Can any do-gooder documentary released this year claim to have done more good than The Social Network, David Fincher’s high-powered drama about the founding of Facebook? Its portrait of CEO Mark Zuckerberg as a conniving little shit who elbowed his best friend out of the business was so scathing that, shortly before the release date, Zuckerberg pledged $100 million to the school system of Newark, New Jersey. And now that the movie has won rave reviews, played for ten weeks, and emerged as a surefire Oscar contender, Zuckerberg has joined the Giving Pledge, the philanthropic campaign launched by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, and promised to donate more than half his fortune to charity. Clearly, since we can’t raise taxes on the wealthy, what we need is a new genre of shame-inducing billionaire biopics: “Get Christy Walton,” say, or “The Brothers Koch.”
Instead the awards season brings us more movies like Somewhere, Sofia Coppola’s latest lesson in the quiet suffering of the superrich, which opens here next week. After her larky costume drama Marie Antoinette, Coppola returns to the more familiar subject of ennui-ridden movie stars, with scruffy Stephen Dorff—taking over for the bemused Bill Murray of Lost in Translation—as an unhappy action hero whose typical evening involves twin strippers in his hotel room. The Weinstein Company is putting its Oscar bets on Tom Hooper’s historical drama The King’s Speech, which turns on whether King George VI of Britain (Colin Firth) can get over his lifelong stuttering problem. Columbia Pictures is going with James L. Brooks’s romantic comedy How Do You Know, whose unhappy characters include a pro baseball player (Owen Wilson) making $14 million a year.
The default for big Hollywood releases—your Adam Sandler comedies, your Angelina Jolie thrillers—is an upper-middle-class world of nice houses with two SUVs in every driveway. But even the art-house crowd likes to see a little money onscreen. One of the year’s most warmly received foreign imports was I Am Love, Luca Guadignino’s elegant Italian drama about a poor Russian woman (Tilda Swinton) who’s married into a filthy-rich industrial clan in picturesque Milan. And indie films, though they may strike a proletarian pose, often trade in a well-upholstered bohemia. Tiny Furniture, now screening at Music Box, stars its 24-year-old filmmaker, Lena Dunham, as a young woman who returns home from a liberal-arts college in Ohio, film theory degree in hand, to live with her mother and sister (played by Dunham’s mother and sister) and feel sorry for herself in their swell apartment in Tribeca. Her romantic ideal is a fellow video maker who, she takes pains to inform her mother, is “kind of a big deal on YouTube.” Even more than Coppola, Dunham reminds you that filmmaking tends to be a class privilege.
When movies this year dipped into the lower classes, they were usually crime pictures like Ben Affleck’s The Town or male melodramas like David O. Russell’s The Fighter (which opens this week). I like both of those movies, but their working-class Massachusetts neighborhoods seem positively effete compared to the harsh Ozarks of Debra Granik’s indie drama Winter’s Bone. Granik is the kind of director who digs into a community and makes it real onscreen, and Winter’s Bone takes place in an utterly persuasive 21st-century mountain community where people live on land cluttered with junk, kids blast nu metal on ancient boom boxes, craggy women silently obey their brutal husbands, and no one crosses the southern-fried biker gang that deals crystal meth all over the mountainside. Watching the movie, you realize there are great swaths of poverty-stricken America that the movie business buzzes over, possibly because the sights and sounds to be found there are too dire.
Only one fictional movie this year really took on the juicy topic of income inequality in America, and then only indirectly: Nicole Holofcener’s masterful social satire Please Give. Catherine Keener stars as Kate, a middle-aged woman who lives in midtown Manhattan and, with her husband, owns and operates a midcentury furniture store. Compassionate to a fault, she’s constantly pressing money into the hands of street people, to the angry dismay of her spoiled teenage daughter. Kate is seldom rewarded for this generosity: she offers her restaurant leftovers to a homeless man on the street, for instance, then discovers to her mortification that he’s a patron waiting for a table at another restaurant. Holofcener believes in sharing the wealth, and she notes with care the many ways we have of quashing our own generous impulses. “Your guilt is warping me!” Kate’s husband complains at one point. Whether guilt is warping her, or Mark Zuckerberg for that matter, probably isn’t important to someone who needs their help.
The Social Network, Winter’s Bone, and Please Give rank among my ten favorite movies that opened in Chicago this year; following, in alphabetical order, are the other seven.
Carlos This year the Music Box showed three great European productions whose gargantuan running times allowed their filmmakers the sort of dramatic and historical scope the multiplex can’t accommodate: the three-part British crime drama Red Riding, the two-part French gangster saga Mesrine, and, from the brilliant French director Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours, Demonlover), this fascinating three-part drama spanning 20 years in the bloody career of international terrorist Carlos the Jackal.
Dogtooth Sinister and hilarious, this black comedy by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos welcomes us to the sunny rural home of a tyrannical patriarch, his meek wife, and their three pretty children, who’ve been confined to the grounds for their entire lives and subjected to a freakish upbringing that leaves them unfit for normal company. It’s a trenchant commentary on the socializing power of the family and, more important, a barrel of sick laughs.
Enter the Void Gaspar Noe, director of such ugly, in-your-face dramas as I Stand Alone and Irreversible, switched gears somewhat with this grandly ambitious, wildly psychedelic tour of the afterlife. Shot dead by Tokyo police in a scummy toilet, a young American drug dealer leaves his body behind and becomes the camera, floating over the neon frenzy of the city and spying on the people dear to him as they struggle to move on. Sometimes brutal, other times playful, this colorful metaphysical adventure held my eye better than any digital-effects extravaganza.
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno Clouzot, director of such French suspense classics as Diabolique and The Wages of Fear, was felled by a heart attack while shooting his lavish experimental thriller “L’Enfer.” The movie was never completed, but Clouzot managed to shoot about 13 hours of footage for the 1964 production, including a series of stunning camera experiments that were heavily influenced by the kinetic art of the time. Sifting through this salvaged material, documentary makers Serge Bromberg and Ruzandra Medrea manage to reconstruct the movie’s story, while interviews with surviving crew members tell a dramatic tale of a great film artist out of control.
The Kids Are All Right Lisa Cholodenko redefines the American family with this landmark comedy about a lesbian couple and their two teenage children, conceived by artificial insemination. After the kids make contact with their biological father, the little family begins to fracture, and the ensuing trauma teaches all four of them the true meaning of devotion. This is one of those movies that seems destined to define its era.
Restrepo Remember the war in Afghanistan? You may never forget it after seeing this verite documentary by journalists Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, about a 15-man platoon of soldiers protecting a remote outpost deep in the desolate Korengal Valley. The filmmakers, who spent months shadowing the men as they braved daily firefights with the Taliban, captured some heart-stopping combat scenes, but what really lingers is the pointedly honest interview material, shot later with the surviving soldiers in Italy.
The Square Australia, despite all that sun and open space, is quickly becoming the film noir capital of the world, producing cagey low-budget thrillers that include Rupert Glasson’s Coffin Rock, Michael Henry’s Blame, and David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom. The best of the bunch is this drama by Joel and Nash Edgerton, a tightly plotted and viciously suspenseful tale of two illicit lovers whose plot to acquire a bag of cash turns into a labyrinth of lies and murder.
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