The Revolutionary Spectacle
Since Che only showed for a week in 2009 and I couldn't see it until this year, I'm including it here (and, conversely, I included Mother and Trash Humpers on my last year tally). Along with Carlos, The Social Network and Mesrine, this was the year of the biopic for me. I generally hate biopics, since they tend to reduce an interesting individual to the least interesting aspects of his or her life. Who gives a shit about the summer Che traveled around on a motorbike falling in love? Why, he's almost just like us ... except for that time he took over a country. Steven Soderberg and Olivier Assayas focus their epics on what made their respective subjects, Ernesto Guevara and Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, historically significant, namely wreaking ideological havoc. Thanks to their loving attention to the details of guerilla warfare and terrorism, I can now knowingly return to my homeland and make it the independent republic that God always intended it to be. Best historical epics since David Lean was making them.
The Phantasmagoric Spectacle
Like everything else, tripping has lost its religious significance these days, so I'm glad filmmakers are providing product to keep acidheads off our suburban streets. Nicholas Refn's Valhalla Rising is vague, contemplative and takes you down the rabbit hole via a mistaken orthogonal turn. Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void is garrulous, explicitly laying out what's coming in the first 20 minutes through a stoned reading of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Life and death are circular; you don't enter the rabbit hole, but are already there. Plenty of solid, hallucinatory potential here, kids.
The Old-Fashioned Spectacle
I don't think it's a matter of selective sampling of the past on DVD to suggest that Hollywood's output before the 80s produced a lot more films like these than after 1980. Anything from Nora Ephron hardly comes close to any randomly selected romantic comedy from the 30s or 40s, for example. The delivery is too dull-witted, but the writing isn't as sharp, either. The Social Network does compare favorably to comedy's golden age. Despite David Fincher's being too self-important to make a film under two hours, Aaron Sorkin's smart enough to remind me of Howard Hawks, Frank Capra and George Cukor's scenarists. The Coen Brothers harken back to the 50s western where characterization and the contemplation of existence took precedence over action and plot with some comedy thrown in (Matt Damon plays the Southern flipside of The Naked Spur's Ralph Meeker). If True Grit isn't on the level of Anthony Mann, it at least approaches Budd Boetticher, and that's good enough for me. Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer recalls a time when Polanski was better at making films than escaping justice. It's far superior to the political thrillers of 70s Hollywood like The Parallax View or Three Days of the Condor while remaining fairly platitudinous in its ideology. In other words, it works as an enjoyable thriller, but don't expect Z. In a better world, these three films would be average genre entertainment, the baseline that moviegoers should expect. In our world, they make best-of lists.
The Documentary Spectacle
Both of these films document the ingenuity of entertainers trying to come up with novel ways to keep an audience looking at the screen. Jeff Tremaine's Jackass 3D details a new arsenal of self-torture techniques from the Knoxville crew. I was particularly impressed with some of the simpler ideas such as Johnny Knoxville proving Roger Miller's dictum that one can't roller skate in a buffalo herd (Knoxville, like his aesthetic mentor John Waters, has good taste in pop music). Although its 3D effects aren't very consistent, the introductory and final sequences are the most glorious use of the technology I've seen. Steve-O bouncing slow-mo into a ceiling fan is, without a doubt, the most beautiful action sequence of the decade, much better than anything in Avatar or, even, the mass bromicide in Piranha 3D. And, on the other side of the equation, Henri-Georges Clouzot and his team of cinematographers demonstrate what can be done in special effects without digital or 3D artifacts by experimenting with mirrors, lighting, lens manipulation and makeup. The footage of these experiments is the primary reason for seeing Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea's doc about the making of Clouzot's failed film.
The Escape, or Punishing the Wicked, Spectacle
A natural pairing since both films center on the thrill of escape -- from prisons and banks in the case of Mesrine and from preschool in the case of Toy Story 3. Neither is as intense as the classics Le Trou and Rififi, but each creates spectacular thrills nonetheless. Despite not being a fan of what CGI has done to cartoons, Pixar has earned my begrudging admiration, albeit for the same reasons I like non-animated films: direction, writing, etc.. One of those cetera is ideology. There's a definite conservative streak that runs through their best films, but it's complexly instantiated in well-rounded character arcs, never the embarrassing puerility that constitutes the Republican party. Ratatouille is a populist critique of high-toned social critics (e.g., Critical Theorists). The Incredibles is a libertarian mocking of egalitarianism. And with Toy Story 3, possibly Pixar's best film, we get a moral re-examination (if not rebuttal) of commodification and power relations through individual responsibility. Andy's gang of toys is imprisoned in a panoptical preschool overseen by the omnipresent eyes of a cymbal-clanging monkey. The monkey, like all the other inmates, is under the control of Lotso, a fuchsia-colored, stuffed bear with a game leg and S.O.B. disposition. Long ago, he confronted his commodified status when his little girl owner, believing him lost, simply replaced him with another version. The film empathizes with this selfhood reduced to exchange value qua mechanical reproduction, but it doesn't excuse Lotso's rise to power by treating his toy brethren in the same manner. After he fails a second chance at redemption proffered by Woody at the fiery gates of a junkyard hell, he's condemned to a bug-splattered crucifixion on the grill of a diesel semi. French bankrobber Jacques Mesrine tried to justify his thievery and murdering with Marxian rhetoric, that it was supposedly all a revolt against the bourgeois system. But, as with the bear, Jean-François Richet's diptych biopic (Killer Instinct and Public Enemy #1) makes it clear that leftist sympathies were a mask for a greedy will to power. The final bullet to the head is what Mesrine morally earned, despite France's police and penitential system of the period not meeting the basic requirements of humanism. Both stories make for an interesting analysis of just deserts in a de-individualizing social system, but Toy Story 3 is more serious about it than Mesrine.