As I intimated in my last post, I was still nothing but a cinephile infant in 1998 with barely enough knowledge to know what my personal tastes were let alone the ability to know what a good film looked like. My entire knowledge of the movies came from big blockbusters and I had hardly any comprehension of indie films, art films, or international cinema, and most definitely did not know how to navigate those uncharted waters. In the intervening years I’ve managed to fill in some of the gaps, and doubtless I have many more gaps from 1998 to fill, but this retrospective finally gave me the excuse to catch up on some of the standouts of the year that, through laziness or sheer ignorance, I had put off watching until now . Here they are:
PI dir. Darren Aronofsky
From the moment the movie begins it is clear that we are dealing with a movie that is, if not an Eraserhead clone, at least paying homage to David Lynch. Aronofsky’s debut film is a study on two sides of the same coin: genius and madness. Max Cohen is a number theorist who believes three basic maxims: First, that mathematics is the language of nature; second, everything can be represented and understood through numbers; and third, if you pay attention to those numbers, patterns will emerge. Naturally with such a myopic view of the world and how it works this leads him to being a recluse with few human contacts, including his increasingly aged mentor. One day, while trying to get his computer to predict the stock market it spits out a random code that at first appears to be a mere glitch. However he decides to investigate more closely and quickly finds himself down a rabbit hole where he finds out he may have inadvertently stumbled upon the God code which soon leads him to being pursued both by religious forces and the government. Of course, thanks to Aronofsky’s erratic and unhinged direction, it is never entirely clear if Max is merely an eccentric mathematician who has truly made a phenomenal discovery, or the incarnation of an insane person. Aronofsky was wise to pick advance mathematics as the plot hook for this movie, as it gives Max’s whole theory a high level of plausibility simply because math in general is either true or false and the further up you go in math complexity the harder it is for mere non-mathematician mortals (like me) to tell the difference. It also is easy to believe that a person as immersed in numbers as Max could indeed suffer a paranoid breakdown. The uncertainty that Aronofsky maintains between those two poles of genius and madness throughout the movie help make this more than just a mere Eraserhead-clone, but a spiritual successor to the cult movie. It also surprisingly as thrilling as any action movie despite most of the tension happening within Max’s mind. After this movie Aronofsky dove into melodramatic and surreal fare; I can’t help but wonder if his career could benefit from returning to his excellent minimalist roots with Pi.
SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS dir. Tamara Jenkins
First of all let me just state that it is criminal that this movie does not have a bigger reputation that it does. The cast alone demands this movie have a bigger following: Alan Arkin, Marisa Tomei, David Krumholtz, Carl Reiner, Jessica FREAKING Walters, and most importantly, a brilliant star turn from a pre-Orange is the New Black Natasha Lyonne. Slums of Beverly Hills follows the Abromowitz’s, a barely-getting-by family who have to move from cheap apartment complex to cheap apartment complex based on the luck of their car-salesman patriarch Murray (Alan Arkin) who desperately refuses to move to a cheaper suburb so his kids can stay in Beverly Hills’ schools. Vivian (Natasha Lyonne), his oldest child, finds herself quickly coming into sexual maturity with no one but her father, her two younger brothers, and her latest apartment complex-based fling to help her. In other words she is desperately alone. Into her life comes her 29-year old cousin Rita (Marisa Tomei) who has run away from home and takes up residence with her cousins and uncle, and ends up being the catalyst for some dramatic changes in Vivian’s life not just because of her much-needed advice on womanhood but also because she persuades her father to give Murray some money to shelter her. It is the perfect set-up for this sometimes sweet, frequently funny, and often times brutally frank tale of a girl coming-of-age in 1970s Los Angeles. The fact that this would be the exact era director Tamara Jenkins was a teenager herself lends Vivian’s journey a high level of authenticity as she navigates what is undoubtedly a fraught and perilous period of her life. If there is any fault to the movie, it is that it feels less like a fully contained movie and more like an excellent pilot of an HBO-style (or Netflix-style, if you prefer) comedy series as there seems to be so much more to explore in each of the characters. I want to know what Vivian learns next about womanhood. I want to see how Rita gets them into trouble again. I want to see Vivian’s brothers get their own arc. And most importantly I want to know how Murray plots to keeps the family all together again. In the end however I guess it is not altogether a bad thing for a movie to end and leave you wanting more.
AFTER LIFE dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda
What if you could keep only one memory with you in the after life? This in a nutshell is the basic question that permeates Kore-eda’s After Life. The movie opens with a group of wayward souls slowly emerging from the mist into an oridinary-looking office building. There they are told that they have arrived as recently deceased people and that before they can be processed into the after life, they will have to choose one happy memory that they will be able to carry with them throughout eternity. The chosen memory will then be filmed by a crew of workers before being implanted into the minds of the deceased as they move on.
And so a variety of people find themselves having to distill their entire life into a single event. For some, the zeal of youth leaves them unable to choose any event because their sudden death left them with so many potential happy memories left unmade. For others, the bitterness of their lives leaves them without any memorable happy moments. Some have too many happy memories to choose from, others find the task an odd one. In any case they have one week to choose or be stuck with their best (or worst) option. Kore-eda used a plethora of ordinary people to film the many scenes of people trying to recollect their happiest memory. Unadorned by any theatrical tricks, it provides an astonishing human portrait of the hopes and fears of people forced to confront their mortality – it is telling how little the conventional standards of success and happiness crop up in their stories.
Helping these souls along are the staff who occupy a unique space, an odd group of earnest people who for reasons unknown were not sent along to the after life but diligently work as counselors for the recently deceased, listening to their stories and helping them come up with the best possible memory to carry with them. Behind the scenes they work out the pragmatic details, gathering each day to debrief and troubleshoot particularly tricky clients, while doing their best to reconstruct the memories to be filmed and implanted. Like a well-versed film crew, they professionally go about their tasks with stoic determination. It is with this crew that the closest thing to a drama occurs as one of the staff realizes he is processing his friend who lived much longer than he did, prompting questions of regret and jealousy over a life he never got to live. But even then, this crisis is handled soberly.
It would be easy for Kore-eda to veer into sentimentality and schmaltz with this story in which the staff are primarily interested in literally giving people their happy endings, but Kore-eda masterfully keeps this story grounded in surprising realism. The office building where these souls are housed is an ordinary and slightly run-down looking building, while the story wisely has very little music to manipulate us as viewers. Instead in the silence we are forced to first listen to the life-affirming memories of the deceased and and then forced to contemplate the question for ourselves of what memory we would choose for our own after life– a sobering but centering exercise made all the easier by the humanistic patience with which Kore-eda unfolds the stories of these deceased souls which gives us the space to contemplate our own story.
FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien
“Transportive” is a cliche term usually given to films that are frequently less than that. However that is certainly an adjective that Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai earns. I am admittedly extremely unversed in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s work, having only caught his most recent work The Assassin and with copies of his movies notoriously difficult to find out here in the far suburbs of the Greater Toronto Area. However if this is representative of his larger work, then I perhaps should make a greater effort to track his movies down.
Nothing much happens in Flowers of Shanghai in the way of actual plot. The movie opens on an unbroken seven minute or so sequence in which we seemingly intrude on an innocuous game of Mah Jong in 19th century Shanghai, with the players bantering with one another while being attended by a cavalcade of courtesans from the brothels. What is remarkable is that we enter this scene as strangers, barely grasping anything of the context nor understanding the deep relationships that seem to be at play here, but by the time the scene ends and the title credits come up we already feel like we are welcome at this table. And so the film goes, plopping us into scene after scene where the characters gossip with one another about rumors regarding the various courtesans and their suitors. We hear them talk about mundane things like finances and food, and are invited into each of these seemingly innocuous conversations like welcome guests, with the camera almost always panning to give us full view of these ornate rooms and the people who live in them, allowing us to inhabit this foreign world and take it all in. Every scene in this movie happens indoors, without a single glimpse of the outside world, but such is the immersion Hou places us in that we have no trouble imagining what this society looks like.
Of course for such a simple premise to seem compelling two things are necessary: we need a compelling setting and we need fantastic performances. Fortunately of the latter we have in droves, as the cast of professional and non-professional actors turn in consistently great performances and seamlessly fit into their 19th century Shanghai setting. The cast is led by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (Chungking Express, Hard Boiled) who with this performance cements his status an international art-house star and one of the greatest actors of all time.
And thanks to Hou’s impeccable attention to detail, the setting is similarly a melancholic joy to inhabit. With every frame of this movie also bathed in a golden glow, it is easy to be lulled into a meditative, and almost opiate, calm as we observe the cavalcade of characters and the ways they interact with the rooms they inhabit and what those rooms represent. Some courtesans find their place in the brothel a welcome refuge, while others spend their energies trying to get out of it, whether by marriage or money. The tragedy of the lives of these courtesans in the brothels and the way they are at the mercy of their male suitors does not play out in dramatic gestures, but is revealed in the subtle things said and unsaid. And just as we enter this movie world as strangers, we leave it in a similar way. We sense the larger brushstrokes of drama and tragedy, but we still feel like we have not grasped all of its inner mysteries no matter how deeply we have looked at it. And yet, rather than being a reason to feel rebuffed, the opaqueness of the movie is simply an invitation to return and sit in these rooms again.
THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO dir. Whit Stillman
There is a unique quality in Whit Stillman characters in that you are generally inclined to punch most of them in the face. The final film in Stillman’s self-titled “doomed-bourgeoise-in-love” trilogy finds another group of young, generally upwardly mobile whose greatest goal in life it seems is proving they belong in their bourgeoise status. They are in many ways an infuriating group of people whose the greatest source of angst is not necessarily in making ends meet (as the greatest sin of these times is to be called a “yuppie”) but rather in maintaining a laissez-faire and carefree attitude to life that can only be supported by the wealth and privilege they acquire and inherit. And yet they are also to be pitied because Stillman is so acute to not only write them accurately, but show us just how hollow that life truly is.
This time around Stillman sets his movie sometime in the 80s, with the particulars being a disco club representing the pinnacle of the kind of prestigious and carefree lifestyle to shoot for, while the chief sin is the ever-present danger of “going corporate”. Of course the irony of the film is that almost all the characters in this movie hypocritically have perfectly good white-collar jobs, furnished by their Ivy League educations, and whose career paths firmly place most of them on the inside track for the “yuppie” lifestyle they so vocally despise. Disco thus represents the last meager stab of rebellion for this crew of recent graduates – a safe embrace of a counter-culture before they assume their rightful place befitting their class status.
The reason this group of post-college kids – comprised of a great cast featuring Kate Beckinsale, Chole Sevigny, Chris Eigemen, Mackenzie Astin, and Robert Sean Leonard – aren’t altogether despicable is because Stilman is an expert of approximating what these people are like, filling the entire movie with a cattiness and pettiness that makes every single conversation at least eye-rollingly amusing and more frequently hilarious as they wax eloquent using their Ivy League refinement to talk about the most banal of things. We mostly are laughing at them rather than with them, but that’s not such a bad thing once in awhile.
FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS dir. Terry Gillam
Perhaps it is because I just finished the latest season of BoJack Horseman (excellent show by the way, go watch it) but the story of an extremely flawed man getting away with a slew of bad behavior based on the reputation of his past successes and for the purpose of his art seemed particularly grating to me. That our protagonist Hunter S. Thompson is played by Johnny Depp, a man who has in the intervening years established himself as someone who operates on a different ethical scale than the rest of us because of his own “artistic genius”, makes it all the more nauseating to watch (and this without mentioning the reality that this story makes light of drug abuse when River Phoenix died of an overdose outside Depp’s club five years earlier). Terry Gillam’s gonzo directorial vision makes this not an absolute waste of time, but there are much, much better Gillam films if his gonzo vision is what you are looking for.
HAPPINESS dir. Todd Solondz
I will grant that my inability to fully engage with this movie is probably due to my own mental blocks. I can appreciate that Todd Solondz has written a very smart and very darkly humorous script. I can also appreciate that the performances in this movie are fantastic as the whole cast expertly portrays some truly despicable people in ways that make it easy to find them repulsive. And the central argument that Solondz is trying to make – that monstrous people can in some way also be sympathetic characters, and objects worthy to be pitied – is a noteworthy one and is mostly eloquently displayed here. But the reveal of one of the central characters as a pedophile rapist who similarly deserves our pity is simply a bridge too far for my empathy. I realize by doing that I probably prove Solondz’s larger point because I reflexively recoil from such a character. Roger Ebert said of Happiness that, “It is not a film for most people.” I will unfortunately have to count myself with the majority for this one.