Frost/Nixon – Ron Howard (2008)


For those born after the incident, director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan’s dramatization of the 1977 interview series between British TV presenter David Frost and then-former President Nixon offers a comfortably Sorkin-esque glimpse behind the scenes of Frost’s landmark grilling of Nixon over Watergate, the coverup and the aftermath that dominated an era of national politics.

Frost (Michael Sheen) is an ambitious TV man whose once-bright star is fading after his American talk show is canceled. He is stuck in entertainment’s second tier, longing for another taste of fame, American-style, and sees the resignation and subsequent pardon of Nixon (Frank Langella) as a way back into his table at Sardi’s. Laying out the hefty sum of $600K to secure the interview with the tough-as-nails Nixon – at the time living in pitiful seclusion and writing his memoirs – Frost and his team of researchers quibble over their goals and are wholly unprepared for the cagey Nixon on the big day; Nixon talks circles around the process, deflecting from the real issues with glancing blows of sentimental minutiae.

If Ali-Frazier was the fight of the century, Frost-Nixon was to be the sit-down of a lifetime: a no-holds-barred tête-à-tête meant to be, whether for redemption or conviction, the real final words of the chapter. Ali lost – he was unprepared for the Champ’s left hook – but Frost comes out the prettier one in this battle. Sheen plays Frost with a dopey smirk that’s off-putting enough to Nixon to lead him right into the eventual sucker punch.

The knockout blow isn’t the star of this picture, however. Nixon is, and what Langella lacks in physical likeness he more than makes up for with the depth of the Nixon spirit, which, 30 years later, comes off like a mean, ugly dog, as repugnant as it is empathetic.

Nixon moved on (and became richer), but the fact that the interview changed nothing – not the Cold War and certainly not corrupt politicians or a tougher press corps – is not the point. The timing ofFrost/Nixon’s release, in these lame-duck last moments of the George W. Bush presidency, won’t be lost on most viewers, and Howard utilizes the Nixon-Bush connection of corruption to create the kind of after-the-fact liberal catharsis that Oliver Stone’s Bush biopic sorely missed. As Nixon tacitly confesses, his admission of guilt in the film is more heavily defined than in the original interviews, but it’s a cherry that sits nicely on top of an “Obama won” sundae. What it does is give us some hope, slim as it might be, that there is a new Frost out there waiting patiently for his chance at flustering Bush into a “whoops, sorry” moment, even a tacit one.

Ms. Couric, line one.

The Wrestler – Darren Aronofsky (2009)


A few years ago in Sin City, it was said that Mickey Rourke’s character, Marv, had “the rotten luck of being born in the wrong century,” that he would be right at home “in a Roman arena, taking his sword to other gladiators like him.” Underneath the makeup and prosthetics, perhaps, it was just as true for Rourke as it was for Marv.

In The Wrestler, the Coliseum has morphed into a squared circle, and Rourke looks perfectly at home on the canvas even as he takes folding chairs to the head. He plays Randy the Ram, an aging ’80s wrestling superstar still clinging to the last, lingering particles of limelight in small, untelevised wrestling shows.

After a heart attack forces him to retire, Randy flounders around aimlessly, unsure of how his life should commence now. He picks up extra work at the supermarket deli counter, the only suitable retirement home for the self-identified “old, broken-down piece of meat,” to fill the time. Sensing his loneliness, a stripper friend, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), suggests he try bonding with his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), whom he barely knows.

Pro wrestling is not an easy subject to take seriously, but director Darren Aronofsky displays it well as a spellbinding muscle ballet, sweaty and bloody, but graceful and addictive all the same. He avoids the ubiquitous camp elements associated with the “sport,” instead focusing on the human elements within the dressing room where these mountains of men are just as fragile and soft as everyone else.

But the rousing comeback of Mickey Rourke is what the film is about, if you listen to common theory. And while that’s mostly true, that conversation unfortunately omits Tomei, who, like Rourke, is rising from the ashes of a career never quite fulfilled after the promise of My Cousin Vinny.

To that point, she gives an absolutely sterling performance here, baring all by night as Cassidy, a stripper at the end of her career, and by day as Pam, the mother of a 9-year-old boy looking for a new life. The dichotomy mandated by her job mirrors the Ram’s in some ways; both are trying to figure out which life is more important. The film gives Tomei some of the heaviest lifting as Randy gradually makes his way through Cassidy’s barrier and into Pam’s life.

Aronofsky, too, had some knocks to recover from after The Fountain. He elevates the film above script level with the small touches of genius that are all but expected of him now, a well that seemed to have run dry.

His usual bag of camera and editing tricks is left backstage, but Aronofsky allows for one soulful flourish: a crushing, one-take Steadicam shot as Randy walks from the back of the supermarket into his new life behind the deli counter. The whirring purrs of refrigerator motors are his only cheers on this new runway, and Randy even fools himself with it for a moment before the reality sinks in that he’s traded the sharp spotlight for flat fluorescents. To complete that sobering splash of cold water, his nametag doesn’t read “The Ram” or even “Randy,” but his given, decidedly unexciting name: “Robin.”

Waltz With Bashir – Ari Folman (2009)


When Israeli writer-director Ari Folman was 19, he enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces as part of a regiment that invaded southern Lebanon. Like all soldiers, he saw and did unspeakable things – the kind of things that would mark any man for life.

But then he forgot.

That’s where Waltz With Bashir opens: the forgetting. On a stormy night in Israel, two old friends, Ari and Boaz, get together for a drink to discuss Boaz’s recurring nightmares. Twenty-six dogs chase him through the streets on a nightly basis. It stems from a scarring incident during the war and when they begin to talk about it, Ari realizes he’s never dealt with any of his war demons in his films because he simply doesn’t remember them.

The lone memory that remains from the incursion into Lebanon is a stark image of Ari and two fellow soldiers bathing in the ocean as illumination flares gracefully drift to the earth, shedding light on bombed-out apartment buildings and all below them.

But it never happened. Not like that, anyway. And so, 24 years later, he sends himself off on a new mission: one to remember. What he discovers are different versions of the same horror story about the massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila by the Christian Phalangists as revenge for Bashir Gemayel’s assassination.

Naturally, it’s impossible to disentangle politics and history from a film like this, no matter what conflict is at its heart, but that’s where we get lost as noncombatant viewers. To get heated about the real incident and whatever came before or followed is to miss an opportunity to heal the wounds.

It’s true that most modern war films are imbued with the lofty goal of showing us the folly of war – that even in the best of circumstances, war is an unbelievably useless endeavor. No film has yet succeeded, nor can they, but that’s no reason to give up on them.

Waltz invites you to make your own decision about the military brass, but shows a deep compassion for the rank and file, Palestinian and Israeli alike, proving at last that there is no such thing as a best circumstance in war. At first bloodshed, all sides are wrong.

The real unavoidable argument, for our purposes, regards the animation.

Because of that device, a certain poetic license is allowed. As much as the film is about war, it’s also about the mutability and self-distortion of memory, and that makes animation the ideal medium to paint battle as the surreal experience it is. Waltz never pulls punches on the hard stuff, either. The trembling hands and beads of sweat before the kill remain, an effect as beautiful as it is terrifying.

The titular (and literal) waltz itself is breathtaking in a way that someone aiming a camera could not have captured. But it’s unlikely that’s how it happened in real time. To put a filter of 20 years over a millisecond of a memory is to forge its authenticity. The animated rendering doesn’t quite say, “This is a dream,” but it nudges the idea that war may be remembered in soaring poetry and dime-novel prose alike.

Ashes of Time (Redux) – Wong Kar Wai (2009)


It took 14 years, but Wong Kar-wai’s limp and enigmatic Ashes of Time finally has some life to it.

The new version of the 1994 film, now called Ashes of Time Redux (available this week on DVD), is a luscious visual poem set to the masterful images of Christopher Doyle, the graceful fight choreography of Sammo Hung and the unequaled cello of Yo-Yo Ma in a newly recorded score. The story, however, still falls flat.

Wong tells the tale of two swordsmen, Ou-yang Feng (Leslie Cheung) and Huang Yao-shi (Tony Leung Ka Fai), who will later (in Louis Cha’s 1957 novel, The Legend of the Condor Heroes) become bitter enemies, but for now are friends in love with the same woman (Maggie Cheung), whom neither can have.

Feng is estranged from his home and family when the woman he loves marries his brother. He’s set up shop in the middle of the desert, acting as a middleman for passing bounty hunters and killers, and those in need of such services. Yao-shi is just one of his many visitors, arriving once a year like clockwork to catch up, tell stories and, of course, share his bottle of magic wine.

In the jungle of a city, Wong can pull off this kind of small, intimate story of emotionally blocked characters trying to be set free with his eyes closed, but in the desert he’s lost. Weight and depth are sacrificed amid the jumbled story and those long, lingering shots of clouds passing. Wong meditates on every frame in order to extract every droplet of beauty, but it’s akin to grabbing our attention with a shiny object while the plot sneaks out the back door. It sure is pretty, though.

Redux clocks in at a slightly shorter running time than any of the previous versions Wong has offered. The tighter edit is a better fit, but ultimately, it’s not enough.

The Girlfriend Experience – Steven Soderbergh (2009)


The Girlfriend Experience is a film that never could have been made in the star system of Old Hollywood. The Hays Office would have forbidden it, first of all, but it never would have arrived on their desk for condemnation anyway. There was a line between Hollywood sex and real sex that you didn’t dare cross. It was a line that director Steven Soderbergh helped erode in his Palme D’Or winner, 1989’s Sex, Lies and Videotape, and a line that was officially buried and forgotten with Michael Winterbottom’s 2004 film 9 Songs and John Cameron Mitchell’s 2006 Shortbus.

Now, thanks to Soderbergh, we have a porn actress starring in a mainstream film from a bona fide award-winning, A-list director. That sound is Jack Warner and Lew Wasserman spinning in their graves.

With respect to adult thespians, the role is not a terrible stretch for Sasha Grey. She plays Chelsea, a $2,000-an-hour hooker who is looking for more from life. Not in the existential sense, of course. No, she wants to be better paid for her time and body, and to find a better relationship than she has with her $125-an-hour personal trainer boyfriend. At least she isn’t another hooker with a heart of gold.

The film’s jumbled timeline runs against the backdrop of the 2008 election and economic collapse, lingering on the business types who can afford her services freaking out at the thought of not being able to afford her services, while musing randomly on McCain, Obama and why gold is a better commodity than diamonds.

A few of these creeps offer to help Chelsea, but do nothing but inflict damage once they’ve gotten what they want. Case in point: A user-generated sex-website review of the Chelsea experience rips her by stating, “With her flat affect, lack of culture and utter refusal to engage, Chelsea couldn’t even dazzle the likes of Forrest Fucking Gump.” It’s a damaging review for Chelsea, but the problem is that it’s true about Grey herself, even more so than Chelsea. Grey is less convincing as her character than most porn stars are at faking orgasm.

While The Girlfriend Experience is not a good film by any stretch, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as being, at the very least, worth the time to watch it. Clocking in at a paltry 77 minutes, it gets lost somewhere in the cracks between terrible and bearable. There is something undeniably compelling about watching Grey flounder around onscreen next to this host of creepy user-men in her attempt to reach the next plateau of her business while still trying to find real love at the same time.

It’s impossible to root for her, because her desires would be an absurd largesse bestowed on an undeserving person if she won them. (It’s akin to hoping Spitzer’s girl, Ashley Dupré, lands that record deal she’s always wanted.) Yet it is also impossible to wish failure upon her, since she only wants to succeed at her job. It’s all anyone wants, really.

Sin Nombre – Carey Fukunaga (2009)


Immigration dramas tend to be a crap shoot. Often they are too concerned with the social, political and economic injustices of the places in Central and South America that one needs to emigrate from at any cost. They are more about the whole than the part, neglecting deep characters for stereotypes and microcosms.

The problem is that these morality films are usually boring as hell. And that’s where Sin Nombre director Cary Fukunaga has a winner. He spends as little time dwelling on the whole as possible, instead opting for a classic road-trip story of the parts: the people who are emigrating and the gang members trying to kill one of them. It’s a leap of faith in character before culture that earned the Japanese-Swedish–American the dramatic directing award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Sin Nombre follows the fortunes of Casper (Edgar Flores), a Mexican gang member on the run from his own crew, and Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a Honduran teen newly reunited with her father and uncle. The family is trying to cross the border illegally to get to relatives in New Jersey. While attempting to rob the train’s illegal riders, Lil Mago (Tenoch Huerta), the gang leader, tries to rape Sayra. Casper, boiling with murderous rage after Mago tried the same on his girlfriend, puts a stop to it … with his machete. Smiley (Kristian Ferrer), the gang’s newest (and youngest) initiate, begs to be given the chance to track down Casper and avenge Mago’s murder to prove he is worthy of the gang’s coveted tattoo.

Casper’s is a life of quiet desperation. Fed up with the lifestyle, he goes about gang business halfheartedly. His only refuge is the short moments he gets – at the expense of his duties – with a girlfriend that he keeps hidden from the gang. She believes his reluctance to tell his gangmates about her stems from embarrassment about their relationship, but he’s actually protecting her from a lifestyle that she is not suited to.

Sayra is only reluctantly trying to cross the border to be with her father’s new family, which she doesn’t feel a part of. He left when she was a child, but was recently deported and is trying to get back. She is as lonely a soul as Casper. Gaitan plays her with aplomb, perfectly capturing the wistful soul of a girl caught between two worlds, neither of them her own, neither of them worth the risk she’s taken to be there.

In a country that is steadily fed the idea that we need to build a fence to keep these people out of our country, we need this kind of film to keep a modicum of sanity alive in the conversation. After all, at some point in our lineage, almost all of us are immigrants.

The Limits of Control – Jim Jarmush (2009)


Jim Jarmusch is not a prolific filmmaker by any means, but when he does make a film it makes noise – divisive noise – thanks to his oddball-arthouse style and the challenging questions he poses to the audience. His fans are used to his style by now, over 20 years into his career, but it’s a harder one to grasp for the influx of new fans Broken Flowers, his last film, and its star, Bill Murray, might have brought in.

For the uninitiated, Jarmusch films unspool in languid labyrinths of subtleties and reversals, where what you are being presented is only a piece of the puzzle, and the puzzle you see may not even be the real picture. His plots are an existential cryptex.

In The Limits of Control, however, Jarmusch has forgotten to give us the codeword. African actor and Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankolé plays a nameless man on an unknown mission. He has arrived in Spain, where has a clandestine meeting in the airport via translator. The two seedy, Bond-villain-by-way-of-Abbott-&-Costello types he meets pass him a matchbox with a code inside and send him on his way to the next in a long line of such meetings.

The incongruity of “art film” and “big budget” (judging by the rich luxury on the screen) doesn’t gel together. Jarmusch stocks his film with lavish sets, beautiful old apartments, ritzy locations (and even a helicopter) following the nameless man all over Spain, but there is very little substance to back it up.

Instead, we are treated to vignettes of movie stars – Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael García Bernal, Bill Murray – musing about the mysteries of life, while Paz de la Huerta roams through the film in the nude. It’s a pretty film, and for more reasons than de la Huerta. Shot by the ultra-talented Christopher Doyle, the varied old-world and modern beauty of Spain is taken advantage of, from the cosmopolitan Madrid to the breathtaking seaside villages.

There are jokes within the awkwardness of the exchanges, but they are too few and far between, if you are even awake to hear them. Every time something seems to be happening, Jarmusch tips us gently back into sleep mode. It’s enough to make you long for a sip of one of the countless espressos the nameless man enjoys.

Departures – Yôjirô Takita (2010)


When Liam Neeson opened the envelope at the 2009 Academy Awards and announced that Departures had beat out Waltz With Bashir, the supposedly mortal-lock winner, and another highly touted nominee, The Class, for Best Foreign Film, it was a shocker unlike anything seen since that category became remotely competitive. Departures was a film that, unlike Bashiror The Class, had not yet opened in America, not even on the festival circuit. No one had heard of this little picture, but still it ended up at the top of the heap.

It follows the fate of Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), a professional cellist living in Tokyo. He is starting out with a new orchestra that promptly disbands, leaving him in the lurch and saddled with a huge debt to settle for his new cello – a gift to himself for getting into an orchestra. He returns to his home village with his wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), where, trying to get back on his feet, he answers the world’s most poorly worded want ad.

Daigo’s unexpected new gig is in “encoffinment,” working as a mix of undertaker and showman to prepare the dead for their next journey. It’s not something hidden away in the funeral-home basement, but rather performed as a ceremony in front of the family before cremation. It’s a superficial job on the surface, of course – death cannot be erased with a makeup brush – but it’s a profoundly soothing act for the families of the dead. To the living, especially to Mika, it’s a dirty, misunderstood occupation, one that causes Daigo many problems. Cellist, we get. It has some prestige to it. Music is lifeblood; it moves, ascends and takes you to another place. But a mid-row cellist in this day, especially in Japan, is not a necessary component of life. Entombing, however, is a vital part of death.

Motoki plays Daigo with more of a pop-film slapstick edge than I would have preferred, but he never goes so far with it that it detracts from the story. When he does come perilously near the edge of that cliff, Tsutomu Yamazaki (his boss) and the always wonderful Hirosue are there to reel him back in just in time. It’s a tightrope Motoki and Yamazaki walked right to the Japanese Academy Awards as well, winning 10 overall.

Am I giving awards too much importance? Probably, but it’s a noteworthy achievement for a film with no other discernible hook. Crouching Tiger introduced us to a vibrant new actress in Zhang Ziyi, and The Lives of Others tapped into both our national obsession with the Iron Curtain and our fear of government wiretapping and reprisal. But there is nothing so sparkling to this film at first glance. It’s a film about man’s mortality and how he handles it, but death is not cleverly hidden inside a bigger story. It’s a wake-up slap in the face about the gritty part of dying: the bodies.

The Hurt Locker – Kathryn Bigelow (2010)


It’s no real surprise that we’ve rejected Iraq and Middle East war films almost entirely as a society over these last few years. The war is still an ongoing one, and we’ve been through too many news cycles to sit through the same thing again in narrative form. After all, it wasn’t until after the war was over that the ball got rolling on Vietnam films and we were given great pieces of art like Apocalypse NowThe Deer Hunter and Full Metal Jacket. But as major troop withdrawal in Iraq quickly becomes a reality, The Hurt Locker could not have better timing.

Sgt. Sandborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are the two consistent crew members of a three-man explosive ordinance disposal unit. After their team leader (Guy Pearce) dies during a detonation, they are saddled with Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner), a wild man who constantly skirts around standard procedure in his attempts to dismantle the explosives. Straddling the thin line between functioning head case and brilliant technician, he keeps a piece of every bomb setup in a box under his bed to remind him of the “things that tried to kill him.”

It’s a relatively simple film, based on the writings of an embedded journalist, that follows a few episodes in the daily lives of a bomb disposal unit in Iraq counting down the days left in their rotation. There are no hexagonal conspiracy plots or deep cover black ops missions infringing on their everyday operations. There are no redacted papers or codes to crack. The whole ballgame is the tension that rises within the unit in the barracks and out on patrol as they sniff out, and try to defuse, IEDs buried in the streets or hidden in car trunks or worse – much worse.

Unlike Vietnam, thick plotting does not hang gracefully onto the war in Iraq, and director Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t try to do that here. She allows the film to grow organically until you realize you’ve been hanging onto the edge of your seat in acute panic. It rises exquisitely above the soldiers’ stock characters, giving us a thriller by virtue of the extraordinary stress of their situation, not by the machinations of the military machine surrounding them. She gets the point that no one cares about the politics or paranoia of old-guard war films anymore, only the drastic life-or-death scenarios. We have better and more ubiquitous outlets for the political side of war, now more than ever before, and while that paradigm shift has not fully rendered politics irrelevant in films, it’s taken a giant, toothy bite out of it.

Bigelow’s camera is impartial and dispassionate, but explosively powerful and unflinching. There is no commentary or judgment, just war and fatigue.

Gran Torino – Clint Eastwood (2009)


If there were an Academy Award for Best Growling in a Motion Picture (and there should be), Clint Eastwood would be the prohibitive favorite every time out. Sure, the bravado and the mean, chiseled face are the hallmarks of Clint the actor, but the squinty-eyed snarl is his signature, and he delivers it here with a gritty, spittle-flecked flourish.

Whatever else Gran Torino is or isn’t, it’s at least a master class in the irascibility that Eastwood has perfected over his 50-plus years in showbiz.

The grumbler this time is Walt Kowalski, the latest incarnation in a long line of tough-guy cinematic curmudgeons. Walt is an implacable Korean War veteran and retired autoworker mourning the recent death of his wife. He doesn’t really understand the modern American society that has, it seems, suddenly sprung up around his neighborhood in the guise of the Hmong families who represent the new face of his block.

Walt’s heyday, much like Eastwood’s, was that of the strong, silent type, but that knuckle-down and by-the-bootstraps attitude has ceased to be a common trait, especially in his two absentee sons. And boy, does that piss him off.

When a strait-laced Hmong boy from next door, Thao (Bee Vang), is bullied by his gangbanger cousin into stealing Walt’s pristine ’72 Ford Gran Torino, it sets off a chain of events that leads Walt and Thao’s family into the arena of uneasy friendship. Walt discovers, much to his surprise, that once he gets past the weird names and odd customs, he actually likes them.

Gangbangers, unfortunately, don’t just shoo away nicely.

Newcomer Vang is serviceable as Thao, and Ahney Her is charming as Sue, Thao’s sister, who initiates the bond between Thao and Walt, but this ride is all about Clint being Clint. Torino is possibly his last real go at the Little Golden Man (for Best Actor, at least, which he’s never won), and he won’t let us forget that, even squeezing in a wistful little piano ballad to round out his filmic omnipresence.

It is tempting to ascribe the film the power to address societal problems, but it doesn’t possess it. To say it’s a microcosm of intercultural relations strays too far from the point. It’s about one old man and one troubled kid. Culture and race are themes, but it’s no more a cultural essay than, say, The Karate Kid.

What these characters share is an ability to fill the voids left by absent – emotionally or physically – sons and fathers. Where Gran Torino fails at social criticism, it succeeds at capturing an engrossing snapshot of the human saga.

If it’s Clint’s last film, it’s a perfect ending.