I know what it is to subscribe to The Nation—that sinking of the heart every week as you open the mailbox and think, "Now what’s wrong?" That’s why this little corner of frivolity at the back of the magazine devotes itself to entertainment as much as art, and tries to bear in mind that movies, though deeply involved in the world’s strife, don’t actually do the work of politics.
There has to be some relief. And yet, when I push myself to perform every reviewer’s duty and look back on The Year in Movies, the sheer leadenness of the frolic makes Oscar Wilde weep among the angels.
Here’s how The Year in Movies ended: On December 18 a court in Tehran sentenced Jafar Panahi to six years in prison and banned him from writing scripts and directing films for the next twenty years. That means until he’s 70, if he lives that long.
You may recall that Panahi—director of The White Balloon, The Circle, Crimson Gold and Offside—had been jailed earlier in 2010 with his colleague Mohammad Rasoulof (director of Iron Island) but was released on bail after three months. There was as yet no trial. That formality was finally taken up in November, and now Panahi and Rasoulof are doing hard time in Evin prison. Their crime: having conspired to commit a film, which if completed (according to the government) would have turned out to be "propaganda."
I asked one of the principal scholars of Iranian cinema, Hamid Dabashi, what might be done. He recommended that Nation readers encourage the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to issue a statement to the Iranian House of Cinema in support of Panahi and Rasoulof. "The pressure," he wrote, "must be public, institutional, non-governmental and above all relentless." So I refer you to Bruce Davis, executive director of AMPAS, at 8949 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, CA 90211. Who knows? Maybe the statement can be so public as to be incorporated into the Oscars broadcast.
We can try. And it will give us something better to do about the Oscars than follow the competition.
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That frenzy on the red carpet is of course the main business of America’s film industry at the end of each Year in Movies. We are expected to think about, browbeaten to recognize, stampeded like a colony of naked mole rats to view only those few films that are confirmed (God knows by whom) as Oscar contenders. I try to be a sport about it; I really do. But there are Panahi and Rasoulof in their cells; and here, demanding attention with the wave of a conspicuously authentic-looking firearm, is True Grit.
You cannot find a more impeccably made film, nor one with less apparent reason to exist. After you’ve marveled at the precision of each setup, camera movement and edit; the faultless modulations of tone among suspense, pathos, humor and excitement; the utter self-assurance of all the performers (starting with Jeff Bridges, that Old Faithful of America’s male stars, but crucially including young Hailee Steinfeld in the central role), the experience dissipates like mist. There’s nothing left to brood over after you’ve watched the film—nothing to appreciate more deeply on second or third reflection. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the experience cancels itself even as you watch, given the indifferent curiosity with which Joel and Ethan Coen call up and then skim over the themes that have long haunted the western, as if they were mere outmoded superstitions to be ticked off a list. Finally the Coens have achieved the goal toward which their cinema has always tended: a perfect void.
Is this what American film as a whole now aspires to, at its high auteurist level? Another of the December contenders, Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, left me wondering.
It, too, is a faultlessly crafted object—though one that incorporates a far more inquisitive attitude toward the world, and infinitely more emotional nuance, than True Grit cares to encompass. The story of a slacker-era movie star (Stephen Dorff) and his relationship, sometimes neglectful and sometimes flirtatious, with his 11-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning), Somewhere is full of droll, disillusioned observations about matters such as the code of celebrity sociability at the Chateau Marmont, the rituals of press junkets (both in Los Angeles and overseas) and the sorts of services that the fortunate among us can hire. (I hadn’t known they could get call-in pole dancers, let alone identical twins.) It’s reassuring to be told that the luxury I can’t afford is so sleazy that I wouldn’t want it. Somewhere does, however, put on display an enviable store of intellectual capital, as shown in Coppola’s restrained, often wordless direction. To cite just one example of this contrasting wealth: notice the smart way Coppola introduces the daughter, in a shot that at first tricks you into thinking the girl is another of the star’s one-night blondes.
There’s much to enjoy along the way in Somewhere, and much to admire; so why at the end did I feel so empty? No doubt it’s because of the vacuum in the main character, a man with so few thoughts and so little to do that he seems like the entourage of his own Ferrari. "I’m not even a person," he cries late in the film, in a moment of self-awareness that the character, as portrayed till that point, probably would not have been able to achieve. I will take Coppola’s word for it that such people exist in Hollywood, and that it’s wrong, wrong, wrong for the world to adore them. But to wrap an exquisite movie around this moral seems futile to me—as futile as the life contained in the beautiful package. I admire Somewhere, ultimately, for nothing—which was the very best I could say for most American films in 2010.
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But to drop the pretense of writing about The Year in Movies and own up to the truth, which is that I can speak (like everyone else) only of my year in movies: the great disappointment of 2010 was that I failed to review so many good films. The supply of them—pictures that were well made and meaningful, too—outstripped my capacity to keep up. I have commented in these pages on Carlos (the one obviously great film released in 2010), A Prophet, Wild Grass, Life During Wartime, The Social Network, Inside Job, Last Train Home, The Illusionist, The Kids Are All Right and Lebanon (to stop arbitrarily at ten). But I can easily name another five that were neglected here, until now.
The year’s best political thriller was Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, based on a novel by Robert Harris: a wickedly clever revenge fantasy directed against a British prime minister much like Tony Blair (very handsomely and desperately portrayed by Pierce Brosnan) whose enthusiasm for the American-led "war on terror" left him in affluent disgrace. The cleverness lay in Polanski’s direction, laid out as neatly as a cryptogram. The wickedness was that the film visited its ultimate revenge not on the PM but on the title character (Ewan McGregor), a man much like the average moviegoer: smart enough to see through some lies but not the whole lot, moral enough to begin doing right but not powerful enough to finish.
Winter’s Bone by Debra Granik was the year’s outstanding film from the wasted American heartland: in this case a part of rural Missouri where "modernity" means that meth labs have replaced moonshine stills. Apart from that, the old truths remain: family is destiny, legal authority is despised and men must not beat women outside their clan. Jennifer Lawrence played the young woman who valiantly defied these rules in part, while staying true to them as a whole.
Never Let Me Go, based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro and directed by Mark Romanek, outdid every other sci-fi movie of the year by working on you as quietly as a slow-acting drug. Physically, the film’s alternate reality was the same as ours, only prettier. Socially, it was distressingly superior, if you believe in the principle of maximizing good for the greatest number of people. Emotionally, though, this parallel world was an ever-deepening chasm, where Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield got to linger a little, heartbreakingly, before dropping from sight.
Speaking of drops into chasms: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was the best of many films in 2010 released unnecessarily in 3-D. Ingeniously discovering a mature, fighting heroine in one of Tenniel’s illustrations (where she turns out to have been hiding in plain sight), Burton created an Alice capable of triumph in a Wonderland where "Off with his head!" had become the least of threats. "I really learned something," my daughter volunteered on our way out of the theater. "A girl has to make up her own mind." Which is a lot more than she got from Toy Story 3.
Finally, in the category of odd, affecting little documentaries, perhaps the best of the year was Jeff Malmberg’s Marwencol. The title is the name of a Belgian town—an imaginary one, where it’s forever World War II—which Mark Hogancamp of Kingston, New York, painstakingly built at scale model using plastic dolls and hobby-shop materials. This project was his self-prescribed occupational and psychological therapy, after a severe beating outside a bar left him with neither memories nor normal motor functions. The film gradually reveals why Hogancamp was beaten, how he changed afterward and what became of his fantasy town; but best of all, Malmberg brings his camera right into the model, to show you a Marwencol as large and vivid as its creator needs it to be.
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As for the single most important event in film in 2010, I’d have to say it was the twenty-fifth-anniversary re-release of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.
So many documentaries about the subject have appeared since 1985, and so many fiction films, that the contours of Lanzmann’s work had begun to blur into a generalized notion of "Holocaust movie," even for those of us who knew better. As for the generation that came to maturity without ever being able to see the nine and a half hours of Shoah in a theater, how could they guess what Lanzmann had perpetrated? You expect a Holocaust movie to make you bow your head as if at a memorial service, or excite you with its horrific display. It’s not supposed to be a scandal in itself—huge, insolent and undefined.
To classify Shoah as a history clearly won’t do, as Lanzmann has said. It’s not just that he refused to show archival images, insisting instead on recording the traces that the Holocaust had left on the present day. He also would not summarize the overall sequence of events, entertain discussions of political and economic forces, reproduce anyone else’s documentary evidence (that was all assumed) or even confine his materials to a straight chronology. Lanzmann jumped around thematically, without telling you what the themes were; he spiraled back obsessively, and without explanation, to the same railway lines, the same landscapes, even the same shots.
I have no name for a film that proceeds like this; but I can tell you what it does.
Shoah evokes absence: the death camps reduced to brick outlines in empty fields, the mass graves dug up and burned to destroy the evidence, the old Jewish villages now thriving without Jews, the survivors (every one an anomaly) in their terrifying isolation. Using the words of eyewitnesses—words in Yiddish, German, Polish, English, Hebrew, Italian—Shoah recounts in detail how this absence was produced, from the Nazis’ first clumsy improvisations to the logistical perfection of Auschwitz; and just as important, Shoah reveals what remains of the process in people’s voices, faces and attitudes. Through persistent questioning, gentle encouragement, brusque confrontation, even clandestine recording—whatever he deems appropriate—Lanzmann brings out the sobs suppressed by a death camp barber, the horror that has never stopped contorting an emissary to the Warsaw ghetto, the bland duplicity of a former high-ranking Nazi official (who pretends that Lanzmann is the one with all the information), the Jew-hatred still voiced without embarrassment by Polish townspeople in the 1980s.
And always, as the voices go on, there are those calm, 360-degree pans of snowy landscapes, those tracking shots taken from rattling old trains. Worst of all: there’s the supreme evocation of absence in the montage of normal, everyday life in a Warsaw shopping district.
There is a logic in the way Lanzmann puts all this together; but there is also something monstrous and misshapen, which is utterly irreconcilable with notions of monuments and masterpieces. And that, as much as the staggering amount of research that went into the film, is what makes Shoah so right. It’s brilliantly conceived; it’s intolerable. It is the indispensable film of any year when it appears.