I can’t complain much, because many of those big moneymakers were really pretty good. And as a parent, I can’t complain about there being a wealth of good movies for kids. This is a Golden Age for animation, and young audiences are certainly reaping the benefits. But you have to go pretty far down the list before you hit any more movies for grownups in the Top 100: Number 17, to be exact, which is Shutter Island. (Leonardo DiCaprio had a good year, too.) You have to dig even deeper before you hit a genuine non-fantasy drama: That would be The Social Network, way down at 29.
So what’s going on? It can’t be that adults don’t go to movies. I go to the movies every week, and there are always adults there. 2009 was also a year of sequels, but with a few more adult-oriented pictures in the mix (and a little movie called Avatar raking in the lion’s share of the bucks). Maybe it’s the lousy economy, and maybe audiences are looking to escape with more lighthearted, benign fare these days. Or maybe it’s just that Hollywood is looking for safe investments, and sequels and family movies are generally pretty safe bets. At the movies, past performance is more often than not a guarantee of future profits. So it may be a case of movie studios giving people what they want, or of people wanting whatever they’re given – in which case, I’m a little disappointed that adult movie audiences don’t want more original grownup movies. Any good movie provides an escape into an alternate existence, even if it’s an alternative that isn’t magical or supernatural.
I’m not going to add to the multitude of Best-Of year-end lists. Instead, I want to take a second look at a few of the neglected movies of the year – the ones well-worth putting on your DVD must-see list: Get Low, The Kids Are All Right, Let Me In and Splice. They’re all grownup movies: serious, dramatic, intriguing (and sometimes fun).
Get Low is based on a true, unlikely story of Felix “Bush” Breazeale, a Tennessee farmer who, in 1938, made headlines when he decided to have a funeral party while he was still alive to enjoy it. It’s part backwoods tall tale, part solemn tale of redemption, part low-key comedy and part mystery.
Get Low is unexpectedly offbeat, charming and funny as it meanders along toward a sentimental and not entirely unexpected conclusion, dropping numerous hints along the way of the coming revelation, of a distant tragedy and a lost love and Bush’s redemption. The performances by Robert Duvall and Bill Murray save the movie from mawkishness; both men bring ornery, lively wit to their characters. Duvall teases out the quirky, twinkling sense of humor, the deep old hurt and the emotional volatility of Bush. Even though the movie can’t help but telegraph, well in advance, where it’s going, Duvall makes Bush a character who is captivating enough to make it worth following him. Murray is dodgy and sly as ever as the undertaker who undertakes to throw Bush’s pre-death funeral. Both men bring an acerbic edge and a measure of authenticity and richly human complexity to their performances, which elevate the movie and pull it back from its occasional cornball tendencies.
There is really nothing unusual about the family in The Kids Are All Right. They struggle with the same kinds of problems – boredom, routine, miscommunication, kids who don’t listen, parents who don’t understand – that every family contends with. Parents Nic and Jules (Julianne Moore and Annette Bening) just happen to be a lesbian couple, with kids conceived using donor sperm. If gay marriage is a contentious political or moral issue anywhere, it is not the issue in The Kids Are All Right, which is instead concerned with the drama and comedy of family life, the chafing irritations of the ties that bind and the soothing, healing balm that those same ties provide.
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko (who co-wrote it with Stuart Blumberg), The Kids Are All Right is more than all right. The script is insightful, heartfelt and funny, and casually and nimbly navigates emotionally complex and occasionally uncomfortable terrain. The Kids Are All Right effectively plops the audience into the midst of a family-in-progress, and manages to tap into the underlying comedy of everyday existence.
Let Me In is the rare American remake that’s as good as the original foreign-language film. This is not another sloppy, dumbed-down, hyperactive remake, but rather one that is faithful to the original – a dread-steeped, marrow-chilling story of the horrors of prepubescent adolescence.
Based on the Swedish Film Let the Right One In (2009), in turn based on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, Let Me In is a kind of vampire love story, but it departs radically from the dominant romantic vampire paradigm of the moment (ruled by the far-more-popular, teen-centric Twilight movies). Let Me In zeroes in on a different variety of preteen and presexual anxiety and violence, exploring the rage and terror of bullied, tormented, 12-year-old Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), whose everyday existence is filled with dread even before he meets the vampire girl next door (Chloë Grace Moretz). It’s a delicately, emotionally haunting horror story that is only incidentally about vampires, and at its heart is about the horrors of being a kid, alone and lonely. Let Me In resists mythologizing vampires and youth – two things that pop culture is perpetually intent on mythologizing and glamorizing – and in so doing, it is memorably, poignantly chilling.
The murky-yucky opening credits of Splice give a hint as to what’s next: Something icky this way comes. A modern-day Frankenstein, Splice is a sci-fi/horror hybrid, like the hybrid creature at the center of this parable of science run amok. It plays on the fears of genetic tinkering, but also explores scientific hubris, bad parenting and corporate science in a smart, creepy, disturbing film about genetic engineers (Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody) who do a little gene-splicing and create a chimera: a mix of human and “other” (unspecified) DNA.
It’s an intelligent movie that’s interested in the weighty ethical issues raised by genetic meddling, and by Promethean scientists unbound by moral insight and foresight and inspired by equal parts glory and greed. It also explores complicated family and couple dynamics made even more confusing by the human ability to procreate in ways that the birds and bees never imagined. As it was with Frankenstein, so it is with Splice: In the end we are left to wonder who is the real monster.
Syd looks back a decade to a 2001 gem: Amélie
Depending on whether you think that decades start on the naughts or the onesies, 2001 was arguably the start of the previous decade and 2011 the start of the new. 2001 seems like an awful long time ago, in any case. There were some darn fine movies back in those halcyon, pre-3-D days, when our brains did perfectly well pretending that movies were three-dimensional, just like they’ve been doing for the last century. It was the year of the first Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Memento. It was also the year of Amélie, one of my favorite movies. If you’ve been reading this column for the last decade, I’ve told you more than once to see this movie. So see it already. Or see it again.
How and why things happen as they do in the life of Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou) isn’t really worth pondering; looking too closely at the inner workings of a fairy tale can take all the magic and mystery out of it. So it is with Amélie: the tale of a lonely princess who finds her lonely prince at long last.
The cold sensualism of filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s previous films (The City of Lost Children, very differently wonderful) is warmed up until it positively glows in Amélie. The Paris of Amélie, as depicted by Jeunet and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, is an enchanted, romantic, double-espresso-supercaffeinated place, bustling with harmless eccentrics and oddballs and glistening with optimism. The unlikely, the coincidental and the poetic are as commonplace here as rainbows harboring pots of gold are in other enchanted places. Amélie isn’t entirely sweetness and light; there’s an occasional cloud (silver-lined, of course) to cast a shadow of dark humor over this cinematically enchanted city.
@ Syd M