My favourite films of 2012, ranked - 11-20 (part 2)
The BFI continues to turn out some lovely and unusual choices for the festive seasons. Last year they screened Meet Me in St Louis, and this year it’s Babette’s Feast (1987) - a film I had never seen, despite being best friends with a professional chef who adores it.
The story: in the middle of the 19th Century a tiny religious community in rural Denmark witnesses the arrival of various strangers (a Swedish captain, a French opera singer) who seek to woo and marry the local pastor’s two beautiful daughters. The daughters are bashful and devoted to their religion, and partly by choice, partly by accident, they end up embracing spinsterhood. A final stranger arrives, this time a French woman called Babette, who is on the run from Paris after the revolution kills her entire family, seeking to stay in the village as a maid and cook in the pastor’s house. The two -now elderly- sisters tell her they can’t afford to pay her services (even though they are quite well off), but she agrees to stay on and work for them regardless. She settles into life in Jutland, learns Danish, strikes up a series of friendships and working relationships with the villagers, and is generally accepted as a mysterious and extravagant member of the community. One day she receives a letter telling her that she has won a huge prize of 10,000F in a French lottery. It appears obvious that she is going to leave the village and move back to France, but before leaving she asks the sisters to be allowed to prepare a special French dinner for the 100th anniversary of the parish. The exotic ingredients begin to arrive - caviar, Burgundy, Champagne, quails, and even a giant live turtle - and the villagers’ religious beliefs begin to shake: won’t all this excess seem depraved in the eyes of God?
On my way to the screening I read this review on Little White Lies, and with it in mind I sat in the cinema, feeling a little worried that I was going to see something placid and superficial - if not outright perverse at a time of global financial crisis. Fortunately I think the reviewer is mistaken on many counts, and most of all on the understanding that this is a story that celebrates consumerism, expenditure and wastefulness as opposed to spiritual richness. Only a strict Calvinist, or somebody who has neither tastebuds, nor appreciation of the social and emotional value of collective dining, let alone an understanding of the experience of cooking for others can come up with such a reductive idea.
This is not simply a film about the earthly delights of eating, and it’s far from the epicurean selfishness of the gastronomy fanboys glorified in so many recent popular TV programmes. On the contrary, Babette’s Feast is a celebration of generosity and the shared pleasure of offering one’s talent and taste to others. Food in the film is a social and emotional catalyst, something to thaw the frozen mind and enlighten the spirit’s way to goodness and joy.
It also isn’t an anti-religious film. While Babette’s Feast certainly does criticise the Puritanical meagreness of this Jutland community - dictated not by poverty, but by enforced tightness and suppressed pleasures that lead to unresolved tensions - the film is also a deeply spiritual meditation on the idea of service and sacrifice: Babette offers up all the lottery money she unexpectedly wins to buy the extravagant ingredients for the dinner. It’s not a wasteful gesture because it is done to honour the household that took her in at a time of disgrace. She spends all the lottery money for others who helped her, not leaving any money behind for herself alone to be able to return to France: the dinner is a heartfelt thank you note written with her genius and talent, a gift to those who were kind to her.
This strikes me as a profoundly Christian idea - think of the parable of the talents: he who hides his talent in the ground does not make it fruitful and wastes it for himself, his master and his community. For a long time I was very confused about this story - although I couldn’t articulate it, I found its moral greedy and capitalist, and couldn’t get my head around it. I recognise now that its significance is that even the most apparently useless talents we are given must be put to good use for others.
Babette’s Feast does precisely that, and it proves a wonderful, alternative Christmas movie for the non-religious. For surely even an agnostic like me understands that the only joy in life is the joy we share with others, and if I can bring some joy into your lives by telling you to go and see this film, then even my silly talent for talking endlessly about films will have been put to a good use.
PS. A practical note of advice: do not watch this film on an empty stomach, or if you do, make sure you have a sumptuous dinner ready when you leave the cinema - you’ll be very, very hungry.
What do you mean this doesn’t exist on DVD (region 2)? How is that even possible? This is one of the greatest Christmas films of all time. Of all time! Something must be done.
If you don’t know Kenneth Branagh’s In the Bleak Midwinter - for that’s what the film was actually called, before being repackaged for US audiences* - I urge you to get acquainted. It’s a low budget, black-and-white comedy about a bunch of unglamorous actors with flailing careers who get together to put on a production of Hamlet in a country church at Christmas - the gloomy Dane at a time of universal peace, jolliness and goodwill? Yes please. A small film, but perfectly formed.
A beautiful long read about my favourite film of all time. Bravo.
WHO SAID WE WERE PUT ON THIS EARTH TO BE HAPPY?
by Brianna Ashby
If you were to crack open my skull and closely examine my brain, I believe that you would find its composition rather peculiar; every neural pathway an overgrown forested tunnel, the frontal lobe nothing but a sea of rusty filing cabinets, stuffed to the gills with piles of yellowing paper and crumpled photographs, the area responsible for mathematical understanding completely obscured by cobwebs and dust. If you did a little digging, you would probably soon unearth an armoire of vintage dresses, a hand-tooled leather saddle, a jar of sea glass, a half-eaten bowl of macaroni and cheese, a small black portfolio, and a pair of socks with holes in the toe. If you were intrepid enough to make your way through this rubbish, you would then reach a door that opens into a large room full of whirring machinations, and gizmos spewing ticker tape, and buzzing intercoms—all crowding around an impenetrable safe of somewhat diminutive proportions.
And if you somehow had it in you to crack open two skulls, I believe that you would find Guido Anselmi’s brain in a similar state of disarray.
LOVE AND LUST AND BASEBALL.
by Elisabeth Geier
When I was a child, my mother’s best friend had a huge thing for Kevin Costner. He was the frequent topic of poolside jokes, the kind I only sort of understood. As a result of this Mom Association, and multiple viewings of Field of Dreams, a film in which Costner was the father to a girl about my age, I viewed Kevin Costner as a Dad. Dads are not crush-worthy. Dads are embarrassing, and they wear dorky pants.
Now that I am an adult woman, and because of hormones and stuff, I realize that Kevin Costner in Bull Durham is a dirty dream come true. As Crash Davis, he’s the perfect combination of smart, witty, driven, and a little bit mean.
“Get a hit, Crash,” a freckled bat boy tells him during a game.
“Shut up,” Crash says. What a handsome jerk.
A career minor leaguer nearing the end of his run, Crash Davis is passionate about baseball, realistic about his prospects, and confident in his worth as both a ballplayer and a man. His meanness is born not of bitterness or cruelty, but of intelligence and drive; he doesn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, so much as challenge them to do their best. Okay, so maybe he’s not interested in challenging the bat boy. But he certainly intends to improve Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), the rookie pitcher he is assigned to mentor within the first five minutes of the film. Crash envies Nuke for his talent and youth, and dislikes him for his attitude and lack of self-control. He also recognizes Nuke’s potential, and takes his role as mentor seriously. He may grumble about his assignment, and insult Nuke by calling him “Meat” every chance he gets, but Crash will help the pitcher make it to the Show. Crash is, above all, loyal to the game.
Am I over-romanticizing Crash Davis?
Isn’t romance an essential element of baseball, at least on film?
Can one really over-romanticize Kevin Costner’s fine self, circa 1988?
Perhaps it is shallow to fixate on the sex appeal of the leading performers in a film. Or perhaps “shallow” is not the right word. Bull Durham has become a classic baseball movie in large part because it focuses on more than baseball. It’s about the human relationships surrounding the sport, which of course can be said of most great sports films, but in this case the human relationships happen to involve lots of sex. Thus, the sexiness of the main players is key. Hold on, let me say “sex” again.
“She read poetry to me all night. It was more tiring than fucking.”
Susan Sarandon as Annie Savoy is perhaps the sexiest woman ever written by a man. As erotic and spiritual sage to the Durham Bulls, Annie “mentors” one young ballplayer per season teaching him how to focus on the field by demanding focus in the bedroom. “When you know how to make love, you’ll know how to pitch,” she tells Nuke LaLoosh. Annie is also smart, witty, driven, and a little bit mean. Like Crash, she’s confident and realistic. She’s the most powerful player in the film, at times the most powerful presence in the ballpark, and because she’s Susan Sarandon, she gets away with some magical-thinking, fix-me crap that otherwise might make eyes roll, particularly when it comes to her control over Nuke.
This is about the time those of us in the Hollywood Know start thinking about Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon’s real-life long-term relationship, how it all started on the set of this film, and how their burgeoning love is retrospectively obvious on-screen. Their chemistry is real, as are the deep kisses they exchange, and one can’t help but wonder how the sage-rookie dynamic played out in their real lives. That said, Sarandon’s chemistry with Costner is almost as convincing. The push-pull between Annie and Crash is at the heart of the film, and remains one of the most entertaining film romances I’ve seen. The entire baseball season is foreplay to their inevitable union in the end.
You have to play this game with arrogance and fear.
Writer/director Ron Shelton crafts a beautiful screenplay, full of now-classic one-liners and impassioned speeches that are not realistic so much as hopeful. Bull Durham is sexy, funny, and sharp; the script is as strategic and elegant as a triple-play. But is it fair to call it a Great Sports Movie, when what sticks with me is not the sport, but the sex? There’s no come-from-behind victory or crushing defeat on the field. There’s no slow-motion save-the-game shot. Really, its best sporting scenes are also its most mundane, human bits: anxious inner monologues about pitching or hitting the ball; Crash and Nuke communicating through nods; the entire infield discussing wedding gifts on the mound. That the Durham Bulls are not particularly good is kind of the point. In the romantic opinion of Ron Shelton, these minor leaguers are in it for the love of the game.
In his enjoyable commentary track, Shelton asserts that Bull Durham is, at its core, a classic Western. It’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or High Noon. There’s even a shootout between the classic Western hero (Costner) and the young gun (Robbins), set in the street behind the local saloon. Only instead of firing shots, they fire pitches, and all for the love of a good woman. Or if not love, at least lust. And they fight half as much over the game of baseball as they do over Annie Savoy. Like the urge to get it on, the urge to succeed in athletic competition is primal. It takes over the body, and over-analyzing or getting in your head can be the worst possible thing. It doesn’t matter if the Bulls usually lose. One day, they might win. “Don’t think,” Crash tells Nuke, “it can only hurt the ball club.”
I believe in the church of baseball.
My mother works with a team orthopedist for the Oakland A’s. Several years ago, said orthopedist was on the sidelines at a spring training game in Arizona, watching Nick Swisher (formerly my number one baseball crush, now a Yankee, bless his heart) goof off during warm-ups. Swisher was rolling around on his back in the outfield, laughing.
“What are you so happy about?” the orthopedist asked.
Swisher shouted, loudly and sincerely, “I love BASEBALL!”
I think of this anecdote frequently, often when I’m getting started on a creative project or struggling with work-work. I think of it when I’m doing dishes or riding the bus. I think of it all the time, honestly, because it’s just delightful. So simple, so pure. Swisher’s cry encapsulates what I hope for in my own, emphatically non-sporting life: To be able to live out my dream, as naïve as that may sound. To be able to shout loudly and sincerely, or offer an impassioned speech, that “I love BASEBALL” (or my work, or my life).
Bull Durham celebrates the necessary enthusiasm, the love of the game, by grounding it in the human relationships that make it real. Crash, Annie and Nuke truly love baseball, each in their own way. We see their love (and lust) played out in the locker room, on the field, and in Annie’s bed (and bathtub). We know the Durham Bulls face limited success, but they have to complete the season. We know Annie and Crash will end up together in the end, but they have to circle each other for a while, first. It’s never truly suspenseful, because we know how it will end, but it is always entertaining. Don’t think. Enjoy the game.
Elisabeth Geier teaches part-time at the community college.
The Kevin Costner is a Decent Actor Campaign scores a homerun here: Bull Durham is one of my favourites - a great romantic comedy, a great baseball film. Perfect game.
At a fairly early stage in the tidal wave of outrage provoked by the Guardian’s unforgivably clumsy claim to have listed the “23 Best directors in the world today” I got the feeling that rather than create, participate in, or encourage a symphony of moans on Twitter, we should see whether a dozen randomly selected film buffs from my Twitter-feed couldn’t do a more credible job.
Here’s a reminder of the Guardian’s list, which looks like it morphed out of an intended article about upcoming festival films, and which contains a number of great directors, it must be said, but also some staggeringly banal directors and one or two rank bad ones, jumbled into a very bizarre order:
23 Gareth Edwards 22 Terrence Malick 21 Gaspar Noé 20 Mia Hansen-Løve 19 Ben Wheatley 18 Werner Herzog 17 David Fincher 16 JJ Abrams 15 Jacques Audiard 14 Christopher Nolan 13 Lena Dunham 12 Quentin Tarantino 11 Steven Soderbergh 10 Andrea Arnold 9 Edgar Wright 8 Leos Carax 7 Steve McQueen 6 Jason Reitman
5 Lars von Trier
4 Joss Whedon
3 Nicolas Winding Refn
2 Lynne Ramsay
1 Paul Thomas Anderson
Our poll, voted in by @Phil_on_Film, @flickerdrome, @sherwynspencer, @byronic, @nictate, @kinnemaniac, @JulesArk, @wstd, @iambags, @darkeyesocket, @bressonian and @MarkGutteridge, produced the following list:
23. ANURAG KASHYAP (India)
22. MIKE LEIGH (England)
21. MIA HANSEN-LøVE (France)
20. BELA TARR (Hungary)
19. WERNER HERZOG (Germany)
18. WILLIAM FRIEDKIN (USA)
17. JOANNA HOGG (England)
16. KEN LOACH (England)
15. JEAN-LUC GODARD (France)
14. ABBAS KIAROSTAMI (Iran)
13. WES ANDERSON (USA)
12. APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL (Thailand)
11. LUCRECIA MARTEL (Argentina)
10. MARTIN SCORSESE (USA)
9. DAVID LYNCH (USA)
8. MICHAEL HANEKE (Germany)
7. NURI BILGE CEYLAN (Turkey)
6. PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON (USA)
5. JOEL & ETHAN COEN (USA)
4. BONG JOON-HO (Korea)
3. CLAIRE DENIS (France)
2. TERRENCE MALICK (USA)
1. JEAN-PIERRE & LUC DARDENNE (Belgium)
Okay there’s a few wild cards in there (but good wild cards) and one might regret the absence of an Assayas, a Tarantino, Wong Kar-Wai or even a Patricio Guzman (not to mention, ahem, Mr Spielberg) but I trust most will agree that between a dozen of us in an afternoon, we’ve managed to scrape together something a teensy bit less shameful than the Guardian’s effort?
Thanks to all for voting and participating in the debate on Twitter.
Thank you Julien for organising this, and proud to have done my bit to readjust the balance. For the love of cinema, Batman!
If you’re into cities, urban history, or even typefaces, it’s hard to ignore a theater marquee.
These architectural appendages have lured us into plays and movies for decades, but changing tastes and technologies have made them a more uncommon sight. As they become more rare, old marquees have taken on a deeper cultural meaning, frequently serving as visual anchors for a street or cultural district.
Realizing this, many municipalities have seen the importance of funding their restorationswhen necessary. We looked around for theater marquees in various conditions throughout North America.
This week Anthony Lane reviews Ralph Fiennes’s film adaption of Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus.” The photographer Kalpesh Lathigra took the production as an opportunity to shoot two different projects—although, he admitted, he hadn’t read the play. “Julius Caesar was my Shakespeare,” he told me. The first project, was a more conventional series of production stills. The second was a series of large-format photographs, shot with a 5x4 camera, “where the actors are not the prominent players on stage but merely part of the wider tableaux of the set,” Lathigra said.- For more of Lathigra’s photographs from the set:
A Separation (جدایی نادر از سیمین, translit. Jodái-e Náder az Simin), written and directed by Asghar Farhadi is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It’s about Nader and Simin, an upper-middle class couple in contemporary Iran. Simin wants to get divorced in order to leave the country; her husband refuses; their 11 years old daughter is caught in the middle.
The plot follows what happens when the wife moves out of the family home and Nader has to hire a carer for his elderly father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s.
The script is clear and mysterious at the same time; it appears extremely simple on the surface, but unravels a whole series of topics and debates that can’t possibly leave anybody untouched - and unsurprised.
The film is shot with great restraint but never appears mannered; Farhadi uses hand-held cameras to get as close as possible to the core of the story, and powerfully captures some rich, naturalistic performances to suit the strong, complex characters.
I don’t know that much about contemporary Iran, but the film struck me as coming from a very honest and deep place within the country and its culture; its portrayal of gender and class relations is nuanced and sophisticated, and never falls into the easy traps of either sanctimonious accusation or sentimentalism to which many films of this kind are prone.
I have a lot more to say about it, but it’s still sinking in, and it’s really one of those cases when the less you know about it before seeing it, the more you will get into it. Go see it.