MCN Columnists
Leonard Klady

By Leonard Klady

The Eye of the Navel 2008

(Something Like a Top 10 List)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Compiling a “best of” list reflects one’s mood on the day of doing the deed. The films most recently seen are advantaged because one’s had less time to ruminate about their qualities.

Today I’m feeling more magnanimous than usual and have made a list that runs to a baker’s dozen. Ironically, only a handful are films that I consider truly distinguished but the rest fall a rung below and spill over the obligatory minion that has become the standard.

So without further adieu…

Appaloosa: There’s no better genre than the western when it comes to providing a metaphor of our times and in filmmaker-performer Ed Harris’s yarn one can taste the bitterness of America under someone who believes he is the law. There’s a mighty thin line between the lawmen (Harris and Viggo Mortensen in a sterling performance) and the cattle baron (Jeremy Irons) they’re trying to reign in. It’s a familiar tale told with some novel twists, an excellent cast and impeccably rendered with kudos to cinematographer Dean Semler.

The Class: A year in the life of a high school teacher in a tough Parisian neighborhood of working poor and immigrants. Based upon a book by Francois Begaudeau who plays someone like himself; it’s shot in the manner of a documentary with a cast of non-professionals. The film — which won Cannes top prize — is intentionally ragged but that serves director Laurent Cantet’s intent ideally. One cannot walk away without feeling somewhat pessimistic about the educational system and the best intentions of “good” teachers to motivate their charges.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story about a man born old who regresses over the years into a baby has stymied filmmakers for decades. Screenwriter Eric Roth found a way to work with the basic premise and create a tragic romance and poignant biography. The digital makeup effects are artful but the true special effect is the sleight-of-hand direction by David Fincher, which makes the material emotionally compelling and personal.

Edge of Heaven: Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin concocts a thriller that weaves together the lives of dislocated Turks and Germans as well as assimilated folk who nonetheless feel the pull of heritage. All the characters are searching for someone or something and ultimately it’s their need to discover that’s paramount rather than any revelation or unlocked secret. The characters invariably learn something valuable even if it’s not what either they or we anticipated.

Frozen River: There’s an unexpected quality to this film that comes from the simple fact that it has a genuine independent spirit when so many films are masquerading as alternative fare. The unusual tale of a woman who winds up ferrying illegal immigrants across the Canadian border and the bond she develops with a Native American accomplice. It’s raw and honest with a riveting performance by Melissa Leo.

: There’s something almost magical aboutMike Leigh’s look at the giddy disposition of Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a thirtyish single school teacher who refuses to go to the dark side. Largely anecdotal and anti-narrative, the film nonetheless has a fierce logic lodged in the characters she encounters. And it runs the marathon of contemporary dilemmas as if it were nothing more than a sprint.

Man on Wire: In 1974, French wirewalker Philippe Petit and some conspirators infiltrated the World Trade Center, strung a rope across its twin towers and put on a show. You might call it an act of artistic terrorism and James Marsh’s documentary treats the moment with a rare combination of fun and gravitas. Petit and his crew are colorful and possessed and through interviews and archival footage it becomes the same sort of grand gesture it’s attempting to chronicle.

My Winnipeg: Trust me when I say that Guy Maddin’s psychodocumentary of growing up in the cold and rigor of Manitoba gets it right by sticking to the emotional truth. The iconoclastic filmmaker cannot help but create a visually striking landscape that taps into deeply universal hopes and fears. It’s his least arcane film and one senses that his grasp of the bizarre isn’t really very much out of step with the mainstream.

Rachel Getting Married: The wedding of the daughter mom (and dad) always liked best has all the earmarks of a romantic comedy staple. And while’s there’s humor in Jenny Lumet’s script, there’s also plenty of gut wrenching drama in this contained family tale. Jonathan Demme bounces between highs and lows with plenty of musical bridges to span the divide and if it dips into the glib and sentimental at times, it’s a temporary and forgivable diversion quickly rectified.

The Secret of the Grain: Though it doesn’t open commercially until next year, this film has been omnipresent on the festival circuit. Besides it was the best film I saw last year. At its core it’s about a North African man who’s worked the French shipyards for decades and is pushed into forced retirement. But he still feels vital and pursues a dream of opening a restaurant on an old freighter. Drawing on the type of power John Cassavetescaptured in everyday lives and the drama of anecdote, it’s a searing, funny odyssey with pitch perfect intimacy and transcendent power.

Slumdog MillionaireDanny Boyle finds something universal in an Indian orphan’s sudden notoriety as a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. It’s a novel format that allows an insight into the life of the poor minorities, exploitation and gangsterism as well as an explanation for his quiz show knowledge. It’s also admittedly manipulative and rife with plot coincidence but the filmmaker’s sheer filmmaking acumen smoothes over much of the narrative with a dynamic visual and montage style.

Wall-E: For the cognoscenti this tale of a robot in a post-Apocalyptic future could well be a sequel to 1971’s Silent Running. Both films suffer somewhat from sentimental conclusions but the animated entry is so full of life and invention it’s easy to forgive the soft landing. The message of hope isn’t over played and the contrast of arid city landscapes against a ray of sunshine has an artistic poignancy this year’s live action movies could desperately afford.

The Wrestler: Though the saga of a bruiser who can’t quite cope with the prospect of a dimming spotlight is specifically set, one can see its wider implications in Mickey Rourke’s performance. It’s not quite the psychodrama of Jean Claude Van Damme’s role in JCVD but in a year of such notable performances as Sean Penn in Milk andBenecio Del Toro in Che, this trumps all challengers. It’s surprisingly touching and non-judgmental about a realm so easily prone to cheap shots. The balance of desperation and dignity is ideal and one can’t help but be drawn into the story.

December 27, 2008

– by Leonard Klady

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon