1. The Wrestler
Mickey Rourke accomplishes much more than a mere comeback; his Randy “The Ram” Robinson is one of the cinema’s finest achievements, a performance that deserves to stand proudly with the best of Brando, Dean, or Clift in the Method’s hall of greats. In fact, it’s one of the most fully realized characters in decades. Sure, a case can be made that Rourke rises above the material, which, to be fair, is not without its flaws, but at no other time all year was I more invested in a man’s plight. And for once, a screenplay takes the inevitable familiarities inherent in such a story and uses them not to milk unjust emotions, but explore how this man – and all men like him – are seemingly unable to avoid living the trite and true because the they don’t know how to survive without the fantasy. And most strikingly, The Ram is likeable not because he wins, or reaches out to his daughter, or anything even related to his time in the ring, but rather out of his defiant, pig-headed refusal to change. He’s broken, battered, and pathetic, and he hasn’t the will or imagination to consider an alternative. As such, he becomes the most relatable Everyman of all. Fortunately, the film tempers its shadows with a delightful sense of play, coming alive with an infectious spirit during the wrestling sequences, as well as the musical trips down memory lane. Raw, sad, and thoroughly engaging.
2. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
A brutally depressing documentary that not even my hard heart could refuse. At first, the study of a decent, roly-poly young doctor who is murdered by his psychotic ex-girlfriend, it shifts gears to become about life, love, family, and the almost mythical degree of strength exhibited by the victim’s parents in the face of unspeakable tragedy. In addition to being well-made, exacting, and unabashedly manipulative (the film is not above using a red herring at the film’s outset that becomes horribly apparent as the story pushes forward), it delves into the lives of all involved with a level of detail usually trivialized or unnecessarily sensationalized in lesser efforts. While the film flirts with sainthood for Andrew Bagby, the young man in question, it always pulls back just in time to reveal an additional level of pain and misery. Unlike so many stories of this kind, there’s no way out for Dear Zachary; we can’t stop the slide and we hate ourselves for forging on. But as we do, we come face to face with the complexities of our own lives, and consider above all the oft-ignored concept of empathy. We may not approve, but we understand, and it’s one of the thornier issues under discussion: when the course of justice runs dry, what of extra-legal means? Can they ever be justified? Still, this is far from political axe-grinding; this is life as lived, with the crushing despair that remains hanging in the air like the last words of a dead child.
3. Wendy and Lucy
Finally, a film with such respect for the audience that it leaves its meaning, and everything in-between, hidden away for ripe discovery. This is a movie where silence itself becomes a character, and rather than melodramatic twists and turns that inject the unreal into the everyday, inaction and boredom become the very essence of storytelling. Anything more smacks of manipulation. Wendy is given no back story, no real depth of any kind, and yet far from a weakness of the screenplay, this is instead a tribute to the director’s bold risk: can you relate to, feel sympathy for, and care about someone who remains a stranger? In that sense, it’s the test of us all, for how else do we dismiss the suffering of the unseen than with a shrug of indifference? It’s how we step over the homeless, after all, or judge with self-righteous fury those who don’t conform to our expectations. There are decisions made, choices to consider, and people who can either comfort or condemn, but nothing here runs according to a predictable
Hollywood structure. Wendy does not meet with salvation, or a job, or even a sense of self. She’s lost, uncertain, and cast adrift, and she’ll likely remain so for the duration.
4. The Class
One of the few films about education that gets it right, this winner of the Palme d’Or remains in the arena of the classroom alone, and its battles are not about grades, tests, or getting to college, but the essence of a nation on the verge of losing its very identity. But more than a meditation on
France in the age of assimilation and immigration, the movie has the courage to avoid blame for education’s dire predicament, suggesting that we may have reached the point of no return for all involved, teacher and student alike. The class in question is diverse, mixed, and full of that undeniable spirit of youth, but as the final moments prove, not a single kid learns anything save the depressing lesson that no one can be compelled to give a damn about anything outside the impenetrable walls of self. For the teacher, a patient, though exhausted young man who long ago traded away his idealism for survival, his most persistent challenge remains the narcissism of the age, met with an official political correctness that resists cultural interrogation. It’s the excuse kids pull from their hip pockets when asked to move outside their comfort zones. Thrown together in a mix of competing egos and backgrounds, chaos ensues, with little respect for order. The metaphor is obvious, but the movie never is, resisting political score-settling and instead letting the noise and conflict of the day carry weight. There are no answers to be found, and it’s just enough to admit that stagnation may yet triumph. Let this be our canary in the coal mine. One of many.
5. Man on Wire
Philippe Petit is one of the more fascinating people you’re ever going to meet, even if he’d likely drive you crazy inside of an hour. Still, it’s a testament to the documentary form that we can spend an entire film with his sheer reckless abandon and not be pushed over the edge. As a typically self-involved artist, Petit thinks only of his next challenge, which, in August of 1974, involved scaling a tightrope fastened between the two towers of the World Trade
Center. The audacity is obvious, and the cheek almost beyond compare, but Petit’s charm makes us believe he can accomplish anything. And so he does. The story of how and when he lugged up the equipment, cased the joint, and eventually put one foot in front of the other makes for high drama, and at no point does anyone discuss the current absence of said towers. And though unspoken, we realize that the feat will remain forever unmatched, and likely the crowning achievement of athletic derring-do. One can’t really describe an unnecessary artistic statement as “brave,” but when we see him out there, a solitary figure atop a great, bottomless chasm, we find few other words that could describe something so wonderfully insane. And finally, a documentary not about the trials of war, or abuse, or death, or even the bloody Holocaust, but simply the unadulterated pleasures of risk. For its own sake, at long last.
6. Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story
The test of any great documentary is whether it inspires the viewer to pursue further study of the subject at hand. Using that standard alone, Spine Tingler is a rousing success; a fun, lively, stylized look at one of cinema’s forgotten heroes. Since the film’s showing at this year’s Denver film festival, I’ve visited four Castle classics (including the hilarious The Tingler) and for what’s it’s worth, I’ve loved every one. To some, he was a mere carnival barker; a Barnum-esque showman who trafficked in schlock and did little to elevate his craft above the din. But as the movie demonstrates, Castle took his work very seriously, and believed entertaining the public was the noblest of virtues (imagine that). From Emerge-O to the “Fright Break,” buzzing seats to Illusion-O, Castle pulled out all the stops to pack the theaters, which he did year after year. The doc is wonderfully generous with film clips and archival material, as well as interviews with friends and family alike, all of whom testify to the wit, dedication, and spirit of this most unique filmmaker. And, most refreshingly, Castle hides no skeletons in his closet (except the ones he flew over the audience), and the film avoids the expected “decline” that so often burdens subjects with cheap psychoanalytical detail. He was simply a man with a dream, one who pursued it to the end of his days, and though ambitious, was one of the few who seemed to make no real enemies along the way. Perhaps a bit romantic by half, it’s a great ride into what for me was the unfamiliar, and I’ll be forever thankful.
The 1950’s blacklist is far from untapped cinematic territory, but rarely have the personal losses of the McCarthy era been so vividly expressed. Dalton Trumbo, one of Hollywood’s most prolific talents, lost years of his life, as well as his freedom, but throughout this film, he is redeemed at last, proven to be the sort of hero America no longer produces: a prisoner of conscience. Thankfully, the film also highlights Dalton’s humor, open-minded parenting, and prickly charm, proving that one need not be stoic and saintly to earn history’s commendation. Not a strict documentary, it also “re-creates” the man’s words using actors, repeating the method employed by the source stage play. Most importantly, the film never wavers in its righteous fury over the political methods used against men of the Left, reminding us that far from “long ago,” it would be all too easy to repeat the horrors in our own time. A stinging, powerful rebuke to traitorous scoundrels like Ann Coulter, who use vile revisionism to try and rehabilitate McCarthy’s life and career. True, he was far from alone in the assault on civil liberties, but he must never be allowed to escape judgment.
Is this hyper-violent, blood-soaked mess really deserving of a year-end mention? Perhaps not, but in a year that witnessed the rebirth of Mickey Rourke, how on earth could we forget that Sylvester Stallone managed, in successive years, to bring back both Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, with big-ass balls intact, no less? More than yet, he erased the stink of Rocky V and Rambo III, proving again that if you throw an overdue bone in the direction of 80’s Action, it’s bound to hit greatness. Let’s face it, guilt-free entertainment is an underrated quality at the cineplex, and how often are we given the opportunity to slap our knees in delight at so much mindless death? Fuck yeah, it’s cartoonish and insipid, but who on earth would have it any other way? The plot, such as is, is unimportant, the characters range from thin to extremely thin, and the dialogue is little more than a series of screams, groans, one-liners, and gibberish, but Sly knows that giving the audience what it wants is far from simple pandering. In its own way, it’s cinematic genius. Running away from any attempt to reinvent his career, our favorite lug is conceding the obvious at last and going back to the only well that ever gave him life. Pray to the god of your choosing that he unearths from mothballs that long-delayed Cobra sequel.
9. Trouble the Water
The beauty of this sobering, first-person account of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath is that, because we see things through a single eye, we must challenge our own prejudices to find the empathy within. Kimberly Roberts, the film’s voice, as well as its conscience, is not an easy person to like, to say nothing of her family and neighbors (many of whom are addicts or criminals), but given what is going on around her (she is stuck at ground zero as the waters rise, finding refuge in a shaky attic), only blind hatred would keep anyone from remaining unmoved. Again, having a saint for a subject would make this a rousing, life-affirming greeting card instead of the powerful human document it was and will remain so long as we look to the movies for wisdom. In many ways, this is the final word on the subject (though I’m sure we’ll see many more in the years to come), as it strips away the news accounts, talking heads, and political spin to focus exclusively on the moment-by-moment fear, disgust, outrage, and loss. This is the grit, grime, and defiant hope of New Orleans as we’ve never seen it before, and though Roberts and her ilk are a bit too Jesus-obsessed for my taste, they are the overdue authenticity more detached accounts have previously lacked.
10. Gran Torino
Wait a minute, you might be asking; didn’t this also appear on my worst of the year list? Indeed it did, and it deserved to in spades. But as bad as it was – melodrama has rarely been laid on so thick, believe me – it never failed to satisfy, understanding that for the past fifty years, all we’ve ever really wanted is for Clint Eastwood to puke racial epithets and kick fucking ass, even though he’s just shy of eighty. I have no doubt that Clint saw this story as one of redemption, which is preposterous on its face, of course, for how is dying for your next-door neighbor (a sad young man to boot) anything but a complete waste? No matter, as his death is one of the year’s most self-indulgent entertainments, as is the machine-gun pace of Clint’s unchecked racism. Sure, I knew every plot twist, story turn, and character arc (as would anyone in possession of a functioning brain), but that’s not the point. This is the old man’s arrogant, well-earned middle finger to the rest of us who ever dared question his abilities over an endless career. He seems to suggest that in the twilight of one’s years, if a man can’t violate every social norm currently choking the life from an oversensitive culture, what’s the point of going this far? I have no doubt this film will grow in stature as the years pass, and each and every time it hits cable – morning or night – I’ll be there. With that same big dumb goofy grin, I’d imagine.
The Best of the Rest:
- Let the Right One In
- Bigger Stronger Faster
- Boogie Man: The Lee
- Vicky Cristina Barcelona
- Frozen River
- Rachel Getting Married
- Witch Hunt
- The Visitor