While I love watching a well-made film, most of the ones I see do not stay with me for more than a couple of days. Like most of my dreams, they hardly make a dent in my memory. Like jazz, they seem best appreciated in real time. So when a film sticks with me for more than a couple of days, I figure it’s worth recommending – especially given the lack of quality offerings this time of year.
The first is Two Lovers, directed by James Gray and starring Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow. This is a deliciously uncomfortable story to watch, mostly due to Phoenix’s performance, which is the most interesting I’ve ever seen him give – a stark portrait of subtle neurosis. Similarly, Paltrow plays a vacant air-head with an authenticity that’s impressive, given that in “real-life” she’s anything but. Isabella Rossellini also does a fine job as Phoenix’s mother… you never quite know, until the end, whether she’s the source of Phoenix’s problems. And the choice that Phoenix makes at the end of the film is so ambiguous, you can simultaneously view it as both amazingly life-affirming and depressingly resigned – quite a writing job by Gray and his partner Ric Menello.
The other film that I can’t help but smile about every time I think of it is Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. I’ve never been much of an Eastwood fan, although I liked “Million Dollar Baby” and “Mystic River”, and admired his Iwo Jima epics. I’ve also never much liked movies that self-consciously used the histories of their actors to make their thematic points. But here that strategy works beautifully. Eastwood’s previous characters – mostly purveyors of violence (for all the best reasons, of course) – reverberate throughout every frame of this film, and the climax is Eastwood’s very effective way of commenting slyly on his whole career. The effect of the whole is exponentially greater than the sum of the parts.