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Bong Joon-ho's Mother and Debra Granik's Winter's Bone take us deep into the interior of their respective countries, where the unglamorous dwell, for stories of mayhem and redemption keyed by world-class performances. In Mother, it's actor Kim Hye-ja as the determined mom of a mentally challenged young man charged with killing a woman in his South Korean village. Everyone in town wants to hang the murder on her son and be done with it, but she's not buying.
Winter's Bone, another murder mystery with deep emotional currents, gets noteworthy acting jobs from Jennifer Lawrence, as an Ozark Mountains resident named Ree Dolly, who's looking for her disappeared, meth-dealing father, and John Hawkes as Ree's sinister uncle Teardrop, who knows where the community's bodies are buried, literally. It's tempting to imagine that these two movies are driven by their actors, but Bong (The Host) and Granik (Down to the Bone) have both made a specialty of getting under the skin of preoccupied characters when they're not looking, and this is those directors' year to shine.
Zesty life-styler The Kids Are All Right benefitted mightily from the perfs of Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo, fitted with great precision to Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg's screenplay. Look for this property to make its way to the tube. In the meantime, it's our idea of a cool summer refresher.
As for the Coen Brothers and True Grit, the project was already halfway home before it began shooting, with the casting of Jeff Bridges and ingénue Hailee Steinfeld in the roles of garrulous lawman Rooster Cogburn and guardhouse lawyer Mattie Ross, the drunken old coot's teenage trail marm. Everyone talks about the Coens' verisimilitude in showing the Old West "as it actually was" — but it's the unreality of the situation that makes it unique. With No Country for Old Men and now this, the Coens are hitting their stride with the Western. In its best moments, True Grit approaches the sanctified realm of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher, if not quite John Ford's sagebrush Valhalla.
Every ray of sunshine contains a black shadow, as the saying goes. This year perhaps more than most, the films we admired weren't necessarily the ones we cherished with fiendish glee, against our better judgment. With that in mind, here's the evil twin of the Ten Best List, a sullen little doppelganger we call Top Ten from the Dark Side (in no particular order):
Enter the Void by Gaspar Noé
Splice by Vincenzo Natali
When You're Strange by Tom DiCillo
The Loved Ones by Sean Byrne
Let Me In by Matt Reeves
Machete by Robert Rodriguez
The Killer Inside Me by Michael Winterbottom
Marwencol by Jeff Malmberg
The Mesrine series: Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 by Jean-François Richet
William S. Burroughs: A Man Within by Yony Leyser
No one yet has replicated the recreational drug experience onscreen with the same panache as French director Noé — he's the Abel Gance of Ecstasy. Reeves' Let Me In was not only not an insult to its Swedish original, Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In, it was arguably the better version of that melancholy adolescent vampire story. Machete, the best Robert Rodriguez movie since, well ... ever, rescued us from a summer of boredom. ¡Viva Danny Trejo and Michelle Rodriguez! Jim Thompson adaptations run the gamut, and the Winterbottom/Casey Affleck version, The Killer Inside Me, fits uncomfortably into the mix. Its two graphic beatings may be the strongest whiffs of realistic, stomach-knotting violence on multiplex screens this year, definitely not for everyone.
More Dark Side notes: One of the year's finest documentaries — in company with Inside Job, Client 9, Restrepo, Sweetgrass, Winnebago Man, and the wonderful The Tillman Story — Marwencol takes us into the private world of a man who has retreated from life, and his fantasy creation, a WWII Belgian village, is pretty damned seductive. Actor Vincent Cassel had a gratifying year with Black Swan and the Mesrine two-parter, but he looked like he was having a bit more fun as Mesrine, the legendary bank robber and jail breaker. Think William "Old Bull Hubbard" Burroughs was weird? Yony Leyser's doc biography of the writer takes us down into the sub-basement of that proposition.
List-o-mania continues. "Worst of" tabulations are always difficult. Failures of ambition vs. clueless blundering, etc. Who really wants to add up all the wasted hours? But here are seven deadly sins against moviegoers that must not go unpunished:
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
We could go on for days naming rotten movies, but what's the point? Get out of the house and into the "shared entertainment experience." True Grit, at least, is still in the theaters. Or stay at home and watch William S. Burroughs' The Junky's Christmas. For a good time, visit: ScreenAustralia.gov.au.