ridiculous in context of the film's chilly grasp, but Minority Report's cautionary worldviews on technology, security, and justice certainly overpower this alienating entertainer shtick, making it a film that balances on a fine line between sheer spectacle and serious statements and, I believe, comes out on the right side.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Conversation (1974) A Film by Francis Ford Coppola

For a medium that is so universally hailed as a “visual art”, the resource of sound that is employed in cinema can be routinely neglected. With a film like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, the coin has been flipped, and cinema is almost anything but a primarily visual art. It’s not that Coppola’s compositional instincts are not intact (they are), or that his visuals do not effectively communicate the emotions of the story (they do), or that his nearly abstracted aerial zoom of Union Square to open the film is not a dynamite teaser (it is); it’s just that in a film like The Conversation, hinged on the notions of surveillance and wiretapping, sound becomes the most powerful tool in broadcasting the complicated psychology of the central character, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman). Caul (the pun relating to telephones here is delicious, yet curiously never called out in reviews) is a strictly secretive professional, a man whose life, as one character puts it in Taxi Driver, "has become his job." He's hired by top-shelf employers to listen in on others' conversations, extracting important private information that he relays to them.

Thus the film itself becomes akin to an extended audio tape, a dense and often times sonically harsh private recording. Harry's investigation involves a complex system of wires, mics, and recording tape, and his subjects - a young, upscale couple, Mark and Ann (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams), from a nearby business aware of their being watched - have deliberately chosen to have their conversation while strolling in the middle of a crowded Union Square in hopes of not being easily heard. Throughout the film Coppola returns to Harry in his intense scrutiny of the recording, laboring over specific bits by slowing it down, speeding it up, rewinding, and changing frequencies. The detritus of all this calculated dissection is bizarre processed noises that sound like something from Star Wars (must be the influence of Harrison Ford as the stern businessman watching Caul's every move), which at first act as a logical result of Harry's work before entering into the soundtrack as a seemingly non-diegetic, unmotivated force to torment him in his private life (though sometimes it's hard to tell given the amount of sound bridging the film engages with).

Representing Harry's psychological state is something the soundtrack does more and more as the film progresses and more information is accumulated about the titular conversation. In the ensemble scenes when Harry is among his colleagues at a dingy late-night office party, the soundtrack plays like a lo-fi remote recording, with the various voices fading in and out of comprehension. Little attempt is made on Coppola's part to make the dialogue that occurs have any satisfying coherence or completeness, mirroring Harry distanced, dispassionate experience of the scene, the way he's always wandering away from the central action, thinking to himself in brooding silence. As he lies in bed later with the lovely femme fatale Amy (Teri Garr), his mind is anywhere but on the present moment, as snatches of the conversation come back to him in fully memorized form, leading fluidly to an ominous dream sequence where Harry - in a clever bit of staging - shouts his uncertainties to an obscured Ann at the top of a hill. Harry's suspicions regarding the potential violence surrounding the conversation are unclear (evidenced by the thick fog) and his attempts to attain freedom and clarity in the face of this predicament are ill-advised, for he is too withdrawn and self-absorbed to feasibly find an answer. The ourobouric loop suggested by this self-defeating psychology is mimicked by the melancholy jazz piano that is a constant motif throughout, a piece of music whose constantly ascending and descending melody implies a never-ending aversion to climax or catharsis.

Coppola's just as deft at visually communicating his character's surfacing feelings of guilt and the idea that the strictly professional can't help but invade the decidedly personal. Quite organically, he and DP Bill Butler find geometrical elements in the architecture of a scene that effectively heighten the escalating tension in the story, like the onslaught of diagonal lines that appear in the background of many shots, most memorably in one that gradually dollies into a payphone, proportionally catching more and more harsh reflections on the glass as Harry grows increasingly impatient with his call. In a separate and equally natural compositional method, Harry is frequently positioned behind gates, window panes, and other patterned frames, making sure to announce his entrapment from his job, his social life, and himself. At one point the subject of this technique is a priest on the opposite side of confession booth, and here it works to show how ill-suited the priest is to simplistically intervene in Harry's life, thus dismissing the possibility of any quick and easy religious solution.

In a collection of inferences and telling snippets, the film slowly and expertly reveals itself to be about the elusiveness of truth, the way that such detailed examination of physical evidence can still lead one down a false path. In this way, it's not unlike Antonioni's exquisite Blow-Up, a film which similarly fetishizes a technical process in order to immerse the viewer in the main character's misguided subjectivity. Most of the superb tension present in The Conversation's final act derives from the ambiguity in whether or not the actions onscreen are Harry's visions or if they're hard facts. A toilet overflows with blood, a women is thrust into a glass wall viciously (her tortured scream quickly becoming a shrill, synthesized pulsation in the musical drone of the scene), a frenetic burst of violence ensues. If The Conversation is a film invested in the idea of being in several different places at once through surveillance - sonic and physical, private and professional - then the ending proves that this discontinuity has become not only spatial but also cerebral. Harry believes he has cracked the mystery of the conversation, but the physical evidence tells otherwise, or is it his fractured mind telling him otherwise? Coppola's dense, multi-faceted collage of a film has a way of bringing about the same profound disorientation in its viewer as it does in its protagonist.

Screening Notes #3

The Others (2001): Spiritually and structurally, Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar takes pains to emulate The Shining (the displaced mansion, the final act involving kids taking the initiative to climb out the window, the unsettling shock cuts, the fixation on circles and patterns), but more often than not it's so transparent that it comes off as little more than genre pastiche. It would all be rather irritating if The Shining wasn't already such a masterful benchmark in macabre cinema, and if I wasn't perfectly fine with revisiting anything that shares with it artistic similarities. Aside from that, it's interesting how it continues modern Hollywood's fetishistic desire to dissect the very private star persona of Nicole Kidman, the way it aggressively dislodges her from her comfort zone in a sneaky attack on over-anxious and oppressive parenting.

Wallace and Gromit: A Close Shave (1995): I've always been fond of Nick Park's particular animation style, whose slippery homemade textures possess an inherent playfulness. Much of the charm I respond to in these episodic short films is quite directly in how things look, how the surfaces are clearly so labored over. But it's also about how detailed Park is in his direction. His emphasis on all the tiny behaviors (albeit of narrative motivation rather than atmospheric) makes him a unique descendant of Jan Svankmajer.

Arrested Development (Season 1, Episodes 1-9, 2003): A show I've been harassed to watch for quite a while, and also one I semi-consciously avoided in light of the few episodes I did see. Recently I started up on it formally, and I remain bugged (or perhaps that's too harsh a word) by the same qualities that casually directed me away from it: its nearly oppressive level of design and self-referentiality, its offhand insensitivity, its "wink-wink-ness", and the forcefulness with which it intends for you to laugh. My own taste for comedy lies more in improvisational directness than it does in the domain of clever intellectual montage and the omniscient guiding narration of Ron Howard (hence why I prefer romps like Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Curb Your Enthusiasm in their nearly abstract vaudevillian qualities), which is why I think the best parts of this show rest on the shoulders of David Cross and Will Arnett, who have classically showboating characters with real room for natural absurdity.

The Conversation (1974): A film of sound first and visuals second, which fails to acknowledge that Coppola is really at his best in both departments. There's not a huge amount of complexity at work here in the story, ensuring it fits within the bulk of 70's paranoid thrillers, but Coppola's presentation of that story, and the emotional predicaments that come with it, is immensely rich and nuanced. It's a tantalizing slow burn of a film, a fever dream that accumulates layers upon layers of menace and uncertainty with such ease.

Minority Report (2002): Very glad I got around to revisiting this one, which is easily one of Spielberg's most fluid and assured entertainments of the past decade. It doesn't have the same levels of termitic ideas as A.I., but it telegraphs its own lines of inquiry - the future of national security, the scary issues of corporate consumerism, the struggle against personal and political fate, the injustices that fall through the cracks in a system of absolutes - with greater slickness and visual acuity. All of this, I think, without jeopardizing the pure mass appeal, as Spielberg's fluctuation between dark sight gags and dead seriousness is well-tempered. Backlash against the film's twisty ending abounds, but I took it as not only loaded with thrilling scriptwriting maneuvers but also thematically and emotionally in line with the rest of the film. More on this one to come.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Heartbeats (Les Amours Imaginaires) A Film by Xavier Dolan (2010)

Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats - the Canadian wunderkind's second feature at an astonishing 21 years of age - exists in a milieu where looking a part and acting a part is boiled down to a precise science. Style is the raw material with which characters wage war on each other. When they can't speak their thoughts, they express themselves through their clothing, their hairdos, and the rapidity with which they renew both. The generalized ennui marking their default expressions is a code designed to indicate their lack of interest in communication and their perceived self-assurance, but it really just illuminates how desperately they desire attention. Dolan's signature theme in the film is how the superficial becomes a parasitic growth on the meaningful, an obsession that disguises deeper feeling until it's too late. It would be too easy to lob the same theory at Heartbeats itself, a film so self-consciously concerned with style for its own sake that it neglects great waves of narrative detail and momentum, but it contains too much conviction in its mood shifts and its emotionality to be easily dismissed as "style over substance", or whatever that platitude has come to mean. Dolan's not guilty of creating a prolonged fashion show if only for the sense that he's aware of how style inflects his character's behaviors and motivations, how it plays such an integral role in their psychological metamorphoses.

In the case of the menage-a-trois he has created to express his themes, Dolan has devised a scenario where uncontrollable lust leads directly to angst and madness. Good friends Francis (Dolan himself in the lead role) and Maria (Monia Chokri) both develop an unspoken desire for Nicolas (Niels Schneider), an outgoing, confidently stylish newcomer in their circle of friends with the kind of shaggy dog haircut and laid-back persona that makes him instantly lovable to the shy and disaffected. Such is the situation with Francis and Maria, who are both, in spite of their loud, flashy external presentations, quite troubled internally, choosing to hide their social ineptitude beneath the veil of exorbitantly priced sweaters and countless cigarettes. The film's loose, stripped-down narrative traces the passive-aggressive mongering of Francis and Maria as they vie for the attention of a boy who remains a mysterious surface pleasure throughout, a vexing personality who seems to communicate everything and nothing simultaneously in the courage of his tossed-off vernacular.

Dolan proves to have little interest in fleshing out the particulars of his narrative. Instead, he's content to focus hyper-attentively on the present moment, using (and sometimes overusing) ravishing slow-motion sequences to pick up on every microscopic shift in the emotions of a scene. There are plenty of times when this fetishistic slowing of time suggests Dolan has yet to digest In the Mood for Love, particularly when his compositions - such as that of Maria swaying her birthday present for Nicolas by her side as she struts down the street - are such transparent thefts of Kar-Wai. But in other instances, Dolan is able to capture an enormous amount of emotional clarity in the elongated fleeting moments when Francis and Maria first meet Nicolas for lunch (wherein Francis ducks his head down temporarily in obvious attraction) or when they watch, hypnotized, as Nicolas dances under a strobe at his crowded party. The rejection of traditional characterization here (no back-stories, no casually revealing expository dialogue) makes perfect sense given the decidedly noncommittal qualities of the characters themselves, who'd rather stand like a mannequin in the corner of a party than openly tell you about their lives.

Comparisons to the French New Wave and the souped-up melodramas of Pedro Almodovar are inevitable with a film so spontaneous and free in its dealings with youthful love, so littered with varied musical offerings, and so awash in primary colors, but they're especially apt for Dolan, who hasn't so much invisibly integrated his influences into his cinematic vocabulary yet as he has rehashed them in all their dazzling glory. Heartbeats is almost never less than fraudulent - albeit a kind of acceptable fraudulence given how beautifully and comfortably Dolan seems to adopt the mannerisms - which means that when it manages to possess its own singular vision it's particularly special. Dolan has the finicky (some may say masturbatory, and they'd be primed for support when his character indeed masturbates in the film) eye to sensationalize anything he finds visually compelling - the kiss of a breast in extreme close-up, Maria's voluptuous behind in a hot pink dress, the pirouette of cigarette smoke up nostrils, the drip of rain across an umbrella, the scrape of a red high heel shoe across a forest road covered in leaves - and it offers a painterly inspection of detail rarely seen in narrative films with an agenda. Moreover, Dolan has a talent for rendering key moments abstract in his juicy shallow focus cinematography, such as the climactic hissy fit thrown between Francis and Maria in the woods, in which his camera thrusts into the frantic movement of their entangled bodies, creating a swirl of colors and blurry action.

My initial reaction was to scoff at Heartbeats for its deeply self-conscious gimmicks and its glaring hipness, but I was pulled under its spell rather quickly, sympathetic to its experiential approach to the rhythms of unrequited love. Dolan would have a fairly solid and consistent sophomore feature if only he was smart enough to trust his narrative alone and do away with the insufferable faux-documentary questionnaire segments with 21st Century Romantics that periodically interrupt the plot and severely weaken the growing mood with irritating snap zooms and stuffy dialogue. As it is, Heartbeats, aside from occasionally being a fantastically sensual experience, merely reveals the fertile ground on which Dolan will hopefully refine his style in years to come. In other words, it's a tantalizing if flawed work, and if Dolan can take a lesson from his characters and learn to better direct and shape his stylistic assaults, he can probably wind up with something equal to his vivid influences.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Cyrus (2010) A Film by Mark and Jay Duplass

The Duplass brothers have a knack for first acts, that prolonged down-in-the-dumps segment where the plot is free to go wherever it pleases and the characters have nowhere to go but up. It's where their uncanny feel for dialogue, pacing, and awkward silence is most readily apparent, and where their cast tends to let loose the most before being constrained to fit into the boxy, strategic dramas their films become. Cyrus takes that tendency and magnifies it, coming away with a dynamite opening thirty minutes and a mere pedestrian, forgettable progression from there. Following John (John C. Reilly) in his drunken stupor around a party in search of a new female prospect at the insistence of his curiously nurturing ex-wife of eight years, Jamie (Catherine Keener), the film effectively strikes a typically Mumblecore-esque brand of hilarity that the Duplass brothers have been credited for originating. A lot of this has to do with the professional nonchalance of Reilly, who has now built up a sizable repertoire of these kinds of bumbling, idiotic, perversely lovable figures (Step Brothers, Walk Hard, and especially his turns as Dr. Steve Brule on Tim and Eric Awesome Show and Check it Out!). His garbled, tossed-off delivery of the phrase "get more drunk" when faced with the iconic predicament of what more to do at the party, is priceless.

Unfortunately, and unlike the Duplass brothers' previous features, very little of this has to do with the direction or the writing. For all intents and purposes, everything behind the camera is rather clumsy and tired. In The Puffy Chair, the brothers set up complicated scenarios for their characters - such as the question of what to do with a two-person limit on hotel rooms with a limited budget and three twentysomethings - that unleashed a narcoticized form of slapstick that was unique to their comedy. Furthermore, they were able to slip in stray lines that hilariously deflected the mounting drama (Rhett's probing "don't forget about the lizards"). Not to say these qualities are entirely absent from Cyrus, but they're few and far between. Instead, the brothers are comfortable and settled in their banal, overused setups (a party, a wedding, a stuffy household), preferring to rest all the weight on Reilly's shoulders. The majority of this film's comedy - which, to be sure, dwindles quickly - spawns from Reilly's goofy mannerisms, his flimsy euphemisms and his uncertain gait.

As drama, the film is even less convincing. When Molly (Marisa Tomei) finds John pissing in a bush at the party and she's instantly taken by him, the romance that ensues is criminally underdeveloped. Because the script is more interested in using their newfound relationship as a function through which to investigate the progressive bloodlust between John and Molly's son Cyrus (Jonah Hill), it's inevitably reduced to a footnote. One can simply check off each benchmark in their relationship (the cute introduction, the subsequent dance, the first sex, the first fight, John's move-in) without finding any of the necessary cushion to provide any kind of complete character development. Molly's merely an overprotective free-spirit who remains illogically faithful to her conniving son even when he's threatening the first relationship she's had in 30 years, and the seeds of this gullibility and maternal over-enthusiasm are left unexplored. John's transformation from depressed deadbeat to born-again romantic retains very little of the childish awkwardness and clownishness that is central to his character, and Cyrus' sudden epiphany of his own destructive behavior carries not an ounce of pathological realism.

Before sounding like I'm railing gleefully against what is essentially a pretty modest rom-com, I should remark that there's nothing outwardly objectionable about Cyrus. It's a light, breezy film, capable of making you laugh and even feel sympathy for these characters. Its fundamental setback though is that it's so sluggish and programmatic that it slips quickly from the mind. Another Mumblecore film, regardless of whether or not it's a crossover hit with Hollywood stars (and this definitely strikes the same terrain as Greenberg), is bound to obscurity if it follows the same guidebook. And the Duplass brothers certainly seem stubbornly fixated on their trademark style, immune to how their particular techniques are beneficial to the material or not. For every instance that they employ a snap zoom that effectively augments the laughs (like when Cyrus gives John a blank-face stare while showcasing his amateurish techno music), there's a time when this same camera flourish aggressively imposes on a more dramatic scene. At the very least, this makes the Duplass brothers filmmakers for our generation: refusing to alter their insistent signature in the face of circumstances where adaptivity is increasingly necessary.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Screening Notes #2

Secretary (2002): A work without a soul. This is clinical pathology on film, and it points to nothing greater than itself. Its characters are not human beings but rather a bundle of tics for the director to giggle at and judge. Worse, it suggests that the foundation for a romantic relationship (which the film hardly earns) is an endless power struggle, and that oppressiveness can be forgiven if one can ape the other into thinking there's something behind the bag of tricks. As for whether or not there's a built-in critique of its own content, I don't buy it because of the tonal confusion.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008): A hugely entertaining romantic comedy with a script of machine-like propulsion that makes you forget how dumb and predictable everything is. Machine, though, is a word that should only suggest the sprightly, economical assurance of the craftsmanship, not the acting. Jason Segel, Mila Kunis, and especially Russell Brand are uncharacteristically alive in rather cliched roles, and director Nicholas Stoller has some clever visual matches for the script's structural conceits. That another getaway-to-Hawaii movie from Hollywood actually possesses this much energy and wit is something to be happy about.

Trash Humpers (2009): Harmony Korine's made the kind of anything-goes potty film every 14-year-old rebel makes with their friends, only he's packaged it with more extremity in its haywire form and content than a youngster could ever dream of. At the end of the day, it's a pile of meaninglessness, but as always with these kinds of provocations, it's not the actual object that matters but rather the storm of opinions surrounding it. Hence why Korine is quick to admit his film is a juvenile piece of garbage found in the trash somewhere. Anyway, I had a good time and its garishly smudged VHS images have stuck with me.

Some Like it Hot (1959): RIP Tony Curtis. Billy Wilder's fat middle section to Some Like it Hot is near comic gold, for it seems there are endless sight gags in the zany gender-shifting and identity-swapping play between Curtis and Jack Lemmon. Before this kind of comedy became a tired cultural staple and cheap source of laughter in deplorable films like White Chicks, Curtis and Lemmon brought a spark to it. It's also one of Wilder's most playfully scathing critiques of image-based identity (i.e. the pop culture vacuum), an idea built into the fabric of the film in the shape of the unpredictable Marilyn Monroe.

Another Year (2010): Every time Leslie Manville's Mary graces the screen, you wish she'd leave. But at the same time, she's such a fully developed and rich character, such a convincing human being, that you feel obligated to watch her. And there are enough foils to her character to make the domestic tensions of each scene deeply dramatic. The film's structural blueprint (four prolonged episodes play out during the four seasons) remarks subtly on the inexorable passage of time, the way the changes and lack of changes in the characters are amplified by the weight of each new day. My only gripe is how stubbornly traditional Leigh is behind the camera; technically, this is closer to theater than cinema, but the final act set in winter offers some unexpectedly striking compositions, momentary detours from the banal ping-pong of close-ups and medium shots.

In Bruges (2008): Another film that often feels like filmed theater, only this time it makes complete sense given director Martin McDonagh's prolific stage background. Even so, there's something more cinematic about McDonagh's engagement with his characters and his setting. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are fundamentally movie types, and given the long cinematic lineage of disenchanted hitmen in foreign countries, they rank as two of the most memorable (they're certainly the most crass). An explosive third act underscores the fairy-tale aura of Bruges that McDonagh plays with throughout. It's a film to further prove that Farrell's got some of the best thousand-mile stares in cinema, and that there ought to be a micro-genre in which he keeps visiting and getting pissed at new countries.