Saturday, February 14, 2009

Antarctica and my top 20

Last night I watched Encounters at the End of the World, a documentary film that is up for an Academy Award but is probably going to lose to Trouble the Water (or possibly Man on Wire?) In Encounters..., Warner Herzog takes us to Antarctica and contemplates life, the planet Earth, human life, the end of human life, mistakes, survival, volcanoes, penguins, and more, plus what Antarctica tells us about these things, but he does it so subtly that at first you think you are just watching really amazing visuals of vastness. Then you realize, why shouldn't amazing visuals of vastness lead me to contemplate such things?

There's more than just the amazing visuals of vastness, however. There are also interviews with a lot of the folks who are there in Antarctica living at the McMurdo station and/or doing various kinds of research. These people rule. They're like, the ultimate off-the-beaten-path type. I ache to be among them. As one guy put it, you've got "PhDs washing dishes, linguists in a continent that has no languages..." All these travelers who needed something more than just strapping on a backpack and galavanting about Europe (or Southeast Asia...) And they got it.

I've said more than once and only half jokingly that I want to be the only person I know who first visits the other six continents and does Europe last. Honestly, for as long as I've wanted to go to Antarctica I've always held it as the farthest off dream goal, the one I'll surely need to make my first million before I can actually do it. This film has suddenly, irrevocably made me reconsider the impossibility of it.

Films. This week, inspired by Film Comment, Brian and I made our lists of the Top 20 Films of 2008. I will share them with you, countdown style. Maybe you will be able to guess my number one? Here we go, number twenty:

20. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
The best thing about this flick was Penelope Cruz as the wonderfully crazy Maria Elena, but the other performers such as Javier Bardem are also good, especially when they are interacting with her. Woody Allen is hit or miss for me, and I found the narration tiresome, but overall it's marvelously entertaining and really makes me want to go to Spain. (Right after Antarctica, of course.) It was one of the most artsy/earthy/travel-as-life-y depictions of Spain I've seen.

19. Happy-Go-Lucky
Mike Leigh is also hit or miss for me. I wasn't sure what to do with this film. It's so well-done, and it's so well-done-by-him: he plucks actors (and in particular here actresses) and tends them with his weird, understated, improvisational style, and they blossom. There is no plot (seriously - don't go looking for one). What's interesting about this movie is that it has many elements I often love in indie dramas: quirky, a freely moving pace that is the antithesis of action-flick-ratcheted-up pace, interesting visuals, performance-driven, unforgettable moments, makes you think. And yet, I didn't like it as much as an indie drama and I worry that the only reason I didn't is that it's a comedy. I'm the person who finds Poppy (Sally Hawkins' relentlessly chipper but also truly happy character) annoying. I'm totally the dark and brooding bookstore employee in the opening scene who just wants her to go away. So I have to be objective and realize this isn't a problem with the film; in fact, I daresay the film is telling me it's a problem with me!

18. The Reader
A lot of this film is blah-blah-blah post WWII blah blah formative sexual relationship blah blah horrible Nazi war crimes blah blah. Then all of a sudden it gets philosophical in unexpected ways and it gets really good. I liked it more than I thought I was going to, especially the law school seminar parts and the fact that it is kind of a meditation on literacy and human connection. Note to all captives to the mass media: yes, I think this film deserved a Best Picture nomination more than The Dark Knight.

17. Slumdog Millionaire
It's just fun. Well-crafted fun, although at the same time so serious, with poignant statements about society and wonderfully composed moments. But for the cringe-inducing "outhouse" scene early on, I might love it. (I literally had to close my eyes.) And yes, it makes me want to go to Mumbai, but I was already plotting my passage to India anyway.

16. Definitely, Maybe
Yes, after everything I just said I have now listed a random February romantic comedy above both The Reader and Slumdog. I am nothing if not a study in contradictions. Anyway, this movie so pleasantly surprised me! A friend had told me one of the three girlfriend characters reminded her of me, and then randomly two days later it was shown on my plane, so I had to watch it. I really liked it! I even got a little tear at the end! Both Ryan Reynolds and Abigail Breslin are delightful, and I absolutely LOVE stories about people figuring out what to do with their lives. Thumbs way up! (And the aforementioned character did remind me of me, too.)

Coming tomorrow: numbers 15 through 11.


Kim Diaz said...

I saw The Reader yesterday and it almost made me cry. I never thought I would feel so strongly about it. Leaving form aside for once, the content was a story about shame and secrets. It was about how your personal shame can feel more important than committing murder or not, about how secrets can handicap or destroy you, and how both can leave you vulnerable to being used or blackmailed by others. I think about how the Nazis were able to come to power by using the poor and the uneducated in this way. How much suffering and sadism could have been avoided if only for a bit more widespread literacy. Look at how she loved stories - no matter what personal hell you're going through, if you can read anything at all, it may take you out in your mind, show you ideas and possibilities, perspectives. Yet she had to stay trapped in her small world.

linda said...

I know - it's way more awesome than you think it will be, and all because it turns out to be this philosophical meditation on among other things the power of literacy and connection. It was quite good. I think the law professor said quite a lot in his few lines that also relate to this, about how we study and pretend we know things, but what do we really know ourselves? Do we understand society and what men do? "And women!" ... another totally intentional brief moment, when the one female law student reminds everyone under her breath that there is a woman among the gentlemen, also capable of great or terrible things.