Friday, February 22, 2008

The films (and reviewing) that got away

Year-end dialogues regarding the finest films of the year have gradually whittled down the number of films discussed from about 15/20 films to about five or 10 over the past few months. Then the Oscar nominations were released last month, and it was down to five films. Bloggers, pundits, and critics have since argued about the five movies -- whether one of them didn't deserve to be there, which should win the prize, etc. After Sunday, it will only be one. And then we will all move on.

Seeing the plurality of great cinema released last year be reduced to bland discussion of "bests" is no doubt a tragedy. To see only five films, which is really only three -- Juno, There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men -- being discussed in spite of the many great films that didn't "peak at the right time" in the politics of awards season can be depressing. That's not to say that the Oscars are the be-all, end-all of critical discussion, but they represent the public's small investment in good, quality cinema. So the fact that only a few films, some of which are considered questionable by many, are being examined by the public eye is somewhat discouraging, especially when thinking back on the many great movies last year that slipped under the radar. Although I at least liked all of the Best Picture contenders this year (including Juno, minus the first 15 minutes), even the one I loved, i.e. No Country For Old Men, which has been written about and discussed in such great detail, is perhaps receiving an excess of attention, especially considering that so many other movies that are equally good, interesting, and worthy of discussion in the public domain.*

That's why it's refreshing to see other movies being talked about this time of year, and not because they were released in theaters or DVD. One of my very favorite movies from last year, David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, had initial surge of discussion back in September during its theatrical run. (Here's my review of the film, written in September.) But this dialogue was quickly suppressed when the Toronto Film Festival started, and a variety of other films shared the attention. Nevertheless, Eastern Promises is a great achievement; that it's not currently held in the same high esteem as No Country For Old Men is a cinematic/critical crime.

It's easy to forget about wonderful films like Eastern Promises when Oscar talk has smothered all discussion about any other movie. Although Viggo Mortensen was nominated for Best Actor, his presence in the race is an afterthought; further validating the notion that the Oscars are nothing more than a political race. Eastern Promises, for whatever reason, lacks the financial backing and social presence and has lost a lot of steam since its release. It was fortunate enough that Mortensen was even nominated. That said, he doesn't stand a chance against a film that's gaining more momentum, i.e. There Will Be Blood, especially in the Best Actor category. Again, it's all a matter of politics. People are talking about There Will Be Blood and not Eastern Promises; whether the former is more worthy is more than questionable, stripped of the politics. Looking at the films and performances though, Mortensen's performance still stands out to me as the finest by any actor this year.

Which brings me to why it's so refreshing to read insightful articles about another movie, such as Ed Howard's intelligent review of Eastern Promises. Ed's writing demonstrates that this film (or any film) can be discussed, analyzed, and enjoyed from several perspectives; not just can be, but it should be. And he does this with so few words. His writing on Eastern Promises --like much of his work-- serves as an introduction to the film's key themes, and suggests a variety of levels on which Cronenberg's film resonates. Here's an excerpt:

"The story of Cronenberg's film — the real, underlying story lightly disguised by its genre trappings — can be read from the abundant symbols he employs. It's a story of the traditional family undermined by both homosexual desire and explosive violence — a brief that sounds surprisingly conservative on paper, except that Cronenberg clearly takes such gleeful pleasure in disrupting the placid surfaces of Hollywood conventionality that it's hard to take the film as anything but a radical critique of the normative structures it sometimes apes. Unlike A History of Violence, where Cronenberg seemed to disappear too readily into the conventional surfaces of the genre narrative, Eastern Promises is a prickly, genuinely disturbing and potent film that may indicate a fresh new development in Cronenberg's oeuvre. Certainly, it's his most perverse and exciting film since the delirious high point of 1997's Crash, and that alone is reason enough to celebrate this return to form."

I recommend heading over to his site and reading the whole review over at his place, Only the Cinema; a site that, by the way, features some of the most consistently thoughtful and provocative film reviews on the film blogging circuit. This review, in particular, is a model example of strong journalistic criticism, which is so sorely needed in the published and blogging venues. And in the midst of pervasive Oscar previewing and discussion, it reads even better.

I have always strongly felt that journalistic film reviewing can serve a good purpose in film journalism. The best of it can even bridge the gap between analytic examination and reflecting on the immediacy of cinematic sensation in tantalizingly few words. When that happens, it's a special thing.

Your thoughts?


* Note: I'm not proposing that critics stop or greatly reduce discussion of films like No Country For Old Men. Engaging articles like this remind that too much can't be said about films like the Coens' eventual Best Picture winner. I'm instead suggesting that critics and bloggers --the latter of whom can mostly control the content of their output-- broaden their critical horizons and dare to discuss movies that aren't being discussed currently.


Mike said...

I am not surprised in the least that you felt the need to post this blog. I am getting tired of reading the same old things from the same hacks that are either mouthpieces for the studios or the actors themselves. The lack of originality in their thoughts and writing is why I enjoy visiting your site so often and finally reading something with some guts and originality that puts the others to shame. I love Universal Studios and its Theme park, but what in the world are these people thinking? Recycling ideas and making movies from a board game is mindless. We need more progressive voices and I am glad I am able to read your insightful ideas. Keep up the good work. Anybody else that enjoys this blog for the same reasons I do, I implore you to speak up and make your thoughts known. The avant-garde need not be quiet but should voice their thoughts and ideas in this forum. Maybe some how, some way ,we can wake up the powers that be and make them see that fine cinema can still be made, made well, and make money.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I just looked at Dennis' site and saw No Country for Old Men. I did a quick read and I'm glad I did because Dennis is a great blogger but frankly, I'm really tired of seeing No Country for Old Men discussions at this point. I'm a serial commenter on Jim Emerson's Scanners but when I checked in a day ago I noticed that the post was on No Country for Old Men. And it turns out Dennis' post was in reference to that post. So, for the last couple of NCFOM posts I just haven't commented. I want the discussion to go elsewhere.

And I realize it happens every year and the discussion is a great way to dissect everyone elses as well as your own views so I'm not criticizing Dennis or Jim or anyone else for their posts (Not at all) I'm just saying that for my own personal tastes I want to let this conversation take a back seat for awhile so we can talk about something else.

You bring up a great example with Eastern Promises. There's also Persepolis. Or how about all the great documentaries released this year (No End in Sight, In the Shadow of the Moon). Or what about all the great short subjects that thanks to YouTube we can all finally see whereas in the past we couldn't.

I realize I don't bring them up either but at least I have the excuse of mainly being a classics movie blog. For the blogs that cover current releases I have to believe some great discussions could be started on a host of other topics and films.