A Few Initial Thoughts About Some Very Good (or much more than that, or at the least very worthy) Films

There are so many film that I have missed this past year that seem like they are very worthy of seeing, while concurrently a fair number of the ones I did see (usually because they were a free Industry screening) qualify at best as only momentary entertainment without the resonances that truly make a film great art. (As one of my favorite lines of poetry puts it “Only in the beauty created by others is there consolation.” – Adam Zagajewski). Some like many of the documentaries, like “Pina”, are actually just getting their commercial releases and others, like “Incendies” are available on DVD.

But I make the above point as a qualifier for when I make the statement “one of my favorite films” or “one of the best films” of the year, i.e. I’m not a professional reviewer and have neither the time nor the money to see everything.

First my taste always puts top value on films that depict human beings with the complexity that human beings exhibit in real life, i.e. some combination of positive and negative traits with a mix of consistencies and contradictions within each character’s make-up. Plots are derived from character and flow organically. The engine of the story is the standard propeller in drama: conflict. Someone wants something and somebody/something gets in the way. Complications ensue. I most love stories that are dramas with humor, or comedies with drama.

Except in animation and to some degree also pre-1970’s movies where I’m more forgiving, I’m alienated by sentimentality in a movie. I always define this as “unearned emotion” – cheap, easy ways of pushing an audiences’ emotional levers… fast forwards to an audiences’ subconscious that avoid the messy reality of a character journey in order to get to that emotional place (for both the character, and the audience). A fairly innocuous example of sentimentality, is the frequent shots of cute animals in “We Bought a Zoo”. As the locale is a zoo, there is justification obviously, but these cut aways didn’t always have much to do with the story or character development but rather seem to be inserted for that general “aaaaaahhh” feeling most of us get from puppies and kittens. (Another example, less of sentimentality per se, but an easy manipulation of emotion – in this case fear and anticipation – would be in the same movie, the sudden breaking of the lock to the lion cage right when the zoo is getting inspected by the state… let’s call that one, convenient, and I’d be quite surprised if that actually happened in the memoir the film was based on, and wasn’t manufactured by the screenwriter.)

As points of comparison, some relatively recent films that are favorites are “Sideways”, “The Visitor”, “Sweet Land”, “The Last Station” and “500 Days of Summer”… obviously indie heavy. That said, I utterly enjoy fun, escapist and genre (except horror) films too – “Raiders of the Lost Ark” being one of my all time favorites for instance. I’m also a huge fan of film noir, screwball comedies and other black & white film classics.

So, it shouldn’t be surprising that “Win Win” – the indie comedy drama written/directed by Tom McCarthy and starring Paul Giamatti and the ever amazing Amy Ryan – is my absolute, very favorite film of the year. (Note, I haven’t seen “Beginners” yet, which I’m told by friends that I would like quite a bit.)

The surprise to me, at least, is that “The Help” would be on my current top ten list. I resisted seeing this film when it opened. The commercials and trailers screamed, “yuck”, that looks so sentimental.” The major reviews cemented this where they only praised the acting, in particular Viola Davis, and often criticized current flavor of the year Emma Stone (whom, by the way, I had already noticed as standing out in a mediocre comedy called “The Rocker” from 2008).

But as awards season is upon us, I felt I should see the movie that did get various acting and writing major nominations from the guilds: well just as trailers can make a bad movie look good, they can be very reductive concerning character-driven films that have more nuance than is initially apparent. More on this in a future blog post…. (i.e. TO BE CONTINUED)