Thursday, January 27, 2011

Solo men in dire straits

Now that I've revealed my favorite movie of 2010, I can freely discuss a recent pattern in my movie preferences.

For the second year in a row, I've awarded my top spot to a movie that's been carried almost exclusively by a single actor.

A single actor up shit creek, at that.

Last year, the weight of my favorite movie, Moon, fell on Sam Rockwell's shoulders. This year, 127 Hours was in the capable hands -- so to speak -- or arms -- so to speak -- of James Franco.

And boy did they knock my socks off.

I'm assuming you know plenty about 127 Hours. Not only is the subject ostentatious enough to have gotten your attention, even if the film was not otherwise on your radar, but both the film and its lead just got nominated for Oscars. (I did a little fist pump when 127 Hours was announced as one of the best picture nominees, because some conventional wisdom had The Town claiming that spot -- which would have been fine with me, if it weren't coming at the expense of the best movie of the year.)

But let me explain to you a little bit about Moon, if you don't know about that one. Moon is the story of an astronaut (Rockwell) who's the only human on a lunar base, with only a computer (voice of Kevin Spacey) to provide companionship. The base is owned by a lunar mining company, which employs humans for three-year stints. Rockwell's Sam Bell is in the final two weeks of his own three-year stint, and is starting to get just a little bit batty. But when he takes a patrol vessel out to examine some damaged mining equipment, things take a turn for the ... surreal. To say anything more than that would be a disservice to those who haven't seen it. (And if you're in that group, by all means, get out there and watch it.)

I'm trying to figure out what impresses me so much about these movies and these performances -- why I'm drawn to them at the expense of other films. I'm sure part of it has to do with the basic commitment shown by the actors. Put another way, I'm impressed by how hard it is for them to do the thing they're charged with doing: keeping us entertained for the better part of two hours, without an assist from any other performers. Both Moon and 127 Hours do have other actors who appear sporadically, but they are mostly either in video transmissions or dreams/hallucinations. At the core, Rockwell and Franco have been given the responsibility of engrossing us, all by themselves, and they each hit the ground running.

But I'm also wondering if this is a broader thing for me, something that stretches back longer than the last two years. Moon and 127 Hours are distinctive for their lack of other actors, but the character type may be something I've been rewarding for longer than that. And once you expand the definition of a "solo man," you can go back most of the last decade.

Each of the films I've crowned as my best film of the year -- dating all the way back to 2002 -- have a strong performance by the lead male, playing a character known for his loneliness and isolation, or more generously, his independence. Shall we take a look?

2008 - The Wrestler. Mickey Rourke's Randy "The Ram" Robinson is definitely approaching the twilight of his career -- and possibly of his life, if you look at those heart issues -- alone. He lives in a trailer, and his life is comprised of benign but disinterested neighborhood kids, co-workers in the wrestling industry who are more acquaintances than friends, and the occasional stripper who makes the mistake of being nice to him. He's trying to reach out to his estranged daughter as a last-gasp effort not to die alone.

2007 - There Will Be Blood. Daniel Day-Lewis' Daniel Plainview is a self-made man in every respect of the word. Not only does he not need anyone else, but he imagines it would weaken him to let anyone get close enough to him to take the credit for his achievements. His natural suspicion of others and their motives further alienates anyone who might wish him well. In fact, after bearing at least partial responsibility for the deafening of his adopted son, he sends him away, widening the gap between himself and other human beings.

2006 - Children of Men. Although the quest to safely shepherd the first pregnant woman in 20 years is, in its most essential form, a collaborative effort shared by a handful of dedicated individuals, Clive Owen's Theo Faran is essentially bearing this burden himself. He's carrying the weight of his own dead child, and as the story progresses, the others who have tenuous connections to him start slipping out of the picture as well. In many ways he is the portrait of loneliness, doing his stoic duty in the public eye, but bursting into floods of uncontrollable emotion in private.

2005 - Hustle & Flow. Terrence Howard's D-jay is surrounded by prostitutes of varying levels of loyalty, but he is a fiercely independent man who has carved his own world out of his own raw materials. His quick temper and deep-burning passion make him a lone wolf walking through his own environment and playing by his own rules.

2004 - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Jim Carrey's Joel Barish is painfully shy. He's drawn out by Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), but his essential shyness and alienation are only highlighted by the procedure he undergoes to have Clementine erased from his memory. It's like Clementine's influence was never there, and left to his own instincts, he's cut off from the world, unable even to sustain eye contact without becoming acutely aware of himself.

2003 - Lost in Translation. Bill Murray's Bob Harris is so alienated, he has to go to Tokyo just to symbolize the idea that he's a foreigner in his own life. Like all these other characters, he flirts with making connections, and perhaps Bob succeeds more than these others with his necessarily fleeting connection to Scarlett Johansson's Charlotte. But we can tell that Bob's sadness and isolation cannot be cured by a single positive interaction -- they will reset upon his return to America, which makes this beautiful film a kind of tragedy as well.

2002 - Adaptation. Nicolas Cage's Charlie Kaufman is perhaps a more exaggerated (and less handsome) version of Carrey's Joel Barish, which is appropriate since the real-life Kaufman wrote both scripts. Socially awkward to the point of distraction, Cage's Kaufman stumbles through life sweating, stammering, unable to make eye contact, and living in a prison of his own overactive mind, with the mitigating factor that he's capable of producing absolute brilliance on the page.

At this point we run into a clear exception to the rule. In 2001, I awarded Robert Altman's ensemble film Gosford Park with my top honors for the year. However, even with this there is a bit of an asterisk. Although I stand by the choices I've made with every film I've honored as my favorite, I secretly believe that I was blown away by Gosford Park in a way that was somewhat temporary. The film that had been holding the top slot all year, and is what I sort of now believe was my true #1 of that year, was Christopher Nolan's Memento, which has got isolation and loneliness written all over it. (My actual favorite film of 2001, which I didn't see until two years later, meaning I couldn't rank it, is Donnie Darko. But there's no alienation or isolation in that movie, is there?)

In 2000? Yeah, it was Michael Almereyda's modern update of Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke. Has there ever been a character in the history of the world who embodies isolation more than Hamlet?

Okay, the streak officially stops at this point. My favorite film in 1999 was Run Lola Run, whose main character was a woman, a woman not particularly known for her isolation. And then my favorite film of 1998 was Happiness, another ensemble. I think a dozen years is a good place to stop.

(Not only are those 11 different directors -- Danny Boyle, Duncan Jones, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alfonso Cuaron, Craig Brewer, Michel Gondry, Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze, Christopher Nolan and Michael Almeyreda -- but they're also 11 different talented actors: James Franco, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Daniel Day-Lewis, Clive Owen, Terrence Howard, Jim Carrey, Bill Murray, Nicolas Cage, Guy Pearce and Ethan Hawke. Not bad.)

So as I dig deeper into this post -- which is going places I didn't even imagine when I started writing it -- what am I discovering about myself? Am I some kind of loner? Or is there at least a loner part of me that I see mirrored in the cinema that affects me most profoundly? And what does it say about me that almost all of these films are depressing in one way or another?

It's something I'll have to chew over, I suppose. And it's something I will certainly keep in the back of my mind as I start ranking for 2011.

Before I go, I do think I should return quickly to the original idea of a single actor using a brilliant performance to carry a film. I thought I should tell you that I don't consider this an automatic recipe for greatness. The last film I watched before my deadline on Monday night was Buried. You know, the movie where Ryan Reynolds spends 98 minutes trapped inside a coffin. (It says on the right that the last movie I watched was Casino Jack and the United States of Money, but that's because I started watching Casino Jack first and still had about 30 minutes to watch after finishing Buried.)

Buried ranked only 48th in my year-end rankings. Granted, the last film of the year always kind of gets the shaft, as you end up finishing it only an hour or two before you finalize your rankings. We all know it's helpful to let a movie marinate for a bit before you can be sure what you think about it. However, having to rush to judgment can actually result in too high of a ranking -- in fact, I'm not 100% sure that the film I saw on Sunday night, Animal Kingdom, deserved to be ranked as high as tenth.

Ryan Reynolds is good (though not brilliant) in Buried, and the set-up is good (though not brilliant). But where the movie really fails -- relative to the success of Moon and 127 Hours at least -- is that you feel the minutes passing the way you don't in those other films. That's probably director Rodrigo Cortes' point, to some extent. The film is clearly trying to feel claustrophobic, to simulate the experience of time passing interminably in such an enclosed space, and in fact, when at one point it's discussed that Reynolds has been in the coffin for two hours, it feels like it's been much longer. Points to Buried for that. Meanwhile, Moon and 127 Hours are not really trying to make you feel the claustrophobia of their situations, and the passage of time is not a significant detail. (That's a funny thing to say about 127 Hours, whose title involves the amount of time Aron Rolston is trapped by that rock, but Danny Boyle is not that interested in making time seem to pass slowly in the film -- that's my point.)

I should pause here to say that I was also bothered by various narrative choices in Buried -- the petulant reactions Paul Conroy has to the people who try to help him, how wantonly he uses a limited amount of Zippo fluid (before he even knows that there are at least four (!) other light sources available in the coffin -- a logistical necessity of the camera having to see Reynolds' face), and how wantonly he uses his limited cell phone battery, which those trying to help him are using to attempt to track his location.

But why those other two films are great and why Buried is only pretty good is because ultimately, Buried makes you tire of Ryan Reynolds. The feat Sam Rockwell and James Franco achieved is so amazing precisely because it's so counterintuitive -- you should need to see other actors in a film in order to be entertained the whole time. Buried's pretty goodness, then, is the logical thing, while the other films' greatness is the surprise.

And when it comes to films I love, surprising me is a really good start. Especially since few films actually do surprise us these days.

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