So these three are the last three I was able to catch as the flu conspired to trim my movie-going even further. I know. Excuses, excuses. Still, I have some important things to tell you about:
After you do enough annual top ten lists you start to have a sixth sense for what films are secretly wrangling for a spot in the back of your brain before you even begin making those considerations. For me, The Hurt Locker is the first one for 2009.
With an economy that belies its 130 minute run time, director Kathryn Bigelow’s breakthrough (I knew she had potential, but damn) tells the story of three bomb defusers in Iraq. That’s it. There’s no twisted plot. There doesn’t need to be. The episodes depicted contain enough tension and misery to place this in the upper echelons of war films, period, much more Iraq War films which, to date, has been a pretty sorry lot (not counting docs – there are a ton of good Iraq docs).
I would say it’s incidental that the film takes place in Iraq, but the dynamics of urban warfare in the 21st century add a particular flavor of intensity. The death-can-come-at-any-moment thing gets heightened when you don’t know if that guy standing over there is trying to kill you or just making a call on his cell phone. To put a finer point on it, you don’t know if you should kill that guy standing over there who may just be making an innocent call on his phone.
All of the performances here are knockout, which is key since you come to care for these characters deeply and wonder on an almost minute-by-minute basis if they’re going to be alive in the next frame. Jeremy Renner in particular (whom you might recognize as the bad guy in S.W.A.T. but, if you’re me, will always be that bad-ass vampire that Angel sired in Season One of Angel) turns in – I’ll say it – an Oscar-caliber performance as Staff Sergeant James, who begins as a bit of the “guy who takes crazy risks” cliché but quickly becomes a very sad, very compelling portrait of the strange, needy relationship men can have with war.
Two investigators (Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond) look into a series of grisly murders in middle-of-nowhere USA. Good premise, except I figured out the Big Spoiler about ten minutes in.
That’s not all co-writer/director Jennifer Chambers Lynch (daughter of David) has up her sleeve, however. The film’s most disturbing moments come from the actions of two of the police officers involved (Kent Harper and French Stewart). They pass the time by harassing passing motorists. And by harassing I mean destruction of property, robbery and borderline sexual assault. The actions of the killers seem, oddly, a shade more humane by comparison. They were never tasked with “serve and protect,” so it’s not as disappointing when they don’t.
The film sets up this dichotomy, but never really explores it, which is also a little disappointing.
Oh, this is also one of the few times you’ll ever hear yourself saying “That scene with French Stewart and Cheri Oteri just creeped me the fuck out.”
What is it about Italian crime lords that makes for great cinema? In this case the crime lord in question is actually a politician, the real life Giulio Andreotti, a seven-time prime minister and senator-for-life in Rome for the past few decades who, during that time, has been connected (just not in a prosecutable way) to every illegal activity, um, ever.
Toni Servillo turns in a stellar performance as Andreotti, who is not what you’d expect. Instead of Michael, or even Vito Corleone, picture an Italian Henry Kissinger. Very closed off. Very witty. Not at all violent (he outsources that shit). And, as the movie wears on, very conflicted. In a scene that essentially serves as his confession, he breaks his reserve for one moment to defend what he believes is evil in the service of good.
Writer/Director Paolo Sorrentino is one to watch (actually he’s been at this since ’98, so I’m late to the party). Holy crap. In the first hour of this film he manages to evoke Scorsese, Woo, Leone and, more often than not, Wes Anderson without once seeming derivative.
By the end of the film, though, things do drag a bit. Part of this is due to the fact that the fall of a criminal organization is inevitably less entertaining than the “Hey, everything’s awesome!” phase. Still, a must see.