Sunday, January 24, 2010

524 - You Aught to Know - Aaron McNally

The challenge of writing a piece like this, for me, is that I’m always second-guessing myself. Is that really the best film that this director made over the entire decade? Can you really expect people to believe that this movie can withstand serious criticism? Why don’t you have a single film by such-and-such a director, who put out three titles, each of which received critical acclaim and/or won awards, and each of which you liked watching (i.e. Sofia Coppola or Michel Gondry)? And finally, how can you actually cut it down to ten? What room does that leave you?

Yet the assignment is to go with one’s favorites and, because of this, I have to go with my gut. I’m listing ten pictures that call to me fondly (or continue to trouble me), despite my time away from them, and because of my repeated viewings of them. But what about those films that you saw and loved and still refer to fondly in conversation, but which you never bought on DVD? What if a second viewing proved to you that it was, in fact, your favorite picture of all time?

Okay, okay, settle down. This is list I’m making for a friend’s blog. History, I hope, isn’t going to judge me too severely for any of these reminiscences. Let the cards fall where they may, and let the next decade show us what we will continue to love over our years to come. And don’t make too much of how I rank the films by number. Unlike my good friend James, I do not have objective criteria for grading.

And with that, ladies and gentlemen and members of other gender communities, Aaron McNally will now proceed to surprise you with:

1. I'm Not There, Todd Haines, 2007

2. The Darjeeling Limited, Wes Anderson, 2007

3. Broken Flowers, Jim Jarmusch, 2005

4. I Heart Huckabees, David O. Russell, 2004

5. Adaptation, Spike Jonze, 2002

6. No Country for Old Men, Ethan and Joel Coen, 2007

7. There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007

8. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, Martin Scorsese, 2005

During one of those years back there someone said something about it being the year of the documentary. Michael Moore was a household name (whether or not you can call his propaganda true documentary). When I lived in Milwaukee, 2003-6, I must’ve seen fifteen documentaries in the movie theatre. I did not see this documentary in the movie theatre. I saw at home, on PBS, over two Sunday evenings. Thanks PBS. And thanks Martin Scorsese. I didn’t put The Departed or Gangs of New York on my list, though I loved them, Marty—but I haven’t forgotten you. You directed the concert film The Last Waltz that depicted The Band’s last concert so long ago, which also featured an appearance from Bob Dylan, and you’re still making good movies today.

Like The Departed and Gangs, this is a movie about cultural upset and conflict. It happens, simply, to follow a single character throughout that turmoil. Dylan is depicted as being a wonderful mind and talent, yet its the diversity of the array of characters that comment on him that make the film come alive, as well as the diverse array of stock footage that characterizes the different scenes in which Dylan’s mind buzzed about. Ken Burns set the precedent for this sort of film and Scorsese’s team does a nice job. Tip o’ the Hat to Pennebaker, too, for filming a lot of that old performance and interview footage.

But it is, in the end, a movie about Dylan—and a great one. Dylan’s insatiable desire for expression is evident throughout, made more intense by the film’s treatment of time. In the beginning of the film, we are introduced to Dylan playing violently and aggressively before a booing audience—1965 or 66, as he toured in support of his album Highway 61 Revisited, the year he faced the greatest hatred from purist fans for having “gone electric” or “commercial,” depending on who you talk to. Then it jumps back to his boyhood and show the ascent into that complexity, all the while building into the political problems that challenged the nation, and in which Dylan was personally and professionally entwined. The title, then, which comes from Dylan’s song from the aforementioned album, “Like a Rolling Stone,” becomes a symbolical idea as Dylan leaves his rural mid-west to build a new home in the New York City folk music culture, only to light out of that home as well for yet another odyssey.

But this movie isn’t for everybody. I got to pick favorites for this list, and pick favorites I did. As Joan Baez says of Dylan in the film--if you don’t get him, there’s nothing there. You feel no guilt in ignoring him. If you do get him, however, there’s something so deep within him it’s troubling. Perhaps the same thing could be said of this documentary.

9. Shopgirl, Anand Tucker, 2005

This film begins with a spectacular introduction in which a department store’s treasures are depicted as though Saks Fifth Avenue were a fantastic wonderland. The film then proceeds to dismantle the allure of material wealth, bit by bit. It is a moral tale, an unpopular genre by current standards, and I found it very moving. I read one review in which the critic complained that she couldn’t stand watching Steve Martin stare at Claire Danes for such long periods of time, a valid complaint. Yet it was a complaint that reinforces the effectiveness of the film. I couldn’t stand it either and it was supposed to be troubling, if not annoying.

Martin found himself in the enviable place of being his own adaptor of his own novel, and he also got a chance to allow himself to play one of the leading roles. If not autobiography, this film allowed a certain opportunity to imagine some of the concerns of the famously unwed and aged star, who made such an unmistakable mark on American film and comedy in the seventies that some of us continue to be fascinated by him despite his vastly different output over the past two decades. Martin has grown robust, and this small but effective film is yet another trace of a great mind hovering over the horizon Los Angeles.

10. Napoleon Dynamite, Jared Hess, 2004

I have seen this film a dozen times and, with full empathy for those who merely find it a childish bit of bric-a-brac, I continue to love it. While the film does not function as a complete narrative (despite the grand successes of Kip’s marriage and Pedro’s election as student body president), it functions brilliantly as a serious of comedic vignettes. The character acting is wonderful (which is a testament to writer/director Hess—how could an actor make Pedro so quiet, or refine the subtleties of Uncle Rico’s narcissistic character without great writing and a watchful director?) and it is intensified by careful and attentive (and hilarious!) costume and set design.

The adage goes that a good movie puts one in the mood to see it, and this movie did just that, from the child-like beginning in which, like a movie of another era, we are introduced to the names of the cast and crew before we see the film (with Jack White warningly assuring us that “[He] can tell that we are gonna be friends”), to the hilarity of the opening bus scene. I did not expect to love this film, but it called to me and converted me.

I first saw the film at an independent theatre in Milwaukee, not really knowing what it was. I’d simply seen the poster outside and wanted to see a matinee. You can imagine my surprise when I entered a theatre in which I was the only inhabitant above the age of fourteen. Picture me there, among my younger classmates in the audience, as I suddenly see Napoleon alone on stage, facing us, his judging peers, as a silent but palpable anxiety consumes him. Picture me, bewildered, as we begin to hear what sounds like late seventies soul/funk (actually a much more contemporary recording by Jamiroquai—another savvy soundtrack choice), as we begin to watch an entire dance sequence performed by a single person, uninterrupted on the wide screen.

This scene did what we often wish cinema would do more often—it transported me. It uplifted me. It made me think differently about my own high-school experience. And it made me see the world with a different (and more jovial) eye as I left the theatre.

Aaron McNally has a master's in English Literature from the University of Northern Iowa. His book of poetry, Out of the Blue, is quite lovely.

Previously on You Aught to Know: 42-43

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