PARANORMAN (Chris Butler and Sam Fell, 2012)

1900.1280.fin.002._L.0033.jpgWhat an odd duck this one is. A little bit horror, a little bit animated “feel good,” a little bit dark drama about social alienation. An extremely strange blend of genres and styles, ParaNorman somehow manages to pull it off…sort of. In the same way that it’s a messy mix of concepts and themes, it’s also messy in terms of execution. Some moments are inspired, charming, and/or funny, like Norman’s love/hate relationship with his sister and a clever little pro-gay rights moment near the conclusion . Others, like the actual zombies and their back-story, feel shallow, discombobulated and clunky. The plot itselfa boy who can see, and speak to, the dead (including his deceased grandmother) finds himself mocked by his entire town until an awakening of seven cursed corpses forces a change of heartis funky and somewhat tired, yet has just enough original spunk to avoid being a chore. The banter between the characters is mostly above-average, and the emotional development is as well. There’s also something appealing about Norman’s triple-pronged challenges from the grownups/parents, other kids, and the undeadwhile this sort of growth in a film is hardly original, it’s executed pretty well here. There are just too many lulls and tonal inconsistencies to elevate ParaNorman above the “decent” threshold. That risk always exists when a filmmaker tries to straddle genres, and it’s on full display here. Still, there’s enough to like to earn a moderately positive overall assessment.

58/100

RISE OF THE GUARDIANS (Peter Ramsey, 2012)

Alas, a sweet heart and a tender message aren’t enough to save Rise of the Guardians from its overly sugary ways. Occasional moments of genuine sentiment and emotion are drowned out by canned lines galore,  uneven pacing, and mediocre voice-acting. The story, which pits the Guardians (Santa Claus,The Easter Bunny, The Sandman, and the Tooth Fairy, along with newcomer Jack Frost) vs. the evil Bogeyman (here, known as Pitch) in a quest to keep children’s beliefs alive, feels stale and uninspired (not to mention that the decision to place Jack Frost in the pantheon of the others, let alone make him the protagonist, seems like an odd choice). And the script is even worse: Rise of the Guardians is one of those movies where almost anybody can predict the next line before it comes out of the character’s mouth. On the plus side, the imagery is engaging, and nearly any animated picture about children and their dreams is bound to stir the heart of anyone who posses one, to some degree, anyway. But Rise of the Guardians is sufficiently dark that the youngest movie-goers should be ruled out lest they wind up with one of the Bogeyman’s nightmares…so while a certain child demographic should get a thrill out of the action and vanquishing of evil, the parents are likely to find this one severely lacking in plenty of areas.

42/100

THE EVIL DEAD (Sam Raimi, 1981)

A cult classic of the highest order, Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead is the rare 80′s movie that actually feels worthy of its lofty reputation; relatively, anyway. Set in a cold cabin in the woods, The Evil Dead tells the story of five young friends whose plans for a fun, saucy weekend turn to terror when they find an ancient book of evil in the cabin’s cellar that releases evil spirits back into the world. Person by person is possessed, until only one remains, trying to fend off the demons and send them back from whence they came. The premise is as silly as it sounds, of course, but that’s obviously not the point: Raimi’s very comfortable in his own skin here, and the camp and sudden spooks are, for the most part, effectively delivered. Raimi uses creative pans, often 360-degrees, to enhance the mood, and the makeup is mostly pretty good (with a few moments serving as notable exceptions). The sound editing is excellent. And of course, there’s gore-a-plenty, with severed limbs, spurting blood, lunging branches, fire irons, and other such goodies. It all adds up to a rollicking good time for horror junkies, and even some entertainment for the rest of us, assuming the viewer in question isn’t the squeamish sort. Plenty of modern genre entries could take a cue from Raimi’s deft handling of the material.

64/100

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (Peter Jackson, 2012)

Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is solely responsible for my falling in love with the movies. Fellowship hooked me back in 2001, and soon I was gleefully discovering the worlds of the French New Wave, Italian Neo-realism, and Film Noir. I’ve seen all three entries well over a dozen times, most of them of the Extended Cut variety. They remain in my top five of all-time (I consider them one film, really), and on any given day, they could occupy the top spot. In fact, they mean so much to me that I’ve steadfastly refused to review them over the years. Some emotions are best left unwritten, and I fear any sort of real objectivity would be entirely lost when it comes to the LoTR trilogy. And this from someone who has only read the books once and, while enjoying them immensely, could hardly be labeled a Tolkien geek.

With that major caveat out of the way, we turn to Jackson’s long-awaited prequel to The Lord of the Rings—The Hobbit. Or, rather, the first part of the said prequel; An Unexpected Journey (The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again will follow in 2013 and 2014 respectively). On first glance, this seems entirely unnecessary. While The Lord of the Rings is, in fact, three separate books, The Hobbit is not. Furthermore, it’s a much simpler book than its successor—more playful and less dark, for starters, and certainly not as emotionally or substantively complex.  So, why was it split into three parts? For one, let’s call a spade a spade and acknowledge that Jackson possesses, er, a drop of directorial conceit. Ever since the beyond-anyone’s-wildest-dreams success of LoTR, Jackson has seemed to think he has poetic license to put any topic into a wholly epic scope. The Lord of the Rings, with its operatic story and deep soul, could easily carry this. But King Kong? Not so much—the first hour in particular felt like a self-congratulatory masturbation session before  it settles into a passable comfort zone. And The Lovely Bones? Even less; that topic required a much softer, subtler touch mixed with a few grandiose moments. Jackson failed at injecting any of the former into the mix at all, instead putting out a mostly muddled mess that felt inappropriately bombastic for its subject. All of this goes to show that Jackson is more than capable of inflating a topic beyond its necessary means. Along these same lines, of course, is the subject of money. Splitting the films was going to be substantially more lucrative to New Line than releasing them as one shortened version…so really, what was there to think about? Like Warner Brothers did with the penultimate Harry Potter, New Line and its executives went were the money was.

So, now the million dollar question: did it work? Did the editing and expansion of the material drastically cheapen the source material? Or did Jackson, back in his comfort zone of Middle Earth, pull it off with splendor, transporting its viewers as if 11 years had passed like nothing? The answer to that question is likely to be a matter of perspective. I chose to make the experience as close to The Lord of the Rings as possible, eschewing 3D and IMAX for “old school” standard viewing, and thus eliminating a potential distraction from the mix, and the worlds and imagery are very similar to those of the original trilogy. Those who were transported years ago are likely to be so again. There are certainly scenes and entire sequences that one could argue could be trimmed or cut without doing any damage to the narrative. There’s singing, drinking, and lots of eating. The pacing is more laborious. But does that constitute a chore? Again, we go back to perspective. For this critic, I could have sat there for another three hours, warts and all. Martin Freeman of Sherlock fame makes an excellent Bilbo; Ian McKellan reprises his Gandalf with his usual aplomb; the cinematography, music, and set design are wonderful. The excesses and ponderous dialogue—well-written but dramatic—will certainly bore many to tears, especially those not drawn to the genre. But there’s tons to admire here, and just being back in these glorious lands of elves and dwarves, in Rivendell and Hobbiton, gives a glorious thrill in and of itself. Jackson’s conceits are real, but he’s never in his element as much as he is here.

Let’s be clear: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not at the level of The Lord of the Rings. The characters, which predominantly consist of Bilbo, Gandalf, and a gaggle of dwarfs, are simply not as rich or interesting as Aragorn, Legolas, Frodo, Merry, and the LoTR crew. There’s not the same emotional heft. There’s not the same endless scope. But there ARE excellent production values, superb acting, and a marvelous fantasy story, all of which will leave many-a-viewer thirsty for more. Beauty and wonder is in the eye of the beholder, and to these eyes, the early critical backlash isn’t warranted, unless we’re basing our expectations on The Hobbit matching The Lord of the Rings. It doesn’t, and it won’t go down in history the way those masterpieces will. But it’s a worthy entry in its own right, offers lots of charming shout-outs to the originals, and should more than satisfactorily scratch the itch of those who have waited many long years to see Middle Earth back on screen.

76/100

WRECK-IT RALPH (Rich Moore, 2012)

Despite being a perfectly entertaining Disney picture, Wreck-it Ralph leaves that nagging taste in the mouth that it could have been so much more. From the trailer, I’d hoped for a wildly enjoyable romp down video game memory lane bliss, more in line with the “Bad Guys Anonymous” meeting (an AA spoof) from the trailer (and early in the film), where a gaggle of gaming villains commiserate in a sad sack circle. Unfortunately, while there are a few other nostalgic highlights, Wreck-it Ralph mostly morphs into a generic Disney picture: harmless, simple fun with a clean message and uplifting conclusion. It’s basically what we’ve come to expect from Disney movies since the mid-90′s…which is charming enough, but a let-down given the creative premise of a video game villain desperate to taste what it’s like to be the hero, and game-hopping to earn a medal and find out. Caveats and expectations aside, Wreck-it Ralph does meet the threshold of family fun, and constitutes a fine day out at the theater with the kiddos. And Jane Lynch voices the militant female captain Calhoun to perfection. So go to the multiplex, but expect to see the same movie you’ve been seeing for the past 15 years.

60/100

ARBITRAGE (Nicholas Jarecki, 2012)

It’s appropriate that Arbitrage gets its American release while our country is knee-deep in the fight over the fiscal cliff. While executive compensation isn’t really the primary focus of this particular battle, the power that the rich wield, from influence to tax rates, is. And Arbitrage is thick with moral hazard, double standards, and manipulation that favor the wealthiest of the wealthy. It tells the story of billionaire, silver fox Hedge Fund magnate Robert Miller (Richard Gere), your stereotypical (some would say prototypical) finance kingpin who plays around with younger women and engages in fraudulent behavior to cover up big misjudgments while his wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) runs his household and charities for the public eye. Currently, Miller’s object of side affection is the sexy young French artist Julie (Laetitia Casta), and when an explosive event forces him to cover up a tragedy—you see, Miller is in the midst of a complicated sale of his secretly-in-the-red firm, and can’t possibly risk being ensnared in public scandal—he turns to the reliable tools that the rich possess in spades: high-powered lawyers and those who owe him favors because of past financial assistance. Here, he turns to Nate Parker (Jimmy Grant), whose father worked for Miller’s firm for 20 years and who Miller has looked after from afar since Parker’s father passed away. Everybody else’s future? His family? Doing what’s right? Responsibility for one’s actions? It all takes a back seat to Miller’s bloated ego, his fear of seeing his house-of-cards empire fall in a flash.

Arbitrage simplifies some of these concepts, and it’s really a pretty by-the-numbers portrayal of all of this, but it does do a very solid job of depicting how the fat cats   can make their own rules when their consciences permit it. Gere, who I usually find dull as dishwater (outside of Days of Heaven), is pretty good here; he looks the part and plays it convincingly. The rest of the cast is much the same, ranging from fine-to-solid but rarely standing out. Jarecki’s direction falls into the same boat, though the closing scene—a bit overly abrupt, but quite good—warrants mention, illustrating how the game goes on as the torch is passed, and how these titans of their trade are content to look the other way as long as the money, second homes, and yachts are flowing in. While certainly unspectacular, Arbitrage is a competent feature debut from the young Jarecki, and a movie that may hold a small level of importance in the years to come as the financial system and its regulation in the United States continues to evolve.

65/100

SKYFALL (Sam Mendes, 2012)

In taking the reins of the beloved James Bond franchise, Sam Mendes has finally found the proper vehicle for his showy-but-emotionally-vapid filmmaking style. I’ve always found his work—American BeautyRoad to Perdition, and Revolutionary Road in particular—to be technically impeccable, but completely lacking in any genuine soul: the picture-perfect houses, coiffed hair, and exquisitely tailored suits served to cover up paper-thin characters with little in the way of substance. And his more free-wheeling pictures (relatively, anyway), Jarhead and Away We Go, highlighted his limitations as a director: while each had their strong points, Mendes was obviously uncomfortable with material that wasn’t straight-forward and drawn with clean lines. It’s always been clear to me that Mendes needed a platform better suited to his strengths while minimizing his weaknesses (some, including those on the Oscar committee, might quibble, but who needs them, anyway?)

Now here strides James Bond (Daniel Craig) into Mendes’ world, ruthless, suave, and single-minded in focus…and voila! We have a match! Skyfall is wildly entertaining and cool, its world full of gorgeous evenings, penthouses, casinos, alcohol, and swirling lights. The excitement abounds. The patented Bond opening scene (not the credit sequence, which is marvelous in its own right), much of it atop a moving train; several smooth-meets-deliriously-mad encounters between Bond and the unhinged Silva (Javier Bardem, natch); and, of particular note, a shootout high up in the China night that’s simultaneously smooth as silk and electrifying. Skyfall flows easily, without hitches or abrupt, awkward moments. Crisp colors, sexy women, and cinematography that evoke Blade Runner and Tron: Legacy without departing from Mendes’ visual palate highlight why Skyfall fits Mendes like a glove.

The acting, led by the perfect nemeses Craig and Bardem—who channels his Anton Chigurh to full effect—is universally excellent. Ralph Fiennes, Judi Dench, and the precocious Ben Whishaw as the brainy Q offer outstanding support to the stars. And Adele’s much-balleyhooed title song simply must be mentioned in any write-up, as its beauty is matched only by its appropriateness as a Bond theme. And with a climactic shootout that’s simultaneously terse and touching—what IS Skyfall?—Mendes finally manages to inject some genuine heart into his work. Surprising and perhaps difficult to predict when the project was announced, but true nonetheless. Skyfall epitomizes what a Bond movie should be, and its director, for once, justifiably deserves much of the credit.

80/100

 

The top 15 Films of 2011, along with a few fun awards

2011 marked a solid year in cinema, at least from what I was able to get to. Sadly, I’m no longer able to watch 100-120 movies a year; life has gotten in the way. But I’ve seen enough to cobble together a respectable list. Without further adieu:

Best Lead Performance [Male]: Ralph Fiennes, Coriolanus. Runners-up: Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life (and Moneyball); Jean Dujardin, The Artist; Peyman Moadi, A Separation; Ryan Gosling, Drive; Michael Fassbender, Shame.

Best Lead Performance [Female]: Anna Paquin, Margaret. Runners-up: Kirsten Dunst & Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melancholia; Leila Hatami, A Separation; Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy; Adepero Oduye, Pariah; Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs.

Best Editing: Drive, The Tree of Life, Contagion, Margaret, Melancholia.

Best Cinematography: The Tree of Life, Hugo, Melancholia, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Meek’s Cutoff.

Best TV Series: Game of Thrones. Runners-up: Breaking Bad, Dexter, Luther, Hell on Wheels.

Feel free to inquire about other categories. Now, onto the list…

15. The Artist (Michael Hazanavicius)

The subject of extreme backlash, The Artist definitely has its warts (an occasionally sloppy lack of attention to detail; some awkward stretches), but the positives easily outweigh the negatives for me. It’s a loving tribute to cinema, and not just the silent era…this is a melting pot of homages, including to such visionaries as Fred Astaire. Jean Dujardin deserves all the accolades heaped upon him. It could have been much better—dare I say award-worthy?—but as is, it’s still quite good. Oh, and the dog rocks. Best pooch onscreen since The Thin Man.

14. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)

A second viewing would probably have vaulted this one up into the top 10: alas, time didn’t allow for it, so here it stays. As a mood piece, Drive is exquisite, blending a hypnotic soundtrack with beautiful cinematography and editing. It’s a clear, and sizable, step up for the previously hyper-but-disorganized Refn, whose Bronson and Valhalla Rising had flashes of brilliance mixed with big problems. Drive felt a bit too style-over-substance to me after my initial look, but its sat very well on a much richer level (hence my first sentence)…but its technical mastery and superb acting earn it a spot on the list for now anyway.

13. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (David Yates)

A few overly cloying moments (particularly the postscript, essential in the book but superfluous here) keep Part 2 a small step behind Part 1, but make no mistake: the Harry Potter franchise closes extremely strongly with this dark, tonally astute conclusion to J.K. Rowling’s masterful series. Featuring excellent set & costume designs, along with a continued emphasis on telling its story without words, The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 should thrill both admirers of the books and casual fans alike. The acting, which has never really gotten its due since things kicked off in 2001, wraps things up with a bang,

12 [tie]. Senna (Asif Kapadia)

I have absolutely no interest in auto racing, so Senna‘s powerful impact on me came as a surprise. It’s not about racing at all, but about culture, faith, and passion. Kapadia juggles all these sensitive items with grace and skill, and while there are a few aspects I wish had been fleshed out a bit better, Senna is an extremely impressive documentary, boasting strong editing and excellent use of archival footage. And the story itself is powerful stuff. Criminally under-the-radar, this should be a must-see for movie lovers.

11 [tie]. Project Nim (James Marsh)

James Marsh is rapidly establishing himself as a must-see documentary filmmaker: Project Nim isn’t quite on the level of his exceptional Man on Wire, but it’s not too far off. Once again, Marsh takes a subject matter that could have been presented blandly and matter-of-factly, and imbues it with life, love, and passion. It’s an even-handed, and often emotional, take on a topic that could have been completely skewed.

10. Melancholia (Lars Von Trier)

Like Drive, I expect to see this one shoot up on my list after a future revisit. For now, I’ll say this: Melancholia boasts tremendous acting (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst are magnificent), haunting cinematography, and a knock-you-flat finale that’s legitimately unforgettable. A sudden shift in perspective midway through is a bit jarring, and should flow more smoothly once I know what to expect. Unlike Von Trier’s previous work, I found Melancholia strangely unemotional, which was surprising, but not a flaw in and of itself. Not for everyone, but full of a jarring, unsettling power.

09. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)

Certainly worthy of the extreme hype…this is a quietly powerful picture, taking us deep into the world of Iran’s cultural expectations and restrictions. Above all, though, this is a universally human drama, carefully crafted and buoyed by pitch-perfect performances across the spectrum. A Separation takes a bit of time to establish its rhythm (though it’s always interesting), but once it does, it’s masterfully constructed, evoking legitimate empathy for all parties. The ending refuses to wrap things up in a tidy package, leaving us to ponder what’s right and what isn’t.

08. Moneyball (Bennett Miller)

I love baseball. I love statistics. And I’ve always loved the concept behind Billy Beane’s philosophy. So it’s no surprise that I was a big fan of Bennett Miller’s adaptation of Moneyball. Miller chooses a somewhat surprisingly stylized approach, but it works: without adding a bit of pizzazz, it would have been difficult to make poring over numbers an interesting two hours of cinema. Brad Pitt wouldn’t have popped into my mind as the right actor for Beane, but he makes the character his own. A must for baseball geeks, and a should for all others.

07. 50/50 (Jonathan Levine)

Has a bit of that Rushmore magic—the ability to effortlessly make its viewer laugh one moment and cry the next. 50/50 isn’t at that level, but it’s an endearing, supremely touching movie that tackles a VERY difficult subject with just the right touch. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is excellent in the lead, but it’s Seth Rogen’s multi-dimensional performance that really hit me hard; a sequence near the end involving some bathroom reading is overwhelmingly moving. This is a movie that should not be dismissed. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the year for me, and a film I’d happily revisit over the years.

06. A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)

This one’s been seemingly and surprisingly ignored, perhaps because it’s much talkier and less reliant on atmosphere than Cronenberg’s previous work. For me, though, it worked exceedingly well, and gets bonus points for focusing on a psychological subject that I find very, very interesting. Michael Fassbender and the scene-stealing Viggo Mortensen have excellent chemistry, and even Keira Knightley, who I tend to actively dislike, mostly turns in a strong performance. Unlike a few others on this list, I could see A Dangerous Method dropping a bit over time, but for now, it stays in the top 10.

05. The Descendants (Alexander Payne)

Slowly builds to a moving, symphonic crescendo: Payne’s poignant take on bitterness, frustration, and loneliness gets off to a slightly slow start, but quickly picks up momentum, and by the end, it’s a classic example of the sum being better than its individual parts. All of the interactions and emotional developments feel astonishingly real, particularly given the “superficial” setting of Hawaii. Clooney is quite good (though I wouldn’t call it a dazzling performance), but the supporting cast is excellent across the board. Sneakily deep and substantive, The Descendants is Payne’s best and most fulsome work to date.

04. Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below (Makoto Shinkai)

Technically unreleased in the USA as of now, but it’s my list, so I’ll do as I please. Anyway, Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below isn’t quite at the level of Shinkai’s masterpiece 5 Centimeters Per Second, but this aching tale of the search for purpose and meaning is both a coming-of-age tale and a beautiful look at how the heart challenges people of all ages and places in life. The imagery is predictably mesmerizing—Shinkai has gifts that have not been sufficiently appreciated in America. Suffice to say, watch it if you can get your hands on it. Particularly if you have a fondness for the work of Hayao Miyazaki.  And if you like gorgeous animation without the hokum.

03. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)

If you’d told me before its release that Hugo would instantly become one of my favorite Scorsese films, I would have thought you’d lost your mind. I shouldn’t have doubted someone with such a deep appreciation for his craft, though. Hugo, for the lack of a better phrase, overflows with pure magic; a glorious love poem to cinema. The gorgeous cinematography and colors fully pull us into the world, an emotional place full of discovery, wonder, growth, and artistic rebirth. Georges Méliès is also a splendid choice to get a serious boost in exposure behind cinema geeks like myself: he was a real pioneer, and the wild imagination of his work shines through here. Hugo is also the rare picture that actually benefits from 3D. See it, love it, lose yourself in it.

02. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan)

Tied up for years in legal battles over the control of editing, Margaret is worth the wait: it’s a messy, sprawling, balls-to-the-wall masterpieces that oozes ambition from every corner. Endlessly pulses with unease, as it runs the gamut of emotion and self-discovery. The evolution of Lisa’s state of mind and understanding of the world (a marvelous Anna Paquin at her absolute finest) is a wonder to behold. Margaret is the sort of picture I could watch over and over again, gleaning new insights into its world each time, and along with You Can Count on Me, helps establish director Kenneth Lonergan as a truly elite cinematic mind. One can only hope he picks up the pace of his filmic output…

01. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

…like Mr. Malick appears to be doing as he approaches his later years—if reports are to believed, we may be treated to four of his films in the next two years. Would that we would be so lucky. Watching Malick spin his craft is like watching an absolute master school the rest of the world at what his art form is about, and The Tree of Life is the crown jewel of a spread-out career that’s produced multiple masterpieces already. Malick’s narrative-eschewing approach will turn off many viewers, but for those who respond to his vision and style, he achieves an artistic transcendence that mere mortal directors can only dream of. He’s a poet of the highest order. Put aside the spellbinding imagery, the entrancing music, the universally superb performances: The Tree of Life is perhaps the most accurate portrayal of the human condition that I’ve seen onscreen. There are no preconceived notions, no stereotypes that can’t be torn down.  He tenderly shows us the power of new parenthood with all cooing turned off, and shows us the complexities of reconciling ones own flaws with how to properly raise a child. Malick goes from humanity to the world. The scope is breathtaking, the resonance unforgettable. Rarely do I leave a theater hardly able to speak, but I felt nearly catatonic when The Tree of Life came to a close; shaken to my very core. This will be a mainstay in my all-time favorites list for the rest of my life, and one day, I’ll put together a much more comprehensive analysis than this capsule. Or maybe I won’t. A few rare works of art are best left to their own devices, to make sure the magic is never lessened by words. This just might be one of those times.

SENNA (Asif Kapadia, 2011)

As someone who’s decidedly uninterested in auto racing, I was admittedly skeptical when a good friend highly recommended Asif Kapadia’s Senna, a documentary about the legendary Brazilian auto racer who died tragically in action at the age of 34. I shouldn’t have doubted him. Senna isn’t really about auto racing at all (though there are a few gripping finishes): rather, it’s about how one’s near-deity status in their profession of choice can touch the world on a nearly unimaginable scope. It’s also a surprisingly deft examination of the power of faith: while it feels suspiciously like the football player thanking God post-touchdown early on, it smoothly grows into a much richer subtext. A sequence near the end, where Senna’s close friend—and doctor—Sid Watkins, who wasn’t a religious man, feels the presence of a higher power right when Senna draws his final breath, is almost supernaturally powerful (it’s also creepy to note just how uncomfortable and nervous Senna was before the fatal race). Yet Kapadia’s assured editing assures that the biblical angle is never overplayed, and since Senna is essentially all archival footage, the moments that DO arise pack an emotional wallop. Senna‘s first half, which focuses more on Senna’s rise to prominence and his Federer/Nadal-esque rivalry with fellow F1 champ Alain Prost, is very solid, but it’s the second hour that really catapults this to must-see territory. The tragedy of Senna’s far-too-early death can’t be cheapened, but it’s heartwarming to see all the silver linings that came from it, a renewed determination to improve safety in F1 racing (since the death, Watkins has led the charge, and there have been no deaths) and a foundation that’s changed the lives of 12 million Brazilian children among them. I would have liked to have learned a bit more about Senna the man (his family, love life, etc), but since he seemed to live for racing and a greater purpose, that’s a minor quibble at most. Don’t let a lack of interest in the “subject matter” deter you from actively seeking Senna out—along with James Marsh’s Project Nim, it’s the best documentary of the year.

72/100

CLIENT 9: THE RISE AND FALL OF ELIOT SPITZER (Alex Gibney, 2010)

The rapid-fire fall from grace of Eliot Spitzer, the former of Governor of New York, was indeed sudden and precipitous, and Alex Gibney’s documentary about the man, his flaws, and the many circumstances surrounding his outing is, for the most part, sharp and astute. Client 9 is creatively edited—some might call it scattered, but I really enjoyed the way Gibney bounced around between Spitzer’s strengths (a non-stop motor and thirst for results; a fierce desire to weed out corruption; a passion for equality and transparency) and weaknesses (an overly pugnacious approach with his peers that bordered on flat-out belittling; obtuse stubbornness). Rather than turn Client 9 into a sermon on morals or pigeonholing Spitzer’s idiotic mistake into an overall characterization of the man himself, Gibney shows us that Spitzer’s dalliances with prostitutes were a manifestation of something richer. What, exactly? Rampant insecurity, perhaps spurred by being the son of a highly successful real estate mogul? Self-loathing? A pure example of being power-hungry? We’re given flashes of all these possibilities—Spitzer himself speaks fairly regularly throughout the documentary, and candidly, at that—but I wish Gibney had dug even deeper into this fascinating, unique man. Because in so many ways, Eliot Spitzer sums up what we all suspect most politicians, in some form, are: brilliant but tainted individuals who, throughout their many years in the public spotlight, have accumulated many skeletons in their closets. The question becomes how much their mistakes should be held against them, and Client 9, by highlighting Spitzer’s fearless willingness to take on the biggest banks and Hedge Funds on Wall Street (numerous enemies made along the way be damned) without apologizing for his blunders and flaws, comes tantalizingly close to being a truly all-encompassing take on its subject matter…but doesn’t quite get there. It’s a solid documentary, one well worth seeing, but it could have been even better.

65/100