revisiting the 9s/film fatales: winter's bone (debra granik, 2010)

[This is the twentieth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10.]

In 2012, I wrote about Winter's Bone:

I think it’s the best fiction film I’ve seen from 2010, and I thought Jennifer Lawrence should have won the Best Actress Oscar over Natalie Portman for Black Swan. Lawrence was a revelation when I first saw the film. I knew nothing about her. Things have changed in just two years: as the star of The Hunger Games, Lawrence is poised to become one of the top stars of her day, and she’s only 21 years old. Thankfully, she doesn’t seem to have reached such a pinnacle at an early age for the usual reasons (great-looking, panders to young males), but because she is giving excellent performances. It doesn’t hurt that she’s great-looking, of course, but Winter’s Bone buries her traditional good looks in grit and mounds of cold-weather gear, allowing her to be a special kind of beautiful, strong and centered. Perhaps Portman gives us a peek at what Lawrence might have in store: three movies in the Star Wars franchise, lots of indie films, the lead role in an action picture, and ultimately an Oscar.

It's interesting to look back after watching Lawrence's career over the past decade-plus. She did indeed end up in franchise films, playing Mystique in X-Men movies four times, and, of course, starring as Katniss Everdeen in four Hunger Games movies. In 2015 and 2016 she was the highest-paid actress in the world. But she has also featured in non-franchise films, including some indie projects (she formed her own production company ... the first release was the fine Causeway starring Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry). She has been nominated for four Oscars, winning Best Actress for Silver Linings Playbook. It's a very successful career, and she's still only 33.

But what about "The 9s"? Did I underrate Winter's Bone because it was too new? I've seen it at least three times now ... clearly I like it. I taught it in tandem with the novel on which it was based when I was teaching. Perhaps most important for this purpose, in 2021, for a user poll at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They, I listed Winter's Bone among the 25 best movies of all time. 5, 945 films received votes ... I was the only person who voted for Winter's Bone. I have it at #7 on my list of the top films of the 2010s.

So yeah, I think it's time to give it the cherished 10/10.


revisiting the 9s: dunkirk (christopher nolan, 2017)

[This is the tenth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

When I first saw Dunkirk in 2018, I wrote:

Dunkirk is a success in almost every way.... here, I think [Christopher Nolan] uses his bag of tricks not just to show off, but to help the audience along, which turns out to be an excellent idea.

There are three basic stories in this telling of the Battle of Dunkirk, land, sea, and air. The sea is the most famous part of the story ... the civilian boats coming to rescue the troops are iconic reminders of the event. The troops waited on land ... meanwhile, aircraft provided cover for the boats. Nolan's structure for telling those stories is fascinating and effective.

A second viewing helped me realize that one of the best things about Dunkirk is the way it defines heroism. Too often, even an anti-war film gives us heroes to believe in who are essentially good at war, so we're rooting for people who go against the movie's theme. Nolan mostly bypasses this problem, perhaps because the story of Dunkirk isn't a story of victory, but a story of successful evacuation. The most memorable heroes, exemplified by Mark Rylance as Dawson, one of the civilian sailors called on to save the day, are steadfast, but their job isn't a gung-ho slaughter of the enemy, but rather to pull off a rescue operation.

The tremendous special effects (not CGI) truly bring home the horrors of war. Dunkirk is an amazing technical achievement. I don't know that I'm ready to give it the treasured 10/10, but it wouldn't bother me if someone did so.

Hans Zimmer's score is tremendous. I liked this video so much that I included it in my original post, and I'm going to include it again here.


another round (thomas vinterberg, 2020)

The only other film from Thomas Vinterberg that I have seen is The Hunt, which also starred Mads Mikkelsen. It was a good movie, in large part because Mikkelsen was so interesting in it. Another Round is more of an ensemble piece than was The Hunt ... Mikkelsen stands out, but he's not the entire focus of the film. The story, of four high-school teachers who come up with the idea of trying to maximize their job performance (and their lives) by getting just drunk enough to bring out their best, is different at least.

I can't speak of the veracity of the image Another Round paints of a place where half the country, including the high-school kids, are drunk. (The Danish title is Druk, which means drinking.) Things get interesting when the teachers first find their abilities enhanced. It feels like Vinterberg wants us to believe the idea that drinking makes us better people. But things get carried away, as you know they must. They base their experiment on a theory that apparently is actually espoused by someone, that people need to raise their blood alcohol level to 0.05 to achieve peak performance. Once the four are successful (at least in their eyes), they wonder why they should stop at 0.05. Wouldn't things improve even more if they got drunker? Which they do.

The blend of comedy and drama isn't always smooth ... perhaps it isn't meant to be. There are plenty of fun (not necessarily funny) moments, and of course, there are moments of great drama, especially around the crumbling marriage of Mikkelsen's Martin and his wife, Anika (Maria Bonnevie). I was never sure just how tragic this was supposed to be. We never really see Martin and Anika when they are happy, so we don't have much at stake with their relationship. Overall, Another Round is about the four male teachers; it is sneakily a guy movie.

Everything changes in the final scene. Mikkelsen breaks into a drunken but still stylish dance, and for a couple of minutes, I couldn't keep the smile off of my face. For a brief period, I was unconcerned with what Vinterberg was trying to say. It's a lovely moment.

Another Round is nominated for two Oscars, Best International Feature and Best Director, which is unusual. I've seen all five pictures in the directing category, and Vinterberg doesn't stand a chance of winning. I haven't seen the other "international" movies, so I can't hazard a guess about that category.


film fatales #83: zama (lucrecia martel, 2017)

Lucretia Martel takes her time between fiction features ... Zama was her first in nine years, and only her fourth since 2001. But she's busy ... between 2001 and the present, she has also made more than half a dozen shorts and a feature documentary. Zama was highly anticipated.

I wrote about her La Ciénaga,"You need to settle into its rhythms, you need to accept that Martel isn't going to hold your hand, but there's a difference between wanting the audience to be uncomfortable and making a movie that did not connect with an audience. Scenes begin and end in the middle, you aren't always immediately sure where you are, but you aren't lost." Much the same could be said about Zama.

It helps to approach Zama without trying to squeeze it into pre-conceived notions. The more you try to figure out what is going on, the less you'll get out of the movie. Which isn't to suggest Zama is too obscure for enjoyment. It's just that its pleasures have less to do with narrative thrust and more to do with the feel of each scene. The title character is an official functionary somewhere in Argentina. He wants to leave ... he spends much of the movie trying to facilitate his release ... his desire is understandable, but Zama becomes something of a comical figure because his hopes are never going to be fulfilled, and at times, he seems to be the only person that doesn't realize this. The arc of his story is probably the easiest thing to latch onto, but Martel isn't really concerned with audience ease. Meanwhile, the subject of imperialism wavers between text and subtext, as the nobility exists on the backs of slaves it barely acknowledges.

Zama is comical, although his trials finally become too extreme for us to laugh at. And life for the slaves is not funny at all. Martel effectively blends subtle commentary and absurd bureaucracy, all the while condemning the ruling class for their perfidies. It's a fine movie for a patient audience. #61 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)


silent light (carlos reygadas, 2007)

Last year, Emre Çağlayan published Poetics of Slow Cinema: Nostalgia, Absurdism, Boredom, which I am guessing grew out of his PhD thesis, Screening Boredom: The History and Aesthetics of Slow Cinema. You can find a list of 258 "Slow Cinema" movies included in the thesis on Letterboxd. I have mentioned on several occasions here that the idea of "slow cinema" seems far out of my area of interest. I have also noted that I often like those movies when I see them. Thus, I have seen 22 of the 258 films on that Letterboxd list, and I liked 18 of them, including 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which made my 50 Favorite Movies list a few years ago, and Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, all of which I loved. It would seem I need to do two things: lighten up on the criticisms of slow cinema, and watch a lot more slow cinema movies.

Well, Silent Light marks the 23rd film from the list that I have seen, and I can safely say that I still only liked 18 of them. Silent Light falls into the category of films where I appreciate when a film seems to have turned out how the filmmaker wanted it to, but where I nonetheless didn't like it. I'm always trying to think of a catchy name for this category ... maybe "Your Mileage May Vary"? Because I don't want to criticize Carlos Reygadas for doing what he wanted to do, and to the extent I know what he wanted, I have no problems, but I'm still unenthusiastic about the result.

Silent Light runs 136 minutes. I paused it twice, ostensibly to pee, but that was just an excuse to break the boredom for a bit. Reygadas uses non-professional actors, and it works well. The movie is also gorgeous to look at. But ... the entire film is not in real time (this isn't High Noon), but individual scenes are played in real time. Working from memory (no, I'm not going to watch it again to see if I'm right), the film opens with a beautiful long take that goes from the stars to a lovely sunrise to a pretty landscape, then goes inside a house where a Mennonite family is saying grace before breakfast. "Saying" is a bit of a misnomer ... everyone seems to be praying silently, and this goes on for a couple of more minutes until the father finally says "Amen". After which, the family eats cereal. In real time.

So ... "Your Mileage May Vary", but I was pretty bored. #50 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century, and #580 on their all-time list.

Here's an interview with Reygadas. He deserves the last word. (There is a Silent Light spoiler, so beware.)


oscar run: the lobster (yorgos lanthimos, 2015)

I try, but usually fail, to come to a movie cold, with no plot spoilers. In the case of The Lobster, I actually pulled it off. All I knew about it was that it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and that it had disturbed my friend Charlie very much. (He eventually wrote a piece about it, “Consider the Lobster”.)

Halfway through the movie, I had to pause and go to Facebook, where I wrote the following:

"We all dance by ourselves. That's why we only play electronic music."

Just reached the halfway point of The Lobster. All I knew about it going in was that Charlie Bertsch was very disturbed by it. I didn't realize it was a comedy.

If I’d read up on the film in advance, I would have found that The Lobster was “a black-hearted flat-affect comedy” (Sheila O’Malley), “wickedly funny” (Guy Lodge), a “terrifically twisted satire” (Peter Travers), and an “absurdist romantic tragicomedy” (Stephanie Zacharek). But it was nice being surprised, nice to realize that while The Lobster thinks it is serious, it is also intentionally funny.

I was reminded of other things I’d liked or hated. For the latter, there was Kevin Smith’s Tusk, which disturbed me so much I never wrote about it (madman gradually turns a human into a walrus ... 5/10). The title of The Lobster comes from one of the essential plot points: single people have 45 days to find a mate, or they will be turned into an animal of their own choosing (the main character, played by Colin Ferrell, chooses a lobster, “Because lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives.”

I was also reminded of the TV series Black Mirror, which I like very much. Like The Lobster, Black Mirror shows dystopian versions of the near future, laced in many cases with sly humor. The TV series is an anthology with standalone episodes, but all revolve to a greater or lesser extent on the technology of our lives, futurized just enough to differentiate slightly from the present. It’s a standard trick of dystopias, to create a world recognizably related to our own.

The performances in The Lobster are designed to throw us off ever so slightly. There’s Colin Farrell, except he doesn’t quite look like Colin Farrell, he’s a bit dumpy (he gained 40 pounds for the part) and decidedly un-sexy. Léa Seydoux may be incapable of un-sexiness (although the same might be said of Farrell before this part), but there is a hard-nosed bad-assery to her here that comes not from action scenes as much as from the determined look on her face, daring you to underestimate her. And Ben Whishaw has established great versatility in his previous roles, so you never know what to expect from him. (He also shares with Seydoux a 007 connection: she was a Bond Girl in Spectre, he is the most recent Q ... another actress from the film, Rachel Weisz, adds a trivia-answer 007 connection as well, since she is married to Daniel Craig.)  Suffice to say, everything is a bit off in The Lobster, so when you realize things are actually very off, that realization sneaks up on you.

So no, I wasn’t disturbed by The Lobster, perhaps because while I was aware Lanthimos had a larger theme in mind, I never connected with it, whatever it was. I just took in the pleasures of the film. I can’t leave without mentioning a couple of my favorite actresses, Olivia Colman (Broadchurch, Fleabag) and Ashley Jensen (Extras, Catastrophe). I wouldn’t go so far as to call The Lobster fun, or say I wanted to watch it again. But for the most part, the fun was what appealed to me.


what i watched last week

Five Minutes of Heaven (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2009). In the midst of all these requests I’ve been watching, I found this one the old fashioned way: looking for something to pass an hour and a half, I chose the first short movie that popped up, knowing nothing about it. Not a bad choice, with Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt doing some fine acting in a story contextually about The Troubles, but which is ultimately more a character study than a political tract. It feels like an adapted stage play (which it is not), which is fine since the point of the film is to examine the characters played by Neeson and Nesbitt, not to show off fancy film making. Nesbitt externalizes in a way that plays well off of Neeson’s more silent, tortured presentation, and Anamaria Marinca makes the most of her small part.

Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010). I’m using this film in a class I’m teaching this spring, so I gave it a second look. I liked it very much the first time I saw it, and I didn’t change my mind this time around. The film was a big critical favorite (gathering a 90/100 on Metacritic, with 36 positive reviews, 2 mixed, and no negative). The “worst” rating from anyone I read regularly came from Stephanie Zacharek, whose review was titled “Winter’s Bone a Little Too Pleased With Its Own Folky Bleakness”. She felt the “characters veer too close to broad caricature”, but still finds Jennifer Lawrence “impressively quiet and controlled”. I think it’s the best fiction film I’ve seen from 2010, and I thought Lawrence should have won the Best Actress Oscar over Natalie Portman for Black Swan. Lawrence was a revelation when I first saw the film. I knew nothing about her. Things have changed in just two years: as the star of The Hunger Games, Lawrence is poised to become one of the top stars of her day, and she’s only 21 years old. Thankfully, she doesn’t seem to have reached such a pinnacle at an early age for the usual reasons (great-looking, panders to young males), but because she is giving excellent performances. It doesn’t hurt that she’s great-looking, of course, but Winter’s Bone buries her traditional good looks in grit and mounds of cold-weather gear, allowing her to be a special kind of beautiful, strong and centered. Perhaps Portman gives us a peek at what Lawrence might have in store: three movies in the Star Wars franchise, lots of indie films, the lead role in an action picture, and ultimately an Oscar. #48 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century.


winter's bone (debra granik, 2010)

Slice of life, Ozark meth version, with a stoic teenage girl for a heroine. Unrelenting, and I wonder if the people who would make a good audience for this film might be scared away because it sounds too depressing. But there’s a narrative going on which provides thrust, and which helpfully makes Winter’s Bone more than a character study. Whatever else you can say about the movie, it is not boring. At times it’s a bit too close to being an anthropological study, but director Debra Granik trusts her characters and for the most part avoids condescension.