On the Year’s Best Pictures (pt. 2)
January 1, 2009
Months after seeing The Dark Knight I’m still trying to figure out some of its philosophical nuances, still trying to tease out the ways with which Nolan plays with our expectations, making us think he’s confirming them while all the while turning them inside out, burning them from the within like the firetruck blocking the road, forcing the police truck holding Harvey Dent below to Lower 5th street. It’s a potent symbol of the movie’s goal of reversals. In comic book mythology, Superheros generally represent agents of order while the villains are the agents of chaos, disrupting. But in The Dark Knight, the Joker is the true agent of order. He claims that everyone else is scheming and planning, when he’s the one who really needs things to go according to plan, who needs always to be four or five steps ahead of everyone else. It’s here that we see the brilliance of Ledger’s performance: he so smoothly speaks what we “know” going into the film that we end up adopting a Joker-esque or, if you will, Jaulknerian approach to the movie and fall into his hands like every else. Only on repeat viewings do we see the fissures in what he says, the implausibilities and incongruities of his words and thoughts. Only on repeat viewings do we notice the subtle foreshadowing of performances and mis-en-scene, hints of what’s going to happen buried deep within the film, things that appear one way on first viewing, but really signify something else. There’s some debate about whether or not Nolan is a great action director, and he may not be: the climactic battle is a blur, disorienting, and Batman’s first appearance isn’t anything special. But he’s the true master of the psychology of action, recognizing what it would actually mean, while capturing its beauty in pauses. The sweeping fall through Hong Kong is the year’s most wonderful image, and The Dark Knight the year’s best movie.
It faces some steep competition from The Wrestler. Darren Aronofsky famously developed an adaptation of Batman: Year One for many years before his Batman project was passed over in favor of Nolan’s. The Wrestler is the anti-Fountain, Aronofsky’s bloated, effects laden metaphysical investigation. Entertainment Weekly said that The Wrestler is “like Rocky made by the Scorsese of Mean Streets,” and that’s the most perfect encapsulation of Aronosky’s film that I can find. Like The Dark Knight, The Wrestler is about the tender humanity hiding behind larger than life figures. Rourke’s performance stays with you, the sound of his voice lingering behind, while his face shows the remnants of another more beautiful life. The Wrestler is also a brutal film. What Aronofsky actually shows you is tame by contemporary movie standards, but the tension he builds is almost unbearable. Requiem for a Dream is dominated by trick photography, to the point that a good friend of mine wondered aloud whether or not McG would have done as good a job. But now, with the cinema tricks (largely) pushed away, and the sensationalism of Requiem also rejected in favor of more intimate sufferings, Aronofsky has shown that he is one of the best directors in the world, and I don’t think it’s possible to even mention Aronofsky and McG without saying “lehavdl.”
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the best above-average movie you will ever see. The film is so beautiful, and such a monumental achievement, that you know as you’re watching it that this is easily one of the two or three best produced and best executed movies of the year. It is the “Best Picture” if you consider the award a production award. Like Aronofsky, David Fincher has long been a “showy” director, filling his movies with extravagant camera angles and other goodies. That is, until Zodiac, his visualization of fear and paranoia, that marked a significant growth for him as director (and it’s a “better” movie than Button, if we define better in terms of “goodness”). Benjamin Button is indeed a curious blend of an extremely visual style with the muteness of reaction. We know that there’s a tremendous amount of artifice that goes into the de-aging of Benjamin Button, but it’s a hidden artifice, appearing natural. Unfortunately, there are moments where Button moves into a self-consciously abstract style where the play with stylistics becomes heavy handed, marring the film’s subdued qualities, but thankfully these are kept to a minimum. Mostly Button‘s problems are the problem of its protagonist (and not those of its lead actor, who excels). Benjamin Button is a reactionary character, that is he responds to the ways everyone else perceives him and the things that people tell him. He lacks the impulse towards movement that often defines the primary characters of historical epics. It’s not an uninteresting experiment, but it harms the actual movie, ultimately holding it back.
Honorable Mention: The Visitor, Iron Man, In Bruges, Ballast