The Dark Knight might be the best film of the year, but the independent world remains interesting with Frozen River, Man on Wire and Baghead.
I love The Dark Knight, but I'm intentionally putting it lower on the list in the hopes that maybe you'll take a moment or two to gander at some of the lesser-known titles above it. Lots of challenging, engaging films there – and down at the very bottom, there's a fun rental suggestion.
Frozen River (Sony Pictures Classics)
Discussing types of movies that are hard to watch, a friend was telling me that she has a tough time with narratives driven by characters who make one bad/awful decision after another – she used Before the Devil Knows You're Dead as an example. She's not going to like Frozen River, which is all about bad decisions, but it's intentional – writer-director Courtney Hunt wants us to see how poverty, racism, broken families and addiction all contribute to a downward spiral of bad decisions because, frankly, there's no good decisions available. This Sundance winner is the sort of barebones regional film – like, say, In Between Days – that is so sparse that what isn't said is in some ways more important than the thin (though gripping) plotline about two contentious women brought together to make some money smuggling illegal aliens from Canada into the state of New York. Hunt is nicely restrained about the thematic points she's trying to make – not only is this movie a ripped-from-the-headlines story about illegals, its discussion of the desperation of the lower class would make for great campaign fodder if Frozen River ever got a high-enough visibility for anyone to notice. The film is grimly gripping, and the performances by Melissa Leo, Misty Upham and Charlie McDermott are all superb, but there is a little of a stacked deck going on here that dragged down my experience. No question that these people live unhappy, marginal lives, and for the most part Hunt doesn't get precious about that – she allows them to be miserable, mean people. But as the story moves along, some of her characters' bad decisions didn't necessarily feel like a product of their personalities or lot in life – it's Hunt making sure we get it. And when the story is this barebones, even the slightest wrong step is harder to hide.
Baghead (Sony Pictures Classics)
You know, The Puffy Chair was pretty audacious in its own way, too – you take the typical romantic-comedy road movie and you make something meaningful (and really funny) out of it. That's not easy. What they've done as a follow-up is even less easy: the comedy-horror, in that order. It's hard to talk about this film without giving away stuff that's not fair to give away, but I'll say that the Duplass Brothers have made a critical mistake since their charming debut – they're starting to buy their own hype. Baghead is in no small part a critique of the American indie-film culture – its festivals, its pretensions, its pointless movies. There's some juice in there, but the brothers aren't quite wise enough to transcend the world they're a part of (and that, by the way, adores them). Baghead’s four aspiring-actor characters aren't dolts, but if their petty problems are meant to be a riff on the anonymous 20-somethings who usually get knifed to death in slasher films, it's not a very clever point. Still, I'm more convinced now that the Duplass Brothers are legitimately talented – this is a weird movie that keeps twisting your emotions in unexpected ways, challenging the way your typical rom-com makes you feel. At worst, Baghead is a little too clever for its own good. No, that's not what would be the worst – the worst would be if people think it's genius.
Man on Wire (Magnolia Pictures)
In the last few years, I've noticed that I've developed a fear of heights – I can't stand near windows on high floors, and I occasionally even get an involuntary shake when I'm in that situation. So I don't know how normal people will react to the documentary Man on Wire, but I have to admit it was a harrowing experience for me. Watching that impish Frenchman Philippe Petit, who had previously done his high-wire act in Sydney and Paris, walk across the Twin Towers, I've rarely had the sensation of being almost sick with worry for an event whose happy outcome was already known. Director James Marsh’s film gets a little bogged down in the telling of how Petit and his team sneaked into the World Trade Center in 1974 to pull off their feat – Petit talks about it like it was a heist, and accordingly Marsh shoots the recreations in moody docudrama black-and-white to reflect that tone – but the payoff is the actual wire walk. Marsh is very fortunate that Petit's team documented their adventure so thoroughly at the time – we’re treated to beautiful photographs of the walk and lots of behind-the-scenes filming of their planning meetings. Without it, Man on Wire would be more indebted to recreations, which are a tricky proposition to pull off. But, seriously, the movie kinda wrecked me.
The Dark Knight (Warner Bros. Pictures)
While I knew pretty instantly that I thought this movie was extraordinary – just as I knew it had its flaws – I needed a few days to let the whole experience wash over me so I could really digest it. Tonally, yes, it's dark, but the more I thought about it, I couldn't think of another film that could match the bleakness of its post-9/11 subtext. By comparison, No Country for Old Men is downright jokey, Cloverfield just a monster movie with rich kids. The Dark Knight starts out tense and only gets tenser, but I don't get the people who complain this thing is joyless. The great adage that no good movie is depressing fits perfectly here – because the movie is thrillingly and smartly done throughout, the immense pleasure one gets is from director Christopher Nolan's confidence in his visuals, characters, and themes. Batman Begins had but two flaws – Katie Holmes was a waste and Nolan wasn't yet much of an action director. With those two problems gone, The Dark Knight's only limitation is that its last 30 minutes aren't as expertly executed as everything that came before – which is just about one of the most complete two hours of studio filmmaking I've seen in some time. And even when the story eventually bogs down in a poorly orchestrated action sequence and some thematic repetitions, it still manages to find just the right ending – one that subverts audience expectations for a big comic-book showdown but honors the character development that's been built beautifully over the 150 minutes. We'll never know if Heath Ledger's performance would have been so astounding if he was still alive, but what's there on the screen is a horrifying portrait of evil without explanation – the embodiment of the unknowable terror we read all over the news and wonder how it can exist. You know how people praise Pixar movies by saying that they're so good that little kids stop talking and just sit there quietly watching the movie? Well, my opening night fanboy audience was exactly the same. They cheered at the appropriate moments, but for the most part, they were silent – soaking in the complexity of the story and the expertise of the telling. And when it was over, they went nuts – with a reaction more impassioned than anything that happened at the end of Iron Man or that inert Indiana Jones movie. This is a major filmmaking achievement, and one of the great compliments to Nolan is that it's so good people feel the need to nitpick so passionately about it afterward. There are so many layers here that it invites such deep analysis. The biggest complaint about the movie is that it's not perfect – and that's only because it gets so damn close to achieving the impossible.
Boarding Gate (Magnolia DVD)
In the fine scuzzy tradition of Femme Fatale, Boarding Gate is a tawdry sex thriller that has more going on thematically than it's given credit for. That few can see the film's deeper ambitions is all due to its star, Asia Argento – she's not Jell-O on springs, more like sex with an accent. I'm not convinced Argento's performance completely works as a former prostitute who may or may not be in love with two very different, very bad men, but it's sure something – not just the nudity but the way she splays her emotions when the situation requires. (Not surprisingly, the emotion-splaying and nudity often go hand in hand here.) Writer-director Olivier Assayas has made a thriller that's half Contempt and half Mamet, without the intellectual chilliness of the former or the talk talk talk of the latter. And not to always pick on Tarantino, but Boarding Gate does demonstrate how you can pull off the woman-seeking-revenge film and still retain an empathetic, mysterious edge. The plot doesn't make much sense – part of the film's fun is trying to figure out what the characters mean to each other and what's afoot, but that doesn't mean it's not all a bit murky. Like with Femme Fatale, part of me knows that this is just a silly, sexy squiggle of a film. But just because it appears to be empty-headed, that doesn't mean it's stupid.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.