Saturday, January 17, 2009

Aloha 2008

Some background: For me, 2008 will be remembered as The Year I Graduated and The Year I Got To Work. I happily earned a BA in English for writing an essay mix ‘n’ matching the utopianisms of Thomas More, Emerson, Peter Weir, and Into the Wild while computer programming on the flip side and riding that technical knowledge to my very own 9-to-5 cubicle. And, oh yeah, there was an election or something. This all left very little time for my already quite limited blogging and forum posting, and, despite hosting a blog-a-thon with mixed results, Film at 11 went into hibernation for much of ’08. Consider this post a revitalizing jolt of electricity.

Where to start…Despite the economic downturn, Hollywood chugged along, for better or for worse. The Dark Knight’s cape hung over mainstream fare since its release; I readily admit to seeing the biggest American moneymaker of the year three times with three sets of friends, and finding myself each time in a familiar role: the lone holdout with reservations. It’s difficult to simply like the movie anymore, for all that’s been said and done in its holy gilded name. But I stand by Ledger’s thoughtfully maniacal performance as one of the best of the year, and the whole thing as a well-oiled engine of narrative propulsion. Its 150 minutes fly by. Other mainstreamers like Spielberg, Shyamalan, and Scott brought tepid projects, the latter two attempting to be relevant, that failed to retain the spark of predecessors. For all of those, however, there were still vital gems of pop cinema, ranging from Jon Favreau’s buoyant Iron Man to Michel Gondry’s lo-fi community remixes in Be Kind Rewind.

But it’s no surprise that 2008’s standout mainstream entertainment came from the able craftsmen at Pixar. It has been decades since the mere name of a studio guaranteed at least a modicum of quality, but Pixar has consistently delivered that and more. WALL-E, apparently one of the concepts drummed up over lunch by the studio’s founders in 1994, marries a plainspoken environmentalist and anti-overconsumption message with eye-poppingly effective sci-fi trappings. Equally echoing the articulate beeps of R2-D2 and the emotional relationships of Silent Running, the robotic protagonist Wall-E and his iFashionable counterpart Eve provide the necessary grounding in character to make the film succeed. From innovative sound design to that right mix of cuteness and chrome, Pixar hit another one out of the park in ‘08.

I’d hate to call 2008 my own “year of Change,” but there it is, staring me in the face. As I want to write more frequently about cinema, I find myself with less and less time to do so. As much as I’d like to keep abreast of world cinema, I have neither the money nor time to mount an expedition to even the nearest festival location. So I guess the ‘Net will have sate me in the meantime. Fortunately, I’ve also become increasingly inured against some of the end-of-year Oscar bait pandering by the mainstream critical press and more intrigued by international festival fare. Sorry Clint, Gus, Doubt, et al. Lack of blogging time hasn’t stopped me from following the exploits of those in my blogroll to the right, though, and they’ve kept me generally up to speed. Other broad events of note:

-some of my favorite contemporary filmmakers, like Kiyoshi Kurosawa and the Dardennes, released flicks this year, not that I was able to see them;

-parts of the critical establishment feted a return-to-form from a guy who never lost his stride in the first place (Jonathan Demme) and another who made his comeback a few years ago (Mickey Rourke, in 2005’s Sin City);

-topical cinema from Oliver Stone and Errol Morris got trounced by the politics of absurdly contemporary DC paranoia in the Coens’ Burn After Reading and of brute materialism in Steve McQueen’s Hunger, and everything got trumped by the election drama on TV;

-Slumdog Millionaire joined my lukewarm list while audiences cheered;

-young Ju Xiao played a boy in CJ7, Robert Downey, Jr. played black, Jean-Claude Van Damme played himself, and Mike Leigh played happy.

To come back to my Top 11: ’06 and ’07 were my strongest years to date in terms of seeing everything I wanted to see, but I quickly realized these utopian notions were for nought, and that was part of the fun. I haven’t seen everything I would have liked to have seen before this calendar year winded up, and until I can write about film professionally, I probably won’t. No matter. Using IMDb dates has its advantages: your lists don’t tend to look like anyone else’s, and you’re constantly ahead of or behind the curve depending on your point of view. On the flip side, it makes 2008 look like an even paltrier year than it really was, what with the Hou, Rivette, Rohmer, Chabrol, Herzog, Breillat, Jia, and Maddin movies, to name but a few, actually world debuting in ‘07. But I find reevaluation an imminently important critical process, and despite (thanks to?) my penchant for listmaking, I have no plans to carve this or any other Top 11 list into stone. For the record, here are my most unfortunate blind spots for 2008:

Che (Stephen Soderbergh)
A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin)
Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman)

And without further ado, as of exactly…now, my Top 11 films of 2008:

11. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)
10. Four Nights with Anna (Jerzy Skolimowski)
9. Splinter (Toby Wilkins)
8. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
7. Sparrow (Johnnie To)
6. Burn After Reading (Joel and Ethan Coen)
5. CJ7 (Stephen Chow)
4. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)
3. Hunger (Steve McQueen)
2. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)
1. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton)

In ’08 we lost some undeniable artists, ranging from Manny Farber, Paul Newman, and Richard Widmark to Kon Ichikawa, Youssef Chahine, and Bruce Conner. Most lived full lives while enriching the cinematic landscape. But who knows how many more roles Heath Ledger could have played or more announcements Don LaFontaine could have made?

So what will happen to Film at 11? I hope to keep it and its Top 11s companion more up to date in the coming year while expanding the types of content I put up. Video criticism is still, Kevin Lee notwithstanding, an underutilized tool, so I may experiment with that, trigger-happy copyrighters be damned. Every blog seems to be film-related or political or both, making niche-carving a necessary proposition. I’ll have to see what I can come up with. In any case, I guess I’m back, if I was ever “here” at all. Onwards and upwards to ’09!

And on a side note, thanks to Matt Groening, David X. Cohen, Peter Avanzino, Dwayne Carey-Hill, and everyone else involved in bringing Futurama back from the dead. I don’t think you’ll disappoint on the final DVD.

2 - Rachel Getting Married

Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Written by: Jenny Lumet
Country: USA
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Debra Winger

Don’t be thrown by the similarities between Jonathan Demme’s new film and other quirky dysfunctional family dramas like Pieces of April and Margot at the Wedding. Even at their best, those films tend to devalue any hope for pleasure, empathy, good will, or togetherness unless slathered in irony, hatred, or the knowing impossibility of real redemption. Enter Demme, the most humanistic of American directors, a chronicler of individuals of every size, shape, and stripe. Seemingly counted out post-Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, Demme has since been amassing an impressive collection of undervalued documentaries, concert films, and adaptations/remakes. No one else could have revealed the heights and depths of sorrow and celebration lurking within Rachel Getting Married.

We begin with Kym (Hathaway), our thoroughly unlikable but fiercely honest heroine, returning from rehab to attend her sister’s wedding. We further encounter her doting dad (Irwin) and the estranged sister-bride (DeWitt), and mostly catch glimpses of their remarried mother (Winger). Before and during the wedding rehearsal we finally meet the black musician-groom (Tunde Adebimpe), his best man and Kym’s fellow rehabber (Mather Zickel), and their friends and family. I’ve been using the pronoun “we” because Rachel features highly probing, prowling handheld digital cinematography by Delcan Quinn, one of two major Dardennes-inspired camera performances (the other being The Wrestler) this year. Quinn’s eye bores into the (newly extended) family dynamics when the guests finally congregate for the rehearsal dinner. This sequence is painfully played out for all of the inherent in-jokes, awkwardness, euphoria, and generosity when one family first meets another; all of its discomforting potential is realized when, despite raucous recitations of family stories and confessions, Kym receives an embarrassed silence during her toast when she memorably dubs herself “Shiva, the destroyer of worlds” and clumsily tries to make amends according to the 12 Steps. At the heart of the film is a tragedy relating to Kym I won’t spoil, but its reverberations are clear even when its specifics are not. She, like every other major character in the film, “has her reasons,” to rephrase the famous formulation by Renoir, one of Demme’s earliest antecedents, but the trick is overcoming those reasons but for a day, an event, a celebration that engulfs the family: pride, history, and all.

There’s nothing token about the multiculturalism on hand, as those characters never exhibit nor discuss ethnic stereotypes. One waits for the objections to interracial marriage to be brought up or a Freudian slip to uneasily divide the celebrants, but thankfully nothing ever happens. Yet Demme isn’t so post-racial as to let the white, liberal Connecticut family totally off the hook. The wedding sequences themselves become overwhelmingly multiculti and polyreligious, putting into stark relief the intra-family squabbling and making it clear that the bride’s family is overcompensating. The juxtapositions of saris and rabbis, of belly dancers and jazzmen, are clever pokes at a family’s outward togetherness hiding inner turmoil. Blood is thicker than water, it seems, but wine is thicker than blood. But Demme likes people too much to hammer or humor them only; even the illusory reconciliation between sweetly drunken family members is given its fair heft, as a moment among moments, circling around a blessed event.

Some reviewers have noted a creative clash between what they see as the rote indie dysfunction of Jenny Lumet’s (daughter of Sidney) screenplay and the inclusive, celebratory tone of Demme’s treatment of the wedding-related sequences. Without knowing exactly what is Lumet’s and what is Demme’s and what is theirs jointly, I suspect the satiric diversity was there at the start but that the director enlivened and brightened what was a slyly funny but downer screenplay. The welcome cameos by Robyn Hitchcock, Roger Corman, and many of the other musicians obviously came from Demme, and they lend immeasurable texture to the jubilant wedding sequences, even when intercut with Kym’s intense black sheepishness. Music has frequently been at the heart of Demme’s evocations of Americana, mostly notably in the gawky cool of Stop Making Sense and the gentle, auburn soul of Heart of Gold. His son is a guitarist at the wedding, and as much as reality and fiction intermingle in this Dogme-influenced film, the making of and viewing of Rachel Getting Married are undoubtedly family affairs.

Make no mistake, the film is depressing; lies are uncovered, tempers slowly burn, words are exchanged that are hard to take back. The cast admirably manages to evoke the spontaneous but dutiful affection of a long overdue family get-together, before and as the agonizingly unspoken rears its head. Each performance is of a piece, although the three leading ladies (Hathaway, DeWitt, and the always welcome Winger) are especially commendable for their bottomless capacities to inflict and absorb contentment and contempt. Rachel Getting Married isn’t the beginning or the end for its characters, or for Demme, that master of pluralism, less a maestro or a ringmaster than an emcee for a boisterous, ever-enveloping get-together that’s gotta end sometime.

1 - WALL-E

Directed by: Andrew Stanton
Written by: Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon
Country: USA
Starring: Fred Willard, the voices of Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver

Apocalypse isn’t the typical subject matter for a children’s movie. But then again, neither is a rat cooking in France or over-the-hill superheroes, yet Pixar made it so. The studio is not simply the standard-bearer for American animation anymore but sits at the top of mainstream filmmaking in general. Its various directors and animators simply refuse to separate animation from cinema as an art form, kids from adults as an audience, art from entertainment as an aim. Pixar’s ninth effort, WALL-E, manages to fulfill all expectations for a science fiction story, an imaginatively-conceived animated film, a straightforward yet sophisticated treatise on consumption and environmentalism, and a further evolution of the animation studio’s celebrated product.

In liberally but adeptly using elements from science fiction films (most notably Silent Running, Star Wars, and 2001: A Space Odyssey) and animation (anthropomorphized Disney characters, for instance) of the past, WALL-E builds upon a fine tradition of identifying the humanity of non-human beings and visualizing a fantastic but conceivable idea of the future. The unassuming and plucky little garbage compactor WALL-E, the last of his kind on a desolate and waste-covered Earth, utilizes silent-movie expression and underdog longing in his pursuit of EVE, the sleekly advanced probe droid sent to survey for signs of vegetation. Like Tracy and Hepburn and Allen and Keaton before them, WALL-E and EVE, the crumpled, neurotic male and the sharp, businesslike female who somehow fit together, join a clear comic tradition that grounds the film’s more esoteric premises. Their bickering couple dimension is all the more impressive for the film’s lack of dialogue, forcing nonverbal communication to uncharacteristically carry the weight. This “gendered” conventionality (noted by a few critics) seems a lesser problem when juxtaposed with WALL-E’s post-apocalyptic, anti-overconsumption elements.

Few mainstream films animated or otherwise push storytelling boundaries to establish mood, character, and theme as effectively as in WALL-E’s first, near-silent, Earthbound half. The main character’s sense of duty, higher aspirations, and quirky loyalty to humanity’s detritus are defined clearly and comically, his realistically-rendered robotic exterior masking the soul of a heartfelt romantic. In addition to being Pixar’s perhaps most ambitious film technologically, the futuristic fable also contains the most epic emotional canvas the studio has yet devised: the demise and rebirth of human culture as we know it. Swiftly and cleverly, the disastrous results of mass consumption and merging of government and business come into focus with likably smarmy (and live-action, thus connecting the film to non-animated reality in a way previously unknown to Pixar) Fred Willard as its spokesman. A political agenda can be extrapolated from the simplest of scenarios, and WALL-E’s devotion to homegrown values and collective responsibility isn’t hard to parse. Yet the film’s lightness of touch and deft mixture of good humor and barbed criticism rightly soften its political blow. Far from a screed yet denser than a supposedly apolitical cartoon, the film is as prescient and topical as one wants to make it, without losing a bit of its visual wonderment and other considerable virtues. Such a perfect mélange of social critique, entertainment, unforced technological fluidity, and storytelling acumen is hard to find in any medium; for Pixar it’s expected yet continually astonishing.

Unbearably poignant, the lonely robot of WALL-E is both the custodial guardian of his masters’ lost culture and a forgotten member of it. Yet WALL-E him/itself is only either doing his duty or chasing his companion, hardly ever consciously standing in as hope for humanity’s survival. He’s parallel to the single plant that can ensure humanity rejoining its rightful home, if recognized and used properly. Despite his and EVE’s agency, it’s the people who must take their world back. The delightful end credits sequence was apparently tacked on after an early audience screening, the only worthwhile result of that process I can name. From cave drawings to more sophisticated artworks, the chronicling of humanity’s future devotion to its world ends the film with the perfect dose of optimism while acknowledging the inevitable work ahead.

3 - Hunger

Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: Enda Walsh, Steve McQueen
Country: Ireland
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Stuart Graham

Brutal and poignant in its dedication to the materialistic aspects of common humanity, Hunger reconfigures and reenergizes the formal potential of political filmmaking. Directed and co-written by installation artist and Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen, the haunting depiction of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands’s last weeks of life embraces its context without becoming a walking history textbook. With only a few major characters, one long, tensely-delivered dialogue scene, and moments of mundanity alongside moments of cruelty alongside moments of beauty, Hunger thrives by unflinchingly visualizing the cold reality of the Maze prison in 1981.

Intensely focused on each moment, McQueen’s film opens with the decontextualized daily morning routine of a man who turns out to be a prison guard (Graham), most harrowingly including his check for bombs underneath his car. A face in a mirror, bloodied knuckles, and shoving a uniform in a locker become, under the camera’s sure gaze, isolated events eventually crystallizing into a mosaic, beautiful on their own but disturbing in their building implications. Without knowing every facet of recent Irish political history, an audience member can still make the clearest distinctions between the violent and the violated, and how power is secretly fought by the powerless and how the powerful fight back. Every bit of calm is threatened by turmoil, and every burst of sadism is eventually met by a contemplative solemnity. Nothing is apolitical in these men’s lives, even if their fates are not officially recognized as such. Out of this alternately somber and dizzyingly aggressive maelstrom come Bobby Sands (Fassbender) and a priest (Cunningham) to debate whether Bobby should go through with his proposed hunger strike.

Their seventeen-minute long take conversation anchors and frames the film around it. While obeying the laws of exposition in detailing the political nuances of what will come after, the scene equally challenges and humanizes Sands as a person, as a leader, as a symbol for his cause. Depending on whether one agrees or not with Sands’s decision to hunger strike, his aggressively noble rationalizations may turn even a folly into a holy one. The unbrokenly shot conversation undoubtedly transcends its gimmick.

The remainder of the film is difficult to watch due to Sands’s minutely detailed physical suffering. As horrifying as the punishing blows and bloodletting of the movie’s first half, it makes it clear that Sands’s body as a vessel for his soul deteriorates rapidly even if that soul does not. Refusing food but unable to stand, Bobby remains defiant to the end. The body itself, in all its honorable, sad fragility as the final landscape for political dissent, takes center stage. The scenes still have a kind of unsentimental, clear-eyed beauty, and Fassbender’s performance makes the relatively superficial aspirations of, say, Christian Bale in The Machinist or even the men in Rescue Dawn, look practically immoral by comparison. In the end, a viewer must make up his or her own mind as to whether the subsequent results are adequately worth the agony endured, but Hunger’s unabashed politics aren’t about agreeing or disagreeing, it’s about recognizing a person’s ability to etch his protest inside and outside, for himself and for others.

4 - Happy-Go-Lucky

Written and directed by: Mike Leigh
Country: United Kingdom
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Samuel Roukin

Has Mike Leigh traded his characteristic social realist dramedies for an irritatingly perky character study? Not quite. Utilizing his trademarked improvisational techniques to build characters and story with his actors, Leigh had the gall to help shape Sally Hawkins into the likable eternal optimist Pauline “Poppy” Cross and then not shatter her idealism into a million little pieces. Refreshingly sunny and open about her life and world, Poppy can, in individual scenes across Happy-Go-Lucky, seem like that one constantly cheerful friend who urges you to “buck up” during a bad day. But as the film builds and she has further encounters with strangers and friends alike, a portrait coalesces revealing a with-it, helpful woman legitimately curious and hopeful about the world around her. What a concept.

The relatively plotless film is nonetheless shaped by Poppy’s conflict with her driving instructor, the repressed, aggressively misogynist and racist Scott (Marsan). Ostensibly her natural opposite, he challenges her good faith in people with his suspicions and paranoid recriminations. It would have been easy to turn the character into merely a gargoyle but his apparent emotion nakedness garners some kind of sympathy, and those less inclined to take the Poppy pill can hope that his manner will rub off and depress his inexhaustibly positive driving student. Her personality attracts if not changes Scott, and after the film one can either imagine him becoming even more violent having been spurned or reacting more thoughtfully having met someone like Poppy, their choice.

Mike Leigh is unabashedly an actor’s director, but his use of widescreen opens up his Britain to a wealth of experience, with Poppy and Scott as the magnetic poles keeping things stable, with Happy-Go-Lucky nonetheless gravitating toward Hawkins. Her frequently funny and affable portrayal never veers into cloying sainthood or makes Poppy an object of ridicule because the film continually tests her resolve. In her natural fit as a schoolteacher, she tries to help bullied and bullying boys as best she can but never makes a crusade out of it. It’s not that she never extends her good will outside her immediate surroundings; it’s that it’s clear that the outside world doesn’t want it. As much as she looks on the bright side, people like Scott and the rambling homeless man seemingly out of Leigh’s own Naked and her bickering sisters enter her orbit and she enters theirs and they both leave as barely different people. Stormclouds continually threaten the horizon even if they never actually come. Although the most drama and tension is wrung out of Poppy’s encounters with Scott, no sequence is given much precedence over another. This narrative freedom allows a fuller, more complex view of Poppy to be reached at the end, of a person who takes things as they come without sentiment, a lack of humor, or preconceptions. Anyone willing to give her a chance should be rewarded.

5 - CJ7

Directed by: Stephen Chow
Written by: Stephen Chow, Vincent Kok, Tsang Kan-Cheong, Sandy Shaw Lai-King, Fung Chih Chiang, Lam Fung
Country: Hong Kong / China
Starring: Stephen Chow, Xu Jiao, Kitty Zhang Yuqi, Danny Chan Kwok Kuen, Tin Kai Man

Stephen Chow’s brand of goofball populism, even when coated in a family-friendly sheen, hits me in the right place. Seemingly a departure from his madcap previous films, Shaolin Soccer and Kung-Fu Hustle, CJ7 nonetheless shares with them a love for underdogs and simple, heartfelt morality. Having joined the pantheon of the most world-renowned bankable filmmakers, Chow takes a cue from another of that company, Steven Spielberg, in melding high-concept fantasy with an accessible worldview. Although the title is a reference to China’s Shenzhou manned rocket missions, it and its plot obviously also refer to Spielberg’s E.T. , another story of friendship between a boy and an alien that is a family drama at its core; where the films depart are in Chow’s specific concerns for the Chinese working class while adhering to his successful “mo lei tau” brand of ethnically specific nonsense comedy.

Working off a series of clearly defined dichotomies (rich/poor, appearance/reality, male/female), CJ7 couches its lessons of hard work, perseverance, loyalty, and forgiveness in a digestible but by no means unsophisticated package. The biggest coup perhaps is shifting the Everyman role from Chow himself to the lead character of Dickie (Xu Jiao), a precocious poor kid who, like most Chow protagonists, starts out talented but greedy and ungrateful, and gains wisdom through his trials. In subverting the expectations of both the audience and Dickie, who initially thinks his new alien pal CJ7 can bring him power, prestige, and good grades (ironically, this fantasy plays through references to Hollywood and even Chow’s own previous works), the film becomes the writer-director-star’s most earthbound, so to speak, project to date. Chow’s own resolutely grounded performance as Dickie’s father Chow Ti, firm, fair, a model of working-class dignity, brings a dimension of emotion, realism, even consequence missing from his previous films. For all of the CGI at work (and it is easily Chow’s most expensive movie to date), its real fireworks arise from genuine heartbreak and newfound responsibility.

Like E.T. but unlike most movies aimed at younger audiences, CJ7 portrays childish characters without itself ever becoming wholly childish. With one foot firmly in the harsh reality of Chow Ti’s construction job, the film is free to indulge in the whimsy of Dickie’s world. The otherwise visually inexplicable non sequitur of the large, obviously male actor playing a schoolgirl comes into focus by learning that performer Xu Jiao is actually a girl cross-dressing to play Dickie, thus balancing out the equation. This leveled gender dynamic celebrates itself by playing laughs off of Dickie’s discomfort at the “schoolgirl’s” pursuit and by making “her” the most physically imposing presence in the schoolyard milieu. That integrity and goodness can come from the most visibly unexpected of places is one of CJ7’s chief tenets, another being that foregiveness and renewed potential can overcome disappointments we feel between each other (Chow Ti toward his son and vice versa, Dickie toward CJ7). And CJ7 itself is adorable, rivaling WALL-E’s anthropomorphic hero in cuteness and, in its way, unassumingness. Its power is obviously lifted from E.T. , but its results are reversed in order to bring the creature’s selfless “humanity” as a model more clearly to the fore.

But no amount of rationalization can precisely capture or explain Chow’s sheer ridiculousness, still evident but surprisingly toned down in a kid’s picture. From Chow Ti and Dickie’s father-son game of cockroach-smashing to Dickie’s fantasy of Mission: Impossible 2-style gadgetry, CJ7 tilts the world of childhood transition somewhere between Ozu’s naturalistic satire I Was Born, But… and the Chow-starring high school gangster gagfest Fight Back to School. A heartfelt and loopy hug to the largest audience he’s ever had, Stephen Chow continues dismantling the barriers between high and low, East and West, silliness and sincerity.

6 - Burn After Reading

Written and directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Country: USA
Starring: Frances McDormand, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins

In the realm of terrific Coen brothers titles, Burn After Reading may be the best. It perfectly sums up the comedic holocaust that engulfs its characters in the end. It not only refers to the cloak-and-dagger plot but to the hilarious near-dismissal of the whole thing by J.K. Simmons’s CIA chief. And it’s also as anachronistic to the digital age as the bumbling gym employees Linda (McDormand) and Chad (Pitt) are to the contemporary state of political affairs. As ruthlessly detailed and resolutely existential as its predecessor, the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, the film takes aim at pretention, vanity, and sheer idiocy on its own turf: Washington, D.C.

Even if the Coens never set out to satirize the self-centered power plays of D.C., with that setting they couldn’t have helped it. Malkovich’s unfortunately-named CIA analyst Osbourne Cox sets the tone, all preening pomp souring into self-absorbed despair upon being fired from the agency. His decision to write his memoirs (emphasis on the oir) coincides with his wife Katie’s (Swinton) investigation into his assets in order to initiate divorce proceedings; a mishap at the gym lands Cox’s financial and personal records into the hands of Linda and Chad, who, too narcissistically focused on the physical to worry about the ethical, are bent on blackmail to finance Linda’s plastic surgery. Meanwhile, dumbly suave Treasury agent Harry (Clooney) has been romantically embroiled with both Katie and Linda and responds to what he sees of the building plot with more than a little paranoia. Just as in the best Fritz Lang melodramas (and many of the Coens’ films, for that matter), the overarching plot seems to have a malevolent life of its own yet in reality is motivated by nothing more cosmic than the participants’ collective, sometimes unrelated, human desires.

If there is any kind of conspiracy that fulfills the characters’ various paranoias, it’s the American culture of needless personal gain disguised as deservedly fulfilling a self-image (Harry and Osbourne’s Cold War-era views of themselves as at the center of things) as well as simply charging in when way over one’s head (“I’m just a good Samaritan…” Chad keeps moronically saying when blackmailing Cox). Even poor Ted (Richard Jenkins) has pitifully reinvented himself from a Greek Orthodox priest into a gym manager and deludes himself into pining for the undeserving Linda. That nobody realizes what an insignificantly small fish in a big pond he or she is comes best into focus when neither the Russians nor Americans particularly care about the various schemes. Burn After Reading’s crucial Greek chorus is composed of David Rasche and J.K. Simmons, CIA men struggling to make sense of it all. Their failure to grasp, and ultimate decision to simply scrap all trace of, the seeming randomness of the film’s Rube Goldberg-esque plot machinations sums up the Coens’ unsparing but bleakly affectionate view of human nature. We like to watch and experience life just to see what it does, but when we screw up and want to make sure we don’t screw up again, we’ll be damned if we could tell you what the hell we just did or why.

7 - Sparrow

Directed by: Johnnie To
Written by: Chan Kin-Chung, Fung Chih-Chiang, Milkyway Creative Team
Country: Hong Kong
Starring: Simon Yam, Kelly Lin, Lam Ka-Tung, Law Wing-Cheong, Kenneth Cheung

Shot during a three-year period between other Milkyway Image projects, Johnny To’s newest film, compared to his previous ones, is still a heady brew of male camaraderie, extravagant cinematography, and aesthetic violence, albeit with a decidedly different mixture of spices to top it all off. Defying easy categorization, Sparrow could be described as a quirky-romantic-action-crime-comedy. The always suave Simon Yam heads a motley team of “sparrows” (slang for “pickpockets”) who become embroiled with a beautiful young woman (Lin) out to seduce them into committing a crime for her. The sparrows are professionals like any other in To’s filmography, proud but knockabout, yet much less hardened criminals than skilled craftsmen plying their trade just enough to get by. Yam in particular gives a likeable, flowing performance, perfectly suited to the equally fluid, formidable direction by Johnnie To.

Sparrow is perhaps the perfect blend of To’s earnest crime pictures and frothy romances. With his absolutely mastery of the frame and editing, he narrows his focus down from the nature of crime and thievery to the literal mechanics of a pickpocket; hands, jackets, and wallets take the place of guns, bullets, and bodies so prominent in Election or Exiled, to name two of his recent genre works, except the stakes aren’t so high and intimacy trumps, or at least equals, bravado. The throwaway narrative leaves To a lot of room to indulge his formal chops, staging some hilarious and astonishing manipulations of space everywhere from a sidewalk to a rooftop to an elevator, akin to the various solutions to the dilemma of visualizing multiple personalities in Mad Detective. The final kicker, and perhaps one of the most satisfying sequences in all of this genre master’s films, is what I like to call “Pickpocketin’ in the Rain:” a dexterous, slow-motion contest of pickpocketing acumen within crowds of umbrella-wielding suited pedestrians moving along a crosswalk in the pouring rain. The near abstractness of water droplets, fingers, eye lines, and black and white suits converging is both comfortingly prosaic and acutely pleasurable, epitomizing To’s genius in mashing genre familiarity with continually inventive visual forms.

8 - Wendy and Lucy

Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
Written by: Jonathan Raymond, Kelly Reichardt
Country: USA
Starring: Michelle Williams, Will Patton, John Robinson, Wally Dalton, Larry Fessenden

Kelly Reichardt’s brand of downbeat Americana, so manifest in the nostalgia and disconnectedness of the two men in Old Joy, fits well with Michelle Williams’s forlorn, destitute performance in Wendy and Lucy. Both the film and its predecessor are based on Jonathan Raymond’s short stories, giving each film a loose, miniaturist quality that makes each verge on character study without neglecting context. The eponymous Wendy (Williams) finds herself drifting to Alaska from Indiana with her companion pet dog Lucy when her car breaks down in a small town in Oregon. Thus begins the muted, poignant portrait of a destitute and resilient young woman unmoored from a stable socioeconomic status with only her dog and herself for steadiness. So desperately attached is Wendy to Lucy that the dog’s disappearance causes her strongest displays of emotion and most crucial decision at the end.

The always politically-minded Reichardt is less concerned with the whys than the hows of Wendy’s situation. She’s beset by petty parking laws, suspicious clerks, the general indifference held by those with a place against those without. She’s lost for the first time in her life between social strata, in the cracks currently plaguing so many in this economic downturn. And she’s far more anonymous than the high-minded, well planning protagonist of Into the Wild; lacking street smarts or a comfortable milieu, Wendy is vulnerable where she should be sneaky, sullen and self-contained when she should be gregarious with those in a similar plight. For all of the distress and despondency in Wendy and Lucy, there are still moments of bittersweetness and hope. Some incidental details, like Wally Dalton’s sympathetic security guard only being able to spare a few dollars for Wendy, feel true to life in their negotiations between ideals and reality. Like in Old Joy, such national iconography as the woods (and here, also the train) bring possibilities, escapes, and, yes, changes, to those willing to move. Doggedly independent, Reichardt’s modest film speaks for a wider set of vital, contemporary experiences that go generally underreported in American cinema.

9 - Splinter

Directed by: Toby Wilkins
Written by: Kai Barry, Ian Shorr, Toby Wilkins
Country: USA
Starring: Shea Whigham, Paulo Costanzo, Jill Wagner, Rachel Kerbs

Seen at an all-night horror-fest (along with 35mm prints of Psycho, Jaws, and Dead Alive, among others), Splinter is a refreshingly well-paced and effectively acted horror flick, punctuated with leavening humor and imaginative effects work. The film merges the escape-from-a-besieged-central-locale sub-genre (a la Night of the Living Dead or the recent Vacancy) with Carpenter/Cronenberg body horror without making a fuss out of either. In fact, after a teaser intro at a gas station promising infectious prickliness to come, the plot begins sedately: our young protagonist couple Seth and Polly (Costanzo and Wagner) arrive in the wilderness for a romantic camping trip only to find it pretty wanting. Suddenly on the way back to the roads, they’re jacked by convict Dennis and his drug-addled girlfriend (Whigham and Kerbs), infusing this early stretch of the film with Hitcher-like overtones even as the tenseness of the situation is heightened when the car blows a tire running over an animal infected with the mysterious titular parasite. Enter the gas station. The rest of the film follows a quite logical, ratcheting progression as the characters lose one of their own and gradually try to discover the nature of the creature barring them from leaving the station.

The splinter parasite’s original host seems to be a kind of grisly porcupine, its quills infecting other creatures and causing death and atrocious limb contortions that come to life thanks to Splinter’s inventive stop-motion animation and prosthetics. Akin to the tactile terrors of Carpenter’s The Thing or the reanimated dead of early Sam Raimi, Wilkins’s monster(s) elicits disgust and admiration equally. As resourceful as its makers are the film’s characters, flesh-and-blood emotional beings confronting terror with logic and levelheadedness. With a short running time and realistically escalating pressure, the movie easily prevents itself from getting stale without insulting one’s intelligence.