Although we are in the midst of the annual December gridlock of last-minute releases glutting the market in time to qualify for a marathon of critical and industry awards shows, this will be my last movie column of 2010. Therefore, I will adjust my glasses, gulp an aspirin and endeavor, by popular demand, to ignore release dates and clock in with a roundup of the final main events on the overcrowded year-end calendar:
This meticulously nuanced, sensitively acted film version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire (who adapted his own screenplay) gives Nicole Kidman her best role in years, and she chews it like raw steak. She and the underrated but always reliable Aaron Eckhart play Becca and Howie Corbett, a couple coping with the death of their son in a hit-and-run accident.
People handle tragedy in myriad ways, and in this exemplary, heartbreaking study of grief, you will experience most of them with the tears of recognition that come from observing real life. Becca withdraws, shuns awkward but well-meaning friends who only want to reach out, fights with her pregnant sister (Tammy Blanchard) and humiliates her mother (Dianne Wiest). Growing irritable, edgy and progressively judgmental, she loses patience with group therapy and drops out of the meetings, shutting down and fighting loss by cutting Howie off from the bedroom. Howie erases the home videos, gives the family dog away and discards all traces of his son from his life. In a pitiful stretch for connection, she starts following a school bus carrying the boy who accidently hit her son with his car, and tries to befriend him, enraging Howie even more. No longer parents, they fill the spaces of their barren lives and beautiful but empty upper-middle-class home with private rituals and public mistakes: she bakes pies, he tries to sleep with a woman from his group therapy class (Sandra Oh) but backs out at the last minute. Clearly, these are people who cannot find the missing pieces to a life in crisis.
Surprisingly, Rabbit Hole has been directed with unexpected maturity and control by John Cameron Mitchell, and signifies a major departure for the underground miscreant whose forte has previously been sexually explicit material bordering on pornography, punctuated by ear-splitting rock ‘n’ roll. (I’m still recovering from the auto-fellatio in Shortbus and trying to wash out the noise from Hedwig and the Angry Inch.) He was apparently hand-chosen by Nicole Kidman, who produced Rabbit Hole. She chose wisely. Mr. Mitchell shapes the material expertly, coaxing from his two stars fine, emotionally frayed performances of range and grace as nice people tortured by misfortune. This movie is different from anything he’s done before, and a major step forward.
It is to everyone’s credit that nobody ever shifts gears and ties together the loose threads of lives hanging in the balance in time for a happy Hollywood ending. The sages always say, “Time heals everything.” Eschewing clichés, Rabbit Hole is disturbing yet refreshing evidence that for some people, redemption takes longer, and for others, the pain never goes away at all. (Opens Dec. 16)
From Sylvain Chomet, the brilliant French director whose great 2003 Oscar-nominated hit The Triplets of Belleville raised the bar for animated films throughout the world, comes a true masterpiece of visual enchantment. One of the most original and unique geniuses in cinema today, Mr. Chomet directed, wrote, illustrated and composed the music for this holiday jewel, an homage to the sweet, sad melancholia of the legendary French comic Jacques Tati. Adapted from an old, unproduced screenplay by Tati, The Illusionist follows the heavy-footed adventures of an aging, washed-up magician named Tatischeff, a relic from the old school of vaudeville who is rejuvenated by the affection and companionship of a young chambermaid named Alice.
Moth-chewed but still holding on to his dignity, Tatischeff leaves Paris and tries to jump-start his career in London, where he discovers the changing times have taken their toll on his kind of act. Rock ‘n’ roll bands now fill the seats of abandoned music halls. Jukeboxes have replaced live music. But in a shabby rooming house for performers in Scotland, the friendship that develops between the old man and the naïve, innocent girl feeds both of their needs-she rekindles his lost pride, and he lovingly buys her new clothes to replace her rags. She naïvely believes he plucks them out of thin air, so he takes a night job in a gas station to keep her dream alive. What he doesn’t realize is that her newfound beauty is turning her from a ragamuffin into a desirable woman. Desertion is inevitable.
Mr. Chomet’s passion for hand-drawn figures gives the film the look of museum-quality watercolors that move. From the Scottish highlands to the bustling traffic jams of Edinburgh, the animation is so three-dimensional that when the illusionist’s disagreeable rabbit escapes through the hurling bodies of a trio of robust acrobats, wreaking havoc in the theater, you really feel as though it’s heading for your seat. Both natural and incandescent light filters through an elaborately designed department store photographed through plate-glass windows. The most amazing effect of all: Tatischeff (the real surname of Jacques Tati) enters an empty cinema where a tiny audience watches an actual movie clip of Mon Oncle, one of Tati’s classics. It has to be seen to be believed. It is such high art that you will never believe you are looking at one canvas at a time.
To the age-old tradition of animation, Mr. Chomet adds the literary illusion of French literature by Proust and Pagnol. The Illusionist is 80 minutes long without one wasted second, and almost totally silent—living proof that a film doesn’t need words when it’s so chock full of feelings. (Opens Christmas Day)
The latest calcified bore by Sofia Coppola is less pretentious than Marie Antoinette but every bit as inertly stupefying as Lost in Translation. She has a thing about lost souls wandering catatonically through cavernous hotels looking for their souls. This time it’s Stephen Dorff, a good actor who has devoted his entire career to choosing lousy movies. He plays a brain-dead, drugged-out, bleary-eyed movie star holed up at the funky Chateau Marmont above the Sunset Strip.
Life in the fast lane doesn’t look like much fun. Endless profile shots of his unshaved face in the window of his moving $45,000 Ferrari, of him chain-smoking and swigging beer in an interminable wardrobe of ugly T-shirts, make you wonder who his fans are.
Maybe this is the creepy New Hollywood, but director Coppola doesn’t have a clue how to film it in a way that holds attention. Paced at the speed of a praying mantis sniffing a Wheat Thin, it begins with Mr. Dorff driving his car around in circles five times for no reason before it comes to a halt. After the credits, he falls down a flight of stairs and lies in bed with a broken arm while a pair of trashy blondes do a pole dance dressed like hotel maids. He runs into Benicio Del Toro in the elevator. He falls asleep in the middle of oral sex. And you still want to be in pictures?
Enter his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning, sister of Dakota), whose neurotic mother leaves town indefinitely and drops her off in his custody. A child with two irresponsible parents, Cleo is 11 going on 55. Mr. Dorff takes her to Italy for the weekend, and there’s a long, tedious and utterly loopy scene where they lie in bed eating gelato and watching an episode of Friends in Italian. Everywhere they go, she tries to rehabilitate her sorry dad, but eventually he dumps her at camp and leaves her there. He goes back to his bevy of trashy, meaningless one-night stands, but this time he feels bad about it. Maybe fatherhood beats winning an Oscar. We’ll never know, and I, for one, couldn’t care less. Ms. Coppola, who has learned nothing from father Francis, doesn’t have the slightest concern about boring her audience to death. Deluded critics praise her style of moment-to-moment realism with a stripped-bare minimum of action, plot, camera movement and character development. Trouble is, the moments she chooses to show are not the moments worth watching. Somewhere should be called Nowhere, because that’s where it starts, that’s where it’s heading and that’s where it lands. Bring No-Doz. (Opens Dec. 22)
If there’s one thing I don’t need in my Christmas stocking this year, it’s a sorry, lumbering and unasked-for remake of the 1969 sagebrush saga True Grit. Stick it into the one reserved for thorns and thistles. The original western won John Wayne a puzzling and undeserved Oscar for finally falling off his horse. Don’t expect the same miracle for Jeff Bridges. In the numbing hands of pretentious filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, history does not repeat itself in any way whatsoever.
It’s still based on the Charles Portis novel about a 14-year-old girl named Mattie Ross (memorably played 40 years ago by Kim Darby) who recruits a one-eyed spittoon relic and grizzly old drunken has-been bounty hunter named Rooster Cogburn (Mr. Bridges) and a skanky Texas Ranger (a hopelessly miscast Matt Damon) to track down and bring to justice a no-good outlaw drifter named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the varmint who murdered her father. Back in the day, veteran director Henry Hathaway knew how to whittle down a long-winded novel and prune away the chips for maximum entertainment value. Despite an occasional surprise like Fargo and No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers have never met a comma, period or semicolon they didn’t like. Their movies ramble through open space like rail fences on a cattle ranch. Now we get all the detritus from the novel-endless shootouts in log cabins, blood splattering across saddles, fingers chopped off, birds pecking out the eyeballs of a man in a noose, horses beaten until they drop dead, Mattie losing her arm after falling into a den of rattlesnakes-for no reason except to make the audience retch. Mere distractions, folks, to divert attention from the fact that nothing is going on elsewhere. Oh, well. At least, for reasons you’ll learn if you mosey into this shoot-’em-up without warning, there won’t be a retread of the sequel, Rooster Cogburn, which starred Duke Wayne and Katharine Hepburn.
Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is a passable Mattie, but she’s no Kim Darby. The really appalling thing here is Jeff Bridges. Last year, he won an Oscar. This year, he gives the worst performance of 2010, grunting and growling with a throat full of gravel that renders any rational assessment of the screenplay pointless. (Maybe the Coens planned it that way. What I did hear between burps, flatulence and snoring is not worth repeating.) Incoherent mumbling has become his trademark, substituting bloated self-indulgence for what used to be acting. Mr. Bridges does everything to out-wobble, out-drawl, out-screech and outdo John Wayne, hoping his meandering tirade will make everyone forget the original and forgo comparisons. The result is just the opposite: This violent, boring and unnecessary re-shoeing of an old mare that ain’t what she used to be only reminds you of how much you forgot you cared about John Wayne in the first place. (Opens Dec. 22)
Movie intimacy reaches groundbreaking new heights in this shocking story of a young marriage on the rocks, thanks to the charisma and range of two of the screen’s most appealing new stars. Blue Valentine juxtaposes two narratives, set in the present and past, about love found and lost with uncompromising honesty. In two no-frills performances, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play a blue-collar couple from Brooklyn who learn the meaning of unconditional love and then crash to the depths of despairing bitterness.
Scruffy, overweight and balding, the appealing Mr. Gosling is at first unrecognizable. Then, as the film moves backwards, we see him, a house painter, meet her, a nurse, while visiting patients in a retirement home. He saves her from an abortion before he fully understands the responsibility of marriage and parenthood. She fails to meet her potential as a career girl. He drinks on the job. In a last effort to rekindle their early passion, they book a room in a sordid motel, but the damage is done. Naked in the shower and trying out pornographic sex positions, they finally collapse in confusion and cruelty. The dedicated performers throw themselves into the intense love scenes with such embarrassing intimacy that you feel guilty for watching. The naturalistic acting gives the movie an improvisational quality, like an invasion of privacy. And director Derek Cianfrance juggles multiple chronologies to shed light on two sides of a love story that begins with tenderness and pain, then ends in rage and more pain. This is not a feel-good movie, but I took it away with me, racked by feelings of emotional intensity that still linger. Blue Valentine is about real life, warts and all, over narrative conventions like action and plot mechanics. It is brutal, compassionate, beautiful in its ugliness and one of the bravest films of the year. (Opens Dec. 31)