ERIC WHEELER: Hello! And welcome to the first installment of what we hope will become a long-lasting and beloved niche in the bowels of The Film Talk website: Contributor Crosstalk. The obvious idea here is that we ‘below the line’ talent (to use an industry phrase) clang our heads together and see what movies have been giving us pleasure, pain or ‘other.’ Ever the deadline daredevils, we hatched a plan many weeks ago to do a Quarterly Review of the first three months of this film-going year. Needless to say, we blew it. But perhaps waiting until mid-May* to reflect on the diamonds and detritus of January, February and March 2011 will pay unexpected dividends. We’ll be dividing the films we’ve seen into the Good, the Bad and the Weird**. And since the bulk of the year lies before us like a cruel, shimmering mirage we’ll also tackle our Most Anticipated and Most Dreaded of Two Oceans Eleven (to quote noted movie lover, Doug Benson). So let me throw it over to you, Brandon. What’s been good, bad or weird for you so far?
BRANDON NOWALK: I’m not sure we’re on the same page: There were good films in the first quarter of 2011? I kid—sort of. But the best films of 2011 for me are the 2010 releases I’m finally getting to see here in muggy, surprisingly out-of-the-way Houston (fourth biggest city in America, seventy-second quickest to get new releases). By far the highlight is Abbas Kiarostami’s CERTIFIED COPY, for me the best film of 2010 and the season’s saving grace. It helps that in preparation I spent a fair amount of January catching up with Kiarostami’s work since 1987’s WHERE IS THE FRIEND’S HOME and spent at least as much time kicking myself for not getting to him sooner as his particular way with postmodernism eerily coincides with my interests. The other great film was by another international auteur I studied up on for the first time this year, Manoel de Oliveira’s ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLONDE-HAIRED GIRL. Because apparently I can’t be satisfied without homework.
But I’ve reviewed those already. What I haven’t mentioned is Kyle Smith’s TURKEY BOWL, an OLD JOY-style reunion between friends drifting apart post-college, pre-marriage that’s currently playing the festival circuit, and is the best film of 2011 proper (so far). It’s only 64 minutes long, and I had no idea how its hooks had stuck in me with its effortless feel and sidestepping of indie cliche until the credits rolled. Beyond that, there’s Mike Leigh’s ANOTHER YEAR, most of RANGO, the last three-quarters of Aaron Katz’s COLD WEATHER, and the final scene of I AM LOVE, but now the well’s dry. Have you seen CERTIFIED COPY yet, Eric? What are your favorites from the first quarter?
ERIC: You raise an interesting ontological question, Brandon. If I see a film for the first time in 2011, does the film belong to the year in which I see it in an American theater or the year in which in was made? There are tremendous films that either sit on the shelf or struggle to find distribution for years – such as the absolutely extraordinary LOVE EXPOSURE, but that’s for another discussion. There are also films that we hear about and read about for months as they play the festival circuit, but only catch up to many months, or possibly years, later. Living in Los Angeles, I’m fortunate enough to catch a number of works at either the height of the hype machine (such as the heinously underrated I’M STILL HERE) or, somewhat bizarrely, months before their proper release, in a tiny independent theater like the Laemmle 5 (such as CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS).
BRANDON: First off, I’m dying to see NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT! Glad to hear you hold it in such esteem. Personally I consider a film’s year to be when it opens to the public anywhere. So neither my 2010 foreign films nor my 2011 festival flick technically qualify, but otherwise my cinematic pleasures of early 2011 were limited to hacked off pieces of films, like the surrealism of RANGO or the pecs of THE EAGLE.
As for The Bad, I’ve got a doozy: I’m convinced BATTLE: LOS ANGELES is the worst film I’ve ever seen, since most of its competitors for that crown have the unfair advantage of nostalgic childhood viewing. Like Jett and Gareth I see why this threadbare quilt of cliches is such a touchstone: America attacked, unified in a time of petty divisions. Unlike them, I don’t see how that absolves its breathtaking boredom and weepy nationalism of sin. I’d rather watch a friend play Call of Duty for several days or workshop my one-man play DOG TAGS AND CAMO: THE STAR-SPANGLED FETISH than revisit that anti-spectacle.
Early 2011 has seen a lot of bad films, most of which (COUNTRY STRONG, THE MECHANIC, and especially THE EAGLE) have something to recommend them, and some of which (ANIMAL KINGDOM) have gotten strong reviews anyway, presumably by virtue of intoxicating accents. It’s a nice reminder that even bad films have some good in them, and some good doesn’t mean a film’s not bad.
ERIC: While I am professionally obligated to take offense at some of your ‘worst’ selections (THE MECHANIC?! How could you???), I can empathize. I was spared COUNTRY STRONG, though it’s interesting to see you slagging off ANIMAL KINGDOM. I haven’t seen it yet. Maybe I shouldn’t bother?
BRANDON: ANIMAL KINGDOM was a cheap shot, but suffice it to say it’s another of these deathly serious crime flicks that pretends to profundity through sheer force of gravitas. I firmly believe self-seriousness is the greatest threat to cinema today; lifeless pretension is killing our B-movies. THE MECHANIC might not have made my list if it were a bit less brooding and a bit more fun.
As for what I’m looking forward to, you can count out all the comic movies except X-MEN, and even that I’ll be watching through my fingers. What I’m really dying for are last year’s Cannes superstar UNCLE BOONMEE, this year’s Cannes superstar THE TREE OF LIFE, and Kelly Reichardt’s MEEK’S CUTOFF. I’m seeing MEEK’S next week, and TREE the week after, but Thor only knows when BOONMEE will get a DVD release.
I don’t know that I’m actively dreading anything because I don’t have to see anything I don’t want to over summer, but I can say I’m decidedly not on the JJ Abrams bandwagon. I’m sure SUPER 8 will be fine, but the Internet is so in the bag my mildness might as well be dread. After all, you either think a film is the greatest thing ever or you hate it. There is no such thing as middle ground.
Now before we go, you’ve got to tell me your pick for The Weird! I’m on tenterhooks over here.
ERIC: Well, I can’t imagine I’ll see a more compellingly weird movie in theaters this year than DRIVE ANGRY SHOT IN 3D. It’s not a great, or even a particularly well-made, film but it’s something I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. Brandon, what freaked you out in the best way possible?
BRANDON: By far my weirdest filmgoing experience of early 2011 was being the only person in a pitch-black theater (no house-lights, no slideshow, nothing) until the trailers started for JUSTIN BIEBER: NEVER SAY NEVER. When those finally ended, we got a bizarre, inexplicable short film climaxing with the notice (warning?) that our 3-D glasses have now been Bieberized. And then I spent two hours with more provocative material, accidental or not, than any other mainstream flick all year. But maybe that’s just because I never saw DRIVE ANGRY 3-D.
It was never my favorite season for cinephilia, but it was certainly an interesting few months, and all those terrible films taught me a valuable lesson: No amount of rote studio pictures or indulgence indies can kill The Movies. Not as long as genuine visionaries are hard at work on their next exhibition, the strangest films are being harvested from the organs of Little Red Riding Hood and Justin Bieber, and Nicolas Cage is making his fortune back with whatever straight-faced lunacy will have him. Come what may, I believe in Nicolas Cage.
ERIC: I, too, believe in Nicolas Cage.
*Although published in mid-June, this conversation took place (through the miracle of Google-Mail) in the dead heat of May.
** This is of course referencing the recent, Sergio Leone-inspired Korean western-action-comedy, THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE WEIRD.