For the last three weeks I’ve been enjoying the opportunity to sit in for Simon Morris on RNZ National’s At the Movies. It’s a lot of work – at least a lot more work than writing for the website – which means I haven’t had a chance until now to post the highlights.Read More
Between its heralded US release in September last year and its arrival in a (very) limited number of New Zealand cinemas this weekend, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master seems to have been transformed from masterpiece and annointed Best Picture contender to also-ran, disappointing scores of local PTA fans in the process, many of whom were crushed that we weren’t going to see the film in the director’s preferred 70mm format. Turns out it was touch and go whether we were going to see it on the big screen at all.
Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood, was a close-run second to No Country For Old Men in my 2007 pick of the year, and his back catalogue is as rich as anyone else of his generation – Boogie Nights, Magnolia and even Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love. Like Blood, The Master is painted on a big canvas. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an alcoholic and self-hating WWII veteran, stumbling between misadventures when he stows away on the San Francisco yacht commanded by academic, author and mystic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd combines rudimentary psychotherapy with hypnosis to persuade gullible followers that their past lives can be used to transform their disappointing present.
As I sit here typing, I can hear the sounds of a Wellington summer all around me – the rain pouring on to the deck outside and the wind howling through the trees. Is this why local film distributors release so much product over the Christmas/New Year period? Perhaps it’s just climate and nothing to do with the Oscars at all? Anyhow, here’s a quick summary of what’s been dished out at local cinemas in descending order of greatness.
First up, Ang Lee’s glowing 3D adaptation of Yann Martell’s Life of Pi, storming the local box offices and deservedly so. Ravishing to look at – and making profound rather than novelty use of the extra depth available – Lee’s film manages to distil the essence of the book’s message even if the ambiguous ending proves less satisfying cinematically than literarily. Dreamy. I was particularly taken by the conscious recreation of the book’s original cover in one scene, even to the extent of changing the film’s aspect ratio for that single shot.
My friend Simon calls Twilight “Twiglet” but that’s pretty much the maximum amount of amusement that I’ve managed to derive from a franchise that I have never managed to appreciate. Actually, that’s not quite true. During the latest – and final – episode, Breaking Dawn Part 2, I did laugh long and hard at the arrival of the fiddle-dee-dee Irish vampires with their red hair and their tweed waistcoats, part of a motley band of multi-ethnic sparklers assembled to fight off the threat from the Vettori (or whatever they’re called).
The Vulturi, led by simpering Michael Sheen, want to destroy (or absorb) the dangerous hybrid child Renesmee, a terrifyingly unrealistic CGI baby supposedly born just before Kristen Stewart’s Bella was finally converted at the end of the previous film. Despite being able to travel at the speed of light they take their time getting to snowy Washington state, allowing the Cullen’s – and their werewolf neighbours – to formulate a plan.
I’ve been watching reactions to other people’s “Best of 2011” with interest. It’s fascinating to see online commentors insist that films they have seen are so much better than films that they haven’t. Even though I do, in fact, watch everything I’m not going to pretend that this list is definitive – except to say that it gets a lot closer than most…
I also don’t believe in the arbitrariness of “Top Tens”. I have my own entirely arbitrary scale: Keepers, Renters and Respecters.
Keepers are the films that I loved so much I want to own them – films that make me feel better just having them in the house. The first film I adored this year was slushy Disney horse racing story Secretariat. It should have been everything I hate – manipulative, worthy, a faith-based subtext – and yet I cried like a baby – expert button-pushing from director Randall Wallace. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was my favourite blockbuster. Superb direction by Rupert Wyatt overcame the flaws (ahem, James Franco, ahem) and it carefully walked the tightrope of both respect for its predecessors and kicking off something new.
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is my favourite film of the year by a long stretch. A second viewing allowed me to stop thinking about it and just feel it, meaning that I got closer than ever before to the soul of a film artist. Profound in the way that only the greatest works of art are. Tusi Tamasese announced himself with one of the most mature and considered debuts I’ve ever seen – The Orator placed us deeply inside a culture in a way that was both respectful and challenging of it. That film’s journey hasn’t finished yet.
It’s the fifth anniversary of my first column for this paper – my, how time flies. Five years of searching – usually in vain – for some transcendence among the many flickering images in dozens of darkened rooms. And then, as if by magic, transcendence appears.
It has taken a few weeks – and a second viewing – to properly process Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Often baffling, frustrating, unhelpful, yet emotional and evocative in ways I couldn’t put my finger on, I wrestled with it throughout the two and a half hour running time – searching for answers and meaning among the beautiful images, floating, soaring camerwork and weird diversions into cosmology and vulcanology.