- Martin Scorsese, 2009 Golden Globes, Cecil B. DeMille award speech.
The Shine Box's favorite movies released in 2008 told stories about alienation. The characters were lone, misunderstood, one-man armies like The Dark Knight and Redbelt; or former superstars banished to the margins of life, like Randy "The Ram" in The Wrestler; or postmodern activists like Che and Milk whose audacity propels them as epic leaders as it equally prompts their murder; or social outcasts and misfits like the celebrity impersonators in Mister Lonely, the picaresque gobot WALL-E, and the country simpleton in Jerzy Skolimowski's undistributed Four Nights With Anna. These movies portray the perverse, sinuous, sometimes sublime, and often violent predicament of alientated individuals.
The Shine Box's favorite movies of 2009 tell stories about identity. Perhaps personality refabricates into others of one's own self? The 21st century has allowed, for the individual, a sublimation of guises, technological or psychological, whether believed to be real or fake. It is popular for people to walk around as if a camera follows them at all times, catching the idealized angle and posture in the world of the head as seen on TV and magazines - like the motto of YouTube: "Broadcast Yourself." 2009 has been a year for the drama of the behavior of identity. America elected a leader who has made mountainous progress for the image, sensibility and emotions of the country, yet has not proven variegated in the policy of economics and war.
Observe & Report (Jody Hill).
The Informant! (Steven Soderbergh).
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog).
The characters of these three goodest movies of the year are first motivated by the effects of a particular contemporary malaise: in Bad Lieutenant, it is the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as in Observe & Report it is 9/11, and in The Informant!, it is the impalpable red tape of corporate conspiracy. These events bear seeds that compel the characters to do violence and abuse their particular roles of power. The male megalomaniacs of each movie do not question their actions, but impetuously justify them, and the viewer watches as new layers peel off the psychic selves of these men, who use the fanfare of injustice as a platform for their unruly, manipulative, vigilante actions.
Terry McDonagh is the Bad Lieutenant, "port of call: New Orleans," and the city, as both setting and signifier, is like the old gothic plantation house where McDonagh's ex-cop father and the old man's girlfriend still dwell, deeply spaced and rife with the ghosts of sin-eaters. McDonagh's use of painkillers for his back (injured saving a jailbird during the Katrina aftermath) turns into a merciless drug habit. This affects his policing only in intensity, and it is to his ecstatic credit that he finds a way of solving his own decadent problems by intertwining them with his cop work.
Still, when things at the end seem at an upswing, the Bad Lieutenant sits alone in a hotel room, glowering sadly over his coke, and he is off to repeat his old late-night clubkid shakedown, for a bite of the kibble. Who he is still slips from his fingers – he clings to a lucky crack pipe, actually sees near-dead souls breakdancing, and ingeniously indicts an old society matron as “You’re what’s wrong with this fucking country!” The Bad Lieutenant is not a bad cop. He acts flagrantly in his own aggrieved, chaotic interest, but also orchestrates a successful murder investigation.
In Observe & Report, Ronnie Barnhardt is obsessed with guns, and obsessed with his own idea of himself using them in combat as an adjudicator of wrong things. He is a parking lot patriot and fat-ass fascist, and his superhero-ego splits. Ronnie turns himself into exurbanite spy Gil Jacobsen, a secret savior of the American way of life, and Gil ends up getting gang-stomped by cops to the Flash Gordon soundtrack. Part of Ronnie's classic American syndrome is his total helplessness - he desperately wants to be part of the war effort, and so at the movie's climax Ronnie's soul achieves supreme composure after he gunblasts the mall-flasher.
Marc Whitacre, in The Informant! is a man who projects a strange ingratiating honesty, but that honesty is rooted in a psychological dark matter of fibs. Like the Bad Lt. and Ronnie Barnhardt, Whitacre perceives his transgressions as acts of ultimate good, and is thrilled to see the stipple portrait of himself in the Wall Street Journal. He fools the FBI and smiles for the surveillance camera. He conducts a Nigerian advance-fee scam and incites his bosses at the corporate corn company to the certainty of microbial Japanese subterfuge. After all of Whitacre’s intricate mendacities, the greatest surprise is the discovery he wears a hairpiece.
Soderbergh uses a peanut gallery of familiar comedic actors from TV and stand-up who pattern the movie with a brisk bathos, along with the jouncy Marvin Hamlisch score, and Whitacre's absurdist, factoidal voiceovers, which are seeming non sequitors that turn the all-too-familiar V.O. device on its tail. Likewise Soderbergh satirizes the "based on a true story" conceit, which Hollywood so underhandedly believes endows its crappiest output a moral veracity - "So there."
Movies should be trusted to create, for the audience, the most dire fantasy, where and when the audience might experience and apply their own human predicaments: a possessed cop, a wily corporateer, and a tormented security guard at the mall. These movies are giddy, portentous, and naked.
Paul Rudd - Actor of the Year.
Mr. Paul Rudd is a grave and hilarious leading man. In Role Models (David Wain) - released Nov. 2008 but watched by your author in 2009 - Rudd plays a guy whose first reaction to the world is negative, summating a mid-30s male hotheadedness born from the hatred of his own life, and taking it out on everyone else. To Danny Donahue, the world is a betrayer and insulter of his vague ideals. Danny has a million pet-peeves, like coffee-sizes in Italian and when people say "ASAP." Every instance becomes a justification for Danny to vent his own aggravation with himself. He ends up losing his girlfriend and in jail.
In I Love You Man (John Hamburg), Rudd plays a guy who is happy. He is a supportive and caring fiancee and a moderately successful real estate agent. But his happiness is revealed to be a certain contentment, a finickiness about order that instigates an abhorrence to spontaneity, or self-reflection. Rudd’s wide-ranging effects as an actor and comedian come delicately together. He is handsome enough to be charming (like the intellectual slacker in Clueless and macho cocksman in Anchorman) but just shrimpy enough to be a believable social geek (first glimpsed by Rudd's Paris in Romeo & Juliet and then Knocked Up).
Mr. Paul Rudd is also the co-creator of your author's TV show of the year, Party Down, as if Clifford Odets met with John Hughes to make a sitcom. Let’s get Rudd in the next 2009 Golden Globes Cecil B. DeMille award winner Martin Scorsese's next picture!
MOVIES NOTED WHETHER
LIKED OR DISLIKED
BY THE SHINE BOX:
Bruno (Larry Charles).
Bruno parodies with mondo-movie derring-do what people will do to get famous, narrated as a continuum of degradation on the part of both ishmein Bruno and the ambitiously prejudiced victims of his shenanigans. Bruno and his team are certain perverse moralists playing the cultural pinball machine for the end of a decade, exploiting the quest for fameness with dildo-machines and sushi served upon wetbacks. Bruno will hold you to your word and will use it to his end, not exactly unadulterated but not out of context either - like the Supreme Court hearings.
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino).
The director uses his vainglorious stature as an indie/hollywood avatar of creative freedom to indict the indie/hollywood historical epic. He has fun employing the topic of history so favored by both the industry and the art film - WWII and the Nazis. But Basterds is not a holocaust movie, and instead the Jews get to brutalize the Nazis. Goebbels is an SS movie mogul, his blockbuster a violent sniper film based on events that had happened only a few years before but easily embellished to support the cause.
Pop WWII movies are indulged: the dumb grunt “Lt. Aldo Raine,” femme fatale spies, charmed Nazi psychos. But this is not just revisionist history, which for all its innovation still seeks a naturalistic truth, but a history that is personological. The intellectual past is seized by a substantial, goofy strategy (could it be said that cable TV newsvangelist Glenn Beck did the same this year by titling his book with the name of freethinker Thomas Paine?). Shoshanna plans out the ultimate indie film, in revenge against the Nazi Party moviemaking industry, whose leisure-classed patrons, in a French arthouse set demonically ablaze, are mowed down by two Jews disguised as Italianos.
Star Trek (J.J. Abrams)
Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie)
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (Stephen Sommers).
Diehard fans of the Star Trek TV show, the Sherlock Holmes books, and G.I. Joe action figures were either appalled or elated by the new beginnings of each these pop brands. J.J. Abrams is a kinda smarter director than Guy Ritchie, and while no-name actors are assembled and put into action with a ripsnorting, mindbending finesse by J.J. in Star Trek, great Hollywood actors Downey Jr. & Jude whisk through Sherlock, beating an egg that resists to be smoothed, always a few steps better than their surroundings, which constitute Rachel McAdams, the overdone setpieces, and the underdone gags. Sherlock hints at cheekiness in its plot materials (wireless networking, chemical warfare, Holmes' idea of a gun-silencing mechanism), but never lets them breathe. Star Trek endears even non-fans to the memory of the show by a graceful insinuation of the poppy catchphrases, the iconic score and Vulcan idiosyncratics. It is a fine metaphor of re-triggered franchises, the viewer of the old and the viewer of the new – like Commander Spock, both here right now in space but stuck back in time.
G.I. Joe, unlike Trek and Sherlock, is a first stab at making a live-action movie of the product, and it esteemably succeeds. It is patient with the audience’s expectations for insightful, fucked-up action. The Joes are indeed like a rambling team out of Howard Hawks, and it seems natural that Paris, France should end up so fantastically sacrificed. Your author and co-viewer Q.R. Markham were half-inspired to dig out from the basement their action figures to re-enact Storm Shadow fighting Snake-Eyes.
The ending of each of these flicks anticipates that the real villain is yet to come, for a sequel pending box office returns (like Batman Begins) - Klingons, Prof. Moriarty, and Cobra Commander. Obama is positioned similarly against his given enemies.
Antichrist (Lars von Trier)
Couples Retreat (Peter Billingsley, the kid from A Christmas Carol).
So much of each movie mimics the other. Modern married couples retreat to "Eden" to work on their marital issues. Eden is mysterious, not what it seems, a dreadful remote area in nature puppeteered by an occult force (whether the subconscious or the French). The couples confront one another in the bare nude, a certain occluded horniness makes friction. But the viewer feels like Willem Dafoe, the character “He,” with a concrete wheel nailed into his leg and dragging himself into a tree-hole, as Vince Vaughn waxes again and again like an animatronic wolf on the dumbest assumptions of love and happiness. Retreat from the Anti-Couples!
Avatar (James Cam)
District 9 (Neil Blomkamp)
The transport of human consciousness is treated by these three movies. As the decade ends they provide the working boilerplate for movies to come in the next. The idea of "the new human" is not new, and has been informing sci-fi literature for a good part of the 20th century. But this theme might not have been accessible to the popcorn & pretzel-bites date-night multiplex crowd until they themselves had been soft-wired and pod-plugged to the squibby neurolexoid. And the movies lay on heavy the Commando gearhead gunnery - no matter the supertechnic advancements in information science upon which the flicks are premised, the army is suberbly raunched out for blood-and-guts combat. The mix of multi-dimensional camera technology, soldier-of-fortune hardware, and bowlderized social messages is what moviegoers should expect to be shoved into theaters as if unprecedented in the following ten years, as the technical takes the prestige awards. Observe & Report could somehow too be a presage...
In Gamer, one “games” via humanoid marionette: entering the mental and motor skills of another individual, in video game format, and sending that individual, if male, into the virtual killzone, and if female, the fuckzone. But the locales are dark and confusingly placed, and though the filmmakers seem to want to embed the viewer right up the crazy shit, the hyper-reality is so generically vague that the melodrama fizzes. Any surreal saving grace is effected when Dexter inexplicably does a dance number to "Puttin On The Ritz."
Avatar and District 9 both end with the protagonist accepting full transformation into an alien species, and the viewer is led to believe that the character is better for it. The aliens in both movies are symbols of third-world refugees, indigenous peoples, noble savages. In District 9, the aliens are immigrants; in Avatar, they are the occupied aborigines. In both, the bad army guys are inglorious bastards hellbent to oppress, enslave, plunder and kill. James Cameron has the U.S. marines blown away as seemlessly as Los Angeles cops in The Terminator.
Avatar gives up on humanity in a way that WALL-E did not. District 9 plays with audience empathy by making the protag both a victim and a racist, but the movie soon drops its Ideas in favor of a pile of hinge-less, febrile action scenes. In Avatar, the hero begins as a spy for the "Jarhead Clan" but ends up siding with the tree-huggers after he is forged into the cosmic consciousness. As the furtively applicable scrivener Q.R. Markham remarks, the scenes on Pandora look like the 1970s psychedelic album covers of Yes, "mountains come out of the sky." Let's hope, that if James Cameron wins an Oscar, he gives thanks in Na'vi language, so that it would be known no one really understands what Hollywood is trying to say.
The Box (Richard Kelly).
Like Antichrist, a couple undergoes a supernatural harrows to test the truths of their marriage. Not without sacrifice in both the here and hereafter, the lovers pass the test. But humanity, at large, fails the test. Frank Langella, with a 1920s bowler and jowl gnashed by a freak accident at NASA, is the proctor of moral disarmament, the messenger of an unknown, alien agency that is embodied by what happens if the couple pushes the button on the box. Richard Kelly's twilight-zoned mythology draws from Arthur C. Clarke and Jean-Paul Sartre, with a provocative period soundtrack involving the Grateful Dead and Scott Walker. The husband is chased through the old Library by a phalanx of menacing citizens (looking like the type of people who typically, often creepily, lurk the stacks and reading rooms), and is given a choice of three mystically aqueous portals, one of which will save, the others will damn. Luckily, the husband has been provided with hints by the zombie-eyed busboys at his father-in-law's country club, who hold up two fingers like a Nixonian Christ Pantocrator - he picks the second door. All the while, Cameron Diaz lugs around a club foot.