True Grit - The Coen Brothers remake of the classic Henry Hathaway film that earned John Wayne his only Best Actor Oscar is the kind of seemingly effortless filmmaking great directors make when they're on a roll. Not a peak-level masterpiece, but a very good film; Barry Bonds in 2000 rather than Bonds 2001. Jeff Bridges plays a one-eyed US Marshal hired by a precocious 14 year old girl (a verbally advanced performance from Hailee Steinfeld) to track down her father's killer. Intermittently joining them on the hunt is Matt Damon as a Texas Ranger named LeBoeuf (pronounced "LeBeef"). The Coens found a kindred spirit in their love of bizarre English dialects in the highly stylized circumlocutions of the original novel, language that was, as I recall, largely normalized in the first film version. It's the only film this year that loves language more than The Social Network. The result is easily the Coen's funniest film since The Big Lebowski, leavened with the brand of existentialism, grounded in the apparent randomness and arbitrariness of justice in the universe, that so strongly characterized their good films of the last decade. It also might be their most beautiful film to date, starting with a stunner of an opening shot, a golden light in a blizzard that could have come out of a classic children's book. What really makes the film special, though, is the final 15 minutes or so, with a midnight ride strongly reminiscent of the river sequence in Night of the Hunter (it uses what appears to me to be rear projection to add a sense of fairy tale delirium) that cements its position as the year's best evocation of the Old, Weird America, edging out the more prosaic, and much less fun, Winter's Bone. On first viewing, I'm not sure how well it all flows together, it seemed more disjointed that it probably should in the transition from the town to the journey and then the disintegration and reintegration of the group. But I can't wait to see it again.
Mother - In a plot eerily similar, and yet totally different, from Lee Chang-dong's 2010 film Poetry, Kim Hye-ja sees her developmentally disabled son accused of murdering a young girl. Initially she pleads for help from the police, former customers (she's an unlicensed acupuncturist), and an arrogant attorney, even the victim's family, each time adopting a submissive tone of voice and humble mannerisms, straightening and saddening every time she gets shot down. Eventually, with some advice and help from one of her son's friends, she takes it upon herself to investigate the crime and find the real killer. Her actions once she does are what limit this to being merely a clever genre exercise with a cynical, rather depressing view of the world. It's as funny, at least in the beginning, as director Bong Joon-ho's last film, the very fine monster movie The Host, but it leaves you cold. Poetry, on the other hand, has a much more expansive and tragic view of life and its characters, a real affection for them that Bong's more narrow film doesn't allow. Or at least, in the film's final scenes, our sympathy with the Mother either feels forced at best and satirical at worst. The #33 film of 2009.
Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould - I can't imagine a less exciting documentary about such a fascinating musician. Like most of the worst examples of its genre, it puts the focus on the artist's personal life (which is exceptionally dull, even for a Canadian) instead of their work, which is the reason we want to see a documentary about him anyway (for a much better example of how to make a classical music doc, see In Search of Beethoven, from a couple of years ago). Aside from a few sparse scenes with one of Gould's conservatory classmates, wherein she demonstrates the radically different approaches Gould took to various pieces of music, there's almost no discussion of the actual music he created. Worse than that, we get no real context to place Gould within his era, either of post-war classical music, or the wider culture of the 50s and 60s. The best we get on that end are overblown claims of Gould's importance in recording music in a studio in the 1970s, as if he invented the idea of splicing different takes together. The best parts of the movie are archival interviews with Gould, where he is articulate, funny, and a bit kooky, though he never seems as weird as the various talking heads seem to think he was. Maybe that's a genre thing, or considering that the only popular musician mentioned in the film is Petula Clark, maybe the filmmakers really just don't have any idea of what was going on in pop culture in Gould's time. The #59 film of 2009.