It’s Complicated, Nancy Meyers (2009)

Perfectly calibrated pre-post-revanche-retreat-pseudo-feminist comedy from Hollywood’s top practitioner of same. The signal moment here is the one where Streep goes to see her therapist of years and years and says, This time, I don’t want to explore possibilities, I want you to tell me what to do. Is it more empowering, Streep wants to know, to be true to oneself or to be of service to others? Is it healthy or unhealthy to break the rules? What she wants, really, is a god, and at any given moment either none or too many (psychotherapy, money, sex, dependence, independence, family, success, adventure, stability) are available. The movie’s great service is to not underestimate the intelligence of the audience, to not pretend it’s not complicated. There is self-loathing ugly garbage in here about women and class, as there is in just about everything Hollywood touches, but this is about as good as it gets, to coin a phrase.

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Smiles of a Summer Night, Ingmar Bergman (1955)

Say “Bergman” and most folks will think of Death leading his charges to the underworld in The Seventh Seal, or maybe Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann driving each other insane in Persona. Here, though, we have one of the warmest, sexiest, cleverest, earthiest romantic comedies of all time; it’s a Bergman too often overlooked. It was this, not Shakespeare, that Woody Allen paid homage to in his Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. Beautifully shot and packed with delights. If possible, see it in a hayloft with your sugar dumpling, with a bottle of schnapps to split.

Avatar, James Cameron (2009)

I’ll leave it to a graduate student in subaltern studies to write the paper on this movie’s obnoxious and relentless assertion of the noble savage myth. I’ll just note that it’s unbelievably dull, and its half-assed attempt to address the problem of our country’s criminal negligence in underserving war veterans is shallow, cheap, exploitative, and offensive. I have liked James Cameron, particularly for his use of strong female characters. Here he literally turns the film’s women into cartoons. A debacle.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Werner Herzog (1974)

Absolutely enchanting. The tenderest Herzog film I’ve ever seen, and the most poetic. Bruno S. is (and I do mean “is”) the foundling who can see the world more clearly than anyone precisely because it’s wholly alien to him. He refutes priests and professors, renders a high society party absurd and ludicrous simply through his presence, plays the part of one of the four riddles of the spheres in a carnival sideshow. And in the end, when asked by the priests if anything is bothering him, he says yes, it’s a story, but he only knows the beginning of it:

It’s about a caravan; and the desert; but I only know the beginning. I see a great caravan coming through the desert, over the sand, and this caravan is led by an old Berber, and this old man is blind. The caravan stops, because some of them believe they are lost. There are mountains before them. They check their compass, but they are no wiser. Then their blind leader picks up a handful of sand and tastes it, as though it were food. “My sons,” the blind man says, “you are wrong – those are not mountains you see, it’s only your imagination. We must continue northwards.” They follow the old man’s advice, and they reach the city in the north, where the story takes place. But how the story goes after they reach the city, I don’t know . . .

Scarlet Street, Fritz Lang (1945)

Jeepers, Johnny. Probably, perversely, my favorite Lang movie of them all. Edward G. Robinson perfects his macho/emasculated persona, and Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea click arhythmically as Vronsky atop Frou-Frou as they ride poor Chris Cross down to his doom. Add in the jacked-up pathos of the artist struggling to maintain two faces–one facing the real, the other the truer truth of the imaginary–and this sucker’s sold. I would like to have seen this movie with Wallace Stevens. I would have held his hand.

Paging my digital petit voleur: Any chance you could locate Renoir’s La chienne (1931)? I haven’t seen it in more than a decade. It’s not as hard-boiled as this, but it contains the full germ of evil which herein blossoms.

Whatever Works, Woody Allen (2009)

Allen’s decade-long slide from wince-inducing to embarrassing to gross perhaps hits bottom here. It’s not just the lechy fantasy of the towheaded waif dying to get into the geriatric’s pants — though that of course doesn’t help — it’s the flat out absolute crap writing and the inevitably artificial performances that result. No one lives, and no one has ever lived, anything resembling the lives these characters are living, and no one has ever spoken like this. Impossible to watch; we lasted about half an hour. Look at those fucking bananas!