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)