First, an explanation: as it is the holidays, I have spent much of the last week and a half alternately celebrating and traveling. I’ve still been able to watch some things, but there hasn’t been a whole lot of free time to write actual posts. It doesn’t help that I’m in Jacksonville this weekend for the Gator Bowl either, but once we reach the middle of this coming week things should resemble a relatively normal pace. At this time, you can expect a few more “2011 in review” posts, including my picks for the best and worst movies of the year. For now, I leave you one more “Filling in the Blanks” post, with reviews of The Arbor, Beginners, Certified Copy, Melancholia, Red State and Tabloid. Thank you for bearing with me through this busy time.
The Arbor (Dir: Clio Barnard)
Technically, Clio Barnard’s The Arbor is a documentary, as it tells a true story using actual testimony from real people. Yet we do not see this testimony through the usual use of talking heads and confessionals. Instead, the testimony is lip-synched using a technique used as “verbatim theater,” in which actors portray the people we hear talking. It’s a strange conceit, but it serves the subject matter—the short, sad life of writer Andrea Dunbar and the fates of the children she left behind—surprisingly well. The Arbor would have been a fascinating film if it was made in the conventional way, but its innovation is what pushes it over the top into greatness. Using these actors, the film feels less like a documentary and more like a compelling drama about the vicious cycle of poverty and abuse in her old neighborhood of Brafferton Arbor. I’ll admit the film is a bit off-putting at first, but once you get used to the format there’s barely any disconnect between the actors and the words (sort of) coming out of their mouths. It’s as heartbreaking a movie as I saw this year.
Beginners (Dir: Mike Mills)
In what is perhaps the least surprising bit of trivia you’ll ever read, filmmaker Mike Mills is the husband of Miranda July: an incredibly quirky filmmaker who makes quirky movies about quirky people doing quirky things. Quirky. Mills’ work often seems cut from a similar cloth, and at times Beginners (his second film) hurts itself by piling on similar levels of preciousness. But Beginners ultimately works because it is able to justify the quirkiness because it comes from a human and genuine place to which the audience can relate. The film tells the story of Oliver (Ewan McGregor), an artist whose father (Christopher Plummer) just recently passed away. Plummer’s life is seen through a series of flashbacks that mostly focus on his later years, when he came out to his son and proceeded to live as the homosexual he spent his whole life pretending not to be. Meanwhile, in the present, Oliver must look after his father’s old dog while starting up a relationship with the equally unstable Anna (Mélanie Laurent). It turns into a wonderful little story about love and life, even if Mills throws in a few touches here and there that make you want to bang your head against the table. I will conclude by saying that whoever cast the dog in this movie deserves an honorary Oscar.
Certified Copy (Dir: Abbas Kiarostami)
Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has been making movies for decades, and his latest film Certified Copy proves to be a wonderfully tough nut to crack; a film that seems to shift from reality to reality without the use of anything resembling science fiction. On the surface, it is just a movie about two people having a conversation. These people? British author James Miller (William Shimell) and a nameless French woman who runs an antiques shop in Tuscany. The two of them spend a sunny afternoon driving around the countryside and visiting museums, and while these conversations are fascinating in their own right the film eventually takes an unexpected turn. And from then on the viewer can never seem to keep their feet on solid ground. Certified Copy requires the audience’s patience and absolute attention, and those willing to let the film’s infinite questions wash over them will come out the other side pleased with the proceedings. It’s a thematically rich little puzzle that seems to have no clear solution.
Melancholia (Dir: Lars von Trier)
If you were to describe the premise of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia to me in explicit detail, I probably would say that sounds like a darn good movie. And for a while watching the movie, that seemed like the road down which von Trier was headed. I kept waiting for it to come together into something brilliant, but it just never did. Instead, it just winds up being a well-performed but sloppy film with mostly unconvincing characters that revolves around a sort-of sci-fi concept. The first half of the film follows the wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), who suffers from depression. The second half of the film focuses mostly on her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who lives an apparently happy life with her husband (Kiefer Sutherland) and son (Cameron Spurr). Meanwhile, a strange planet appears out of nowhere and begins a crash course for Earth. Yeah, the science on that is sketchy, but that is the least of this film’s problems. (After all, I loved Another Earth.) Particularly in the first half, most of the people in Melancholia seem forced into being by von Trier, who here displays a poor understanding of how humans actually behave. (He would have been best served to strip away several supporting characters entirely.) The film has its moments—none better than the opening montage of shots that foreshadow the coming apocalypse—but I wish the script around it wasn’t so scattershot.
Red State (Dir: Kevin Smith)
When it premiered earlier this year at Sundance, there was so much hubbub around Kevin Smith’s decision to self-distribute his new horror film Red State that lost in the chaos was whether or not the film was actually any good. The answer to that question? Well, not really. While Red State does show that Smith is capable of maturing as a filmmaker—the direction is surprisingly strong—the film is derailed simply because the material feels like it was cobbled together awful quick. (Watching the film, it feels like Smith was so excited about making this movie that he didn’t bother to go back and write a few more drafts. That alone could have solved many of the film’s problems.) The movie has quite a few shocks in it, as most of the plot developments and deaths in the second half come completely out of left field. There are also some good performances, namely John Goodman and Michael Parks, but the film they’re in is a distressing hodge-podge of ideas that are thrown up on the screen with no real coherence. There’s a great movie to be made here, and I think Smith was capable of making it, but this is a rare case of Smith the director out-performing Smith the writer. Normally it’s the other way around.
Tabloid (Dir: Errol Morris)
In the oeuvre of documentarian Errol Morris, Tabloid is undoubtedly a minor entry. This is a man who has made films about murder and war, and his latest film turns out to be little more than the story of a strange woman (Joyce McKinney) and the “Mormon in chains” case that so captivated the British tabloids in the late ’70s. The film offers both sides of the story—namely, McKinney’s against everyone else’s—and Morris is more than up to the task of creating a fascinating film out of his subject. The film rambles on after a while, but while it’s on topic it shows just how easily the truth can go out of focus once all the flashbulbs start going off. It’s an unforgettable yarn that Morris quite ably crafts into an endlessly watchable documentary, no matter how ultimately slight the subject matter.
Thanks for reading. Once I return home I will wrap up my “year in review” posts and then we can move on with our lives.