Wednesday, December 30, 2009

20 Guilty Pleasures (2000-2009)

I admit that I generally dislike the term “guilty pleasure.” It seems to derive from the puritanical belief that one must feel bad about experiencing pleasure, which is something I have spent years attempting to leave behind from my religious past. Yet I cannot think of a more appropriate term for some of the films listed here, which I often find myself admiring for reasons that are not really defensible theoretically but are more associated with my personal life, my sense of humor, or my libido (or perhaps, more accurately, a mix of all three). Of course, being the academic that I am, I will probably attempt to offer some legible justifications for these films’ inclusion, but don’t let that fool you: sometimes it’s just about sex.

Angel-A (Luc Besson, 2005)

I’m not sure what happened, but for some inexplicable reason Besson’s return to France after making a string of Hollywood action films inspired him to craft this leisurely paced and tenderly executed love story between a loser (the wonderful Jamel Debbouze) and an angel (Femme Fatale’s Rie Rasmussen), which also seems to me—in its supernatural themes and stunning black-and-white cinematography—a bawdy, much-needed parody of Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire.

Black Book (Paul Verhoeven, 2006)

In lieu of the historical travesties of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Verhoeven’s ambiguous treatment of World War II seems a relatively serious-minded and grown-up alternative—even if much of the film’s pleasure owes less to its moral worldview than to the alluring presence of Carice van Houten, who gives one of the sexiest film performances since Carole Lombard was charming Nazis in Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be.

The Brothers Grimm (Terry Gilliam, 2005)

Most everyone claims this to be one of Gilliam’s more compromised and muddled efforts, including Gilliam himself, but there is still enough of the filmmaker’s singular vision here to make up for the occasionally awkward pacing, not to mention some fine, energetic performances from Peter Stormare (as a grotesque torturer with a heart of gold) and Heath Ledger (much better, and funnier, than his stint as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s overrated The Dark Knight).

Burn After Reading (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2008)

In recent years I’ve become less enthusiastic about the Coen brothers’ formalist brand of filmmaking, which seems to implicitly deny cinema’s relationship to (and consequently its potential to say anything substantial about) reality, but much of what I like about this outrageous character-oriented comedy is the self-awareness it possesses of its own limitations as a meaningful statement about anything, which includes a godlike J.K. Simmons watching over the proceedings in an appropriately clueless stupor.

Click (Frank Coraci, 2006)

As some critics have rightly noted, this Adam Sandler star vehicle veers into much darker terrain than its marketing campaign might suggest, but what I find particularly endearing about Coraci’s film is its apparent obliviousness that its own existence—infantile humor and all—is actually part of the technologically-driven culture it is supposedly critiquing, which is especially evident in the way the DVD’s own menu system is patterned exactly after Sandler’s “life” menu system from the movie. In other words, this may just be the best subconsciously Brechtian film of the decade.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, 2008)

Much like the Hollywood auteurs of the 1950s—championed by the critics of Cahiers du cinema—who had to filter their personal visions through the demands of the U.S. studio systems, one may have to look past Fincher’s occasionally weak choices of scripts to realize his status as one of great visual innovators working in the film industry today, as this ludicrously written yet beautifully composed feature illustrates. Given our tendency to overemphasize narrative within a medium that works primarily through image and sound, the effort made to separate Fincher’s distinctly cinematic talents from his other working materials is itself a rewarding exercise.

Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)

Given its status as the token French film cited as a favorite by people who don’t typically watch French films (well, at least until the Oscars introduced the U.S. to La Vie en rose), I should be disqualified from enjoying Jeunet’s charming, imaginative comedy, but I actually find its attentiveness to life’s simple pleasures fairly irresistible. And those who criticize the film for depicting an overly glamorous view of France (or, for that matter, that it fosters a misguided belief that every French girl acts and looks like Audrey Tautou) clearly do not respect viewers’ ability to discern between fantasy and reality.

The Far Side of the Moon (Robert Lepage, 2003)

I’ve only recently become acquainted with French-Canadian filmmaker Lepage, but I admit I’m a sucker for his sincere kind of psychoanalytic self-inspection as presented here, especially in its pretentious yet heartfelt connections to Russian space travel, the moon, and extraterrestrial life—topics that a certain good friend has helped me to appreciate in the last year. Lepage is also very funny in a neurotic manner that suggests Woody Allen, but with more visual grace and less lazy intellectualism.

Fay Grim (Hal Hartley, 2006)

Hartley’s misunderstood sequel to Henry Fool is a slyly subversive deconstruction of the very concept of “sequel”—where nearly the entire first third of the film consists of characters self-consciously making references to Hartley’s previous feature—before developing into a hilarious, extremely straight-faced parody of the espionage thriller, with some of the better straight faces being contributed by Jeff Goldblum and Parker Posey.

Femme Fatale (Brian De Palma, 2002)

I wouldn’t consider myself a fan of De Palma (considering my feelings about a few particular films of his, this is a major understatement), but I find this meta-thriller’s first twenty minutes—which depicts a very sexily executed gold heist at the Cannes Film Festival—to be one of the most exciting expressions of pure cinematic formalism this side of Guy Maddin’s The Heart of the World. Unfortunately, from there the film only regresses into De Palma’s usual bag of misanthropic tricks, but the guilt-free playfulness of the opening sequence is sure fun while it lasts.

Heaven (Tom Tykwer, 2002)

Like De Palma and the Coen brothers, Tykwer often allows his genuine talents as a filmmaker to be offset by his apparent disregard for his characters, so it’s fascinating to see how his handling of an unfilmed script by Krzysztof Kieslowski—part of a project the late Polish director was working on before his death—draws out true spiritual contemplation from this usually secular director. Indeed, one has to wonder if Kieslowski’s Catholic influence had something to do with Tykwer’s very Bressonian treatment of actors Giovanni Ribisiand and Cate Blanchett, too.

The Ice Harvest (Harold Ramis, 2005)

Not to harp on the brothers (I actually like The Big Lebowski, admire much of Barton Fink, and kind of adore Miller’s Crossing), but I can’t help but think that Ramis’s darkly comic post-heist film—his most assured feature since Groundhog Day—is something that the Coens would come up with if they toned down their caricatures and were less self-conscious stylistically. It’s a fine, modest example of what critic Manny Farber used to term “termite art” as well as an effective modern film noir that doesn’t simply replay genre conventions but updates them to a contemporary milieu.

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (Albert Brooks, 2005)

Brooks’s welcome return to form after losing some of his inspiration in The Muse is also the first time he’s explicitly played himself since Real Life (his debut and arguably best film), which allows Brooks to make humorous reflections on his own career amidst an equally sharp (and timely) critique on international relations between the U.S. and Islamic culture. Sometimes more painful than funny, it at least confirms that Brooks is still one of the sharpest and most self-effacing entertainers working in the film industry today.

My Blueberry Nights (Wong Kar-wai, 2007)

Like The Darjeeling Limited, Wong’s first English-language feature went largely unappreciated by critics who felt the director was simply treading old ground, yet what I appreciate the most here is this very refusal from Hong Kong’s most romantic filmmaker to alter his vision one bit despite the new cultural terrain. By seasoning the U.S. landscape—particularly its bars and coffee shops—with the same dreamy savor that he has given his own nation, Wong thereby offers this country his most generous, complimentary gesture.

OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d'espions (Michel Hazanavicius, 2006)

Hazanavicius’s very smart parody of the original series penned by Jean Bruce, as well as French snobbery in general, takes far more risks than the Austin Powers series in critiquing the sexism and xenophobia of its James Bond-like “hero”—a character who, despite the irresistible charisma of Jean Dujardin’s winning performance, never truly rises above his incredulous nature, particularly when he’s offering photos of the French president to every citizen in Egypt or beating up Islamic adhan-callers who interrupt his morning sleep.

Pumpkin (Anthony Abrams and Adam Larson Broder, 2002)

It’s not always easy to discern exactly what directors Abrams and Broder are trying to say in this risky, politically-incorrect farce about our culture’s discomfort over individuals with disabilities, but in many ways that’s part of the film’s effectiveness as social agitator—it’s at least a far more daring critique of Hollywood’s sentimental treatment of disability than Ben Stiller’s audience-friendly Tropic Thunder.

Rumba (Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, and Bruno Romy, 2008)

Thanks to the recommendation (not to mention generosity) of a good friend in France, I’ve only recently begun to appreciate the visually oriented talents of this filmmaking team, whose quirkability factor may make Wes Anderson look like a neorealist yet nevertheless possesses a universal appreciation of the world that reminds me of Tati, as is particularly evident in this charming ode to music and dance.

Southland Tales (Richard Kelly, 2006)

If the internet is the future, then Kelly’s madcap blend of news media, politics, science fiction, conspiracy theory, and sex jokes may just be an accurate depiction—complete with hyperlinks and irritating pop-up ads—of what the world will look, or at least feel like, in a few more years. Although it’s more descriptive than prescriptive (in this deliberate mess, Kelly’s problems are just as difficult to identify as his solutions), the film possesses a certain kind of chaotic audaciousness that filmdom hasn’t witnessed since William Klein’s schizophrenic 1969 film Mr. Freedom.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton, 2007)

I admit my longtime fondness for Sondheim’s grand guignol opera (and Sondheim in general) makes my enjoyment of this adaptation a rather nostalgic affair, but I also appreciate how some of Burton’s personal touches—his elimination of chorus numbers, use of unprofessional singers, and confinement to claustrophobic interiors—helps to make this one of the most naturalistic musicals since The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (even if the gloomy atmosphere and drained colors are a complete inversion of Jacques Demy’s vibrancy).

Undercover Brother (Malcolm D. Lee, 2002)

Unfairly pegged as just another Austin Powers clone, Lee’s satirical comedy is less a parody of James Bond—even less a parody of blaxploitation films—than a timely send-up of racial relations in the U.S., exhibiting a riotous but ultimately compassionate sense of humor that at times reminds me of Richard Pryor’s stand-up routines. In light of recent developments in the political stratosphere, its main premise—about a white conspiracy to stop a black man from running for president—today seems rather prescient.

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