Waltz With Bashir

Ari Folman’s friend Boaz is having terrible dreams, and Folman has a strange memory of the part he played in the Lebanese War in the early ’80s. Folman’s attempt to understand both dreams and clarify his memory turns into a journey through suppressed reality and the morality of war. Animated in a stark but beautiful style, this Israeli documentary is the best war film I saw this year. Through colorful, lucid but dreamlike animation Folman explores his suppressed war stories, but his narration and the interviews with other surviving soldiers grounds the story firmly in the real.

Current rating: 8.9 out of 10

Contributing factors: Stunning animation, a looping, recursive structure that puzzles out memory and meaning, and a real attempt at an honest telling of a terrible act of war.

Performance to savor: Ari Folman, who with his design and calm voice-over draws us into a puzzle of memory and morality.

CHUD.com pull quote: “The cure for post-traumatic stress disorder we’ve been looking for.”


Milk

Some will say that Gus Van Sant’s account of the life and achievement of Harvey Milk is too bound to the classic biopic structure. I say it legitimizes the biopic. In depicting the political rise of Milk, the first openly gay San Francisco City Supervisor, the movie takes very few chances. But that lets Sean Penn shine as the ebullient community leader. We focus on what he achieved, and how, rather than on Gus Van Sant’s telling of the tale. If there’s a criticism, it’s that the film stakes out much of the same ground covered by the excellent documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. But a dramatization can lend extra mythical qualities to a story, and if there’s any recent real drama that deserves to be preserved larger than life, it’s this one.

Current rating: 9 out of 10

Contributing factors: Van Sant’s patient hand; a recreation of period San Francisco which rival’s that of Zodiac; support from Emile Hirsch and Alison Pill; the refusal to make murderer Dan Brown’s motivations into something they weren’t.

Performance to savor: There are many, such as James Franco’s measured, caring companion and Josh Brolin’s jealous, upset Supervisor. But I keep coming back to Penn’s Milk, which both captures the spirit of the man and shatters the dour mold Penn has crafted for his screen performances in the last decade.

CHUD.com pull quote: “Vote Milk!”


Funny Games

In Michael Haneke’s 1997 film Funny Games, two polite, well-spoken and quite amoral young men menace a vacationing family with severe physical and psychological violence before sailing off into the sunset to do it again with new victims. This remake, also by Haneke, could be viewed as what happens to the next family…and that the young men’s actions are exactly the same is very much the point. The obvious question: why did this accomplished director remake his own 1997 film shot for shot? The obvious answer: because it is more relevant than ever. The boys commit atrocities for our pleasure, and Haneke doesn’t let us get off easily. But some can rest easy; if the setup doesn’t sound appealing, Haneke isn’t aiming the film at you.

Current rating: 9.0 out of 10

Contributing factors: Haneke’s unflinching, clinical eye. Michael Pitt’s best work. Forty ounces of pure courage from Tim Roth and Naomi Watts. Remote controls. John Zorn.

Performance to savor: The desperation of Tim Roth, of whom we haven’t seen enough in recent years.

CHUD.com pull quote: “I’ve never wanted so badly not to see what a movie refuses to show!”


Man On Wire

Art can claim territory meant for other purposes, and it can also reclaim that territory when it becomes locked into a specific context or meaning. Philippe Petit has been part of that process twice with respect to the World Trade Center in New York. In 1974 he strung a wire between the rooftops of the Twin Towers, and by dancing on it made them, if for only a few minutes, into something more than office buildings. By revisiting his stunt, he helps reclaim the Towers from the auspices of 9/11. James Marsh’s film, which blends interviews, recreations of loads of vintage footage, is a heist movie, a lively story about the power of art, and a wonderful piece of filmmaking.

Current Rating: 9.2 out of 10

Contributing factors: Petit’s contagiously energetic presence; the treasure trove of vintage footage showing his other stunts; Marsh’s eye for combining real and recreated footage to highlight both fact and imagination; the re-use of Michael Nyman’s scores originally written for Peter Greenaway movies.

Performance to savor: Petit is an obvious nomination, but for me it’s the original interview with one of the cops who met him at the top of the Towers. The flatfoot’s admission of wonder shows that Petit’s stunt had all the power he hoped it might.

CHUD.com pull quote: “You’ve never seen a high-wire act to match Man on Wire!”


The Wrestler

Raw, searing and disarmingly tender. Darren Aronofsky has built towards this movie since he debuted with Pi. His under-the-skin direction, voyeuristic tendencies and love for people on the fringe of society all come together, balanced almost to perfection. As the wrestler who has burned almost all of life’s bridges, Mickey Rourke commands the screen in a way he never did as a hot young leading man. Marisa Tomei matches his depth and intensity step by step. And Aronofsky looks on, never blinking as his camera eye urges understanding and compassion when their lives threaten to burn out.

Current Rating: 9.3 out of 10

Contributing factors: The stunning physicality of Rourke and Tomei. An oddly perfect hair-metal soundtrack. Bruce Springsteen’s closing tune. Maryse Alberti’s cinematography, which is close and inviting, but never invasive.  

Performance to savor: Mickey Rourke, who lays his soul bare.

CHUD.com pull quote: “Nothing is faked in this triumphant achievement!”