In the future according to Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, LA looks like the favelas outside Rio — a vast, dusty, treeless series of shantytowns covering those coastal hills as far as the eye can see. It’s overwhelmingly Latino — everyone speaks Spanish, or Spanglish — and we learn that the rest of Earth is similarly dark-skinned and downtrodden. A title card tells us that the world is diseased, overpopulated, and broken, and that the wealthiest have decamped from Earth altogether for a kind of space station called Elysium that looks like Bel Air on steroids, where they sip champagne, swim in glamorous pools, and speak French.

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It’s a great premise, fully in keeping with the brilliant work Blomkamp did with his earlier District 9 (2009) — a believable dystopia that reflects the worst tendencies of today’s world, the ways that the wealthy can hoard the best resources for themselves. In a brief flashback, a little boy called Max (who grows up to be Matt Damon) gets taught to read by a little girl called Frey (who grows up to be Alice Braga) as they pour over a book describing the wonders of Elysium. He gazes up at her with love, and promises to take her there someday.

We know he will. But how? and what will the consequences be? By the time we find the adult Max, he’s an ex-con on parole working in a factory making the robo-cops that terrorize the populace, and he and Frey have lost touch.

Add to this story a sharp-edged, power-hungry Elysium defense chief named Delacourt (Jodie Foster) with a sort of South African accent; Delacourt’s designated mercenary named Kruger, who solves problems for her with murderous glee (an unrecognizable Sharlto Copley, who played the hapless lead in District 9); and a crime kingpin on Earth named Spider (Wagner Moura), who sends shuttles full of illegal immigrants up to Elysium on the off-chance they’ll make it past Delacourt’s defenses. Those who don’t make it … well, what do the inhabitants of Elysium care?

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Don’t worry: we’ll warn you in advance about spoilers.

Film blogger JustMeMike and I sat down to have an extended conversation about this film as we have many times — most recently about The Great Gatsby. So, JMM, let me start by asking: were you as intrigued as I was by the film’s premise?

JustMeMike: I hadn’t seen District 9, so I may not have the same entry point as many did. But who could resist Matt Damon as a Mad Max type wearing an exo-skeleton suit rather than leather. I was also eager to see Foster as a villain. I loved Moura from his two Brazilian cop movies that I’d seen. But those are just the actors.

As for the premise, sure, with a dystopian/utopian combo it seemed like a can’t miss. And with Blomkamp at the helm of a 100 million dollar production, it seemed that he has been anointed as the new boy-wonder of the film world. So yes, I was eager to see it.  Show me a tasty premise and A-list actors? Where do I sign up?

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Didion: I loved loved loved District 9. Really: a stunner. It might have made me a bit overly optimistic for Elysium. But I have to say, the opening scenes of this film, with those miserable favelas and all the Spanish (Matt Damon does some good language work here) — well, I can’t remember a more believable dystopia, nor a summer blockbuster with so much Spanish being spoken. I was all in for the film’s setup.

JMM: We can agree, that when you add the imagery to the intellectual side of the premise — then you have created an immediate hook for the viewers with or without the language medley of English and Spanish.

Which leads to a question — why the Francais up on Elysium – or was that just for that particular cocktail party?

Didion:  I’m not sure we’re supposed to know, but I loved the contrast between the gritty, almost apocalyptic world of LA and the jolting scene of Jodie Foster, with her chiseled calves and perfect hair, schmoozing en francais with the hoi polloi. It was so jolting, in fact, that I wondered how much Blomkamp wanted his viewers to get angry about the impossible social divides that exist in our own world. District 9 was ultimately a story about race; perhaps Elysium is his commentary on class?

JMM: Of course it was. And that feeling is what has occurred to so many who have seen the film. I mean that he started with a premise of class issues (and the obvious divide created by money) — separated the two between Earth and Elysium, then switched away from that and made the film into an action/adventure yarn. I still enjoyed myself — but I wanted more thoughtful concepts than explosions.

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Didion: I’m with you there. I found myself oddly ambivalent at the end of the film — feeling as if some other director had arrived mid-stream and transformed the film into something more safe by distracting us with explosions and bad bad guys, away from the class issues.

I’ll say this: of the summer blockbusters I’ve seen, this seems like the most original and substantial — that is, particularly compared to the superheroes and sequels — but I’m ultimately disappointed by Blomkamp’s ultimate privileging of action over ideas. Tell me, JMM, would you ultimately recommend this film — and why?

JMM: Sure I will and am recommending the film. Despite the flaws it is still a first class entertainment. Why? The execution of the technical side of the film is just perfect. I’ll say nothing bad about what we see. It is only when we start to think about it – and this is in the latter parts of the film, that we detect issues.

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The hardware, the robot-cops, the expansive factory setting – all of the was done superbly. So, I think it was a visual treat. Unfortunately, the visuals have to get the highest marks, which means other areas, key areas, like acting and writing suffer in comparison. Since we’ve already mentioned the conceptual change from a theme-based story to an action film, let’s talk actors. Tell me about Foster as Delacourt.

Didion: I’m usually of the opinion that the more Jodie Foster, the better. She’s certainly got the look of the icy, powerful bureaucrat down; think of her as the fixer in Inside Man (2006). She slinks through this film as the cat-like reason why Elysium’s days are numbered — the rot at the heart of the apple. When she speaks in her effortless French in those early scenes, you believe every single bit of her ruthlessness.

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But maybe it was her (weak) South African accent, or a big jump in the narrative in the second act, or the fact that we’ve seen this character before — I found her character to be too stereotypical and .. well, kind of boring. How about you?

JMM: Bingo! Hard to believe that Foster disappoints but she does. But at least half of that can be laid at the feet of Blomkamp. He wrote a one dimensional character and Foster gave him just that.

If I may make a more pointed and cynical observation. I think Foster was cast to sell tickets. As narrow as the role was, anyone could have played Delacourt. In fact I was somewhat surprised by the large number of women who attended the screening I did.  Did you have a similar audience?

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Didion: Now I’m laughing because I realize my complaint is just like in the old joke that I repeat all the time, in which two little old ladies go out for lunch and one says, “This food is terrible!” and the other says, “And there’s so little of it!” I wanted a different Jodie, and I wanted more of her.

But if you don’t mind, I’d also like to issue a larger complaint: the gender stuff in Elysium is bad and boring, too. We have two women: a perfect mother/angel in Frey, and the evil ice queen in Delacourt. The men are similarly stereotyped: Max is our hunky, tattooed superhero (with a nicely gratuitous shirtless scene early on) who wants to just live up to his promises; he hasn’t got much else to offer. And then there’s the ill-fated best buddy (Diego Luna); the dark-skinned crime boss (Moura), whose main original characteristic is his cane; the super-baddy (Copley), and the evil capitalist (William Fichtner). Isn’t the real problem that there’s not an interesting character in the bunch?

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JMM:  Actually there are three women that are important. The third is Frey’s sick daughter. I think once Max gets a look at her, the whole story changes.

Spider was a surprise for me. Moura, in his cop films, is a strong character, a tough guy that any guy would admire; but here he plays a geek crime lord. They could have dispensed with the cane and shambling gait entirely. But Copley as Kruger steals the film away from Damon.

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Damon was driven — not so much by his idealism, but more practically to stay alive. Once he makes a deal with Spider to stay alive, Delacourt brings Kruger into the picture — the type of guy we’ve not seen the likes of before.

Did you like Kruger as a monstrous force?

Didion: Now that I think about it, you’re exactly right: Kruger steals the picture, with his mountain-man cloak and mondo-weapons and can’t-die resurrections. I’m not saying he’s got much three-dimensionality, but I could have spent another few hours creeped out by his capacity for violence.

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I’ll say one more thing to agree with a point you made above: the look of the film, most of which takes place in this hell-Earth, is utterly believable — the visuals of Max’s job at the factory, getting harassed by the robo-cops — Blomkamp is a genius at creating and capturing a full world.

But let me return to your last note about Matt Damon. Do you think he lets the film get stolen out from under him, or was it a problem with the writing?

JMM: Great question. It wasn’t Damon as Max. I think once Blomkamp brought Max and Frey’s daughter together, Max’s direction was set in stone. Max was an everyman, likeable because we all could identify with him. Hard working at his dull/dangerous job. Plus his demeanor to the cops — he was just below the rage phase with the street cops and his parole officer — but he kept himself in check as best he could.

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But it didn’t quite work for Max. Enter Kruger with his helo, his goons, his weapons, and his Afrikaner accent. And his near deadly efficiency. We feared him and were attracted to his strengths, yet we abhorred the thought of this guy getting his mitts on Frey. So I think it was no surprise that he stole the film away from Damon’s Max.

Didion: Sigh. It’s too bad, because I have a theory that no one can do complex, ambivalent characters better than Matt Damon (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Bourne, etc). The problem with this one was that his character was set: even if he descended to do something illegal, it was because he was trying to do the right thing in the end.

Maybe now is the time to issue a ***SPOILER ALERT***. Because I have some questions about the ultimate direction of the story.

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JMM, my biggest disappointment came at about the ⅔ mark, when two disappointing things happen: Delacourt dies, and the whole story narrows down to become a question about whether everyone ought to have access to Elysium’s fantastic medical machines, which cure everything. That is, whereas the first part of the film heightens your awareness of a whole universe of class problems — endemic poverty, miserable jobs, tyrannical police, a failed health care system — the second half collapses them into the fantasy that if everyone had access to great health care, all problems would be solved.

JMM: Well I’m not sure all problems would be solved. The idea of making everyone a citizen (for health care or other reasons) was admirable, but I thought wouldn’t it be much easier to bring the med machines down to earth rather than bring the multitudes up to Elysium. But that was the inevitable happy ending — post Max and post Delacourt.

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Which leads to some questions I can ask as we’ve posted the spoiler alert.

You know that Blomkamp’s Elysium was a utopia with Earth a dystopia, so how was it that Spider not only had the means of transporting to Elysium, how was it that Spider had enough power to run his hardware? Seems like Elysium’s eye in the sky would have noticed this on the power grid. How did Spider’s transport which was called an Unidentified Shuttle get through Elysium’s sky-net defenses? Especially after we saw other ships get shot down.

Did any of this trouble you?

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Didion: Will it solve anything to permit everyone the chance to come to Elysium? Or is that access only going to allow people medical care, so they can live longer in that hell? Will inhabitants of Earth still pay exorbitant prices for transport? Will Elysium simply find a new way to ban that traffic? The ending is just a mess of unanswered questions.

I was left with an overriding sense that Blomkamp had created a dystopia so believable that it ruined his capacity to find a happy ending. I couldn’t believe some computer hacking and some luck against Elysium’s defenses would create any real change to the pervasive problems. Narrative problems like the one you mention — about Spider’s illegal transport system — paled in comparison to larger problems with the film’s conclusion.

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JMM: Yup. You got that right. Out of time and out of ideas — was that Blomkamp’s fault, or the suits who financed the film? Whatever the reason, it did highlight the fact that the the last ⅓ paled in comparison to the first ⅔.

But even if the film ended badly, which it did, should this result in a negative for the overall worthiness of the film. Above, you used the term “overriding sense of failure”, I mean, I didn’t leave the theater angry. As you walked out, what was your state of mind?

Didion: We can’t know who ultimately started chopping the ideas out of the third act. But we can comment on the effect, can’t we? My ultimate takeaway was the feeling that either our culture won’t put up with a film that imagines a real change to fundamental inequality, or that our culture is willing to raise the topic and then pastes an implausibly happy ending on it.

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Ultimately I’d give this film a solid three stars out of five, but I must say that I hope Blomkamp gets more work, and that perhaps he doesn’t get saddled with $100m projects like this one, but rather smaller and more thoughtful projects.

JMM: I’ll go to three point five, as I did call it a flawed first class entertainment. Speaking of smaller budgets as well as thoughtful projects, I guess I will move District 9 up to the top spot in my queue. Any last comments, gripes, favorite parts, least favorite parts?

Didion: I can hardly wait to hear what you’ve got to say about District 9. LOVE that film.

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I always forget that you love to ask about favorite/worst parts of the film, and I always forget to think about that while I’m watching! But there’s a teeny moment I loved which follows Matt Damon getting flooded with radiation poisoning at work. He’s lying on a hospital bed, and a mechanized robo-doctor is examining him, telling him exactly (brutally) how dire his condition is. And then it drops a paltry little bottle of pills on the bed. It’s possibly the most miserable and lowest Damon’s character gets during the film. In other words, with no gross-out operations, spectacular violence, or super-CGI, the scene pulls off a nice trick of making you feel his pain. A good example of what Blomkamp can do with a small scene. How about you?

JMM: That was marvelous. I don’t think I had that in mind at all — but wow. On the other end of the spectrum – with Max’s parole officer, they really went cheap. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a worse representation of a non-human interacting with a human in terms of visual and technological  expertise.

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But speaking of a small scene, that had significant impact. At the cocktail party, the robo-butler offers Delacourt a drink, and she dismisses him with a flick of the wrist. I noticed that and hated her for it.

Didion: In the end, JMM, I’m sorry to see that our August movie doldrums weren’t relieved by Elysium as much as I’d hoped. But the fall has lots of good stuff lined up. I’m hoping that our next convo will cover a different kind of film — perhaps a comedy? — that we can dig into. Looking forward to it, as always!

JMM: Thanks Didion. I am in full agreement about the doldrums. I’m calling it a summer-long down-turn. Elysium did brighten the summer while in the anticipation stage, and yes it might have been a lot better. Fall’s schedule does look delicious. See you then.

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You’ll see right away that this is not all BBC and Jane Austen. Once I started constructing this list, I realized that there’s no material difference between The Godfather, Parts I and II and The Forsyte Saga. They’re usually literary adaptations (which range from cynical to gritty to romantic to eminently silly). They almost always tell intense, character-driven tales of families or communities to throw the reader into a moment in the past — not just for history geeks or people with weird corset fetishes. Period drama ultimately addresses issues of love and power, adventures and domestic lives, self-understanding and self-delusion, and the institutions or cultural expectations of the past that condition people’s lives. Class boundaries, sexism, political institutions, and (less often) race — seeing those things at work in the past helps illuminate their work in our own time.

Most of all, it makes no sense that period dramas are so strongly associated with “women’s” viewing. Okay, it does make sense: PBS is dribbling Downton Abbey to us every Sunday, and my female Facebook friends twitter delightedly afterward. But that’s just because all those dudes refuse to admit that Deadwood is a costume drama, too. This is a working draft, so please tell me what I’ve missed — or argue with me. I love arguments and recommendations.

  1. American Graffiti (1973), which isn’t a literary adaptation but was probably the first film that wove together pop songs with the leisurely yearning of high school kids into something that feels literary. Who knew George Lucas could write dialogue like this? An amazing document about one night in the early 60s that Roger Ebert calls “not only a great movie but a brilliant work of historical fiction; no sociological treatise could duplicate the movie’s success in remembering exactly how it was to be alive at that cultural instant.”
  2. Cold Comfort Farm (1995), which functions for me as true comfort on a regular basis. This supremely silly film, based on the Stella Gibbons novel and directed by John Schlesinger, tells of a young society girl (Kate Beckinsale) in the 1920s who arrives at her cousins’ miserably awful farm and sets to work tidying things up. I can’t even speak about the total wonderfulness of how she solves the problem of her oversexed cousin Seth (Rufus Sewell); suffice it to say that this film only gets better on frequent re-viewings. (Right, Nan F.?)
  3. Days of Heaven (1973), the lyrical film by Terrence Malick about migrant farm workers in the 1910s and narrated by the froggy-voiced, New York-accented, cynical and tiny teenager Linda Manz. Beautiful and elegant, and one of my favorite films ever — and a lesson about how a simple, familiar, even clichéd story can be enough to shape a film and still permit viewers to be surprised. (The scene with the locusts rests right up there as a great horror scene in film history, if you ask me.)
  4. Deadwood (2004-06), the great HBO series about Deadwood, South Dakota in its very earliest days of existence — a place with no law, only raw power. Fantastic: and David Milch’s Shakespearean dialogue somehow renders that world ever more weird and awful. Excessively dude-heavy, yes; but hey, by all accounts that was accurate for the American West in the 1860s. And let’s not forget about Trixie.
  5. The Forsyte Saga (2002-03), the Granada/ITV series based on the John Galsworthy novel which I wrote about with love here. Those turn-of-the-century clothes! The miseries of marriage! The lustful glances while in the ballroom! The many, many episodes! 
  6. The Godfather Parts I and II (1972, 1974). I still think Al Pacino’s work in these films is just extraordinary, considering what a newbie he was to film acting; and the street scenes with Robert De Niro from turn-of-the-century New York in Part II! spectacular! Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and based on the Mario Puzo novel, of course, with political intrigues and family in-fighting that matches anything the 19th-century novel could possibly produce.
  7. Jane Eyre (2011), again, a film I’ve raved about numerous times. I’ve got piles of reasons to believe this is the best version ever, so don’t even try to fight it. ‘Nuff said.
  8. L.A. Confidential (1997), a film by Curtis Hanson I’ve only given glancing attention to considering how much I love it. At some point I’ve got to fix this. It won’t pass the Bechdel Test, but by all accounts the sprawling James Ellroy novel about postwar Los Angeles was far more offending in that regard; and despite all that, Kim Basinger’s terrific role as the elusive Veronica Lake lookalike is always the first person I think of when looking back on it. She lashes into Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) mercilessly, and he wants her all the more. Of course.
  9. Little Dorrit (2008), which saved me from one of the worst semesters of my life — shortly to be followed by two more terrible semesters. This was a magic tonic at just the right time. Charles Dickens at his twisting, turning best; and screenwriter Andrew Davies doing what he does best in taking a long novel and transforming it for a joint BBC/PBS production. Oodles of episodes, all of which are awesome.
  10. Lust, Caution (2007), which I only saw this month. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a sensual, dangerous, beautifully-acted period film. And that Tang Wei! I’m still marveling over her performance. Ang Lee directed this WWII resistance thriller, based on a novel by Eileen Chang.
  11. Mad Men (2007-present). It’s been a while since Season 4, which I loved; they tell me the long-awaited fifth season is coming back to AMC this March. Oh Peggy, oh Joan, oh Betty, and little Sally Draper…whither goes the women in Season 5? I’m not sure there’s a modern director amongst us who cares so much for both the historical minutiae (a woman’s watch, the design of a clock on the wall) and the feeling of the early- to mid-60s as Matthew Weiner.
  12. Marie Antoinette (2006), surely the most controversial choice on this list. Director Sofia Coppola creates a mood film about a young woman plopped into a lonely, miserable world of luxury and excess. The back of the film throbs with the quasi-dark, quasi-pop rhythms of 80s music — such an unexpected pairing, and one that really just worked. Kirsten Dunst’s characteristic openness of face, together with her slight wickedness, made her the perfect star.
  13. Middlemarch (1994). Can you believe how many of these films & series I’ve already written about? Juliet Aubrey, Patrick Malahide, Rufus Sewell et als. just bring it with this adaptation of George Eliot’s sprawling (and best) novel. Marriage never looked so foolish, except until Galsworthy wrote The Forsyte Saga. It’s yet another BBC production and yet another terrific screenplay by Andrew Davies.
  14. My Brilliant Career (1979), the film that initated me into costume drama love, and which gave me a lasting affection for Australians. Judy Davis, with those freckles and that unmanageable hair, was such a model for me as a kid that I think of her as one of my favorite actresses. Directed by the great Gillian Armstrong and based on the novel by Miles Franklin about the early 20th century outback, this still stands up — and it makes me cry a little to think that Davis has gotten such a relatively small amount of attention in the US over the years.
  15. North and South (2004). The piece I wrote on this brilliant BBC series is very much for the already-initiated; at some point soon I’m going to write about how many times I’ve shown this little-known series to my friends practically as a form of evangelism. “The industrial revolution has never been so sexy,” I was told when I first watched it. You’ll never forget the scenes of the 1850s cotton mill and the workers’ tenements; and your romantic feelings about trains will forever been confirmed.
  16. Our Mutual Friend (1998), which I absorbed in an unholy moment of costume-drama overload while on an overseas research trip. You’ll never look at actor Stephen Mackintosh again without a little pang of longing for his plain, unadorned face and quiet pining. Another crazy mishmash of Dickensian characters, creatively named and weirdly motivated by the BBC by screenwriter Sandy Welch for our viewing pleasure.
  17. The Painted Veil (2006). Now, the writer Somerset Maugham usually only had one trick up his sleeve; he loved poetic justice with only the slightest twist of agony. Maugham fans won’t get a lot of surprises in this John Curran film, but this adaptation set in 1930s China is just beautifully rendered, and features spectacular images from the mountain region of Guanxi Province. It also features terrific performances by Naomi Watts, Liev Shreiber (slurp!), and especially Edward Norton, who’s just stunningly good. 
  18. The Piano (1993), written and directed by the superlative Jane Campion about a mute woman (Holly Hunter) and her small daughter (Anna Paquin) arriving at the home of her new husband, a lonely 1850s New Zealand frontiersman (Harvey Keitel) who has essentially purchased them from the woman’s father. As with Lust, Caution you’d be surprised how sexy sex in past decades can be. And the music!
  19. Pride and Prejudice (1995). Is it a cliché to include this? Or would it be wrong to snub the costume drama to end all costume drama? Considering this series logged in at a full 6 hours, it’s impressive I’ve watched it as many times as I have. Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, and a cracklingly faithful script by Andrew Davies — now this is what one needs on a grim winter weekend if one is saddles with the sniffles.
  20. The Remains of the Day (1993). I still think the Kazuo Ishiguro novel is one of his best, almost as breathtaking as An Artist of the Floating World (why hasn’t that great novel been made into a film, by the way?). This adaptation by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory gets the social stultification of prewar Britain and the class system absolutely. Antony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, and that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala script!
  21. A Room With a View (1985), which I include for sentimental reasons — because I saw it at that precise moment in my teens when I was utterly and completely swept away by the late 19th century romance. In retrospect, even though that final makeout scene in the Florentine window still gets my engines runnin’, I’m more impressed by the whole Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala production of the E. M. Forster novel — its humor, the dialogue, the amazing cast. Maggie Smith and Daniel Day Lewis alone are enough to steal the show.
  22. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996). This novel runs a pretty close second to Jane Eyre in my list of favorite Brontë Sisters Power Novels (FYI: Villette comes next) due to the absolute fury Anne Brontë directed at the institution of marriage. And this BBC series, featuring Tara Fitzgerald, Toby Stephens, and the darkest of all dark villains Rupert Graves, is gorgeous and stark. I haven’t seen much of Fitzgerald lately, but this series makes you love her outspoken sharpness.
  23. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), Tomas Alfredson’s terrific condensation of a labyrinthine John Le Carré novel into a 2-hour film. Whereas the earlier version — a terrific 7-part miniseries featuring the incomparable Alec Guinness as Smiley — was made shortly after the book’s publication, Alfredson’s version reads as a grim period drama of the 1970s. I dare you to imagine a more bleak set of institutional interiors than those inhabited by The Circus.
  24. True Grit (2010), the Coen Brothers’ very funny, wordy retelling of the Charles Portis novel that has the most pleasurable dialogue of any film in my recent imagination. The rapid-fire legalities that 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) fires during the film’s earliest scenes; the banter between Ross, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and La Boeuf (Matt Damon) as they sit around campfires or leisurely make their way across hardscrabble landscapes — now, that’s a 19th century I like imagining.
  25. A Very Long Engagement (2004), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s sole historical film and one that combines his penchant for great gee-whiz stuff and physical humor with a full-hearted romanticism. Maybe not the most accurate portrayal of immediate period after WWI, but what a terrific world to fall into for a couple of hours. 

A few final notes: I’ve never seen a few classics, including I, Claudius; Brideshead Revisited; Upstairs/Downstairs; Maurice; and The Duchess of Duke Street. (They’re on my queue, I promise!)

I included Pride and Prejudice rather than Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and I’m still not certain I’m comfortable without it. But secretly, I think I liked Lee’s Lust, Caution a little bit better.

There are no samurai films here, despite the fact that I’m on record for loving them. Why not? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because I have no grasp whatsoever of Japanese history, and the films I know and love seem to see history less as something to recapture than to exploit. I’m certain I’m wrong about that — tell me why.

I reluctantly left off 2009’s A Single Man because it’s just not as good a film as I would have liked, no matter how good Colin Firth was, and no matter how gorgeous those early ’60s Los Angeles homes.

That said, you need to tell me: what do you say?

When I was a kid my sister and I spent hours combing through, and listening obsessively to, my mother’s small record collection. Somewhere in there was an album of Barbra Streisand’s that looked something like this (I can’t remember if this was actually the one): 

In other words, everything about the image told the viewer, I have a big nose, and I’m proud of it. Even as a child, without knowing the specific dynamics of antisemitism and cruel views of women’s bodies, I understood that she was making a radical statement. (And who could have been more radically glamorous during the ’60s and ’70s than Streisand?)

Yet in the decades since, a good nose has been hard to find. Cinema is a particularly disappointing place for us nose aficionados who want to find a nice range on actresses. I even found myself coming up with some slightly embarrassing Google searches, mostly for naught. I’d venture to say that Barbra’s was the last truly beautiful, authentic big nose onscreen; in the decades earlier, the only one I can think of was Margaret Hamilton’s (and she was cast as The Wicked Witch of the West):

It’s a sorry state of affairs. A few months ago I wrote about the eternal beauty of a mouth with character, but I think having a real nose is even more radical. (Shall I be hyperbolic? There’s a genocide of real noses in film!) I even became confused because I remembered certain actresses having slightly more distinctive noses than they really do — only to find websites alleging that these women have had very clever and subtle plastic surgery. Where are the women with beautiful, distinctive noses like tennis player Steffi Graf’s (a woman I still think of as one of the most beautiful women ever to play tennis?

I think of a big nose as impossibly sexy and sensuous; as far as I’m concerned noses can be very effective tools in the sack, functioning as extra appendages, and I’m not just talking about their capacity for sniffing. Can it possibly be true that the beautiful and waif-like Claire Danes, with her Steffi Graf-like Germanic face, had the size of her nose reduced? It’s so depressing. One website accuses Penelope Cruz, Anne Hathaway, and Jennifer Aniston of having big noses — absurd! — but one can see that with claims like that floating around, it’s no wonder women are so eager to have work done. No wonder the genocide is underway when plastic surgery is so easily obtained.

The same isn’t true for for male actors. Just think of a couple of my personal favorites, Adrien Brody and Owen Wilson, who get piles and piles of work:

In fact, one of the funniest little bits of cultural referencing in recent film was Matt Damon’s disguise in Oceans’s 13, in which to seduce the gamine Ellen Barkin he donned a prosthetic nose he called The Brody:

If one digs deeper, one can find a few good noses. Vicki Lewis doesn’t get nearly enough work if you ask me, but she was great as the manic secretary on the old NewsRadio series and even more distinctive in the dramatic role in Pushing Tin (1999):

I’m telling ya, friends, it’s a sorry state of affairs. It’s bad enough that actresses have all manner of work done all the time — to make their breasts just a bit bigger, their butts a bit more luscious, their stomachs teeny. But we’ve been engaging in a war on great noses. No wonder we have epidemics of anorexia and plastic surgery among girls starting at age 11. You know what Barbra would say? I do:

Bring back the real nose. It’s a radical statement of identity and self-determination, not to mention ethnic pride and/or a willingness to see past superficial standards for female beauty. Wear your schnozz with pride.

I walked into the research library today and got introduced to a head librarian. “We’re very happy you’re here,” he said. “We’ve heard wonderful things about you.”

My response? Panic. I believe he is actually saying, We’ve heard terrible things about you and we are perversely delighted to meet you. I’m quite certain I had a look of terror on my face — even the poor librarian recognized that something wasn’t quite right with me. “We were so pleased to hear about your book prize, for example,” he offered as reassurance.

“Look at this. Look at what they make you give” — that’s what Clive Owen’s character, The Professor, says to Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) in The Bourne Identity (2002). The Professor has just tried to kill Bourne, as requested; as he’s dying, they discover they’re both assassins, both trained by Treadstone, and that they suffer from the same headaches. If it seems ridiculous for me to compare myself to Bourne, I must insist that this line makes me want to weep.

I became an academic for a lot of reasons that seem foolish in retrospect. To ruin a terrific exchange from Casablanca (1942):

Didion: I became an academic for the intellectual freedom.

Captain Renault: The freedom? What freedom? Academia is an intellectual cage!

Didion: I was misinformed.

On days like today — faced with a lovely man who wants to complement me, only to make me feel like I’m going to throw up — I realize how much academia makes you give. It’s not that I hadn’t seen it before; I’d seen other people get destroyed by the tenure process before me (and they got tenure). The thing about academics is, each of us believes that we will not suffer the slings & arrows of outrageous fortune. (I am a quoting machine tonight!)

Yet here I am, jumping at the slightest noise. I’ve survived — just barely — but with so many injuries and grudges and emotional damage that I can’t take a complement from a librarian. And I’m someone who, for the most part, did what I was “supposed” to do to move through the tenure process.

So now I study my email inbox, which now has four requests for letters of recommendation for undergrads wishing to go to grad school. They’re perfectly nice students and have the brains to do well and, more important, seem to have the drive to power through the sheer cussedness of grad school. But before I agree to write those letters I want to show these young men and women my wounds and scars, and force them to read posts by people like Professor Zero and Historiann and the other academics who write frankly about the long-term damage they’ve suffered. These bloggers write about wanting to quit their jobs, even after they get tenured. Oh young people, beware: look at what academia makes you give.

Living outside of New York, LA or Chicago means I haven’t had the chance to see a lot of this year’s critics’ picks for best film, like Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, Mike Leigh’s Another Year, and Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. Even given those gaps, however, I want to make an argument for Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone as the year’s best film and as the right film for the award during a hard year of financial crisis and jobless recovery.

I could have chosen a film that exemplified the movies’ capacity to tell great stories that take us outside ourselves to that place of pleasure and wonder. Winter’s Bone might not have been so feel-good, but it was just as great a tale as Toy Story 3, True Grit, The Kids Are All Right, or The King’s Speech.  It made a better and more unpredictable thriller than Black Swan or A Prophet, and much, much better than The Ghost Writer, Shutter Island, and Inception.

In my mind, its real battle is with David Fincher’s The Social Network, a battle it will surely lose. The Social Network benefits from a timely story, massive ticket sales, an all-star directing/writing/production team, and — let’s face it — the focus on dudes and those epic battles involving testosterone and enormous sums of money that make voters for the Academy cream their pants. In contrast, Winter’s Bone has a little-known female director and co-writer, an unknown female lead who doesn’t prettify herself, and an all-poverty setting in the Missouri Ozarks where meth dealing and squirrel-eating are ways of life. The film appeared in theaters all the way back in July rather than late this fall. In short: no matter how much it might be the better film, or at least just as good as The Social Network, Winter’s Bone doesn’t have a chance.

But here’s why we should vote for it: because it tells one of the real stories of 2010: of poor people clinging on by their fingernails. It doesn’t have lines like “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” (And here I’m thinking about how much I objected last March to the fact that Sandra Bullock beat out Gabourey Sidibe for best actress — a choice that reveals our determination to feel good at the movies.) The story it tells — of a teenaged girl trying to keep her family together with a roof over their heads — doesn’t distract us from our own problems, sure, but that’s why the film’s terrific storytelling and perfect cast are so crucial. The fact that she succeeds in the end makes it even more appealing for our troubled times than the deeply ambivalent conclusion of The Social Network.

I have other reasons for pushing the film. In the wake of Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Director win at the Academy Awards for The Hurt Locker, 2010 turned out to be a comparatively great year for female directors — with Nicole Holofcener, Lisa Cholodenko, Coppola, and Granik releasing top-notch films. But unlike last year, there’s little grassroots movement to push female-directed films into the top level of competition for an Oscar, no matter how superior their films might be. For me, the battle isn’t won until women are nominated more often, and when women directors get nominated for films that have women in them. (Just like it was great in 1981 to get the nation’s first female Supreme Court justice with Sandra Day O’Connor, but even better when Ruth Bader Ginsberg brought a feminist consciousness to the Court in 1993, a choice that truly benefited other women.)

  • Best film:  Winter’s Bone
  • Best director:  Debra Granik for Winter’s Bone
  • Best female actor:  Kim Hye-ja for Mother (Korea, dir. Bong Joon-ho)
  • Best male actor:  Colin Firth for The King’s Speech
  • Best female supporting actor:  Dale Dickey for Winter’s Bone
  • Best male supporting actor:  Matt Damon for True Grit

I have more to say about what a great year it was for interesting female parts and terrific female acting — my choices for best actress and supporting actress were really hard to narrow down, whereas Firth simply has no competition for best actor. But that’ll wait till another time. In the meantime I’m going to keep arguing for Winter’s Bone, and I hope you do too.

Who knows what possessed them to do so, but when I was about ten my parents sat me down to watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat.  If it was cotton candy for its 1935 audiences, it was no less so for me:  I was riveted by everything from the corny jokes to those awkward segues into elegant Irving Berlin songs to that famous dress made of feathers in which Ginger dances cheek to cheek with Fred.  Even all these years later I can’t quite put my finger on why the ten-year-old me found this Depression-era relic so compelling — yet the quest to plumb what movies mean to us is irresistible.  In my case it was Fred & Ginger who began a lifelong love of film, and for some reason I’ve been thinking about this ever since seeing the Coen brothers’ True Grit last night.  Clearly, my tastes now run much darker than they did when I was ten, but I still find myself moved beyond easy explanation by this tale.  (And what can I say?  I’m perversely entertained by the contrast of the two films.)

There’s an awful lotta road between them, but I’ll talk your ear off over a few beers to convince you that these films are both about the joy of watching movies.  Whereas John Wayne dominated the 1969 original, the Coens people their story with much more modest actors such that the film focuses on telling a great tale.  And what a tale it is. 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) comes to town looking for someone to track down a man named Chaney (Josh Brolin) who killed and robbed her father, and she chooses U. S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a man later referred to as “a one-eyed fat man.”  Cogburn drinks too much, kills too many of the men he was supposed to pick up, and might even cheat Mattie out of the $50 she gives him to start looking — but she believes he has the true grit for the job.  Things get more complicated when a self-aggrandizing (yet oddly self-conscious) Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Matt Damon) shows up hunting the same guy, determined to take Chaney back for some Texas justice rather than to Mattie’s home of Yell County, Arkansas.  And we’re off.  (I could say so much more about the terrific 13-year-old actor Steinfeld, but I want to emphasize here that this is truly an ensemble cast — part of her gift is knowing that she’s part of a triumvirate.  She’s already won eight supporting actor awards for her part [sidebar: why supporting?  that’s downright insulting] and has been nominated for a pile of other prizes, so I’m hardly the first to notice.)

Maybe this sounds like it combines every Western cliché you’ve ever heard of (in a genre that loves clichés), but don’t quit on me now.  It’s got the best dialogue I’ve heard since the Coens’ last 15 movies, except without the cussin’.  The Coens wrote the screenplay without using many contractions, leading to such locutions as “He has abandoned me to a congress of louts” — conversation that only gets funnier when it’s ricocheting between the whipsmart Mattie, the growling Rooster, and the slightly out-of-his-league La Boeuf, and funnier yet again when La Boeuf’s lines are slurred due to badly biting his own tongue in a tussle.  The Coens love three-way dialogue; just remember the exchanges between Donnie, Walter, and the Dude in The Big Lebowski or between Ulysses, Pete, and Delmar in O Brother, Where Art Thou? to remember the greatness.  But I’m not sure it’s ever been as even-handedly delicious as in True Grit.  In an early scene the two men sit on their horses, watching the indomitable Mattie charge across a roaring river on her horse with only her head and her horse’s above water; Cogburn says dryly, “By God.  She reminds me of me,” to which La Boeuf responds, “Well then, we might just not get along.”  The relations between the three are always strained, just enough to keep the barbs flying.  Except when Rooster’s drunk, anyway — then he simply resorts to long-winded retellings of past adventures.  It’s at those moments when you feel no tension between the three main characters that you get anxious that the story is about to plunge us deep into a tight spot.

Great storytelling, terrific visuals, three equally great main characters held in perfect equilibrium, and that sparkling dialogue that gives The Social Network and Aaron Sorkin a run for the money — but those aren’t the only reasons why this movie made me think so much about why I love movies.  It’s something else, a magician’s gift for sleight-of-hand.  True Grit keeps distracting you with one thing and then producing rabbits from nearby hats — plot twists, a little gruesome bloodletting, a surprise appearance by a bad guy, a shoot-off.  Whereas some films practically flag that left hand working sneakily off to one side (hello, the utterly disappointing The Ghost Writer — how did that end up on so many best-of lists?), in this one I simply settled back to let the words, scenes, characters, and conflicts wash over me.  When Cogburn stands over the bruised body of La Boeuf and curses, “Damn that Texan; when you need him, he’s dead,” we’re relieved to find out he’s wrong — but your mind gets stuck on that sweet line, wishing you’d thought of it first.

A long time ago I saw Smoke in a Cambridge theater and throughout the film some jackass behind me kept turning to his friend saying, “I’m really enjoying this, aren’t you?”  As annoyed as I was, I know what he meant.  Sometimes a film creates a whole world that you just succumb to, childlike, without trying too hard to second-guess outcomes.  The words are so great and so unusual that you run them over your tongue like hard candy, and you let yourself get swept up.  That was my experience of True Grit, and that was my experience of Top Hat all those many years ago.  Don’t get me wrong:  True Grit isn’t a cheery movie with a Fred & Ginger outcome; I could say much more about the Coens’ love of cynicism and other themes that dominate their films, but that’ll have to wait for another day.  Still, I walked out of the film feeling buttressed up, somehow.  Maybe it’s because the new school year’s beginning and I could use some true grit myself.  Maybe I just need to take a tip from Rooster, who was partial to pulling a cork for comfort.  On these gloomy early January days — dark even here in the normally sunny Texas — we could use a tale that takes us outside of ourselves.