Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Can I get a witness?

So here’s a list of my favorite crime movies viewed over the past year. Obviously, it’s not just movies released this year. Also, I’m no film critic. Excuse pomposities, and galling examples of dumbheadedness.

1a.) A Prophet (dir. Jaques Audiard).

I saw this last night, so recent viewing may have skewed my perception in it’s favor. I also had very, very high expectations, usually the death knell for me loving a movie, and the film met them entirely. It’s a one-movie crime epic, comparable in that regard, though few others, to Goodfellas. The movie takes place almost entirely in a French prison, which it shows with rigor and clarity without wallowing in the more terrifying, specifically anally-terrifying, aspects. It charts the coming-of-age/losing-of-soul of a young Arab allied, at least initially, with the Corsican faction of the inmates. The central character makes a fully believable, notably tragic, and seemingly inevitable progression as he adapts, learns, and thrives in a prison setting. There is gritty realism. There are shots of ephemeral beauty. Two characters gain remarkable depth. There is little to no exposition. It’s 2 ½ hours long, and it felt half the length of Inception. It told an old story in a new-seeming way. I honestly think it probably sits somewhere in my top-10 of crime movies alongside Goodfellas, Godfather 2, Heat, Touch of Evil, Chinatown, Fargo, etc…

1b.) In the Bedroom (dir. Todd Field).

Shows a side of New England, namely Maine, that doesn’t make it to the movies often. Based on Andre Dubus’ excellent short story "Killings", the movie does the story one better by settling more deeply into the dissolution of a couple following a tragic murder. Out of any movie on this list, In the Bedroom will break your motherfucking heart. Tom Wilkinson kills it. Sissy Spacek kills it. Marissa Tomei, in the first role of her post-Vinny resurgence, kills it. The killings kill it. It takes the stuff of crime movies that are often handled with relative abandon –violence in general; murder in particular- and shows step-by-step the massive, bottomless human cost. While this is not at all a fun movie, it also doesn’t make you suffer for the sake of suffering. It’s not vicious, just very, very honest. If you missed it in 2001, or haven’t seen it since, it’s well worth rewatching. An honest-to-God American tragedy.

3.) Winter’s Bone (dir. Debra Granik)

All the things you’ve heard about it are true. It’s believably set in the Ozarks (at least as far as I can tell, which doesn’t mean much). It features a great performance by Jennifer Lawrence and a really solid supporting performance by John Hawkes (as Uncle Teardrop, who’s not in any way like Sol Starr). What I liked most about it, personally, is how it played against the book. I love the book Winter’s Bone, for the story (which remains), the protagonist (ditto), the setting (ditto), and the lyricism (totally gone). Sentence to sentence, Daniel Woodrell is one of the best crime writers on the scene today. The language he uses is arcane and immediate, like Cormac McCarthy but with fewer massive overreaches. The movie retains none of that lyricism. It’s grim. Really grim. If they had tried to retain it, I think it would have sentimentalized the setting, a huge error. Instead they let the cruel beauty of the wintertime Ozarks speak for itself, and got out of the way of a fine story.

4.) The Friends of Eddie Coyle (dir. Peter Yates)

Man, did I want to rate this one higher. First off, it’s based on my favorite Boston crime novel of all time (by George V. Higgins). Second, it’s set in grimy 70’s era Boston. Third, the accents are uniformly impressive, with stone-cold badass Robert Mitchum’s accent more believable than the accents of the entire Affleck clan, dirty Uncle Petey P. included. Fourth, it was directed by the guy who directed Krull. Fifth, it’s unglamorous, has no extraneous love story, does not lean on its location to add any coolness/relevance, and tells a straight, albeit depressing story (aka the exact opposite of The Town). And yet… it’s really dated, especially the Swedish erotica soundtrack that kicks in every time character Jackie Brown (Tarantino lifted the name) comes on-screen. I loved it a lot, but expectations were a killer in this case.

5.) Gomorrah (dir. Matteo Garrone)

Bringing the crime genre back to the motherland, Gomorrah depicts various apsects of the Camorra, the Neapolitan crime syndicate. Following five loosely-related narrative threads, Gomorrah proves that the gods won’t save you in Naples any more than they would in Baltimore. For purely touching moments, the “firing guns at the beach” scene is among my favorites from any movie I saw this year. Incredibly sad and claustrophobia-inducing while still managing to be a compelling watch.

Yr. Hon. Mentions


-The American (dir. Anton Corbijn)/Le Samourai (dir. Jean-Pierre Melville). When I recommended The American to my little sister, she said, “Yeah, it’s supposed to be great, if you like watching George Clooney do nothing for two hours”, a pretty true statement that could easily apply to Le Samourai. Both movies are impeccably stylish, inherently cool, and a little airless. I liked The American more, as it was a bit more romantic, and who can say no to heart-of-gold hooker cunnilingus (WHO?), but it's basically a toss-up asLe Samourai came first, set the template, and is terrifyingly clean. And seriously Clooney and Alain Delon are the answer to global warming.

-Pusher 2: With Blood On My Hands (dir. Nicholas Winding Refn) - Mads Mikkelsen is fantastic. I found myself rooting for him without any hope that, in the entertaining and repellent world of Pusher, hope was justified. Bonus points for showing the seedy underbelly of Denmark, where crime is ruthless and very pale.

-Red Riding Part 2: 1980 - Speaking of hopeless, the Red Riding trilogy. Each movie is flawed, but the middle installment works the best, I think, because it was only tangentially-related to the central story. The first was muffed by a lead who couldn’t carry the film (though he acquitted himself well in The Social Network), and the last got a little too “conspiracy is everywhere!” I also can’t love something that conforms to the “more gutter, more better” school of degradation in crime movies. I can tell you this, on the list of “potential vacation spots through time”, Northern England in the late 70’s/early 80’s has taken a nosedive.

-Inception (dir. Christopher Nolan) – The movie that finally proved that the internet is here to stay. It’s been beaten to death so I’ll only say this: every time I see a Nolan movie, or catch parts on t.v., I think, “Holy shit, I forgot how entertaining this movie is!” Then, ten minutes after its over, I’m left with a murky action aftertaste and little else. I don’t think it’s a compliment that Heath Ledger’s Joker was the most human aspect of any movie of his that I’ve seen. Which isn’t to say his movies aren’t a shit-ton o’ fun.

-Election (dir. Jonnie To) – Right up my alley, in that it deals a lot more with process than with bloodshed, and has two complex characters squaring off at its core, Election deals with the inner workings of Triad leadership in Hong Kong. Stylish and thoughtful, if at times a little dull. Any modern, urban crime movie in which the main weapon is a long knife? Word.

NEXT UP: Same thing, but with books.

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