/The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie/ (1972, Luis Buñuel): 97
Hard to quantify the cumulative satirical force this movie brings to bear, as it maintains the same level of genial drollery from start to finish. I always start out mildly amused, wind up gobsmacked...but it seems entirely possible that shuffling the scenes at random would have much the same effect. It's just a single pointed joke that gets funnier and funnier, abetted by a sextet of actors who refrain from any winking or nudging—Bulle Ogier in particular achieves maximum vacuity without calling attention to herself in any way, but they all embody entitlement with zero fuss. Furthermore, the meal-that-never-happens conceit provides an ostensible structure that gives Buñuel license to digress at will, indulging in Russian-doll dream sequences and self-contained short stories narrated by minor characters. It's all simultaneously scathing and delightful, a potent combination that's very rarely attempted and virtually never as expertly sustained as it is here. Still, there's something more, some je ne sais quoi that elevates Discreet Charm well above The Exterminating Angel or The Phantom of Liberty and lands it among my 30 or so favorite films of all time. (I had it in the top ten at one point.) And that element stubbornly resists explication, as perhaps it should. Maybe other folks have come up with firm interpretations of the interstitial (and concluding) sequences depicting the characters walking silently along a deserted country road to some unknown destination, or to no destination whatsoever; I can't tell you what they "mean," and sort of recoil at the very idea of meaning. Just the sound of their footsteps on gravel seems to be, as Margaret's Ramon would say, "a perfect little encapsule."
My Neighbor Totoro (1988, Hayao Miyazaki): 54
Having seen the glorious bus-stop sequence out of context (at a friend's annual movie clip party, some years ago), I'd hoped this might be the Miyazaki film I'd longed for—one that would refrain from weighting down its flights of fancy with heavy-handed ecological messages, avoid indulging in sticky-sweet innocence-of-a-child sentiment. Just reveling in the gorgeous drawings without distraction would be sublime. Alas, Totoro is barely present in My Neighbor Totoro, making his first appearance nearly 30 minutes into a film that runs less than 90 and only showing up at sporadic intervals thereafter. Everything involving "him" (?), his smaller "relatives" (??), and the frickin' Catbus (!!!) totally enchants, and I tend to assume that folks who adore this picture focus exclusively on those bits and more or less forget about how much of it is the little girls running around squealing at Life Itself. Or perhaps I'm just projecting my own impatience with children at play, who are cute for a few minutes but don't exactly provide—apologies for the pedophilic suggestion here; I can't think of a better way to phrase it—long-term stimulation. (I know: Eww.) (Also, major exception: Little Fugitive, which fascinates as a semi-improvised quasi-doc that doesn't put its pipsqueak on a pedestal.) And while I understand that it's a movie for kids and doesn't want to unduly frighten them, must the mother be "suffering" from one of those suspiciously beatific illnesses with no visible symptoms apart from being in a hospital bed? Overall, the ratio of cutesiness to splendor is roughly 9:1, which doesn't say modern classic to me even if the isolated highlights are beyond indelible.
The Road (2011, Yam Laranas): W/O
I don't know what the critics who praised this were smoking, because it's totally inept. Apparently there are three sections, of which I saw only the first (and a few minutes of the second); it consists almost entirely of three bad actors driving along a deserted road and being tormented by some of the worst editing you've ever seen in your entire life. I had Dogma flashbacks, it was that bad. Laranas' signature move seems to be a Pixies-style alternation of lengthy, mundane traveling shots with sudden bursts of helter-skelter, incoherent action; I lost count of all the times I had no idea what the hell I was looking at, and the repeated visual stings followed by quick cuts to a different character wandering around in a daze (let's not even get into the moron behavior required to separate them in the first place) quickly turn laughable. If you can't make me even a little nervous with a deserted road in darkness, retire.
/Grave of the Fireflies/ (1988, Isao Takahata): 39
Calling this an anti-war movie is absurd. In theory, it's an anti-idiocy movie, but Takahata bungles even that, turning both kids into martyrs for whom our hearts are meant to bleed. Multiple sources report that the author of the source novel wrote it to apologize for, in effect, having killed his little sister, and that would have been a genuinely heartbreaking tale; of the many ways in which this movie achieves precisely the opposite effect, the most egregious is informing us—at the outset, significantly—that Seita (unlike the author, needless to say) starved to death as well, shortly thereafter, relieving him of the lifetime of guilt that inspired the novel in the first place. But there's barely any suggestion at all that Seita's actions are unconscionable—that he essentially kills himself and Setsuko simply because he doesn't like being nagged. The opening firebombing (superbly realized as a stand-alone setpiece; as ever, the animation throughout is gorgeous) establishes a woe-is-me tone in which the kids just seem like extremely belated casualties, akin to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who died months or years later of radiation poisoning rather than instantly in the blast or immediately in the fires. The whole film is just completely wrongheaded, and as far as I can tell nobody seems to notice, so knee-jerk is the general response to depictions of suffering. Kind of a travesty, really.
/Down by Law/ (1986, Jim Jarmusch): 66
Not sure I even knew who Tom Waits was when I saw this on video or cable shortly after its initial release, whereas this time "Jockey Full of Bourbon" came on over the opening credits and I was all FUCK YEAH! Amazingly lengthy setup is arguably the highlight, perhaps because it admits more of the world; once the boys are thrown together in their prison cell, the group dynamic never really changes, and Benigni's effervescence (are you Life Is Beautiful haters still allowed to enjoy this performance?) can only goose it so much. In particular, I wanted more of Lurie's hooker, lying there casually naked and concluding a bored harangue with the observation "if you was a good pimp, you'd have hit me by now." Ultimately, Down by Law is just a hangout film, throroughly enjoyable but slight, with what seems like a pessimistic shrug of a worldview. Structurally it's a carbon copy of Stranger Than Paradise—two doltish males find their lives invaded by a foreigner—but Eva's presence in Stranger is transformative, whereas Jack and Zack seem to learn nothing from their adventures with Roberto, parting ways in the final shot as if the entire movie had been a minor inconvenience to be soon forgotten. That might well be the point, but if so it doesn't hit terribly hard. Memo to Jarmusch: You should never ever make a film in color again, ever. No other contemporary director possesses the bone-deep understanding of black-and-white that you do. Night on Earth and Broken Flowers and even Ghost Dog look tame and hesitant compared to this, Dead Man, Int. Trailer. Night, etc. You work better leached.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012, Christopher Nolan): 43
Reviewed for Las Vegas Weekly, plus I did a dueling-critics feature with Keith Uhlich on Indiewire, so that pretty much covers it. Inception already felt overly bombastic to me, and Nolan pushes himself even further in that direction here; spectacle simply isn't his forte, and reading other critics rave about the electrifying final act bewilders me, as that was the point where I lost all interest and started feeling grotesquely nostalgic for The Rock. Also, is it just me or is this the year's second film (after Beasts of the Southern Wild) that suggests we'd all be better off without those pesky, will-sapping social services? You're never gonna climb your way to the top of America if you know there's somebody to catch you when you fall.
Oslo, August 31st (2011, Joachim Trier): 49
A bit of a lost cause, which is why I avoided it for over a year. Movies about drug addicts have a monotonous sameness about them, so I was encouraged at the outset that the protagonist was six months clean; given the title, an Aristotelian time frame seemed a safe assumption, hence there was reason to hope that we might not be subjected to the usual relapse. Bzzt. Worse than that, though, the first third or so—scenes between Anders and his writer pal—cross over into another of my least favorite "genres": the therapy movie, which finds the characters talking openly and earnestly about their feelings in a way that's inimical to drama. We've already established that Anders is suicidal, via an opening scene in which he attempts suicide; nothing is less interesting than the reasons why he feels life is no longer worth living, except maybe the other dude's predictably hapless efforts to cheer him up. Still, the film does feature one extraordinary stretch right in the middle. First, the job interview, which beautifully confounds expectation when the potential employer takes Anders' confession in relative stride, reacting not like a stock authority figure but like a real, compassionate human being. And then the magnificent café sequence, which plays like the depressive flipside of In the City of Sylvia, bombarding self-pitying Anders with the banal chatter of people whose troubles are likely no more or less crippling than his own. Thought Trier had made an impressive recovery, but the excitement was short-lived, as I would have realized had I known that Oslo is loosely based on the same novel as Malle's The Fire Within, which I didn't like either. Once he knocked on his dealer's door, check please.