Friday, December 18, 2009

In Anticipation of Year's End Lists

I didn't get a chance to write about these movies when they were released this past summer so I'm taking this opportunity to briefly comment upon them before the deluge of Oscar titles arrives in my town. With the end of the year fast approaching you'll probably be hearing more about these titles through top-ten lists and Oscar nominations, so I'll waste no more time before throwing in my two cents about them.

By now, Miyazaki may as well be Japanese for magic, for magic is exactly what his films generate, in their layered beauty and easy fantasy that are totally absorbing. With Ponyo, Miyazaki has crafted another beautiful, fun, exciting, tender film. This time around, the plotting is so simple (it’s aimed at very young children) but the fantasy is so complex that there is a bit more of a wheeze to the exposition. But that’s almost secondary, and it doesn’t drastically distract, from the (typical for Miyazaki) effortless fluidity of the imagery positioned perfectly on the border between man and nature, real and unreal. The characters are adorable and the message is strong and sweet, making this perfect viewing for children and those charms aren’t lost on me either. There’s a magical trance-like quality to the exquisite minutia and vivid imagery that slowly draws me in. It’s confident, captivating filmmaking of the Miyazaki kind.

Armando Iannucci's In the Loop follows an eccentric ensemble of low-level political figures who may just decide to go to war if they ever stop endlessly circling the central debate with petty semantic parsing and furious flurries of insults, invective, and bile. It’s painfully familiar evil bureaucracy, but the movie is a non-stop laugh machine, sending wave after wave of quotable dialogue towards the audience in rapid-fire, profusely profane bouts of eloquent swearing. It’s not above a well-crafted sight gag either, like the sequence which follows a supposedly secret meeting that keeps growing in attendance, even after the committee switches to a larger room. The best of the consistently funny cast is Peter Capaldi as a spin doctor who storms through the movie insulting and complaining about anything that moves with the most creatively, wickedly hilarious vulgar metaphors I’ve ever heard. One of the most fascinating moments in the film arrives late in the plot when, in the U.N. meditation room, he stops talking and we get a chance to look at his face as he realizes, for the first and only time in the entire film, that he’s speechless, revealing most starkly that behind the flurry of words, there’s ultimately nothing. And that very nothing is what takes us to war.

There is so much suspense in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker that the further it went on, the longer the tension mounted, the more my stomach twisted in knots. By the time the movie was barely half over, I was sick to my stomach. The movie is so completely immersed in the day-to-day work of an American bomb squad in Iraq, with great performances (especially by Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie, who are in almost every scene) and set-pieces all the way through, that it adds weight to the skillful summoning of sickening dread. It’s by turns unexpected, exciting, chaotic, scary, violent, and eerily beautiful. We are only given one sequence, late in the picture, with the luxury of being on the home front, away from the chaos of war, and it arrives with the force of a rug being pulled out from underneath you. The jump cut from the shimmering sands of the desert to the sterile, flickering fluorescent lights of a grocery store is as disorienting a cinematic moment as I’ve felt all year, one that helps the film say much more about the effect of war on soldiers than any Iraq War movie to date.

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