Werner Herzog’s decidedly unromantic vision of the natural world and the foolish vanity of man was the year’s most thought-provoking work; a hammer blow to a curious self-absorption that pits the lust for relevance against an indifferent habitat that knows only survival. Timothy Treadwell, the poor sap in question, just might be insane, but there’s a touch of innocence in his quest to devote his life to Alaska’s bears, which is precisely what gets him killed. In this realm, after all, only cold-eyed realism will suffice. Herzog, as expected, is fascinated by this man’s obsession (he is our best chronicler of human beings at the extremes), and while he refuses to judge from a privileged position, the narration speaks to a differing point of view that makes Treadwell’s account seem hopeless by comparison. And no film better captured the unique intersection of sadness, thrill-seeking, and delusion so often found in individuals unable to find their place in an increasingly alienating world. At the end, we can safely assume that Treadwell wanted to die — on his terms — for martyrdom quickly supplants all else in the mind of a narcissist. In all, a devastating account, and it deserves to be recognized as among the finest documentaries ever made.
Controversial only to those who seek reckless simplicity and moral sanctimony, Steven Spielberg’s finest achievement is above all a call for sanity amidst madness; a film of courage and daring that convincingly argues that once vengeance is sought, there is no literally no turning back. Obvious, perhaps, but who on earth is saying it publicly? For a major motion picture to even hint that there are connections between the policies of yesteryear and 9/11 is bold, yes, but also quite justified given what we see here. We get enough of the Olympic massacre to keep things in perspective (after all, few would argue that Israel should have ignored the criminal act), so this is hardly an apology for terrorism. But contrary to the declarations of so many politicians, world leaders, and even artists, there are costs — both for nations and individuals — to every course of action, especially that which sanctions pre-meditated murder. Far from the definitive account (One Day in September is the best film on the event itself), it is simply a start to a much more important conversation: At what price justice? Can any one side lay claim to honor? More importantly, though, the film believes that in this “war on terror” — or any such related endeavor — there can be no winners, as “victory” is impossible to define so cleanly. Here is who we are, and where we are, and what a sad state we’re in.
Above all, make it your duty to put a bullet hole in each and every person who dismisses Ang Lee’s masterful film as “the gay cowboy movie.” If it were only that — lurid, deliberately shocking, and politically charged — it be would be instantly forgotten and justifiably criticized. Instead, this is a film of such thorough humanity that one quickly forgets such arbitrary assignments as gender or sexual preference. Few films have better captured the confusion of love and lust, and the sheer impossibility of their denial. Woody Allen said it best — “The heart wants what it wants” — and these two men, far from activists or proponents of a “lifestyle”, would likely deny any homosexual leanings whatsoever, believing instead that they have an uncontrollable attraction that cannot be labeled. The settings are lush, inviting, and comfortably in the epic vein, but the sights and sounds never overwhelm the story, and Ennis and Jack never resort to caricature or farce; they are, in fact, some of the most effectively realized characters in years. And who doesn’t long for such a place as Brokeback Mountain? Where one’s self can be fully realized without artifice or compromise? In that sense, the story takes on the aura of myth; for only in fantasy can we exist in such a carefree fashion. Our boundaries — our reality — bring only sorrow and death.
Good Night, And Good Luck
George Clooney’s unapologetic cannon blast across the bow of reaction, this piece (and it is far from the whole story) concerns Edward R. Murrow’s defense of integrity and free speech in the face of drunken lout Joseph McCarthy’s immoral (and patently dishonest) quest for power. Thanks to anorexic she-males like Ann Coulter, “Tailgunner” Joe has been redefined as a heroic statesman in some quarters, but fortunately for the thinking side of the aisle, her audience is limited to the mentally ill, murderous rednecks in isolated compounds, and far-right lunatics who still anticipate a Soviet reunion. As for the film, its lush black and white tones evoke a different era altogether, especially when we witness raw journalistic courage; a value in embarrassingly short supply in our current age of cowering careerism. The acting is superb, the message timeless, and the style so invigorating (there are bridges involving jazz tunes that are a pure delight) that we are crushed with disappointment that it ends so soon. Murrow, though far from an opportunist, came somewhat late to the McCarthy party, and while he was no Communist sympathizer, he could not abide the shredding of the Constitution for the sake of political expediency. He’s no doubt a candidate for sainthood in Clooney’s mind, for in the end, he used his position to rededicate the public airwaves to the people’s work. It stayed but a moment before surrendering to corporatism, greed, and S&M parties with Beltway insiders, but what a time it was.
Michael Haneke is one of the few filmmakers alive who consistently challenges our complacency, both as viewers and citizens of the world. Here, he is once again using politics, dread, and shocking violence to suggest that in all corners of respectability, there is a crippling guilt that we have gotten away with a great crime. This need not be a “crime” in the legal sense of the term, but simply a violation; a self-protective lie, an act of delusion, or a deliberate loss of memory that enables us to believe that we can forget the past. Georges and Anne Laurent are just such a couple; successful, privileged, and comfortable, yet suddenly — and quite literally — under surveillance. While structured as a mystery of sorts (who is sending those tapes and why?), there is far more creeping beneath the surface, and we know it’s just a matter of time before the “Haneke burst” blasts us back, forcing an additional consideration. Often unbearably tense, it’s the exploration of character that counts, and with subtext oozing from every pore, we never know what we can trust, and what is simply a distraction. And even when we get an answer, we have more questions.
Up for Grabs
Alex Popov and Patrick Hayashi are fucking insane; drooling, shit-faced, pissing-in-the-corner insane. And yet how typical of our lot they are, these men who battle in the seats, the streets, and eventually in court for the prize of Barry Bonds’ 73rd home run ball. Like last year’s smashing Overnight, this is a portrait of some of the most unsympathetic louts on the globe, yet we are never anything less that captivated. It stands to reason that our culture — far from the “common man” paradise so often evoked by pandering politicians — is a sweltering shithole of greed, vanity, and opportunism, and the film breathlessly indicts everyone who ever considered profiting from what was once “just a game.” There continue to be fanatics and face-painting loons in the area of sports entertainment, but what takes place on the field is such a small percentage of the total experience that it has become a soap opera for trashy men suffering from arrested development. Here, two men fancy themselves part of the show – complete with winners and losers, twists and turns, and more last-minute drama than a Hollywood thriller. It all ends badly (schadenfreude is one of life’s most underrated pleasures), and as we rock with delight, these idiots are left pissing in the wind. Life isn’t always this just, but for a time, we can dream.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
As preparation for the upcoming trials of Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, nothing could be more appropriate than this infuriating documentary from Alex Gibney; in fact, it’s the greatest argument yet that corporate fraud is a far worse crime than murder, rape, or setting fire to a maternity ward. Hell, I’m not sure the latter should even be considered a misdemeanor. Everything is on display here — the players, the crimes themselves, the sinking ship that left thousands bereft — and only a pathetic libertarian sitting poolside would not be moved to take up arms and reduce the nicer side of Houston to a bloody crater of death and decay. As we listen to arrogant upstarts beam with pride for bilking the state of California during the phony “energy crisis”, we feel our own blood boil with a rage unseen even in the darkest corners of nature. And yet, this is ultimately an ode to powerlessness; where us poor saps watch our economy grind on through the years and increasingly, we are upset not by the malfeasance, but our own inability to get a piece of the action. Enron, then, is business as usual; not a freak occurrence that shocks even the most hardened Wall Street observers. What did Mussolini say is the real definition of fascism, “corporate control of the state?” We’ve arrived, boys, and we’re here for the duration.
The Constant Gardener
Perhaps 2005 was the year that films regained their sense of outrage, and Fernando Meirelles, the brilliant young artist responsible for City of God, has now tackled the worldwide pharmaceutical conspiracy that (surprise!) places profits above people, especially when those people are disposable Africans. As this is not 60 Minutes, one should not expect buttoned-up journalism (I’m speaking to a particular dickhead on the Ruthless Forum), and thankfully, we are spared a dry lecture. The film takes the best ingredients of the thriller genre, adds liberal helpings of 70s paranoia, and bakes for several hours in a righteous fury. Served whole, it is depressing, disgusting, and intolerable, and all in the best ways imaginable. In its wake, there is idealism and courage, love and loathing, and above all, the antiquated idea that accountability means something, dammit. This is sweeping, passionate filmmaking with its heart and head firmly entwined, and its ultimate power can be measured by how much the right-wing press hated its very existence. So yes, while it is perhaps “leftist” to argue that corporations deliberately harm people — especially the poor — this is no Michael Moore piece. It’s simply the work of a great artist; astoundingly competent and confident despite this being only his second major feature. His future is bright; ours? Not so much…
Here we go again, ladies and gentlemen, yet another pitiless documentary bound to send all thinking people to the nearest highway overpass. Consider Tanzania: oppressively poor, forgotten, and hideously exploited in the long tradition of the African state. Also consider Lake Victoria: a body of water teeming with life, yet utterly destroyed by the introduction of the Nile Perch, a coveted fish that is shipped to white consumers across Europe and Asia, but denied to the very people who starve on the banks of that same lake. As a portrait of a culture fully immersed in hopelessness and despair, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more unflinching take. In fact, as we watch humiliated Tanzanians collect maggot-infested fish heads on which to subsist, we stand, mouths agape, and wonder why we bother at all with the pretense of civilization. This is a nation of rape, murder, crime, and ruthless survival, and home to one of the most frightening airports in the world — a study in chaos where planes land without instruments and runways are littered with the smoky shells of the damned. Now enjoy your dinner.
This is it, folks, the final gasp of the legendary Ingmar Bergman, one of the few artists who deserves every ode, every ovation, and every fawning deference to his genius. Here, we revisit Johan and Marianne, the now long-divorced couple from Scenes from a Marriage, as they face the ravages of age and memories of regret; compromise, loneliness, and yes, defiant self-pity. And we wouldn’t be in a Bergman world without love and loss, life and death, and the sneaking suspicion that despite our best efforts, we have ultimately failed in our limited goals. And of course, there is the core truth that remains inescapable in Bergman’s cold assessment of the human experience — the illusion of change, especially on a personal level. We often move the furniture around, but the man at 80 is the young man at 18, and the worst crime of all is believing otherwise. How much time and grief would be saved if we simply owned up to the fact that we are all rigidly conservative beings; seeking order, predictability, and justice, which itself is little more than the notion that our needs and wants meet with an undeserved priority? As usual, though, Bergman gives us words and faces with which to proceed, and his camera refuses to dart away from the darkest corners of our lives. He sees it all so clearly, and won’t let us evade the tough questions. And then there is family. How often we long to escape its clutches, yet only there can we grasp what we’ve become.
The Second Ten:
14 Match Point
16 Last Days
20 Sir! No Sir!