This installment: Entries 20-16. Starting with:
20. Persepolis: Visually sumptuous in the face of its stripped-down aesthetic, Persepolis is the autobiographical tale of Marjane Satrapi’s life growing up in Iran and coming of age in the late 1970s. Told with a soft, elegant cell animated style, the film follows Marjane from her happy childhood spent in middle-class comfort to her young adult years spent during the throes of the Iranian revolution; for her protection she is eventually sent away from a newly repressed society to live in Austria, a country she is completely unfamiliar with. After circumstances abroad nearly lead to her death, she returns to Iran, finding that the world she knew no longer exists. Her life’s story is epic in scope and almost unbelievable, but what truly makes her story so powerful is that in spite of occurring in another world from our own, both literally and figuratively, Marjane’s struggles with identity and isolation and loss resonate and speak to each of us on a deep and very personal level. Providing a window through which we may experience an unfamiliar perspective, Persepolis shows just how much we inevitably share in common even when we live worlds apart from each other.
19. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang: This is the film that arguably brought Robert Downey Jr. back to us; sure, Iron Man made his comeback official, but it all started with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Shane Black’s 2005 film noir. Downey plays Harry, a smalltime crook who accidentally scores an audition for a film role while fleeing from police following a botched robbery. Val Kilmer tags along as a private eye named Gay Perry, assigned to help Harry prepare for the role; along the way Harry runs into Harmony, the girl he’s had a crush on since childhood. Together they uncover and attempt to solve a murder mystery not unlike the ones they read as kids. Black’s read those novels, too, and while he’s not Chandlers equal, he’s even better versed in noir lingo and sensibility than Rian Johnson. Black, here, is unfettered by the concerns that come with making a big budget film for a major studio; Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang was made for a paltry 15 million dollars and produced by Joel Silver, and the result of that freedom truly shows in the film. The banter flows here like wine from a decanter, totally smooth and delivered with relaxed but confident intention by the cast (who make this “acting” thing look so easy that we forget we’re watching characters in a film); like the rest of the film, it’s sharp, pithy, and brimming with wit without ever being self-conscious. I’m about to blaspheme, so forgive me, but even a director like Tarantino could learn a thing or two from Black’s example.
18. Murderball: Wheelchair rugby first was introduced to the United States almost 30 years ago in 1981; developed in Canada, it is a team sport designed for disabled athletes that seems to be fought, rather than played, by its wheelchair-bound participants. However, Murderball never cloyingly coaxes sympathy from its audiences in its examination of the struggles the players endure; indeed, the idea that these men would ask for your condolences is almost laughable. Rather than pity, both the film and its subjects demand that audiences sit back and watch them trounce their opposition. More to the point they expect you to view them as honest-to-God athletes, and honest-to-God athletes is what they are., storming the courts in reinforced wheel chairs that recall imagery from films like Mad Max. It is inevitable that we should feel some sorrow for the film’s stars for the trials that they have undergone (and still undergo), but such emotions are waylaid by the sheer inspiration that these men represent: Their victories are nothing short of exultant displays of human willpower over adversity.
17. City of God: Fernando Mierelles’ story of gang life in the slums of Rio De Janeiro bursts with life through innumerable thematic layers. Simultaneously telling the story of one young mans journey to escape a life of violence, and another’s decision to embrace it, City of God is as much about those narrative threads as it is about the transcendent power art possesses, and how art can pull people out of their situations and lead them to something better. Rocket, seeking to improve his circumstances, turns to photography as his ticket out of the ghetto; his path clashes with that of Lil’ Ze, a rising star in the gang world, and so too does he see how he can make the medium work to enhance his notoriety, and be extension his standing in the life that he’s chosen. But subtext aside this is a film about gang life, make no mistake, and it is as dark and violent as it is uplifting. City of God‘s depth isn’t limited to plot and narrative, either; it’s gorgeously photographed, turning the decaying buildings and neighborhoods of the film’s world into a rich and vibrant cityscape, and edited with a frenetic, purposeful energy.
16. District 9: The South African government has a problem; they’ve been burdened with a population influx thanks to the arrival of a stranded race of bi-pedal, insect-like creatures boorishly dubbed “Prawns” by the human majority. Fortunately, weapons manufacturer Multinational United is up to the job of managing the refugees, and they’re set to move the aliens from the eponymous slum to a newer, larger settlement called District 10 (which is conveniently even further out of city lines). When the MNU’s chosen task force leader, Wikus Van De Merwe, is sprayed with a strange substance that puts him square in a Kafka dream in John Howard Griffin’s head, this mockumentary breaks out of its initial point of view to tell a much more encompassing story of an oppressed minority rising up against their tormentors. While the allegory is completely blatant it is no less powerful, and for a movie that prominently features alien life forms as characters that drive the plot it is remarkably truthful. At Comic Con, Peter Jackson was heard to say of District 9‘s director, Neil Blomkamp, that he’d made a film about his life, in contrast to other young directors who instead make movies about the movies that they like. Blomkamp lived through apartheid and the impact that that had on his life is apparent in the film’s story-driven moments; even when District 9 explodes into incredible and tense action scenes, the ideas that Blomkamp put into the narrative echo in every depiction of destruction and violence. What happens when you abuse and demonize a minority for long enough? Eventually, as the film tells us, they will fight back.